Tustin City Council Candidates Weigh in on Boosting Business, Public Safety

October 5, 2020 Updated: October 5, 2020

As the Nov. 3 Tustin City Council election draws near, the nine candidates vying for three available seats are focusing largely on business development, public safety, and devising plans for an undeveloped parcel of land known as the Legacy.

Growing Local Businesses

AJ Jha, a business owner and city planning commissioner, is looking at how to close an estimated budget shortfall of $4 million to $5 million due to the loss in economic activity this year.

“City staff needs to cut red tape to help our local businesses bounce back,” he told The Epoch Times. “I am not willing to cut any public services or raise taxes to make up for any shortfall. Instead of land sales for a one-time benefit, I propose to move to more leasing situations, which will bring in consistent revenue to city reserves.”

James Perez, a real estate broker, told The Epoch Times: “I have seen the same council run the city for two decades. While other cities thrive, I see Tustin remain stale with missed opportunities, not allowing new businesses in and not providing current businesses the real support they need.”

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Tustin City Council candidate James Perez in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of James Perez)

Perez, who wants to explore ways to attract new businesses in Tustin, is running along with Kurt Benworth, an entrepreneur who emphasizes his finance expertise and desire to increase city revenue. Together, Perez and Benworth call themselves “Team Tustin.”

“The number of businesses in Tustin has been decreasing every year for well over a decade and for too long we have had too many vacant lots and buildings,” Benworth said on his website.

Letitia Clark, a current city council member who is the only incumbent in the race, emphasized the “trickle-down effect” of creating jobs for local residents.

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Tustin City Council candidate Letitia Clark in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Letitia Clark)

“The money made from businesses and individuals pours right back into the local economy when citizens spend it on housing and goods in Tustin,” she said on her website. “We also need to work on cultivating and developing partnerships with businesses that are a good fit for Tustin.”

Lee Fink, a businessman and consumer advocate, wants to help businesses acquire low-cost loans to assist with recovery costs. He calls for incentivizing innovation, creating workforce housings, and encouraging businesses to commit to hiring recent college graduates and other youth.

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Tustin City Council candidate Lee Fink in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Lee Fink)

Ensuring Public Safety

Keeping neighborhoods safe is another primary concern for Fink. If elected, he plans to prioritize funding to maintain fast emergency response times and work with neighborhood groups to enhance crime reports.

He also wants to see Tustin represented on the Orange County Street Racing Task Force, a county-wide effort currently in the preliminary stages.

“We need to address the dangerous street racing and street takeovers that are taking place throughout the city,” Fink wrote on his site. “Ensuring that Tustin has a spot on the county-wide task force is critical as these events and participants are tracked and arrested throughout the county, and their cars impounded.”

Ryan Gallagher, a member of the city’s Planning Commission, shares Fink’s concerns.

“As a husband and father of two young boys, the increase in criminal activity and street racing in our city has been concerning, which is why public safety is one of my top priorities,” he told The Epoch Times. “I am proud to be endorsed by the Tustin Police and OC Sheriff Don Barnes.”

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Tustin City Council candidate Ryan Gallagher in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Ryan Gallagher)
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Tustin City Council candidate Cris Cusac in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Cris Cusac)

Businessman Cris Cusac praises the Tustin Police Department on his campaign website for “doing a great job during COVID times and the recent unrest and protests that have swept the nation. I’d like to help the TPD make moves to become the model in which all agencies look to emulate.”

Public safety is the number one issue for business owner and attorney Jorge Valdes.

He told The Epoch Times that his plan for ensuring public safety depends on “maintaining a good police presence and maintaining a good relationship with the police. There’s no question that’s at the top of my list. And that is absolutely the overwhelming sentiment from my neighbors and people that I have spoken to.”

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Tustin City Council candidate Jorge Valdes in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Jorge Valdes)

Developing ‘The Legacy’

Another key concern for Valdes is the Tustin Legacy, a 1,600-acre piece of land that has been slowly developed over the years, with much still remaining open.

“There’s a lot of frustration in town,” Valdes said. “It’s been empty land for basically 20 years. And there’s comments being made to me like, ‘I’m going to pass away, and this is all [still] going to be empty land.’ Jokes, you know, half-hearted, but there’s a lot of truth in jest. So I would say my second priority is moving the Legacy forward in a considered and proper way.”

According to him, part of the problem is that the city staff has taken a “bottom-up approach to planning.”

“I don’t believe that city staff members have the skill set to develop a 21st century city,” he said. “I really think that the development of the Legacy needs to be placed into the hands of private people with the approval of the city council. And then we can have the planning staff sort of fill in the boxes. That would be my approach to developing the Legacy.”

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Tustin City Council candidate AJ Jha stands amid the letters on a sign for a partially developed parcel of land known as the Tustin Legacy, in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of AJ Jha)

Developing the area is a central issue on the radar for several candidates.

Gallagher agrees that there should be a clear plan for the Tustin Legacy, especially since the city’s general fund has been over budget since 2017, he said.

“The Tustin Legacy could be the economic engine that drives Tustin into the future,” Gallagher told The Epoch Times. “With 500-plus acres remaining, we have the opportunity to build something truly special. …Next year will mark 20 years since we started developing the Tustin Legacy, and we cannot allow the next 20 years to be the same as the last. Our current path is unsustainable and our residents deserve better.”

While Perez would support revisiting the master plan in order to “maximize the true monetary benefit” of the land, Jha believes the area could best be utilized as an event or exhibition space “supported by new hotels and restaurants to boost city tax revenue.”

“Tustin has an enormous undertaking for the next several cycles of city council members [to] plan and develop the Tustin Legacy,” Cusac wrote on his website, pledging to make sure any development will benefit “the people of Tustin and not the interests of few.”

Enhancing Local Education

While Clark acknowledges that city council members don’t have authority over local school systems, she is interested in exploring ways to improve educational opportunities in Tustin. Investing in pre-school and after-school programs, school safety, and infrastructure improvements on school buildings are some of the areas on which she would focus her attention.

“We can lead by bringing our community together to enable teachers, parents and schools to focus on their highest goal, which is helping our children learn,” Clark wrote on her campaign site.

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Tustin City Council candidate Beckie Gomez in Tustin, Calif. (Courtesy of Beckie Gomez)

The ninth candidate, Beckie Gomez, a former two-term Tustin council member and member of the Orange County Board of Education, affirms her commitment to stand up for “students, teachers, parents, and families.”

Gomez describes herself as fiscally conservative, an effective problem solver, and someone who will ensure the safety and well-being of Tustin’s families and residents.