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Jerry’s Olive Branch Wilts

We received word today that the City of Tustin, ala Boss Tweed Amante, has extended an offer to settle the lawsuits between the city and the school district. Two lawsuits have been filed, one each by the city and the district. The first suit was brought by the school district in response to the city’s heavy-handed approach to the district’s refusal to submit to the authority of the city for construction issues. As a further response to that lawsuit, filed last year, the city changed its ordinance that had stood for years, allowing other government entities the ability to forgo the permitting process.

In the second suit, brought by the city in August of this year, Tustin claimed a “bait and switch” by TUSD when they built Heritage Elementary School. Due to the poor economy and the lack of development of the old Tustin MCAS, the district elected to move Hillview Continuation High School, along with some administrative offices, to the Heritage site rather than open as an elementary school. TUSD claimed the move was temporary, while the city of Tustin claimed a conspiracy in which this was the district’s evil plan all along and that the move would be more permanent. The truth lies somewhere in between as TUSD has not stated how long the site will house Hillview but contends that it will be moved back to the original site in North Tustin when construction is completed on the Hillview property.

The so-called olive branch held out by Boss Tweed Amante is not much. In fact, it is rather wilted from the start. What he and his henchmen propose is that both parties drop all lawsuits against each other, each side pay their own legal fees and costs to date and that the school district reopen Heritage in 2012 as the intended elementary school, presumably to service the Columbus Square residents who now must bus their children (according to Amante) to schools far away. Nice.

Apparently, Jerry wasn’t listening when the school district said the reason the elementary school didn’t open in the first place was due to the low population in the area. The school would have opened with 75 or so students when it required more than 300 to run the school even half way efficiently. Had TUSD not relocated the Hillview students so that construction could proceed, the school probably would not have opened at all. That, according to the school district, would have been a waste of facilities and would have led to quicker deterioration of the buildings through non-use.

In a letter, dated October 16th, Superintendent, Gregory Franklin, reiterated that the current uses for Heritage were temporary and that the school will reopen as an elementary school when development of the area resumes and there are adequate students. In that same letter, he put to rest Tustin’s contention that traffic and parking issues would be a problem, stating that most of the students were either dropped off or took the bus. This appears to be correct as there are no known parking issues at the school. Franklin also answered concerns of residents who questioned why some schools had opened with less than ideal student numbers.

I am all for the two sides putting down their swords and settling their differences out of court. Over a million dollars has been spent on legal fees by both sides that the taxpayer must foot the bill for. Although one of the lawsuits has been rescheduled to April of next year, a settlement would be preferable and less costly in the long run.

As of now, TUSD has not responded to the offer. It would be safe to assume, however, the offer will be rejected as the school district has made it clear that Heritage cannot open with the proposed population. Jerry knows this. So, that puts his motives for making the offer in question. And, if Franklin is smart, he has to wonder what Hizzoner has up his sleeve should TUSD decide to do what the city asks. Franklin should remember that Jerry never says what he means and he never means what he says. Rumor has it he fired his last City Manager, David Biggs, because Biggs had the audacity to suggest the city settle with the district. That cost the city taxpayers a princely sum in severance pay and benefits negotiated by our fiscally conservative mayor and his cronies on the dais. That makes this “offer” highly suspect.

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.

On the Agenda, October 2, 2011

Fresh from their appearance at the 2011 Tustin Tiller Days, the Tustin City Council is prepared to tackle the latest issues facing our city. Of course, two of the most important items on the agenda will be discussed in closed session but, not after the public has had a chance to have their say. These fall under Item G of the closed session agenda. The lawsuits between the City and the School District continue to seethe. The latest has to do with the use of Heritage Elementary School as a continuation high school. We hope the public will convey their disgust of this children’s squabble between the two entities. And, as we like to remind you, the public is paying for the entire fight with their tax dollar. The only loser here, besides the ones on the council dais, are the taxpayers of Tustin.

An old friend, Walt Sullens, will be lauded for his service on the Audit Commission. Walt is a longstanding member of the community. I first met him at a meeting of the local Post 227 of The American Legion where he was also the finance secretary. He is a great guy and I am sure, with his financial knowledge, that he has been a great asset to the Commission during his tenure. Congratulations, Walt.

As we go down the agenda, It is pretty plain to see just what the new Assistant Executive Director will be doing. Public Hearing Item 1 regards a land swap on MCAS for the South Orange County Community College District. They will authorize the City Manager “or his designee”  to seal the deal. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take up all 960 hours of her alotted employement time. The issue itself is routine and has already been discussed by the City Council.But, it looks like there is plenty more for her to do with Items 5, 6 & 7 that all relate to the Tustin MCAS property.  The City has, so far, delivered on their ability to act as master developer for the base, drawing top notch developers in their first round. I would say it is pretty routine except the Council will be voting on the top three contenders for each part of the development. You never know when that will generate sparks from the sore losers who weren’t chosen.

The Council will also discuss the City Manager search. It would be nice to know they are close to a decision. But, after the last fiasco with David Biggs, it would be better to take their time and find the right person. Bill’s a nice guy but, he needs to end his double dipping and move on to real retirement. And, Jerry Amante needs to expand his circle of people he can play with nicely.

If none of the above lights up the sky, I have a feeling the last two items, regarding council stipends, benefits, gifts and gratuities is sure to at least ignite a fuse. Boss Tweed Amante has asked for both items to be placed on the agenda. They are the last items so I figure that Amante is hoping that most of the general public will have left by then. We will be watching this one closely and let you know of any discussion that occurs. Somehow, I get the feeling this is aimed at a particular councilmember.

City Ups the Ante

I woke up this Saturday morning to peruse my overnight Facebook and Twitter feeds and found this little tidbit on the the City of Tustin Facebook Page

Tustin is concerned that the residents of Columbus Grove have not been informed by TUSD of the Heritage facility change so we mailed this informational piece. Instead of opening the elementary school that the residents are paying for, TUSD has moved Hillview Continuation School to the site to make room for Tennis Courts at Foothill. TUSD admits they don’t know how long Hillview will remain and do not have a new site identified. Residents, contact to be added to the informational update list.

Columbus Grove MailerIt was accompanied by a slick pamphlet mailer that outlined the city’s position in the most current lawsuit they have filed against Tustin Unified School District. This is the second lawsuit in as many years between the city and the district. According to the mailer, the city was “forced to file a lawsuit against TUSD fo defend the rights of our citizens to have the school they are paying for.”  According to the city Public Information Officer, the mailer was only mailed to the residents of Columbus Square, which is one of the tracts on the old MCAS. The residents there pay a Mello-Roos tax that funds the school and some infrastructure in the area (We are still waiting to hear from her on the cost of the mailer to the taxpayer).

In the meantime, housing went into a slump, the master developer for the base property pulled out when they could not see a near future profit and the city took over the job of master developer, hoping to market smaller sections of the land and make some other adjustments that would make it easier for developers to build and sell. It is too early to tell if this was a smart move by the city or just another power grab by the council majority. Councilmember Deborah Gavello was the only member to vote against the city acting as master developer. She has not answered any inquiries from us concerning this matter (or any other, in fact).

The mailer appears to be an early move by the city to position itself favorably. Judging from the bad press from the other ongoing lawsuit between the city and TUSD, this is probably a wise move. However, the mailer exaggerates a few of its complaints against TUSD and does not fully explain the entire situation. For example, the mailer fails to explain the TUSD claim that Hillview would have opened with only 78 students rather than the 300-350 it claims it needs to make the school viable. It also alludes that TUSD could have spent the money on building permanent buildings at existing schools that now house classes in portable schoolrooms. That is incorrect, according to the district. TUSD received federal funding and other considerations that required them to build Heritage or return the funding. Knowing that the “historic recession” (we would put that another way) would not last forever and that construction would eventually restart at the former base, TUSD chose to go ahead with construction of schools to eventually serve the area.

Tustin projects over 200 Hillview students and teachers will be driving to the site each day, impacting local traffic and parking as the parking lot can only accommodate 130 vehicles. TUSD argues that, based on experience, most of the students at Hillview do not or will not drive or park at Heritage. So far, that seems to be the case as the new school session opened this week and the parking lot appeared not to be impacted. And 200 people driving to and from the school each day is hardly a traffic concern around here.

The real issue is whether you believe the city’s justification for the lawsuit when it says, “Meanwhile, the Hillview Continuation School site will be converted into tennis courts for North Tustin and Foothill High School.” TUSD has stated emphatically that, while tennis courts are part of the plan, it has no intention of tearing down Hillview and instead will be renovating the site. Once renovations are complete, it will again use Hillview for its intended purpose. The district further states that, once construction begins on the base again, it will reopen Hillview for its intended purpose as an elementary school.

The city may have a point. TUSD has changed the wording it uses when referring to the temporary use of Heritage. In the beginning, TUSD said that the maximum time it would use Heritage for alternative purposes would be two years. It is now saying that it will be used “temporarily” without stating a maximum time frame. On their Facebook page, the City of Tustin also alleges a former school superintendent told the city 3 years ago that the plan was to use Heritage as a replacement continuation school all along. Of course, if that is the case, why didn’t the city say something then? The residents of Columbus Square have a valid complaint if they are paying for a school that will not be used for its intended purpose even if near projected attendance increases to the levels the school district says it needs to support the school.

In the meantime, the taxpayer is on the hook for another lawsuit between sovereign entities. The taxpayer is paying for both sides of this argument in legal fees and costs. Tustin can claim TUSD must comply with city requirements for grading permits and other fees. They can even, as they appear to be doing, change their ordinance that previously exempted the school district from obtaining permits from the city for construction.Tustin is relying on California Government Code section 53097 as the basis for the argument. Section 53097 requires a school district to comply with “…any city or county regulation” regarding the review of grading plans. It does not require compliance with city and county regulations regarding the actual grading, however. Section 53097 also lets the city and county off the hook should the school district refuse to comply with any of their regulations as it holds the city harmless for any damage done. This is the argument that TUSD has used all along. If that is the case, there is probably a preemption issue that will be sorted out by the courts. By the way, TUSD has been very forthcoming about the entire issue concerning this lawsuit and the lawsuit over grading permits. You can find most of their side of this story here. The most current press release regarding the Heritage lawsuit can be found here. Tustin says TUSD has been uncooperative and uncommunicative, TUSD says the same of the city. Judging from the documentation presented by both sides, we lean toward TUSD.

This bare-knuckle fight between the City of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District has gone on for too long. It is time for both sides to stop the rhetoric and sit down at the table to resolve their differences. State mediators and arbitrators are available that can help resolve the issues at hand. Unfortunately, this is starting to feel like another power grab by Mayor Jerry Amante. He was fuming when he found out the city had an ordinance exempting the school district from obtaining permits. So much so that he introduced  an  “emergency” ordinance to change that. Fortunately, the rest of the council did not buy into Jerry’s version of “emergency”. Unfortunately, the ordinance  revision was eventually approved as a regular measure. But, as we said before, there is probably a state preemption that will take precedence.

With all this fighting between the city and the school district, it seems strange to read one item on the City of Tustin website that says, “Tustin Loves Schools“.