It’s that time of year, again, as labor leaders line up for negotiations. Although councilmembers are scheduled to discuss the state of negotiations, I’ve been told the first meeting with labor has not taken place yet. These talks are probably to discuss what would be acceptable. In recent history, the police associations have been willing to change their pension plans for new hires and for all members to pay more into their retirement while foregoing raises. Changes to state law this year will mandate other changes for retirement. As far as raises go, all employees should be reminded the Chief received a 5% raise to make sure he doesn’t go elsewhere. Should the rank and file get the same?
There is only one Public Hearing which the city staff are asking to be continued. As we recall, this item was continued once before. Apparently, they haven’t stacked the deck enough in Community Development Director Elizabeth Binsack’s mind after the Fairbanks debacle. Still no draft to peruse. We would like to see this published several days before the meeting it is to be heard at as we are sure it holds the interest of more than a few of our residents.
One thing that can be said for this city council, they certainly don’t want to be bothered with the details. The rest of the agenda, save for a couple of items, consists of the consent calendar where some of the items clearly deserve discussion if not for clarity’s sake then the sake of the residents who foot the bill. Alas, I guess this is the result of having zero stipends for the boys.
Item #4, Authorization to Sell an (Housing) Authority-Owned Affordable Home, certainly deserves open discussion. The staff report recommends allowing the Authority Director to set the price and conduct closed session meetings with proposed buyers “in order to receive Commission approval” for the sale. Fine, except the public will not know any of the details of the purchase until after the fact. That includes the purchase price and proposed buyer. Surely, this should be public knowledge so we will know what we are getting and to insure the buyer is truly qualified. Apparently, the city seems to think the purchase and sale of publicly owned property should automatically be conducted behind closed doors. In this case, we think it should be in public view.
Item #6, an Agreement with Municipal Auditing Services and Approval of Resolution 13-13 should also be up for discussion. The proposed resolution would turn over public records of business licensees to a private firm (we call this outsourcing) for collection activities. According to the description, MAS would be allowed to perform collections of delinquent business licenses, audit current business licenses, and “engage in the discovery of unlicensed businesses.”
According to the staff report, the business license division consists of one employee. Rather than add staff, the city suggests outsourcing the investigation of businesses to make sure they obtain a license prior to doing business in the city. The target for these investigations is, obstensibly, the millions of dollars in lost license fees the city incurs when transient businesses such as plumbers and delivery services transact business within city limits. So, rather than rely on the past practice of concerned citizens calling in reports on errant businesses, the city has decided to hand this task over to a private collection agency at a whopping 40% commission fee. It should be noted that at least one business takes issue with their alleged witch hunt activities. Perhaps the staff should do a bit more research themselves before contracting with this company. Oh, and what happened to our RFP process. If this is a valuable contract, isn’t the city required to publish an RFP?
We have a better idea.
How about saving the commission and assigning this task to Code Enforcement officers. Tustin PD patrol could also be on the lookout for suspicious plumbers and convey that information to Code Enforcement as well. If the task is too great to assign to code enforcement, perhaps they should rethink the additional staff. Laughably, the staff report says the reason staff want to outsource this is to maintain Tustin’s “business friendly” atmosphere by insuring all businesses are correctly taxed. I doubt using a collection agency with the authority to conduct witch hunts using city resources will convey that positive feeling. The city council should send this proposal back to the drawing board.
Item #11, City of Tustin Strategic Plan 2013-2018, has been an on-again, off-again project of the city council. Discussion of this plan has taken up way to much time cosidering there is nothing new at all in this. One has to wonder if the city council actually paid for this plan considering it appears to be a template of dozens of plans of other cities and companies across the country. And, as with most strategic plans of this type, it is mostly a feel-good piece of publicity that does not address the core of issues related to the city. Although Management Partners, the true authors of the plan, did their research, they found severe issues with the city’s operations citing alienation of the school district and civility of the city council along with poor succssion planning as examples of what the city lacks. The proposed strategic plan simply says they will fix those things by being better. It should be interesting to see how fast this gets swept under the carpet after approval (Oh, come on, you know they will approve it).
Conference with Legal Counsel 2 each Initiation and Exposure to Litigation
Public Employee Performance Evaluation City Manager, Jeff Parker and City Attorney, David Kendig. We remind the City Council that any proposal for raises for Parker or change in services for Kendig require public discussion.
Labor Negotiations – All Public Employee Unions and Non-represented employees.
Conference With Real Property Negotiators – Three properties on Tustin Legacy MCAS property.
Ordinance to Amend Hearing Officer Guidelines – Postponed to Aporil 16th City Council Meeting.
Authorization to Sell Affordable Home – Located at 14554 Newport Ave., #3 by the Housing Authority Commission.
Second Amendment to Rental Agreement – Warehouse building used by National Office Liquidators to increase the amount of space rented at market price.
Approval of Agreement With Municipal Auditing Services – To provide collection services for business licenses.
Approve Agreement For Information Technologies Services Network Migration Project– Funding was appropriated to upgrade the computer and telephone system in City Hall.
Regular Business Items
City of Tustin Strategic Plan– Approve Strategic Plan developed by Management Partners. Plan durations 2013-2018.
Removal of Commissioners From Office Upon Running For City Council – Directs staff to devise a proposal for resignatin/removal of commissioners and timetable for their replacement.
It should be a busy night for the Tustin City Council as the clock counts down to election day and a new council makeup. Heading the list on the Closed Session are the usual suspects along with a few liability claims and a conference with real property negotiators on two items. Also, expect a couple of items to be pulled from the Consent Calendar for further discussion.
The council should pull Item 3, Completion of the Frontier Park Fitness Element so councilmembers can give kudos to each other for the work and praise our staff for the fine job in getting this completed. It is a nice addition to the park.
Item 6 is a Response to a recent Grand Jury report on the demise of redevelopment agencies and the implementation of successor agencies to manage debt. The city was required to make a response to three of the findings and four of the recommendations regarding oversight and costs. The city’s response, which starts on page 38 of the staff report, basically says, “Yeah, we know we didn’t have the proper amount of oversight but, trust us, we did the right thing.” OK, but we wonder if the grand jury will be happy with that response. To their credit, they have since formed the required Oversight Board as required.
Item 8, regarding environmental insurance for the Tustin Legacy Project may raise some eyebrows. We are not sure how this one passes muster as council should have been foreseen that insurance would be required. After the budget process, staff are now recommending a $700,000 outlay for the insurance from undesignated Legacy funds. The way the city went about this, it seems like a little subterfuge was involved.
Under Regular Business, Item 10, is the second reading of the ordinance that will amend zoning for housing owned by Redhill Lutheran Church. Although one resident expressed concern over the impact of traffic and parking, we noted that the church has been using these houses and the storage as adjuncts to the church for some time. This ordinance will simply change the zoning to allow the church to come into conformance of zoning laws. As far as we know, there was no opposition from the neighbors in regard to how Redhill Lutheran was using the houses. If the public or a councilmember does not pull this item for discussion, it will be a simple vote of the council.
Item 11, City of Tustin Strategic Plan 2012-2017, is a big-ticket item. We first wrote about the strategic plan when Mayor Nielsen outlined it as one of his priorities during his term. In August, we reported that Management Partners, a consulting service with expertise in the field, produced a report that criticized the city fathers for, among other things, maintaining a poor relationship with TUSD, and not enough cooperation and civility between city council members.
The staff report from City Manager Jeff Parker, attaches the MP product to an outline of the strategic plan with key components addressed. There is a lot here to take in and we don’t know if the city council would actually implement the plan as outlined. There is a lot of discussion about demonstrative leadership, fairness and integrity that will be difficult for this council to accept. There is also that issue of transparency in government. While the city complies with all laws regarding transparency, there is no will to go above and beyond. An exception to that is the recent decision to continue to publish city meeting agendas in advance and make them available to the public under the Brown Act. A better response, however, would be to see this codified in a sunshine ordinance (along with lobbyist registration).
Another topic of discussion is Respect. Well, OK. It seems, for the most part, our current city council has a problem with that. The exceptions are Al Murray and Beckie Gomez, whom I have never observed being disrespectful of anyone, resident or colleague. As to the other three, well they give us a lot to talk about here on OTT.
Among other things, the Strategic Plan discusses working collaboratively with other agencies on mutual interest issues. They specifically call out TUSD on this. They also recommend providing a method for obtaining feedback and “strengthen our partnerships with the community.” This includes communicating the outcomes of the strategic plan to the community. We’ll see how that works.
A critical part of the plan, to our minds, is the establishment of succession planning for professional staff. With the city council’s inane approval of a golden parachute for 37 city employees, including the city clerk supervisor, a vacuum has been created that will take some effort to fill. The plan addresses this, albeit after the fact, by establishing training and creating an internal leadership academy. This is a proven idea that works but we will see if the city is willing to do what it takes to establish true succession planning.
Likewise, with the change in attitudes necessary for the council to stop bickering and move on with the business of the city. One of the implementation plan items is to “Promote and enhance a strong culture of ethics.” The plan falls short by simply giving the same old tired response of providing required ethics training and training on how to cultivate a culture of ethics. Hint to MP: you can be ethical and a jerk at the same time. Just ask John Nielsen. Perhaps the newly seated council will see the value in treating everyone with consideration.
One of the most useful items in the strategic plan document is the environmental scan that begins on page 29. This really gives a snapshot of Tustin in relationship to the rest of the county. It shows that we are in above average shape overall.
All in all, the Strategic Plan is a good read and deserves the consideration of the City Council. But, the plan is just that- a plan. That is, until the city council and the city manager make a genuine effort to implement it.
Item 14 on the agenda is a response to Councilmember Deborah Gavello’s request for an anti-lobbying ordinance. While Jerry Amante pointed out that Gavello was targeting him and his new job, the idea of a sunshine ordinance that would incorporate lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmember calendars should be a priority to any city that touts transparency. The staff report on this item refers to the state law limiting lobbying efforts by councilmembers and city managers for the first year after leaving office. It also specifically states that state law does not preclude local agencies from adopting policies or ordinances that are more restrictive. We are disappointed that neither the City Manager, Jeff Parker, nor the City Attorney, David Kendig, recommended enhancing state law with an ordinance or, at the least, a strong policy that would open city council dealings to the public.
The final item on the agenda is a response to Mayor John Nielsen’s goal of establishing a stronger and better defined reserve fund for the city. We never argue with rainy day funding, especially when it is established to support infratstructure and emergency situations the city may face. Kudos to Nielsen for establishing this as a goal. We have to wonder why it was not addressed until well after this year’s budget was approved.
We have been keeping a close eye on our neighbors to the West of us and how they will handle an ordinance proposed by the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD). As reported in the Voice of OC, SACReD sponsored an ordinance that would create a new level of transparency in government. Santa Ana politicos have long lamented the secretive world in which the Santa Ana City Council often conducts business. In past years, they have been accused of scores of Brown Act violations as well as running roughshod over small businesses and the resident artist community alike.
While much of what SACReD asked for in their proposed ordinance is the subject of state law already, we can see their issue with a city council that has declined to work interactively with the community at large. Also at issue is how willing the Orange County District Attorney has been willing to investigate and prosecute violations of the Brown Act and other regulatory laws, particularly when those being investigated claim Republican Party affiliation. However, one part of the proposal has to do with lobbyist registration which, along with the publishing of each councilmember’s calendar, would have opened up the secretive bed in which lobbyists and the politicians they attempt to influence to public scrutiny lie. Not a bad thing in anyone’s book, unless you are a lobbyist or an influenced politician.
If you have to ask why an ordinance like this is needed, it was summed up when Councilmember Carlos Bustamante asked SACReD organizer Ana Urzua what she would gain by knowing who the councilman is meeting with, she replied, “So we know we cant trust you.”
City staffers have been sent back to work on the ordinance including the changes the city council and SACReD agreed upon. That should happen in a couple of weeks. It is likely to be a watered down version of the original proposal, but it is a start.
By coincidence, or perhaps by karma, a proposal to shed more sunshine on the business of the Tustin City Council was also introduced on the same evening as Santa Ana’s proposal. In this case, the issue was raised by Councilmember Deborah Gavello, who asked her colleagues to consider agendizing discussion of a proposed policy or ordinance on lobbying. Gavello read a short piece on ethics in government to support her position for an anti-lobbying ordinance. She mentioned that the City of Irvine has a strong policy on ethics and lobbying.
In speaking with Gavello on this, she said that she is concerned about the lack of policy on ethical behavior and the possibility that some former councilmembers have -or could- come to a sitting councilmember and, because of their former position, immediately lobby for their interests. We agree this is an issue worthy of consideration by the city council and that it should also include lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmembers’ official calendars.
John Nielsen, in an apparent move to obscure the issue, mentioned that the strategic planning coming up in October had an ethics component. He was concerned that, by agendizing an item as Gavello wanted, they would be requiring the staff to cover ground twice and addressing the issue in bit and piece fashion would not be to the benefit of the city (we’ll spare you the cost-saving remarks our fiscally responsible mayor made).
Councilmember Beckie Gomez did a great job of bringing the two issues together:
I think the gist of what Deborah is trying to do, and I could be wrong but, is maybe to encompass that with the strategic plan, that we are considering that policy, that ordinance, I’m not sure what she brought forward. I agree with you that we should not be duplicating effort but, that it would be incorporated into what we’re doing.
Surprisingly, John agreed.
Gavello, saying that she doesn’t trust “us”, said she does not see the strategic plan coming back with an ordinance. Saying that the strategic plan does consider ethics, lobbying is not mentioned at all and that is why she felt it needed to be brought forward for consideration by the council. Of course, Jerry can’t pass up any opportunity to hear himself bash Deborah so Hizzoner goes on about how the two ways to get an item agendized is either to discuss it with the mayor and city manager or to make a motion and obtain a second for a vote.
Uh, didn’t she just do that?
Fortunately, Coucilmember Gomez came to Deborah’s rescue and seconded her motion, “for purposes of discussion.”
Jerry apparently did not have enough air time. So, he decided to go on the offensive and accuse Gavello of using the lobbying issue as a personal attack on him for taking a position with an influential lobbying firm that deals with public entities. Saying that she has never been concerned about the issue before, she is only concerned now because of his employment and the fear he will come back and lobby the city. Telling her to “calm down
little lady” [you know you heard it] because there are “state laws that govern who I can lobby.”
We’ll get back to that statement later.
Thanks to Gomez, the vote was not a complete wash. Unfortunately, the Three Amigos voted together and the city attorney, when questioned by Gavello as to the rules regarding having something agendized, backpedaled into the three on the right sputtering, “It is not against the Brown Act to vote to agendize an item.” That’s not what she asked, of course, but it was enough of a sidestep by David Kendig to keep him firmly entrenched with the boys.
So, there will be no sunshine in Tustin, at least as long as the Three Amigos are holding the ball. Does that mean that Tustin does not deserve a sunshine ordinance? Aside from what Hizzoner Amante ranted about, the state law is vague on local government lobbying. In fact, there is very little written about it and there is, unless local ordinance or policy specifically prohibits it, little to prevent a former councilmember or city staffer from immediately lobbying members of the council as well as the members of boards such as the Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange County Fire Authority or the Transportation Corridor Agencies on which they may have served. It doesn’t hurt that the Orange County District Attorney shies away from investigating political violations and the vagueness of current law is often used as an excuse not to investigate.
Sunshine laws, such as the one Santa Ana is considering and Councilmember Gavello asked to be agendized for consideration by the Tustin City Council, are effective in insuring that the citizens whom the city serves are kept informed and aware of issues affecting them. This goes much further than simply posting an agenda or the financial report on the city website. It goes further than having the public information officer post pictures of city events and contests for the kids on the city’s Facebook page. It has to do with, as Gavello says, ethical behavior by those who are supposed to serve the city. It goes to trust of a city council and staff who often have a difficult time treating citizens without disdain, let alone their colleagues on the board. And yes, Jerry, it has to do with you.
Ever hear the old kids taunt, “Liar Liar, pants on fire?” Well we are surprised Jerry Amante didn’t burst into flames for his apparent untruths on the dais. Jerry says:
Let me begin by addressing the misstatement by Councilwoman Gavello, so we clear the air. All the time you have been serving on the council, councilwoman, I have been practicing law, not lobbying. I joined FSB Core Strategies July second. I don’t lobby in the county. I don’t lobby any of the agencies I belong to. I, uh, follow the rules just as they have been written in state law. So, you have no basis to make scurrilous remarks.
Uh-huh. Well, that’s not what we hear, even from the man himself. It seems that, even though good ol’ Jer has found legitimate employment (we hear working for a woman by the way), he wasn’t always dependent upon someone else for a paycheck. Amante, indeed, has or had a law firm that practiced law. Among other things, his website lists advocacy for a number of entities including business. In fact, one web page says plainly:
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS – The firm provides strategic consultaion [sic] to clients with matters pending before government bodies or regulatory agencies. It represents clients before local, regional, state and federal governments and agencies. It specializes in the negotiation and presentation of complex matters for its clients and it frequently consults with other firms to assist them in their strategic planning for their clients. It is dedicated to the success of client projects and in zealous advocacy for them. It has particular expertise in land development, financing, construction and the like.
I don’t think you could get a more precise definition of lobbying if you looked it up in Webster’s Dictionary. And, while I won’t go as far as to say he has lobbied other Tustin councilmembers on behalf of his clients, others seem to think he has.
Somehow, we think this issue is not dead. There is that so-called “strategic plan” coming up for discussion. And, there will be a changing of the guard in November. Worse comes to worse, when Tustinites actually do get fed up with the dismal track record of their elected officials, this is a prime candidate for a ballot measure.
In the meantime, thanks largely to the Three Amigos on the city council, Tustin will remain dark.