Thursday, October 23, 2014

Digital Billboard Hacking 101

There are many types of electronic billboards, and many types have been hacked. From left to right: (1)Billboard in Hong Kong hacked by self-promoting thrill-seekers, via NY Daily News, (2)Digital billboard in Moscow hacked to show pornographic film, via BBC, and (3)Billboard hacked in Belgrade using iPhones, followed by a giant game of Space Invaders, via ABC News.

Councilmember Bob Kellar is a staunch supporter of Measure S, which proposes replacing conventional billboards in town with digital billboards along freeways. One of the reasons he favors this deal is that the City has no control over the content of conventional billboards, which can advertise all manner of vices; a board promoting La Vida Gentlemen's Club is often referenced in this regard. But Kellar argues that, as the landowner for new digital billboard operations, we will finally have control over content and be able to keep objectionable ads out of Santa Clarita.

Oh, will we?

During a discussion of digital billboards tonight, a friend said, "I wonder how long until those things get hacked..." This possibility (inevitability?) has received rather little attention. So as we sat at the  Rose & Crown Pub consuming chips and beer, I decided to investigate the world of digital billboard hacking.

Within 10 seconds, I had downloaded notes on digital billboard hacking from the DEF CON Hacking Conference onto my phone. In another 10 seconds, I was watching the corresponding presentation by a woman called Tottenkoph. She detailed "Hijacking the Outdoor Digital Billboard" (March 28, 2013; 1,517 views).

The vulnerabilities of digital billboards are surprisingly many. Logins and passwords like "admin" and "password" are often used. Over-eager sales teams are described as all too ready to give away technical details about digital billboards in hopes of securing a deal. Security may consist of a single camera aimed at the billboard face, not the infrastructure below. I'm guessing there are more than a few individuals in this valley who, given sufficient motivation and bravado, might work out all of the hacking particulars that went unsaid in the presentation. After all, people have managed to hack into payment information from Home Depot, into the PlayStation network, into the iCloud accounts of celebrities, and even into Iranian nuclear facilities (recall the Stuxnet Attack). Given these past breaches, it's hard to imagine that digital billboards are invulnerable.

If Santa Clarita's proposed digital billboards are, Heaven forfend, approved and installed, they may very well be attacked. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. The images at the beginning of this post show how digital billboards have been commandeered for self-promotion, mischief, or major disruption. From games of Space Invaders to hardcore pornography, the images projected by hackers can truly run the gamut.

There was a widely publicized case of skulls being projected on Los Angeles digital billboards in 2008 as part of a hack, but it was a false alarm that ended up being a legitimate, paid-for art installation (via Wired). Indeed, try as I might, I wasn't able to find any confirmed case of the hacking of an LA area digital billboard. Perhaps my concerns about hacking amount to nothing more than fear mongering--an attempt to enhance the logical objections to Measure S with anxiety and paranoia. For while we might reasonably agree that all digital things are hackable, that doesn't mean hackers will devote their energies to finding a way in. Since it's so close to Halloween, though, why not dwell on this frightful possibility just a little longer? Here's a bit of what Tottenkoph had to say in her talk:

"Now the great thing about this, about their wireless network, is that it's unencrypted, and it's not protected at all. We did a simple drive-by and we were able to see the network that the billboard was projecting from and connect. You could capture packets to see where the billboard is broadcasting to, spoof that IP address...and then, you know, etcetera, etcetera, but again, I don't know how to do this [winkingly] because this is all in theory." Audience laughs.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Water Headaches, City Survey, McClements vs. McLean

NOTE: Word on the street has it that a trivia team playing at Tilted Kilt last night had "No on Measure S" as their team name. The name was announced every round with scores, followed by a tagline that changed each round, such as "No backroom deals for Santa Clarita" or "No digital billboard blight." They won.

Chlorides. Billboards. Vista Canyon. Lobbyists. Mobile homes. Rail. Perchlorate. Campaign signage. Cemex. Drought. This was a city council meeting[1] that exhausted attendants with a thousand issues...each its own complex narrative struggling to stay at the forefront of a fickle Clarita's collective mind. Though no single issue took center stage, all got at least a little attention tonight. It's a reminder that in Santa Clarita, much remains open-ended, unresolved, and ultimately out of the control of the City Council. Indeed, apart from agreeing to some tennis court design contracts and deciding to leave the floundering Eco-Rapid Transit Joint Powers Authority, tonight was far more talk than action. We were also reminded that if you want to get an in-meeting response to your comment to the City Council, you should be named Hunt Braly or Jim Backer.

Front Matter: "Reading is so good for us."

Councilmember Dante Acosta delivered the invocation; it seemed like more talking than he's done in the past several meetings combined. Acosta lamented the fact(?) that more people vote in American Idol than in official elections. He said that he sincerely hopes everyone votes on November 4th. After that, twenty or so scouts led the pledge of allegiance and were given thunderous applause once completed. Impressively, almost all of them sat through the meeting until at least 8 tonight. The woman sitting next to me was a scout mom, and she alternated between taking notes for Bible study and shaking her head in disappointment as residents expressed their dismay with various council actions.

I felt a profound darkness closing in on me as I looked on the agenda and saw the queue: two recognitions and three presentations. At ten minutes or more apiece, I knew I wouldn't be getting out before 8 (I was right). The first recognition was issued in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Technically that happened last month, but giving the award in October just extended the good times a little longer. Mayor Weste said that 12% of Santa Clarita businesses are Latino-owned, and added that the Latino population makes many important cultural contributions to the community. Photos followed. The next recognition went to Santa Clarita Friends of Library volunteers. Mayor Weste spoke about the many important library services supported by the Friends group and its fundraising. "Reading is so good for us," mused Weste. Photos followed.

Presentations: Heart Attack, Water Conservation, We Want Cheesecake

This brought us to the presentations portion of the meeting. A video from LACo Fire Department was aimed at informing the public about the potentially life-saving PulsePoint app. In the event of a sudden cardiac arrest, quickly administering CPR can improve chances of survival, and Pulsepoint alerts people trained in first aid to help nearby victims, providing aid before emergency personnel arrive. The video was very heavy-handed, especially its soaring musical score: old couple in store, man has heart attack, wife just around and emotes, guy at store next door runs over to save the day after notification from PulsePoint. Unlike me, Bible-study lady liked the video, gasping as the old man in the video crumpled to the ground from his heart attack and expressing her own concerns that something similar could happen to a family member.

The next presentation was brought to us by Castaic Lake Water Agency General Manager Dan Masnada. Masnada can bore a crowd like few others, and tonight was no excepection as he spent more than ten minutes explaining that we're in a drought and ought to conserve water. He tried to sneak in a jab at environmental groups that have sued the CLWA, saying they would have prevented us from having water, but his vilification fell on mostly uninterested ears. Masnada said that conservation is happening, and Santa Clarita's water use for 2014 has been about 3% less than use in 2013. He noted that groundwater supplies would increase, explaining that much of this had to do with aggressively pumping water from some wells to control the spread of perchlorate in groundwater. Once treated, water formerly contaminated with perchlorate "will be available for consumptive use," he explained. Yum.  Finally, Masnada noted that securing additional water supplies to make up for shortfalls cost CLWA $1.7M this year, but they elected not to pass this on to the retailers in the form of a surcharge. I looked over and saw Cam Noltemeyer shaking her head, suggesting at least one attendant didn't believe CLWA's claim of always looking out for the customers.

Before Masnada stepped away from the podium, Councilemember TimBen Boydston had a couple of questions. He said that the number one question he gets from residents is whether CLWA can assure  new housing developments of an adequate water supply if we're already working so hard to conserve what we have. Surprisingly, Masnada agreed that if drought conditions were the norm, new developments wouldn't make sense based on the water supply. However, he said there will be wetter years ahead, and growth is planned based on the average water supply, not supply in severe droughts. Boydston then asked if some of Santa Clarita's water from the planned reverse osmosis facility could be pumped back into our basin. Masnada said that was being looked at, but requirements for recycled water dilution and residence times would diminish how much could be reclaimed. In the midst of this dull but rather useful discussion, Bob Kellar took to the microphone to tell Masnada and Boydston that they had the rest of the meeting to get to. Kellar, who has complained about residents voting based on incomplete information in the past, is a difficult man to please in terms of how much conversation about a topic is acceptable.

The final presentation was a fun one--the public opinion poll of Santa Clarita residents that comes out every other year. City Manager Ken Striplin explained that for the first time, cell phones were called in addition to landlines, giving a more representative picture of what Santa Clarita thinks and wants. 400 were interviewed, and the margin of error on the poll was +/-5%. Some 80% of residents trust the City of Santa Clarita. (Cam Noltemeyer darkly chuckled at this number). Striplin spent most of his presentation giving breakdowns on what people liked best about Santa Clarita, such as when he presented a slide entitled "Reasons for Residents' Satisfaction with City Services." There was no sister slide explicating reasons for residents' dissatisfaction. He revealed that the most coveted businesses for town are Cheesecake Factory, Nordstrom, and Porto's. (I credit Porto's being on the list to the rumor-mongering efforts of news-breaking blogger Mike Devlin. He gave us hope for delicious pastries and then took it away.) In response to the survey, which found very little wrong with Santa Clarita, Mayor Weste said, "I feel like we shoud just say 'Bravo!' or something." City Manager Striplin's job seems secure.

Public Participation: Larry Has Video

We were well into the 7 o'clock hour at this point and the real business of the meeting still hadn't started. Public participation included comments from a representative of Parklane Mobile Estates in Santa Clarita. Mobile home rents and ordinances are being examined city-wide effort, and he expressed his feeling that "the vast majority [of residents] are happy," and didn't want to foster more tension between management and residents. Cam Noltemeyer scolded the City for passing on expensive water projects to ratepayers. Al Ferdman said that City Attorney Joe Montes had not written an impartial analysis of Measure S, the billboard swap deal, because he didn't mention that 22 billboards will come down regardless of whether Measure S passes or not due to another agreement. This makes it a poorer deal than the impartial analysis seems to suggest. Hunt Braly asked for the City to defer some fees on the homes being built for veterans in the community. Steve Petzold spoke passionately against Measure S. He also questioned whether Montes had penned an impartial analysis of the deal, and he was dismayed to report that out-of-state interests have been big funders of "Yes on S" efforts. Patti Sulpizio asked whether it was legal for SCVTV, which is heavily subsidized by the City of Santa Clarita, to run ads for "Yes on S" during broadcasts of city meetings.
Al Ferdman says 22 are coming down anyways, even if measure s doesn't pass

Finally, Larry McClements came forward and spoke about a run-in he had with Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean during the last elections. She told him he couldn't campaign while on public property--he had a sign and was at the Newhall librbary--and McClements asked for clarification as to whether he and Marsha--who had a sign on her own car in the same lot--were acting properly or ought to be thrown in the slammer. His extensive detailing of the confrontation was thoroughly enjoyable.

Responses & Updates: "So far beyond reality..."
After a hearty round of public participation, the only comment that really got a response was the one from Hunt Braly about fee deferments for veteran housing. It will be agendized for discussion.

Councilmember Boydston pushed for City Attorney Montes to say more about some of the legal questions which had been brought up, especially campaigning on city property. Boydston said his own vehicle had a sign and joked that he might have to run out and move it to a different lot. Montes said he would discuss the issue more fully after some additional research, but said that signs would be really problematic if displayed with one-hundred feet of a polling place on election day.

Mayor Pro Tem McLean couldn't leave the comments from Larry McClements entirely alone, so she said that the claims he made were "so far beyond reality" they didn't deserve to be dignified with a response. From the audience, McClements shouted back, "I've got video." And so he does.

Updates from the council followed. McLean thanked the Valley Industrial Association for a work program with high school students, and she held back tears as she spoke about a gravely ill Henry Schultz, longtime advocate for Santa Clarita and its open spaces. Acosta thanked the City for recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month, and he encouraged everyone to visit our city's many trails, which he toured extensively in recent weeks. Kellar read some emails from residents thanking City staff for performing City services. Weste mentioned the recently declared San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, noting that it is near the planned Cemex mining site and Santa Clarita's open space district. She also touched on recent meetings about chloride treatment, and contended that moving forward with a $100M+ treatment plan was much better than the initially feared $500M+ plan. She also asked that staff agendize discussion of LA County's recent allocation of $3M for the SCV Senior Center; the council will talk about what they can contribute to continue supporting the center's mission. Updates from the council ended with a plea from Kellar, who wants people to donate to the Boys & Girls Club.

Consent Calendar

At 8:08, we finally arrived at the consent calendar. There were two comments on Item 7, which simply lays out a list of local appointments. Al Ferdman and Patti Sulpizio were dismayed to see that Arthur Sohikian,who is a lobbyist for Allvision, represents Santa Clarita on the North County Transportation Coalition. They argued there is a conflict of interest since Sohikian is being paid to push for digital billboards along freeways. City Attorney Montes said he didn't see a problem so long as Sohikian recused himself from commenting or voting on issues where he had a vested interest. Councilmember Kellar made a point that the City doesn't pay Sohikian to serve.

Other items approved on the consent calendar included extending a parking enforcement contract with Data Ticket. It's a $300K contract, and revenue from citations is expected to exceed costs. The item included a survey saying that the assholes residents who call Data Ticket to come and leave citations on others' cars are satisfied with the service. There was no survey of how satisfied the cited parties are. There was also a contract awarded for designing a tennis facility at Central Park.

 New Business: Controversial Letter, Bye Eco-Rapid

At the urging of the council, the City composed a letter inquiring about whether the Via Princessa Metro station could continue to operate even after the Vista Canyon Metro station is operational. Developer Jim Backer thought it made more sense to go ahead with the plan (he accused the Council of going back on its stated plans and preferences) to have a station for Vista Canyon and turn Via Princessa into a park. He didn't want Vista Canyon's planned station to be in jeopardy. Councilmember Kellar said, "we looked like a bunch of goofballs to Metro" for going back and forth on station plans, and he said he stood with Backer. Boydston tried to calm worries by stating that the letter wants both stations. "We don't want to upset the Vista Canyon project at all" promised Acosta to Backer. At Acosta's suggestion, the letter will go back for revisions to state even more forcefully that Santa Clarita wants to support the station for Vista Canyon.

The final bit of new business was a decision to leave Eco-Rapid Transit, a joint powers authority that was originally the Orangeline Development Authority. Mayor Pro Tem McLean, who has worked with this group for years, said it has moved away from a planned magnetically levitated (maglev) train system. Other cities have jumped ship. Worst of all, she said, they rejected going forward with issuing a request for interest even after the Japanese and Korean governments expressed considerable interest in partnering on a maglev train. She summarized her recommendation to leave on the grounds that "our interests are no longer being met" and that she's "really saddened" by the reduction of scope, lack of vision, and poor feasibility of Eco-Rapid's projects. The Eco-Rapid Director made a comment, but he could not keep Santa Clarita involved and excited. The City will even try to get its past dues (about $30,000 a year) reimbursed. McLean hoped things will get back on track (get it?) because an innovative rail project for SoCal is "such a worthwhile endeavor." With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Here's the agenda.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Boydston vs. Kellar at The Signal's Measure S Debate/Forum/Event

Councilmember Bob Kellar wasn't smiling for long once the debate got underway.
Tonight, The Signal hosted a debate on Measure S, which, if approved, gives the go-ahead for installing large digital billboards along freeways in exchange for removing some conventional billboards in town. Amidst the tired talking points and middling moderation, some surprising information emerged. A major revelation was that the billboard deal was being formulated for years behind closed doors--back to the Pulskamp era, according to Councilmembers Bob Kellar and TimBen Boydston. Another was the presentation of what might be deemed the Boydston Plan, which radically suggests both Allvision and LA Metro are effectively middlemen that can be cut out of billboard negotiations. Boydston went after many perceived flaws in the billboard deal, leaving Kellar to play defense for the majority of the night. Below are some observations.


The debate took place for a little over an hour with a short break in the middle. Councilmember Kellar spoke in favor of Measure S, and Councilmember Boydston spoke against it. There were opening and closing statements, and moderator Jason Schaff helped direct the conversation with questions. He was rather informal, telling Bob Kellar “You should!” when Kellar said he’d take advantage of discounted advertising prices for the digital billboards to promote his real estate business. He also called current billboards some colloquial pejorative (scummy? I can’t remember the exact word), asking if anyone really liked them. He didn't seem to be playing favorites, though, as he asked some probing questions of both men. The debate definitely went more in-depth into the nature of the Allvision deal at the cost of breadth. “Is it a good deal?” was the fundamental question of the night, perhaps rightly so.

Bob Kellar often referred to and read from written statements. When speaking freely, he tended to make appeals to authority. To paraphrase, Santa Clarita has great people working for it and a legacy of fiscal responsibility, so it ought to be trusted to handle billboard negotiations and implementation in the community’s best interest. TimBen Boydston spoke much less from the script and had more control over the conversation. His style was more pragmatic, asking Claritans to think about the numbers and terms and conditions rather than trust in the institution of the City of Santa Clarita.

Billboard Plans Began in 2010?

Jason Schaff asked Bob Kellar why so many of the deal’s negotiations had gone on behind closed doors and how long discussions had been taking place. Kellar said that Allvision and Metro were in discussions back in April 2010, though it's not clear how involved the City was at that point. Boydston confirmed his understanding that much of the deal had been hammered out by former City Manager Ken Pulskamp and former Director of Community Development Paul Brotzman. Both of those men retired in 2012. In short, there were at least a couple years of work on the billboard deal before the public got wind of any of it. While Kellar said this was normal and proper for a discussion of this nature, Boydston said he had asked City Attorney Joe Montes if the negotiations could have been more public, and Montes said that would indeed have been legal.

The revelation definitely played to the advantage of the No on S crowd. There was a hushed but audible gasp audience-wide when Kellar dropped the 2010 “start date,” and such lengthy closed-door discussions did not manage to yield an airtight, criticism-proof contract.

A Bird in the Hand vs. A Line of Applicants
or, The Boydston Plan Emerges

The vast majority of this evening was spent talking about whether Measure S was the best deal Santa Clarita could get.  Boydston called it terrible, Kellar called it great.

The Kellar argument was that the real goal of any negotiations was getting billboards taken down, and indeed, more billboards go down than go up with Measure S (whether they are equivalent in nature was an unanswered question). He said any revenue was better than the $0 the City currently receives from conventional billboards. His central metaphor was of the deal as a bird in the hand. It’s one we can take to the bank today, and who knows if we’d do as well if things went back to the negotiation stage? Kellar generally shied away from specifics, but he said the 65% share of net revenue likely represented 28-29% of gross revenue, a decent percentage comparable to what other cities receive. Further, he claimed that estimates suggesting $500K-$1M in annual revenue weren’t “phony baloney” but based on revenue generated in other installations. Nonetheless, Kellar admitted there were no guarantees of any net revenue. He said by the same token, there were no guarantees the roof of The Signal’s creekside home wouldn’t come crashing down at any moment.

Boydston asked Claritans to envision a better deal. While Metro owns the land on which the billboards are leased, CBS and Clear Channel own and operate the billboards. They were not involved in the negotiations, but ought to have been. A deal involving Santa Clarita and these companies would mean splitting revenue two ways, not among several parties, and could mean tens of millions of extra dollars would go to the people of Santa Clarita rather than middlemen. Kellar insisted that Clear Channel knew about the deal, despite Schaff presenting an official letter that indicated otherwise. Kellar said Clear Channel should have taken the responsibility to draw up their own proposal and present it to Santa Clarita. Boydston found this suggestion ridiculous as the City had issued no request for proposals. Boydston continued with his assertion that Allvision and Metro didn't need to be involved in billboard removal efforts or contracts, pushing for a simpler, more profitable contract.
Boydston countered Kellar's bird-in-the-hand argument next. Companies seem to think hundreds of millions of advertising dollars are up for grabs in an SCV billboard deal. Therefore, he has no doubts that if we kill the present deal (or let the bird in the hand go, to use Kellar's metaphor), we'll have many more deals to consider thereafter (or a handful of birds).

The Second Deal vs. The Universal Deal

There will be 25 conventional billboards left even if Measure S passes. This includes one billboard presently advertising for a gentlemen’s club (Kellar and Boydston are both opposed to it, for whatever reason). Kellar, whose ideas of the proper role of CBS and Clear Channel varied throughout the night, said he hoped they or others might approach the City with a second deal after this first one passes that will result in the removal of all remaining boards.

Boydston rejected hopes for a second deal, instead arguing that remaining billboards skyrocket in value after the removal of others (supply and demand), so the present deal must be scrapped and a universal billboard agreement reached in its place. This round, too, seemed to go Boydston's way, as there was disapproving murmuring in the crowd when Kellar said he hoped another deal would be made.

Other Bits

*Boydston reminded viewers that the land which would accommodate a digital billboard near Elsmere Canyon had been purchased after building a homeless shelter there was proposed. The council at the time suggested the land was needed for trails and open space. Thus, if a billboard is built there, it means a potential homeless shelter site was effectively bought up to turn into an advertising venue instead.

*Kellar did not touch on the utility of billboards to public safety officials, a major talking point in the Yes on S literature. Again, he seemed to be playing more defense than offense. He did manage to get in a disclaimer that the electronic billboards would not be Vegas-type billboards.

*Kellar estimated 5 years to amortize costs associated with the Measure S deal. After this period, the City could expect to receive net revenue, though again, it would not be guaranteed.

*The cost to advertise on digital billboards will be markedly reduced for local businesses in the first two years of operation, but after that it goes to market rates. These could prove extremely costly for small local businesses ($8000 monthly rates on digital billboards was one figure thrown out but not officially accepted/rejected).

*Audience questions were not well integrated into the debate or forum or whatever you want to call it, and there were no direct questions at all.

The Crowd

Only 15 subscribers were allowed to attend with one guest each. No one off the list got in. Schaff sheepishly thanked attendees for subscribing to The Signal at the start and end of the event, and mugs commemorating The Signal’s February 6th, 2014 candidate forum were available for free. (I snagged two.) Many instantly recognizable community names were present: Braly, Mercado-Fortine, Sohikian, McLean, Ferdman, Newhall. Most everyone was civil and well-behaved. Lila Littlejohn did give Steve Petzold a note requesting that he put his shoes back on after briefly removing them (despite no offensive odor), but that was about it.
Reena Newhall introduces herself to Allvision lobbyist Arthur Sohikian with, "So you're the bad guy."

During the break and at the end of the meeting, however, things were more heated. Reena Newhall turned around in her seat, looked at Arthur Sohikian (lobbyist for Allvision) and said, “So you’re the bad guy.” Sohikian tried to laugh it off by saying he’d get an appropriate outfit from the Newhalls' costume shop, maybe the Joker, and Reena replied that she would be quite capable of costuming him…as a robber. Hunt Braly and Alan Ferdman exchanged words as well, and though I didn’t see the spat to its resolution, I daresay neither man changed his mind. The entire event was taped and will be made available to a much wider audience, though I’m not sure how many will watch.

The Last 100-or-so Closing Words of Each Spokesman

Kellar: “Look at the people and the entities that have come forward in support that I reiterate: The Chamber of Commerce, Valley Industrial Association, Board of Realtors, and a long list of people that are very accomplished. The people, ladies and gentlemen, are of the quality that have come together over the years that has made Santa Clarita the success it is. They’re the people that have [missed a couple words] not necessarily elected not necessarily working at city hall but people that are volunteers and care about this city, those are the people that are saying, "Yes on S." This is a good thing. Let’s keep this city moving forward and vote yes on S.”

Boydston: “Then they went out to have a referendum. They went out and got signatures: 18,000 signatures were collected then because people thought this was a lousy deal and they didn’t want it to go forward this way. So let’s not forget about the people when we talk about that, let’s not forget about the 18,000 people. Let’s not forget about the people that are out there right now, grassroots out there, that are telling their neighbors and they’re walking around and telling people that they need to vote no on Measure S. It’s a bad deal.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free the Tree

Stevenson Ranch, a community unremarkable in most every regard, holds one unique distinction: the Guinness Word Record for largest tree transplanted, Old Glory.[1] At the time it was transplanted, the oak weighed over 458 tons—about the same as 50 bull elephants—and measured 104 feet across, which is twice as wide as a typical Stevenson Ranch lot. The tree's record-breaking move resolved a standoff between tree-sitter John Quigley and the developer who wanted to cut it down for road expansion. Quigley had perched in the tree for 71 days to save it, saying “the tree has a miraculous spirit.”[2] Or, as Dave Bossert chose to remember the events, “local environmental terrorists used the tree as a pawn to prevent the widening of Pico Canyon.”[3]

After its move in the winter of 2003/2004, a chain link fence was built around the oak. Ostensibly, this protected roots sensitive from being transplanted, shielded visitors from limbs which might die and fall as the tree adjusted to its new location, and separated the famed oak fromthose who might want to do it harm. From behind this fence, Old Glory's fans waited anxiously to see if the tree would survive the shock and stress of the move.
It fared splendidly. In 2011, The Signal ran a story explaining that the County of Los Angeles, which manages the park, would be taking down the fence because the tree had received a clean bill of health from the arborists who knew it well.[4]
Unfortunately, the fence remains. Arborist Jose Mercado has recommended fencing at every turn. His reasons have included "lessen[ing] the chance of liability in case a limb falls"[5] to "discourag-[ing] any climbing on the old oak."[4] I'm hesitant to cast a villain in this tale of transplantation, but at every turn, Mr. Mercado has seemed determined to keep the oak behind bars. Throughout Santa Clarita, other valley oaks (Quercus lobata) stand unfenced in communities where yes, they sometimes drop limbs, and where yes, they might be climbed, but only Old Glory stands in dreary isolation. Even the Oak of the Golden Dream, California Registered Historical Landmark No. 168 and perhaps the most significant oak tree in the state, is far more accessible to the community, surrounded by nothing but a short, rustic fence that's as much seat as security.
The fact that Old Glory remains fenced is a shame. We ought to let the neighborhood that saved it from chainsaws and bulldozers enjoy it unimpeded, to let animals move to and from the tree freely--in short, to let it be integrated into the community.

This "Oak-tober", it’s time to take the fence around Old Glory down. Contact Mike Antonovich's office at LA County. Report chain link fencing as a violation of landscaping codes if you live in Stevenson Ranch. Somehow, let's get the fence down.
[2]Read the Quigley interview with Leon Worden.
[4]The headline from 2011 reads "Old Glory still glorious"
[5]Mr. Mercado wants to keep a fence between you and your tree

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Big Land Purchases, Bob Won't Debate Billboards

I don't think city council meetings leave much in the way of an impression on the scout troops that routinely  lead the pledge.[1] Tonight's cub scout troop wasn't too far from the usual: the leader instructed the kids that they were addressing Mayor Laurene "WEEST" ("I didn't know we had a girl mayor," one scout replied). Their time in city hall was spent saluting the flag, having their parents take pictures of them with a council they didn't know, and listening to some people get upset about billboards for three minutes at a time behind the microphone (they left shortly thereafter). City government must be bewildering with this as the only direct exposure the kids and their parents may ever get in their lives. And sadly, they missed the biggest events of the meeting--two purchases of land, one to hold as open space and the other to use for a Canyon Country community center. The purchases were popular. Indeed, it was a meeting of billboard discord and real estate harmony.

Mayor Weste began the meeting with an invocation on the topic of diversity. She said that "culture [is] a strong part of our lives," and she noted that many different groups would be in the spotlight this month, from Hispanics to Native Americans to Jews. But she was quick to point out, "We are all just human beings," and that we have much in common with one another. This was one of the more thought-provoking and informative invocations that I can recall.

Awards and recognitions went to some people for earning gold medals in an international (USA, Japan, Russia, Canada) karate tournament. They were actually called forward but, since some hadn't arrived yet, sent back to the audience, then invited back up again during public participation when the other couple of winners had finally arrived. Mayor Weste warned that if you enter the arena with any of these formidable folks, "You're in serious trouble." The Rubber Ducky Regatta event to benefit Samuel Dixon Family Health Centers was heralded next. As usual, someone in a large yellow duck costume came forward to accept the proclamation of Rubber Ducky Day. "You gotta love that duck," remarked Mayor Weste.

Public Participation

Apart from some words on mobile home park residents from Ray Henry, everyone during public participation spoke about billboards and Measure S, which would swap conventional billboards for new digital billboards along the 5 and the 14.

Speaking in favor of Measure S was Mark Hershey, who said new digital billboards would fund public safety personnel and equipment. Perhaps he doesn't know that others have already unofficially earmarked the anticipated proceeds to, variously, the senior center, buying out remaining billboards, city events and programs, more holiday light displays, and so on. B.J. Atkins didn't seem to know what B.J. Atkins wanted to say, and he rambled vaguely about Measure S, ultimately saying that people will like it. Finally, Glo Donnelly reminded us twice in the span of three minutes that she co-chaired city formation over a quarter of a century ago. She found time between these reminders to say that she supported the take-down of conventional billboards, and said the new digital billboards will only be seen by people on the freeways, whom she apparently doesn't mind forcing to look at them.

Speaking against Measure S were Steve Petzold, Patti Sulpizio, and Al Ferdman. Ferdman estimated $9M in start-up costs for the new digital billboards, and he asked when the city would actually see any share of net revenue flowing into the coffers. He also noted that he had invited Councilmember Bob Kellar, others local billboard advocates, and even individuals from Allvision to debate Measure S at a meeting of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, but he had been rebuffed by all. What's up with that?, he asked, just not in those words. Sulpizio delivered a powerful rebuke to the council on the topic: "We will vote 'no' on Measure S because you didn't listen to us...because you never asked if we want digital lights in our bedrooms at night...because we know Santa Clarita can get a better deal." Petzold called Bob Kellar's/the City of Santa Clarita's association with the website YesMeasureS reckless and irresponsible, and he said a billboard advertising La Vida Gentlemen's Club would stay up in Santa Clarita even with the billboard swap deal. This was in response to a father who had earlier remarked that he didn't think such billboard content was appropriate and that he worried his children would see it and start asking troublesome questions.


City Manager Ken Striplin responded to some of the speakers. As is the custom, he told Ray Henry that he and staff are working to update and unify ordinances that govern mobile home parks, and that, contrary to Henry's claims, the City is not working against mobile home park residents. Striplin also mentioned that the City "unfortunately" lacks control over billboard content, like the gentlemen's club ad, because of the First Ammendment. Whether free speech was generally problematic or problematic only in this instance was unclear. 

The updates from council were dull and tedious with few exceptions. Councilmember Bob Kellar said he would make a presentation and field questions on the topic of Measure S, but he refused to enter into a debate. Why ever might that be? Later, Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered one of the sassiest of backhanded compliments when he told Councilmember Danta Acosta, who spoke at a recent event, that he "wasn't sure" about Acosta's public speaking abilities, but was "proven wrong." That is, Boydston was pleasantly surprised that Acosta could handle himself behind a microphone.

Consent Calendar

The consent calendar included items to improve roads and an item to remove Arundo donax, a noxious invasive weed, from the Santa Clara River. But Item 6, which recommended a $75,000 contract for development of an Arts Master Plan, was the real point of contention. Councilmember Boydston wondered whether the plan proposal was too dismissive of ideas to build arts-supporting spaces like museums and performance centers. Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean was worried whether enough was being spent on the master plan. Indeed, the bid had come in at $94,000, but the budget was set at $75,000, which meant not everything in the initial proposal was guaranteed to make it to the final master plan. A considerable amount of time was spent debating this rather routine negotiation tactic. Arts Commissioners Shapiro and Millar came forward to say they thought it was important to give adequate funding for a complete plan. Mayor Weste said it didn't make sense to be "penny wise and pound foolish" by saving a little only to get an unsatisfactory master plan. These points were countered by the fact that the plan could be reviewed and revisited later, and additional funding could be put forward. In the end, the consent calendar items passed with the recommended actions.

New Business

Parks & Rec Director Rick Gould presented two big purchases to the council under new business. 114 acres adjoining the City's Rivendale Ranch property (Towsley Canyon) were proposed to be purchased with $1.8M in open space preservation district funds. This price is well below the $4.6M the owners listed the property for in 2008. Indeed, for a little over $15,000 an acre, the council voted to acquire the area. Gould helped sell the deal by calling it a "fabulous opportunity", and noting "I don't use the word fabulous very often.

Gould was enthusiastic about the next purchase as well--though he withheld the f-word. It was six-and-a-half acres near the intersection of Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road. The property has some issues, but it's been a parcel many have wanted to purchase and develop, so the City wasn't doing too badly getting it for $4.7M. The land will be used to develop a community center for Canyon Country. Al Ferdman and Glo Donnelly were both quite pleased about the purchase when they have comments on this item. And like the purchase of the land in Towsley Canyon, this purchase was unanimously approved.

The meeting ended with Dorothy White giving a comment in the second round of public participation. She said, "I feel like we've been carpet bombed" regarding all the new traffic clogging roads near the new Albert Einstein Academy location. She said she knew there was little that could be done, however: "As I was researching this as an angry resident, I realized how tied your hands are." City Manager Ken Striplin said the school has taken some measures to try and improve the situation, but apprently these have proven unsatisfactory to White. With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Who's got an agenda? Why the City of SC, that's who. Agenda.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Buying Native for the SCV

A Stephanomeria native to Santa Clarita blooms in the September heat.

Should you replace your lawn with a landscape of plants native to Santa Clarita—or at least Southern California? For me, the answer is an unqualified yes, but that’s because I’m weird and do things like make ink out of the husks of our native walnut, fantasize about stumbling across the new species of sunflower discovered in the SCV, and rejoice in encounters with small indigenous annuals like claspingleaf wild cabbage. These days, though, it’s not just weirdoes like me who have reason to be thinking about our native flora.

With sustained talk of drought, wavering hopes for a strong El Nino, and water districts offering financial incentives to replace lawn with drought-tolerant plants, more people than usual are thinking about giving our local plants a spot in their yards. It’s not quite as easy as walking into a native plant nursery and picking out the pretty ones. “A plant is not a couch,” remarks California plant champion Judith Larner Lowry, reminding us that they’re living things with particular requirements, not mere elements of outdoor design. But it’s easier than ever to learn how to succeed with native plants. Resources abound online, and many excellent books are widely available

Where do you get started? Try immersing yourself in the world of gardening with California native plants starting this weekend. We are entering a season of native plant sales and festivals that coincides (almost) with the start of the rainy season, a time when many species break out of summer dormancy and start putting out new growth. It’s a good time to learn, browse, talk, buy, and dig in. Here’s a calendar of the events closest to Santa Clarita (most are about a half-hour away) with some advice on how to win at each. It all starts this Saturday, so hurry up at the Santa Clarita River clean-up and then head to Westwood to meet Carol Bornstein, a name you'll soon be knowing.
RSABG Grow Native Nursery in the Veterans Garden
Autumn Garden Party
Saturday, September 20, 10am-4pm, Westwood
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is truly an institution--the largest botanic garden focused on California plants--and one of the few good things about Claremont. But who wants to drive all the way out there? Happily, they have a retail space in Westwood that offers beautifully-grown plants. The nursery is quite well organized, easy to navigate, and in a nice little nook a bit north of Wilshire. It's almost a plant boutique--interesting selection but not a ton of any one species--but the prices aren't bad.

Their Autumn Garden Party includes a talk about "Reimagining the California Lawn" by Carol Bornstein (10:30am this Saturday, the 20th), which I suspect just might be based on a recent book of the same name which she co-authored. It will be a timely, trendy talk. If you go, heckle her for not pushing natives only.

Matilija Nursery
Big Fall California Native Flower Arrangement Contest
Saturday, September 27, 10am-4pm, Moorpark

Is there anything more unusual or emasculating than a native flower arranging contest? Oh well, small price to pay for a chance at free plants or discounts from Matilija Nursery. It's out in the boonies and a mostly-one-man-operation that does an interesting side business in non-native irises, but I like it. They have wholesale quantities of many LA and Ventura County native plant staples, the species likely to be the foundation of your native landscape. Plants aren't "over-grown"--they're well rooted but might not have the most luxuriant top-growth--which can be unnerving, but the prices are the best around. It's really economical if you show up for a promotion or buy big sizes, like 5- and 15-gallon plants, which are almost always more pricey elsewhere.

Be sure to browse the inventory online and show up with a list of what you want. This will make Bob Sussman (the man behind Matilija) like you instantly. It really isn't a place where you can show up and browse rows of cute little 4" dudleyas of 18 species like you'd do at Grow Native or Theodore Payne. It's a native plant nursery that, once discovered, will make you feel like you're in the know and a serious buyer more than a dabbler. But I'm sure dabblers are welcome, too. 

Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery
Fall Plant Sale
October 10/11, 17/18, 8:30-4:30, Sun Valley

Theodore Payne is very well known and for good reason. It has a long legacy, a vast selection of plants and seeds, beautiful website, and is far more than just a plant shop. But it's not quite plant-shopping paradise. Parking is scarce, many plants can be gotten cheaper elsewhere ($12 for some chamise?), and it sells plants from a pretty broad swath of California, which can lead the uninitiated to make perilous purchases of things like western azalea (a plant of the Sierras) which are probably doomed to failure in the SCV. The clientele is a curious mix of native plant zealots and people walking around staring blankly before finally buying something simply because it happens to be in flower.
They have a great selection, and the plant tags are pretty informative so you can go to browse, but try to have a sense of what you want before you arrive, lest you be overwhelmed by too many options. And don't miss out on the plants grown from local LA County stock, a great way to support truly local biodiversity.

LA-Santa Monica Mountains CNPS Chapter
California Native Plant Sale
October 25/26, 10am-3pm, Encino
San Gabriel Mountains CNPS Chapter
Into the Garden: Native Plant Sale 2014
November 8, 9am-2pm, Pasadena

The California Native Plant Society's LA chapters have sales in the late fall. These things are really hit-and-miss, and it's best to attend knowing that you buying, at least in part, to benefit "the cause". Plants mostly come from commercial growers of California natives, so you might get things that are fairly common in the trade already. Some hardcore, horticulturally-leaning chapter members may have seeds for sale or have grown their own wonderful, obscure, truly local plants, and that's the real reason you go. The trouble is, you're fighting a highly educated group of buyers, so you must act decisively to get the best stuff.
Alternatively, you can attend to mingle and talk shop with other native plant fans, browse books, and relive your highs and lows from the 2014 season of native plant bargain hunting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Worried Neighbors

Tonight’s City Council revealed a community anxious about its neighbors[1]. Residents of Castaic spoke out about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill Expansion planned for next door (figuratively). Residents of Happy Valley spoke out about the apparently thriving rehab facility operating next door (literally). With little of substance on the agenda, these concerns took center stage.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered the invocation, recalling the events of 9/11 in his part-dramatic, part-prayerful, part-statesmanly style. He ended with a flourish of a call to the pledge, asking that we salute the flag of the greatest nation on earth.

As the city council reviewed the agenda prior to the meeting to identify items requiring further discussion, Boydston asked about the “car-free planning” related to Item 4, an update of the Santa Clarita Non-motorized Transportation Plan. He said that cars are important to Claritans because the area is “very rural, very spread out” and has “lots of hills” and high temperatures. He contrasted Santa Clarita with San Francisco, which he said would have an easier time of going car-free because of the high density and abundant public transportation. As Andrew Ye would clarify, cars are still welcome in Santa Clarita, but the City is trying to make other options available.

After this diversion, Mayor Weste could scarcely contain her excitement as she announced the City’s fourth time winning an award for excellence in procurement. Some people in Santa Clarita are just really good at buying stuff-whodathunk? Her excitement only grew as she invited Jackie McNally forward to be recognized for chairing the celebrity waiter auction which benefits the SCV Senior Center. The event raised over $90K for seniors. “All of us are going to be old one day,” said McNally as she took the mic. I don’t know if those words sunk in with our spry, youthful council, but here’s hoping.

Public Participation

Stephen Daniels got tonight’s public participation portion of the meeting off to a lively start. He went after Councilmember Bob Kellar for his stand on digital billboards and the people who oppose them. Daniels reminded the audience that Kellar had suggested that people who signed the petition against the digital billboard deal didn’t understand what they were supporting. Daniels turned Kellar’s argument on its head, suggesting that the people who voted for Bob Kellar (fewer than the number who signed the petition against billboards, incidentally) might not have understood who they were really voting into office. Per usual, Daniels’ words were aggressive and incisive, but the delivery was lackluster, diminishing the overall effect.

A few others spoke out on billboards—Al Ferdman, Steve Petzold—but most people had shown up to speak about a disruption in their Happy Valley neighborhood. As we heard at the last meeting, a sober-living facility (or rehab center or addiction treatment center or whatever it’s currently calling itself; the names and labels change frequently) has sprung up in a home in the quiet neighborhood. So long as there are fewer than six people receiving treatment, the City is essentially powerless to stop the business from operating in the residential area. One couple said the operation meant their dreams of a quiet retirement had gone up in smoke. Jeff Hacker, notorious local attorney, said the City needed to help fight the facility and said they were misrepresenting the true nature of their business, offering services which they are unlicensed to offer. One man actually went after Bob Kellar (it really wasn’t Bob’s night), the real estate agent who brokered the sale of the home from Duane Harte to the current owner, who is using it to help rehabilitate addicts. He asked how much Bob had profited from the transaction.

Reports and Responses

City Manager Ken Striplin was the first to respond to concerned Happy Valley residents. He said, “we have been doing as much as we can,” and reminded the council and audience that their hands were tied to some extent by rather accommodating laws. Nevertheless, he said they were performing inspections, checking out code violations, and monitoring activity at the house. It’s still waiting for a state license, but if the license comes through, there will be even less the City can do. Councilmember Bob Kellar confirmed that he had represented Duan Harte in the sale of his home, but he insisted there was absolutely no way he could have known what was coming. (None at all?) He continued, expressing that he, too, “would be just as livid” as Happy Valley residents are about the business in their residential neighborhood. Mayor Weste called it a “horrific assault on a neighborhood,” and Booydston said “it’s really about the money.” In short, everyone sympathized with the increase in neighborhood traffic and goings-on brought by the sober-living facility, but they agreed little could be done to oppose it.

After these responses, Happy Valley residents left, clearing out about two-thirds of the audience.

The councilmembers offered updates next. There was talk of water conservation and charity events and high-speed rail, but it was Mayor Weste’s tribute to a recently deceased young Claritan student that really stood out. Her voice wavering under emotional weight, Weste spoke about Jenny Stift, the beloved high school athlete who died when a car hit her while running. Weste said she had lived a lot in her seventeen years, but her death remained an unequivocal tragedy.

Consent Calendar

Nina Moskol, chair of the SCV Bicycle Coalition, was the first speaker to address the council during review of the consent calendar. She spoke on Item 4, which approved Santa Clarita’s transportation plan—at least the part not strictly focused on motor vehicles. She said bicyclists need to be accommodated and protected, and she gave some practical ways to achieve this goal, such as use of “sharrows” on intersection corners.

Next came several speakers in support of Item 5, a request for an extension on the review of the Chiquita Landfill expansion EIR. The landfill is in Castaic, but as the nearest neighbor and loyal customer, Santa Clarita has some influence in this realm—certainly more than Castaic residents seem to have themselves. One woman asked where we’d send our trash after Chiquita was filled to capacity from accepting waste from all over LA. At least two speakers complained of major health issues resulting from poor air quality near the landfill. The Santa Clarita City Council was sympathetic to their points, but they didn’t belabor the issue, letting the words of the residents stand on their own.

The consent calendar’s recommended actions were approved in their entirety by a unanimous vote. That meant the non-motorized transportation plan was accepted, a request for more time to review the Chiquita Landfill expansion will be sent, and the City would get a new mower for the Parks Division, among a few other items. As mentioned previously, it wasn’t a particularly substantial consent calendar.

There was no addition official business, but two more public speakers came forward. Larry Murray spoke on behalf of his daughter. He said she was the victim of apparently very serious domestic violence. Choking back tears, Murray said that the SCV Sheriff’s Department detectives had “not taken that seriously”, and had an “almost cavalier attitude.” He said repeated calls to Captain Johnson (who was sitting nearby) had gone unanswered. The council assured Murray some people would speak with him after the meeting. Finally, Evan Decker, a young Claritan history fanatic, called for support in saving the structures of historic Mentryville. He said that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has done little to restore the mansion and other structures of the town. Decker has a gofundme page for the cause which has currently raised $425 of it’s $500,000 goal.

With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Here's the agenda--read it at your leisure