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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Measure S (for Silence); Commissioners Appointed

The upcoming Labor Day weekend may mark the end of summer for most of America, but in Santa Clarita, summer's demise arrived tonight, on the wings of the first council meeting since going on hiatus in July (a working-hiatus, Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean would later contend)[1]. The meeting was just under two hours, less than 10% of which was devoted to matters such as the consent calendar, public hearings, and unfinished business. Indeed, most of tonight's meeting was spent listening to the council members speak about pit bulls, drought, and charity dancing events. The usual. For those in the audience, it felt like a bewilderingly long, one-sided catch-up conversation with a casual acquaintance not seen for a while.

The invocation was provided by Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean. She said she was inspired by the "Dancing With Our Stars" charity fundraiser wherein she witnessed, "the true spirit of love and giving from the dancers." She was one of them. Over $100,000 was raised for various Santa Clarita charities, she said, so the event was quite a success.

Tonight's awards and recognitions were actually half interesting. The interesting half was a certificate presented to Casey Fenwick, a local man who helped rescue a swimmer from a great white shark attack at Manhattan Beach this past July. Mayor Weste also noted he had been a bone marrow donor for his father some years ago--what a guy! (Mayor Weste also revealed that she used to be a surfer when she was lauding Fenwick for being brave enough to swim towards dangers rather than away from it). The uninteresting half of awards and recognitions, incidentally, was some girl scouts who spoke to elementary school children about water safety.

Public Participation

Do you remember the news from earlier this month about Natalie Lilley? She's the woman who was horseback riding with her daughter in the Santa Clara River wash of Canyon Country when the two were suddenly chased by a pair of vicious pit bulls. Well, they came to speak before the council tonight. The story was recounted in vivid detail, from their initial confrontation with the dogs to the long chase to the eventual pursuit of one horse by the pits "like lions after a zebra." Lilley said there are so many people living in the wash--many of them with dogs and other pets--and that her run-in should bring attention to this serious issue.

Several speakers tonight spoke about the proposed Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion; all were opposed. While it lies beyond the boundaries of the City of Santa Clarita, speakers pointed out that increased traffic, potential effects on water quality, and so on meant the expansion was of interest to all Claritans.

Another several speakers addressed Measure S, the billboard referendum vote. Sulpizio, Ferdman, Petzold--you know these names by now--spoke about the many and sundry forms of shadiness surrounding the deal, from $120,000 in expenditures by AllVision's PAC for "voter education" to Councilmember Bob Kellar's less than up-front portrayal of the deal in the ballot language.

Near the end of public participation, one man came forward to talk about an addiction detox/recovery facility which recently began operating out of a home in Happy Valley. He said there was a lot of traffic and individuals coming in and out ("like a hotel"), making it wholly incompatible with the quiet residential neighborhood. Finally, Lynne Plambeck spoke about her opposition to Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion, drawing parallels to fighting the Elsmere Canyon landfill, and about her concerns over oaks trees being cut down and not replaced in Happy Valley.

City Response, Council Updates

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to public participation speakers first. He said the search for the pit bulls was on-going, and he agreed that the situation of homeless people living in the wash was "out of control." He said there will actually be a special effort during the upcoming Santa Clara River Rally to deal with this issue. As for the residential addiction facility, City Attorney Joe Montes explained that the City has limited options. If it's operating with a state license and has fewer than 6 patients, then it is exempt from any local ordinances (i.e., it should be treated like any other single-family home, even though it's an active facility).

Montes would also clarify the billboard issue. He noted that the council members have to be very careful about being unbiased on the billboard website and when speaking at council meetings. Since the billboard item isn't on the agenda and since it's difficult to speak about it in an unbiased way, it's better to avoid the topic altogether, he advised. Councilmembers Kellar and Boydston, two of the most fervent advocates for/against, took the advice to heart, saying that they had a lot to say but would do so outside of official meetings.

On the topic of oak trees, Striplin said that the City is beaten up on a daily basis by people who don't want to see trees cut down as well as by those who want to see some trees done away with. He assured Plambeck that there is "a great deal of diligence" before oaks are cut down, however.

Responses to public comments blurred with the updates from from the various members of council. The landfill and billboards weren't really addressed, but all members were upset about the pit bull incident and hoped there was something they could do about the detox facility in Happy Valley. Bob Kellar remembered the recently deceased Jim Gibson, a lieutenant with the LAPD. Councilmember Marsha McLean told the community to attend an event about drugs and drug use prevention themed "Pills Kill". As SCVTalk's @SCVTweets amusingly pointed out in light of the Happy Valley facility, "Kids, get off drugs. But not in my backyard." Mayor Weste took some time to speak about Connie Worden-Roberts, an irreplaceable, long-time member of so many parts of the Santa Clarita community. She was choked up as she spoke about her passing and the legacy she left behind; once the meeting concluded, footage aired of Worden-Roberts receiving a key to the city last year.

And suddenly, it was 7:45--nearly two hours into the meeting. Mayor Weste said they'd all been long-winded this evening, so they at last moved onto the real business.

Consent Calendar

All items passed with the recommended actions and without discussion. There were several items relating to the development or submission of grants, including one to acquire over 300 acres to preserve as wildlife habitat. Another item involved a lease of city land to the largest film studio in the valley (it will be used for parking), and another devoted almost $130,000 to holiday decorations for Newhall this year. In short, Santa Clarita may well become a better-funded, easier-to-park-in, and more festive place in the months ahead because of tonight's calendar.

A public hearing on Santa Clarita's congestion management program has no public speakers and attracted no comments fro the dais either.


While commission nominations have been the source of conflict in the past--notably when TimBen Boydston's nominations were snubbed in a petty bid for control by certain council members a couple of years ago--tonight's were made and approved without any problems. Though new, Councilmember Dante Acosta tended to stick with past picks when available, and McLean and Weste didn't make any surprise nominations either. (Re-)appointed Planning Commissioners are Tim Burkhart, Lisa Eichman, and Dennis Ostrom; Parks Commissioners are Kevin Korenthal, Dianna Boone, and Ruthann Levison; Arts Commissioners are Susan Shapiro, Michael Millar, and Patti Rasmussen; and Open Space Financial Accountability and Audit Panel members are Wendy Langhans, Sandra Cattell, and Susan Orloff.

Once the spots were filled, there was a bit more public participation to be had. Darryl Manzer, an outspoken critic of the plan to expand Chiquita Canyon Landfill, said it will have a major impact on residents of Val Verde. "They're having it shoved down their throated because the Castaic Town Council likes the money," he said. Perhaps the city council will engage this issue more fully another night, but tonight, they did not.

[1]Here's an agenda, just for you

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

4th of July Parade Bingo

As much as I love the Santa Clarita 4th of July Parade, sometimes it's nice to spice things up a bit. Bring this BINGO/drinking game with you and discover how much more involved you become in the parade goings-on. Simply copy+paste it into your favorite document program, print, distribute, enjoy. The IHeartSCV contingent will be watching in Newhall, obviously (vic. Lyons/Chestnut). Say hello if you pass by; you shall know us by our hearting of SCV and America. But one way or another, get yourself to the parade. It's the Claritan thing to do.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Big Budget, Billboard Heartbreak

Tonight, there was a discussion of Santa Clarita's $191.5M budget for fiscal year 2014-15, the retirement of Jim Ventress of the Boys & Girls Club, and adjustments to city fees[1]. But what got Councilmember Bob Kellar really worked up was the successful signature-gathering effort for the billboard referendum. Kellar was simply heartbroken over the 11,370 voters who chose to sign petitions opposing construction of three large new digital billboards along SCV freeways. Happily, however, Kellar likes to keep meetings short, so even with his dramatic monologue, the meeting didn't run too long this evening.

And now, a word from your public...

The invocation was offered by Mayor Laurene Weste. As this was an early June meeting, she read from Eisenhower's message to the troops before D-Day. Several would remark appreciatively about her choice over the course of the evening.

Awards and recognitions offered a change to bid farewell to Jim Ventress, Chief Professional Officer for the Boys & Girls Club. He was almost at a loss for words as he reflected on his three decades with the organization, thanking all those who had helped to support its mission. On his way out, Mayor Weste said he told her, "You'll think of things to put me to work," so he'll remain just as active in the community for the foreseeable future, it seems.

Public Participation followed. Steve Petzold spoke about the recently certified singatures for the billboard referendum. This will affect the deal to install large electronic billboards along the freeway in exchange for removing conventional billboards within Santa Clarita. Petzold anticipated and preemptively countered the assertion that petition-signers were not fully informed on the issue. He asked that the council listen to the will of the people. Two speakers addressed the topic of challenges facing mobile home residents, specifically concerns over appeals of board decisions and about tree-trimming and other general property obligations. Finally, both Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer spoke to advocate writing protest letters in response to the proposed sanitation tax increase ("scam", in the words of Noltemeyer) to help Santa Clarita comply with water quality chloride standards.

City Manager Ken Striplin responsed to the concerns from mobile home park residents by reasserting that the City tries to balance to needs of residents as well as park owners; he said an ordinance updating some policies and practices will be coming before the council in the fall. On the matter of the billboard ordinance, he said that the referendum would affect only the billboard agreement, not land zoning and other changes that had been included in the item. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked for additional clarification on billboards, specifically confirmation that 22 conventional billboards would still be coming down despite the successful signature gathering (these will be removed as part of another agreement). Striplin confirmed, so if voters do weigh in on the billboard deal at an upcoming election, it's a 40 conventional down for 3 digital up swap, not the 62/3 swap it was initially. Of course, voters would see and be voting on the original deal, which complicates things a bit.

In the midst of the billboard discussion, Councilmember Bob Kellar got rather emotional. "There's a variety of opinions...some people may choose to celebrate, I think this is a sad day for us," he said. His voice conveying equal parts sadness and outrage, he said he felt as if paid petition gatherers had "infiltrated" Santa Clarita and gotten their signatures by not telling the public the whole story (i.e., that conventional billboards would be coming down in exchange for putting up the electronic ones). He lamented the fact that Santa Clarita wouldn't get it's (small) cut of the advertising revenue from these boards. Essentially, the 18,000 signatures collected--well over 11,000 of them verified--meant little to Kellar. His reasoning was circular: if people had known what they were signing, they wouldn't have signed it, so the fact that they signed it means they didn't know enough about the billboard swap deal. It seems conversations with some pals who liked the deal and good ol' intuition trump thousands of signatures. He went so far as to say that he'd be asking Scott Wilk about ways to make sure petition gatherers present all the facts before collecting signatures--some kind of signage, I think, was his proposal. In any case, updates and comments from the other councilmembers were boring by comparison.

Ferdman on Consent

The Consent Calendar wasn't too contentious--I gauge that by the number of public speakers, and tonight it was just Alan Ferdman. He spoke on items relating to water use/supply, the re-hiring of landscape contractors who don't do a good job of maintaining medians, and the levy of assessments for special districts. He tied everything together, somewhat, by suggesting that the City is too scattered and inconsistent in its efforts to equitable manage water issues, landscaping, and taxation.

Joe Montes had to guide the City Council through voting on Item 11, which was the levy of assessments for special districts, by having separate votes to prevent councilmembers from voting on those assessments which affect them directly. Within a matter of minutes, the entirety of consent was passed with the recommended actions. As that wrapped up, Councilmember Marsha McLean mentioned increasing the hotel/tourism marketing district tax by 0.25% as a potential way to fund the arts in Santa Clarita. Mayor Weste said it would be better to wait for the arts master plan to weigh in on this, but McLean wanted to get the ball rolling.

A Budget for Everyone
After a bathroom break, a few public hearings were held. First up was discussion of the proposed FY 2014-15 budget, just shy of two-hundred million dollars. Kellar asked that the presentation on this be kept short. City Manager Ken Striplin halfway obliged Kellar, but he couldn't resist running down the list of exciting(?) items included in the budget. With general fund revenues back to pre-recession levels, there was enough to support many project, improvements, and events. For example, there will be $135K to continue fighting CEMEX mining, a little over $750K will be going to the senior center, there will be more funding for the arts, a tennis center at Central Park and upgrades to other local parks, and $80K for holiday decorations in Newhall again.

Not everyone was happy with the budget. Cam Noltemeyer wondered about debt obligations, perceived fiscal irresponsibility, and a lack of transparency. Striplin responded by saying that all of the City's financial information--including debt-related items--is available for citizens to review, but somehow, I don't think Noltemeyer found this answer satisfactory.

The next public hearing was on adjustments to various fees. Though citizens in Santa Clarita appear to be largely misinformed, Kellar asked that the presentation on theses adjustments and ammendments be waived. Maybe people are just misinformed on the billboard issue. As for fee adjustments, some went up, and a few went down, which Councilmember Boydston found remarkable. He said one wouldn't see that at the state level without removing a governor, a suggestion that Councilmember Kellar happily seconded. (At this, Mayor Weste laughed and forbade a roll call on the motion to remove the governor, suggesting it might be beyond the council's jurisdiction.) The changes were approved. The final public hearing on allowing Albert Einstein Academy to operate a school on Rye Canyon Road would be moved to a July meeting as more time had been requested, so with that, the meeting ended.

[1]I have no agenda, but the City of Santa Clarita does.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

To tree, or not to tree: That remains the question

After an uneventful opening, tonight's city council meeting[1] became wholly focused on the decision of whether to allow a faux-tree cell tower to be installed next to a water tower in north Valencia. Despite hours of testimony and debate, the council decided to continue this public hearing to a date uncertain. However, they made it clear that it is their intention to deny the project unless a much more compelling case establishing need for the tree-disguised cell tower ("monoeucalyptus") can be made. It was a polarizing issue: those who lived in the effected neighborhoods cared deeply, and those who lived elsewhere cared not a whit. Indeed, unless you're passionate about contemplating the place of artificial eucalyptus in the Claritan landscape, this meeting definitely fell into the category of can-miss.

Front Matter

Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered tonight's invocation. He recalled the Memorial Day ceremony he attended on Monday, and he read from a Memorial Day prayer, ending with his usual entreaty that God bless Santa Clarita. The flag salute came next, and the cub scout troop which led it was applauded for doing so--is this something we do now?

The scouts didn't get to sit down for long, as they were soon called forward to be recognized for building some nesting boxes for Barn Owls[2]. Then recognitions moved from owls to tumors as Mayor Weste declared June 1 to be Cancer Survivors Day, acknowledge the American Cancer Society's recent Relay for Life effort and several local groups fighting cancer in the SCV.

A meeting without Public Participation is scarcely a meeting at all; luckily, the regulars were around to provide comments. Alan Ferdman encouraged all residents to submit their Proposition 218 protest letter against hikes in sanitation bills to cover chloride cleanup costs. He said that the City had not made an effort to adequately inform citizens and that the protest procedures were not as straightforward as they could be. Cam Noltemeyer echoed his sentiments, and she challenged Councilmember Dante Acosta to oppose the sanitation rate increase on the grounds of his campaign statement that he "fought the chloride tax scam." The most interesting comments of the night, however, came from Saugus journalism student Sarah Farnell. She said teens are unconstitutionally subject to and targeted for violating curfew laws. She said the ACLU has been involved in many cases regarding teen curfew laws and said that they have no place in Santa Clarita.

After public comments, City Manager Ken Striplin responded. He said the Prop. 218 process is dictated by state law, so there's little different they could do.  He said the curfew law, in place since 1997, was intended to protect youth, and both he and City Attorney Joe Montes said that they didn't have knowledge that nighttime curfew enforcement was unconstitutional. To be more precise, Montes said he didn't really know the exact answer as to whether it was unconstitutional as he hasn't reviewed current cases in that area, but he suspected there might be differences between allowing daytime and nighttime curfew enforcement.

Following this foray into the realm of citizen concerns, Councilmember updates were the usual mix of events, reminders, and reports. However, Councilmember Dante Acosta got personal during his comments, remembering his son, Rudy, who died while in the armed services. He said this has forever changed the meaning of Memorial Day for his family. Everything else seemed trite by comparison. For example, Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean and Councilmember Bob Kellar spent a while arguing about the appropriateness of viewing plans for proposed projects ( a hotel in the case of tonight's argument, if I remember correctly). McLean said it's their job to keep an eye on aesthetics in Santa Clarita to make sure things meet "a certain standard." Kellar told her she was asking to review the building project at a stage where councilmembers normally don't, and she was heading down a slippery slope of micro-managing development in the SCV. Their standoff was, perhaps, a bit more tense than it might have been because of the shaky place they left their relationship last week, when Kellar voted to give Danta Acosta the SCAG appointment long-held and deeply valued by Marsha McLean.

Consent Calendar

There wasn't much on the Consent Calendar. There was a contract for janitorial supplies, a final adoption of the revisions to the Old Town Newhall Specific Plan discussed at the last meeting, and the usual housekeeping items. All items passed with the recommended actions and without discussion.

Mixed Signals

For the better part of a year, AT&T has been trying to get clearance to build a cell tower (disguised as a eucalyptus tree, a "monoeucalyptus" in their jargon) in North Valencia--we're talking Decoro/Helmers/that-general-area. And during that same period, residents have been talking about what an unsightly monstrosity the cell tower will be. The Santa Clarita Planning Commission has given AT&T the OK twice--once after the initial application process, and once after a nearby resident appealed the approval. Tonight was the City Council's chance to weigh in on the Planning Commission's decision to deny the resident's appeal, thereby letting the tower be built.

Discussion of this item dragged on for hours, and many more hours of discussion lie ahead in future meeting(s), so I'll stick to a few of the highlights.

Representatives from AT&T were in the odd position of having to argue they weren't giving customers sufficient coverage and that they needed to install a new cell tower to fill a significant service gap. The faux eucalyptus tree cell tower would be placed next to an existing 50' water tower and a stand of real trees, so they claimed it would be relatively unobtrusive, and the placement on a hill would allow them to provide coverage over a considerable area. The crux of the presentation seemed to be that there were up to 16 potential sites, but this site was vastly better than the other options for a number of reasons.

The appellant spoke next. The main argument against approval of the cell tower was that it would diminish property values. Monoeucalyptuses are ugly, plain and simple: "Plastic trees do not have a place in Santa Clarita's residential landscape." There were also suggestions that AT&T hadn't really contacted the owners of all of the other potential cell tower location sites, that service in the area was already adequate, and that AT&T's narrative and statements had changed throughout the approval process. There was an entertaining (in a way) video of a woman making calls throughout the alleged service gap region. She could make and receive calls without any issues, it seemed. Once the appellant's time was up, Councilmember Bob Kellar asked "What's the benefit to AT&T misleading [the City of Santa Clarita]?" It was a valid question--why do anything but build the most efficient infrastructure?--and there was no real answer. In any case, thunderous applause followed the presentation.

Public comments were overwhelmingly against the cell tower. People were upset that AT&T had so frequently changed its story; a little kid named Nathan said that lying's wrong and the company shouldn't be rewarded. Others worried that one tower might make it easier for more towers to be installed in the area. More than one person mentioned fears of radiation from the towers, though the City couldn't legally reject a tower installation on those grounds, according to the City Attorney Montes. One woman claimed that AT&T told residents that they'd simply find a new spot for a tower if this site didn't work out, so rejection of the proposal wasn't a huge loss for the company. Another said she'd rather have owl boxes than cell towers, and everyone laughed (Mayor Weste said "That was a good one!")--except for the box-building cub scouts, who had wisely left the room by this hour.
A very few did speak in favor of the tower, noting that their phone and data service could be less than optimal in the area. After all of the comments, the public hearing was finally closed, and the council began deliberation.

The City Attorney suggested that the city council weigh the proposal's compliance with local ordinances as their first step in approving/rejecting the appeal. He said considerations about federal laws would be the next step. This was the start of many long, confusing conversations between attorney and council. The main causes for confusion: (1)Ability to reject project without violating local/federal laws that afford telecommunications companies certain rights and protections, (2)Whether there was/wasn't a significant service gap, and how to legally handle conflicting information to this effect, and (3)What the council could legally do that evening, since it couldn't deny the application outright.

While everyone spoke a fair bit, Councilmember Acosta was notably vociferous. This was his first demonstration of really delving into an issue, asking questions, and providing direction. His style was, at times, ambivalent. He recognized the need for and value of better service, but his ears had been sympathetic to the residents' pleas. He got most worked up over AT&T's inability to answer a simple question about who they spoke to at a proposed alternative tower site. It was truly sloppy on the applicants' part to not have all of these details available, especially since they hinged their case on all alternative sites being unsuitable or unwilling to accommodate the towers. Things were made worse when Acosta talked about the distinctions between AT&T and Crown Castle, a major corporation which builds and operates cell tower infrastructure, asking how the project was framed when presented to owners of the alternative sites. (I'm just referring to the applicant as AT&T to keep things simple, but note that it is a more complex case of ownership/operation). Acosta would also mention his doubts that noise studies during summer are valid (AC units may raise ambient noise levels such that the noise from a tower wouldn't be as notable as it would be during AC-free winters). He spoke so much that Councilmember TimBen Boydston said, jokingly, "You spent quite a bit of time on that, and that can be troublesome for you here," hinting at how Councilmember Bob Kellar has often criticized Boydston for speaking too much.

McLean said that conflicting information on the coverage gap, conflicting information on the availability and suitability of alternative sites, aesthetic concerns, and noise concerns meant she would be unable to make a decision that night. Kellar actually spoke directly to the applicant, telling them the item would be continued and asking they get their facts straight for the next meeting (Kellar was sympathetic to the need for the tower, and said it was worth the likely small impact it would have on the community; he quite correctly pointed out that there was a giant water tower on top of the hill anyways, so a cell tower wouldn't be besmirching an otherwise pristine view). Everyone seemed to know that this hearing was going to be continued to another meeting, but it took a while to get this foregone conclusion to a vote.

The motion slowly took shape. The public hearing would be re-opened, there would be time for the applicant to address questions and present more information, and staff would prepare a recommendation should the council wish to vote for denial of the project. This wasn't available at the current meeting, so those who wished to deny it outright could not. Everyone but Kellar voted in favor of the motion. What does this mean for AT&T? They have to have everything in order by next meeting or they'll have to start from scratch. And given the tone of Acosta, Boydston, and McLean, I think there are three councilmembers more than willing to have their votes back up the threat. The meeting ended shortly after 11.

[1]May I offer you the agenda?
[2]According to Mayor Laurene Weste, Barn Owls and Great Horned Owls are the two species of owls living in Santa Clarita. I believe the Spotted, Northern Saw-whet, Western Screech-, Northern Pygmy-, Short-eared, Long-eared, and possibly Flammulated and Burrowing Owls that hang out in Santa Clarita would beg to differ.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

McLeaning House; or, the Night of the Great Disrespecting

The Santa Clarita City Council spent most of tonight dithering about the micromanagement of Old Town Newhall. But the dreary bulk of the meeting rendered the finale incandescent by comparison. It started when Dante Acosta expressed an interest in representing Santa Clarita on SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments). After Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean scolded Acosta for wanting too much too soon, clashed with Councilmember Bob Kellar about her irreplaceability on SCAG, and said any attempt to replace her on SCAG would show utter disrespect, they went ahead and replaced her. By the vote of her fellow councilmembers, Marsha lost this, one of her ten appointments, so that Dante could have three. She took the shake-up very personally and is unlikely to forget the affront any time soon. It's probably much too early to say for certain, but instead of 4-1 (everyone vs. Boydston), it's looking a bit like 2-2-1 (good ol' boys Kellar and Acosta, grand dames McLean and Weste, and black sheep Boydston).

Inspiration, Retirement, Blockers
Marsha McLean delivered tonight's invocation. "I found something that was very inspiring to me," she said, speaking about a women's building event to help Habitat for Humanity build homes for local veterans. After the flag salute, there was a nice tribute to Luz Medina, who is leaving after having taught Santa Clarita's Ballet Folklorico since 1994. Medina called her departure "bittersweet" but said a very capable former student will be taking over.

Public Participation followed. Cam Noltemeyer encouraged taxpayers to protest the proposed increases in sanitation taxes that will cover chloride treatment (Bob Kellar would respond, saying the City doesn't have much other choice). One local man asked the City Council to pass an ordinance to allow homeowners to install water-saving synthetic turf, even if their HOA forbirds it (City Attorney Joe Montes would respond, saying state law can trump HOA codes, but city ordinances cannot). Patti Sulpizio came up to speak about collecting 18,000 signatures for the electronic billboard referendum. But she did not choose to gloat, instead asking that councilmembers "put egos and alliances aside" to deal with the issue of petition blocking. She was quite passionate as she spoke about the blockers hired to disrupt efforts to collect signatures; it was a ploy, apparently, to ensure Allvision's advertising revenue by smothering efforts to challenge the billboards. She mentioned that an official from Metro said he was disgusted by the blocking tactics. Michael Oliveri would speak on this same topic, and his words for the City Council were less let's-come-together-on-this, more you-guys-messed-up-big-time. He said of their inaction to blocking, "When things got violent most of you [i.e., everyone but Boydston] sat home like the cowards you are." He even said that local resident and Allvision lobbyist Arthur Sohikian passed his group, saying angrily "How dare you screw up this deal!" Oliveri claimed Sohikian said he had been working on it for years, and asked if there had been improper behind-the-scenes discussions between Sohikian and certain councilmembers. As for these comments, literally no councilmember but TimBen Boydston would respond; City Manager Ken Striplin did, however, say there had been no improper collaboration involving Sohikian and that the proper blocking investigations were taking place. After these investigations, the City Council will have its only remaining chance to say that it's not so keen on doing business with a company that trucks in and pays petition blockers to block the apparent will of local residents.

After public comments, the members of council went around to share updates. Notably, Councilmember Acosta spoke about a recent charity golf event wherein his performance left much to be desired. He and Councilmember Kellar shared a good chuckle about how many golf balls he lost. Both men speak more readily when it comes to positive topics than, say, thorny issues like petition blocking.

Consent Calendar

The Consent Calendar passed without much discussion or comment. Lynne Plambeck did come forward to speak on Item 7, which was approval for submitting a grant application to enhance the wildlife corridor in the southern SCV. Plambeck thought it "schizophrenic" to seek such a grant for an area in which the City Council recently approved installation of a large electronic billboard (Elsmere Canyon) and OKed the cutting down of oaks (Gates-King). A more pragmatic critique was her observation that the grant application hadn't been made available for review.

This and the other items on the Consent Calendar--library trustees (re)appointed; commission and panel vacancies identified; road work; and submission of community development block grant 5-year plans--were approved unanimously.

Old Town Newhall

Under the heading of Public Hearings, there was an item to alter the Downtown Newhall Specific Plan. It seemed like a lot of window-dressing: some slight changes in zoning, often to correct previous mistakes or oversights; allowing for bed and breakfasts to be built in certain areas (lolz, right?); altering civic designations, which don't mean much to begin with. But this item consumed the City Council for quite some time. Some Newhall residents expressed considerable concerns that their neighbors' homes might be lost to more profitable ventures with zoning changes. The Assistance League was out in force, expressing support for changes to protect their resale operation and their ability to expand or move in Newhall.

Mayor Weste had to recuse herself from the discussion for living too near the area. This happens rather a lot, which allows Weste to avoid many contentious debates and, further, shows Santa Clarita remains acutely focused on a very small bit of Claritan real estate, addressing matters facing Old Town Newhall over and over again. This left Marsha McLean and TimBen Boydston to carry out most of the discussion. There was a lot of talk about the particulars of zoning, and whether conditional permitting could allow the City Coincil to essentially micromanage which types of business come into Newhall (they can't really, clarified City Attorney Montes). Frankly, it was boring, and it resulted in few changes to the original language. Ultimately, City Manager Ken Striplin ran through a list of what the City Council would be approving, and it consisted of updating and tightening up language (e.g., references to San Fernando Road updated), changes to zoning, OKing of B&Bing, more public parking designations, and sending a letter to concerned homeowners that they would continue to live in an area zoned residential. There was unanimous support.

McLeaning House
The City's committee appointment list for councilmembers was the last item up for discussion. Councilmember Dante Acosta pointed out that he was only a member of two of these committees--though he was an alternate on several more--and wanted to be more involved. Councilmember TimBen Boydston actually did the counting, and he found that of 37 positions, Marsha McLean held 10. If divided equitably, each would hold only 7 or 8. (Some of this is clearly a legacy of form Councilmember Frank Ferry's enthusiasm for avoiding committee work--McLean was all too happy to pick up the slack).

Acosta suggested some appointments he wished to take on including SCAG, the Southern California Alliance of Governments. McLean has been quite active in this appointment, and she would not give it up without a fight. Her tactics were many, varied, and, at times, ferocious. She offered him some of the crappier appointments she had, like education. She mentioned that freshman councilmembers could take some time to learn the ropes and respect the senior members before taking such prestigious appointments. Weste even helped her a bit, speaking for Acosta ("I think he feels fine") when Boydston suggested Acosta might not feel as though he were getting his fair share. But Boydston and Kellar, rarely on the same page, both pushed to let Acosta have a turn. Boydston savored a delicate reminder that things don't always go people's way when it comes to committees and commissions, hinting at McLean's rejection of his commission appointees in the past. What was far more surprising was Bob Kellar telling McLean she had too many big appointments and needed to share some. This conflicted with McLean's own self-affirming thesis that she needed to be on all of them because all of them were relevant to one another.

As it became evident that McLean was going to get booted from SCAG, she made a last-ditch play to say appointing Acosta in her place would make her feel "100% disrespected." She would say it again: "I am being disrespected!" Of course, McLean is too confrontational to make a very convincing victim. Ultimately, she lost so that Acosta might gain, and she can take some comfort in the fact that she still has more than twice as many appointments as he does. After the updating, Lynne Plambeck made a comment about suspicions of unlawful grading and filling of the floodplain by a landowner in the Elsmere Canyon area, and at this point, the feed cut out, but I am told little else happened.

[1]Here be the agenda.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Election in a Nutshell

There were many firsts and lasts, highs and lows in 2014's council election. But the most important record is a disappointing one, as we saw the lowest voter turnout ever recorded in a Santa Clarita City Council election. The figure below depicts the rather troubling proportions. You might summarize it thus: Laurene Weste was able to finish in first place because about 1 in 20 eligible voters decided to give her a vote.