What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Downtown Fullerton saw a ribbon cutting this week for “Madero.” It’s not a new place. It used to called “Matador” but an El Matador already existed in Costa Mesa and the story goes that Mario Marovic, proprietor of the Fullerton place, got sued and had to change the name of his establishment. So an event was held and here’s the scene:

All smiles…

The guy with the green hat is Mario Marovic. That name sure rings a bell.

Right. He’s the scofflaw who got caught squatting on the City’s property on Commonwealth Avenue – the legacy of the Tony Florentine sidewalk theft. When that came out Marovic made a deal with the City to remove the egregious “bump-out” and to be complete by July 2023. Oops. Nothing has even started, 14 months after the start of work deadline. And we know that the City Council has been presented with some sort of legal claim by Marovic, because it was on their Closed Session agenda.

And who is the little guy on the left standing next to Marovic? Why it is none other than the District 5 Councilman Ahmad Zahra, dressed in his usual ribbon-cutting attire, palling around with Marovic and even giving him some sort of City proclamation!

Will not work for new clothes…

Now, we all know that little Ahmad is a notorious attention hound and desperate photo-op seeker. We also know that a City Council agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. But this is really too much. Marovic is still squatting on public property and it looks like no one in City Hall has the balls to enforce an agreement signed by Marovic himself. Instead the City seems to be actively socializing with him.

Coming to a Theater Near You

On this week’s Fullerton City Council agenda I caught a glimpse of the upcoming May 21st agenda forecast:

AGENDA FORECAST (Tentative)
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

  • APRIL 2024 CHECK REGISTER
  • MONTHLY COMMITTEE ACTIVITY AND ATTENDANCE REPORT
  • DISPOSITION AND DEVELOPMENT AMENDMENT FRONTIER
  • COSTA COURT AREA STREET REHABILITATION PROJECT
  • ALL CITY MANAGEMENT SERVICES CONTRACT
  • SENATE BILL 1383 COMPLIANCE ACTION PLAN FOR SERVICES AND PROGRAMS
  • CHAPMAN PARKING LEASE
  • FOX BLOCK
  • REVENUE OPTIONS

Not all that interesting until you get to the bottom.

Yeah, it was ugly as sin, but there sure was a lot of it…

The Fox Block, a never ending saga and a classic example of a tail wagging a dog. For years the “rehabilitation” of the historic Fox Theater structure has been used to support all sorts of God-awful lunacy, including residential land acquisition and demolition, new grotesque clown architecture, and the six million dollar relocation of the McDonalds restaurant a couple hundred feet to the east. The “Fox Block,” as the boondoggle came to be known, is a living fossil of the bad old Redevelopment days, when any nonsense could be got away with by City staff playing with Monopoly money. Damn accountability. It’s the Fox Block!

Why this is on the agenda is as yet unknow, but I noticed that one of our Friends “Fullerton Historian” suggested it may have to do with extending a development agreement or some other similar concept. Then I saw the third bullet point above: Disposition and Development Amendment with Frontier. “Frontier?” That’s all? What is this? Frontier Real Estate is our “partner” on the Fox Block, meaning we’re probably taking the risk and they’re goon get any reward – if there is any.

M. Eric Levitt. Will he save us from ourselves?

And finally we see an item simply called “Revenue Option” an oatmealy sort of phrase, but one that FFFF has already discussed. At this meeting the City Manager, Eric Levitt, will try (without too much unseemly enthusiasm) to tie dangling threads heretofore described here: a push poll created to drum up support for enhanced public services; a review of the likelihood that general sales tax might pass at 50%; and a precipitous budgetary cliff looming ahead.

See where this is going? Let’s see who stands up and demands that for our own good we must have a tax increase.

Dysfunction Junction

Denial is a fairly common human condition, but normally it involves interpersonal relationships and fact isn’t always that easy to ascertain. It is also quite common in politics where one’s emotional beliefs and prejudices are set against somebody else’s. And then there’s the case when bald facts are staring you in the face and you just can’t allow the cold truth to intrude upon your fantasy.

Nowhere is the latter situation better seen than in the City of Fullerton’s attitude and actions involving the “downtown” area.

Business is booming…

It’s not real complicated. The City has known for almost two decades that downtown Fullerton was a money loser. A big money loser. And yet nary a word of complaint or criticism of the booze culture of downtown Fullerton has been uttered by the bureaucrats and politicians.

The most recent analysis was essayed 7 years ago. Here’s the money shot:

In 2017, the taxpayers of Fullerton were subsidizing the bar owners to the tune of almost $15,000 per liquor joint, each and every year. Three quarters of a million a year. Of course this was just for “public safety” as noted:

We focused on the public-safety facets of this study alone, and did not include the development and maintenance services costs Fullerton audited. We illustrate below Fullerton taxpayers were effectively subsidizing bar and restaurant establishments – to the tune of about $15,000 per establishment – all to cover the costs of police, fire and rescue services provided to the establishments and their patrons.

We know that maintenance and code enforcement and the legal services of Dick Jones and his I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm jack up the cost to well over a million bucks – $1.4 million being the overall cost previously discovered. And there are now over 50 bars.

Another award!

Think of it. During hard times and good, the taxpayers of Fullerton subsidize the likes of the Florentine family and the Marovic mob and the Poozhikala posse, while they make a fortune peddling fish bowls of booze to out-of-control miscreants and ignoring the law.

And still City staff insists on describing downtown Fullerton a glowing success story, a triumph to be built on; of course they aided and abetted in the charade by city councils that are marked by political cupidity, stupidity and a desire to look like they have accomplished something. Anything. For decades these people have crowed about their achievements in DTF, even as they desperately crammed more and denser housing blocks in and around main streets – hoping a captive audience would somehow help. It didn’t, and by the early 2000s the City decided an open air saloon was just the thing. And then the restaurants morphed into bars and then the bars morphed, illegally at first, into nightclubs.

I can keep this up all night…

As things got more lawless, and even some like Dick Jones lamented the “monster” he had created, the only thing that happened was that things got worse. Blasting noise, random violence, sexual assaults, human waste, mayhem, shootings, sadistic and pervy cops – you name it – caused no retrospection in City Hall about what had, and what was happening. It was all a big victory, and you don’t second guess a victory.

Well, things are looking glum fiscally for Fullerton according to last years budget projections and we will be told Ahmad Zahra and Shana Charles that we must bear the burden of a new sales tax jack-up in order to keep the creaky old jalopy going.

I say fix the financial sinkhole that is downtown Fullerton before you stick your hands in our pockets.

The Abdication

Lots of Indians, but no chiefs…

I’ve been watching Fullerton politics and governance for for a long time – since 2008 or 2009, in fact. One thing that has consistently struck me is the way in which Fullerton’s elected officials have completely and almost happily abdicated their responsibility to determine the direction of policy.

It has always been the goal, in principle if not in practice in modern representative democracy, that policy would be established by electeds, and administrated through a protected civil service bureaucracy.

Determining policy – the philosophical direction you want the town to take – isn’t easy in the “City Manager” form of government, a form deliberately created to remove any sort of executive authority from elected representatives. But with that set-up came something else, too: the difficulty of people’s representatives in establishing policy direction, and doing it without violating the Brown Act strictures on open meetings.

Nevertheless, the responsibility is still there, even if it easier to have photo ops, and ribbon cuttings and the like. Sadly our electeds have failed; failed with remarkable banality and complacency. Former Councilman and Fullerton Police Chief Pat McKinley once illustrated the point when challenged for his “failure to lead.” He exclaimed that councilmen weren’t there to lead – that was the City Manager’s job.

Lately the policy role abdication has been seen with the regurgitated, spit out, re-consumed and regurgitated again noise ordinance, an ongoing embarrassment that has plagued honest citizens for over fifteen years. I read the staff report on the recent noise effort, a report that justifies a decision to actually increase acceptable levels, protect offenders by including an ambient noise mask, and locates the noise metering away from the source whence it can be muddled by an equally noisy neighbor.

The staff report is nothing but a list of events that have occurred since 2009 when the City Council last expressed a coherent position. Nowhere in the staff report is there any discussion on the policy decisions behind any of the activities. Why not? Because there weren’t any. In the same way that the incredibly costly, drunken binge known as Downtown Fullerton has escaped any intelligent policy conversation, the noise nuisance issue, a subset of the former, has evaded policy discussion as City staff – behind the scenes – has diligently avoided doing anything to enforce existing code, and worked very hard to reduce the requirements.

So what has happened is a vacuum in which each new action seems disembodied from policy conversation; that’s because it is. And our council steadfastly refused to have an open and honest conversation of what it wants, abdicating its responsibilities.

One size fits all…

There is a long list of issues that our elected representatives should be addressing from an overarching policy level and aren’t. This sort of thing takes thought; and some hard work in ascertaining whether your city employees are really doing the thing you want; or not, as in the case of the Trail to Nowhere. It’s easier just to ram through the Consent Calendar on the nod, rubberstamp the ridiculous, clean your plate like good kids, and move on to the photo ops and the trophy ceremonies.

The Compartmentalization Effect. Or Worse.

It’s a total waste of money, but it sure is short…

Now that the Council majority of Dunlap, Whitaker and Jung have done a 180 flip-flop and accepted the so-called Trail to Nowhere grant, it seems like a good idea to remind Fullerton about some things that the City still doesn’t want us to know.

Well, well, well…

About eight weeks ago – several weeks before the Council flip-flop – I wrote a post about the presence of test wells on the Trail to Nowhere. These wells were installed to test the levels of trichlorethylene (TCE). Not only were the wells situated on the trail but also farther south, in the middle of the street in the 300 block of West Truslow Avenue.

I offered the fact that no one can do this sort of thing on public property without permits from the City of Fullerton and that surely the Engineering Department or Development Services Departments has records of those encroachments. The scope of the actual TCE contamination has been known for 20 years or more, and the State of California and the Environmental Protection Agency have known all about it. So has City Hall, since groundwater contamination in north Orange County was the subject of a massive lawsuit involving the Orange County Water District. Plus, someone was installing test wells on City property.

I asked how was this contamination could be omitted from the City’s grant application to the State Natural Resources Agency.

The grant has finally been accepted by the City, but the problem remains. Two problems, in fact. The contamination is still there, of course, and so are the test wells – an issue not addressed in the project budget. But an even bigger question remains. Was the omission due to a management problem – complete compartmentalization of City departments? Or, worse was the problem deliberately ignored?

In either case Fullerton has a fundamental problem the cause of which is clear: complete lack of accountability that appears cultural. City Manager Eric Levitt was preceded by a long leadership vacuum in which City Managers like Joe Felz and Ken Domer were simply along for the ride – chosen, apparently for their elastic sense of responsibility. Yet, Levitt has been around for two years and seems to show the same flexible attitude.

If departments are sequestered behind opaque compartment walls, there is a failure of corporate leadership, and an inevitable decentralization that was, and is, a recipe for costly failure. That’s on Mr. Levitt. If City employees knew about the contamination issue and either said nothing or deliberately lied to the State, that’s a problem of employees who feel utterly secure in their behavior, knowing that consequences for bad actions is not a problem; this is on Levitt, too.

In the specific case of the Trail to Nowhere, the three councilmembers who flipped their votes have some explaining to do, and not just about a matter of opinion, good idea/bad idea. They need to explain how and why the City application for the grant omitted mention of a real and present issue, and also what their City Manager (who just got an 8% raise) is going to do about it. If they don’t they’re part of the accountability problem.

Suffering The Stolen Sidewalk Saga

Gone, but not quite forgotten…

Two months ago I reminded the Friends that the never-ending story of the stolen Commonwealth public sidewalk was alive and well. The provocation was a closed session agenda item listed as “significant exposure to litigation” between the City of Fullerton and Mr. Mario Marovic, the owner of the building at the northeast corner of Harbor and Commonwealth. Marovic had submitted some sort of claim against the good folk of Fullerton, often an aggressive gambit to stall and temporize.

Meet the new proprietor, same as the old proprietor…

A quick rehash of the facts: Marovic took over the space from the decamped Florentine crime family and immediately gained access to the “bump out” on the sidewalk; and he then began remodeling it along with the rest of the first floor space for his new bars. He had no authority to do so because, of course, the City acquired responsibility to dispose of the building add-on after the Florentine’s bugged out on their lease with the City. In his application for CUPs for the new bars Marovic even included the City owned space as his own.

In the late summer of 2022 Marovic was well-along with his remodel even though his CUP hadn’t been approved, but the issue of the egregious bump out resurfaced, thanks to FFFF. In September, 2022 the City and Marovic reached an agreement that was signed by Eric Leavitt, our esteemed City Manager, and not the Mayor at the time, Fred Jung.

The terms of the agreement were simple enough, and FFFF has shared them before. The thrust of the deal was that Marovic could open his new bars (including the bump out) and he would then undertake to remove the bump out and restore the public sidewalk. Here is the actual clause describing terms and deadlines of the deal:

As you can see, demolition was to have begun at the end of March, 2023 – almost ten months ago – and be the rework complete by July, 2023 – five months ago. Marovic opened his businesses, alright, but never started demolition, and probably didn’t meet any of the other deadlines, either.

A little late, Kimberly…

So when is an agreement not an agreement? Apparently, when it’s written and approved as to form and content by Kimberly Hall Barlow, the obnoxious member of Dick Joneses “I Can’t Believe It’s A Law Firm” crew.

I almost know what I’m doing…

It’s interesting to note that Barlow didn’t approve the six month old agreement until March, 2023 – 4 days before demolition was to supposed to have started.

Of course Dick Jones and his fine stable of attorneys have been bungling the case of the stolen sidewalk from the very beginning, including personal conflict of interest, embracing ludicrous legal rationale at the behest of the Florentines, and even countenancing forgery on an official City document by Joe Florentine.

Still, one has to wonder what our elected officials themselves have done about this. Clearly the unwillingness of the City to enforce a legal agreement, signed by Marovic stems from fear of legal action. But Marovic is undeniably in breach of the contract he voluntarily signed, even though there is zero evidence that it was signed in good faith.

The City can and should begin the process of revoking Marovic’s CUP, the permit that has allowed him to make a lot of money over the last 10 months while failing to live up to his side of the bargain. As owner of the bump out the City has every right, at least, to revoke the CUP that covers its own property, as gotten fraudulently.

The City can also notify Marovic that it intends to remove the building addition itself, since he won’t do it, and bill the scofflaw for the cost.

dick-jones
Staying awake long enough to break the law…

Of course neither of these remedies will take place, because this is Fullerton, where the elected officials are feckless and beholden to the Downtown Liquor Cartel; and because they insist on, decade after decade, following the dismal advice of Dick Jones.

Mr. Average Gets A Raise

What do you do when your City Manager is spectacularly unspectacular? If it’s Fullerton you give him a raise.

I’ll drink to that!

See, in Fullerton if you’re a City Manager who avoids getting drunk and driving over a tree before trying to evade the law, you’re doing pretty darn good.

Don’t let the amorphous shape fool you. Oh, wait…

And so Mr. Eric Levitt, who has been City Manager for less than 2 years is getting an 8% raise from $250,000 to $270,000. This gentleman is hardly any different than the two temps who preceded him and gives precisely the same deference to an incompetent collection of underlings. In the past 20 months he hasn’t shown any interests in establishing a corps of excellence – just the opposite in fact, and this must be cause for comfort for a City Council that thrives in a culture of not bad is outstanding – just try not to let us make ourselves look too bad.

Last year, the City Manager predicted dire economic issues ahead for Fullerton, massive deficits, of course; and by the end of 2023 Levitt had already started paving his own path of least resistance by hiring a public opinion pollster to drum up support for a general sales tax. This year’s mission will be to revive the ill-fated Measure S, give it a new letter from the alphabet, and let the cops and emergency medics pitch it to the public.

What a performance.

High Speed Rubbish. Mate.

I came across this video gem the other day. Look and sound familiar? The Australian TV show Utopia, goes after high speed rail as never making economic sense. But economic sense ought not to get in the way of progress, and the idea of intercity transit going real, real fast is irresistible to some, including the army of consultants, engineers, union construction workers and land grabbers who make bank on the concept.

California’s HSR Authority has been a sink hole for billions and billions of dollars, escalating costs, tortuous delays, etc., etc. And yet it gasps on, staggering along thanks to its own bureaucratic inertia – an idea sold to the voters over 15 years ago and with little hope of opening the easiest segment before 2030.

Meantime, this titanic boondoggle is scoping the all-important line from Anaheim to Los Angeles where the line currently under construction in the Central Valley may never reach in this century. Cutting through this urban landscape, including Fullerton, will cost a fortune, of course, and the HSR won’t be able to go much faster than existing train service. What would it mean for us if this dopey authority cut a swath through Fullerton? It won’t be good, that’s for sure.

But who cares? In California it’s not efficacy that matters. It’s the grand gesture, and in this case the laughable assertion that California will be appreciably better off by spending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy a few train trips per year.

Mario’s “Bump Out” Heist Subject of Litigation?

This item popped up on tonight’s City Council Closed Session Calendar.

Could this relate to the northwest corner of Commonwealth and Harbor? If so we are dealing with one Mr. Mario Marovic, who opened two bars on this property that he owns at this corner. Why anticipated litigation? What claim did he make against the City? Let’s review a bit of history, shall we?

Sit down and grab some sidewalk, fratello…

By now the Friends are well-familiar with the Saga of the Florentine Stolen Sidewalk, one of Fullerton City Hall’s more egregious and embarrassing fuck-ups, a high bar to clamber over, indeed.

Back in 2003 the Florentines purloined the public sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue by putting a permanent structure on it without permission. The whitewash was that the City would now lease the land under the building addition to the Florentines. And the Florentines owned the addition, not the owner of the adjacent building to which the addition was attached! In the lease the Florentines were held responsible for removing the addition at the City’s discretion.

But the underlying problem of who owned what and who was responsible for what, never went away.

The comic opera took a new turn in 2020 when the Florentine Mob bugged out, abandoning their addition and their responsibilities for their sidewalk leasehold. Who owned the “bump out” as the encroachment was now charmingly referred to? Why, the people of Fullerton, of course. We assumed ownership, and responsibility. But this didn’t stop the owner of the attached building, Mario Marovic, from trespassing into the bump out and from beginning to modify it as he was remodeling the rest of the old Florentine establishments for his new bars.

Meet the new proprietor, same as the old proprietor…

What a mess, all predictable and all avoidable had the City staff and the City Council done the right thing back in 2003. Well, if the Queen had…never mind.

The most recent twist became public last fall when, behind the scenes, our feckless City Council made deal with Marovic. He could assume the Florentine ground lease, and open his new establishments; in return, he would be responsible for removing the encroaching structure from the City sidewalk, and all would be well with minor embarrassment to the City. Marovic’s deadline to start demolition was the last week of March 2023, to be complete by July.

Still crazy after all these years…

Well, March came and went. So did April, May, June, July, August, September, and now October; and nothing has started. Nada. Marovic has been in breach of the agreement for seven months, reaping revenue from his saloons and from our property, too.

I really hope this item about a claim made by Marovic because it will inevitably raise the issue of his delinquency, although if it is, and this being Fullerton after all, I suppose the Council will end up letting the scofflaw keep renting our bump out on our sidewalk and maybe even pay him for the honor. It would be yet another effort to keep the City from more institutional embarrassment. Can’t have that, can we?

Here’s what should happen since the City has inexplicably decided not to go after the Florentine Mob for damages. The City should suck it up: cancel the existing ground lease with Marovic, demolish the bump out once and for all, and replace the open wall with whatever was there before this whole damn thing started.

The Culture War

They were large and slow with a mean streak.

You know, we hear a lot about the “brain drain” a situation in which some corporate entity or other suffers from an exodus of its senior managers, generals, archbishops, or whatever titles fit the type of organization.

The same thing pertains to government corporate bodies, too: when department heads head for the hills we hear of the loss of senior talent and expertise that bodes ill for whatever the agency’s mission might be. Lamentations are cried about the loss of “institutional memory” a sad situation in which the accumulated wisdom of the agency is undermined, sapped, or otherwise depleted.

But is this a bad thing?

Let’s reflect on the very nature of corporate behavior. Sure, the mission remains: enrich the shareholders, protect the nation, pass on spiritual uplift, fix the potholes in the road. But of course there’s more. The corporate mindset leads to gigantism, arrogance, defensiveness, self-righteousness and above all avoidance of outside scrutiny.

In effect, the mission of corporations becomes encrusted with the dead weight of the various pathologies that they engender. The consequence is not accumulated wisdom, but rather a culture of ossification that is static, slow, non-responsive and self-satisfied. They lose flexibility, agility and effectiveness.

If we consider Fullerton’s history over the past 30 years it becomes fairly evident that the culture of our government demonstrates the symptoms of ossification. The same types of issues are dealt with in the same kinds of way: bureaucrats display the same kinds of attitudes and behaviors; our elected representatives are replaced and yet never seem to change in their understanding of their jobs. The emphasis in City Hall is as much directed toward self-preservation of the status quo as of taking care of municipal problems; avoiding accountability is more important than fixing the streets. Avoiding loss of control and scrutiny by the public have been, and are the key goals, it seems, of the people we elect and the people we pay to work for us. And protecting the corporate culture is always of paramount importance.

The pages of FFFF are replete with examples over the past 30 years that will amply support my thesis. In my next post I’m going to share one of these examples: a problem that was created by the City over 20 years ago, and which lingers today.