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This Is What Happens When No One Shows Up

boring meetingI am so glad the city is kind enough to videotape and publish the city council meetings so I can sit in the comfort of my own home to wade through the thicket of self-congratulatory muck. Besides, since the departure of Boss Tweed Amante and Deborah Gavello, the meetings have been decidedly dull. Nonetheless, as we recover from our accident, I felt obliged to report on Tuesday night’s meeting.

First things first. The meeting was attended by our newly crowned Miss Tustin, Shea Marie Frates, and part of her court. Mayor Al Murray presented them with a congratulatory certificate and the few in attendance gave them a round of applause. Good Luck, ladies, you may need it. Now, I admit, even the thought of Miss Tustin receiving a certificate would not get me to come to the meeting in person. But, then, neither would the rest of the meeting which was pretty run-of-the-mill.

I was glad to see Item #6, Approval of Agreement with Municipal Auditing Services, pulled. The main question I had which, apparently did not bother anyone on the council, was why this contract, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, was not put out to bid. It seems the firm was found the usual way by a bunch of finance people discussing it at a finance officer association meeting (I can see that conversation). The contract, which is open-ended and has no renewal date, calls for MAS to get a 40% cut of profits from scofflaw business owners who do not pay their license fees on time. Claiming this was a standard fee, supposedly justifies not going out to bid.

And your city council does not seem to care about the potential for abuse of our business community by a bunch of cut-throat collection agents. Doing a bit of due diligence, it was not hard to come up with those who are not so satisfied with MAS’ collection techniques. Even Councilmember Gomez, who pulled the item for discussion, wasn’t concerned about abuse and, instead, asked simply about how far back a business would be penalized for not obtaining a license (5 years plus 3 years penalties, in case you are wondering).

None of the other Consent Calendar items I suggested to be pulled for discussion were but Councilmember John Nielsen asked that Item 8, concerning a resolution to accept dedication of property in Tustin Legacy for streets, be discussed. Could it be he is planning or has already purchased his new home? We heard that, sometime after the election, he finally stopped cohabitating with his estranged wife and was living down by the Legacy. In any case, Nielsen asked the item to be pulled due to a potential conflict. That at least adds credibility to his residency here in the city, something that more than a few of my readers have questioned.

The 5 Year Strategic Plan was next up for discussion. The city contracted with Management Partners last year to develop a 5 year strategic plan that would guide the city in all aspects of governemt. I don’t recall the cost for this report but the result was, decidedly, non-specific to Tustin. The plan is a generic document that, save for inserting the name Tustin in appropriate places, could have been purchased or plagiarized from multiple sources on the net. The glad handing and pats on the back from the councilmembers was pretty interesting to watch. Councilmember Beckie Gomez was the only one to give credit where it was due: with the executives and staff that actually helped put the report together.

Now, regardless of the resulting report, I will give then Mayor John Nielsen credit for coming up with a laudible idea for a strategic plan. Although not a new one, it was refreshing for the city of Tustin, which has been wracked by bureaucrats intent on imposing their idea of what the city should be on Tustin residents, to now add what amounts to driving instructions to the mix. Although the plan is generic in structure, it is a start. My main concern, that Mayor Al Murray brought up in his remarks, is how the city will now define the term “transparency”. To date, the city believes all they have to do to remain transparent is post a page of financial information on their website. Will they now take the word to heart or will they continue to conduct business behind the smoke and mirrors effects that have become the hallmark of city government? Time will tell whether they actually use this document as a benchmark or toss it in the trashcan when it become too difficult to follow.

An interesting presentation was made by City Attorney David Kendig during discussion of Item 12, Removal of Commissioners from Office Upon Running for City Council. It seems, we are the only ones who require the resignation of a commissioner who files papers for city council office. Kendig pointed out that, although there has been a rule regarding this and commissioner term limits since 1972, the latest rule has only been in effect since 2007.

Although Kendig outlined a variety of actions the city council could take on the matter, including one we favor that would allow a commissioner to continue serving until and if he or she is elected to the city council, his report focused on a staff recommendation that would make no changes to the current policy but provide a specific method and timeline for selecting a replacement. After a twenty minute discussion which included Councilmember Gomez complaining that the policy addresses only the Planning Commission and not other city commissions, and John Nielsen not seeing the point of removing commissioners at all, the Podiatrist Councilman was called upon to comment and utterly failed to comprehend the issue.

Then the real issue arose. Councilmember Gomez asked the question of why, since the city council no longer receives stipends, the city commissiners continue to recveive compensation. Nielsen’s lame excuse that the city council received benefits as well, so the issue is “apples and oranges”, didn’t really fly. According to him, it was a “transparency” issue and referred to the financial statements candidates are required to file as proof there are no conflicts.

Now Al Murray, who hasn’t had an original thought since he joined the city council, agreed with Nielsen regarding the financial statements and went even further to say that it was incumbent on all of them as public officials to state any conflicts of interests. Sure….except, that did not prevent any of the Three Amigos from receiving financial assistance from the Orange County Business Council  or its other entities trying to pass themselves off as concerned citizens  during the boys most recent bid for city council.

Gomez gained an ally after the Podiatrist Councilman woke up and figured out what everyone was talking about. But, even though he agreed that commission stipends needed a second look, his comments regarding integrity were laughable. Let’s not forget this is the guy who, during his bid for city council, posted a Facebook photo showing him on the city council dais underneath the city logo looking, for all intents and purposes, like he was a sitting councilman. Likewise, he was seen running around last year’s Chili Cookoff sporting a campaign button with the city logo on it and, underneath in small letters the disclaimer, “candidate”. In any case, he needs to go back to reading his notes so he can complete a sentence.

In the end, the vote was 4-1, with Councilmember Gomez dissenting, on a motion made by Nielsen to change the ordinance to allow commissioners continue to sit until such a time as they are actually elected to the city council.

We had hoped for some interesting stuff during the councilmember comments but were, instead, treated to a drudging monologue about the Podiatrist Councilman’s trip to various water and sewage treatment plants (At least he went back to reading off his notes rather than trying to wing it). I only got through part of it before moving on to Councilmember Gomez who is much more interesting to listen to.

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.