Birch Hills Golf Course, A Toxic Blunder.

Title to the Birch Hills Golf course, owned by Union Oil/Chevron since it was built in 1972, was to be transferred to the City of Brea in exchange for being released from the obligation of paying a Parks in Lieu Fee. Who knew what a total nightmare this seemingly simple matter would become?

The pissing contest between Chevron and the City of Brea has consumed over three years in closed sessions, allowed the once popular course to be dramatically reduced in size and to fall into a horrible state of disrepair and finally, last Tuesday, it showed up on Council’s agenda as Consent Item 21.

Consent Item! Bull Sugar!

Consent Calendars are reserved for routine, non-controversial, housekeeping items, or matters the Council has achieved consensus on after previous discussion. Generally, topics that have not been previously discussed by Council should not be put on the consent agenda.

Since the early ‘90’s Staff and Council have been burying critical items on the Consent Calendar to avoid conflicting public opinion. It’s a practice I’ve been fighting for years.

The moment agendas are posted late Friday afternoon, I immediately check the Consent Calendar to see what is getting swept under the rug at the next meeting. I find dubious items virtually every time, the Birch Hills matter is a prime example.

Why Pull The Item For Discussion? 

Three years in the making and this multi-million dollar city asset was being acquired like a thief in the night, with no provision for discussion. Again, bull sugar.

Well over a hundred pages of complicated legal documents, with 14 attachments, were handed off to Council Friday evening and they… we all… had 97 hours to digest and research or corroborate it all.

Thankfully there were several folks willing to attempt the task.

What they found was a grossly incomplete set of documents that saddled Brea, forever, with a toxic, barely profitable piece of property with virtually no means of turning it around without spending a fortune.

How toxic? How costly to mitigate? What options for repurposing some or all of the land to a more safe and profitable use? Nothing in the documents offered even a hint at answers.

Birch Hills Toxicity Is Serious Issue.

Chevron’s field assistant to the project manager on the La Floresta and the senior boots on the ground as the biohazards on the golf course and Rails-to-Trails segment were mitigated, John Bickel, pleaded with Council at their study session to pull the item from the Consent Calendar and table it until they had a better idea of what they were really accepting.

John provided a detailed account of burying countless yards of contaminated soil under the parking lot and the additional mitigation required to bring the property up to residential standards.

John concluded his remarks with the admonition that we just don’t know enough… there are still too many unknowns. There’s a lot more explaining to do before we saddle ourselves with this monster.

Addendum – John Bickel: I think it’s important to add some clarity on exactly what is buried there, why there is more remediation to do.We (Chevron) cleaned up to meet golf course spec not residential. There really is no danger in playing golf, the lake is not contaminated. The soil beneath MAY be, no one knows for sure, it has liner underneath it is why it wasn’t sampled. The unknowns and talk of toxics could damage the income of the course.

Erin Brockovich ring a bell?

Let me add that converting this land to residential use has been a part of the General Plan since 2003. It’s on the city website. The map on page 40 shows this property as low density residential.

The city planners knew it. Unocal/Chevron knew it. Yet the documents to effect the transfer of title provide little or no clear answers how the city might proceed in that direction in the future.

Another Voice Of Reason.

During Matters From The Audience, Dwight Manley chastised Council for putting such an important matter on Consent Calendar and to table the item until the many blanks could be filled in. Clearly Council could not proceed with any certainty based upon the information available.

Here are Dwight’s comments to Council. Please listen carefully. Would you have proceeded blindly to conclude this transaction knowing how little you really knew?

Vargas Exits, Council Dives In.

Forced by legal counsel to recuse himself, Council member Vargas left the meeting. Having voiced his serious concerns since early in the weekend about the Birch Hills issues, Mr. Vargas appeared to be the only real voice of reason.

Many people, believing that Council had clearly heard the public’s position on the matter, left the meeting as well. Thinking it was tabled… they were in for the shock of their lives.

A Comedy Of Errors.

I was watching from home and hung in there. The thirty minutes of bungling and incompetence that followed was gut-wrenching.

In response to half-baked questions from an obviously uninformed Council, staff pulled off an exhibition of world class sugarcoating, deflection, outright misinformation including the “$80 a cubic yard” lie.

If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the streaming video on the city website.

I texted Dwight, warning him that it appeared Council was being drug down a path towards approving the transfer of the Birch Hills Golf Course and direct the Mayor to execute all documents necessary to close escrow.

That’s exactly what they did. They saddled us with a toxic horror and no means to dealing with it lest we spend millions upon millions of dollars ($300 million?) and beg, with fingers crossed, that Chevron and the EPA would approve our request to clean up and repurpose the property.

Unbelievable! Inconceivable!

Brea resident, Thomas Kwan, turned off his TV and emailed Council after listening to Dwight’s detailed and heartfelt plea. A copy of it reached me on Friday. Here I’ve paraphrased a few excerpts.

The last document of the set of exhibits setting forth the request for approval of the Birch Hills Golf Course Ownership Transfer Documents is the Covenants, Conditions, and Environmental Restrictions…which contains the Soil Mediation Plans for the different parts of the property.

There remains on the southern portion of the property toxic chemicals including among others, PCB’s polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins/furans, relatively stable compounds toxic chemicals that will be there for a long time.

Who in their right mind would want to accept the Draconian responsibilities and liabilities associated with that property and the associated acquisition agreement?

Keep in mind not all of the soil has been tested. There may be areas of contamination that have not been found, have been buried without record or carried by the elements elsewhere to an untested area.

As far as I am concerned the owner (Chevron) should keep Birch Hills, build a sarcophagus over the site and fence it with skull and crossbones signs around the property.

If Brea wants to take over compliance with the EPA and OCHCA restrictions and share the responsibilities and liabilities, then Chevron should fund a multimillion dollar trust for such.

So What’s The Damned Rush?

There are no critical deadlines, threatening penalties or life and death issues here. No real urgency at all. Hell, we’ve screwed around with this for three to four years. Can’t we take a few more weeks… months… to make sure we do this right?

There are legally acceptable ways to delay the final execution of escrow while we connect all the dots. Why wouldn’t Council use every means at their disposal to do this right?

 

Paramedic Tax Snowballs Into An Avalanche Of Deceit.

It’s taken over two weeks to fully digest what was immediately apparent to me as I watched the November 6 Council meeting – my inquiry into what it really cost’s to support and maintain a paramedic service uncovered issues of much greater significance, and staff couldn’t be less pleased.

The snowball downhill became an avalanche of deceit.

I have hunted down and received, via public records requests to the City of Brea and the OC Auditor-Controller, over 200 pages of data, accounting, meeting agendas, staff reports and minutes… and invested over 1,000 hours since mid-November to review and understand them. I have more to come, one question answered always seems to lead to more questions to ask.

Here’s the really short version of what I discovered:

  • The 1978 ballot initiative creating the Paramedic Tax appears to be a fraud. Not a word is mentioned in any minutes, resolutions or the ballot measure language itself that so much as a penny of the taxes collected would be spent on anything other than to create and maintain a mobile intensive care paramedic program.
  • Since the RDA was dissolved in 2011, over 44% of the Paramedic Taxes collected have been used to meet RDA/Successor Agency admin costs, pass through commitments and bond obligations.
  • In FY2016-17 Paramedic Taxes collected was $3.84 million. The total actually reaching the General Fund was only $2.30 million. The budget for paramedic services was $5.05 million. So, what does it really cost to have paramedic services and where did the city come up with the missing $2.75 million to cover the budget?
  • Digging into the whole RDA – Successor Agency – Oversight Committee thing takes us into a completely different discussion. Trust me, we will have that discussion. There is such an egregious lack of a paper trail that we will never know the names of all the guilty parties or the full extent of their complicity.
  • From what little data is available, redevelopment in Brea may have created as much as $300+ million in tax increment financed debt for which we’re still on the hook for $196 million that we’ll be paying off from now to 2036.

Back to the Paramedic Tax.

paramedic taxAt the November 6 meeting, as Administrative Services Director Cindy Russell began to share staff’s budget update, Council member Hupp interjected a simple question to City Manager Gallardo, “Bill, I know you and staff had a meeting with some concerned citizens in regards to the Paramedic Tax… would you just briefly tell those in the audience listening what you’re doing based upon what happened in that meeting.”

Gallardo responded, “We had a meeting, a very cordial meeting, with some residents interested in finding out the history of the Paramedic Tax and what was approved. The Paramedic Tax was approved in 1978 by over 80% of the Brea voters and this tax goes towards the operational needs of the fire department…”

No, historically, an average of 44% of the Paramedic Tax collected from within the RDA areas was siphoned off to meet redevelopment obligations.

paramedic tax“One of the things from that meeting was how can we better account for… how can we better track the Paramedic Tax? Right now it goes into the General Fund in a lump sum through payments we get from the county then we account for the expenses through the General Fund.”

No, only the tax collected from non-RDA areas has been apportioned to the General Fund by the OC Auditor-Controller. There has never been a Special Revenue Fund created to track and manage revenue from the Paramedic Tax – we have no true record of how these monies were spent.

“At the beginning of the fiscal year we’ll establish a Special Revenue Fund to track inflow of the Paramedic Tax and also track the expenses directly to the Paramedic Program and do that on a go forward basis.”

Because we have no way to audit what we’ve done in the past since we failed to keep adequate records. It will remain a mystery.

“It’s probably appropriate to put something on our website that identifies what its use is, its purpose what its intent is. 80% of calls are medical, basic life support or advanced life support.”

Adding to the mountain of propaganda on a website that precious few Breans access on a regular basis is not an answer. How about we elect a City Treasurer who actually has the skills to act as an advocate on our part and audit the city’s finances?

And yes, 80% of calls are medical in nature… but what portion of the total workload addresses these calls? How much time, effort and equipment fulfills the Fire Departments activities including administration, building and apparatus maintenance, emergency (disaster) preparedness, fire suppression operations, fire prevention activities, regular fire ordinance compliance inspections?

Tossing out impressive sound bites, out of context and without substantiation, is a common method of distracting us from the real truth.

Councilman Simonoff joins the fray.

paramedic taxCouncilman Simonoff asked the City Manager, “One of the subjects that came up, and maybe Jim (Markman) you’re a better resource for this question… with regards to how payments are made to the Redevelopment Agency… can that be better explained?”

Thank you Marty for immediately spotting what I did… that the City Manager tried to duck out of answering Council member Hupp’s question.

Gallardo replied, “Let me give it a shot then Markman can clean it up if I don’t say it correctly. A portion of the Paramedic Taxes along with all other taxes paid by anybody that has a property ownership in the Redevelopment Agency project area a portion of those taxes went to the RDA. By operation of law, any taxes paid in the RDA area automatically went to the RDA. That has occurred since 1978.”

Boom! There it is. “By operation of law” means, from the very beginning, revenues generated from tax increment were required by the state to pass through the RDA obligating a portion to meet RDA expenses. This is the genesis of the hoax perpetrated upon Brea’s unwitting voters, 80% of them, in 1978.

Gallardo continues, “The good thing is that the RDA’s were dissolved by the state in 2011 so they don’t exist any more. As we pay down any bond obligations in those project areas, little by little that RDA revenue, I’m sorry, that General Fund revenue lost to the city and also the Paramedic Tax that went to the RDA are slowly but surely coming back to our city for our paramedic services.”

Inside that unfortunate word salad are a truth, dissolution of the RDA was a good thing; a Freudian slip “that RDA revenue, I’m sorry, that General Fund revenue…”; and a complete smokescreen, “slowly but surely coming back to our city…” not until 2036 and we have no guarantee where the “lost revenue” will be spent.

Not to be overlooked, Council member Marick weighs in.

paramedic taxCouncil member Marick then directed a question to City Attorney Jim Markman, “Did the city have any opportunity or any say into whether the Paramedic Tax revenue went to the RDA or is that how the law was set up?” (Asked and answered… as they say).

Brace yourself, here is how Mr. Markman replied, “There are some misconceptions because no one has been here long enough to remember this other than Wayne Wedin, Rex Gaede and me.

Basically, in ’78, this was put on the ballot for two reasons. One, Brea had two redevelopment project areas and whatever property tax that was there was going to be allocated elsewhere and they were facing Prop 13 which most people thought would pass which was going to freeze property taxes in place so there were a number of problems facing the city at the time funding redevelopment where the source of income, which was going to grow, got frozen at the 1% tax rate and that took away projected tax allocation money.

Also, and The City Council knew that the Paramedic (Tax), which they proposed and was passed by 80%, was sized as to what the rate was as a special tax so they would generate enough revenues to fund the paramedics and account for the fact that money generated in the redevelopment project areas was not going to be there for that purpose unless and until essentially redevelopment went away several years later which is exactly what happened.”

Boom! There it is. That sounds like a confession if I ever heard one! And, if any interested prosecutor is reading this, the case for proving intent seems like a slam dunk as well.

paramedic tax“So, if anyone doesn’t believe that discussions occurred, that they had those numbers figured out… they issued bonds, numerous bonds, for the Redevelopment Agency that clearly state and show you the allocation of what would have been a Paramedic Tax if its in the project area going to redevelopment.

So nobody was ever fooled or surprised by that and they sized it because Brea wanted paramedics in 1978. And, they wanted to fund the paramedic program so they had to set a tax rate that accounted for redevelopment allocation.”

Okay, having already made his confession, what does this tell us? Only that the size of the gang, those poor unwitting co-conspirators, was bigger than we thought. Seems the gang included virtually every member of City Council holding office since 1977.

Again… Mr. Markman continues, “And that’s what’s happened ever since, except for two things that happened. Once we reached the cap on how much redevelopment money could be allocated… money over that cap that’s generated by that Paramedic Tax goes to the paramedics and the redevelopment allocations are now way reduced because all they’re doing is paying debt on our Last and Final ROPS which essentially, for the most part, are bond issuances that are being paid off over the years and, as they are paid off, that money would be reallocated to paramedics remembering, however, that there is a lot more people here than the 17 or 18 thousand that were here in 1978 when the Paramedic Tax was enacted.

That Council knew that that number would grow, the city would grow, that was the whole idea of redevelopment and when that was all over the allocation would go back to the Paramedic Tax so none of this was stumbled into or a surprise to anybody.”

If the City Manager’s responses were a word salad, this is a banquet of b*llsh*t. If anyone can extract a single cogent fact or convincing statement within this medley of malarkey please share it in the comments section.

Well, let’s wrap this up.

You can view the meeting’s streaming video on the city website HERE to verify that my transcriptions are faithful.

The specious responses from the City Manager and Attorney underscore the callow and indefensible decisions made by them and their predecessors. They have raised the exclusion of the public to a level of pure artistry.

Issues over the last couple of years have escalated from petty small town personality politics to clearly criminal enterprises that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars to either line someone’s pockets, inflate someone’s pension or fulfill some small mind’s notion of what Brea should be.

Whatcha gonna do?

 

Final Thoughts For 2017.

In the summer of 2011, then City Manager Tim O’Donnell told me that his favorite definition of leadership was, “Leadership is disappointing your constituents in increments they can absorb.” The implication was heinous and has proven to be the underlying rationale of countless decisions made by Council over the seven years I’ve written this blog. Here are a few of the most obvious:

  • Raising Council’s stipend and flex benefits.
  • Burying key decisions and large capital expenditures in the Consent Calendar.
  • Commission and Committee appointees are predominantly political payback.
  • Now defunct Redevelopment Agency created over $200 million in bond debt, most building or refurbishing city property for which there is no property tax which pays off the bond debt.
  • Brett Murdock tacitly appointed to lead opposition to The Brea Open Governance Act and The Brea Accountability Act. Murdock failed to disclose his leadership of the Breans Against Measures T & U PAC and was fined $2,000 by the FPPC.
  • City Clerk, under direction from City Manager and City Attorney violates election law resulting in litigation that was lost on appeal and cost taxpayers almost $1 million dollars.
  • Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem and City Manager take an ill-advised two week junket to Korea and Japan, sticking Brea taxpayers with the bill (Koreagate).
  • Mount a weak attempt to retain the Police Services contract with Yorba Linda.
  • Reorganize Brea FD rather than seriously entertaining the possibility that contracting out the services could save Brea taxpayers a bundle.
  • “Green Brea 2012” was a disaster but continues to be touted by city propagandists as a success. “Greenwashing” at it’s finest.
  • Staff recommends Council pay annual pension obligation at less than 100%, adding to the mounting debt. Brea had a surplus of $21.9 million in 2001, what happened?
  • 560 Fund (OC Landfill) earmarked to mitigate the traffic, noise, road damage and provide other “community benefits” is tapped twice to pay for the solar project – several million dollars. Remember, the one that would pay for itself.
  • Create Landscape, Lighting & Maintenance Districts (LL&MD) and Community Facilities Districts (CFD) to dodge Prop 13 and generate uncapped revenue. Promises made to “revisit” these for possible double taxation and to add sunset clauses has never found it’s way to the agenda.
  • Implement and repeat use of tiered water rates as a means of social engineering (deemed illegal in Capistrano Taxpayers Association, Inc. v. City of San Juan Capistrano – 2015).
  • Cal Domestic. Need I say more? If the FPPC, State DOJ and/or OCDA would get off their asses maybe we would finally get to the truth.
  • The perpetual appearance of collusion, backroom dealings and Brown Act violations every time Council reorganizes – never challenged, never proven but always questioned.
  • Madrona. Self-explanatory.
  • A “Civic & Cultural Center Demonstration Garden” proposed as a means of defraying costs of routine maintenance of Civic Center parking structure. Resoundingly rejected by residents.
  • City budget deemed to be balanced for the last 17 years yet Pension and OPEB debt soars to over $100 million.
  • Brea Envisions. Self-explanatory.
  • Originally proposed in January 1999, the just completed downtown parking structure could have been built for $5 million dollars with Redevelopment money without disruption to existing businesses.
  • Apprised of Constitutional due process issues buried within the Brea Municipal Code, triggered by the unilateral dismissal provision in Section 2.16.050, Council dawdles for 16 months without resolution. Will show up on agenda again soon.
  • $73,069,750 spent since 1977 for a “mobile intensive care” Paramedic Program appears to be nothing more than a subsidy for the Brea FD. (This will likely add fuel to the fiscal fires in 2018 as the truth becomes known.)

How the hell does this happen?

It’s become increasingly clear, as I read dozens upon dozens of staff reports that, more often than not, we’re getting only a fraction of the truth. Having reached the conclusion that Council, Commission and Committee members and the voting public in general lack the vision and intelligence to manage their community — staff has gradually hijacked all authority.

At best, only one or two senior city staff actually live in Brea. They have no local roots, no family history, no personal investment or emotional ties to the community. They are here to achieve their personal professional best, as dictated purely by academia and tweaked in a never ending array of seminars and symposiums. That their “product” ever actually benefits Brea is purely serendipitous.

They are here to put in their time, to receive salary and benefits well beyond that offered for comparable work in the private sector and to retire with six figure pensions.

From time to time they make mistakes, we all do. These blunders are the product of bad judgment, ignorance or inattention. These gaffes are committed with our money and are often magnitudes greater than the day-to-day mistakes we make.

Our city’s cancerous corporate culture.

To preserve their lucrative but fragile existence they are inclined to cover up the truth rather than admitting to failure. A corporate culture develops around them that renders them incapable of providing the whole truth. Staff seems to operate in a perpetual state of circling the wagons.

It is an endemic condition that can only be overcome by stripping them of the authority they have stolen and return it to those we elected to do the job in the first place.

And here’s the problem. As this bureaucratic shadow management culture has grown, their influence and power have as well and this creates a vacuum that eventually sucks in our elected representatives and blinds them to their complicity in the improprieties going on right under their noses.

Where do we take our city from here?

Revive “Clean Sweep” and put strong willed candidates into office who will not bow to the corporate mentality infesting those managing city business.

Candidates must give you a true sense of trust and confidence that accountability and transparency are not simply campaign rhetoric, that they will set aside any and all personal agendas (and bloated egos) – keeping a single focus upon what truly serves the people of Brea. Otherwise, they have not earned your vote.

city culture