Wednesday, August 26, 2015

War Memorials and Profane Footballers

With a sparse agenda after summer recess, the City Council relied on residents to supply most of the discussion this evening. Another war memorial, little libraries, and noisy soccer games were among the unagendized items considered. This didn’t make for a particularly action-packed meeting. Luckily, Al Ferdman’s incipient let’s-slow-down-on-Laemmle campaign and the first ever shout of “¡Putos!” from the podium made for an interesting night.

The Feel-Good Stuff

“I have something very, very…very, very special,” teased Mayor Marsha McLean as she opening the meeting. McLean called forward a Canyon High student named Sarah Kennedy and Kelsey, her friend from the “Yes I Can” program. Sarah has autism, and she’s been working to build autism awareness and to make friends far and wide. “I make friends by offering gumballs,” she explained, and she showed a video of the thousands of connections she’s made with students, politicians, and celebrities over gum. McLean applauded Sarah’s efforts and said, “Friendship is everything.”

Following the flag salute, the City Council recognized Kirstin Campbell and Andrei Mojica for earning “world champion” titles in taekwondo competitions at the ATA World Championships. McLean read from a prepared statement that said spectators “from over six continents” came to cheer on thousands of marital artists. The second recognition of the evening went to the Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Department team that helped quickly locate a missing teen girl earlier this month. She was found hiding in the garage of a sex offender and all were grateful for the discovery before things got even worse.

A Word from the Public

Most of tonight’s public participation speakers addressed the topic of military memorials. Kevin Duxbury, a veteran, asked that the council consider moving the tribute on Fallen Warriors Memorial Bridge. It’s difficult to access, he said, and it might be more fittingly placed in Central Park. Several other speakers said they were in favor of building a new memorial to honor all of those Claritans who have died in military service. The idea was Bill Reynolds’, and he envisioned a substantial granite monument in the shape of a “V” (for valor) placed in the Veterans Historical Plaza. Reynolds and his supporters felt that the other military memorials in Santa Clarita weren’t as all-encompassing, accessible, or imposing as the proposed monument would be. The crowd was supportive and applauded a couple of times, but McLean stepped in to stop the disruption: “Ladies and gentlemen, um, if you don’t mind please, we, um, need to kind of move along and applause is kind of not the norm here so please, if you don’t mind.” Thereafter, clapping was stifled.

Drake Hougo, a senior at Saugus High School, came to the podium to describe his love of Santa Clarita, community service, and placing unpermitted miniature libraries in the public right-of-way. Indeed, Hougo has made the news lately because he put up some boxes for taking and leaving books in high-traffic spots in the city. Problematically, he did so without seeking the landowner’s (i.e., the City’s) permission. Thus, he was ordered to remove them for the time being.  He argued that it was hard to argue with the popularity of his libraries, and he claimed that they fit in with the city’s goals because, “Santa Clarita has a very heavy arts emphasis.” Hougo’s father supported his son’s intentions and shouldered the blame for not going through the required process.  

At the last meeting, you might recall the public’s unbridled enthusiasm for a Laemmle Theater to anchor Old Town Newhall. The council then agreed to enter negotiations with Laemmle and its partner, Seranno Development Group, to build a parking structure, six-screen theater, and mixed retail/residential spaces. Laemmle and Seranno were looking for some $13M in city “participation.” During his comments tonight, Alan Ferdman asked a lot of questions about the wisdom of the proposed project. He said that Laemmle has closed 6 theaters in the past decade. It could take over 80 years for taxpayers to see their investment return in the form of tax revenue, he warned. And Ferdman also worried about less-than-optimal parking and which funds would be used to subsidize the development. In short, Ferdman suggested that residents chill on the Laemmle brand. He pointed out that it’s a profit-driven movie chain just like the others. It may play up its arthouse leanings, but Laemmle theaters will readily play big mainstream releases if that’s what its clientele is looking for. The theater’s fanboys/girls were not present in sufficient numbers to counter Ferdman’s concerns.

City Manager Ken Striplin was the first to respond to public comments. He handled the issue of the little sidewalk libraries with sober enthusiasm. He liked the idea, but he pointed out that there are concerns about liability, litigation, and loss of access when people just build stuff in the public right-of-way. Striplin apologized for having to disappoint Ferdman on the Laemmle development—with negotations underway, there was too much uncertainty to answer all (or really any) of his questions. Finally, Striplin left it up to the council as to whether it wished to consider adding a monument to the Veterans Plaza.

The council was uniformly in favor of considering a monument for the plaza, so a formal discussion is likely soon. However, Councilmembers Laurene Weste and Dante Acosta expressed some concerns about the other idea floated during comments—to move the plaque at Fallen Warriors Memorial Bridge. Acosta contended that it was a decision best made after consulting Santa Clarita’s gold star families. Councilmembers also politely encouraged Drake Hougo to follow the rules when it came to building and installing his miniature libraries. General comments from the City Council followed. Several focused on recent passings, including the tragic death of teenager Wyatt Savaikie and the death of former City Attorney Carl Newton. The upcoming annual Santa Clara River Rally was mentioned. And Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar even got in a “little plug” for a local business: “You cannot believe the amount of inventory they have in Paul’s Paint and Hardware…let’s go visit those folks!” So it was very much business as usual, the only remarkable thing being Councilmember TimBen Boydston’s uncharacteristic terseness.

Quiet Consent

The consent calendar had a few items of note. There was a design contract for the Vista Canyon Regional Transit Center and another for removal of all turf from city street medians. Staff proposed no-stopping zones in a couple of heavily-trafficked spots. But it was only a lease for a temporary fire station that garnered any comment. Weste worried that fire personnel might be stuck in some temporary shack of sorts, and she wanted to make certain that accommodations were suitable for the men and women dedicated to protecting public safety. City Manager Striplin said the term “temporary” could be a little misleading—structures were still designed to hold up—but he would investigate further. All of the items were then approved unanimously with the recommended actions.

Noisy Neighbors

The second round of public participation focused on the trouble with living next to a busy soccer field. Residents of Villa Metro said they’ve been in their new homes for mere months, but the living situation is already unbearable. Living next to the Santa Clarita Soccer Center means non-stop noise from games stretching from morning to eleven o’clock at night. Lights and errant soccer balls and people trespassing into yards are also problematic, but the noise is what has put residents on edge.

Two couples and a single mother attempted to convey what their experience has been like. One woman grew very emotional as she described feeling like a prisoner in her own home. The cursing in Spanish has really upset her because she can understand curse words that non-Spanish-speakers might be able to more easily ignore. She has been told to play music, run the air conditioner, or shut up her house to dampen the noise, but she lives in California and wants to be able to open her windows. The owner of the soccer center apparently tried to console her by saying that games aren’t held on four days a year. The most dramatic statements came from Chermaine Fontennete. She jarred the council chambers as she banged on the podium and yelled, “Putos! Javier! Gooooooal!” to simulate what it’s like every weekend morning. “I am a heavy duty truck operator,” she explained—an exhausted one. Working for the City of Los Angeles, she is supposed to get ten hours of rest to safely operate her heavy truck for ten hours a day, but she said that this is impossible living next to the soccer field. “I could kill people, kill children, because I can’t sleep.”

One may be wondering why these people bought their homes in the first place. Most claimed that the true extent of the noise hadn’t been fully disclosed. Fontenette mocked the disclosure, which she said came very late in the process. “Oh, we have a little disclosure…there’s a small soccer field over there. Kids play.” She argued that it’s not just kids, it’s not small, and it’s operating at very late hours. McLean pointed out that “When you purchase a home you kind of look around and see what’s around.” It was a valid point, but she seemed almost apologetic for even bringing it up. Indeed, most of her comments were much more sympathetic to the homeowners, and she promised to try and find a solution for them.

Steve Petzold also spoke during public participation, touching on topics such as CVRA lawsuits and illegal immigrants and the justice system. His remarks were not addressed. Finally, seven comment cards were in favor of the little libraries were also received and acknowledged.

With the hope of a soccer noise crackdown, the meeting ended.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Five Knolls for the Old; Laemmle Courted

There was something for everyone at tonight’s City Council meeting, and indeed, everyone was there. After the council chambers filled beyond capacity, people moved to the Century Room, which itself surpassed capacity. While people addressed topics ranging from nursing labor disputes to sidewalk maintenance, two agenda items were the main draws. First, many showed up in support of a senior center/YMCA/age-restricted housing modification of the Five Knolls development. Second, a devoted group of Laemmle lovers stuck-out the meeting to express their fervent desire for one of the distinctive movie theaters to come to Newhall. Fittingly for this last meeting before summer hiatus, there was a few meeting’s worth of action.

Public Participation, Attention Divided

Bob Kellar’s invocation consisted of playing a YouTube clip of a song called, “My Name is America.” The language was quite patriotic...but just a little scattered and clich├ęd. Some of the lyrics and their accompanying images are pasted below.

Several community recognitions followed. 99-year-old Doreetha Daniels received very enthusiastic cheers as Mayor McLean praised her for being the oldest graduate in College of the Canyon's history. The Veterans Memorial Committee was called forward next, and recognition of Hollywood Curling (that sport combining ice, stone, and broom) for holding its bonspiel in the SCV completed this portion of the evening.
Next up was public participation. Three people spoke as or on behalf of nurses at Newhall Memorial. Nurses are still involved in contentious negotiations with the hospital's management and are working without a contract--the situation's been like this for months. They said the sticking point is management's insistence that they agree to give up their right to class-action suits. Purportedly unfair/illegal labor policies (e.g., demanding nurses finish duties after clocking out) were also mentioned by some.
Another few speakers were concerned about plans to convert a park-and-ride in Newhall to low-income housing; this matter was weighed at the previous council meeting. Bobbie Constantine expressed concerns that included increases in crime, parking issues, changing neighborhood character, and loss of open space (some of these were a stretch). "Homeowners in our community have already put their homes up for sale!" she claimed.
Other speakers during public participation included Al Ferdman, who asked whether it was legal to remove the open public participation portion of some committee meetings, and Steve Petzold, who said that the recent fire by Remsen Street demonstrated its unsuitability as a site to host a giant digital billboard. He was also concerned about how Santa Clarita would handle a situation similar to the one in San Francisco where a woman was fatally shot by an illegal immigrant/five-time deportee.
Responses from City Manager Ken Striplin were efficient. He informed Ferdman that government code differentiates between regular and special meetings--the latter don't need open, general public comment. As for the affordable housing project, he said, "That project has been approved, and is approved, is done." So that settles that. He did, however, say that staff could discuss concerns with neighbors, especially with regard to parking.
Mobile Homes Settled
Most items on the consent calendar weren't commented on--the majority had to do with Metrolink, roads, and other transportation issues. Several speakers did want to be heard on Item 13, which was the second reading and adoption of the revised mobile home park ordinance. Recall that the big change made last time was an alteration to the annual allowable increase in rents. Rather than an automatic 2.6% or 3% every year, the floor on increases was lowered to 0--they'll mirror changes in the CPI.
Elaine Ballace, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the council, thanked them for changing their minds on rent increases. She was still dismayed that Kellar was against the 0% floor, but her tone was far less stringent than usual. A mobile home park owner came up to express his concerns that he wouldn't be able to afford raises for his employees with the new policy. Jim Soliz was able to pry himself away from his lucrative hobby of suing public entities in voting rights lawsuits to comment on this item. He said that he didn't think the city was obligated to make a policy to guarantee park owners a fair rate of return (his point would be addressed later--the city is legally required to allow a fair return if it's going to step in and regulate rents). Other familiar faces from what has been a very long battle came forward as well.
The entirety of the consent calendar was passed with the recommended actions except for the mobile home park ordinance, on which Bob Kellar voted "no" while his fellow council members voted "yes."
Knolls on a Roll
The room was full of people with red, heart-shaped stickers that said "Heart of Santa Clarita." These were supporters of modifications to plans for the Five Knolls development, another project that's been around forever. (More accurately, the sticker crowd was mostly comprised of supporters of plans for a new senior center to be built at Five Knolls.) Synergy's Rick Doremus came forward to explain the proposed revision to the tract map for the area. He explained that a larger YMCA,  senior center, large parking area, and 154 age-restricted homes would be built under the new plan.
Doremus didn't really get into the history of the project--that was done by Councilmember TimBen Boydston. Originally, there had been two parcels, one slated for a junior high school and another for the YMCA. It was all a part of the requirement that the developer provide a "public benefit." When it was clear that the new school wasn't going to be built, the developer was left with a lot of valuable land. The proposal was to remove the requirement for public benefit on this land and to create three parcels--one for the senior center, one for the YMCA, and one for a whole bunch of homes.
Boydston echoed the concerns of Cam Noltemeyer, the only speaker in opposition. He was concerned about residents losing a major public benefit like a new school. He also asked whether there was enough water, considered traffic impacts, and worried there might not be enough parking. Other council members expressed concerns as well. Mayor McLean very seriously stated that her vote was contingent on making the new senior center look less like an ugly "warehouse." Again, McLean is a stickler for aesthetics, and the crowd laughed as Doremus essentially groveled, saying he'd do whatever it would take to make it look nice. It was embarrassing for all parties involved. Councilmember Weste's concerns were more practical--she wanted to know if particular sorts of hinges would be used in bathrooms and asked about all manner of accessibility issues for the age-restricted housing. Finally, Councilmember Acosta wondered whether they really needed to have homes with two-stories, two or three bedrooms, and two-thousand square-feet for seniors. Doremus assured him there was a market.
Bob Kellar was the most unquestioningly supportive, and the crowd was his. While Boydston got booed for saying that there wouldn't be enough parking and that might affect his vote, Kellar was loudly applauded for his support of the project. Most of the speakers during public participation had spoken to the urgent need for a bigger new senior center, so there was really only one way to go on the project. The council approved the changes unanimously.
Laemmle Love
After a recess, there was a presentation on a proposal to enter into exclusive negotiations with Laemmle Theatres and Serrano Development Group over an exciting (to most) new development planned for right across the street from the Newhall Library. Basically, the City will put up a bunch of money or incentives to get some attractive new developments. Jason Crawford explained that the City had been looking for a project to anchor Old Town Newhall, and a theater was seen as all but essential. After talking to interested parties and seeking proposals, they selected a plan from Laemmle and Serrano. There would be a big parking structure, a six-screen theater, and additional retail/housing mixed-use space.

Greg Lammle was the first speaker, and he had clearly gone to the trouble of sitting through the council meeting and googling Santa Clarita in order to charm the crowd (it worked). He said that when not at the new senior center, seniors could enjoy special movie nights. Other residents could enjoy a show and then do some shopping or eat at the Newhall Refinery. He closed by saying that his company was genuinely interested in being a part of Santa Clarita, and he expected that they could draw 150,000-200,000 people per year based on similar projects elsewhere.

There were many supportive public speakers that followed--no one spoke in opposition. Many were seniors (quite a lot of overlap between the Five Knolls and Laemmle crowd, actually) and spoke in glowing terms about the theater and about how they hated having to drive out of the valley to visit others. While Weste and Boydston had had to recuse themselves from discussion of the project, Weste was allowed to speak in a personal capacity, and she gave a tremendously energetic speech in support of the project. "We all just want dinner and a movie!" she exclaimed. The crowd erupted. It was remarkable how much people supported the plan (20 speakers!), and not even Dante Acosta could diminish their spirit when he pointed out that we were still in the negotiation phase, and a theater wouldn't be built anytime soon. He described the relationship between City and Laemmle as dating. (And in dating terms, Santa Clarita was damn thirsty--my assessment, not Acosta's.) In any case, plans to enter negotiations passed unanimously.

The room was all but vacant after this matter was resolved, but a few stuck around to hear Rick Gould describe plans for Old Orchard Park. There wasn't much discussion, but the master plan was called beautiful and staff was praised for working to develop the plan with the community. Mayor McLean worried that fake turf would be used for a rolling hill instead of real Bermuda grass, but this will be discussed more fully later. The meeting ended well after 10. And now, the council is on hiatus until late August.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Legal Bullying Backfires, Star Oil House to be Dozed

The motivation behind our City Council's actions can be bewildering. Tonight, it seems as if legal threats from mobile home park owners actually strengthened council's support for mobile home park residents. With a 0% floor on annual rent increases as of tonight's vote (it could have been as high as 2.6% or 3%), things certainly worked out better for residents than the night when they all showed up, spoke, and made only modest gains. The rest of the meeting wasn't particularly eventful; the dramatic rent change was likely boldness enough for one meeting.

A Late Start  

The meeting began 40 minutes late--if there's anything more fun than a council meeting, it's waiting for a council meeting. "We apologize for the delay," said Mayor McLean, before handing things over to Councilmember Dante Acosta for the convocation. He offered a moment of silence for the victims of the devastating church shooting in South Carolina. Afterward, Acosta prayed for the Lord's guidance of their actions that evening.

 The City Council next recognized achievements by Santa Clarita's young and by her old. High school swimmer Victoria Kirshner was applauded for winning a pair of CIF titles, and Harold and Jacquie Petersen were recognized for their philanthropic work. Councilmember Weste gushed over the Petersens as she spoke about their award. She adored how they're still so very much in love and "cute" after meeting in 1946.

Nurses vs. Management

Douglas Delahunty was the first speaker during public participation. He said that he and his fellow Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital nurses were looking for help to avoid a stroke. The critical issue in the contract, it seemed, was the hospital's insistence on a clause that would forbid class-action lawsuits. Robbie Bailey, a veteran nurse of HMNMH, said that she and her fellow 600 nurses faced many unfair labor practices like having to clock out and then finish their records and duties. She said patients could suffer if management stretches nurses too thin.

The other group of speakers present for public participation were waiting intently for the mobile home park ordinance hearing. Since they had to reserve their comments on that topic for later, they spoke on more peripheral topics. Doug Fraser asked for the mobile home park item to be moved up earlier in the evening as man families had school and work early the next day. Ray Henry called out a nameless councilperson for unethically promoting private businesses from his seat at the dais (clearly, he was referring to Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar, who gave a shout-out to a restaurant last meeting and has done so on occasion before.) If anybody actually watched council meetings, Henry's point might be more valid. Finally, Henry Soliz complained that the City hasn't always been cooperative with translation services in the past, though some were present tonight.

Finally, a young speaker asked for support of a proposed amendment against corporate personhood, and Cindy Howard asked for the City's help in attracting a new adult daycare business or in facilitating transport to a center in the SFV since Santa Clarita's will no longer be available. Almost in tears, she described the difficulties of balancing work with driving her mother to such a center.

In response to comments, City Manager Ken Striplin said that he'd have someone from Dial-A-Ride speak with Howard. He acknowledged but didn't quite delve into the other topics addressed. Boydston and Kellar overtly acknowledged the restaurant plugs from the past and asked City Attorney Joe Montes for his opinion. (It sounded like there wasn't anything glaringly illegal, but Montes would look into it further.) The council also agreed to move the mobile home park item up earlier in the meeting.

The male members of council elected to forego their comments during committee reports and updates. Weste and McLean didn't go quite that far, but they did keep things brief, mentioning the Fourth of July Parade, high-speed rail updates, and the "positive" direction in which CEMEX work is moving in D.C.

Option No

The consent calendar wasn't particularly voluminous tonight. It included a second reading of the budget and a number of items relating to infrastructure and maintenance, like a contract for pool chemicals. Councilmember Boydston asked about Item 5, in which the City expressed its support for one of the proposed alternatives from the Rim of the Valley draft study. Staff recommended Option D, but Boydston preferred a modified Option C, because he didn't want to get too much in the way of development (Option D did the most to save land and was favored by a number of conservation groups). Weste said that the study has been a long time coming and wouldn't lead to decisive action very soon. Additionally, picking an option part C, part D would confuse the issue, she said. Her points were reasonable and seemed better-informed than Boydston's, but Boydston and Acosta would both ultimately vote against support for Option D. The rest of the consent calendar was approved unanimously.

More Than Residents Hoped For

The mobile home park ordinance has been drafted, discussed, and debated for a very long time. It looked like an ordinance was going to be passed months ago. Recall that there was a meeting with a huge turnout of mobile home park residents. The council, sympathetic to their endlessly rising rents, voted to decrease the annual minimum increase from 3% to 2.6% (the average CPI in past years). This led to legal posturing from mobile home park owners. They threatened lawsuits if they couldn't realize a fair rate of return on their properties, arguing that a reduction from 3% to 2.6% would do just that.

Thus, the issue went back to staff for a while and meetings were held. The draft presented tonight had changed and strengthened and clarified some language, but the big point of contention remained the floor on annual rent increases. During comments, Doug Fraser brought up some other points relating to board composition and the appeals project. Elaine Ballace was unimpressed by the council's attempts to help residents, and she said there's a reason Warren Buffet has billions in the mobile home industry--it's very profitable from the owners' side. Ray Henry asked why the City was so afraid of lawsuits and changed so willingly in response to the mere threat of suits from owners. Still, the 2.6% floor was the big problem for most; Fraser just hoped it wouldn't go back up to 3%.

After comments--surprisingly few from residents and none from owners or management--Boydston spoke. He gave an unnecessarily long speech about how he was trying to see things from the perspective of owners and renters alike, explaining each of their interests to an audience that, using common sense, could also identify these interests themselves. But then he delivered a bold proposal: lower the floor from 2.6% to 0%, allowing owners to increase rent in accordance with CPI by right. They could increase the rent further if required for capital improvements or to realize a fair rate of return, but they'd just need to submit evidence and a petition through the mobile home park board. Councilmember Weste enthusiastically supported Boydston's proposal, and she used the strongest language of anyone in supporting renters. She said their situation is "appalling" and almost impossible to work out for people on fixed incomes. When she got applause, she told the audience to be silent because the little the council could do wasn't worth celebrating: "This is just a tragedy." Acosta was also OK with the changes proposed by Boydston, though less enthusiastic. He reminded people that owners could sell the parks to be developed as more profitable homes: "Be careful what you ask for."

McLean and Kellar weren't convinced. They wondered whether they could face legal consequences. Montes, who had drafted another page of clarification for the ordinance, assured them that language clarified owners' right to earn a fair rate or return and gave them a process to do so. McLean and Kellar also worried about whether the plan could backfire and lead to even higher rents. Kellar didn't want so much meddling, even dropping the "s" word (socialism) about getting involved with private business. He said things were more complicated than CPI alone. In the end, Boydston's measure went through with a vote from everyone but Kellar. McLean gave her support at the last minue, but she offered an ominous prediction that things might not work out so well.

Interestingly, one of the things that seems to have worked against owners tonight was their aggressive approach of legal threats. Boydston said a letter he received last night used a lot of invective and threats, and he said this was not called for. Likewise, other councilmembers felt that being constantly threatened wasn't the most productive approach. So the residents, some of whom were just hoping to still get a 2.6% floor, came out better than they expected. Now, rents will increase by the CPI, with a cap of 5%. Additionally, there is clear language allowing owners to raise rents higher if needed for a fair rate of return or to make improvements.

The Bulldozer for Star Oil

24148 Pine Street is home to two old structures, one of which is the so-called Star Oil House. It once hosted magnates from Southern California's fledgling oil industry, so it was designated as a historic building. But when a fire swept through, the building suffered and is considered a "total loss." Tonight's hearing removed the historic designation from the structure and directed it and the other structure to be torn down.

Leon Worden spoke about some historical ambiguity concerning the identity and significance of the second structure. He asked that it be allowed to remain until the SCV Historical Society could investigate further. Unswayed, Laurene Weste pushed for the recommended action of tearing both structures down. She assumed that City Manager Striplin would have enough sense and prudence to let the historical society look through the building for artifacts, etc. before directing it to be destroyed. Boydston and Striplin, however, preferred more explicit direction, so it was ultimately decided that there would be a month during which the SCV Historical Society could investigate. Unless something significant was discovered, both structures would be taken down.

After Cam Noltemeyer offtered a wide-ranging and characteristically dissatisfied remark about the state of things in Santa Clarita, the meeting adjourned at 9:21.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Open Space Aplenty, Big Budget Numbers

I would be remiss if I didn't begin tonight's recap with a note--more of a lament, really--about the state of Santa Clarita news. After recently downsizing its paper to five printings a week, The Signal is also looking to downsize its home, abandoning the long-held Creekside headquarters. The daily news briefs of SCVTalk are no more; Josh Premako's talent for new aggregation and digestion will be dearly missed. And tonight, KHTS new director Perry Smith sat in on his last council meeting after taking a new job. He has forsaken Santa Clarita and her goodly people for that other valley. With so much change, consumers of Claritan news are scared and confused. We can comfort ourselves by paraphrasing that line from Lost: "If anything goes wrong, Luke Money will be our constant."

Kellarian Efficiency

Tonight's meeting began with just three councilmembers--Boydston, Kellar, and Weste. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar led the meeting in the absence of Mayor McLean, explaining that she had been busy with high-speed rail matters all day and would be arriving later. Councilmember Acosta, he said, was on business in Washington, D.C. Councilmember Weste provided the invocation, a tribute to fathers delivered in the form of "Did you know?" questions. For example, did you know that babies can distinguish the voice of their fathers by four weeks of age? Well now you do.

Kellar kept things moving briskly, and soon it was time for public participation. Steve Petzold said the center median lane of Creekside Road has to be used for the loading/unloading of vehicles at the car dealerships as there is no other spot for it. It's unsafe and less than ideal. He suggested that the auto dealers acquire the property being sold by The Signal to use instead of the center median. Apparently, he reached out to Don Fleming (FLEMWATCH alert!), but received no response. Cam Noltemeyer encouraged the City to file a lawsuit to make more headway in fighting high-speed rail. She also said there should be a lawsuit on the chloride issue (she didn't explain which aspect--presumably to contest the stringent chloride levels required). In short, Noltemeyer wants a more litigious Santa Clarita. Finally, Doug Fraser brought everyone up to speed on developments pertaining to the mobile home park ordinance revision. He thought the City should do more to keep mobile home park residents apprised of developments, and he wanted to know the date when the matter would return to council.

With just a few updates the sparsely populated dais, it was time for the consent calendar at 6:30.

Your Space is Open
Much of this evening's agenda pertained to open space, including two items to acquire parcels for preservation. There was a 1/3-acre parcel along Sand Canyon Road that would help with trail connections and a 60-acre parcel that would bolster holdings in Quigley Canyon. Cam Noltemeyer was upset that the Quigley Canyon land was part of an oil operation. City Manager Ken Striplin objected to this characterization, and he had Rick Gould explain that there was no active oil equipment operating there, just remnants. There is, however, a lease for water wells and pipelines, operation of which requires under an acre of the property. Speaker Sandra Cattell of the open space audit panel said that she hoped lease revenue (~$40,000) would go back into the open space account. Gould said the lease money would indeed go to the City.

Other items pertaining to open space included improvements to Pacific Crest Park and submitting a grant application to restore a Canyon Country flood control channel to a more natural state. The entirety of the consent calendar passed with the recommended actions. Mayor McLean arrived toward the end and was able to vote. 

Budget Numbers

City Manager Ken Striplin presented the $187.2M budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. He began with the usual introductory spiel about how financially responsible Santa Clarita is. There are ample reserves that will be increased even further. The council guides staff with its fiscally astute and conservative decrees. Revenue has rebounded to pre-recession levels (there will be an anticipated $34M from sales tax alone). It was a lot of back-patting.

Striplin said parks & rec and public safety were the largest items on the budget, accounting for nearly half of it. Additional budget items included $40,000 for more ranger services for open space; $84,000 for "river encampment clean-ups" that will remove homeless people and their homes from the wash; $109,000 for the Tourism Marketing District; $138,000 for CEMEX advocacy; $50,000 for public television; and, of course, $80,000 for holiday lights in Newhall.

Al Ferdman was troubled about the budget's "indicated re-launch of the extreme neighborhood makeover...unfortunately that particular activity has not been successful." He complained that it never went to completion in any neighborhood and that there had been no follow-up. Conflicts over codes were many, and he said the Bonelli tract makeover effort was particularly disastrous. City Manager Ken Striplin felt like it would be an important program to help preserve older neighborhoods, and he acknowledged that the program wasn't a particular success in the past. Mayor McLean tried to paint a rosier picture, saying that, "The good far outweighed the bad." But Councilmember TimBen Boydston disagreed, calling the program a failure and hoping for a re-brand at the very least.

Boydston brought up a few other issues on the budget, but the one of most interest was likely fixing Newhall Avenue. Striplin tentatively promised re-paving by fall. The budget was unanimously approved thereafter.

Several public hearings on fee/assessment collections and adjustments followed. Mayor McLean was a bit dismayed at the plan to increase the open space district assessment from $30 to $31.50 per household. She said that as the population grows, Santa Clarita is already collecting more revenue each year. Boydston challenged her, saying $1.50 wasn't that much. City Manager Striplin also noted that the cost of monitoring, maintaining, and acquiring open space is always rising. McLean was swayed by their arguments, so she agreed to the hike.

Affordable Housing

Erin Lay made a characteristically concise presentation on an affordable housing project slated for Newhall. She explained that Santa Clarita is in serious need of affordable housing, and she described how a partnership between the City and other parties specializing in these projects could help make it a reality. Three contiguous lots in Newhall were of interest, two owned by the City (including the current park-and-ride) and one by a private party. Together, all three could be used to build a large residential complex and some retail space, but the middle lot owner wouldn't sell. Thus, the presentation was for a 30-unit project that could potentially grow some day.Depending on income of the residents, rent for a two-bedroom apartment could be as low as $384 per month, a fraction of rents in surrounding areas.

Most were supportive of the plan, but concerns over water availability stretched out the discussion. At Boydston's urging, CLWA's Dan Masnada spoke for quite a while about how there was enough water available for the project. He said that they're anticipating serving about 500,000 people in the Santa Clarita Valley eventually, and that right now water is provided for about 280,0000 Claritans. Masnada said the equivalent of 4 years' worth of imported water is banked in Kern County, so Santa Clarita is in good shape overall. Reductions in water use are being made to meet state mandates, not because Santa Clarita is running out. Less reassuringly, he said that if we're in the beginning stages of a mega-drought, then "all bets are off." The take-aways from this water discussion were that drought-tolerant landscaping would be used at the complex and that 30 units of housing wouldn't bring drought and ruin to the SCV at large.

There were also concerns over the park-and-ride that would be lost to the project. Lay stated that there are other spots for park-and-ride near Sierra Highway, and Striplin said that he thinks they'll be able to work out an agreement to use the large, unused lot that's currently pay-to-park for Whitney Canyon.

Everyone voted in support of the item except for Councilmember Boydston. He said he supported low-income housing, but he felt that existing residents of the neighborhood should have been noticed about the project. They had received notification when the project went before the planning commission, but not before council. With that, the meeting ended.    

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lawnmower Guy, Duck Ladies, and Trash Apologist

Tonight’s Santa Clarita City Council meeting was scattered. There were requests to rename parks and protect road-crossing ducks. An electric leaf-blower was used to delight the council. Boydston asked about Christmas tree disposal and how much water endangered species really need. As a result of tonight's discussions and actions, Santa Clarita won't be a much different place tomorrow, just a slightly less confused one.

The Lawnmower Show

The meeting began 20 minutes late, but none of the matters from closed session were discussed. Councilmember TimBen Boydston was charged with delivering the invocation, and he read excerpts from a lengthy prayer by John Quincy Adams. It was full of arcane language and rhymed.
Next, May was proclaimed “Bicycle Month". Mayor McLean spoke about the frenzy of bicycle-mania typical of Claritan Mays—there's the bike-to-work event, the Amgen Tour... She hoped Santa Clarita would remain bike friendly and foster "synergistic" sharing of the road by different types of commuters. Whoever wrote the bike spiel for McLean was clearly deluded about how our roads work. 

Some people overstay their welcome during presentations to the council. Tonight, that person was Michael Cacciotti, representative for the South Coast Air Quality Management District (among other titles). He gave a Powerpoint presentation on the dangers of various air pollutants, the sources of these pollutants, and actions to address air quality issues. He delved into such details as the particular dangers of different size classes of airborne particulates. After suggesting clean-air grants for which Santa Clarita could apply, his grand finale was a lengthy pitch for electronic lawn maintenance equipment. There was even a demonstration on an air-blower and electric lawnmower. The whole thing was a bit ridiculous, but Councilmember Dante Acosta was rather enamored of the show, standing up for a better view of the demo and asking for details on equipment exchange/rebate programs.
Pederson Park?
The first speaker tonight was Bill Reynolds, who fondly remembered the recently passed George Pederson and asked that Central Park be renamed to honor Santa Clarita's former mayor. Gene Dorio echoed the sentiment, and he read a sample text that could appear on a plaque in "Pederson Park." Robin Clough was the third to call for renaming the park after Pederson, calling him “a full-spectrum philanthropist.”
Per usual, there were speakers asking the City Council to remember mobile home park residents and their issues. Elaine Ballace challenged the idea that mobile home park owners must be allowed to significantly increase rents in order to realize a fair rate of return. Citing the sluggish increase in CPI, she asked, “What is the definition of fair return?” Doug Fraser would make a similar point during his remarks.

After an older man made some suggestions about recapturing treated water bound for the Santa Clara River, two women came forward to make an appeal for ducks. They said that the two ponds at the corners of McBean and Newhall Ranch are a death-trap for waterfowl. Many are "slaughtered" by motorists, and accidents are likely when ducks are crossing the road from one pond to the other. They had some solutions in mind that ranged from fencing to lowering the speed limit, and they even consulted experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  

Cam Noltemeyer expressed her dismay with the handling of the Shangri La chloride water fine that has been brought up (and addressed by City Manager Ken Striplin) many times in past months. Steve Petzold is still keeping his eye on billboard issues, and his recent review of documents revealed improper behavior by Allvision LLC, the company which stood to profit from a billboard deal. Petzold said they didn't fully disclose all their funding efforts on time and improperly meddled with referendum efforts. Petzold said, "I have no trust at all in Metro or Allvision," and he asked if Santa Clarita was currently involved in any negotiations about billboard reduction.
San Meetings: Where?
Petzold didn't have to wait long for an answer about whether City Hall was formulating a new billboard deal. City Manager Ken Striplin said, "The answer is no." Striplin then stated that the mobile home park ordinance is still being hammered out and will return for consideration at some future date. He was sympathetic to the duck ladies, and lamented the fact that they haven't been able to find a solid solution to this on-going problem. 
Committee reports followed. Councilmember Laurene Weste gave some updates on chloride issues. She spoke about technology that would allow Santa Clarita to generate just 5 to 10 truckloads worth of ultra-concentrated chloride waste each day. She said that the plan to treat chloride in wastewater has gone from about a half-billion dollars down to slightly over $100M. Her comments prompted remarks from Councilmember TimBen Boydston about the location of sanitation district meetings. He mentioned that Assemblyman Scott Wilk is trying to pass legislation to get all meeting which affect Santa Clarita to be held in town, an idea he firmly supported. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar did not agree. He said that it's very costly to have the LA-based sanitation personnel come up to Santa Clarita. Kellar said that meetings which directly affect Claritans are and should be held here, while meetings of routine business make more sense in LA. Boydston still disagreed, wondering who makes the call about whether an issue is important to local ratepayers, but the matter was put to rest for the time being. Weste would also express her sympathy for the ducks.
During their remarks, the other councilmembers touched on a number of issues. Councilmember Dante Acosta offered Memorial Day reflections. Kellar played a presentation of himself talking about George Pederson’s journey from Madagascar to serving in WWII to working as a milkman to becoming an LA Sheriff's Captain to being Santa Clarita's mayor during the Northridge earthquake. While Pederson was honored, Kellar gave no indication of support for naming a park after him. Boydston expressed hopes that Santa Clarita could reclaim more of its wastewater, wondering how much of the water set aside for endangered species really ought to go to their habitats. Mayor McLean asked that residents remain involved on the issue of high-speed rail.

Assess This

We finally reached the consent calendar portion of the meeting at 7:45, and there were speakers for several items.
Item 6 was the annual, contractually allowed rate adjustment for waste service providers. Cam Noltemeyer used the item as an opportunity to ask the council about the proposal to expand Chiquita Canyon Landfill. She reminded them that "we fought Elsmere!" Item 7 was, as developer Jim Backer described it, a funding instrument for a parking structure that's part of the transit development at Vista Canyon. He was clearly in favor. And Items 8 and 9 brought Al Ferdman forward. They pertained to special assessments, and Ferdman asked where funding for some under-budgeted landscape maintenance districts was coming from and wondered about the need to increase the assessment for open space acquisition. He pointed out that there are millions in reserves and comparatively modest purchases planned for the year. 
City Manager Striplin said that the proposed $1.50 increase for the open space assessment was legal and would help cover rising bond debt payments and the increased cost of land acquisition. After his remarks, Councilmember Boydston had a long conversation with a representative from Waste Management about issues with their residential service. He said there were delays in receiving new bins/carts (Boydston said he had to call three times before he got his) and that Christmas tree pick-up had been a real issue. The rep apologized profusely. He said his company was sorry several times and promised responsive treatment was a priority.
The meeting ended shortly after 8.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Abomination that is Santa Clarita's Flag


I watched a compelling TED talk by Roman Mars, a call to action at once humorous and heartfelt. It's about city flags, why they matter, and designing a good one. You may be rolling your eyes, as I did at first, but give the guy a chance to prove why "100% of people care about flags":

Mars thinks all cities should have flags they can be proud of and incorporate into civic life. He puts forward five simple design rules credited to vexillologist Ted Kaye, author of Good Flag, Bag Flag: How to Design a Great Flag. They are: (1)Keep it simple, (2)Use meaningful symbolism, (3)Use 2-3 basic colors, (4)No lettering or seals, (5)Be distinctive or be related. Easy enough, right? By these criteria, good city flags include those of Chicago, Portland, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong.

Conversely, bad city flags include those of San Francisco, Pocatello, and Fort Providence.

Now, what about the flag of Santa Clarita? There's good news and bad news. The good news is that we care enough to have one. The bad news is that it's an abomination. It's not simple. It uses a seal and lettering. It has too many colors. Some of the symbols are too crudely rendered to even be interpreted. And what is meaningful about the red border and white field? The mistakes are too many and too profound to salvage the flag. We have to start from scratch.

Think of all the symbols we have to draw from. There's gold, which put Santa Clarita on the map, is the color of her hillsides, and resonates with California history. We are a community of junctions--black bars for canyons, blue for the Santa Clara River, or perhaps a dramatic gap to symbolize Beale's Cut. Claritans cherish their oaks, the leaves of which can be strikingly abstracted. Good design isn't easy, but at least there's plenty of inspiration.

Perhaps more importantly, though, we need a groundswell of support for a new flag. I think the easiest way to accomplish this is to (1)Obtain a copy of Santa Clarita's flag, and (2)Show it to people. The outrage will be immediate, visceral, and invigorating. I'm in the process of drafting a more formal plan of action, but right now, we just need to start opening residents' eyes to the horrors of the banner that is supposed to represent them and their fair city. To all those who heart Santa Clarita, let us find a flag worthy of her name.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Plan for Master's College, A Bridge for Connie Worden-Roberts

Tonight’s meeting of the Santa Clarita City Council was a short one. There were almost no speakers on any of the agenda items, and most of the business to be done was of the we-have-to-do-it sort.

Mayor McLean opened the meeting by asking, “What is a legacy?” She had legacies on her mind not just in anticipation of her own, but because of the passing of many notable Claritans this year.

Awards and recognitions came next. Student winners of a Sister Cities artist/author showcase were lauded for their work and got their photos taken with the whole council--they were clearly thrilled . The City received a giant $176,000 “rebate check” from Southern California Edison, equivalent to the amount saved through energy efficiency/conservation since 2010 as part of a community energy partnership. Right now, the City is at Edison’s gold tier level, but platinum level is within reach. For most, this was the most exciting revelation of the meeting.

Public Participation

Elaine Ballace opened things up with comments about mobile home parks. She cited a recent news article describing the profitability of owning mobile home parks. She said residents are getting “totally ripped off” while owners get rich. Ballace admonished the council to “take care of your residents!” and not to believe that park owners are barely scraping by.

Al Ferdman spoke next and brought up Santa Clarita’s Shangri La water deal for at least the second time in recent weeks. That community has unstable hillsides that are dewatered with pumps, and the water produced years ago was too high in chlorides. Santa Clarita reached an agreement to pay a fine, half of which would go to improving water infrastructure for the SCV. The money is still sitting around, slated to increase capacity at a plant that will most directly benefit the future Newhall Ranch community. Ferdman was upset at the mismatch between who pays and who benefits.

Finally, roller hockey enthusiasts and parents asked for the council to consider studying the feasibility of installing a roller hockey rink/facility in Santa Clarita. Currently, families have to drive to Burbank. Frank Dalessandro, the apparent guru of Burbank roller hockey, said it would be a great addition to the community.    

The City Council responded enthusiastically to the idea of SCV roller hockey. Councilmembers Weste and Boydston were on board with studying the feasibility, and Mayor McLean suggested a meeting with Dalessandro to get the ball rolling. Weste also addressed the mobile home park comments. She asked City Attorney Joe Montes to explain the concept of “fair rate of return” as it applies to mobile home park owners. (Recall that after the council voted to decrease the minimum annual increase on rents, they were threatened with litigation by these owners.) Montes said that a city can set rent increase policy, but modifying existing policies in such a way as to benefit renters at the expense of owners could lead to lawsuits. The court has usually sided with the owners in such cases. In other words, Weste was again sympathetic to renters, but cognizant of how little the council could realistically do to help them.
When Boydston asked for further explanation of the Shangri La water agreement, City Manager Ken Striplin offered additional detail. He said that it wasn’t a hasty settlement but the result of three years of negotiation. Boydston was somewhat satisfied with the answer, but he asked for Striplin to determine who will actually benefit from increased water treatment capacity and share his findings at a future meeting. Boydston doesn’t want to see developers enjoy benefits paid for by current residents.

Consent Calendar

The consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions on all items and without comment. That means the City will be purchasing a $200K patch truck unit to help with city roads, you can’t get a massage after 10 p.m. (second reading), trees will be trimmed through 2016, and investment policy will stay on track.

Public Hearings and New Business

Up next was consideration of a new low impact development ordinance relating to stormwater runoff. The City’s stormwater permit requires such an ordinance, which essentially guides development to incorporate strategies that enhance rainwater treatment and retention: lots of swales and permeable surfaces. Samples of how the Newhall Library, Chick-Fil-A, and others accomplished these goals were shown. Councilmember TimBen Boydston used the item as an opportunity to riff on burdensome mandates from the State. He said these measures can be expensive for construction that will drain large areas (e.g., big parking lots). He spoke for a while longer, eventually ending with the observation that people keep moving to SoCal even though there isn’t enough water and that we can’t pass a law against that. His venting over, the council passed the ordinance to a second reading unanimously.

Master’s College is looking to build new dorms as part of its modified master plan. Roads must grow in concert. Consequently, a couple of alternative plans are being considered. Staff proposed awarding a contract to Lilley Planning Group to weight the options. Planning Manager Jeff Hogan explained that the City awarded a contract to prepare an EIR. He continued: “The City Council also directed staff to hire an independent consultant to evaluate both roadway options as a result of the project’s location [next] to a City Councilmember’s property, Councilmember Weste. The City Council believes this report and recommendation will provide the community with additional assurance that the roadway options in the EIR would be independently reviewed.” Weste has recused herself from this item because of her proximity to the college, so I wasn’t clear on why an extra $20K was needed to be somehow even more independent in the analysis of the two road options. No one from Placerita Canyon was present to speak, and it’s just an independent analysis anyhow (no recommendation yet), so the contract was awarded.

The final item of the evening was a heartfelt remembrance of Connie Worden-Roberts, a major figure in Santa Clarita's recent history and our community’s “road warrior.” At Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar’s urging last meeting, the council considered naming the Golden Vallery Road bridge to honor her. He said, “She’s got her thumb on every inch of that eight-and-a-half mile road…I gotta tell you that the level that Connie Worden-Roberts served this community, I will tell you, I look at her as virtually a stand-alone citizen.” Every one supported the proposal. Leon Worden was in the audience to witness the awarding of this honor.

There were no additional public speakers and the meeting ended a bit before 9.