Blog Archives

It Cost How Much??

A hat tip to our good friends at the Liberal OC who have proven, once again, that the fiscally conservative Tustin City Council isn’t so fiscally conservative after all.

A little over a year ago, the City Council (well, most of them) voted themselves a nice little perk in the form of iPads. The pretext, of course, was to eliminate the endless paper trail of agenda and staff reports that every councilmember piled in front of themselves during each meeting. The tablets were never meant to be used for more than basic services and to allow the city to kill a few less trees. Nonetheless, each councilmember received a top of the line iPad complete with WiFi, 3G connectivity and 32 gigs of storage. Nice… Total package cost? $4,794.75 plus monthly charges for the 3G . The worst part is, as Dan Chmielewski reports, not one, single tree is being saved as each councilmember still receives the same pile of paper they did before they got their toys. And, as his article says, no money appears to have been saved.

But, it seems the Council, or at least Hizonner Jerry, will make any wild claim to justify an expenditure or to boost his political position, even if it is categorically untrue.

Take,  for example, Jerry’s boast at the last City Council meeting that, despite the efforts of the Recall Amante Group (of which Deborah Gavello and I were falsely accused of being a part of),

“I’m pleased to report that not one, single signature was presented to the city clerk by today’s deadline”

Duh, well of course not. Why would they turn in any signatures for verification when they knew that, despite having gathered several thousand, they did not have enough to force a recall election? So, why would they waste staff time and  taxpayer money by turning them in?

But, it was Jerry’s boast that the Recall Amante group cost the taxpayers of Tustin $10,000 that really caught my ear. I realize that the City Clerk was about as uncooperative as one can be with honest citizens attempting to lawfully submit a recall petition. In fact, she managed to kick the proposed petition back four times before finally allowing it to go through on the fifth submission. So, if Jerry’s claim is true, that works out to about two thousand dollars per submission just to review it for formatting accuracy.

You may be thinking that the document in question was multi-paged or, possibly, written in several European languages concurrently, maybe with accompanying illuminated illustrations. I assure you it was not. In fact, if you have ever been approached by “those people” outside the local supermarket asking you to sign a petition to save the night crested gnatcatcher or outlaw the fluoridation of city drinking water, you have seen an example of the one page  recall petition submitted to our City Clerk. It is not difficult to create but, it is required to be in proper format, which the State of California dictates. So why did it take five submissions when the average, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, is two? Could it be that Sheree Loveland, Nathan Menard and Chuck Horvath are too illiterate to understand simple formatting instructions? Hardly. I’ve had many conversations with all three. They are quite articulate and well spoken (Nathan and I even share the same barber). Could it have been the City Clerk was having four bad days and took it out on the Recall group? We’re getting warmer. Or, could it have been that the single, largest city event of the year, the Annual Chili Cookoff, was just around the corner and the Recall group had a booth, ready to obtain signatures from some really pissed off people? Bingo! I would say that was a good bet. What better way to sabotage the Recall effort than to somehow prevent them from being able to present their petitions to more than thirty thousand people, the majority of them Tustin residents, in one day at one location?

Now, you may think this is farfetched. So, I would like to remind you that, thanks to an effort by Boss Tweed Amante to consolidate his powerbase at Tammany Hall Tustin, a measure was placed on the ballot last election year to change the City Clerk’s office from an independent, elected official to an appointed official who would be beholden to… you guessed it, Jerry and his Kids. So, now that the City Clerk has lost her autonomy, if she still wants that job, she has to play ball.

So, let’s get to that claim that Jerry made at last week’s council meeting where he allegedly slandered Councilmember Gavello by claiming that she was part of the Recall Amante effort? I did some Recall Amantechecking around, including making a request of public records relating to the cost of reviewing and approving the petitions submitted for the recall. Specifically, I asked who worked on the reviews and how much they charged. What I found out was a bit surprising.

It should also be surprising to Mayor Amante because the cost for review was nowhere near $10,000. In fact, it was not even half that amount.

In replying to our request, the city’s attorney stated,

In response to paragraphs (1) and (2) above, the total number of ’employees, contractors or other persons’ involved in the scope of the work you describe is two, including Patty Estrella and City Attorney, Douglas Holland.

I was also told that the city did not specifically allocate time spent by city employees on the review of the petitions. So, I took that to mean that the time spent by Miss Estrella to review the petition submissions was within the normal course and scope of her everyday work, which she would have been paid for anyway. So total cost for petition review by city staffers? Zero.

The city attorney was another matter. In the city attorney’s response, I received a timetable of hours broken down by days and individual law firm employee,  specifying hours and costs. Yes, the letter said only Douglas Holland worked on the petitions. But, the accompanying documents indicate that up to five attorneys actually worked on them. Although my original request was specifically for costs involved in reviewing/rejecting/accepting the petitions, I received cost information that should not have been included because it was for work obviously performed beyond the date the final petition was submitted and finally approved in June. Nonetheless, understanding how lawyers like to pad their bill, I considered the total amount of time they say they spent. Oops. But, then, I discovered a miscalculation in hours billed vs. charges. Well, they are lawyers, not accountants.

So, including the overcharge of one-tenth of an hour, the Attorney’s office charged the City… drum roll, please… $4,209.80 for 21.6 hours of work. Of that, according to my precise calculations, only 15 hours were actually spent on review of the documents prior to their final approval. That averages out to 3 hours or $582.00 per submission. Total cost to approve the petition? $2,910. That is less than one-third of the cost Jerry claims the city spent on the recall effort. Even if we included the 6.6 hours of work, which the attorney refused to specify on grounds of attorney-client privilege, it still comes out to less than half what Hizzoner claimed. I know Jerry is a lawyer, but that is really padding the bill.

So, in the end, it appears Jerry has been less than honest with the citizens of Tustin over the entire recall. First, he falsely accused Deborah Gavello, the TUSD and myself of being part of the great conspiracy against him. Second, he misleadingly alleged that no one signed the petitions by stating none had been turned in to the clerk’s office.  Finally, there is the brazen statement that the recall effort cost the taxpayers “approximately $10,000” when it actually cost less than it did to furnish four out of five  city councilmembers with iPads which, by the way, were paid for by dipping into the city reserves. So much for our fiscally conservative mayor.

Oh, and that nasty one tenth of an hour overbilling? It’s only $19.40. Not much, right? But, what if they made that error, say, every 21.6 hours they billed the city? How much do you think that would add up to? Do you think Jerry and His Kids care? After all, he is a lawyer.

So, Jerry, did I make a mistake or were you just being your usual, egotistical, blowhard self? I guess our readers can decide. Unlike you, I don’t think they are that gullible.

Tattoos for Everyone

"Mom"Last week’s Planning Commission Meeting started, as usual, without much fanfare. For the first time in awhile, no one from the Stop Smart Meters group showed up to protest. I am currently researching an article on Edison’s Smart Meter and Smart Grid program and will publish it here. Hopefully, the SSM folks will chime in and comment. Otherwise, the meeting was relatively well attended by the community, particularly those from Old Town Tustin.

The Commission did approve the Body Art Ordinance so that can finally move to the City Council for final action. Now, Jerry can get that Trojan tattoo that he has always wanted. Or, was it a dolphin?

Public Hearing Item 3, the resolution pertaining to the ordinance on non-conforming structures and uses was the highlight of the evening, taking up more than an hour and a half of the three hour meeting. I fully expected to write a hit piece on the Community Development Department because of their poor handling of this issue and the fact that Elizabeth Binsack has, once again, shown that she is in the pocket of Boss Tweed Amante. however, I will give her credit that she and her staff actually came back this time with some thoughtful amendments to the ordinance. And, she was able to think fast on her feet when both Commissioners and the public had questions regarding specifics.

Much of the discussion centered around how this ordinance would affect the Old Town area. By the way, Jeff Thompson lives in Old Town, so he has a vested interest in this ordinance. As originally written, we believe the ordinance would have unduly burdened Old Town residents should they choose to do, well, virtually anything to their homes. The ordinance would set limits on the value of repairs to homes that were partially destroyed. Valuation, according to Binsack, would have been set at original assessed value plus the value of improvements as determined by permits pulled by the homeowner. OK, so I buy a house, have a new roof put on it and remodel the kitchen. All of that requires permits. But, what about the little things that don’t require permits? A pergola here, a paver patio there, add up and add value. According to Binsack’s determination, however, that would be for nought.

Elizabeth also addressed the “impact of existing resources” (that’s what the PowerPoint slide says). She immediately went into attack mode, stating that the character of the Old Town area has been impacted by high density housing and commercialization. Of course, all of this has been done, according to her, without proper permits or proper input from the residents of the area. Well, how would we know, Elizabeth, when all of the permits pre-1959 have been destroyed by the city? And, how would we know about resident input since the Old Town area has no representation other than those few voices willing to stand up at a council meeting and be insulted and bullied by Boss Tweed Amante? Well, we get it, Elizabeth. You hate Old Town Tustin.

Several members of the Old Town community spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing. Nathan Menard eloquently pointed out how the zoning maps of the Old Town area do not conform to the actual zoning of the area. Up to 30 percent of the lots, according to him, are not properly zoned. This makes for a very confusing situation.

Marcus Brown thanked the commission for reading the letter sent by the Tustin Conservancy. He said the ordinance confuses building and zoning. There was no clear staff response or understanding of the issue. Marcus further stated that since there was no zoning code before 1947, there was a possibility that lumping zoning in with building codes would make the issue more complicated. When he asked if one of the case studies presented had a higher repair value, Binsack replied that it would have been allowed due to a “multitude of things.” She went on to say, however, that a lot depends on how it affects the non-conforming aspects of the property. Another clear cut answer.

Bret Fairbanks said it best when he said that he agreed with Marcus and the City Attorney that the issue should be zoning only. “I gave all the information asked for and it still wasn’t good enough. Is that the way it will be for all of us? Will it have to be appealed like mine was through you?”

One of Elizabeth’s staff then came on to reassure us all that, just because a building doesn’t have permits, doesn’t mean it would have to be torn down or brought into conforming status. What she failed to state is that the onus will still be on the homeowner to come up with the evidence that the building was not illegal. Some due process.

And, this is where Jeff Thompson let me down. For all of the questions he asked, he got no real answers from Binsack and Company. Instead, he defended his position by saying that the Planning Commission has no real authority, that they only recommend to the City Council. Really? Gee, Jeff, if you think that much of your commission, why bother? How about the fact that, in recent months, the City Council has followed the Planning Commission’s recommendations on several contentious issues, even going against Boss Tweed Amante? At various times, at least three of the council have refused to sway from Commission findings even when they had the opportunity to do so?

So, without further fanfare, the Planning Commission, feeling tired and worn out after three whole hearings on the issue, voted to pass it to the City Council 5-0. The only thing I can say is, at least the hearings are videotaped. So, in years to come when Old Town residents are fighting the city over this issue, they can request the tapes and minutes be pulled so they can determine the stated intent of the Planning Commission when they passed this resolution and the City Council rubber stamped the ordinance.

Welcome to the nanny state, Tustin style.

Much of the rest of the time was taken up doing what Planning Commissions do best. Hey, I found out Super Antojitos has Karaoke. Now I’ll have to warm up my voice. I wonder if they will still have that now that they will be able to have live entertainment?

And, get this, we have another 7-11 coming. That makes six in all. Even Radio Shack only has three stores. You have to love their marketing. Even though a few residents in the area objected, the Commissioners, who don’t live in the area, were all for it. Hopefully, they will be good neighbors as they seem to have been in their other locations.

The only other real issue of contention is the Tour of the MCAS that was noticed at the top of the Agenda. According to Thompson, the entire commission went on the tour. I still don’t know if anyone else was invited but I can tell you that we are looking into Brown Act violations as there was no mention of any minutes or record of the tour made. And, just because you say you didn’t discuss business, Jeff, doesn’t mean you didn’t violate the Act.

Something Worth Voting For

Two of the items I touched upon in last week’s City Council Agenda were introduced by Mayor Jerry Amante.  With some mystery, Amante agendized discussion of council benefits, stipends and gifts and the possibility of having citizens determine these matters through referendum. Although Tustin has been fortunate to have, what is considered to be, a relatively open city government, it has had issues over the past few years regarding stipends and benefits for city leaders. Councilmember Deborah Gavello, in particular, has had her problems with the Orange County Register revealing what some would call lavish expenditures.  And, like Matt Cunningnham at Red County, I have a hard time getting into a tizzy over councilmember’s benefits (unless we are talking Bell). However, allowing the citizens of Tustin to have a direct hand in determining council compensation is a great idea.

I am not sure how far Boss Tweed Amante, who is termed out and will not be affected by any changes, wants to take this. It is certainly better than the old method whereby the outgoing council was responsible for setting the incoming council pay. And, it would certainly clear up any ambiguity Gavello or her attorney may believe there is in current law.

I firmly believe that most offices of government, up to Congress should be considered a citizen government. This is particularly true of local government. city councils and, indeed, even county board of supervisors should have full-time jobs and not be dependent on stipends and benefits from their part-time work as keepers of the keys. While professional legislators have overrun state and local government, usually to the detriment of the citizens they supposedly serve, cities and counties should never succumb to such a scheme.

It is hard to say what good old Jerry will come up with. Fresh from his triumph over those gullible Tustinites who would dare to oppose his tyranical form of governance, this may be an effort to paint himself as the altruistic politician he so often claims to be. If he will accept a few suggestions, here is my two cents:

  • Stipends should reflect a reasonable amount to allow for time spent on city matters. Let’s not forget, however, the intention is not to create a job, but to draw volunteers to public service. At the same time, the citizens, in a rage over some perceived action or inaction by the council, should not be allowed to make wide-ranging changes in compensation. Perhaps a cap of plus/minus 10% should be the limit for any change in stipend during any term set by law.
  • Benefits should be considered separately and not subject to the same cap as stipends. I mean, do you really expect or want a candidate to consider running for the position of city council based on whether they will be able to obtain health benefits? I am not sure whose idea it first was to propose any benefit other than a stipend for local elected officials but the idea stinks, plain and simple. Better the officials are given a “personal benefits account” (subject to certain rules) that could be used to further the official’s outreach to the community. After all, these are elected officials, not employees.
  • This should be a recurring referendum that is automatically placed on the ballot during council election years. This eliminates the confusion caused by midstream changes. It also makes it easy for the budget committee to forecast council expenses. Choices should be “raise”, “lower” or “no change”.

Jerry also has asked staff to come up with a more strict policy for councilmembers regarding gifts and gratuities. He believes the starting (and ending) point should be the policy currently in place for city staff. Whether this is practical or not, remains to be seen. I am willing to look at what the staff come up with before commenting. However, all of this is a step in the right direction.

It is good to see that Amante is at least attempting to be thoughtful as he moves into his final year of office. Oh yes, we have no doubt he will continue as Hizzoner through the end of his term.

Devore and Spitzer Battle it Out on Twitter

The dust has settled on the county redistricting plan and Tustin is firmly entrenched in the middle of Orange County Board of Supervisors District Three. Bill Campbell is termed out and a small war of words is heating up between two early candidates for the job. I am speaking, of course, about Todd Spitzer and Chuck Devore.

It is literally a small war of words because their battleground is the the social networking and micro-blogging service, Twitter. Twitter allows a person to send short messages of 140 characters or less to their followers. Short and concise are keywords on Twitter. Wikipedia describes it as the “SMS of the internet”. But, it is much more than that. It is micro-blogging at its best.

I was an early adopter of Twitter. In fact, I opened an account a year or so after it hit the internet and, like most early users, had no idea what to do with it. I had no followers, didn’t know what a hashtag was and forget trending. But, I had an account and, before long, I actually had tweeters following me. For the average, everyday user it’s a fun social tool. For a serious blogger it is a necessity. I get some of my best information from Twitter. Bloggers thrive in the tweeting world. And, the race between Devore and Spitzer is a prime example.

Chuck Devore joined Twitter in 2008 and, had been an avid user even before he announced his candidacy for the Third District.  Chuck tweets all things political with a conservative viewpoint. If you want to know how Devore feels about any political topic local, state or federal, I suggest you follow him at @ChuckDevore. Chuck is thoughtful and usually well reasoned. One thing you can do on Twitter is tweet directly to one or a number of users, even if they are not following you. It is one of the most powerful features of the service. Ask Chuck a question or give your opinion to him and you are likely to hear back from him, and often many of his followers, almost immediately (unless he is busy watching the GOP debates). Chuck comes into his own on Twitter.

But, it’s Devore’s active Twitter campaign against Spitzer that is noteworthy. Shortly before both of them formally declared their candidacy, Devore started in early and was attacking Spitzer for his record of supporting labor unions. He attacked Spitzer’s vote in favor of expanding public safety pensions during his previous stint as a Supervisor, even though he was joined by the other conservatives on the board who also voted to approve them.

Unfortunately, Devore overstepped the bounds of good sense when he jumped on Spitzer’s “union junket” to Las Vegas.

@ToddSpitzerOC parked $54,150 in embarrassing Labor $ into a slush fund used for Vegas trip. See: #ocgop

It turns out, the junket was the annual Baker to Vegas race, a famous endurance event that attracts teams of law enforcement officers from all over the world. Spitzer says his expenditures went to support the DA’s team which he claimed was a proper use of the funds.Devore still has mud on his face from that faux pas as the local prosecutors association backed Todd and everyone in blogworld (except CalWatchdog) blasted Devore.

Although Spitzer has a Twitter account, until recently, he has not been nearly as active on it, apparently preferring more traditional (and easier to understand) forms of communication such as his website and Facebook page. In fact, Todd tweets an average of once every two days compared with Chuck’s nearly five per day ( if anyone is interested, I average 1 per day but I didn’t really start tweeting until two years ago). Still, Todd has managed to slip in a zinger or two and he tweets more often these days. He outed Devore for financing his housing in Sacramento with the per diem lawmakers receive for personal expenses while in Sacramento.

So Chuck Devore admits he took the per diem to finance his second residence in Sacramento. Now that there is…

Newsflash, Todd, Devore isn’t the only assemblyman to ever do that.

Todd also has his own style. He rarely attacks Chuck directly but prefers to set the record straight when it is skewed by his opponent. He also likes to tout his own fundraising ability compared to his opponent, raking in $100,000 to Chuck’s $70,000 in the first part of the year. As both Chuck and Todd like to remind everyone in Twitter world, Todd also has a sizable bank account of campaign funds from his assembly days and later during his shunted effort to run for Orange County District Attorney.

Devore would like to paint Spitzer as just as much a union lackey as any democrat. The only thing is, it just doesn’t come out that way. Spitzer has signed on to GOP headmaster Scott Baugh’s “no union campaign money”. He also says that, while he did vote for enhanced pensions during his first tenure as Supervisor, he certainly would not do that today, knowing what he knows now. What Devore doesn’t seem to get is that the endorsements have less to do with money than with the man.  Spitzer gets all of the public safety union endorsements because he likes public safety, touts law and order in his Republican oriented ideology and public safety likes him. They really like him. Get this, even our own mayor, Jerry Amante, likes Todd.

So, This looks to be an interesting race between two well-known and well-liked Republicans. No Democrats in sight. But, why would a democrat waste their money on a foolish quest in this bastion of republicanism? Still, you never know. In any case, if you want to see bare knuckles digital fighting at its best, sign in to Twitter and follow @ChuckDevore and @ToddSpitzerOC. I promise you some interesting dialogue over the next year with plenty of commentary from us.

Oh, and you can follow us on Twitter at @keepdapeace.