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There’s Money in Trash

money-grubber“PACs linked to trash hauler supported local political campaigns”

That is the headline of a story on the OC Watchdog that reports thousands of dollars being funneled to local political candidates by Political Action Committees “with links” to CR&R, the trash hauler for many municipalities, including the city of Tustin. In all, more than $30,000 was spent to support candidates. Of that, then mayor John Nielsen received $7,000 while his cronies, Chuck Puckett and Allan Bernstein are reported to have received $2,000 each.

From the Watchdog:

One PAC gave $7,000 to the campaign of Tustin councilman John Nielsen who voted in 2010 to approve an amendment to an existing contract requested by the trash hauler, according to the forms. The PAC also contributed $2,000 apiece to support the campaigns of Allan Bernstein and Charles “Chuck” Puckett, Tustin council candidates who were not members at the time of the 2010 vote.

“It’s not illegal, but in my mind it just shows the influence of campaign money on the governmental process,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. And, while CR&R’s lobbyist claims “these tiny amounts of dollars don’t buy anybody”, we would point out that $7,000 is about what it cost for one of those hit pieces Nielsen’s other allies, OCBIZPAC, financed against Nielsen’s political foes.

In reply to the report, John Nielsen said that he votes in the best interest of Tustin. “My only allegiance is to the voters and residents of Tustin.” Maybe. But, is it coincidence that Nielsen, in 2010, voted to change the terms of CR&R’s contract to eliminate their obligation to build a buyback recycling center? That vote occurred in March and was part of a deal that, in return from eliminating the buyback center, the waste company would distribute mulch to the community and take on other financial responsibilities previously assumed by the city. The supposed reasoning was the plethora of recycling centers located at supermarkets. I guess you’ll have to decide who got the better deal.

One thing we’ll agree with, John wasn’t influenced to vote one way or the other. However, it could very well have been payback by CR&R for his vote and insurance for future votes.

By our accounting, there are 5 years left on the CR&R contract. Expect to see, over the next few years, a ratcheting of contributions around the county where the waste conglomerate has a financial interest. It has always been our opinion that the measure allowing for long term trash contracts such as this was a scam foisted on an unwary public that relied a little too much on their city leaders to do the right thing. The Watchdog’s story seems to contradict Nielsen’s “coincidence” theory. And, with Nielsen’s buddies also getting a piece of the action, one has to wonder what other “contractual changes” CR&R may be planning in the future.

Stacking the Deck?

Although it was Election Day, about 50 people managed to show up for the Tustin City Council meeting last week to cheer on Lindburgh and Silent Mike. As usual, most of these “supporters” were representing non-profits from outside of the city. They were all set to cheer and speak on the Conditional Use Permit scheduled to be heard before the city council to turn the Wilcox Manor into a three ri…. a money making events center. Unfortunately, they all showed up for naught as the item was continued until January.

It was interesting that Linburgh and Silent Mike decided to get their mouthpiece to speak for them. You know they are serious about obtaining the CUP when they have to get a lawyer. Such a neighborly thing to do. When it came time for the Public Input section of the meeting, Lawyer David Hunt esq., who claimed to represent the boys in this matter, was first up. As he was about to speak, Nielsen interrupted him to say that he would be recusing himself from the proceedings due to a conflict of interest. Hunt replied that he was about to ask for a continuance so that John wouldn’t have to face “multiple issues you are faced with”, as he put it. The holidays and all… He then asked the meeting be continued to the second city council meeting in January to give him an opportunity to evaluate the comment letter received from the attorneys for the opposition. John still did the right thing by recusing himself for the vote. Somehow, I think he knew this was going to happen.

If I was truly amazed that Gomez actually voted with the boys on the continuance, I was even more amazed at what seemed genuine discussion between Amante, Gavello and Gomez on the issue of whether to move the item up on the agenda. Murray, who took time to stop playing with his iPad to actually preside over the meeting in John’s absence, thanked the assembly over the massive sound of hooves beating toward the door to make a quick exit.

So, why the bid for continuance? Apparently, there were several reasons not the least of which is the apparent conflict of interest that was raised by Tustinites who oppose the CUP. As we have pointed out before, John Nielsen’s wife Erin is the Executive Director of Tustin Community Foundation. TCF receives and manages quite a bit of funding received from the city to dole out to various community services and groups each year. Although the city and TCF have both tried to distance themselves from this issue, they haven’t done a very good job of it. And now, it has come back to bite Nielsen in the backside.

We also wrote of the appearance of a conflict of interest caused by Nielsen accepting donations from the boys as well as the Wilcox Trust, which the boys manage. Coupled with the in-kind donation of the events center for campaign fundraising, we have to wonder how much that would be in FPPC dollars. Is the city attorney concerned about that as well? Of course, we have seen that City Attorney David Kendig likes his job enough to go to bat for the right side of the dais even when the subject matter is questionable.

In fact, we heard from the fly on the wall that Nielsen spent the better part of an hour in the Mayor’s office, pacing back and forth while on the phone. While no conversations were heard, we can surmise that calls were made to Lindburgh and Silent Mike, as well as the city attorney and anyone else he could think of to allow him to get out of the predicament he found himself in, while allowing the purveyors of his favorite fundraising venue to go forth and destroy Old Town Tustin. Then too, we also heard the city attorney wavering on the subject (careful, Dave, or you’ll be shown the door). As luck would have it, no one had to embarrass themselves that evening. OK, everyone except Amante, who is just a plain embarrassment when he shows up.

The move, as it turns out, was a smart one. Lindburgh and Silent Mike did not have anything to lose, really. I mean, the weather right now is not exactly conducive to weddings or fundraising. And, with the possibility of a deadlock on the dais (did John call the lawyer and tell him to continue the item?), they stood to lose outright if the issue came to a vote. Which leads us to wonder why Councilmember Beckie Gomez voted to continue the hearing. After all, we were sure she supported the integrity of Old Town and that she would not be in favor of the CUP. At least, that has been the sway of her vote in past matters regarding the area. So, why was she so quick to join Hizzoner and Al in continuing this matter? We put a call in to her but have heard nothing as of this writing.

In any case, as we said, the Wilcox boys did not have anything to lose. Betting on the election, if their candidates lost, they would probably not get a permit. If they won, as they did, they would most likely get the CUP, in some fashion, approved. How the final CUP will turn out now depends on a few things, however. For one, John will still have to recuse himself from the dais as the fiscal year is not up. We also think the Podiatrist-elect should also recuse himself as he was invested heavily by the Wilcox boys by that same use of a venue for campaign fundraising. Somehow, we think he will take the same unethical stand as his mentor and neighbor, Amante.

Looks like the deck is stacked against Old Town Tustin.