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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?

On The City Council Agenda, September 4, 2012

This week’s fairly long agenda is marked by a notable absence – no closed session discussion of the TUSD lawsuits.  There are the usual suspects, however. They include conference with legal counsel on exposure and initiation of litigation and a new liability claim from Gaurav Sasspal. There is also discussion over the sale and disposition of Tustin MCAS property.

On the Regular Agenda, their are 18 items for approval, most of which come under the consent calendar. Seveal of these items may be pulled for discussion. My bet would be Item 7, Tustin Ranch Road Phase 2 Improvements. For some reason, the city council always seems the need to discuss the extension whenever it comes up on the agenda. Folks who live in the area, however, should know that the upcoming phase will include lots of noise from the pile driving equipment as well as a suspension of the railroad’s quiet zone program that squelches train horns in the area.  While most of the noise will be during the weekdays, there will be some weekend activity to accommodate the railroads. The city’s website is supposed to have up-to-date information for local residents in the affected area. I know it’s tough, but it’s progress. And just think, you will eventually have a direct rout to the District….oh….

Item 11, Biennial Conflict of Interest Review, should also be pulled for discussion. I realize the city, in conformance with state law, is required to have certain classes of employees file annual reports under conflict of interest laws. The additions recommended to the City Manager in the staff report include upper level management from several departments, including positions in the city manager’s office, the community development and the police departments. But, there are several questionable deletions, including that of the Police Civilian Commander and a Senior Redevelpment Project Manager who, although the RDA has gone away, I am sure is still working for the city in some capacity.

The fact is, most positions, from supervisor to executive manager should be filing conflict of interest documents. After all, this is a city that claims transparency in government. If that is the case, it is a small issue to have employees at the lower classifications also fill out the forms. Oh, and post them on-line, of course, so we can decide for ourselves whether that Mercedes they are driving is due to graft or their paycheck.

Item 14, Police Department Vehicle Purchases also deserves a look. The police are seeking to purchase replacement vehicles for some of their fleet. Unfortunately, the city, in  deciding to seek the absolute lowest bidder, will go outside of Tustin to McPeek Dodge of Anaheim for the units. Under normal circumstances, I would applaud the city for saving us money. But, just how much money did they save by going to Anaheim?

McPeek’s was the low bidder at $27,465 per unit or $219,720 for all eight vehicles. Tuttle-Click Chrysler, the local dealer here in Tustin, came in at $28,045.30 or $224,362. That’s less than $5,000 dollars difference to shop locally. It wouldn’t take too much for staff to justify the purchase and the goodwill toward our merchants is immeasurable. Maybe the city council should reconsider this issue, especially since the conversion work will be performed in the city of Orange, leaving nothing for our local businesses.

Item 16 will allow the city council to set interview dates for applicants to the Planning Commission. The tentative date is October 2, 2012, at 4:30 pm. The city has yet to announce the vacancy left by Chuck Puckett when he became a candidate for the Tustin City Council. Is a month adequate notice? Will Jerry and the Gang of Three muster a new shill in time?

It’s that time of year, again. Oh, I mean for the first time. It was unfortunate that most voters did not understand the true purpose of the City Clerk’s Office to, among other things, act as a non-partisan, unbiased, reflector for the city council. As an independently elected position, the Clerk held a counterbalance that has often been needed in city politics. In 2010, the voters chose to do away with another key component of city government and rest the fate of the city clerk in the hands of the City Council. Make no mistake, this was a move made by the Gang of Three to consolidate power on the dais and remove any semblance of dissent that could not be immediately dealt with. Yes, the City Manager will have the authority to hire and fire. But, who do you think will be behind the scenes, particularly if the City Clerk dissents in opinon with the city council? We see how that worked for Julie Folcik, the City Clerk of Costa Mesa when she was replaced after a scheduling error.

Item 17, Delegation of Authority to Appoint City Clerk, will vest the authority to appoint the city clerk to the city manager. Do not expect to see a hiring notice on the city website. This will be a purely political appointment. And, it does not matter much which way the council decides on this as the alternative is to allow the city council to make the appointment directly. Some choice.

The elephant in the closet is Item 18, Response to July 2, 2012 Grand Jury Report. We recently wrote about the slap-down Jerry Amante received from the Orange County Grand Jury for attempting to bully staff at a Brandman/Chapman University into quashing a scathing report on city manager salaries and benefits. That report created a scandal in Orange County government circles when the report outlining the exorbitant salaries and benefits enjoyed by city managers was made public by the Orange County Register.

Now, the city staff, in lockstep with Hizzoner, has come up with a plan. The evil plan is diabolically clever: Deny everything and claim the grand jury is infringing on the good councilmen’s First Amendment Rights. Did you expect anything less?

What the city’s lawyers failed to comprehend is the fact that, according to the OC Grand Jury, these two councilmen (Amante and Songstad from Laguna Beach) were acting in their capacity as city councilmen to bully an educational system into quashing an embarrassing report. That fails the First Amendment smell test in my book.

It apparently fails several smell tests, as even Shirley Grindle, the long time activist and government watchdog for the county, took notice and publicly stated her dismay:

These two officials owe professor Fred Smoller a huge apology for their unethical behavior. Then they should resign from office as they have clearly shown a lack of judgment and an abuse of their power as elected officials.

Public officials should not be able to use the access their office affords to influence an academic curriculum, which is what Songstad and Amante succeeded in doing. The Association of California Cities, that went along with their efforts to do so, should have had the fortitude to say no as this is clearly not an area that a taxpayer-funded government organization should participate in.

While Grindle went as far as demanding a resignation from the two errant councilmen, Tustin resident will be satisfied knowing Hizzoner’s days are numbered. However, a response should certainly not be, “we have free speech rights”, when it was obvious what these two tried to do on behalf of virtually every city councilman in Orange County. How about censure, as one of the staff agenda options listed?

In any case, this issue involves a sitting councilman who should recuse himself from both discussion and voting on this matter.

So, there you have it. We plan to attend the city council meeting this week. We will also be tweeting live from the audience. That is, until Jerry spots me and sends his goons to oust me from the room.

And You Thought I Was The Only One

So, you may have read my recent post on Tustin Councilmember Jerry Amante and Laguna Hills Councilmember Alan Songstad and thought, “No, it can’t be true. Not Jerry…”. You may have thought I was alone and, being a small town blog, that my opinion didn’t mean much.

Now, JerryAmante and his dog and pony show have hit the big time. In a scathing letter to the editor of the Orange County Register, political activist and self-appointed watchdog, Shirley Grindle, has said virtually the same thing about our good former mayor. Grindle, whose criticism of  county polticians is well  known, says the attempts by the two to quash a Brandman University report on city manager compensation, and abuse of their office:

These two officials owe professor Fred Smoller a huge apology for their unethical behavior. Then they should resign from office as they have clearly shown a lack of judgment and an abuse of their power as elected officials.

Public officials should not be able to use the access their office affords to influence an academic curriculum, which is what Songstad and Amante succeeded in doing. The Association of California Cities, that went along with their efforts to do so, should have had the fortitude to say no as this is clearly not an area that a taxpayer-funded government organization should participate in.

Grindle goes on to say the two should apologize to Professor, Fred Smoller, and then resign from office. We agree, of course. This latest stunt by Amante is just another display of the corruption that he is willing to engulf himself in to push his own agenda throughout the county.

It is interesting to note that, in Tuesday’s city council meeting, Mayor John Nielsen brought up the fact that the city would be required to respond to the original Orange County Grand Jury Report. During his brief comment on the issue, he never once mentioned Jerry’s name or exactly what the issue was they were required to respond to. I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I heard Nielsen remark, “We have to respond without prejudice, make sure this is clean and not political. And so, I’ve asked the city manager and city attorney research this issue, particularly with the law involved in this and… report back with findings and recommendations.”

So, the grand jury report is public information as will be the responses by the various cities and other entities. Does Nielsen intend to do the right thing by placing any discussion about the report on the Open Session calendar so the public may have input and so there will be no subterfuge by Amante and his cronies? Don’t bet on it.

One bright spot during the city council meeting this week: Our most famous double-dipping pensioner, Chistine Shingleton, is finally being cut from the city payroll. I guess they didn’t need her expertise as much as they thought they did. Good luck in retirement,Christine, and don’t let the door slap you on the backside on the way out.

Amante and His Influence on Higher Education

I am not a fan of the Orange County Grand Jury. In fact, I have called for a permanent disbanding of this often ill-informed group of mostly retirees who wish to play politics. Most reports they issue are poorly researched and, even when recommendations are made to change, they are rarely acted upon. In fact, most agencies in the county know they can get by with a “Thank you, we will take it into consideration”. They are under no obligation to followup and their response can simply acknowledge the issue without providing remedy.

Once in a while, though, you have to give them credit for trying.

In today’s OC Watchdog column, the Orange County Grand Jury took on two councilmen, including our own former Mayor, Jerry Amante, saying they misused their positions to interfere with academic freedom at a local university. They are accused of attempting to influence Brandman University officials to investigate and discredit a report on city manager compensation authored by Laguna Hills city council candidate, Barbara Kogerman and two student interns in 2010. Kogerman, who was interested in determining just how much city managers were worth (remember, this was before the Bell scandal), utilized a couple of grad students from Brandman. Together, they researched and authored a succinct, well-written report on compensation for city managers in Orange County. That outraged local politicians, including Jerry Amante, who then sought to the bullying tactics we know so well to fix things.

From the Watchdog:

Suffice to say city execs were enraged. The grand jury got minutes from a meeting of city-types saying that Laguna Hills officials were “extremely upset” that Brandman could be so irresponsible, “and that the Orange County Register would put a Watchdog column on the front page…. A response is necessary in significant fashion, as the article indicates, first of a series. “‘

Now remember, this is before the Bell scandal broke. When the city of Bell exploded, Barbara Kogerman and her two interns, Cindy Smith and Janice Voshall, were limo’ed over to the TV stations to appear on national news shows. They received “awards and accolades” for the report. But, city officials, including Hizzoner, turned up the heat. Jerry Amante, who was Mayor of the city of Tustin at the time, Laguna Hills City Councilman, Allan Songstad Jr., and Lacy Kelly from the League of California Cities,  paid a visit to Chapman University President Jim Doti in an apparent effort to squelch the report and punish the evil-doers.  Doti stated that he was aghast. Simply, aghast. He claimed the Kogerman study was a “campaign piece, not a scholarly study”.

The OC Grand Jury called in our good former mayor and the others to ask questions:

The grand jury called in Kelly, Amante and Songstad, among others, and focused on that meeting at Chapman with Doti. Were the officials threatening to blackball graduates of the university by not hiring them? Songstad indicated “it was obvious to all concerned that it was not the best thing for them to do, i.e. to be criticizing city managers when they are the ones that do the hiring. And that the university president and the professor were bright individuals who could see the relationship and that it wouldn’t be smart to slam city managers. He acknowledged that there wasn’t any threat but it was just sort of self evident,” the grand jury says.

It is apparent that Songstad, of Laguna Hills, “was  influencing certain actions of the professor in that some of the exact language that was to be used in the professor’s letter was the same as that which was communicated by the councilman,” the grand jury wrote. “It is equally apparent that the professor felt compromised and was attempting to defend the actions of himself and the students in raising public interest in the political process.
The issue of crediting the students with the authorship of the report on the cover page, notwithstanding the rather elaborate explanation in the attending foreword, was magnified beyond its significance, apparently for political reasons.

“The history of the communications is evidence of the existence of the pressure being brought to bear upon the university and the professor.

The Grand Jury report goes on to say that it appears the university as a whole was being influenced by the public officials for the purpose of manipulating circumstances related to a local election and that it borders on being unethical. Well, whoever said Jerry was ethical? Bully yes, ethical no.

The Grand Jury report specified four specific issues it had with the entire fiasco. Among them, city officials misusing their membership in the California League of Cities to promote their own political agenda. They also blindsided the university president with a ruse to introduce the executive director of the League when they really wanted to have the president investigate and punish the people who wrote such a damaging report. Most damaging to me? City officials may not have been forthcoming with the Orange County Grand Jury in their testimony about the primary purpose in meeting with the university officials. That would be Amante and his buddy Songstad.

Of course, Jerry Amante says, “You got it all wrong.”

Jerry, tell me it ain’t so

Songstad and Amante are shaking their heads over the grand jury’s conclusions.

“I think they are completely way off base,” Songstad said. “I was not involved in trying to influence any personnel decision at the university — nor could I. My concern was with the association of Kogerman’s campaign piece with Brandman. That was the concern. The grand jury just got it all wrong.”

The point of the meeting was to make sure Doti understood that his university was being cited as the source of the report. “We weren’t acting on behalf of anybody but ourselves,” he said. “I have a right to go talk to anybody I want to, if I think that someone is acting unethically and attributing a report to someone who didn’t write it. I have a right. It’s disappointing the grand jury would think this was worthy of their time.”

Smoller resigned many, many months after the meeting with Doti, and Songstad doesn’t see how the two can even be connected. And no, Songstad has no plans to resign – and Kogerman has a lot of nerve to suggest he should, when she is the one who acted unethically by putting Brandman’s name on her report, he said.

Amante agrees. “I don’t know how the grand jury got it wrong, but they’ve gotten it wrong,” he said. “The findings don’t make any sense given what really occurred.”

Amante said he went to the Doti meeting to introduce Kelly from the League of Cities to him — and to tell him about an educational program for elected officials that the League was putting together that could be an internship opportunity for Chapman/Brandman students.

The idea that a couple of councilmen from Tustin and Laguna Hills could threaten to lock  Chapman/Brandman students out of public sector jobs in every Orange County city is ludicrous, they said.”A single council person, alone, has zero power,” Amante said. “No council person can exert power without colleagues in agreement at public meeting with discussion. And the irony is that neither of the cities had anything to do with the meeting with Doti.”

So, Amante, did not seek to influence because he is just some hick councilman from Tustin? How does that compare with the bio on his new employer’s website (look under “team”) that sings the praises of Amante and his influence around the county in areas of local government and transportation? He is either one or the other, not both. And, let’s not forget Amante is a lawyer. So, he knows the penalty for lying to grand jury (assuming they are smart enough to figure if and when he lies). Come to think of it, he is a lawyer so, he could claim to be both (shades of Matlock).

So, once again, our fiscally conservative former Mayor, Jerry Amante, shows how much he loves schools. By virtue of the fact that he is a councilmember of this city, he brings discredit to the dais and the city itself. If you read this blog, you know what we think of Hizzoner and his efforts to singlehandedly manipulate power in the city and county. Now, we have an official organization, as lame as they may seem, saying the same thing. For once, the Grand Jury got it spot on. I can’t wait to see what the response is. Hmm. Maybe Jerry and his buddy from down south can sue the Grand Jury…