Tustin residents will be able to vote for three city council seats during the upcoming Nov. 3 general municipal election. 

Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at squick@voiceofoc.org.

There are currently nine candidates running, including only one incumbent, Letitia Clark who is eligible to serve another four-year term.   

Incumbents Dr. Allen Bernstein and Chuck Puckett have both reached their two term limits. 

Voice of OC contacted the nine candidates running for City Council seats and asked them questions regarding their political campaign platforms. Six candidates responded to requests for interviews. 

1. If elected for City Council, what will be your first priority?

“My first priority will be our local economy. Our general fund revenue is stagnating while our costs continue to rise. We need to support and strengthen our local businesses so we can maintain our public safety and quality of life. Doing this requires experienced leadership and embracing a more open, transparent partnership with our business community. As a business owner and civil engineer, I have a unique understanding of these issues, but more importantly, can deliver the needed solutions.” RYAN GALLAGHER

The most important thing that we need to do is make sure to keep Tustin healthy and safe. We need to enforce public health measures in Tustin. It’s critical to get the virus under control. We also need to do what Irvine has done and make testing available to our residents and people who work in Tustin and do what Costa Mesa has done and provide more assistance and relief to small businesses and renters. And we need to expand childcare and after school programs to make sure that parents can get back to work and kids can be safe.” LEE FINK

“My first priority once re-elected to the council is to implement a plan to transition from COVID-19 response to COVID-19 recovery. We must ensure that the Tustin Cares Program continues—which provided $2.5 million grants to small businesses, $250,000 grants to non-profits, and over $100,000 in rental and utility assistance to Tustin residents. I will also work to communicate with our healthcare facilities and clinics to ensure they have capacity for testing and assess needs for PPE, contact tracing, outdoor services, outreach to vulnerable populations and work on social determinants to health, etc. As part of the recovery efforts, I will help lead robust efforts to promote the health of our economy by implementing an extended plan to support small businesses, create pandemic proof jobs, and cultivate smart investments that generate sustainable revenue in Tustin.” LETITIA CLARK

“I would like to look at the current budget and see if there are any ways to cut or reduce city expenses to see how we can save money. I would also look into the parks and recreations to find ways to deeply reduce park fees for the youth leagues. I really feel it should not break the parents bank to provide something positive for our youth.” JAMES PEREZ

I would take a break to clear my head of campaign mode and transition to serving the community. Transitioning to council member, I would set up monthly meetings with department heads and staff and explore everything the city is doing to help the community (residents and business owners alike) cope with COVID-19 and help our businesses/community. I want to explore all ideas and develop new ideas and thoughts in navigating these exceedingly tricky times for our community and country. I would meet with the city manager, economic and community development, and see where we are at with our development pipeline and what projects are on the horizon. By the time I am sworn as a councilman, I will hit the ground running, informed on everything that is happening with Tustin, and continue to push forward.” AJ JHA

“As an Accountant for the IRS for eighteen year I have a keen understanding with budgets, profit & loss statements, and balance sheets which is fundamental to managing large entities. I would like a full review of all income and expenses items and especially how we handle the land at the Legacy. We need to revisit the general and specific plans for the Legacy. We cannot continue to sell off our land to cover our operating budgets shortfalls.” KURT BENSWORTH

2. How will you handle the economic impact the Tustin community has faced due to Covid-19?

“Once elected, I will work with my fellow council members to institute an Economic Development Committee, consisting of two council members and local business leaders. The focus of this committee will be to identify, evaluate and fast track for council approval, the changes to our policies and practices that can deliver real progress for our local economy. This will provide both transparency and access for those seeking to expand their local businesses or invest in our city.” RYAN GALLAGHER

First, we need to make sure we are providing childcare and after school programs to help take the pressure off of families. Second, we need to support businesses in Tustin by making it easier to get permits for remodeling to deal with COVID and for outdoor services, and provide access to low-cost loans. We also need to take advantage of the numerous opportunities we have at Tustin Legacy to help jumpstart our economy. For starters, the City can and should be generating revenue by leasing parking for rental car businesses (that have parked their cars at Angel Stadium) and other short-term uses. We can also start making our long-term plans for the old marine base and our historic blimp hangars.” LEE FINK

“Although the city continues to have a balanced budget and over 15% of our budget in reserves—above industry standards, the city is expected to experience $4.7 million in lost revenue because of the economic downturn related to the coronavirus. As we transition from response to recovery mode, it’s vital that we maintain a healthy budget for core city services, continue to access state and federal emergency funds, and make priorities based on immediate needs of the community. My experience as a staff aid for the City of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina taught me a great deal about how to manage a crisis, remain accountable to the public through transparency, and to demand access to funding from agencies like FEMA to assist in times of emergency. I have already helped lead Tustin through the response of COVID-19 and will be ready to lead on day one to work on the recovery from COVID-19.” LETITIA CLARK

“With Covid-19 I am very certain the city has had a reduction in tax revenue and other funds reduced which is why I would like to look at the city budget and see if there are any ways we can reduce spending cost and still maintain our great city. Coming from running my business in Tustin I understand the needs to look at alternate ways to save money to keep things moving. I am not a career politician and I want to look at how the funds are being spent and see where we can save. I want to provide a business advocate that our local businesses can connect with should they have issues or need assistance. This idea would be to provide easy access and help create a more stream line process for permits. I want to extend outdoor dining or any alternative options a business may need to continue to thrive moving forward.” JAMES PEREZ

Genuine real-world experience and leadership are required to shepherd Tustin’s recovery from COVID-19 and enact meaningful economic recovery. Luckily Tustin has a stable tax base to bounce back from, and COVID-19 hasn’t impacted city finances like other cities in Orange County. The city is looking at a 4-5 million dollar budget shortfall due to the loss of economic activity from COVID-19 in 2020. City staff needs to cut red tape to help our local businesses bounce back. I am not willing to cut any public services or raise taxes to make up for any shortfall. I would get staff in community and economic development to hit the town and see where we can improve business and generate more income for our small businesses. I will also continue to fight and lobby for more aid for businesses, to survive and thrive in these times. I understand as a business owner that many businesses are in a fight for survival. Many businesses have closed up shop and will continue to do so. I want to fight to keep every business open with increased outreach and putting our small business owners in better positions to succeed. Encourage sharing information and best practices in the COVID era.” AJ JHA

“I am very encouraged by the many businesses that have opened smartly and safe. Wearing masks and keeping the proper social distance should continue to lessen the chances of spreading the pandemic. However, we need more. The City needs to reach out to businesses. We tried many techniques, but we cannot rely on vendors alone. The City can take proactive measures to use creative programs to promote Tustin as a local destination. Perhaps bring back a weekly street fair, weekend flee market or art display days are all possible.” KURT BENSWORTH

3. What are your goals for the Tustin MSAC base? 

“While we have completed several successful projects at the Tustin Legacy over the past 20 years, hundreds of acres remain, including the historic hangars. Once elected, I will advocate to my fellow council members a public-private strategy for portions of the base. Doing so will allow us to move more quickly, reduce risk and free up staff and other resources to focus in critical areas such as Old Town. I will ensure that the Tustin Legacy is converted into not only a special landmark that provides public benefit to its residents but also helps to build our local economy.” RYAN GALLAGHER

Our historic blimp hangars are among the largest structures in Orange County, and they are not even mentioned in our City’s five-year strategic plan. We need a community-based plan that can make the hangars an economic center for the County. The hangars can be used for production as the heart of a thirty-mile zone for film production. We can also create centers for logistics operations for shipping, delivery, and online services, an area that is growing in the new economy. The proximity to the airport makes it an ideal location for this. We can also try to locate a VA facility in Tustin Legacy. Orange County is the sixth largest county in the country but does not have a VA hospital, and there is no better way to live up to our legacy. These are just a few of the ideas that people in Tustin have brought up. And as we develop the economic centers there, we can also create new neighborhoods. These can have a mix of housing options located next to the services that they need like at the Village at Tustin Legacy. These types of settings will make sure that we have self-contained neighborhoods that make it convenient for residents, allowed for walkable and bike-able neighborhoods, and minimizes traffic impacts.” LEE FINK

“The first order of business is to get full control of the North and South Hangar and the acres current controlled by the County of Orange and the US Navy. The Orange County Grand Jury Report highlights some of the legal and environmental strongholds that have prevented comprehensive development on the former Tustin MSAC base. Through enhanced community engagement, education, and information sharing, my plan would be to heavily incorporate the will of the people to help the council move forward in finalizing plans and the implementation of plans on this coveted site. As the center of Orange County, I am open to entertaining many ideas—a Veteran’s Hospital, a sports or entertainment complex that could house companies like Top Golf, or a diverse housing area that are walkable, bikable to increase quality living.” LETITIA CLARK

“I would like to revisit the original master plan that was developed over 20 years ago to see how we can more effectively utilize the land. What may have been a great idea 20 years ago may not work so well today. I also want to look at how the land is currently being sold and find alternative ways to develop the land and still create long term revenue that will be more beneficial than just selling a piece of land.” JAMES PEREZ

“We have to be smart, think for the future, and make sure our interests with surplus land on the base support Tustin’s future financial sustainability. If that means developing the property piece by piece, that’s what I must do to be financially responsible. I plan to create the base land to support Tustin’s future and put the city on the map. We need to add hotels, entertainment options. We need to take over the hangar that will be given to the County. We need to make the south hangar a destination for trade shows, exhibitions, and events anchored by hotels and a redefined District shopping center. We need to finish building the green belt that runs through the fabric of the Legacy area. We also need to create a mass transit hub with mixed-use housing to attract younger homeowners. The city also needs to get away from land sales and transition to a lease model to ensure cash flow over time.” AJ JHA

“We need to revisit the general and specific plans for the Legacy. We cannot continue to sell off our land to cover our operating budgets shortfalls. I would like to set apart at least 150 acres for a high-tech industry complex or other manufactory institution which could include real life trade learning. The land would be leased providing for perpetual income. I am looking for a long-term solution and not a short-term remedy. We only have a finite amount of land.” KURT BENSWORTH

4. Do you have any plans to bring new developments to Tustin given the various vacant lots throughout the City?

“Local businesses want to expand, and outside companies want to invest in Tustin. They are hindered by policies enacted by previous councils. We can remedy this through open dialogue with our business community and streamlining of our permitting and entitlement process. Staff have collaborated with residents and businesses to develop specific plans that layout a beautiful vision for our city, we just need to clear the obstacles so we can make it happen.” RYAN GALLAGHER

We have huge opportunities to attract people and business to Tustin. First, we need to listen to our business owners and actually talk to the property owners. Most people do not want their lots and buildings sitting vacant. Second, we need to create a Business and Community Ombusperson who will report to the city council so that we can provide white glove service to businesses that want to come to Tustin. Third, we know that, particularly in Old Town, one of the big problems is parking. We need to be prepared to build parking so that more people can park and come to our fabulous existing businesses, and welcome new businesses. And that will allow us to make Old Town more of a destination and walking area. “ LEE FINK

“Many of the vacant lots are privately owned and sometimes have complicated relationships between shareholders and family members. However, I am open to creating incentives for these owners to encourage temporary leases for community uses such community gardens, farmer’s markets, additional parking, greenspace or parklets, or other recreational events that bring the community together. I also encourage investors who would like to buy or lease these properties to talk with myself and city staff who have an open door policy and remain committed to creativity and innovation when approaching solutions.” LETITIA CLARK

“I would like to reach out to businesses that could be a fit for the city and I want to look into incentives we can provide to bring more businesses in so we can take advantage of the lots and empty buildings we have. I want to bring an open mind and look at creative ways to utilize the opportunity we have, including ways to use the vacant lots even for temporary pop up businesses or food truck events. I want to look at ways we can bring more visitors into the city so businesses can continue to thrive. It’s all a balance, the more people that come into the city to shop & dine the more businesses will want to come and the more businesses we have open up the more people will want to come shop and dine. I also want to create an easier permit process and reduce the red tape for new businesses to come into the city which will help occupy those empty areas. “ JAMES PEREZ

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