Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rent, Landfill, Gas, Sewage: The Ends are Near

Tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting was full of inflammatory statements. Elaine Ballace said "They are raping both of us!" in reference to recent business practices by mobile home park owners. "We're sitting in a circle of death!" said a Val Verde resident of Santa Clarita's proximity to landfills and a natural gas storage field. And Councilmember TimBen Boydston proclaimed, "There is a special place in Hell reserved for you," that "you" referring to mobile home park owners who raised rents so as to effectively force seniors out. The heated rhetoric was certainly contagious--likely a result of discussing many issues that hit close to home (literally) tonight. Apart from fielding residents' worries about Chiquita Canyon Landfill, Honor Rancho, and mobile home rents, the council also managed to officially raise its future salary (second and final reading), shuffle around committee appointments (no luck again, TimBen), and take further actions in the ongoing mobile home struggle.

Actually, That Wasn't Jefferson

Mayor Kellar read many quotations from Thomas Jefferson to open the meeting. More correctly, they were quotations incorrectly attributed to Jefferson on certain websites and in some popular social media posts but for which there is no evidence of Jefferson's authorship. These included, "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government," and, "The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not." The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has a full page devoted to clearing up these spurious attributions. Kellar closed with the observation that "He was a very, very intelligent man...many of his thoughts and writings...they apply every bit to today's society." Invocations are one of the portions of the meeting not scripted by city staff and, consequently, are prone to error.

Awards and recognitions followed. The Valencia High School Marching Band was applauded for winning a recent competition despite the fact, we learned, that the program really struggles with funding and must use some 20-year-old instruments. Deputy Curtis Foster was recognized as the Santa Clarita Sheriff's Department Deputy of the Year, and the crowd was quite vocal in its support of him. Finally, the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Committee came up to celebrate itself. Holly Schroeder gave an update on the SCVEDC's year of accomplishments, which included attracting Logix Federal Credit Union's corporate headquarters to Santa Clarita--they're currently in Burbank. She said this would lead to an anticipated $1.7M boost in tax revenue each year. "If the economic development committee had not been involved in this project they would not have chosen the Santa Clarita Valley," Schroeder asserted. Other accomplishments included taking credit for listening to businesses, taking credit for businesses staying in Santa Clarita, and taking credit for the tagline, "Still Golden," which the SCVEDC was able to trademark because no hair color company or luxury retirement community was convinced that "Still Golden" was the right direction to take their marketing (my inference).

The End is Near

There was a decidedly apocalyptic tone to many of tonight's public participation remarks. Elaine Ballace spoke about mobile home park owners who are trying a variety of tactics to get more money from renters. She called them selfish and successful only because "he who has the best lawyer wins," not because justice has been on their side. "The landowners need to answer a little bit more clearly to the people, and to the city, because they are raping both of us!"  she pronounced.

A couple of Val Verde residents spoke about their experiences with Chiquita Canyon Landfill and the Castaic Area Town Council. Steve Lee described how residents found "receipts of deadly substances that the Chiquita Canyon Landfill accepted." They asked the CATC to write a letter to Supervisor Antonovich about the allegedly dangerous landfill practices, but the request was tabled multiple times until it was decided that no letter would be written. "One of the reasons was that to do so would cost them the promise of money from the landfill," said Lee. This inspired a recall effort, but there were many more obstacles to finding out exactly how many voter signatures were needed and to getting agencies to stand by their numbers (Lee said that the L.A. County Registrar, Congressman Knight's office, and others were contacted in this effort). Lee closed by stating that three people in Val Verde had recently died of cancer and that action was needed. Susan Evans, also of Val Verde, spoke about the CATC recall and predicted the valley's demise by some combination of the dumps, natural gas field, and oil pipeline: "We're sitting in a circle of death, in my opinion...we're sitting ducks waiting to blow up."

Sandra Cattell and Cam Noltemeyer were also worried about Santa Clarita's natural gas storage field, Honor Rancho, in the north part of the valley. The massive gas leak at Aliso Canyon was used to urge the City Council to be more active in assessing the safety of Claritans.

Lynne Plambeck implored the city to look into the proposed merger of the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) and Newhall County Water District (NCWD). She said that it would do nothing to benefit ratepayers: "Bigger is not better, a huge water monopoly in our valley will just increase our rates." She said that the CLWA has "had its way" with Santa Clarita for long enough.

City Manager Ken Striplin tried to calm concerns over Honor Rancho, which he said had just one-third the storage capacity of Aliso Canyon and was being thoroughly monitored for leaks. Striplin said that scrutiny by various oversight agencies is strict and that staff have been in communication with the gas facility. There was still interest from the council in learning more about the facility and about the potential effects of Aliso on the SCV. At the urging of some residents who had contacted her, Councilmember Marsha McLean asked that the Air Quality Management District make a statement about whether the Aliso methane plume could be impacting air quality in Santa Clarita.

Overall, most councilmembers agreed that Aliso Canyon and Honor Rancho were not the same beast. Mayor Pro Tem Acosta stated, "This is a much different is quite a bit newer." And he should know, as he recalled "being chased off the [Aliso] property a number of times" in his wayward youth.

Mayor Kellar asked for the council's interest in discussing the CLWA/NCWD merger, and interest was high. Councilmember McLean, in particular, wanted to ask "a lot of questions" because she is a NCWD ratepayer and would be affected.

The council was mute on the topic of Chiquita Canyon Landfill and the politics of the Val Verde recall. These are out-of-city issues, certainly, but it wouldn't be untoward for Santa Clarita to look into Chiquita Canyon Landfill practices considering it's a nearby neighbor with whom the city shares an air- and water-shed. As readers don't likely need reminding, Chiquita has spent money on Santa Clarita politics, so it certainly seems to think that it's already on the radar.

Separate Votes

The consent calendar had a number of items that were handled in separate votes due to conflicts of interest or disagreement among the council members. Let's cover them in order, briefly.

On Item 3, the second reading of the plan to increase 2017-18 councilmember salaries by 10%, Councilmember TimBen Boydston and Mayor Kellar voted no while the others pushed it through with their yes votes. Boydston reiterated his statement from last week that a raise wasn't warranted given that seniors hadn't seen an increase in social security, inflation hadn't shot up dramatically, and the workload of councilmembers remained about the same.

The Cross Valley Connector was proposed to be renamed "Santa Clarita Veterans Memorial Parkway" in Item 4. Councilmember McLean asked that the word "Memorial" be removed so that the road would honor Santa Clarita's thousands of living veterans as well as the deceased, and everyone agreed.

Item 5 presented $155,755 worth of grants to Santa Clarita's arts and community services groups. Groups recommended for funding ranged from the American Diabetes Association to the Gibbon Conservation Center to the Santa Clarita Philharmonic. The majority of groups that applied for funding were funded, and Councilmember McLean suggested that those which weren't funded seek help form the city on preparing their applications for next year. Boydston and Weste had to sit out votes on the Canyon Theater Guild and SCV Historical Society because of their involvement, but both of their groups were also funded.

Finally, on Item 6, Al Ferdman expressed some dissatisfaction with the loan repayment arrangement between Santa Clarita's redevelopment successor agency and the city. Ferdman pointed out that only a tiny amount of the loan was being paid back and actually brought up one of Kellar's erroneous Jefferson quotes about the importance of paying off one's debts. City Manager Ken Striplin disagreed with Ferdman's assessment, however, stating that the State dictated interest terms and the repayment schedule. He added that it was good news that Santa Clarita would be getting paid back at all--the loans repayments could have remained unenforceable. The recommended loan modifications were approved.

That Special Place in Hell

If anyone had thought that the City Council's major overhaul of mobile home park ordinances would have helped ease tensions between park owners and renters, they were proven wrong yet again at tonight's meeting. In response to testimony from renters about senior parks changing to family parks (a change usually accompanied by a hefty hike in rents) and a problematic recusal policy for the Manufactured Home Rental Adjustment Panel, two actions were taken. First, the council approved an urgency ordinance that prevented any parks from changing from mostly/only seniors to all-age rentals. It went into effect immediately and will last 45 days. Second, the council passed to second reading a plan to appoint replacements on the mobile home review panel, which hears appeals. Currently, if someone on the panel owns or rents at a park under review, they must recuse themselves, which makes for a lopsided vote (the panel is composed of two owner reps, two renter reps, and one neutral arbiter, so losing an owner/renter could doom a vote from the start.) The new policy will be to allow the third-highest vote-getting representative from the effected side (owners/renters) to replace a recused panel member for a particular vote. Obviously, the replacement will have to come from a different park.

There were a number of speakers on this item before it passed, and the council's sympathies seem to remain most strongly with renters. Some residents spoke about the nightmarish conditions that have followed new ownership at parks, their inability to keep up with rent increases, and less than respectful treatment from owners and managers. Councilmembers Laurene Weste and TimBen Boydston were among the most insistent on seeing that seniors would not be forced out of their homes by increases in rents. It was at this point in the meeting that Boydston informed park owners who forced out seniors via rapid rent increases that "there is a special place in Hell for you." The statement ended with a steely glare from Boydston into the beyond and surprised but mostly supportive utterances from the audience.

No San for You

Committee appointments are an important opportunity for the mayor to exert his/her limited power through recommendations of who should serve on which committee. Before Mayor Kellar read his adjustments to committees, a few speakers had some recommendations of their own. Al Ferdman asked that lobbyists not serve on committees. This was in reference to Arthur Sohikian, the man who lobbied to erect massive digital billboards along Santa Clarita's freeways, who has long represented Santa Clarita on the North County Transportation Coalition. Sohikian is the only non-councilmember to serve on a committee. Steve Petzold and a few others recommended that Councilmember TimBen Boydston serve on the sanitation district. Petzold said that Boydston is among the best-informed on sanitation-related issues, and he felt that perennial sanitation district member Laurene Weste wasn't qualified to serve any longer based on her past performance. "I can't see putting her back on the board after the complete disaster we saw in 2015 with deep-well injection," said Petzold.

After public comments, Kellar read his list. Everyone for 10 or 11 committees (either as a member or an alternate), which is a more even distribution than we've seen in the past. However, Boydston was only named as an alternate to Kellar and Weste on the sanitation district. He asked whether Weste was a sanitation district ratepayer. "For my rentals," she replied. He said being a ratepayer can be helpful in getting action, but he didn't push it further. There was also some discussion about the cost-efficacy of having sanitation meetings in Whittier or in Santa Clarita, and Weste restated her expertise and efficacy regarding the chloride disposal issue. She felt proud that they had reduced chloride removal costs by a projected $400M. In the end, the list was approved. Councilmember McLean, who has jealously guarded her committees in the past, only gave a little mumble instead of a strong yes on the item. Though she didn't address it in comments, perhaps she missed out on some wanted appointments.

During the closing round of public comments, Al Ferdman suggested that the council needed to be more technologically up to date with the ability to show written materials on-screen and to use teleconferences to save money on traveling to meetings. Stacy Fortner spoke about the council's plan to discuss the recent CLWA proposal. "There is some backroom, shady business going on" said Fortner. She did not deign to go into too many specifics, but she felt there was ample cause to carefully examine the issue. The meeting ended at 9:18.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Sloppy Raise


Tonight's meeting was brief, but not brief enough to have spared several councilmembers from awkwardness. Councilmember Boydston generously praised the Canyon High School Theater Group's recent success in competition, but none of its members showed up for their certificates. Councilmember McLean had to ask City Manager Ken Striplin for a definition of "contract city." And Councilmember Weste and Mayor Kellar took quite a while to grasp the nature of the councilmember pay raise they were voting on. Even with all the bumbling, the council managed to approve a raise for next year in a 3-2 vote, reversing a decision they had made mere months ago. Things are off to an auspicious start for 2016.

Panel Me This

"Everybody's not home for the State of the Union--that's obvious," observed Mayor Bob Kellar as he opened the meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta then delivered the invocation, a freeform prayer of sorts: "May our words and our deeds be pleasing." Both Kellar and Acosta emphasized titles when referring to one another, helping December's transitions to sink in.

While Canyon High's drama students were dramatically absent for their recognition, Saugus High's phenomenally successful cross country team members came to the meeting to be recognized as CIF champions. They've spent an unprecedented 10 years finishing in the top three.

Public participation followed. R.J. Kelly requested that the cross valley connector be named "Santa Clarita Veterans' Highway" (or similar) in honor of the thousands of veterans living in the SCV. He pointed out that everyone on the council had served in the armed forces or had a family member serve. Kellar followed the remarks by asking whether fellow councilmembers would support agendizing the item, and they agreed.

A number of speakers addressed mobile home park rent and appeals when they came to the podium. The most compelling comments came from Dave Boizelle, a resident of Greenbrier Mobile Home Park. He explained that he is filing an appeal against his park's rent increase. The appeal will go before a panel which consists of two representatives for park owners, two for renters, and one neutral arbiter. Unfortunately, one of the renters on the panel is also from Greenbrier, and she will have to recuse herself from voting on the appeal. Boizelle believed this doomed his appeal, as park owners wouldn't vote against their self-interests. That would mean at best a 2-2 vote, and ties aren't enough for an appeal to be ratified. To highlight his point that park owners wouldn't be impartial, he read a statement from Dowdall Law Offices, which represents Santa Clarita's mobile home park owners: "This form of panel is not impartial but evenly unbalanced...two partisans cancel each other out." It seemed clear that a means of substituting owner/resident representation in cases of recusal was necessary.

However, City Manager Ken Striplin seemed to think that the system was working fine. After public participation concluded, Striplin said, "I understand the concerns that the speaker spoke of, but I can also tell you that, historically, that has just not played out...In the appeals that we've seen, we have not seen the decision of the panel come down to party lines, so to speak." This conclusion seemed utterly at odds with the structure of the panel, the forced recusal of the Greenbrier resident, and the statement from the park owners' attorney, but Striplin assured the council that despite recusals in the past, the panel had operated fairly and effectively.

Councilmembers McLean and Weste were not satisfied with Striplin's assurances. They made a point of asking whether they could do something to address the potential for unbalanced decisions, and City Attorney Joe Montes explained that the ordinance would have to be amended. Weste wanted to "find a way for there to always be an alternate." The council supported discussing potential amendments at a future meeting. Striplin added that there have been discussions about changing some senior home designations to family spaces, and the council also wanted to discuss that sooner rather than later.

Other remarks from Striplin and the council included support for L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Al Ferdman had expressed some misgivings about the station moving west of Santa Clarita and about the lack of a station in the east valley, and the city manager assured him that current discussions were aimed at improving presence rather than decreasing it. Mayor Kellar echoed Striplin's support, contending that Santa Clarita gets access to a lot of big department resources at a cost-effective rate through its contract. He seemed to be heading off any calls of "let's start our own police department!" at the pass.

Avoiding Larry

The consent calendar came and went without much discussion and without speakers. Most of the items dealt with bookkeeping matters like approving tract maps and landscape contracts. One item gave up to $130,000 to Southern California Edison to develop plans for "undergrounding" utilities along Soledad Canyon Road, which will make for a more pleasing skyline. All items passed with the recommended actions.

One of the votes went 4-0 instead of 5-0, however, because Kellar recused himself. The item was a parcel map approval involving Spirit Properties, and Kellar explained that he wouldn't vote because he had had "a business transaction in the past" with Spirit's Larry Rasmussen. Of course, Kellar hasn't always been so meticulous in avoiding votes that affect his pal. As Mike Devlin wrote in 2014, "Kellar voted 'yes' to pay Larry Rasmussen $1.1 million for the future billboard property." That was quite a long time ago, of course, but the question of when to recuse oneself is always popping up in a valley as small and connected as Santa Clarita.

Sloppy Vote

After approving a 3% increase in fire district developer fees (this puts Santa Clarita in line with the rate for unincorporated LA County), it was time to discuss councilmember compensation. Didn't that just happen a few months ago?, the attentive reader asks. Yes, it did. Tonight was a revisitation of last year's vote 3-2 against giving the City Council a raise. Recall that the council always votes on raises that will take place after elections.

Discussion began with Cam Noltemeyer making several points about how the council was already adequately compensated, especially if benefits were considered. She then pointed out that councilmembers receive different benefits (in line with city staff benefits when elected), but she believed, "Every single councilman should get the same pay. The same pay. And let's start being open with the public because you definitely are not." Noltemeyer meant that Boydston should be compensated as well as Kellar, McLean, and Weste, but she even extended her statement to include Mayor Pro Tem Acosta, who is also getting lower benefits since he came on so recently. "And Acosta too, I guess, reluctantly," she conceded.

Mayor Kellar asked if any of the councilmembers wished to discuss the matter. Councilmember McLean started with a question based on the use of the term "contract city" in earlier comments from this evening. She asked, "I was just wondering if you can explain what it means that we're a contract city?" City Manager Ken Striplin then explained that it meant that Santa Clarita contracts with LA for services like fire. "So it's providing for those types of services specifically and not giving contracts on individuals projects?" McLean queried. With that concept clarified, Kellar again sought action on the item.

Staff normally supplies a recommended action, but on the pay raises, all that was written was, "Provide direction to staff regarding Councilmember salary." This led to confusion.

Weste: "I'd like to move the recommendation for the increase of the council compensation."
Kellar: "I have a that the 5%?"
Weste: "If the council's willing, yes."
Kellar: "Do we have a second?"
Acosta: "I'll second it."
McLean, over Acosta: "Wh...OK, I was going to say if you don't I will but you did, so..."
Boydston, over Kellar: "Discussion! Yes, there will be discussion...I thought this was settled three months ago!"

Boydston contended that Councilmember Weste's motion had been improper, as she had moved the staff recommendation, which was only to provide direction--there were no specifics much less a recommended increase. Boydston's speech soon veered into into grandstanding. He said that council pay had increased roughly twice as rapidly as the rate of inflation, and that seniors weren't seeing any meaningful, comparable increase in social security benefits. He asked why the vote had to be brought up again--had their workload increased dramatically in the past few months?

Boydston has had a strained relationship with some staff and fellow councilmembers over compensation in the past. He once filed a claim against the City for about $10,000--the discrepancy in benefits between new and old councilmembers once a two-tier health care system had been adopted. Boydston contended that it wasn't about more money but about paying everyone the same to do the same job. He was unsuccessful. At the time, he had suggested being OK with everyone taking the lesser benefits as well so long as everyone got the same deal. Boydston used the tactic of less is more again tonight, suggesting that the council actually vote to cut its compensation by 10% and give the funds to senior care.

Though Boydston spoke a lot, the rest of the council was silently clamoring to get to the vote without engaging in the merits of a raise. Weste and Kellar showed that they lacked a rudimentary understanding of the item, since Weste thought they could only do a 5% raise (not 5% per year) and Kellar thought it only applied to one year and that's why Weste had said 5% (it applied to two). When asking for clarity from Dante Acosta, who had seconded the motion:

Acosta: "I believe it was 5% per year"
Kellar: "That was your interpretation, that it was 5% per year for a total of 10?"
Acosta: Nods, mumbles something

Weste's recommendation and stated understanding had been 5% total, so how Acosta came to this interpretation is not clear. Perhaps his earlier prayer had granted him greater clarity than that afforded me or The Signal's Luke Money, who tweeted "Unclear on whether the #SCCouncil approved a 5% total pay increase or for 10% (5% for two years). Will check as soon as meeting ends." In any case, the vote took place and  went 3-2, with those running for reelection this year voting against the raise (Boydston, Kellar), and those not running for reelection voting for it. And even though it's for 10% total (Money got clarification from the city clerk), that is a tiny amount relative to the budget, and it marks the first time councilmembers will receive over $2000 a month.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Acosta Ascendant For Toeing the Line

At tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting, Councilmember TimBen Boydston was passed over yet again for the position of mayor pro tempore. The title instead went to Dante Acosta, who has served less than half as long as Boydston. The title of mayor went to Bob Kellar; it's now his fourth time. Fittingly, there was quite a production before Boydston's mayoral aspirations exited stage right. Well over 20 people spoke or submitted cards in favor of Boydston for the position of mayor pro tem while scarcely anyone even mentioned Kellar or Acosta. Yet the council was not swayed by supportive public testimony and chose to keep Boydston from claiming the title. Tonight probably didn't mark the "death of democracy" as one rather dramatic speaker put it, but it was a clear indication that the council sees being mayor as a privilege to be earned rather than a duty to be equitably shared. Let's get to recapping.

Marsha, the Ubiquitous   

The special reorganization meeting began at 5 o'clock. Outgoing Mayor Marsha McLean welcomed everyone with a performance by the Valencia High School choir. The students were dressed up in full Christmas caroling attire and sang "Here We Come A-caroling" followed by "Throw the Yule Log on, Uncle John." The latter was a first for me, and hopefully a last. Once the choir had finished, they made straight for the door, but Mayor McLean was quite insistent on getting a photo first.

McLean warned the audience that her final comments as mayor would be lengthy because, "This is the last time that I'm going to be a mayor...for this year, anyways." McLean spoke about her proudest accomplishments, which included organizing a coalition of northern LA County communities to fight against potential negative impacts of high-speed rail. She was also excited to have convinced the U.S. Postal Service to bring an office back to Newhall. During her term, Santa Clarita hosted one of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti's quarterly mayor meetings as well. Trains, mail, and getting noticed by LA: the year that was.

Next, McLean read a much longer list of accomplishments to which she was less singly/directly connected. This included concerts in the park, plans for the new senior center, adding the city's 32nd park, fighting the drought via landscaping changes, and offering mental health services and outreach. To conclude, McLean went off-script and thanked her husband for putting up with her many, time-consuming duties as mayor. She said she was looking forward to relaxing her demanding schedule for a while, at least. McLean was tickled to receive a charm bracelet as a memento. I couldn't see all the charms, but she mentioned that there was a little Eiffel Tower. 

A procession of officials or their representatives came forward next. They all offered their appreciation for the work of Mayor McLean over the past year. First up was Scott Wilk. He said that he had prepared a "fabulous" speech about McLean's accomplishments, but she had already gone over most of them. McLean interrupted, "You can say whatever nice things you wish." The audience laughed. His main compliment was that Marsha McLean was "ubiquitous", showing up to represent Santa Clarita at many, many events. He mentioned her fight against being railroaded by high-speed rail. He seemed to think the advocacy was nice, but nice turned to patronizing when he made it clear that he thought he was doing the real work: "You can do whatever you want but we are gonna kill it." The rest of Wilk's remarks mostly involved Wilk himself, as usual.

Though Wilk had set a low bar for speeches, few of the other speakers surpassed it. A young rep for Congressman Steve Knight basically just said "thanks" a lot. The Chamber of Commerce's Terri Crain said that her personal connection to McLean stemmed from the fact that McLean was mayor when she arrived in town, so Crain just always assumes that McLean is is still mayor. Crain laughed generously at her own little joke. Other speeches, letters, and the like came from the Castaic Lake Water Agency, College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation, the office of Supervisor Mike Antonovich, and various other persons/institutions.

Nominations, Pleas, Decisions

McLean's last duty was handing the gavel to the city clerk, who then asked for nominations for mayor. Boydston tried to nominate Bob Kellar first, but Councilmember Laurene Weste was quite insistent on having the honor. Kevin Tonoian was opening nominations and Weste spoke over him, saying, "Move Bob Kellar!" while Boydston more calmly began, "I would like to move..." An uncharacteristically aggressive Weste cut off Boydston, saying, "I already did it." Boydston countered, "I have the floor, m'am," and Weste came back with, "I moved first." Mayor McLean snuck in, "And I seconded!" Kellar took the title. He posed for a picture and everyone clapped, but the fourth time around just isn't quite as magical as the first time, or the second time, or the third.

Mayor Kellar made some remarks about what's in store for the city in 2016, and he then opened the special meeting to public participation--there were 18 speaker cards. While several speakers were congratulatory to Kellar as they came forward, no one came forward expressly for the purpose of congratulations. All were there to advocate for Councilmember TimBen Boydston to be the next mayor pro tem. (Former mayor Carl Boyer didn't go as far as a recommendation, but he did advocate reinstating a formal rotation of who got to be mayor.) The speeches kicked off with TimBen's wife, Ingrid Boydston. She was brief but poignant, asking that the council take three pieces of advice when making its decision. The first was from the Bible (treat people the way you want to be treated), the second from kindergarten (play fair), and the third from politics (respect the voter). It was a solid opening, and a steady stream of pro-Boydston speakers followed. Most argued that Boydston was competent and that the mayoral position was supposed to rotate fairly. He had been voted in, so he deserved a chance to serve as mayor.

Steve Petzold, the main man behind tonight's show of support, gave the most passionate speech. Recalling last year, when Petzold and Patti Sulpizio had advocated for Boydston to be mayor pro tem, only to be ignored by the council, he said, "I considered that to be an insult." Petzold agreed with The Signal editorial board, which he said had a "blinding flash of the obvious" recently when it wrote: "To bypass TimBen suggests the council has an inner circle wielding power, a situation not justified in the city's constitution."

Former Santa Clarita Mayor Carl Boyer spoke about his support for a formal rotation. "I was offered by Mr. McKeon to be the first mayor and I gave that up because I believed that the principle of rotation was a basic keystone of good government, so we rotated according to the number of votes that each of us got." He said he even supported Jill Klajic as mayor even though he thought she wouldn't be good at it. He sincerely believed in the merits of a strict mayoral rotation where everyone gets a chance "so the people can be heard."

"I don't know if there's ever been so much attention to selection of mayor pro tem" said Patti Sulpizo, the second-to-last speaker. She said the news coverage, social media discussions, and show of support tonight were essentially unprecedented. And she was correct.

After public comments came to an end, Bob Kellar said he would entertain a motion for mayor. There was a long, anxiously silent pause of fully ten seconds before Councilmember Weste spoke up and said, "Dante Acosta." Mayor McLean let out a far from emphatic "I'll second." Before a vote, Boydston asked for discussion. Since everyone had predicted that it would be Acosta instead of Boydston for mayor pro tem, Boydston didn't seem surprised and spoke calmly. He simply asked that the councilmembers explain their decision because so many speakers had presciently requested that they do so. He said "Give reason for the vote...that was a request that I wanted to make of each councilperson...we have thick skins or we would not be here." Enthusiastic applause followed; people wanted to know the reason Boydston had been overlooked. Perhaps more accurately, people wanted the other councilmembers to go on record saying their reasons.

Only Mayor Kellar replied. He was passionate and unapologetic about his decision, which was clearly a vote against Boydston rather than a vote for Acosta, who wasn't even mentioned. (Acosta sat by quietly throughout the vast majority of the special meeting--one of the reasons he got the title of mayor pro tem.) Kellar's words weren't particularly coherent, as he often began a statement only to end it mid-thought, as if there were certain things he wanted to say but stopped short of saying. For example, he began, "There's a lot of elected people in this room..." but didn't succinctly finish the thought. The implication, of course, was obvious--there were political pressures and considerations even though the mayoral title is supposed to be mostly ceremonial. Kellar said that decisions should be made based on "information and experience and listening," and that they all needed to be "working together in a responsible matter." Kellar added that Boydston kept bringing up issues where he'd lost the vote, advising Boydston, "When you're on the minority side you simply leave it alone." Kellar felt Boydston acted as if he were "above it all...we write a separate book for this one!" Boydston, in short, did not toe the line.

Cake followed.

Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Council Meeting

Councilmember Laurene Weste delivered the invocation to open the city council meeting that followed the special reorganization meeting. Weste, who had not uttered one word of explanation for her decisions over the previous hour, was apparently been saving her speaking voice for less controversial subjects. She fondly remember the departed Duane Harte and asked that people think about America's veterans.

During public participation, a number of residents of Sierra Park (a senior mobile home park) came up to speak about the change in ownership/management they've been dealing with. One woman who lives at the park worked for the new company following the takeover. However, she resigned after just a few days because she felt the company wasn't acting in accordance with the law and that residents were suffering as a result. Several elderly residents came forward and said that they had lost rent control through deceptive contracts or business practices and that no maintenance of the grounds had taken place. One speaker predicted "a new class of homeless seniors."

Other speakers included Lynne Plambeck, who asked that a restoration of Bouquet Canyon creek be named to honor the Savaikie Family. Sandra Cattell pointed out the need for more charging stations for electric cars. She suggested that car dealerships which sell electric vehicles could each pay for a station, as has happened in other cities. Al Ferdman brought up his most recent criticism of the plan to subsidize a Laemmle Theatre in Old Town Newhall. Ferdman said that recently released figures reveal that half of the theater's screens would only have 45 seats, which hardly seemed to justify a $14M subsidy/incentive to build.

City Manager Ken Striplin was first to reply. He said that the mobile home park complaints were news to him but promised quick outreach. Striplin wasn't entirely clear about the extent of the city's jurisdiction over the park (it seemed limited), but he said they could at least investigate tree maintenance and a few other issues that had been brought up. He had the council's support on this. Councilmember Weste said that the city needed to contact the California Mobilehome Ombudsman: "It's time." Kellar asked for Striplin to clarify the $14M pricetag for Laemmle. Striplin said that $10M of the $14M would go to building a parking structure, which Kellar felt defeated Ferdman's argument that the city was lavishly subsidizing the company. (Ferdman would later respond that the parking lot was being built immediately next to the theater and was sized to accommodate the seating needs of the theater, so it still counted as a subsidy.)

The items on the consent calendar were fairly routine. The legislative platform for the new year was approved (i.e., political items where the city will take a stand only to be ignored by Sacramento) and dial-a-ride vehicles were purchased. Cam Noltemeyer spoke about item 9, which was the second reading of an update to development codes. There was language about marijuana sales, and she asked whether medical marijuana shops could do business in Santa Clarita. City Attorney Joe Montes said the answer was no.

The final bit of business was considering FY 2015-16 mid-year budget adjustments. General fund revenue was increased $3.4M in light of higher than expected tax revenue and other income. Expenditures included $120,000 to continue CEMEX opposition efforts (so much for victory, eh?) and some changes to staffing, such as three graffiti worker positions and a film permit specialist position. The changes were accepted by the council.  

During the second round of public participation, several Boydston supporters had a chance to provide their immediate feedback on the council's snubbing on Boydston. Cam Noltemeyer said that tonight, we had seen "the most desperate" (the struggling senior mobile home park residents) and "the most arrogant" (4/5 of the council). Patti Suplizio asked about all the people who Bob Kellar had said shared his concerns about Boydston. "Where are they?" she asked, "Was there an unscheduled secret meeting that I missed? How do we get your ear?" Sulpizio viewed public comments as all but worthless, since minds have usually already been made up. Andrew Taban offered his "condolences" to the city over "the death of democracy tonight." He felt "surprised and hurt and disappointed."

Steve Petzold, however, took Boydston to task for suggesting that there were some unscrupulous real estate agents taking advantage of seniors (Boydston had suggested this during remarks about senior mobile home housing). Petzold said the realtors he knows are very careful and forthcoming with disclosures and notifications. Boydston clarified his remarks in response.

One final exchange illustrated why things are the way they are for the council. Some CSUN graduate students spoke about Santa Clarita's homeless population, which they have come to know through their work and through Single Mothers Outreach. In response to this and the senior housing concerns, Boydston suggested forming a city committee on homelessness. Boydston asked if anyone else shared his concerns and would support agendizing his idea. Kellar was upset by what he thought was an implication that the city hasn't done enough to address homelessness. He thought Boydston was overly influenced by public sentiments, often having knee-jerk reactions. He held up the stack of comment cards and said that if Boydston had his way, decisions would be made simply by counting them up, leading to a "train wreck." Dante Acosta tried make peace. He said that Boydston's phrasing had implied that anyone against forming a new committee wasn't interested in helping the homeless, when they really were. Acosta argued that discussion with staff was a better first step than forming a new committee. In short, Boydston wanted to make noise and start a campaign, Kellar was OK with the status quo, and Acosta wanted to play nice. Thus their respective titles. The meeting ended, and that's it for recaps until 2016.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The One With McRib Girl

Tonight's meeting of Santa Clarita City Council will forever be known as "The One With McRib Girl." As you have likely already learned via Twitter, Facebook, or even KFI (it's been mentioned all morning), a young woman named Xanthe Pajarillo came forward during public participation to ask for the council's assistance in bringing the McDonald's McRib sandwich back to Santa Clarita. The speech was well-conceived, hilarious, and perhaps a weird way to promote her new film, Robbie...or at least her brand. In any case, she picked the right night, as little else of note happened. Duane Harte was fondly remembered, some development code details were changed, and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar defended himself for being named on a hit mailer against Lynne Plambeck. But mostly, it was McRib. Well, MuhKrib.

Unexpected Babies

"Here in America, we look with sadness across the waters," began Councilmember TimBen Boydston. His invocation was a mix of grief over the recent terror attacks in France and solemn thanksgiving as he read from, fittingly, Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation.

The sole recognition at tonight's meeting went to a Sheriff's Deputy who helped with an emergency roadside birth. Both Mayor McLean and I were disappointed in the copy that she had been provided with to introduce Deputy Bertola. I was upset that it left out the best part--the delivery happened at a car wash. McLean quibbled after she read a description that it was "an unexpected baby." She broke script to disagree with the script, saying, "The baby, probably, was expected..." garnering laughs from the audience. Perhaps she's right, or perhaps she just needs to watch more of TLC's I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. In any case, the deputy was applauded for his quick action and assistance with the delivery.

A Strip Club McRib Combo

Public participation usually involves the same few people week in and week out. When you hear a new name, odds are that they've only come to talk about some new traffic problem in their neighborhood. You can imagine my delight, then, when a man in dramatic makeup and a cowboy hat came forward to ask that strip clubs to be welcomed by Santa Clarita. He said the council could help end the stigma against this line of work while simultaneously boosting the economy.

Unfortunately, the man's performance couldn't hold a candle to the brilliance of Xanthe Pajarillo, who spoke after him. She began by asking, with considerable gravity, for an interpreter so as not to exclude the Spanish-speaking community from hearing her comments. Pajarillo then explained the plight of the McDonald's McRib, which she pronounced as MuhkDonald's MuhKrib. The seasonal sandwich is no longer offered nationwide, and she has been having no luck securing one in Santa Clarita. Pajarillo explained that the McRib not only feeds her body but also her soul; a family Thanksgiving tradition is sharing MuhKribs and MuhkNuggets. Without them, this year will be like "Christmas without snow." Xanthe Pajarillo means, roughly, "yellow bird" in Greek/Spanish. And rarely has their been a canary like Pajarillo in the council chambers, singing a song all her own so loud, so clear, so strong. Not once did she break character, and the piece was as well-written as it was well-delivered. Be certain you watch it here.

Other speakers included Elaine Ballace, who spoke with more reserve than usual about mobile home park rent increases. Since park renters escaped a big automatic rent hike because of a newly adopted policy, park owners have been trying to make up the difference by passing through capital improvement costs. Ballace said that this has been done in legally questionable ways, and she asked for the council's help in addressing mobile home rent concerns. She acknowledged that most of the council members (everyone but Kellar) had probably acted in good-faith when trying to lower automatic rent increases, but she said help was needed in countering unintended consequences.

Stacy Fortner used her time at the podium to address traffic issues at one of Einstein Academy's schools. She supported the school's use of a "valet line" policy for pick-ups, but  she pointed out that people who abruptly leave the line or try to force their way in can increase the risk of vehicular collisions. The sheer number of vehicles also causes backups and other problems near Wiley Canyon and Old Orchard. Fortner has had several close calls herself. She had asked for increased traffic enforcement but was told that the Sheriff's Department avoids patrolling the Einstein Academy crowd as a matter of policy. Fortner, who has not had the coziest of relationships with Einstein, its staff, or its parents, was very civil with most of her comments. However, she couldn't resist a subtle remark about the ill-fated school's inability to fix traffic (and other) problems: "I think that they are just very busy dealing with office issues." 

Steve Petzold appealed to the council to select TimBen Boydston to be Mayor Pro Tem when the time comes next month. There was an unofficial rotation in which Bob Kellar skipped over TimBen Boydston to become the current mayor pro tempore. Kellar has had mixed feelings about the rotation in the past. He was skipped over once and wasn't pleased by it, but now he's done the skipping and made no apologies for it. Petzold highlighted Boydston's long service at council, his qualifications, and the fact that the more senior members of council have all had multiple opportunities to be mayor. Petzold ended by wishing everyone a "Merry Thanksgiving." Before he walked away, he looked to the heavens and said, "Go Navy!" for the recently departed Duane Harte.

The Harte of Santa Clarita

Duane Harte's recent and sudden death was on the mind of all councilmembers during their comments. Kellar played a video in remembrance of Harte and said he couldn't do justice to Harte's extensive involvement in all aspects of SCV life: "Duane Harte was the heart of Santa Clarita." Councilmembers Laurene Weste and TimBen Boydston were audibly emotional as they discussed his passing. Weste summarized the man by saying, "Duane was kind of our Jimmy Stewart." Councilmember Dante Acosta mentioned that he had been speaking with Harte at the community tree-lighting event just before Harte's death, rendering the loss all the more immediate and difficult. Mayor McLean agreed, saying, "It seems impossible that he's not here."     

The mourning was tempered by promises of festive holiday events on the community calendar. Boydston apologized for his scruffy beard, explaining that he'll soon be playing the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol. Bob Kellar joked that Boydston was a natural for the role. A smiling Boydston asked "Which one?"--the miserly Scrooge at the start of the story or the generous, amiable Scrooge at the end. Kellar answered laughingly with, "I'm gonna let that one go." 

Lastly, Bob Kellar defended himself against remarks leveled at the previous council meeting. Recall that Lynne Plambeck came forward and held up a hit mailer that went out before the Newhall Water District elections. It was full of what Plambeck called lies and personal attacks. She was appalled that Kellar's name was on it. Kellar had responded by saying that he had "no knowledge" of the mailer. After the meeting, it seems Plambeck sent Kellar a copy of the mailer with his name on it. At tonight's meeting, Kellar responded. He said that "she [Plambeck] attacked me," noting that he had not generated the content about Plambeck himself. Kellar's attempt to play the victim was ineffectual, and not just because he seemed unusually sensitive and, for lack of a better term, butthurt. He implied that he should be able to put his name behind a group without being called out on the nature of that group's election materials. As Kellar ought to know from his years in government, that's not how things work. 

Consent Calendar

The consent calendar was short and mostly routine. One item recommended acquisition of two automatic license plate readers to be used by the Sheriff's Deparment. There was also a letter supporting LA's bid for the 2024 Olympics, and a 50 mph speed limit was set for a stretch of Golden Valley Road. Councilmember Boydston asked about an item relating to environmental impacts along the Santa Clara River watershed, but it didn't amount to much more than acknowledging environmental changes and remedies to affect the future of the river. The entire calendar was approved with the recommended actions and without further discussion.

The final item on the agenda was accepting some amendments to Santa Clarita's Unified Development Code. This helped keep Santa Clarita in line with policies set by the State of California. Co-location of utility towers and communications antennas will be easier, building restrictions on ridgelines will be slightly modified, and each home address will now be limited to a single business rather than many. Dennis Conn came up to speak on the item. His remarks were as wide-ranging and challenging to follow as usual. Earlier in the evening he had covered Romans, taxes on cruise ships, and the US economy. On this item, he talked about hotels, color coordination (I think he may have been saying co-location but it sounded like color coordination), and fishing. The meeting ended at 7:23. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Self-denial and Curious Requests

Say what you will about the Santa Clarita City Council, but its members aren't getting rich--they make in a year what the city manager makes in a month. And at this evening's meeting, they nobly denied themselves a raise when given the opportunity. So who are we to deny them their bickering? Tonight, the disagreements centered on the future of Old Town Newhall, the right policy for solar power, and whether homeowners ever really need big trashcans. It's recapping time.

Land of the freeEEEE!

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar's invocation was a rousing call to the ballot box. He encouraged residents to make an informed vote this November, and he reminded them that men and women have died to protect our voting rights. Kellar may have been preaching to the choir--I don't think too many non-voters watch council meetings--but it's always good to be reminded.

"Now we get to go to a very lovely part of the meeting," said Mayor McLean, ushering in a diverse (i.e, long) procession of presentations. Sergeant Danial Dantice was applauded for his outreach to Santa Clarita's homeless population. The diminutive Dantice has helped connect homeless people with local resources and has been both compassionate and successful. Next, October was designated as a month for domestic violence prevention and breast cancer awareness. The Santa Clarita Domestic Violence Center, Circle of Hope, and Soroptimists came up to speak briefly, the latter group giving a $10,000 check to Circle of Hope.

The Master's College Chorale was then invited up for a performance. They began with "Tap-tap," Sidney Guillaume's piece about Haitian public transportation. Yes, really. According to its composer's website, the song "is inspired by the beautifully colored buses and taxis in Haiti...a metaphor encouraging people to 'jump on the bus' and not let opportunities pass them by." The group then transitioned to singing the national anthem--of the United States, not Haiti. The singers surrounded the audience during their performance, and they really reached for the high note on "land of the freeEEEE." The chorale was warmly applauded and praised for its interesting performance. This seemed like a natural finale for the City Hall presentations, but it was not. A representative of the LA Economic Development Corporation came forward to recognize Santa Clarita for being a finalist (i.e., not the winner) of LA's most business friendly large city award. Santa Clarita's many business-friendly programs and policies were praised.

Slow Your Road

A new issue emerged during tonight's public participation. Or, more accurately, a new version of an age-old issue emerged. Residents of Dorothy Street recently became connected to Golden Valley courtesy of the Five Knolls project. This has turned a quiet residential street into a busy thoroughfare. As one man put it, the street is now "an unregulated speedway." Residents explained that it's hard for them to even back out of their driveways. One woman said that she can't allow her grandchildren to play in the front yard any more, and she added that the dangerously high speeds of motorists force her to act as a human shield as she helps her disabled daughter to cross the street.

Elaine Ballace brought us the latest developments on mobile home rent increases. The unanticipated jumps in rents have residents scrambling for help and appeals, and she felt that the City has been helping park owners more than renters. "The City is in bed with the greedy landowners," she contended. Ballace said it's fine for Santa Clarita to get awards for being business friendly, but she wondered whether they were equally friendly to mobile home park residents.

With an oddly apologetic tone, Santa Clarita Soccer Center owner Scott Schauer said that he was gradually moving forward with the process of relocating his facility. It has operated legally for years, but new residents in the area have continued to complain about the noise. Rick Bianchi of The New Home Company (Villa Metro Developer) said he supported the decision to move. This was not too surprising because it means his company won't have to build a giant, ugly, and expensive sound wall between the soccer field and homes. Anyone who's been to Villa Metro knows that it's surrounded by enough giant, ugly walls already. Bianchi revealed that, "We had to make adjustments to sales prices because of this business," and he defended their disclosures of the soccer center's presence to prospective buyers. So it seems that people who bought homes next to the center paid a lower price for the bother, and now they've almost succeeded in driving said bother out of the neighborhood.

Too Late to Un-Laemmle?

City Manager Ken Striplin responded only to the comments about Dorothy Street. He said that some money from the Five Knolls development had been set aside for "traffic calming" measures. Once traffic patterns have settled after the opening of other roads in the area, staff will conduct studies and present traffic management options to residents.

The councilmembers went around to offer comments next. Councilmember TimBen Boydston had an idea for a project opposite the library in Old Town Newhall. This is the Laemmle spot. It's not officially called that because negotiations to build a Laemmle Theatre still aren't finalized, but that's what four-fifths of the council and over 90% of public speakers have said they want. Boydston had been excluded from these talks previously because of his own theater business. He was able to speak on the topic tonight, however, and he asked if any other councilmembers would agree to agendize a public discussion of the Laemmle proposal and/or of his alternative idea. No one would support him. Councilmember Dante Acosta employed two metaphors to explain his reasoning. He said that the City was dating Laemmle, and that they're moving towards a commitment so it would be inappropriate to look for a new partner now. He also suggested that there was a giant cruise ship sailing towards a common future, and Boydston couldn't expect to change course of the whole ship now that he was on board. Throughout the discussion, Boydston never actually mentioned what his alternative idea was, but since it shall never be, I guess we don't really need to know.

The other councilmembers made less contentious comments. Veterans Day events, the State of the City Luncheon, flu shot clinics, and other harbingers of winter were discussed. Mayor McLean thanked staff for helping to arrange a conference in Santa Clarita with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other mayors. She said they were "impressed." Naturally.


The items on tonight's consent calender were a humdrum mix of maintenance contracts, recreation projects, and bookkeeping measures. There were a couple of exceptions.

An item on waste management franchise agreements upset both Cam Noltemeyer and Mayor McLean, but for different reasons. Noltemeyer used the agreement as an excuse to discuss the City's deafening silence about the proposed Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion. She asked why they weren't opposing the dump or at least talking about it. Noltemeyer felt that she was always dismissed for being a community activist, so she reminded the council that she was a trash ratepayer as well. Patti Sulpizio echoed Noltemeyer's remarks in a more upbeat style. She said that Chiquita may be outside the city boundaries, but that was also the case for many other issues in which the City had nonetheless involved itself. Tthink Elsmere Canyon, Cemex's mining site, and the proposed high-speed railway, she suggested. "Fight with us, fight for us!" Sulpizio encouraged.  

Mayor McLean spoke on the same item. She first appeased Noltemeyer by saying, "I don't yell at people...I think community activists are just swell." She then asked City Manager Ken Striplin whether the City had taken a stance on the Chiquita Canyon Landfill EIR. He said that staff had sent a letter, but apparently the council didn't read it because McLean requested to look it over.

Then McLean got back to the item itself, which wasn't about Chiquita so much as it was about temporary bins and roll-off boxes. She was appalled that some very large temporary trash bins would be allowed in residential areas. "How could they possibly have that much solid waste?" McLean demanded to know of staff. Explanations were offered. Sometimes a lot gets thrown away in a big move, or after a death, or after a big party. This was not enough for McLean, who wanted specifics. "Items, items, items, what items?" she wondered. At one point, Ken Striplin actually detailed the sorts of trash one could expect in the wake of a party, such as disposable paper goods.

Mayor McLean remained unsatisfied. "I have a problem with this," she said, contending that most waste is recyclable and that recyclables and garbage shouldn't be mixed in one bin. She called the waste bin contract, which seemed relatively routine, "Completely new and different than what has been provided before."  McLean tried to make a case that people could abuse large bins by using them to throw away electronic waste and other items forbidden from the normal trash-stream, but no one stepped up to support her. Most of the council and staff seemed satisfied with the idea that the waste haulers would appropriately sort the waste to find recyclables. "Alright so fine," she said, sensing defeat. In a separate vote on this item alone, only McLean opposed the measure, wanting more time and details.

The rest of the consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions. One final item of note was a plan to start preserving all recordings of council meetings indefinitely. "They said we wouldn't live forever, and there you go," smiled TimBen Boydston.

Public Hearing

A public hearing to grant Valencia Water Company a franchise inspired a crisis of identity. The franchise agreement was written up as it would be for a private entity, but whether the VWC is private was up for debate. During comments, Lynne Plambeck explained that the Public Utilities Commission had ruled that upon being acquired by a public entity (in this case the Castaic Lake Water Agency),  the VWC's private status was no longer valid. Plambeck and Cam Noltemeyer argued that the CLWA has tried to keep VWC private because it benefits from the status and lack of public scrutiny. Beverly Johnson, VWC Vice President and Controller, insisted that Plambeck and Noltemeyer were mistaken. "We are a private corporation," Johnson said. It's not quite as simple as anyone was claiming because there are still suits and appeals in the court system. Public/private status may not be determined to everyone's satisfaction for a long time to come. In any case, tonight's franchise agreement really just kept up business as usual. Water will be bought, provided, and charged for, with about 1% of the rate going to the City.

Before the vote, Councilmember TimBen Boydston and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar engaged in a pointless argument about whether more water conservation actions could be demanded of Valencia Water Company or CLWA in the franchise agreement. Boydston asked, for example, why more recycled water wasn't used. Kellar wanted to keep the discussion brief and focused, but Boydston said leadership was the business of the council and that a comprehensive discussion was needed to lead the way. In the end, everyone but Boydston agreed to the franchise.

Debate over another tricky topic--how residential solar power is paid for--was deferred until next meeting. Mayor McLean made it known that she was frustrated with California's demand for energy conservation while diminishing the financial benefits of home solar power. Boydston and Acosta began to offer some counter-arguments about the cost of the electric utility infrastructure. In any case, a meeting withe SoCal Edison will be held to go over technical details of the changes in store for solar. Ultimately, the City can do little to change decrees from Sacramento, so this will probably prove to be another futile discussion.

No Raise For Now

The City Council is allowed to adjust the compensation of future councils. Since people tend to stay in office for so long, it's basically voting to give yourself a raise--just not technically. The opportunity comes around every two years, and the council could have given itself as much as a 5% raise for both 2015 and 2016, amounting to a 10% raise overall.

The only speaker was Cam Noltemeyer, who said no one (except maybe TimBen) deserved a raise. Boydston agreed that they should keep their compensation as is. When Boydston explained himself, it sounded to me like he was gearing up for some back-and-forth, but pushback never materialized. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar seconded his motion, and the majority of the council decided to forego raises for the next two years. McLean, who voted against the 0% raise, had pointed out that they'd only be getting about $200 more a month for being on call 24 hours a day, attending many meetings, and serving in many functions.

Councilmember Boydston tried to start a discussion about the disparity in benefits among councilmembers. The longer-seated ones are getting thousands more per year than newer members, like Boydston, for cash-in-lieu of healthcare benefits; this has to do with changes to benefits plans for city staff. However, City Attorney Joe Montes advised Boydston that it was not the right time.

Keating Complains Again

The meeting closed with public participation. Al Ferdman became unusually animated as he spoke out against the council for being unwilling to discuss alternatives to a Laemmle Theatre. By Ferdman's math, it would take 350 years of tax benefits for the Laemmle to cancel out the $14M subsidy the City will likely provide.

Lynne Plambeck returned to the podium for some follow-up on water and waste issues. Plambeck asked the City to look into Chiquita Canyon's use of green waste as an "alternative daily cover" for its landfill. She said that the practice is contributing to odor problems, and she was troubled that green waste was being counted as "recycled" when it was really ending up in a landfill.

Finally, Villa Metro's most sensitive resident came forward to remind anyone who had forgotten that life in Villa Metro is loud. David Keating felt that progress on the soccer center noise issue amounted to too little to late. He sounded like he was auditioning for the part of plaintiff in a civil suit as he said that his wife had to be hospitalized because of the noise. "My wife has been hospitalized because of the trauma, noise, sleep deprivation, psychological effects... We moved out of our home for six weeks. The new home company didn't disclose the soccer center to us." He claimed that his tremendous amount of trust in The New Home Company and the City of Santa Clarita had been misplaced. In short, it seems that Keating is both extraordinarily sensitive to noise but was extraordinarily oblivious to the presence of a noisy sports facility by the home he bought. The meeting ended with Keating, as yet, unsatisfied.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Longer Princessa, Quieter Villa, Stricter Vaping

For my November insideSCV column, I wrote about how too many of Santa Clarita's victories don't really feel like winning. Think Cemex, where every apparent triumph hasn't actually been one. Tonight was more of the same. Mobile home park renters recently secured lower annual rent increases, but now park owners are using pass-throughs to get their money in lieu of rent hikes. Villa Metro residents may succeed in driving out the noisy but legally-operating Santa Clarita Soccer Center, but only after demonstrating a hideous lack of self awareness. And vaping has been banned in most places, which would be satisfying had a vaping problem ever really existed. Tonight, many people seemed to get their way, but I'm not sure anybody actually won.
Performing Art

Councilmember Dante Acosta opened the meeting with prayer. (He says "awe-men" rather than "ae-men".) The flag was saluted, the introductory spiel spieled, and the agenda approved. The sole award of recognition for tonight went to ballerina Anatalia Hordov, who was one of only three Americans to have been invited to the Genee International Ballet Competition this fall. She even made it to the finals, the only American to do so. Hordov posed for a photo with Mayor McLean, an accomplished dancer in her own right, and the rest of the council.

Arts Commission Chair Patti Rasmussen spoke about arts programs that involve local schools and students. These ranged from a Cowboy Festival-inspired lesson in harmonicas to various art competitions to an artist in residence (for a week) program. Rasmussen said that she and the rest of the commission "anxiously await the findings of our arts master plan." That master plan is being completed by LA-based The Cultural Planning Group. Until then, Claritans remain all but powerless over their own art.

Rent Pass-throughs and Villa Metro "Plight"

After the update on the arts, Mayor McLean began working through a full roster of public participation. She said that if anyone needed translators (some would say she was really after interpreters), their services would be provided. Naturally, this announcement was made only in English, but things would awkwardly work themselves out in both English and Spanish over the course of the meeting.

Elaine Ballace spoke first, saying that the IRS and the City of Santa Clarita disagree without giving much in the way of background. It became apparent that she was talking about their apparent disagreement over what costs could be passed through to mobile home park renters. Ballace explained that park owners are now using pass-throughs to get residents to cover costs on everything from office furniture to computers, not just on capital improvements. She said that it was time to challenge these "greedy landowners." Another mobile home park resident agreed that pass-throughs were being used to cover questionable expenses and routine maintenance instead of major improvements. He said that it's retaliation for the recently adopted 0% floor on annual rent increases. Teresa Galvez, speaking with an interpreter, said that management is very difficult to work with at her mobile home park. Her manager doesn't answer questions or respond to complaints, she claimed, and it made for a situation where renters were paying a lot to get very little.

David Keating used his time at the microphone to complain about continuing noise issues at Villa Metro. Keating, who purchased a home directly across from a soccer field, has been deeply distressed that people play soccer on said field. He said that he and others are "subject to a lot of noise," calling the situation his "plight." "We're suffering over there, every single day," he contended. The soccer center's owner, Scott Schauer, spoke as well. After 20 years of legally running his business at the same spot, Schauer said he's ready to support construction of a sound wall or to look for a new location. Keating was pleased that the center might move, and he asked for the city to help Schauer relocate. He explained that the city is "partially at fault for his [Schauer's] disposition...being where he is." In sum, Keating knowingly bought a home next to a soccer field, hasn't liked the noise, and now feels entitled to request that city resources be used to move the field elsewhere. One hopes that the soccer center owner will make a tidy sum if he does sell his field due to pressure from Villa Metro residents. One also hopes the property will be bought by a company that manufactures car alarms or firecrackers.

Mr. Keating, who lamented having to listen to loud soccer games played near his home, may have a different definition of "suffering" than much of the world.

Other comments covered varied topics. Steve Petzold laid the groundwork for remarks he would make later in the evening about the vaping ban. He asked how items end up on the agenda, particularly ones that seem as trivial as the use of electronic cigarettes. "This is a non-issue in the City of Santa Clarita," he said, correctly. Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer rounded out public participation with their thoughts on water and chloride treatment. Ferdman brought up the issue of "redundant" reverse osmosis plants and the place of as-yet-unbuilt Newhall Ranch in Santa Clarita's waterscape. Noltemeyer was pleased that sanitation district meetings were now being held in Santa Clarita, but she said there were many more issues that needed to be resolved.

On the Menu

City Manager Ken Striplin responded first to the concerns of mobile home park residents. His reply, delivered bit by bit in English, then Spanish, amounted to "be careful what you wish for." He explained that in response to a floor of 0% on annual rent increases, changes in business practices were being made, and they seemed legal. Planning Manager Jeff Hogan explained the appeals process that residents could use to try to keep costs down. City Attorney Joe Montes said that the city's mobile home park ordinance also states the criteria for capital improvements. Ultimately, though, everyone pointed to the mobile home panel, which has much of the control over appeals, over interpreting what counts as a capital improvement, and over mediating disagreements between residents and owners.

The councilmembers offered their usual remarks about upcoming events and about past, successful events. Councilmember Dante Acosta fretted before one of his announcements. He said he felt like he was back in school, when a teacher would chastise him for chewing gum by asking if he'd brought enough for the whole class. Tonight, that "gum" was an announcement of his friend's "Welsh Cakes" business, and he regretted that he could only spotlight one of his favorite local businesses. Most would agree that a little plug at a City Council meeting won't be the big break for any business (viewership can often be counted on one hand), so his worries were probably for naught. Mayor McLean also had food on her mind during the comment period. She said that she had picked out the lunch menu for this year's State of the City Luncheon. McLean promised that it was not chicken, and she hoped people would like her choice. Her eyes sparkled mischievously and she flashed an enigmatic smile, but gave no additional hints.  

Councilmember Dante Acosta couldn't help but mention his recent commercial spot when he asked residents to support a charitable diabetes walk coming this fall.

Consent Calendar

Throughout the meeting leading up to consideration of the consent calendar, a woman had been interpreting on- and off-again for Spanish-speaking residents. She mostly just interpreted the dialogue pertaining to mobile home park rents. It had been a little cumbersome (interpretation has been handled far more smoothly in the past with headsets), and Steve Petzold made a point of this when he came to the podium to speak about Santa Clarita's vaping ban ordinance. Petzold asked for an interpreter, and the mayor asked whether there was anyone in the audience who needed Petzold's testimony to be translated from English to Spanish. Two individuals indicated that they would benefit from such a service. The interpreter moved between the front of the room and the audience as the council tried to decide whether it was better for her to speak at the microphone or to speak directly next to the Spanish-speaking attendants. Petzold would begin speaking, but he was stopped as he wasn't pausing enough to allow for translation. The whole exercise took a few minutes and flustered Mayor McLean. Petzold mostly just smiled with quiet self-satisfaction. Or exasperation. Probably both. He can be hard to read.

When he finally began speaking uninterrupted, Steve Petzold lambasted the ordinance to ban the use of electronic smoking devices. E-cigarettes or vaporizers would be treated the same as conventional cigarettes despite presenting far fewer health risks. Petzold's critique was wide-ranging and unforgiving (except it seemed OK to ban them on buses). Several others cam forward to speak against the ordinance as well. Since vaping would be allowed in shops that sold the devices, which had been a non-negotiable for owners of vaping businesses, their remarks were really aimed at diminishing the stigma around the activity. A veteran said that seven other veterans he knows have successfully switched from cigarettes to vaping, and they're the better for it. Some have dropped nicotine altogether. Speakers involved in the vaping industry or community said that vaping isn't synonymous with illegal drug use, that international health authorities have said it's a better alternative to smoking, and that it was factually wrong to say that vaping is the same as smoking.

The comments weren't terribly productive. Tonight, the ordinance was before the council for a second reading/final passage, so not much was likely to change. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if anyone would support him in allowing vaping in Santa Clarita's extensive open space network, but he found no takers. In other words, it will be illegal for a resident to use an electronic cigarette even if alone on a trail and miles from civilization. The ordinance--and all other items on the consent calendar--passed with recommended action. Those other items included installing a water monitoring well at the Valencia Library and some landscaping contracts.

Build Roads, Screw Toads

The last big item of the evening was a public hearing about plans to extend Via Princessa between Golden Valley Road and Sheldon Avenue. A final EIR and master case were up for approval. Cam Noltemeyer and Lynne Plambeck expressed their misgivings about the project. The environmental impact report concluded that, "Significant and unavoidable impacts would occur due to loss of vernal pool habitat and vernal pool-dependent species...Even with the implementation of mitigation, impacts would remain significant and unavoidable." Sensitive local vernal pool-associated species include arroyo toads, several annual wildflowers, and aquatic invertebrates. Plambeck was dismayed that protecting habitat and wildlife only seems to be a priority for the council when it can be used as a tool to stop unpopular developments, such as the landfill at Elsmere Canyon.

The City Council was supportive of the road extension. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar stated, "Folks, it is our responsibility to do what we can to take care of the human race." He said that someone told him that the top three priorities for those seeking public office should be roads, roads, and roads. Kellar closed with a lament that there are people (SCOPE members, presumably) who "oppose everything!" Councilmember TimBen Boydston gave a more cynically supportive response, stating that people weren't going to get out of their cars en masse and that a functional road infrastructure was critical. Councilmember Acosta agreed, stating that Soledad Canyon Road is gridlocked much of the time and that more big roads are needed, especially near Canyon Country. Acosta said he'd start a collection to fund the road if needed, and Kellar jokingly produced cash to make a donation. Mayor McLean was the last to express her support for the road despite its negative biological impacts. As she was explaining herself, Noltemeyer or Plambeck (or both, I didn't see) made for the exit. She scolded her/them, saying smugly, "So if you're leaving, then apparently, you don't care."

The project is far from a done deal. More work has to take place to mitigate habitat loss, some $38M in additional funds need to be secured, and the work itself will take years. But a big road that's been in the works for a while cleared its most recent major hurdle with the support of the full council.

More Villa Noise

The second round of public participation saw more speakers on Villa Metro noise and mobile home park pass-throughs. One theme of the mobile home park comments was the perceived lack of communication between managers/owners and residents. No resolution is in sight.

One speaker complained not about soccer noise but rather about train noise at Villa Metro. Recall that Villa Metro was sold/built around the idea of "easy access to Southern California's regional rail" (per the New Home Company's websites). It seems that once the soccer field has been driven out, removing trains from the train-based community may be the next goal. Such is Villa Metro.

During his comments, Ray Henry mentioned that he didn't like it when councilmembers highlighted businesses at meetings. Acosta had offered his own mini-commercial for Welsh Cakes tonight, but Bob Kellar is the usual promoter. Before the meeting ended, Kellar asked City Attorney Montes if local businesses and "restrunts" could indeed be mentioned, and Montes replied in the affirmative. The meeting ended before 9.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

City Council Fights Sacramento, Invents Vaping Crisis

Claritans complain all the time, but it’s not every day that a handful of public grievances get a new law on the books. Today was that day at City Council. In response to six written complaints, an ordinance restricting the use of electronic smoking devices (ESDs) was passed to its second reading. The plan to treat vaping like smoking was met with fierce debate by residents when initially presented a few months ago, but tonight’s discussion was brief and subdued by comparison. But vaping wasn't the only cause for dissatisfaction tonight. New complaints about Sacramento legislators, continuing complaints about soccer noise, and eternal complaints about  incompetent local officials comprised the balance of the meeting. Let’s relive the memories.

High Holidays, Near Drowning, School Self-Promotion

With summer ending, Mayor Weste’s invocation looked ahead to “the holiday season.” She delivered an invocation that was equal parts well-wishing and Wikipedia entry: “This month, our Jewish friends celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and they commemorate the Day of Atonement, called Yom Kippur. […] For the Jews, these holidays are very important.”

Following the flag salute, many emergency responders were recognized for helping to save the life of a little girl. She passed out in a pool, was pulled out of the water by her father (who had to get over a ten-foot fence to reach her), and then received life-saving aid from Deputy Christine Shaffer, Deputy Jason Goedecke, and others. She's made a full recovery. 

Next came an enthusiastic presentation from Sulphur Springs administrators and educators. They explained that technology was being embraced by teachers and that students were learning, which I had perhaps mistakenly thought was the norm at schools.  The speeches culminated in a video of students tapping iPads in slow motion as an exultant piano melody played in the background. 

The Public Speaks

Public participation consisted mostly of familiar faces. Elaine Ballace lamented Santa Clarita’s incompetence at embracing its local artists, actors, and entertainers. She mocked the Arts Commission, which she said seemed to do nothing, had no real power or money, and was too dependent on waiting for an arts master plan.

The SCOPE (Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment) contingent made its presence known, expressing more appreciation than is usual. Lynne Plambeck and a local high school student used their time to applaud the annual river rally and clean-up. Cam Noltemeyer was appreciative of what she called “the CEMEX decision”. Noltemeyer isn’t typically so effusive, but it soon became clear that she only brought up CEMEX as a counterpoint to Chiquita Landfill. That is, Congressman Knight got action against CEMEX mining by holding them to their contract. She hoped someone would hold Chiquita Canyon Landfill operators to their contract as well rather than extending it. (Note that staff and council members have yet to rejoice--or even to acknowledge--what had at first been hailed as an unqualified victory against CEMEX mining. Noltemeyer's mention this evening did not change that.)

David Keating was tonight’s only speaker on the topic of Villa Metro/Santa Clarita Soccer Center. He said he was representing “at least 42 other residents” who don’t like the noise from the soccer field—the long-standing soccer field that they bought a house right next to. He played a recording, and it sounded exactly like you’d expect things to sound if you bought a home right next to a soccer field: the nighttime chirping of crickets punctuated by shouts from soccer players.  “We love the houses, we just don’t like the noise,” explained the man who—sorry if I’m belaboring this point—bought a home right next to a soccer field.

"No Violations"

Responses to public comments followed. City Manager Ken Striplin countered Elaine Ballace, saying of the Arts Commission members, “They’re really doing a great job.” His defense likely came because Ballace did have something of a point—the commission doesn’t do a whole lot. But that’s largely because the City Council has tied its members' hands by second-guessing their recommendations and emphasizing reliance on a master plan rather than on good judgment.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked about whether noise had been monitored at the soccer center and if any violations had occurred. Striplin called Jeff Hogan forward, and he said that noise monitoring is done all the time by the City, the developer, and others. “Currently, there are no violations,” said Hogan. That is, the soccer center is operating exactly as it's legally allowed to.

Other remarks from the City Council included announcements of upcoming events and praise for past events—the usual. Mayor McLean said that tiny bells will be available for use on trails. Affixed to mountain bikes or horses, they’ll let hikers prepare to safely step to the side or pass when they hear the tinkling of bells. It’s part of the “Make a Little Noise” campaign, a title that was no doubt salt in the wounds of the Villa Metroans.

Stay out of it, Sacramento!

Mayor McLean made comments on two items on the consent calendar, both pertaining to state bills. SB 254 would make it easier for state highways to be handed over to local agencies. McLean said that this could pose a problem because the roads wouldn’t have to be in good condition and the city or other agency couldn’t decline accepting and maintaining them. AB 806 would give cities less power to oppose/restrict the installation of certain antennas and other broadband infrastructure. McLean said that both bills would give Claritans less control over Clarita, so she opposed them. 

McLean asked for Mike Murphy, Intergovernmental Relations Manager, to come forward and tell residents what else they could do to oppose the bills. He said that there could be more meetings or outreach, and McLean and the other councilmembers encouraged him to ramp up these efforts. I think McLean was hoping for more of a call to action of the citizens—contact the governor and politicians and so on—but no particularly inspiring rallying cry was made.
Lynne Plambeck and Cam Noltemeyer spoke in opposition to an item on the consent calendar that paved the way for a new franchise for Valencia Water Company. Noltemeyer said, “The public’s business should be done in public,” arguing that there have been too many backroom deals pertaining to water supply, development, and disposal. Plambeck, who sits on the Newhall County Water District Board, made the same assertion. She said that the Valencia Water Company (VWC) should act as a public company and that the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) shouldn’t own VWC anyways. The contentious (Plambeck calls it “illegal”) acquisition of VWC by CLWA is still very much on her mind, and she saw tonight’s item as a chance to hold CLWA accountable for gaming the system. “They can’t be public and private at the same time!” she declared, explaining that CLWA is a public agency but keeps VWC’s actions private. The public can’t attend its meetings, request its records, or elect its board, so much remains unscrutinized. City Attorney Joe Montes chose not to weigh in on the legality of the CLWA/VWC arrangement, simply stating that the City would have some rights to oversight of the VWC books since it’s entitled to a franchise fee.

The consent calendar then passed with the recommend actions on all items.

Vape Away

A few months ago, the City Council heard a lot of testimony about a plan to treat vaping with electronic smoking devices (ESDs) the same way it treats smoking. It seemed like an easy pass, but residents explained how they had used vaping to quit cigarettes, how vapor was less unhealthful than smoke, and how water vapor wasn’t a major public nuisance. This led to a revision of the ordinance and a revisitation tonight.

The ordinance only came back stronger in its opposition to ESDs. Associate Planner Jessica Frank gave a surprisingly inept talk—overkill of the highest order. “Staff has received a number of complaints from the public regarding ESDs,” she began. By “a number” she meant 6 written and 11 verbal comments. That's 17 remarks in the several years that ESDs have been used in a city of over 200,000. Then she worked on building the case against ESDs. She read a list of chemicals that have been detected in the vapor, including some carcinogens and heavy metals, without bothering to mention how much or under what conditions. Then she moved into a discussion of ignition hazards, stating that there were concerns that ESDs could somehow lead to fires in our open spaces because they’re a heat source. Then she linked ESDs to marijuana use by youth. LA County Sheriff’s Captain Roosevelt Johnson came up to address this topic further, stating that he spoke to “one of our narcotics investigators, and he witnessed personally an eighteen-year-old child who had actually smoked THC and committed suicide because of a psychotic episode right after using that drug.” The message was unequivocal: ESDs might kill you with the drugs and carcinogens they deliver or with the fires they just might start in our open space.

There were far fewer comments from the public tonight than many had been anticipating. Steve Petzold argued, “Cats don’t equal dogs; tobacco is not vapor.” He felt that the staff presentation had been totally unbalanced, stating, “I can’t believe that she hasn’t been rebutted at all”. He said that he supported liberty, not more intrusion into actions that seem to be a less harmful alternative to smoking. He asked the council to really consider if they’d prefer their children to smoke cigarettes instead of using ESDs. Cam Noltemeyer, on the other hand, was in full support of the measure, saying that vaping “is nothing more than a drug problem” to be treated like other drug problems. The final speaker represented the interests of the Vaping Dept. (located in Santa Clarita). He said vaping isn’t synonymous with marijuana use and cited international and federal studies that countered some of the health concerns raised in the staff presentation.

Councilmembers Boydston and Acosta were the most sympathetic to the vaping community, acknowledging that ESDs can be a better alternative to smoking. Acosta gently poked fun at some of the more hyperbolic fears raised in the presentation, saying that it would be ridiculous for a hiker to call the authorities upon seeing a fellow hiker with an e-cigarette on the next ridge over. He expressed his bewilderment at how a handful of comments had brought about such a strong response from staff. “I have issues with a lot of this,” he said, but he felt OK supporting the ordinance if it might protect kids. Boydston got some clarification on enforcement, learning that if law enforcement sees people smoking where it’s not allowed, the smoker is usually just requested to stop, not cited. The other councilmembers were more uniformly supportive of the plan.

Ultimately, the ordinance passed to a second reading, which means that in a couple of weeks, ESD use will be treated about the same as smoking, though it will be allowed in vaping shops. The meeting ended without further comment.