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do_oveAs if once wasn’t enough, the Tustin City Council has decided to have another do over. Last Tuesday’s city council meeting resulted in the re-election of Al Murray as Mayor and Chuck Puckett as Mayor pro tem for the coming year. While not unprecedented, it was a bit surprising as we expected Chuck Puckett to ascend to the top spot.

Our biggest fear was assuaged in that the Podiatrist Councilman was given neither position. Beckie Gomez, of course, was not even considered since her political leanings are far from the right side of the dais.And John Nielsen, who has shown his own brand of disdain for Tustin residents over the years, has his hands full with his not-so-secretive year and a half long divorce proceedings from Erin.

It’s not coincidental that Murray was re-elected by his peers. The Mayor is up for re-election this coming year and it is anyone’s guess Jeff with Councilman Al Murray Interviewwho will run against him and Beckie Gomez. The most recent campaign statements filed with the city show both accounts with minimal balances. We doubt there will be much change with end of year filings as campaigning and its associated fundraising probably won’t heat up until March or April.

And, although the voters ignorantly did away with council stipends, thinking it would straighten up the city council, no one should believe there are altruistic motives for running. As of the end of this year, Al will have made $6,000 as a member of the OCTA Board where, last we heard, Tustin’s official position has been to wholeheartedly support toll lanes for the 405 Freeway.

We understand Al doggedly made every meeting of the Orange County Fire Authority Board which means he made another $3600 for his “service” (it is difficult to tell as the OCFA website is about as transparent as the lead shielding at San Onofre…oh, wait…) Murray also sits on the renegade Association of Cities – Orange County, which was formed at the behest of Jerry Amante and other dissidents after they were slapped down by the Orange County Grand Jury. Finally, Al stands to make $11,000 or so for sitting on that board as well.

Not bad for a volunteer position. We’ll have a complete rundown of just how much each councilman (Beckie did not reap one dime for her service and refused city supplied medical benefits) made in the near future.

Mind you, we are not really opposed to Al’s reappointment. On the outside he is, for all intents and purposes, what a typical small town mayor should be – affable, congenial and willing to show up at every event, big or small, in the city. His retirement means he can devote as much time as needed to attending functions and read the entire agenda, even without an iPad. As a single source, he has not been the root cause of any of the last few years of acrimony engendered by some of his colleagues. In short, he is a pretty good guy, if a little short-sighted when it comes to fulfilling his responsibility to the people who actually live here.

There is no doubt that, with a second appointment as mayor, Al Murray will run for a second term. Beckie Gomez has not given any indication whether she will run. She has been able to stay the course against an often overwhelming, and frequently obnoxious, bunch of good o’ boys. to at least keep a light on at city hall. As an incumbent, she would most likely win a second term without much effort and the “boys” are not likely to mount much of a campaign on anyone’s behalf to usurp her.

Although Murray’s tenure has been mostly limp, he has managed to irk the residents of Old Town with the Wilcox Manor debacle. Old Town should have expected this play, however, if for no other reason than payback for the city’s (read Elizabeth Binsack’s) loss against Brett Fairbanks.

Hmmmm. Well, I was going to write a future article on the progress of the city but, I think I just did. In any case, it should be interesting to see who gets appointed to what (paid) board for the coming year. And, of course, we still have to report on how much all of our city council members made this year, offering their services for free.

Smoller Speaks Out

Release Grand Jury Transcripts on City Manager Salaries

Attributed to the Los Angeles Times

Credit-LA Times

More than year after a scathing Orange County Grand Jury report that found former Tustin City Councilman, Jerry Amante, had abused his authority,  Fred Smoller is speaking out and calling for the release of the Grand Jury Transcripts.

In a recent editorial on the Voice of OC Smoller, who headed the innovative Masters in Public Administration program at Brandman University, was targeted along with student researchers and Laguna Hills Mayor Barbara Kogerman when they researched and published a report on the ridiculous salaries being paid to city managers in Orange County.

When the Grand Jury report was originally published in July of 2012, Jerry Amante went on the offensive, claiming the jurists were misguided. “I don’t know how the grand jury got it wrong, but they’ve got it wrong”.

Smoller, who’s students were the focus of the attack by the good councilman, says otherwise:

Others — myself, the students, The Orange County Register’s editorial page and other prominent elected officials such as Supervisor Shawn Nelson and former Assemblyman Chris Norby, and a big chunk of the public — feel the grand jury got it right.

Unfortunately, grand jury testimony is almost always conducted under a cloak of secrecy. There is also the endemic issue of the lack of authority inherent in this arm of the courts (at least in the Real OC). Amante and his cohort, Laguna Hills Councilman Alan Songstad, simply had their resepctive city attorneys thumb their noses at the report. In Tustin’s case, they stated they had no authority to chastise a councilman for what amounted to a personal issue.

When the city decided to vote on the issue of what to do, we pointed out that Hizzoner was not only allowed to vote on his own punishment, he was the deciding vote. That, of course, happened with the city attorney’s blessing. David Kendig, the city attorney, even wrote the letter to the grand jury blowing them off with a lame 1st Amendment explanation. Smoller also points out this problem with the wolf choosing his own punishment for killing the sheep:

Mr. Amante cast the deciding vote on the motion which questioned his conduct, a clear conflict of interest. Both Songstad and Amante are attorneys.

While Smoller says that there are parts of the report that could have been done differently, he believes the entire episode has been warped through the efforts of many in an attempt to muddy the waters. In his editorial, he calls for a release of the grand jury transcripts. Smoller and others believe that, although grand jury testimony is normally secret, in this case, the public interest far outweighs the need for confidentiality:

The fact that this matter continues to be reported on says that questions remain unresolved. Releasing the transcripts will also allow for the assessment of the grand jury’s work, which has been harshly criticized by some members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

I hope Mr. Amante and Mr. Songstad and their former respective city councils and the others who criticize the report will join the effort to daylight the grand jury transcripts so we can find out the truth.

If the grand jury does sloppy work, we need to know it, and fixes need to be put in place…

Smoller also says the public deserves to know if the Orange County Grand Jury is really doing their job. Releasing the transcripts, he says, will vindicate those who served honorably on the jury and demonstrate the constraints they are under.

We agree. As frequent critics of the Orange County Grand Jury, opening transcripts that would back up their claim on this complex situation would go a long way toward restoring credibility to an institution that has been dismissed, more often than not, with a snicker and a wink. If the Grand Jury is doing the job we expect of them, then we the public should have confidence in them. Releasing the transcripts will go a long way toward restoring that confidence.

On the other hand, if Jerry is right and the jury “got it all wrong”, then he should have nothing to worry about. Right, Jer?

Amante & Songstad Still Remembered For Ethics Breach

Where-Are-They-Now with AmanteIn the category of “where are they and what are they doing now”, my friend Omar Masry from the hinterland of NoCal, sent me a link to an interesting LA Times article.

Awhile back, we wrote an article on an Orange County Grand Jury report titled, “The Use of Government Influence on Private Education Institution“.  The report alleged that then Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante and Laguna Niguel City Councilman Alan Songstad misused their positions as elected officials to unduly influence and discredit a report on city manager compensation authored by a couple of students at Brandman University.

When the report was issued, it was lauded by OC Supervisor, Shawn Nelson who honored the two authors, Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall, for their integrity and for bringing to light the incredibly high salary of high ranking government officials. The report became even more significant when the Bell scandal, outlining heavy corruption by that city’s highest ranking officials, became news.

Unfortunately, it also brought heavy fallout to Fred Smoller, the founder and head of the Public Administration Program at Brandman as well as the authors of the original report. According to the LA Times article, Smith and Voshall had to leave Orange County to find work. Smoller also wound up resigning from the program he founded:

Fred Smoller, who founded the master’s program in public administration at Brandman, accused college leaders of buckling to pressure from conservative local politicians and trampling academic freedom.

“The resignation was the only way I could draw attention to the backdoor politicking that threatened the independence and academic integrity of the MPA program,” Smoller said.

And, although Smoller remains at Chapman University (Chapman, Brandman, what’s the dif?) he has lost faith in the program he founded.

Cindy Smith summed it up when she said, “The Good Old Boys Club is alive and well.”

Jerry Amante should know. His efforts to establish a corrupt legacy of influence in the city of Tustin are well documented. Amante, for his part, claimed he and Songstad did not try to influence anyone. He claimed the grand jury report was inflated and incorrect.  There was  no influence put upon school officials. At one point, he slammed the grand jury saying that James Doti, Songstad and he were the only ones in the room (remember, the smartest guys in the room) and they were the only ones who knew what was said.

But that is not the indication from Songstad who, according to the report, said they did, in fact, discuss the issue with James Doti and made what the grand jury later construed as veiled threats to not hire any students from Brandman. Well, we know of at least two who have not been hired.

Fred Smoller, for his part, defended the students actions. He also refused to buckle under pressure to release their email addresses and phone numbers to Laguna Hills City Manager, Bruce Channing, then the highest paid (and apparently most angry) city manager in Orange County. Channing did get one thing: Smoller agreed the title page should not carry the institution’s brand and that was subsequently changed.

Remember the League of California Cities? They are one of the chief lobbying and quasi-governmental entities that really run the government. In essence, it’s a club for local politicians where the makers and shakers throughout the state decide in unison what’s best for us. Amante and Songstad, as members of the club, asked the League to respond to the report. Shortly after the League refused, Orange County broke away from the League and formed a separate good-old-boys club known as the Association of California Cities-Orange County. Yup, that’s right. When the conservatives couldn’t get their way, they stamped their feet and took their ball home, leaving Orange County with even less influence  in Sacramento than it had before.

We’d like to get Amante’s side of the story but, according to the Times story, he isn’t answering the phone these days. I doubt any of the other players are either.

Alas, we may never know whether lies or truth came out in the Grand Jury investigation. A lawyer hired by Fred Smoller was unsuccessful in getting the transcripts of grand jury session released to the public. The lawyer who headed the investgation for the grand jury stamped the report “particularly sensitive”.

Barbara Kogerman, the one who commissioned the report to begin with is now Mayor of Laguna Hills. During the investigation, she had been accused of making the report a campaign piece. Perhaps so. But, it was also a factual piece of information that should have been brought before the public long ago when the city manager’s office stopped being about public service and began being sold to the highest bidder.

So, where are they? According to the Times article, Cindy Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix, Voshall works for the United Nations and Smoller is at Chapman University hoping to start another public administration program. All of them have found a higher calling. Talk about a blessing in disguise.

Silent Mike and Lindburgh – The Wilcox Sequel

creepy house(Updated 08/20/13) You might call it the Phoenix Rising, although we would probably characterize it more as the Amityville Horror.  It seems the boys at the Wilcox Manor just won’t take no for an answer and the city council is more than willing to sell the soul of Old Town Tustin for the sake of a few fundraisers.

Thanks to Lindburgh McPherson and Michael Demoratz, the Wilcox Manor is not just another historical property in Old Town Tustin. Although the two purchased the property several years ago and put thousand of dollars into restoring the dilapidated structure, it is their recent effort to turn the icon into a money-making enterprise that has made the house locally famous.

Since October of last year, Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack has championed the cause of a profitable events center for the two. Along with her employees, they promulgated a glowing staff report that would make the owners of the Wilcox Manor appear to be the ambassadors for Old Town. This, of course is due in part to her vision of Old Town that sadly lacks input from the residents.

The report justified the granting of a Conditional Use Permit, without the necessity of an environmental report, by attempting to tie the property into surrounding property that is zoned differently. And, although it is true there is an apartment complex across Main Street, the fact remains that the Wilcox neighborhood, cut off by a cul-de-sac, remains a primarily residential neighborhood. The fact that other property on that side of the street is zoned for industrial use is a matter of circumstance (the city water well) and not opportunity.

It was clear, at that October meeting, the Planning Commission was desperately looking for a way to approve the CUP for their Wilcox friends while maintaining an air of impartiality toward Old Town residents. Jeff Thompson, then chairman pro tem, was clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, probably because he lived in Old Town. Newly sworn-in Commissioner Wisam Altowaiji recused himself from the discussion for living within 500 feet of the property. Perhaps Jeff should have done the same although that would have left only three commissioners to discuss the matter.

And discuss it they did.

For more than an hour, folks came to the podium to speak about Michael, Lindburgh and the Wilcox Manor. Many of the attendees were from non-profit organizations from outside the city. All of the supporters spoke glowingly of Michael and Lindburgh as friends, attesting to their character as fine, upstanding citizens. The staff report was inundated with, what turned out to be, mostly form letters from local neighbors that, apparently, the Wilcox Boys had prepared for their signature.

After the public hearing closed,  the planning commissioners began deliberations. That public discussion showed their discomfort in having to put this in the public light. After an hour of discussion, however, they came together with eighteen modifications to the CUP before voting 4-0 in support. Then, it was off to the Tustin City Council.

A few days before that meeting, Demoratz and McPherson assailed Old Town residents Brent Ferdig and Linda Jennings. In a widely distributed letter posted to their Facebook page, the boys attempted to demonize Jennings saying she founded the Tustin Preservation Conservancy as a rival organization to the Historical Society. They accused the two of them of harassment and slandering the “good names” of Demoratz and McPherson.

Linda Jennings, for her part, maintained the Conservancy and the Historical Society had a good working relationship and the Conservancy even donated money for computers and other items.

From the letter:

They have gone on a campaign to slander our names and misrepresent what we are doing and who we are. Our supporters in Old Town have been told that they have confronted by people banging on their front doors stirring the pot on this issue. Now they have begun a campaign of going after potential partners – we were in negotiations on leasing a parking lot and they were able to reach the owner of the property before us and frankly – made it so we cannot lease this lot now.

It was interesting to see McPherson squirming when it had been discovered they did not have a complete agreement for off-site parking as they had previously indicated. The letter attempted to place the blame on Ferdig and Jennings for issues they had actually caused themselves. They later came back to tell their supporters they did not have to put anything in place, including the parking, until the CUP was approved.

Taking the matter before the Tustin City Council in November provided its own set of issues. This time it was outgoing councilman Jerry Amante, along with crony John Nielsen -who had been re-elected for another term- who found themselves looking down the double barrel of possible ethics and campaign violations. We pointed out in an article at the time that Nielsen was married to Erin Nielsen, the director of the Tustin Community Foundation. TCF had been the direct and indirect recipient of considerable funds that resulted from Demoratz and McPherson donating their home for charitable fundraising. So, the issue was continued to January, when fresh faces would arrive on the dais.

But, that caused a whole set of issues on its own when it was pointed out that not only John Nielsen faced conflict of interest issues, nearly the entire council had the same problem. When the item came up for discussion, the dais looked like a Shriner car full of clowns as Nielsen, Puckett and the Podiatrist Councilman ran off the dais after recusing themselves.  Once the dust settled and City Attorney David Kendig cleared up who had to do what, the boys’ mouthpiece, David Hunt, Esq., asked for another continuance, citing “personal business issues” from the applicants.

At the time we opined the Three Amigos were also in an undesirable position because of their relationship with the Wilcox Manor. And, although use of the home was gratis for their fundraisers, we wondered (in print) what the Fair Political Practices Commission would think? Alas, the boys did not have to answer the question as they voted to continue the matter until September. That was at the request of Demoratz lawyer.

Apparently, Michael and Lindburgh are no longer burdened with personal issues as they have, once again, asked that their CUP be calendared for tonight’s meeting rather than wait for September as originally planned. Way back in November of last year, after the original Planning Commission meeting, Demoratz and McPherson asked the city council to consider their application with over forty line-item changes that would, essentially, gut the Planning Commission approved CUP.

Chad Ortlieb, who has been a vocal opponent of the Wilcox Manor CUP, has questioned whether the substantial modifications the boys are asking for would trigger a new application for a CUP. The most glaring amendment Demoratz and McPherson are asking for is a change from 24 total events to 36 paid events (leaving the number of free events unspecified). That has not gone unnoticed by the opposing side. In response to Ortlieb’s public concerns, it appears that McPherson is now on a witch hunt against Ortlieb. In a recent public records request made out to the city of Orange, he has requested information related to the personal use of Ortlieb’s work computers. It was hard to discern from the request whether McPherson was attempting to garner information for his own use or whether he was attempting to alert Ortlieb’s superiors of any personal use of the city’s computers (For the latest discussion, Ortlieb has sent a 28 page missive that dismantles city staffs’ rendition of the code supporting the permit. It’s hard to argue with fact).

Demoratz and McPherson have attempted to cloud the issue with the neighborhood by writing letters of support and having the neighbors sign them as if they came from them personally. This was pointed out by Martin and Tina Blenz in a letter penned by them opposing the events center CUP:

Please accept this as an opposition letter to the [Wilcox] application. It is with mixed emotions that we write this letter.

We were given a letter of support from Michael and Lindburgh. Since it was not written by us, we refused to sign….. The other letters show the same type font, date and format as ours.

The Blenz letter goes on to point out the issues they, as neighbors, have with turning the Wilcox Manor into an events center, citing the problems they now have with trash, liquor and parking. They also point out the apparent error by the city when they first purchased their property as it was not listed single-family residence as the tract map showed (and Binsack used in justifying the approval for the CUP).

There is also an issue of whether the application was subject to an environmental impact report. The city, citing law that they say supports their position for not requiring a report, has taken the stance all along that a report is not required. However, Ortlieb, a former city planner for Tustin and  Jennings, President of the Tustin Preservation Conservancy, bothy believe that, due to the nature of the venue, one would certainly be required. From a recent letter by  Jennings to the city:

Rather than enhancing the goals of the Cultural Resource District as listed in Resolution 4207, the proposed use will cause immense traffic congestion in the neighborhood, increase parking problems on residential streets, increase noise pollution, create health and sanitation issues from routine food service and cost Tustin tax payers’ money to monitor the activities, parking and event attendees.

Contrary to the findings of staff, it is our opinion that these factors constitute a significant environmental impact and should trigger a CEQA assessment.

Jennings goes on to say the granting of the CUP would alter the character of the Old Town residential neighborhoods.

And, we have to agree.

One thing is probable. Should the City Attorney erroneously tell the Tustin City Council that no recusal is necessary, it  will mean the end of residential life as we know it in Old Town Tustin. An events center approval will mean even more parties, traffic and noise than before, all so the good friends of the City Council can make money. But, before that happens, we would like to point out a few things to the good councilmembers:

  • A survey of the affected residents might shed some light on just how popular the idea of having an events center in the neighborhood truly is. It would go a long way to assuage the feelings of the residents that their voices are being drowned out by outside influences in the form of non-profits (and political candidates) who stand to lose a rich fundraising venue.
  • Considering the complexity of the situation and the CUP itself, after having been worked over by a scared-stupid planning commission, a review of whether a CEQA report is necessary -by an outside agent- may be in order.
  • Based on the over forty modifications the Wilcox Manor applicants made to the original, approved CUP, a new application de novo may be in order, regardless of what your Community Development Director may say.
  • It may be appropriate to utilize the services of a law office that specializes in zoning and CUP matters to analyze this. The city attorney has demonstrated that he is too close to the players and basically ignorant of the true issues at hand to offer unbiased advice.
  • John and Erin Nielsen, though separated, remain in a situation that would cause him to recuse himself as Erin continues as Director of the Tustin Community Foundation.
  • This is a moneymaking business, apart from the generous fundraising the applicants have done in the past. Demoratz and McPherson stand to make upwards of $200,000 per event.

Should the city council approve the Conditional Use Permit, especially with the modifications proposed by Demoratz and McPherson, it is likely the fight will not be over. Both Ortlieb and Jennings have informed me that lawyers have been involved since early this year. That could make this another war that is quite likely to be waged in Superior Court.

Another consideration is the recent revelation that the FBI is now conducting investigations here in Orange County regarding campaign financing improprieties and corruption, along with ethics violations. Given that the Feds seem to be eyeballing conservatives in particular, the city council majority may want to distance themselves from this debacle in the interest of at least appearing to have clean hands.