Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happenings: Bend Over, Santa Clarita

NOTE: I'm just starting to edit this at 2:55am, so it will likely not be my best work. Still, I think getting most of the information across is the most important thing. [...time passes...] Now it's 3:37am and I need to be up in a couple hours. I wrote way too much, but I think there are nuggets of valuable information and decent writing littered across this wordscape. Good luck, brave reader. I won't have a chance to bring things up to my usually stellar standards until tomorrow afternoon.

“Good projects do not keep us out here until one in the morning.”
--Mayor Bob Kellar

IN BRIEF: Decisive Action and the 5 Guys in a Room Deal
Just before 1am, it passed by a vote of 4-1, Mayor Kellar being the sole dissenting vote. “It” was (1)A resolution to approve the final EIR for the HMNMH project, (2)A resolution to approve the overriding considerations (i.e., list of justifications for why the developer could violate zoning and cause significant impacts to the community), and (3)A resolution to approve the Master Plan. There will be a second reading on Tuesday, December 9, when things will pass once and for all.

While the result was predictable, the path was not. The meeting included a hilariously awful video production presented by Roger Seaver, a lot of talk about breasts, and more than three hours of public comments by over 70 people. Most bizarrely of all, there was what Laurie Ender christened “The 5 guys in a room deal.” It was an agreement that involved Newhall, Gauny and Seaver and that was arranged by Rasmussen and Goldman--all prominent Claritan businessmen of one sort or another. The men met without attorneys and signed a quasi-legal document representing a major compromise between the developer and Smart Growth SCV the day before the meeting. Not that any of this is suspicious or anything, but do you remember what I said about incest amongst the power players? Then, there was quite literally a backroom project involving the developer, the developler’s attorneys, and the City Assistant Attorney—and it all happened during the public comment period with Council’s blessing! Details about all the intrigue and how none of it really ended up mattering follow.

Calm Before the Storm
Councilmember Laurie Ender was charged with this evening’s convocation. She spoke about the “Character Counts” program going on at local schools and the importance of good character for everyone in the community. (No further comment necessary). Next, all of the councilmembers agreed to hold their general comments and reports for next week which, as Mayor Kellar pointed out, was “a good call.”

With the opening formalities out of the way, Mayor Kellar was able to open the public hearing less than 6 minutes after 6pm.

Staff Presentation
Lisa Webber, City Planning Manager, gave a presentation to start. Her smart gray jacket and professional tone said she meant business. Webber went over errata to the final EIR, project sequencing, and other details. It was a good balance of review and newer information and less overtly pro-expansion than prior presentations, so I was pleased. Next, a consultant came forward to talk about parking and how there seemed to be enough of it in the Master Plan. He mercilessly assaulted us with unnecessary details about how many feet constitute 1 curbside parking space, etc.

Presentations By Seaver and Gauny
Those in favor of and against the hospital expansion each got to present their case. Roger Seaver gave a brief PowerPoint presentation full of slides bearing titles ripped from knock-off Hallmark cards such as “Improving…for you.” Then, out of nowhere, Seaver introduced one of the most spectacularly ridiculous videos I’ve ever seen. It started with some weird upbeat music—maybe toned-down German dance music a la 1992—and quick cuts between the words “VOICES for the EXPANSION” and community members speaking.

Whoever produced the video pulled out all the stops. They got the Flemings to speak on behalf of the expansion (FLEMWATCH ALERT!), Moe and Linda Hafizi to chime in for the Master Plan(incapable editors of elite magazine), and many hospital staff members to say they supported it. It was all one great big appeal to emotion (i.e., "help the sick people!"), that lowest of rhetorical strategies.

After the video, David Gauny got his chance to speak on behalf of SmartGrowth SCV in opposition to the Master Plan. He delivered a very, very compelling presentation. His core argument was that the “overriding considerations” were based on illusory promises, or non-binding elements of the contract that were used to justify harm inflicted by the project. For example, saying that the hospital “will allow for” Centers of Excellence was not legitimate justification for the project as it could not be assured. He very reasonably pointed out some major flaws in the plan.

Enter the 5 Guys in a Room Deal
Before taking the first break of the evening, Councilmember McLean brought up something that she and other council members had just received that day. It was a half page agreement that parties from Henry Mayo and Smart Growth SCV had signed on Tuesday the 18th (if I have the timeline correct). Roger Seaver wanted to avoid litigation, so he was willing to concede one floor in height from the planned Inpatient Building to allay concerns about blocking views. He also agreed to some ever-so-slightly stronger language on getting the Inpatient Building built promptly. In return, it was agreed that if any lawsuit was brought against the developer, the concessions were void and the project could be built as originally planned (5 stories instead of 4, original triggers for development). In short, it was a very, very weak deal that I’m frankly shocked was signed by representatives of Smart Growth SCV.

Once the City of Santa Clarita got to learn about this, there was a 15 minute break. Upon returning, Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry called David Gauny forward and tried to see if they could figure something out. He wanted to give the City Council the option of turning the informal agreement hammered out the day before into a compromise that could be tacked onto the development agreement. Ferry suggested that Gauny along with Assistant City Attorney Joe Montes and attorneys from HMNMH/G&L could try to work something out during the public comment period. Yes, Frank Ferry was that presumptuous and brazenly disrespectful to people who waited up to 5 hours for a chance to speak. He wanted a few lawyers to try and broker an agreement because, one can infer, nothing any speaker could say would change Ferry's mind. He said this addendum drafting would be something “worthwhile”, thereby implying that public comments were not.

Laurie Ender and Mayor Kellar were the voices of reason, saying that a few men didn’t represent the Council or the community at large and didn’t get to decide how things went down for everyone. However, it was clear that the lawyers were going to work on formalizing the 5-guys-in-a-room agreement. Gauny wanted time to consult with his own attorney, who wasn't present, to make sure that he didn't sign onto something prematurely. But Ferry kept pushing forward in a manner not unlike some oafish schoolyard bully. David Gauny told Ferry “You’re putting me in an impossible spot.” Ferry knew this and pushed forward anyways. And indeed, Assistant City Attorney Montes met with parties from the developer while the public delivered its testimony.

Public Comments—3 Hours and the Breast Brigade
Doctors: There was some troubling polarization here. Some doctors from HMNMH spoke out against the expansion, saying it would reward G&L Realty, a company that had price-gouged physicians off of the campus. Other doctors stepped forward, the majority of them speaking passionately to the need for more O.R.s and thus supporting the expansion. As Dr. Gene Dorio pointed out, though, many physicians weren’t well-versed in the fine details of the plan, and at least a few admitted to this. Dorio went onto say he personally heard a doctor being intimidated/punished for opposing the plan.

Expansion Plan Fans: A number of nurses and members of the hospital board also came forward to express their support for the Master Plan and Development Agreement. So too did Charles Gill and Larry Mankin, Chairman and President/CEO, respectively, of the Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t too much of a shock that these two advocated expanding business in a community-be-damned sort of way.
Then, there was the Breast Brigade. No fewer than 20 people mentioned the Sheila R. Veloz Breast Imagaing Center as an example of a Center of Excellence that needed both a hospital and medical office space, thereby proving the importance of medical office buildings. They were nice stories, some of them moving, but totally immaterial. Having an excellent breast imaging center in no way guaranteed centers of excellence elsewhere on campus or a new Inpatient Building.

Expansion Plan Foes: Of roughly 70 speakers, less than half were speaking out against the expansion, although there were far more written comments against than for. Reena Newhall, perennially creative and incisive, spent her time talking about what anonymous doctors that she telephoned thought of the plan and how Roger Seaver put pressure on them to support it. "Doctor 1" said he couldn’t speak out or he would “Risk retaliation, be ostracized.” Doctor 2 agreed, saying “I can’t afford to make waves.” Doctor 3’s opinion was “It’s all for profit bull****” and Doctor 4 noted how many fel trapped because “They’re on the hospital's payroll.” Sure, this is hearsay, but at least three respectable Claritans delivered the same message this evening (Dorio, Newhall, Kellar). Another expansion foe was Lynne Plambeck who said “It’s discouraging to say these things knowing they will not be heard or addressed”. After she and other speakers finished, it was time for Boydston.

TimBen Boydston, Patron Saint of the Study of Very Important Yet Terribly Boring Parking Ordinances, pulled off quite a coup. Since speakers are afforded only 3 minutes but his meticulous research on the parking problem demanded more time, he enlisted the aid of 7 other speakers. Together, they cobbled together a surpisingly coherent and thoroughly damning presentation on major parking shortfalls or “built-in parking deficits”. There was even a PowerPoint presentation that ran alongside the narrative.

Based on parking guidelines put out by experts, he calculated that there was a 953 space deficit if demand for parking was calculated based on number of hospital beds, and an 817 space deficit if demand was calculated based on number of employees. Going by City Code alone, there was still a deficit potentially in excess of 200 spaces.

The error in calculating parking needs, he explained, arose from many sources. For example, the parking study used for the Master Plan counted red curbs, handicapped, and staff only parking spaces as “available but unused” during a peak-use period. This suggested a much lower demand than there really was/is. Furthermore, counting unmarked spaces went against City Code, and the parking consultant did just that.

Staff Responds
Paul Brotzman came forward, and his voice was tired (I’m tired at this point too—it’s 11:25pm). He and other City staff members responded vaguely. Paul Wilkinson, parking consultant, responded to TimBen Boydston essentially by saying that it was alright to count unmarked spaces even though this is a direct violation of City Code.

The Assistant City Attorney had also met with the developer and the developer’s attorney during the public comment period. He returned with a one-page statement. The language said more or less exactly what the 5 guys in a room had tentatively agreed upon. If ANYONE initiated a lawsuit against the campus development, the campus could forget its 4-story inpatient building and build a 5-story one instead and ignore new demands on centers of excellence. Basically, the part that made the deal attractive (less obtrusive build-out) was rendered null and void because when literally anyone sued over the development, the agreement would become meaningless and the project could be built as originally planned. Ferry enthusiastically pushed forward, and so too did McLean, who showed a weirdly vengeful streak when David Gauny said he wanted more time before giving his approval for officially adding these conditions.

I ended up being a Laurie Ender fan for a moment when she said “The process has not been served in this.” She spoke with clarity, passion and conviction. It was really inapprorpiate to have all of this wheeling and dealing going on at the meeting.

Then things totally broke down.

Everyone sensed that Laurie Ender was right—this thing was flying by way too fast and without any public input. So the Council let Gauny and others come forward to speak. Frank Ferry had the audacity to call David Gauny “rude” for trying to express his dismay at how the agreement to not sue in return for a shorter Inpatient Tower was being railroaded through. Even worse was City Attorney Carl Newton who said with a straight face “There are copies of this [the legal language drafted that night] available for the public to view.” It was midnight, and he was suggesting that everything was quite seemly and that the public could review the proposed backroom agreement if that was their will. Needless to say, Cam Noltemeyer, Tony Newhall, David Gauny, and Bruce McFarland all strongly objected.

Council Deliberates
Eventually, though, the public hearing closed. Marsha McLean made a few stipulations to the agreement, something about recycling. With this and Laurie Ender’s outrage over the potential addendum to the development agreement drafted by the Assistant City Attorney, I was actually a bit hopeful. I thought we’d at least get a continuation till next week.

Then Laurene Weste started to talk, and the small bit of hope I had allowed to well up in my chest immediately vaporized. She read off a litany of reasons why she’d approve the project, largely ignoring the parking issue and other issues brought up over the course of the evening. Despite TimBen Boydston’s hundreds of hours of work researching the parking deficits, she said she “had to” trust the parking consultant who had clearly violated City Code and common sense to set the parking needs. Given Weste’s sentiments, I allowed myself to entertain the thought of Weste voting “aye” and Ender being a surprise no vote or vote for a continuation (It was late; I was allowed to foolish). Weste’s ultimate reason for supporting the plan, it seems, was fear. “What happens if there’s a homeland security breach? Where are you gonna go?” Thusly motivated, she was willing to vote for any chance she got at more hospital.

Next, Mayor Kellar spoke. He expressed that he supported “The Hospital”—not the whole campus, G&L and all, but just “The Hospital.” He was saying that he was going to be voting no, and went on to explain why. In particular, Kellar found the mixing of private and public development very troubling. The Mayor, like Dr. Gene Dorio and Reena Newhall, had also talked to some doctors who told him that many statements in favor of the hospital were coerced. He astutely pointed out that “Good projects do not keep us out here till 1 in the morning” and that this was, indeed, a bad project, one building too much on too little land or “putting 20 lbs in a 5lb bag.”

To close, Mayor Kellar opened up on how he felt about G&L Realty, the Beverley Hills developer that spent $30,000 on an election in Santa Clarita: “You come into our town and buy our electon?...I think it’s disgusting…Shame on you!”

By this point, we had Ferry Yes, Weste Aye, and Kellar No. McLean was looking like a “Yes” and Laurie was still being quiet. It was 40 minutes after midnight.

Then, quite suddenly, Marsha McLean motioned for alternative 2 from the EIR—an expansion project with just 2 MOBs and a 4-story Inpatient Building. There was no second. She then motioned alternative 3, where all 3 MOBs were built with a 4-story medical office building. There was no second again.

Laurie Ender moved the recommended action (3 medical office buildings, a 5-story Inpatient Tower). When it came time to discuss tacking on the language drafted that evening about the lower tower/no suing trade-off, Ender mentioned her continuing suspicions and lack of comfort with the process. Basically, the 5 guys in a room deal and what the Assistant City Attorney had drafted had all come to naught, didn't matter. Thus, unadorned, the Council voted on Ender’s motion. Everyone said yes, save Mayor Kellar.

In a subsequent motion to move for a second reading, everyone but Kellar and McLean said Yes. Thus, it all comes back December 9th.

Cam Closes

There was still public participation for this meeting, but only Cam Noltemeyer requested to speak. I’ll close with her quotation:

“What we’re seeing is big money taking over our community. We saw it here tonight. It isn’t a small community anymore. We didn’t move out here for what is happening here.” Agreed.


Anonymous said...

The Cams of the world need to wake up. The SCV has not been a "small town" in quite some time. Those folks who are "donating" thousands of dollars to the 1,001 charities in the SCV fully expect that the money will buy them goodwill when the time comes. Everyone needs to look at contributors to the political/school campaigns to see who will be next asking for a favor.

Anonymous said...

Frank Ferry is a disgrace. How about a recall?

Anonymous said...

I'll second that recall vote! Toss in Ender too. This is truly embarassing. Looking forward to the next council election to see who would like to buy a seat for their project. Perhaps deflation will discount the previous record of $30k.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Cam Noltemeyer has been consistently against any improvements in our community, schools, parks or roads as has SCOPE under Lynn Plambeck. They unfortunately have no credibility when the speak against projects like this.