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Tax Payer Funded ‘Antagonism Campaign’ by Englander, Knabe, Allen Wages Covert War on Traffic Relief Efforts in Orange County

Thursday March 7, 2019, 8:25 p.m.
BY BRIAN HEWS

The pitched battle for the toll roads extension from Oso Parkway to the 5-freeway in South Orange County has been raging for over three years, the main combatants involve the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and the city and some residents of San Clemente who want nothing to do with the extension.

And in recent months, the battle has become an all-out war.

The TCA sent out a request for proposal in 2015 for a wide-ranging public outreach program to engage the public on traffic congestion issues and to seek stakeholder input on possible solutions.

Irvine-based Venture Strategic submitted the lowest responsible bid, beating out others including the well-known and much larger Los Angeles-based firm of Englander, Knabe, Allen by a significant margin.

Since the inception of the campaign, Venture has received accolades from the TCA, Caltrans, several area city council-members, and many other organizations for their outreach across all platforms, including social media, video content, and traditional and digital advertising.

TCA’s outreach effort has been so effective that the twelve national and local environmental groups that were in litigation with TCA for many years, dropped their lawsuits and no longer oppose the agency’s traffic relief efforts so long as they avoid designated environmentally sensitive lands.

Landmark Agreement Ends 15-Year Dispute Over SR 241 Toll Road Extension

In addition, a routine audit by TCA’s licensed auditors showed that Venture’s billings to TCA were 99.9% accurate. That accuracy was due in large part to Venture and TCA’s commitment to transparency in the billing process.

The system mandates that Venture’s team submit their billings to an attorney who questions and reviews all timesheets, assigns the hours to the appropriate category, finally submitting to the TCA for review that goes through several layers of scrutiny prior to approval.

The audit confirmed Venture has consistently come in under budget every year, verifying that the consulting firm actually underbilled the agency for its services.

 

Auditors document showing that Venture under billed the TCA by $4,684.

 

But behind the scenes, the overall success of TCA’s outreach campaign worried the San Clemente City Council, so much so that they set out on a secretive, highly questionable, and possibly illicit scheme to kill the toll road project.

And they used Englander, who lost the initial outreach contract to Venture, as their consultant.

Hews Media Group-Los Cerritos Community News has obtained documents showing that after Englander lost the initial bid to Venture, the firm proposed a multi-platform $97,000 “antagonism campaign,” funded by the taxpayers of San Clemente.

The short contract was approved in July 2017, questionably placed on the consent calendar during a regular City Council meeting.

The consent calendar is where several other “normal” agenda items are placed so they can all be approved in one motion, without public comment, and with the City Council conveniently not questioning any items.

After approval, Englander was paid a lump sum of $97,266, with the City Council moving $75,000 from their savings-contingency account to cover the deficit in the City’s general fund account.

 

San Clemente check register (top) showing $97,000 check payable to Englander. Agenda item (bottom) approving the Englander contract and ordering the City Manager to move the money from the City’s savings account.

 

The document described a campaign designed to lengthen the Oso Parkway extension construction process while costing the TCA hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The campaign also aimed to not only discredit TCA and the project, but to also discredit Venture’s efforts, with Englander blatantly labeling the campaign a “war,” using quotes in the preface of their proposal from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to drive the point home and secure the contract.

 

 

Englander did not mince words in its proposal, citing five lessons from The Art of War writing, “at Englander… having a well-thought-out timetable enables us to be offensive in our activities and be prepared to take a “kill shot” when the opportunity is presented.”

Englander backed up that “kill shot” statement, squarely aimed at the TCA and Venture, taking the proposal to another level that will have many questioning the business practice of “antagonism campaigns” and the motives of the San Clemente City Council.

In the proposal Englander wrote, “TCA’s primary challenge throughout its’ history has been earning public support for their [told road] activities.”

“The path to success is to increase public antagonism toward the agency, its Board of Directors within their own cities, taxpayers and even some environmental groups.”

 

Entry in Englander’s proposal shockingly wrote, “increase public antagonism toward the TCA’s Board of Directors within their own cities.”

 

 

After learning of the antagonism campaign, one local councilperson, who wanted to remain anonymous because they had already received threats, told HMG-LCCN, “this was blatant, I would think twice hiring a firm who called for antagonizing people, it’s outrageous.”

Some of the more egregious steps Englander outlined in its antagonism campaign included:

1. A San Clemente “taxpayer or City-sponsored” lawsuit
2. The San Clemente City Council demanding TCA study a tunnel similar to the 710 freeway “demanding a study is both time-consuming and a heavy expenditure on the agency.”
3. Potential legislation- kill TCA’s borrowing capabilities  and “research whether legislation could be introduced to reduce further bonding authority for TCA.”
4. CPRA requests (public records requests) regular requests under the CPRA should be made for staff and consulting salaries and other expenditures.

HMG-LCCN has learned that the campaign has done its job related to the last step listed, CPRA requests. In a little over 1.5 years, the TCA has received well over 210 requests for public documents-almost twelve per month – with sources telling HMG-LCCN that the requests have cost the TCA well over $100,000.

The “recommended approach” Englander envisioned was “running this engagement like a ‘campaign’ designed specifically at moving stakeholders against TCA’s plans in and around San Clemente so that various projects are studied and litigated for decades.”

And the word “committee” could land the San Clemente City Council in legal hot water for misuse of public funds.

If a city or school district seeks to spend money on an issue, for example a sales tax measure for the city or an infrastructure bond for the schools, the Fair Political Practices Commission mandates the opening of an expenditure committee, attaching a name to the committee such as “Yes on Sales Tax Measure.”

Englander called their engagement a “campaign” with an objective of defeating the toll road extension; it was not a lobbying contract, which cities are allowed to engage in.

The designation could trigger an FPPC investigation of the contract.

“It is a shame the extension has reached this level,” said the local councilperson, “Venture has done an extraordinary job, while people involved in the project, including me, had threats upon their lives for supporting the project. I myself had two and reported them to the Sheriff’s, I know of another who received threats also.”

Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager of the Surfrider Foundation, said in a statement after learning about the document, “based on what we know, this misleading (Englander) $100,000-plus PR campaign was designed to pit San Clemente neighbor against San Clemente neighbor. It represents a shocking waste of taxpayer money.”

Emails into the San Clemente City Council and Englander, Knabe, Allen went unreturned.

See Englander proposal click here.

[email protected]

 

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