Tustin City Attorney Resigns; City Launches New Lawsuit Against School District

Hat tip to our friends at Our Town Tustin for news that Tustin’s city attorney Doug Holland has stepped down.  Even better, they get Tustin’s PIO to actually return calls.  We contacted Holland’s office at City Hall this morning for questions on the city’s new lawsuit against Tustin Unified, only to be referred to Holland’s law practice.  We were told by them, he’s on vacation until September 6. A call to Ms. Woolery is still not returned.

Per Our Town Tustin, Holland submitted his resignatuion in a letter address only to Mayor Jerry Amante and not the rest of the city council.  “In his resignation letter to the city, Holland states, “Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me that I am not able to continue to serve Tustin at the high level I expect of myself while continuing to serve my other principle client, The City of Palm Springs.”

Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart, has served the city through contract since 1995. Holland has worked on city matters for 11 of those years and has been the designated City Attorney for the past 6 years. His letter continues by saying that the law firm will continue to serve the city and names the new primary attorney from the firm as David Kendig, another attorney with the firm. Holland committed to conferring with Kendig when necessary. So, it would seem, this is not as ominous as it sounds. The city will continue to receive services for, what appears to be the same going rate of $195 (adjusted annually) per hour from the same law firm as always.”

This comes on the heels of a new lawsuit filed by the city against TUSD.  From the District’s press release:

“Instead of trying to find a way to minimize the expense of litigation to Tustin’s taxpayers through settlement, the City has filed another lawsuit – its second – against the District, which is solely designed to interfere with the District’s continuing efforts to construct and renovate Tustin’s schools.   

“This needless and costly lawsuit is hardly conducive to promoting a constructive dialogue between the City and the District,” said TUSD Board President Lynn Davis.  “Instead of another confrontational tactic by the City, we should be looking for ways to work together, resolve our differences and do what’s right for kids, parents and taxpayers.”

The City’s latest lawsuit against the District relates to the temporary use of Heritage Elementary School located on the former Tustin marine base (Tustin Legacy).  For the past several years, residential home development at Tustin Legacy has stopped almost completely because of the historic recession and a controversial dispute between the City and its master developer. 

Despite the lack of development at Tustin Legacy, the District was nevertheless required to proceed with construction of Heritage School or else it would have to return the free land it had obtained from the U.S. Department of Education.  The District also took advantage of construction costs and savings of 15 to 20 percent on the project. 

Currently, there are about 78 students in kindergarten through fifth-grade who live in the attendance area of Columbus Square and are attending primarily Benson and Marjorie Veeh elementary schools.  Heritage will be used as an elementary school as soon as there are enough students to fulfill the typical start-up enrollment for a K-5 school of approximately 300-350 students with anticipated growth in the future to the average District range of 550-600.

“Simply put, spending the excessive cost to open the base school for so few students would have meant larger class sizes and fewer resources for every other child in our district,” Davis said. “Even the children at Heritage would have been hurt by our need to combine grades and limit their educational options.  Opening an elementary school now is just not prudent.”

Rather than have Heritage School remain vacant, unused and subject to the risk of vandalism, the District has decided to use Heritage to house students and staff from Hillview and Sycamore high schools and 15 TUSD administrative personnel on a temporary basis.  This decision will allow the District to perform much needed renovations to Hillview at a lower cost to taxpayers because no temporary classrooms will be needed to house the students and staff during construction.  The District will also temporarily use Sycamore classrooms for interim housing of Tustin High School students.  Assuming there are sufficient students generated from development at Tustin Legacy, Heritage School will then be used as an elementary school as originally planned. 

“It is important to note that we are using the school solely for educational purposes and the relocation of these programs are alternative uses of the facility on an interim basis,” Davis said. 

Instead of acknowledging the facts surrounding the troubled development at Tustin Legacy, the City has decided to spend more taxpayer money on an expensive lawsuit to challenge the District’s temporary use of Heritage School.  The City claims the District failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it did not consider some minor parking and traffic issues associated with the temporary use.  The City is seeking an injunction to stop the District from using Heritage School at all.

The temporary use of Heritage School is exempt from the requirements imposed by CEQA.  The District nevertheless responded to all the issues the City had raised before the City filed its lawsuit.  The District asked the City not to file the lawsuit, and instead “work together” to resolve any remaining concerns of the City.  The City ignored the District’s response and quickly filed a lawsuit to interfere with the District’s operation of its schools.

Even though Heritage is exempt from CEQA compliance and no further environmental analysis was required, the District took additional steps and had an outside independent source complete a traffic report and an initial study out of an abundance of caution to verify the correctness of, and to provide further technical analysis of the facts supporting the notice of exemption.  The findings indicated that the project would have “no significant impact” to the community.

“The City’s latest lawsuit is another disappointing turn for the District and for Tustin’s taxpayers,” Davis said.  “Nevertheless, the District remains committed to resolving all disputes with the City, and welcomes an open dialogue with City officials to achieve that goal.” 

An environmental analysis of the initial study and other documents are posted on the TUSD Web site at www.tustin.k12.ca.us.  The full report is available at the District Office, 300 South C St., Tustin. 

The conventional wisdom and idle chatter in Tustin is that short-lived city manager David Biggs was dismissed because he had negotiated a settlement in the case the school district and the city that was not to Amante’s liking.  One has to wonder if Mr. Holland sees the pending trial against the city as a train wreck about to happen and decided it would be less painful to jump now when wait for the train to crash.  Of course, nobody is talking and nobody can talk due to NDAs and contractual agreements, but this doesn’t apply to Tustin residents who follow their city while they chat at the local Kean’s coffee shop. For our friends in Santa Ana shopping for a qualified city manager, call Biggs please.

Considering how the city’s legal feees have nearly tripled since Amante was elected, the high cost of these lawsuits is hitting taxpayers in Tustin from both ends.  Somuch for fiscal conservatism.

  9 comments for “Tustin City Attorney Resigns; City Launches New Lawsuit Against School District

  1. August 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    It’s hard to determine whether Holland’s departure was just a coincidence or whether there is something deeper going on. I think that Boss Tweed Amante may have been behind it. I spoke with one councilperson who told me that the departure was sudden and unexpected. I guess the next move for the city will be telling. Will they accept Kendrig as the new city attorney or will Boss Tweed direct a new, no-bid contract to one of his cronies. Only time will tell.

  2. Angry tustin resident
    August 18, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Really disappointing that the vote for the lawsuit was 5-0. This is a frivolous lawsuit designed to deepen the gulf between the city and the school district. It is also disappointing that the city used the race card in the lawsuit. The city has no business in trying to run the school district on how it handles its finances. Again this smells like Amante again.

  3. B peryl
    August 18, 2011 at 9:07 am

    To angry Tustin res and city lawsuit – dude it was a vote 5 – 0
    All the councilors voted for it so there must be some reason they are all protecting tustins citizens.
    Do I smell paranoid here? Gees.

  4. Dan Chmielewski
    August 18, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I’d argue the city failed to adequately develop the property placing the district in between a rock and a hard place.

  5. August 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    And didn’t the council just vote to act as master developer? I guess Jerry will get to use his real estate expertise. Or, would that be a a conflict of interest?

    B peryl, you sound like a council backer. If I didn’t have such respect for at least 2 of the council members, I would tell you what one of them said about the vote. But, you appear to know the important people. So, I suppose you can ask them yourself why they are wasting more taxpayer money?

  6. angry tustin resident
    August 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I don’t care if it was 5-0 vote. The city has no business tryting to dictate what the school district does with their property. Having 78 students is not sufficient to opena school. There is more to this latest law suit than meets the smell test. It is obvious that B. Peryl doesn’t have a clue on what the law suits are really about.

  7. B peryl
    August 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Geff Gallagher, I’m neither for or against, just commenting and sharing my view.

    Angry Tustin Res, yes, I did read about the lawsuits, but I just don’t share your view – and FYI you would have more cred if you weren’t annon.

  8. B peryl
    August 20, 2011 at 6:13 am

    The other thing Gallgher, you say you have respect for two council members, but since they voted to go ahead with the lawsuit, why do you not respect their judgement?

  9. September 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Anyone in Tustin concerned about what is transpiring, should seek out the jaw dropping $1.0 M + annually in legal fees that the City of PS taxpayers fork over to these so called legal experts.

    It’s all available on the City of PS internet web site under budget and annual report buttons.

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