I know it has been getting cold, lately but I believe Hell froze over at the last Tustin City Council meeting.
Councilmembers Jerry Amante and Deborah Gavello actually agreed on something and had an amicable discussion. And, wouldn’t you know it, there was practically no one left in council chambers to witness this epic event. Thank prior city fathers for their vision in encompassing video recording of meetings for posterity’s sake.
It happened over a discussion of the contract for tree maintenance services when, as luck would have it, both Amante and Gavello agreed that the item should be pulled and an RFP should be let for the coming year. Nielsen, gleefully anticipating one last blast from Hizzoner towards Gavello, allowed Amante to go first. Instead of the usual rancor we have come to expect from Hizzoner, we got agreement.
Now, Jerry admitted he only pulled the item because he saw that Gavello had done the same. Perhaps he didn’t want to be upstaged as he complimented staff for their report and asked that the contract, which had been awarded to West Coast Tree Arborists for the past 19 years, be let out for an RFP.
As he did so, you could hear Councilmember Gavello exclaim, “Oh my God…”. When Jerry was done, Gavello jokingly said, “Excuse me, I need to take a break”. Expressing her amazement that Amante and she could actually agree on an item, she said she had been asking for the past two years that this contract be looked at and had been blown off each time. As Deborah said, “I hate to say I agree with you but…” Amante replied, “It’s election night so, we ought to give everyone a break.”
Of course, they were both right when they said they have never agreed on anything on the dais before.
Mayor John Nielsen was so taken aback that he lost himself in the moment. Confused that there was more than one motion before the council, he looked at the city attorney and said, “So, we have a motion from Councilmember Amante…. let’s deal with this one at a time…” he panicked and went into some diatribe about needing an alternate motion when no motion had actually been made. Wow. I know, I know, John. It was a blindside by your buddy Jer and he should have warned you he was going to be nice tonight.
When John finally came to, he accepted Amante’s motion and Gavello’s second to call for an RFP for the tree cutters. The representative from West Coast, who is a hometown boy, was there to say they would welcome the opportunity to go to bid on the contract. Amante, who I am sure was a proponent of giving the insane 10 year trash contract to CR&R was thrilled that he and Gavello would agree on something…. anything. So are we.
I know you will find this hard to believe without proof, so here is the video:
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.
The local newsfeeds are aglow with the word that several Orange County city councils have violated ethics and conflict of interest laws. Our Town Tustin happens to be one of them. In fact, a Tustin resident, Matthew Delaney, is said to have initiated the complaint against 40 councilmembers in various cities because those councilmembers voted themselves onto paid regional boards without batting an eye.
Mayor John Nielsen and former Mayor Jerry Amante have received warning letters from the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding the practice of naming themselves to various regulatory boards that affect the county. This includes the Orange County Sanitation District where, in 2011, Mayor John Nielsen received $4,250 for attending meetings. OCSD board members receive $212.50 per meeting with a 6 meeting per month maximum. Other boards the councilmembers appoint themselves to include the Southern California Association of Governments, which pays $120 per meeting for a maximum of 8 meetings per month. The Foothill Transportation Corridor Board also pays $120 per meeting with a maximum of 18 meetings per quarter. You can see how this adds up to quite a sizeable sum for certain councilmembers who hoard the paid positions as Jerry and his Kids have.
It gets more interesting, however. You remember we reported on the January meeting in which John Nielsen and his puppetmaster, Jerry Amante, ran a shell game to ensure the good old boys were re-nominated to the same paid boards. What many did not see unless they watched the video was that City Attorney, David Kendig, had proposed a “new” method of nominating and voting on members for the boards. The new method required nominated members to leave the room so the rest of the council could vote on them. This effectively eliminated each nominee from voting on him or herself and that effectively cured the violation.
Looking back, we see how Kendig did his job in protecting the conservatives he panders to on the city council from liability. But, where was the transparency the city likes to tout on their website? That did not seem to come into play here as there was no explanation of why there was a change. In fact, the entire discussion during the meeting centered around how the city was being proactive by implementing this new policy. Did John and Jerry receive those letters from the FPPC prior to this action being taken? While we don’t know for sure because we have not received a response from the city to our request for the letters, it is a pretty good bet they at least knew they were going to receive some kind of sanction.
Unfortunately, the Right side of the dais was a bit more on top of it than the Left. During the vote for the Orange County Fire Authority seat, when it seemed they reached an impasse, Jerry nominated two people for the position, one from each side of the dais, thereby eliminating the draw and insuring that their man Al would get the position. Deborah, in a slap your forehead moment, realized after the fact what the boys had done. Of course, the real issue was whether Beckie Gomez, who claimed to covet at least the alternate position to the Fire Authority Board, actually went along with them when she was nominated and left the room. I don’t think it was even past Beckie that she had no chance of getting the board seat and that she ensured Al Murray the seat by accepting the nomination.
So, maybe it is four to one after all.
Now, it is rather interesting that the council took up the issue of the Community Development Block Grant, a fund of money given to the city each year by the Feds for the purpose of enhancing life in Tustin. While I looked at the report that shows the money is awarded to many local entities, including the Boys and Girls Club, I have to wonder if they spread the money a little too thin. A few people I have spoken with have voiced the same concern.
But, what is really disconcerting is the fact that the CDBG money is given to the Tustin Community Foundation to administer. That in itself is not a problem. What is a problem is the fact that Mayor John Nielsen’s spouse, Erin Nielsen, is the Executive Director of the TCF. I checked with my political rabbi concerning any conflicts of interest regarding this issue. What he told me was, while their may be no specific conflict of interest that rises to the level of a violation, there is certainly the perception of one anytime there is a direct relationship between entities such as this.
Again, here we have a city that claims transparency in everything it does and then is not forthcoming in dealings that involve some of their councilmembers. It is unfortunate that no one came forward at the Tuesday city council meeting to raise the issue. And, of course, not that it would have done any good. By now, we are all used to Jerry and his Kids getting their way, even when they have to use subterfuge like this.
So, here we have it. A city that touts transparency. They are more than willing to show you the books. But, when it comes to a bit of dirty laundry, they fix the problems that arise and hope nobody will notice. This time, Jerry, John and Al, we noticed.