Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Happenings: Recuse-a-thon 2008, Old Houses, and Waterfowl

Tonight's City Council meeting proved considerably more watchable than expected. I credit most of this improved watchability to a man in a bird costume.

After an inspired invocation by Councilmember Laurene Weste, we had the usual spate of presentations to local groups[1]. While the Soroptimists and the Foundation for Children’s Dental Care took center stage, a yellow duck sat quietly in the front row. After an excruciating wait, the web-footed wonder arose, striding with quiet confidence to the front of the room. It was then introduced as a representative of the Rubber Ducky Regatta, an event benefiting the admirable work of the Sam Dixon Family Health Center[2]. Lacking opposable thumbs, it proved incapable of accepting the recognition plaque.

Duck in audience (left). Ender tries to force-feed duck in shameless appeal to foie gras sympathizers lurking in SCV’s finer eateries (right).

Public Participation came next. Conventional wisdom predicted comments on powerlines and perhaps some follow-ups concerning Benz Road. More comments, however, dealt with traffic on Canvas Street (if it’s not Benz it’s Canvas, right?). These were about as productive as they usually are. Nadine Teter, perennial Canvas speaker, was understandably exasperated at her street’s condition. She went on to request that Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry asnwer her Canvas-related emails like other members of Council do. Apparently, he's being unresponsive.

Nadine Teter wishes Frank would write her more. Get in line, hon!

The bulk of Claritan comments, though, concerned G&L Realty’s big ol’ building project[3]. Getting things off to a rip-roaring start was TimBen Boydston. He began his speech with an uncomfortable analogy between the injustices that prompted us to found the City of SC and those that sparked the Boston Tea Party. Gradually, his voice rose and passion deepened as he chastised the Council for dismissing the concerns of SCV citizens: “They are lectured, they are scolded, they are told that they just don’t understand.” It was a barnburner of the don't-forget-who-you-work-for-we-deserve-better sort and drew thunderous applause, relatively speaking.

Soon after, Lynn Vogel came forward and said “I’m here to speak about bias.” She wasn’t the only one. Many Claritans would take to the podium and ask Frank Ferry and Laurie Ender to recuse themselves from the G&L/HMNMH expansion issue. SmartGrowthSCV's attorneys put forth several arguments as to why Ferry and Ender would be unable to fairly deliberate on the Henry Mayo Master Plan. Speakers dropped quotations from Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry in which he said that he was unabashedly for the expansion project.

Ender did have a couple of people come forward on her side. A certain Sabrina claimed “Laurie Ender is one of the most trustworthy and honest people you will ever meet!” It was all an attempt to peddle the idea that the voters who elected Laurie into office weren't duped by flyers but voted for her after careful evaluation of all eligible candidates. When they voted for Ender, they knew they were voting for a pro-medical office buildings sort of gal.
After Public Participation, of course, the people sitting up front got to respond.

Carl Newton, City Attorney, spoke on the issue of Henry Mayo bias. He tried to clarify what sort of biases would force a councilmember to recuse him- or her-self from an issue. The "operative words" of his professional advice, he claimed, were that “a councilmember should not assume a firm position for or against a project” before all information is made available to the public and discussed. He reviewed the letter from SmartGrowthSCV’s attorneys and came to the conclusion that prior comments did not establish any councilmember as having taken a firm position for or against the HMNMH expansion “Certainly there are strong feelings [about the expansion]” but not enough to justify recusal. In short, Newton said that "strong feelings" and "firm positions" are quite different things, especially when it comes to hospitals. One wonders…

Ferry deigned to forgo answering the recusal demands. Ender, on the other hand, responded directly to her critics: “I have no intention of recusing myself on this issue.”
After councilmembers took their potty break, there was the Joint City Council/Redevelopment Agency business to attend to. Erin Moore-Lay delivered a presentation on “Acquisition and Rehabilitation of Hidaway Apartments.” Essentially, developer Mercy Housing California sought a loan of more than $2M to restore the apartment complex for use as affordable housing. (I dreamt of the regatta duck through much of Moore-Lay’s oh so very, very thorough presentation.)

When it came time for the public to weigh in, we learned why this wasn’t a universally beloved idea. A couple residents of Hidaway came forward and said they feared being uprooted so that their homes could be rented to other, poorer people. And they would indeed be kicked out if their income was too high to qualify for affordable housing. Based on a voluntary survey, only half of the current residents would be allowed to stay, paying estimated rents of $600-$1200. The others would be kicked out and given three-and-a-half years of housing subsidies to ease the transition.

Despite this downside, the Council decided to go ahead with the loan to Mercy Housing. Pushing councilmembers to take this action was the fact that Mercy Housing was asking for a loan--not the usual grant--to spiffy up the apartments and provide affordable housing. Also, the Hidaway property is in default, and a new owner could come in, raise the rent, and force everyone to leave. More cynically, giving the loan to Mercy represented a relatively painless way for the City to work towards meeting its affordable housing goals. More cynically yet, Cam Noltemeyer suggested this was a way of keeping low-income persons out of the way in Canyon Country.
The other big piece of business tonight concerned an ordinance for historic review on a number of properties. Two weeks ago, during the ordinance's first reading, almost all of the comments were gleeful: “Claritans love history and we want to preserve it, rah rah rah!” Tonight, the comments were rather the opposite.

Speakers warned about “overzealous preservationists” and a “malicious perversion of government power.” The list of properties that would face historic review was said to be deeply flawed. Many buildings were simply old, not historic, and their inclusion on the list belied shoddy research. Private property rights stood to be violated, many said, since the ordinance could limit what owners could do with their buildings. Cynthia Harris called it "a totally unfair ordinance.” The bespectacled Harris gazed intently at Mayor Kellar as she gave her comments, saying "Bob, you should know better.”
And ultimately, he did know better. Mayor Kellar noted that historic listing would be a discolsure that would lower property values or make a property harder to sell. After all, what buyer wants limits and reviews on what they can do with the structure they acquire? Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry agreed and did not want to unduly burden historic/pseudo-historic property owners.
Indeed, Cynthia Harris should have directed her "You should know better" quip at Weste, McLean, and Ender.
Before voting in favor, Councilmember McLean talked a lot about the ordinance, asking if the review process really imposed that much of a hardship. She somehow missed the fact that the annoying, burdensome review process was exactly the hardship property owners were objecting to. Paul Brotzman encouraged this dismissal of the burdens imposed on property owners. With a hyperbolized sense of urgency, he claimed that we are in an “all or nothing situation”, as if not approving the ordinance would result in a fleet of bulldozers leveling every home with a scrap of historic value.

Mayor Kellar suggested that the City could buy vulnerable properties that come onto the market if it really wanted to preserve them. His idea was ignored as the double X-chromosomed members of Council gave their yeses (or "aye" as the case may be) while the XY-chromosomed members said "no!" Whether the voting divide along gender lines was simple coincidence or something more is unclear. Regardless, homeowners of "historic" properties will now need to ask the City to review planned alterations or demolitions of their homes and buildings. Thanks to this ordinance, many old, ugly buildings will be spared the wrecking ball and preserved for us to endlessly marvel at.
A preemptive strike to have Ferry and Ender recuse themselves on the G&L expansion failed; it's out with the old, in with the new at Hidaway; and it's in with the old, out with the homeowner control at historic/pretend-historic buildings in Newhall.

[1]The agenda may be read here.
[2]To take place on October 18, details here.
[3]Pulskamp confirmed that this will be on the agenda at the next C.C. meeting, which will therefore stretch until 1am--if we're being optimistic.

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