Fullerton Bushwhacking: The Attempted Political Murder of Bruce Whitaker


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Participating in local politics isn’t free.

I’ve been writing political commentary and reports for about seven years and I served as a City of Fullerton Commissioner for about six.  In that time, I’ve had people openly accost me, my wife, and my kids in public and virtual events. I’ve endured some pretty vile rumors being spread by sitting elected officials throughout my community.  I’ve been threatened with having entire City Commissions dissolved in an effort to exclude my participation.  I’ve even had people try and get me fired.

All because I wanted to try and do a little good for my community.  Yeeesh.  I apparently had an impact, just not the kind I had hoped.

I’ve learned quite a few lessons during my term of public service.  Unfortunately, some I’ve had to relearn more than once.  This past Tuesday I got a sharp reminder of one I frequently forget:

Local politics is full of small minded people who do small minded things.

As sad as that sounds, that’s just how our reality works.  Be it Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine . . . from School Boards to Special Water Districts, you will find good people getting shanked by self-interested petty people on a monthly basis.  It’s sad, ugly, and totally unnecessary.  It happens and will continue to happen because most voters have neither the desire to pay attention nor the resolve to hold those who excel in dispatching honest public servants accountable.

Of course this makes sense.  If no one is watching and if no one cares, why work with your opposition when you can just neuter them instead?

Last Tuesday just before midnight, the Fullerton City Council stuck a dull shiv into the ribs of Bruce Whitaker (left.)  On a 3-2 vote, Jennifer Fitzgerald, Jan Flory, and Ahmad Zahra terminated Whitaker’s term at the Orange County Water District (OCWD) two years early and installed Zahra to fulfill the remainder.  Zahra has been on the Council for an entire two months.

The stated reason?  “To offer a different perspective.”

That’s it.  No joke.  That’s the entirety of the rationale offered to remove a public servant from his post responsible for ensuring a clean and abundant water supply to a couple million people.

Before I get into the details, here are a few more lessons for you to consider.

 

1) The Republican Party in North Orange County is Dead.

There will be no consequences for Fullerton Mayor Pro-Tem Jennifer Fitzgerald — none for herself, none for the people she supports, and none for the clients she represents as a lobbyist because OCGOP Chairman Fred Whitaker is completely and totally powerless to do anything about it.  The betrayal against Bruce Whitaker confirms it’s open season on any remaining Republicans in any form of office north of Costa Mesa.

2) Vindictiveness > Public Trust

In her brief remarks before voting to remove Bruce Whitaker, Jan Flory (above)  – an **appointed** member of City Council – said in simple terms that her vote was retaliation for her removal from the same water board two years ago.  Aside from being factually incorrect, it is entirely unprecedented in Fullerton for an appointed member of a body to direct the removal of an **elected** officer from anything.

3) Might Makes Right

Not one person offered a cogent argument (or even a complete sentence) supporting why the Council should remove Whitaker and appoint Zahra.  Tuesday is a reminder that local government decisions get driven by what a majority can do versus what it legally cannot do.  The public will get a reason if and when those elected “to serve” feel like it.

Obviously, I’m disgusted by what happened.  While I expect this kind of ugly behavior from some elected officials in Fullerton, I didn’t expect it from three.

So, how did we get here?  Buckle up buttercup, because here we go:

OCWD 101.

The Orange County Water District (OCWD – board above) is the administrative board responsible for maintaining one of the largest aquifers in the world.  California has some interesting laws concerning water, mostly as they relate to personal and property rights.  OCWD, along with adjudicated aquifers, has a unique carve out from typical water right laws in that it enables charging anyone with a water well within its service area a fee for every gallon the well pumps.  The fee gets used to maintain the aquifer, including the cost of recharging the basin using local water capture, recycled water injection/recharge, as well as purchasing water from import agencies, like the Metropolitan Water District (MWD).

What’s surprising to many is the incredibly large swaths of land and budget under OCWD’s control.  The agency owns or controls the entirety of the Santa Ana River, including many square miles of land behind the Prado Dam.  This current year has a total budget of $240,000,000, which includes operating costs for the largest urban water recycling facility in the world.  All together, OCWD’s assets and programs provide clean and affordable water to 2,500,000 people, employ over 200 excluding capital project contractors, and manages over a billion dollars in assets from the county coast (sea water injection barrier) to the mountains (water capture and retention facilities).

When I tell you the agency is massive and complex, I’m not exaggerating.

In addition to the scale, the agency has an awkward governing structure.  Then ten member board has both directly elected officials, appointed governing officials representing municipally owned utilities, and a professional management staff.  Governing Board members are paid per meeting, and the compensation can add up quickly.  In directly-elected Denis Bilodeau‘s case, his total compensation exceeded $60,000 in 2017.

Keep in mind that in Fullerton, a member of City Council gets paid about $9000 a year.

The ten member board includes almost 100 years of public service-year experience.  There are no freshman politicians on the board — and to my knowledge (and someone is welcome to correct me)– no first year councilman has ever been appointed to serve a constituency in the 80+ years of the District’s existence. 

I’m not going to get into OCWD and Poseidon here, but that probably has some sort of role to play here as well.

Bruce Whitaker has been Fullerton’s representative to OCWD since 2017.  Jan Flory completed the prior term in 2016.  She finished her partial term after ejecting Bruce Whitaker in 2014, who was originally appointed to a four year term in 2012. (Yes, the Flory/Whitaker vendetta is as old and stupid as it sounds.)  At the meeting Tuesday night and in some discussion since, there’s been a lot of ignorance floating around concerning who shived whom first.  I want to be crystal clear about this.  Bruce got shived twice.  Jan Flory was NOT ejected from a term and she was NOT entitled to serve another one.

Bruce Whitaker is W-I-D-E-L-Y accepted as doing a great job on behalf of Fullerton’s interest at OCWD.

Last month, the Fullerton City Council acted to fill a vacancy on the Council created when Mayor Jesús Silva vacated this at-large seat after winning a new term in Fullerton’s District 3 this November.  Jan Flory won the appointment from a field of 26 (including me, and yes, I really did think I had a shot.  Sad, I know.)  While Fullerton’s appointments to Regional Bodies and Workgroups had already been discussed by the Council two months ago in December with the Council agreeing to keep Whitaker on OCWD, outside of a public meeting Councilman Zahra and Mayor Pro-Tem Fitzgerald directed City Manager Ken Domer to place a new item on the next council agenda concerning appointing now-new-Councilwoman Flory to regional bodies.

I call out the word “directed” above, because the agenda item appeared exactly as Zahra and Fitzgerald instructed.

You may view, and I encourage you to do so, the discussion here.

**A special thank you to Mayor Jesús Silva (right) who not only refused to participate in this mugging, but who correctly pointed out freshman councilmen should focus on doing their jobs before moving on, correctly identified significant consequences for removing Bruce Whitaker that will negatively impact Fullerton ratepayers, and who once again demonstrated Fullerton’s Mayor is a good man.**

After watching that, I was absolutely pissed.  It was small, it was petty, and Bruce didn’t deserve it.  He’s a good person trying to do good things for Fullerton, and he just got shivved to satisfy the small agendas of others on the Council. This shouldn’t have happened.  Fullerton had a good representative to fight for our clean and affordable water and we should get a better explanation as to why we’re putting someone with two months of political experience in charge of $1,000,000,000 of assets used to provide drinking water to 2,000,000+ people.

Because we didn’t get an actual reason, I’m left to speculate, but my guess is Ahmad Zahra (left) wants this position because it’s one of two Regional Boards that pays significant money.  The other (Sanitation) is currently occupied by Mayor Silva, who Zahra has no chance of shivving out of an office.  Yet.

But, like I said earlier.  Local politics isn’t about should.  It’s about can.  It’s about the difference between what a majority can do and what a majority legally can’t do.

.

Enter the Brown Act.

The Brown Act is to local government what the First Amendment is to the Constitution.  It what gives it light and purpose.  Like the First Amendment gives you the right to speak your mind without fear of government persecution and the right to petition your government about problems, the Brown Act guarantees your right to know what local government is doing, a right to information concerning decisions, but most importantly– it guarantees your right to participate in decisions before the decision is made.

That’s why every meeting of Supervisors, School Boards, City Councils, special districts, and Commissions requires a period for the public to comment.  Not following the Brown Act is so serious that the state legislature has made knowingly violating it a crime punishable by a significant term in prison.  If the government body takes action on an item without providing adequate notice to the public or without taking public comment before a decision has been made, the action is null and void.

That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday.  The line between what a majority can do and what they legally cannot do got crossed.

The Brown Act requires government agencies to only act on items listed on an agenda, to provide a brief summary of what action will transpire, and to receive public comment on any action before a decision is made.  On Tuesday, the agenda as directed by Fitzgerald and Zahra, made no mention of removing Whitaker or appointing Zahra.  It only stated appointments would be considered for Councilwoman Flory.

Uh oh.

That means the public wasn’t notified, which means the public couldn’t provide comment on the pending decision.

And that means . . .

Jennifer Fitzgerald, Jan Flory, and Ahmad Zahra had no legal right to remove Bruce Whitaker and appoint Zahra in his stead.  They did it anyway, they broke the law, and they purposely deprived you of your right to attend this meeting and weigh in on the decision before it was made.

What’s worse, after watching the whole sordid discussion Tuesday night, I’m pretty sure they don’t care.  I’m pretty sure they’re going to do whatever they want, whenever they want, because they can.

So, what’s your favorite Fullerton political pariah to do in this sad case?

Oh.  Right.  Immediately file a Brown Act complaint with the City Manager.

Aaaaaaaaaaaand . . . SUSTAINED.  Thank God for professional City Staff with a spine.

As a result of the City sustaining by Brown Act Complaint, the illegal outster of Bruce Whitaker by Jennifer Fitzgerald, Jan Flory, and Ahmad Zahra has been vacated.  In Fullerton, at least for another two weeks, you can’t deprive the People of their right to participate in their government and get away with it.  The OCGOP might allow you to eat up all the decent Republicans we have left as public servants, but I won’t.

Here’s what should happen next:

  1. City staff will place this item, after ignoring the specific direction given to them by Zahra and Fitzgerald, on the February 19 agenda.
  2. Fitzgerald, Flory, and Zahra should apologize to city staff for putting them in the wrong and awkward position to defend their illegal action.
  3. Flory, Fitzgerald, and Zahra should recuse themselves from discussing and voting on the item, having committed themselves to a course of action before a properly noticed hearing and before hearing public comments
  4. Fred Whitaker should absolutely destroy Fitzgerald’s political future, anyone she supports, and work to yank at least five clients from Curt Pringle and Associates. 

 

Here’s what will happen next:

  1. City Staff will place ths item on the February 19 agenda.
  2. Fitzgerald will likely blame the City Attorney, City Manager, and most probably the City Clerk for not agendizing the item correctly.  Aside from being inappropriate, it’s typical behavior when she makes a mistake.
  3. Flory, Fitzgerald, and Zahra will just repeat their same vote after ignoring public comments and remove Whitaker from OCWD.  This is wildly unethical and might even be illegal.
  4. OCGOP will do nothing and leave Fullerton, La Habra, Placentia, and Yorba Linda Republicans in the gutter.  Expect more political assassinations in the months to come.

Obviously, what will happen makes me sad.  In the end, I’m only able to delay small people from doing small things in local politics and I’ll be unable to save a good man from the political agendas of those around him.

I suppose I’ll have to enjoy a good public shaming.  Three people broke the law to achieve personal ambition and revenge.  It was sad, ugly, and unnecessary.  It happened and will continue to happen because most voters have neither the desire to pay attention nor the resolve to hold those who excel in dispatching honest public servants accountable.

If you can’t get a line of people to show up and object to Council breaking the law to push a sorry political agenda, what can you get one for?


About Ryan Cantor

Our conservative columnist, based in Fullerton, works as a Project Development Analyst and Strategic Planner.