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.
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.