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Agenda 2013 - Ghosts of Councils Past

Despite the public's vote for change, ghosts of councils past haunt the new council.

The last election was an overwhelming mandate for change. Two people with no ties to the city won resounding victories over four insiders, including a sitting council member and a sitting planning commissioner. Moreover, three sitting council members lobbied strongly for the insiders to no avail. The cherry on the sundae is that the man who got the most votes was also suing the city. Only a blind person can miss the signals.


So imagine my disappointment when I attended the first meeting of the new council on December 18, only to see the ghosts of councils past re-visit the new council – the influence of special interests, distorting the truth, and the poor decision making that plagued our past councils have made their ugly presence felt once again.

In the Grip of Special Interests

The city’s code of ethical conduct requires that city council members

“Safeguard ability to make independent, objective, fair and impartial judgments by scrupulously avoiding financial and social relationships and transactions that may compromise, or give the appearance of compromising, objectivity, independence, and honesty.”

I previously reported that from 2002 to 2008 city council members’ election committees accepted nearly $90,000 (we could trace) from people/businesses seeking contracts or concessions from the city, and the council awarded these same people/businesses over $13,000,000 in contracts (and who knows how many millions in concessions). One company, Waste Management (WM), paid $12,500 and received $348,937.

Back in 2002 WM gave city council members Dixon and Herzog election committees $2000 and shortly after that they voted to give WM an 8-year contract. WM continued to make periodic payments and then extended the money to committees for Rudolph ($2,500), Tettemer ($2000), and McCullough ($1,000). More than a decade later WM continues its contract with the city, and as soon as new council member Scott Voigts joined the Council, WM gave his committee $1,000 (5/21/2011). About that same time, WM gave Peter Herzog another $1,000 (5/26/2011).

On Tuesday the council faced a vote to extend the WM contract. Council members Herzog, McCullough, and Voigts each accepted at least $1,000 from WM for their re-election campaigns. Yet there was not a single mention of this, nor did the council members abstain from the vote, and each one voted for the extension. Once again, special interest money ruled the day.

The Lie That Will Not Die

In the discussion about the repeal of the ban on sex offenders in parks, Mayor McCullough extolled the virtues of Lake Forest which she said was one of the safest cities in Orange County and indeed in the entire U.S. As readers of The Patch know from my previous articles, Lake Forest has more crime than most of our neighboring cities. We are NOT one of the safest cities in the U.S. – we are not even one of the “safest cities” in South Orange County. So why would the Mayor in open session distort the truth and give everyone a false impression about our city?

Perhaps it is because the staff, in preparing documents for the motion to repeal the ban on sex offenders, began the motion with these words – "Whereas, the City of Lake Forest enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the country…”

So, our staff continues to embrace the lie and feed it to the council, who continue to feed it to us.

Why does the staff continue to distort the truth? I can only guess that it makes the city look as if we perform better than we actually do. After all, if we are one of the “safest cities in the U.S.” then isn’t that great and let's keep up the good work. OTOH, if we have higher crime rates than most of our neighbors, that might bring into question just what the heck we’re doing.

It’s disappointing to see this lie continue to rear its ugly head. Everyone on the council and on the staff know it’s a lie, yet it continues to be spread by staff and council members.

Poor Decision Making

The sum and substance of what we heard Tuesday night is that from a legal point of view the council erred in passing the ban on sex offenders. Apparently the council had this information in front of them a year ago when they enacted the ordinance, but they chose to ignore it. They also had the imminent threat of lawsuits in front of them, and chose to ignore that too. Now, seeing the error of their ways and with a lawsuit having been filed and threats of more lawsuits on the way, they decided to repeal the ban. At this point the only damages are a few hundred thousand dollars in legal fees and staff time, and a little embarrassment.

If this were the only example of poor decision making, one could dismiss it. But it comes in the wake of a very similar exercise over the day laborers. In that case, the council passed an ordinance, despite the evidence that the ordinance was unconstitutional and despite the imminent lawsuits (sound familiar?), and no sooner did they pass the ordinance then they decided not to enforce it, and before the ink dried on that decision, they repealed it. Some $400,000 later, nothing much had been accomplished, although some city council members did pick up a few thousand dollars for their re-election campaigns from merchants in the impacted area who lobbied strongly for the ill-fated ban. Need I say that no one from the council gave back the money when the ordinance was repealed. And need I say that poor decision making spurred on by special interest money is a powerful thing.

Add to these two examples, the council’s recent jihad against marijuana dispensaries that cost Lake Forest taxpayers $2,000,000 and you begin to get a list of expensive and questionable actions. I could go on, but you get the point.

Summary

In the recent election, the people of Lake Forest clearly asked for a change, but the first meeting of our new council has been visited by too many ghosts of councils past. Let’s hope the New Year exorcises us from these past demons and allows the new council to move ahead. I already suggested some changes we need in transparency, and in my next post I will highlight some other areas that require the new council’s attention.

 



This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Omolu December 31, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Thank you for another informative article. Do you think that with 2 new council members things will get better?
Lionel M. December 31, 2012 at 12:56 AM
Dr Gardner, Dont you think that these problems (ghosts) will disappear when the old guard (Herzog McCullough) are defeated at the next election?
Jim Gardner December 31, 2012 at 01:58 AM
Hi Omolu Yes, I do think that some things will get better as a result of the 2 new council members. The addition of Scott Voigts in 2010 did very little to change things, as you can see from the past 2 years. Voigts' problem was that he was the lone new member, and this can be difficult with entrenched council members. When he formed an alliance against Herzog and elevated McCullough to Mayor during that time, the change in the internal politics was not reflected in any improvement in city services. Indeed, he fit right in, along with his penchant to accept lots of money from special interest groups. With 2 new council members on the heels of Voigts' election in 2010 I believe there is a real chance for change. Let's see. I intend to monitor it closely and report back often.
JustUs December 31, 2012 at 02:18 AM
"Two people with no ties to the City won resounding victories over 4 insiders, including a sitting council member and a sitting planning commissioner." What? Dwight Robinson might as well be tied to the hip of Scott Voights and other political power brokers who have influence over the City of Lake Forest. So I must disagree here. IMO this was another election were money purchased power. And IMO another cabal will be formed to force bad deals upon the citizens of the City. How did Voights vote on the Musick expansion? He voted in approval, right? I rest my case. I predict more of the same. And as far as unconstitutional matters are concerned, our newly elected Council officials voted to fight the lawsuits with the park ban on sex offenders. So how are they really any different from the ones who voted to fight the day laborers or the medical marijuana dispensaries? And didn't Voights vote to ban the medical marijuana dispensaries and to proceed with fighting the matter in court costing the Lake Forest taxpayers $2,000,000? So sorry. I don't understand the author's logic here. Please tell me where I'm wrong with my aforementioned viewpoints, based upon what facts we have.
JustUs December 31, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Come on, folks. Wake up. If elections were won based on fresh ideas and transparency Gardner would have won a Council seat. The fact is he didn't come close. The guy has been exposing the flaws of city government forever and wanted to clean it all up. He was soundly defeated because he didn't have the bucks to shell out for a seat. So let's put this all into perspective. With such a scammed system do you really think anything will really change? Please, think critically here. We are not discussing an Alice in Wonderland theater production. We are discussing politics and government. Has politics improved on a local, state or national level? Are you watching the 'fiscal cliff' fiasco? Do you think Lake Forest operates any different than Washington DC, except on a smaller scale? hah. Let's all put on our big boy pants and think like adults. The fix is in. It has been for a long, long time. Nothing changes. And if it does, it changes for the worse, not the better. Ok, I have broad shoulders. Call me names now. hah.
Jim Gardner December 31, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Hi JustUs, You're right with respect to Robinson & Voigts. Even Nick had ties to both of them. I was referring to the "old" City prior to Voigts. Voigts ran as an outsider. So in my mind Voigts, Robinson, & Nick represented people with no ties to the old system. What nobody knew was just how well Voigts would adopt the old ways of doing things. His election committee accepts money from special interest groups and then votes to give them what they are asking for in a manner that rivals Herzog, the current King of Special Interest Money. He campaigned on a platform that included opposition to Musick and then voted to approve the program and let maximum security inmates move in. Prior to his election he was in favor of a dog park, and that's the last yelp we heard from him on that issue. etc. It's too depressing to continue to list all the false promises he made and the bad votes he's made since coming on the council. But look at the first council meeting last week. Two 3-2 votes which is very unusual. And the new cabal, as you suggest, broke on the ban on sex offenders. Already Robinson is pushing for a dog park (thank you Dwight) and Nick is looking at new transparency rules. On the isue of the sex offender ban, Nick actually talked about what the people want. Imagine that! Let's give them 6 months before we draw too many conclusions. But let's stay on the alert and watch closely. I think we agree on the past, but I am, at this point, optimistic about the future.
JustUs December 31, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Ok, Jim. I'll grant you that wish. But only because I respect you. I'll give them 6 mos. But I refuse to be fooled or hoodwinked again. I've seen too many elections come and go with no progress - only more political expediency for the ones with the money to buy a seat of power. The way our system is designed is disgusting. But like the old Rod Stewart song goes "Still I look to find a reason to believe". But my patience has all but worn out. Whatever intelligence I might possess tells me that their promises will once again fail the stink test and fall way short of whatever character and integrity that they feign to entertain us with. But I am indebted to you for the education on City government that you have provided me over the years. And although we may differ on isolated subject matter I have tremendous admiration and respect for your willingness to go public with your astute observations. May God always be at your side. I wish you and your family a very blessed and joyous 2013.
JustUs December 31, 2012 at 05:24 PM
"On the isue of the sex offender ban, Nick actually talked about what the people want. Imagine that!" This is where you make little sense to me, Jim. A couple local courts have already overturned convictions in the sex offender park ban due to constitutional issues. Yet Adam Nick voted to sustain the park ban in Lake Forest and to spend taxpayer money to fight the lawsuits. Yet you argued that fighting the day laborer lawsuits and enforcing the city ordinance against day laborers pandering for jobs on the street was a big mistake EVEN THOUGH A SIZABLE MAJORITY OF LAKE FOREST CITIZENS SUPPORTED THE ORDINANCE AND THE BAN ON DAY LABORERS! So here the Council listened to the citizens and you lambasted them. You can't have it both ways, sir. The Council must either act fiscally responsible or give in to the whims of the citizens. Besides, Adam Nick stated that he favored the park ban because of a PERSONAL SURVEY that he took. lol. How scientific was that? So if he walks around his neighborhood and asks people for their opinions on a city matter - whatever the majority wants he votes in favor of??? lol. If the majority wanted to place a tatoo on the forehead of all registered sex offenders would he vote in favor of it??? lol.
Jim Gardner December 31, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Hi Just Us, My comment on Nick was a case of "good news, bad news". As you pointed out, the bad news is that he voted for something that was, according to all the professionals who spoke, unconstitutional. There were other problems with it as well, not the least of which is that sex offenders per se are not child molesters and the frequency of abduction from parks is miniscule. I did provide Nick with a detailed analysis of the issue (I can send you a copy if you like). Now for the good news - the good news is that he took the time and trouble to solicit public opinion and it was an important part of his decision making process. How unique is that? Hundreds of people came to city council meetings and asked for an animal shelter - the council said no. Hundreds came and asked them to leave the medical marijuana dispensaries alone - they spent $$$$ to close them down. etc. So it's great to see someone paying attention to public opinion, even if in this case it resulted in what I believe was an erroneous decision.
JustUs December 31, 2012 at 08:20 PM
"Now for the good news - the good news is that he took the time and trouble to solicit public opinion and it was an important part of his decision making process." And who exactly did he solicit opinions from? His friends and supporters? Of course they will give him the answer that he wants. He never asked me for my opinion. But then my answer might not be the one that he wants to hear. So if Adam Nick listened to ALL OF US - that would be one thing. But if he listens to only those who he cares to listen to - then it's just another scam, Jim. So I don't buy his line quite yet. He's going to have to earn my respect by representing ALL OF US and not just his personal friends and supporters. I never expect to get invited to any of his gatherings because I am not a club member who runs in his little social circles. But if he ever did invite me he'd get an earful. And that's precisely the reason I never expect an invitation. Politicians surround themselves with sychophants.
Jim Gardner January 01, 2013 at 12:30 AM
Hi JustUs, Yes, there were many things wrong with Nick's survey methods. As someone who has conducted hundreds of surveys, I can assure you that his methods left a lot to be desired. But it is the idea of spending time doing a survey, and then trying to listen to the results which is so important. Survey methods can be taught. What is difficult to teach is the desire to listen to others. In that regard, Nick has offered us an excellent model.
Omolu January 01, 2013 at 02:24 AM
Thanks for the quick reply Dr. Gardner. I dont mean to be picky, but when you say Voigts has a "penchant to accept lots of money from special interest groups" what exactly do you mean by "lots". Hundreds? Thousands?
JustUs January 01, 2013 at 02:44 AM
I didn't like his demeanor at the candidate's forum at all, Jim. He certainly didn't seem open to listening to the ones in charge there. He came across as quite bossy and seemed to ignore the instructions of the moderators. You saw the same behavior that I saw. The folks who sat around me were dumbfounded. I felt quite sorry for the Patch reporter (Sarah?) who tried to control him. I could see that she was very frustrated. You're the clinical psychologist. Not me. But I did not like what I saw. And if that's a sample of what to expect I think it will be a long 4 years. And, btw, that's the reason he did not get my vote.
Jim Gardner January 01, 2013 at 03:55 PM
Hi JustUs I agree. His behavior at the forum was objectionable. I spoke to him afterwards and urged him to try to put his obsession with the lawsuit behind him because it was consuming him. Based on his performance there, it's hard to believe that he could win. But only about 100 people were at the forum, and it wasn't televised, so it didn't make much difference in the election. OTOH, he was one of the few candidates who actually had positions. Several other candidates had few if any positions on anything. If you did your homework, in the case of Nick, you knew what you were getting. The trick, of course, is to see that you get what they promised. Again I go back to Voigts, not to pick on him because I like him personally, but he's a prime and recent example of someone who promises and doesn't deliver (unless you contributed to his election campaign). Going forward, we need to be sure that Nick moves ahead with his promises. If he can deliver on 25% of them, our city will be much better off.
JustUs January 01, 2013 at 04:36 PM
Jim, why is it that the only time these Council politician clowns show up in the neighborhood is when they want something from me during campaign season? I NEVER see their faces until they stick a flyer in my face and say "Vote for me". During the remainder of the 4 years they NEVER come to my door and ask me for my opinion on city government or on critical city matters upon which they vote. And that is just ONE reason why I can't stand any of them. They are nothing more than grandstanders and opportunists who couldn't give a hoot about what we think unless it happens to be campaign season. They suddenly they're all ears. Disgraceful. Can't they spend some time canvassing the neighborshood and asking for our opinions when it's not campaign season? As far as Nick fulfilling his campaign promises, I am not holding my breath. The rest of them don't. Why would he? He spent alot of money to buy a Council seat and probably thinks that he's entitled to force his will upon the people. I draw that conclusion from his demeanor at the Candidate's Forum. If he refused to comply with the rules set forth by the Forum's moderators, why would he listen to the peasant citizens once he achieved a Council seat. I think you're being wildly optimistic, Jim. Just my opinion.
Jim Gardner January 02, 2013 at 02:04 AM
Hi Omalu, Good point. Bear in mind that my records are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways to funnel money to elected officials, and it’s hard to trace all of them. But here is what I have – This is a list of some of the people/businesses that have contracts or are seeking concessions from the City who have funneled nearly $10,000 to Voigts’ campaign – Brookfiled Homes Waste Management Richard Goacher (owner of RGP Consulting) Civil Source Griffin Structures Adam Nick (his appeal about the liquor license) The Building Industry Association of Southern California Waltman Fodor Properties etc. Here are some examples of Voigts’ voting on issues in a direction that favors the campaign contribution – On 12/18/2012 Voigts voted in a 3-2 vote to give Brookfield Homes special attention in their move to begin developing homes. On 12/18/2012 Voigts voted to extend Waste Management’s contract. On 4/3/2012 Voigts was the lone vote on a proposal from the BIA. On 3/1/2011 Voigts was the lone vote in favor of accepting Adam Nick’s appeal against 711. BTW - it is telling when a vote is 4 to 1 against and the lone person voting for an issue is the one who accepted money from the person seeking the contract/ concession. I don't know about you but when we're looking at nearly $10,000 funneled into Voigts' campaign by people/businesses seeking contracts/concessions from the City, I call that "lots" of money.

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