Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happenings: You Can Ring My Be-e-ell

Tonight, it wasn’t eminent domain and property rights that inspired the most fervent speeches and heated debate; it was the old Saugus school bell. Before getting to that pithiest of topics, though, there is much more City Council meeting to discuss[1].

So It Begins
The meeting began some 14 minutes late because of a closed session that runnethed over. After the opening formalities, we listened to the November installment of the Public Safety Topic of the Month program. The topic du mois was safety for kids, something near and dear to many a Claritan heart. The greatest dangers to our valley’s youth, we learned, were posed by swimming pools and hot cars. These summertime killers claimed three lives this year. Other dangers mentioned were prescription drugs and strangers, as well as the combination of taking drugs from strangers while in a hot car that’s sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool.

Councilmember comments followed and ranged from boring to innocuous to syrupy. Councilmember Ender mentioned Clarita’s recognition as the most business-friendly city in all of Los Angeles County. Yes, so we’ve heard. Calling Santa Clarita “business-friendly” is kind of like calling a whore screaming for customers “gentleman-friendly”, i.e., rather quaintly understated[2]. Councilmember McLean used her time to read a proclamation making December 18th “Day Without a Bag.” It's an effort to draw attention to the wasteful use and disposal of millions of plastic bags by Santa Claritans every year. We were then treated to a riveting story of how McLean used to forget her reusable grocery bags in the trunk of her car but now usually remembers to bring them.

Eminent Domain and Dental Offices

The City Council (acting in their “Redevelopment Agency” capacity) approved use of eminent domain to take the building occupied by Just Passing Thru piercing parlor[3]. They need the property to build a big new commercial building with a side of library, the latter element thrown in to make eminent domain a defensible tactic.

This library project has long been hailed as the cornerstone of downtown Newhall’s revitalization—along with three small murals and brightly painted trashcans.

Tom Fitterer, father of the guy who runs Just Passing Thru, owns the space in question. He showed up to play David to the City’s Goliath. Unfortunately, he left the sling and stone at home. Indeed, his speeches were not very good, more rambling and tangential than compelling. After describing himself as something like the Donald Trump of dental office real estate, he talked about what a sweet deal his son has (no rent!), then how the space would probably be better suited to a dental office, and then about the state of business these days. He closed by saying that the City’s appraiser didn’t understand the value of the property and was offering to buy it for far too little, with a few passing shots at how the City Council really messed things up with the road realignment in old town Newhall.

After he spoke there was little discussion and both recommended actions concerning the Just Passing Thru property were approved. Thus, Just Passin Thru’s name has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consent Calendar
During normal City business, normal things happened. Alan Ferdman pointed out that it seemed silly for Santa Clarita to award $380,000 in contracts to companies that monitor landscaping. These contractors don’t actually do landscaping but rather drive by and check that other companies have done landscaping. I suppose they’re like a task-force of Mrs. Kravitzes saying the rose bushes are overgrown, except getting hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. Despite the protest, the City will be awarding the contracts for monitoring.

Then there was discussion of temporary speed cushions for Benz Road. All those who spoke on this issue were from the Benz Road neighborhood and subject to the cut-through traffic that the speed cushions were being proposed to curb. These speakers said speed cushions would only increase noise and not mitigate traffic, and they advised the City to save the money and forget about them. Naturally, the City Council decided to install the speed cushions instead (Ferry, McLean dissenting). There were a number of legitimate concerns raised in the ensuing discussion. Councilmember McLean, for example, noted that speed cushions can slow emergency response vehicles and potentially cause mechanical damage: “I cannot condone doing something that is going to hinder our public safety agencies and cause damage to their vehicles.” Speakers noted that the speed cushions would be temporary, and their community would be saddled with the cost of installing permanent cushions if they were found effective. In short, it wasn’t a widely popular decision and indicates that the City Council is willing to try just about anything to help resolve the Benz Road traffic problem. Weste and Ender expressed sincere hopes for learning a lot from the installation.

There’s a really old bell that was made and hung at Saugus Elementary School in the early 1900s. In 1978, custody of the bell was given to the Santa Clarita Historical Society, and about a decade ago, the bell was hung in a special tower near the Newhall metrolink station. Saugus school district, which is celebrating its centennial year, wants the bell back.

How nine speakers and an hour of the City Council meeting was spent on this conflict remains beyond my comprehension.

Of the nine speakers, fully one-third were elementary school students. Their parents wrote them some lovely speeches (actually, I think the two girls may have written at least part of their speeches) which they proceeded to read much to the delight of all at City Hall. They wanted nothing more than for the bell to return to Saugus, its rightful home. Mayor Kellar, the old softie, let the little parrots get applause without admonishing the audience for their clapping.

Several others came forward to support the City’s bold plan to write a letter requesting that the historical society give the bell back to Saugus. Two speakers offered Kellar gifts of Saugus lapel pins. (Why the Mayor did not recuse himself after openly receiving these gifts I do not know.) Then, members of the historical society spoke and said they had the right to decide the fate of the bell and that its present location was most appropriate and afforded many people an opportunity to marvel at it.

Much of the controversy arose from the question of whether the City Council had a right to meddle in the bell custody battle, why the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society hadn’t sat down with the Saugus Union School District to talk about the bell directly, and the price tag to move the bell—some $31,000. Councilmember Weste was hesitant to get the least bit involved: “I think it is a mistake to set this kind of precedent. […] It is definitely not within the City’s purview to do this.” Both she and Councilmember McLean said no to the letter while the other members of the City Council gave it the go-ahead.

Public Participation
The meeting closed with a handful of comments from the public, mostly on the topic of the G&L Realty/HMNMH expansion. David Gauny reiterated his hopes that the Council would delay approval until there was chance to work out a compromise between Smart Growth SCV and the developer. Noting, quite accurately, that the City had let many major flaws in the project slip by undiscussed, he said “All of these things will come out in litigation.” One hopes.

Many council watchers must have "reacted" when Mayor Kellar closed the meeting with a reminder of the imminent “installing” of Frank Ferry as Mayor of Santa Clarita. Indeed, the reign of Ferry cometh.

[2]I showed some real restraint by leaving out some adjectives before the word whore.
[3] Technically it was a “resolution of necessity” to acquire the property and negotiations between the City and owner may well continue. The words “eminent domain” only escaped Paul Brotzman’s lips once, and in a hushed, I-don’t-like-having-to-say-those-words sort of way.

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