Every time I think of the OC Board of Supervisors, I’m reminded of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”. No, not the campfire scene, although I can understand why you would go there. I’m talking about the scene where Governor William J. Le Petomane is meeting with his advisors and insists everyone be as incensed as he is over the corruption in fictional Rock Ridge. Everyone around the table starts saying “harumph, harumph…”. That’s the reaction of the Supervisors as they received the bad news that most everyone else in Orange County already knew.
Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Robert Moss ruled against the county saying they illegally withheld more than $73 million in property taxes from the state. To make matters worse, the figure now looms at $140 million by the time this fiscal year is over. The Voice of OC did a pretty good job of outlining the problem in layman’s terms.
When the county financed its billion-dollar bankruptcy in 1995, state officials allowed them to send a portion of their vehicle license fees directly to bond holders. But in 2007, when the county refinanced its debt, the legislative authorization for the special license fees was not included.
Despite warnings that the authorization should be quickly reestablished, county legislative leaders, lobbyists or staff did not act. The intercept, as its known, was not addressed in any subsequent county legislative platform or by the county’s main lobbyist, Platinum Advisors.
In 2011, Brown’s budget staff discovered the omission and took back the money, prompting an intense reaction from county leaders. Assemblyman Jose Solorio sponsored last-minute legislation to fix the situation for the county, but it failed to make it through both houses of the Legislature.
You read right. The county ignored the problem even when the gaff was first discovered and then, when the state demanded the money to balance their own budget, county Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio tried to fix it with last-minute legislation. But, Sacramento Democrats took the opportunity to beat down one of the few Republican strongholds by refusing to pass the legislation in time. Without the legislation, loss of the money was a sure thing.
Nonetheless, the Board of Supervisors convinced Auditor David Sundstrom to withhold payment of property taxes from the state. The state promptly sued the county and the writing was on the wall. As with previous pension lawsuits involving the deputy sheriffs union and the retirement system, the Gang of Five ignored the obvious and argued that the intent to keep the status quo had always been there and so, they must be right (right about now, I am hearing John Moorlach jumping up and down while screaming epithets at Jerry Brown).
From the outset, nearly everyone in the county has warned them the court battle would be uphill. In reality, I don’t think anyone wanted to tell the county it had a zero chance but, in truth, that is what they had.
In a video briefing to public union employees, Orange County Employees Association General Manager, Nick Berardino, said, “It was, once again, county executives falling asleep at the switch,as they did during the bankruptcy, when they forgot to include the $73 million dollars state subsidy when they refinanced the bankruptcy funds.” Berardino did agree that the state is treating the county unfairly by requiring the repayment but also said the county did not do its job in protecting the funds to begin with. Berardino lamented that Supervisors are already ringing the layoff bell and laying the responsibility on the backs of the public employees to balance the budget. “The county did the same thing when it declared bankruptcy in 1994.”
Berardino is not the only one to publicly admonish the county for its lack of diligence. In an Orange County Register article published May 9th, Andrew Galvin alleges the local community colleges pleaded with the county in 2011 not to withhold the funds from the state. The money grab, according to them, would result in a serious shortfall of funds going to community colleges in the area. When the county continued the grab, the community colleges joined the state in the lawsuit.
So, when will the county ever get it right? If this were a trust owned by a private family, they would have fired their lawyers for giving them bad advice long ago. In the case of the Board of Supervisors, they have been led astray time after time and not only by county counsel, but attorney-come-chief-of-staff Mario Mainero as well as a plethora of hired gun law offices who, oftentimes while giving good advice, have been unsuccessful in turning the opinion of the Gang of Five.
I have no idea how much money has been spent, so far, by the Board of Supervisors on this debacle. Any amount, however, is too much when one considers how tight the budget is now. Unfortunately for the citizens of Orange County, the Gang of Five may be planning another play as they appeal the ruling to a higher court. In the best case scenario for them, the judge would delay the transfer of funds until the appeals court sides with the trial court. That would be a temporary fix at best. Eventually, the money would have to be repaid. What the Supervisors might want to look at is negotiating a payment schedule. Given the animosity the OC GOP has garnered in recent years in Sacramento, our Democrat governor may turn a deaf ear. Better get that checkbook out, John.
After nearly three years of threats, court appearances and dirty pool, the Tustin Unified School District and the city of Tustin have settled their differences. The trial, scheduled to begin today, was narrowly averted when the two sides agreed to sit down one last time in an effort to mend fences and mediate their problems. A brief joint press release was issued shortly thereafter:
TUSTIN, Calif. – The City of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District are pleased to annunce that they have reached an amicable resolution of the litigation regarding the City’s review of TUSD’s grading and drainage plans.
The two agencies are pleased to announce the case has been resolved, and agree that the resolution of the case benefits both of the agencies and the public.
The press release is a bit underwhelming. The city and school district first began having problems in 2010 during a construction at Heritage School and Tustin High School over the inspection and approval of grading plans. The city demanded the school district submit their plans for the schools to the city’s planning department. The school district originally submitted their plans “as a courtesy” but subsequently withdrew them and refused further submittals saying they were not required to obtain permits, grading or otherwise, from local authorities for construction. When it was rumored the city would physically halt any further grading efforts, possibly with arrests, the school district filed the first of a series of lawsuits.
The city quickly filed a countersuit and, later, another separate suit against the school district in an effort to halt a change in use of the new Heritage Elementary School built on the old MCAS base property. That lawsuit was heard last year in Riverside Superior Court where the judge chided the city for filing what amounted to a retalatory lawsuit against the school district. The school district won handily and focused its efforts on the original lawsuit which had, by then, been continued twice.
The lawsuit was also a contentious point of the Tustin City Council elections. Candidates sparred back and forth with then Mayor John Nielsen attempting to back pedal from his previous hardcore stand against the school district, saying that he favored resolution of the lawsuit. Candidate Allan Bernstein publicly called for term limits for school board members. The third member of “Team Tustin”, Chuck Puckett, was the only cool head among them, joining Tracy Worley and David Waldram, a Tustin High school teacher, in calling for reconciliation and resolution to the issues. Worley and Waldram both believed the entities’ differences were the result of a personality conflict between the school district and councilman Jerry Amante.
The Orange County Register, which broke the story on-line last night, said there is a 10 page agreement outlining how the two sides will handle future school construction for the next 15 years. Among other things, the school district agrees to submit grading plans and pay plan check fees for grading only. No other permit or construction fees will be paid to the city. In return, the city agreed to limit their comments and checks to two submittals. According to the story, there are no plans coming up for future upgrades to schools that would require plan checks by the city.
Both sides agreed to publish a joint press release. No other information came from the city other than a comment by Mayor pro tem Chuck Puckett who told the Register, “All I can say is we’re happy with the agreement.” We think it satisfies both parties and the residents of
Tustin. We’re extremely pleased with it.”
All we can say is, it’s about time. The lawsuits were the fruit of former councilmember Jerry Amante’s reign of terror in the city. When news of the tiff between the city and school district first arose, it became clear to most of us it was a power struggle by the little dictator to maintain control over all things in the city. And, while the Register maintains the cost of the lawsuit was just over $1.5 million dollars, Our Town Tustin received information the total cost of all the lawsuits (including the previously settled Heritage lawsuit) was over $2 million dollars and counting.
So, did the recent change in staff and councilmembers have anything to do with the settlement? Most certainly the exit of Amante could only help matters. The addition of veteran councilman Chuck Puckett was a plus, in our opinion. Previous discussions with him on the issues led us to believe he would press for a settlement if elected.
Ed Connor, the attorney for Tustin Unified School District also applauds City Manager Jeff Parker and Schools Superintendent Greg Franklin, who both came on board their respective agencies in 2011, for directing the lawyers to “stop banging heads and to get this resolved.” Parker, who appeared to walk softly around Hizzoner Amante, seems to have become more of the manager Tustin needs under the new regime. We look forward to seeing more of that aspect of him.
The new year has started off with a bang. A somewhat bland city council has taken their first bull by the horns and, applying commonsense, has hammered out an affable agreement to the benefit of all. Maybe it is not just the economy that is turning around.
The main reason last week’s Tustin City Council meeting took so long was because it turned into a love fest for Hizzoner, councilman Jerry Amante. While Mayor Nielsen’s acknowledgment of Bill Campbell took only a minute or two, He lavished so much praise on Amante, I thought for a minute he was married to him. Campbell spent more time talking about himself than John did, which begs the question, what will John do without Jerry’s hand up his backside making his mouth move?
John lavished praise on Hizzoner as he listed the long political history of the two while still trying to convince the public that Amante is a dedicated public servant who served the city of Tustin well. Calling him “the most dedicated public servant that I’ve seen in the city of Tustin”, Nielsen said he puts it all in. Before he got too far, he called on others to lavish praise on Amante as well. OC Supervisor Bill Campbell, our district’s lame duck county supervisor, spent some time articulating Jerry’s broad thinking when it came to regional issues. Of course, he must have been talking about Amante’s dedication to pushing the Foothill Extension that would have torn up thousands of acres of coastal environment for the sake of another toll road. Or, was he talking about his regional thinking of implementing a toll road on the I-405 to allow him and his cronies (that could afford it) to ride in style to the airport?
So, the night went, with several politicians singing the praises of Amante and sometimes, as in Assemblymember Don Wagner’s dissertation, throwing a bone to Councilmember Gavello. Wagner was the most gracious to Deborah, in fact, asking her to come down and join him at the podium for a photo op. Yes, it was getting pretty sappy in the council chambers and I even saw a tear or two from Jerry, probably crying over the fact he wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to do away with term limits while he was still in office. All in all, the evening was extended by a full 27 minutes while John, who is probably wondering who will help him speak in full sentences now that Jerry is gone, and others lavished praise on Il Duce. There was more during council comments and we heard Beckie even gave him a kiss. eeyuwhhh….
Yes, Jerry “Hizzoner” Amante has managed, in eight years (we won’t speak about his time on the Planning Commission), to do quite a bit for our little city that was outlined by his Republican fan club. We thought it might be nice to reminisce on the other things Jerry has managed to do for us as well. Now, this blog has only been around for about a year and a half. In that time, Amante and his wrecking crew have managed to do their fair share.
For example, Jerry was the focus of only the second recall attempt of a City Councilmember (that we know of) in Tustin’s history. In fact, it was his acerbic demeanor toward the citizens he serves as well as his poor treatment of other councilmembers that caused a small band of intrepid citizens to start a grass-roots movement to recall Hizzoner. The recall fizzled in its final moments when the proponents fell a few hundred signatures shy of the required number to implement a recall vote. But
Although Mayor John Nielsen extolled Hizzoner’s fiscal conservativeness, the facts speak for themselves. This year, as in the previous year, the Amante led city council dipped into city reserves in order to balance the budget. Cost this year? Four million dollars.
Could we forget how Jerry and his crew managed to sidestep the cellular tower issue at Cedar Grove Park with T-Mobile while still maintaining the integrity of the cellular service plan? Although hundreds of citizens who live in the area protested the installation of the towers in their local park, the city council did absolutely nothing to prevent T-Mobile from having its way with the city. In fact, Amante and his hit man, Al Murray, were adamantly in favor of the design review. Had it not been for the rare split with Nielsen, who voted against the installation, it would have sailed through like most Amante led items. Behind the scenes, however, was the fast work of the three amigos as T-Mobile filed a Federal lawsuit and the city folded like a house of cards by refusing to defend the lawsuit.
Not so for the lawsuits between Tustin Unified School District. Jerry was instrumental in causing the entire debacle between the city and the school district. Responding to the city’s threats to stop construction on school projects around the city, the school district was forced to sue the city and the result was lawsuits and cross-suits by both sides to the tune of over two million dollars in taxpayer money. This year, one of the lawsuits brought by the Jerry and the city, was laughed out of Riverside Superior Court where the city sought a change of venue in hopes of a friendlier climate. The judge chastised the city for bringing lame arguments that would not hold water with a first year law student to the table. We chastised the good ol’ boys for their racist attitude when they allowed racially derogatory remarks to be entered into the record.
Should I mention the iPads? But, of course. It was Jerry’s grand idea, while the city was facing a multi-million dollar shortfall, to bring the city council into the 21st century by having the city buy iPads for councilmembers. This wasn’t a line item on the budget and the cash was pulled from the same reserves used to balance the budget. And, while Hizzoner said the iPads would save thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, no one around the city could tell me if it saved a dime.
Let’s not forget how much our fiscally conservative mayor cost the city to hire a new city manager when Amante lackey Bill Huston retired then, only to fire the guy just a few months into the job. We don’t have an exact amount because we couldn’t get ahold of the original contract but, suffice to say, David Biggs -who now works as city manager for Carson, California- came out smelling like a rose with a six figure golden parachute. We got saddled with nearly another year of Huston while the headhunters were busy looking for someone stupid enough to work for Amante and his crew.
Enter Jeff Parker.
Parker, who was hired in November of last year and, through sharp negotiations skills managed to cull a sizable salary and benefits package that included being placed on the old 2%@55 retirement plan, exploded onto the scene like a dull firecracker. He was apparently hired more for his ability to acquiesce to the bully Amante rather than his management skills. He fully joined in to the Amante fan club, in fact, and supports every lawsuit Hizzoner has pushed for. Well, lawsuits are much more important than being fiscally conservative, right?
Unlike Biggs, our old City Attorney, Doug Holland, saw the writing on the wall and resigned. Rumor has it that he and Amante did not exactly see eye to eye on the school district lawsuits either. In his resignation letter, Holland simply stated he could not work for Tustin and his other client Palm Springs at the same time with the same “high level” he expected of himself. So, it made sense to dump Tustin, which is right around the corner from home and keep Palm Springs, ninety miles away. Sure. We’ll go for that. Or, we could go for our original conspiracy theory that Amante was cleaning house of all who would dare oppose him. At least he did not dump the entire law office of Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart as we thought he might. Instead, he found another lackey, David Kendig who is more than willing to shine Hizzoner’s Italian stilettos while dodging our phone calls.
If we thought Jerry might wind down toward the end of his political career (he failed miserably at his bid for the state assembly) with little fanfare, he managed to make his mark in other ways that would set his fiscally conservative approach to
terrorizing governing, in stone.
Remember Lisa Woolery? A few years ago, Jerry tagged Lisa to be the city’s public information officer and his personal publicist. It was hard to believe that Tustin would need a full-time communications officer. It wasn’t so hard to believe that Hizzoner would need all the help he could get in the publicity arena. So, Lisa spent a great deal of time espousing the transparency in government of the city and spent as much time trying to keep Amante in a good light. The only problem is, even Lisa couldn’t make chicken soup out of chickens….. well, you know what I mean. Despite her efforts, Amante’s true nature shone through and in the end, her efforts were for nought.
Jerry must have thought so too, as the city council decided they didn’t need a full-time PIO after all. Instead of letting Woolery go, though, they cut her hours to a part-time position. It didn’t take her long to get the idea and cut the cord.
Well, the year is over as is Jerry Amante’s long reign of terror on the dais. No one here will miss his (half) wit as Mayor Nielsen and Councilmember Gomez seem to think they will. And, even though we have all Republicans on the dais, we are ever hopeful that Councilman-elect, Chuck Puckett, will hold true to his word to work toward a better Tustin. In any case, he and the podiatrist councilman will have a great time figuring out who sits next to Beckie.
A couple of things happened in short order that reminded us it is time to make our endorsements of local candidates, propositions and measures. One, was the endorsement of Tracy Worley-Hagen, Chuck Puckett and John Nielsen for Tustin City Council by the Orange County Register. The second item was notice we received that absentee ballots have been mailed by the Registrar of Voters. Since those folks tend to vote as soon as they get their ballot, or not at all, we just wanted to be able to throw in our two cents.
As we have said in the past, we will leave recommendations for Federal and most State races to others. Chances are, you wouldn’t like my picks anyway (remember, Libertarian..). We have plenty to say about the local races and, as we go over them in the next week or so, we will put them on a new “Endorsements” page you can use as the handy-dandy OTT voters guide.
Tracy Worley-Hagen – We agree with the OC Register that Tracy is, by far, the most experienced candidate fielded for city council. She was mayor for 4 of the 12 years on the council. She was instrumental in obtaining the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station base at a no cost transfer to the city, making this one of the last bases to be transferred that way. As a councilmember, she sat on the boards of the Orange County Fire Authority, the Sanitation District and the Transportation Corridor Authority. “When I saw that one of our councilmembers chose not to run again, I felt my experience was needed during this critical time in our city.”
One of the most pressing issues to her is to mend fences with the school district and bring the lawsuits to and end. “They’ve cost the taxpayers over $2 million in legal fees.” She accurately pointed out the lawsuits have become a personality clash with the losers being the Tustin Taxpayer. Tracy has been active in the schools and the community and has kept watch at city hall, where she says the council acrimony against the public and each other has to stop. Tracy says she understands the true nature of the current fiscal status of the city, and that she will work to restoring the city to good fiscal health. She says that every line item in the budget needs to be looked at for trimming and she is willing to take a hard look at everything including further pension reform.
Chuck Puckett– Chuck loves Tustin and we like Chuck. I first met him at a fundraiser for Worley-Waldram. He is an approachable guy who, incidentally, also has prior experience on the city council.
Puckett’s chief concerns are maintaining Tustin’s great public safety record and making Tustin more business-friendly. He is a member of the Tustin Chamber of Commerce and would like to see another abatement of the business license and building permit fees which he sees as a great enticement for businesses looking for a home.
No one seemed to be asking Puckett directly, what he would do to end the taxpayer abuse with the lawsuits between the city and the school district. We did, and his response was encouraging. He believes the lawsuits have gone on too long and cost the taxpayers too much money. If elected, he says he would do everything possible to encourage both sides to sit down and reach a settlement before trial. In our minds, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Chuck has been extremely active in community politics and civic affairs almost since he moved here. He is a co-founder and past president of the Tustin Community Foundation and recently resigned from a stint on the Tustin Planning Commission to run for city council. Along with his four years on the council, one as mayor, Puckett has also spent over 12 years on the Tustin Planning Commission. He makes sure to be seen at community events, such as the Tustin Tiller Days and the Chili Cookoff. He has been named “Tustin Man of the Year”. And, he shows up for meetings of the city council and planning commission to stay on top of the local politics. A highly approachable candidate, it remains to be seen what he would do about the foul atmosphere in city council chambers but we could hope his affablitly would spread across the dais.
If we have concerns about Chuck, it is that he has aligned himself with “Team Tustin” a nickname we heard Puckett, John Nielsen and Allan Bernstein have given themselves. Nielsen, has done nothing to squelch the harsh words that frequently cross the dais and, in some cases, has even taken part. And, while he has occasionally opposed Jerry Amante on issues, he has fully endorsed the current dysfunctional state between the city and the school district.
David Waldram – David would be the freshman councilman on the dais. He is a lifelong Tustin resident and has chosen to raise his family here. I am corrected in a previous article I wrote as David says he is a full-time teacher and runs the video production on the side. Waldram previously ran for city council in 2010 and was beaten by Beckie Gomez in a close race where the last 100 votes counted. A gracious loser, he did not ask for a recount and instead decided to wait for another day. Although he has not sat on any commissions or committees for the city, he is involved in community affairs with The Boy Scouts and through his church.
Waldram’s focus is on public safety and the school district lawsuits where he told me the personality clashes have to stop. He is appalled with the behavior of the sitting council toward the public and each other. Waldram believes that political discourse can take place in a polite climate that takes in every citizen’s view.
John Nielsen, who the Register did endorse, is our current mayor and is up for re-election. There are a lot of things to like about John and a lot not to like. As we mentioned, Nielsen has done little to repair the divisiveness on the dais and has sometimes taken part in bashing other councilmembers. He has also done nothing to stop the lawsuit abuse on the city’s side. He has a real problem following Robert’s Rules of Order. However, he does approach most issues that come before the council in a deliberative, thoughtful manner. We just wish he was a bit more of an independent thinker that would tell the noise machine to his right to sit down and shut up once in awhile.
And, as we have said before, we are still waiting to hear what anyone has to say about Dr. Allan Bernstein. Although we note he was mentioned in the Register endorsements and Waldram was not, they don’t seem to say much about him either. Having no community or civic experience we can see, other than an unverified claim that he was involved with the Boy Scouts. He is the only candidate who still does not have a website up and running. At a recent Tustin Republican women’s forum, he said that he would work to implement term limits on the TUSD which shows us how he feels about the lawsuits and makes us wonder if he knows which race he is running in.
So, here are our picks. If our opinion means anything to you (and even if it doesn’t), we endorse Tracy Worley-Hagen, David Waldram and Chuck Puckett for the Tustin City Council. Whether you agree with us or not, we hope you will get out and vote on election day. If you are an absentee voter and would like to hear about the local measures and bonds coming before the voters, you may want to wait before filling out your ballot and sending it in.
We are heading to the Extraterrestrial Highway for our annual run to the Little Al’ e Inn. Depending on the interference from the UFO’s you may or may not hear from us for a few days.