Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Happenings: Open Space, Discounts-that-Aren’t, and Awesome Fire Games

Tonight’s meeting was business-as-usual with a smattering of CC firsts: Ken Pulskamp validated public comments, the Council made a 30-second commercial during the meeting (and on the first take! way to go!), and Public Participation was over in a blissful ninety seconds.

Before these unprecedented happenings could happen, however, things got rolling with recognitions and proclamations. COC Chancellor Diane Van Hook[2] received recognition as Woman of the Year from the LA County Commission for Women and County Board of Supervisors. Far more interesting was Mayor Ferry’s proclamation of Santa Clarita as host for the 2009 Western States Police & Fire Games. Literally thousands of police and fire professionals will spend a week competing in baseball, paint ball, motor cross, archery, equestrian, karate, and dozens of other competitive sports and events. Mayor Ferry said he will even take part in a dodge ball game, at which he good-naturedly joked: “C’mon! I’m the biggest freakin’ target in the United States!” To get in a “freakin’” of my own, these games sound pretty freakin’ awesome--part summer camp, part Olympics, part good excuse for dodge ball. Ferry proclaimed the games open the middle of June.

The logo pays homage to the iconic Magic Mountain and the even more iconic tree-from-City-Logo [3].

Next, members of Council got a chance for show and tell (minus the “show”). Laurene Weste filled us in on the Sanitation Board meeting that preceded this evening’s City Council meeting. She said Santa Clarita has done its very best to maintain water quality and that much more information is needed before fees triple to treat high chloride levels in our water. A fee increase has been delayed, at least for now, in the name of more-information-is-needed. When it was her turn to talk, Councilmember McLean discussed the "Save Your City" initiative[4]. This includes a website that allows cities to stick up for themselves against a state government trying to give them the shakedown for local money to balance the State budget. Other cities have posted what amount to commercials of opposition on the website. Ferry delivered Santa Clarita’s own version that was taped and that should soon be available for viewing online.

Ours isn’t quite as good as Compton’s, but it’s in the same spirit: “Take your hands off of the City’s money, not just Compton’s, but every city”. In our favor, the Santa Clarita video is more concise (this video should have stopped at the 2-minute mark). [5]

Next, the joint City Council/Redevelopment Agency (which looks alarmingly like the regular old City Council) convened. A first reading of the City’s plan to extend eminent domain powers drew a few angry comments. Alan Ferdman hit all the main points. He said that even if the City wouldn't overtly use eminent domain to obtain a property, the threat would be just as effective. He drew an analogy of someone holding a gun to another person’s head while demanding a donation--one that would be in everyone’s best interest, of course--and promising not to pull the trigger. It was a clunky analogy, but apt. City Manager Ken Pulskamp took the “Really, what this does...” approach to responding (i.e., you all disagree, therefore you do not understand; let me explain so you will agree with me; I’ll talk slowly). Ferry, who has been annoyingly even-keeled and reasonable lately, noted that while two residences would be up for grabs via E.D., all other homes would be protected. Furthermore, the two seizable properties would get their own hearing and be taken only at the discretion of the Council. That's all fair enough, but I'm still annoyed that Pulskamp pretends like the City is *always* able to negotiate a deal to everyone's liking in these eminent domain proceedings.

As for highlights on the Consent Calendar, several prominent Claritans were upset by plans to purchase 140 acres near Placerita Canyon. This would become part of the City's permanent open space. The property , though, is contaminated, which caused many to wonder whether the City wasn’t over-paying to take a toxic burden off somebody else’s hands.

Rick Gould responded, stating that only about 5% of the acreage is not-buildable and that only a couple of acres are actually contaminated. Thus, purchasing the parcel would preserve some areas that could theoretically be developed while also providing some important open space linkages in the southeast of SCV. City Manager Ken Pulskamp said that the recommended course of action for treating the contaminants was actually to take no action at all, and that there was no real danger to the public. The purchase, made in part with Open Space Assessment money, will be made.

Next came discussion of an item to restripe parts of Lyons Avenue and Bouquet Canyon Road to make three lanes. J-to-the-Wilson gave an earnest entreaty to think about bicyclists, those curious people who move on two wheels instead of four and who might fare better with the status quo. Andrew Yi, City Traffic Engineer and general transportation whipping boy, came forward to give what amounted to a “Sorry, but there are more drivers than bicyclists.”

Moving down the agenda, we came to an item that explained how Blue Barrel Disposal was faced with $470,500 in fines from the City for breaking part of its franchise agreement (i.e., not having a fleet younger than a decade). Instead of paying up, the company and City tentatively agreed to implement some waste diversion programs. These include manure collection (any customer may request a manure bin and have it collected weekly) and one mailable sharps collection container per household of those who generate sharps, such as diabetics or druggies. Laurie Ender wondered aloud whether these and the three other programs were worth $470K. Apparently, they kind of are, but the compromise was also a matter of take-what-you-can-get.

Having spoken out against the open space purchase earlier in the evening, Jim Farley rose again to speak out against the City’s levying of the Open Space Assessment for the third year. Farley called it an “illegal tax,” citing consultation with a top—but unnamed—attorney in this area of law. The California Supreme Court decided a very similar tax to buy open space in Santa Clara was unlawful, and both Farley and Cam Noltemeyer said the two assessments were all but identical (meaning, by extension, that SCV’s assessment was similarly illegal). The City took the “we’re not going to respond” approach and passed on engaging the issue.

All in all, the Consent Calendar was approved, the only change being an allowance for a 90 day (vs. 60 day) reading/circulation period for the One Valley, One Vision Environmental Impact Report. I am still creeped out when I type that name.

Unfortunately, there was more meeting to be watched. Fortunately, it included angry people.

A “Stormwater Pollution Prevention Fee Rate and Methodology Adjustment” was discussed at some length. The adjustment (up to this point it had been called a reduction) would mean that about 86% of parcels would see their rates go down, saving $3.50. However, the other 14% of property-owners would get screwed, seeing their rates increase by over $100 in some cases. The fee adjustment was meant to more fairly assign costs to those whose properties shed water rather than let it percolate into the ground. Calculations of charges were based on outrageous figures of how much impervious surface (concrete, buildings, etc…) the average large parcel has. Many speakers came forward to say that they, as people with large but mostly natural properties, would be paying far more than their fair share even when their land plays a vital role in allowing rainwater to seep into groundwater basins.

“The methodology is obviously flawed” said Laurene Weste. Councilmember McLean said “In selling this … it pretty much always says a fee decrease." She called this framing disingenuous because when the CPI increases, the council can also vote to increase the fee. McLean had a “real problem” with several other aspects as well. Yeah, this wasn’t such a good one for the City. City Manager Ken Pulskamp then did what is quite rare and called the public's comments "persuasive", agreeing to take a closer look at the methods and numbers. The adjustment will undergo a fair bit of its own adjusting, it seems.

The last big matter was contracting an EIR for the North Newhall Specific Plan. Homeowners from Placerita were especially concerned about a connection from Lyons Avenue to Dockweiler Drive and what it would mean for development of the Casden property. Alas, they’ll just have to wait on the EIR.

‘Twas 8:54 and after a last-minute Public Participation comment on the Lyons to Dockweiler connection, we adjourned.

[1]The Agenda, for all you insomniacs in search of a cure
[2]I've never met her, but she is a woman that a good friend of mine dislikes let me say…immoderately.
[3]To learn more, go to
the source
[4]Save SCV from the money-grabbers in Sacramento, y'all!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Happenings: Trust God, Not SCV

Tonight’s two-hour City Council meeting determined that the power of eminent domain is scary, unless you’re the one holding it; sex offenders shouldn’t live here (officially); and it’s OK to trust in God[1].

After the introductory song-and-dance, the meeting got rolling with councilmembers making their reports. Marsha McLean decided to talk about Prop 1A. She gave one of her patented “I’m-not-gonna-tell-you-how-to-vote-buuuuuuut-you-may-want-to-consider…” talks on how to vote on the proposition come election day (i.e., NO!). Santa Clarita oughtn’t be propping up the rest of California with higher taxes and the State will be in poor shape regardless of whether 1A passes or not, she argued. When it came time for Mayor Ferry to finish up his remarks, he made sure to point out that it was a certain City Manager’s birthday![2] After a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!”, Councilmember Ender asked, wryly: “There is no place you’d rather be on your birthday, is there?” Pulskamp replied “No place.”

Next, the Redevelopment Agency convened. The matter of a planned traffic circle ruffled a few feathers. A local Claritan and a couple of councilmembers wanted to make sure that pedestrian safety was being considered. Kellar noted that we’re “really not that accustomed to them [traffic circles] in Western states,” but assured the City that he had seen them in action and that the traffic circle would be fine for automobile and pedestrian alike. This must be what it's like when a small town in the Dakotas gets its first traffic light.

Far more serious was the City Council/Redevelopment Agency Public Hearing on the matter of eminent domain. The City wants 12 more years of the power to used E.D. to get Newhall renewed and revitalized. After a lengthy presentation that tried to express how eminent domain was an important tool but one that would not really be used (very Eastern philosophical, no?), many speakers came forward to express their opposition. A handful of these people were Spanish-speakers who had to deliver their testimony with the aid of a translator. Among the English-speaking crowd were renters in the area, Newhall business owners, and property owners. All were untrusting of the City’s request for twelve more years of E.D. authority and made anxious by the implications for their personal interests and personal properties.

Their sentiments were perfectly reasonable. After all, one should be suspicious when any person or polity says “We want to be able to force you to give us your property when we deem fit—we’ll pay you for it, but we get it when we want it. And by the way, we want to have this power for another twelve years. Just trust us...” It’s a request that would only fly in Newhall, which isn’t bright, shiny, and expensive enough for the planning department’s taste.

I found myself growing deeply annoyed with Pulskamp as he delivered his response to the concerned residents. He started by giving a quiet little “Maybe I can make some comments…” At this point, the Spanish-speaking people went into the Century Room to have a real-time translation of the ensuing commentary. Quoting quite choppily, Pulskamp said: “If the redevelopment agency wants to build a community center, if you want to build a road, if you want to build a library, it is for the public good […] Those are things that are needed for the community. […] When that is necessary, we go out and negotiate with each and every property owner. […] Every single time we were able to work something out with the property owner without having to use that tool [eminent domain]. If there is a recalcitrant or reluctant property owner […] the community cannot be denied that benefit because of the one property owner.” To call a library like the one being shoved in Downtown Newhall “necessary” when there is another library blocks away is a gross perversion of the word. And I just loved how he said that the City was always able to reach a deal with the property owner. Somehow, I think having an “If you tell us no we’ll force you out” card in your back pocket might help get people to fold.

There was concern over whether people would be forced out of their homes, as two residential properties were specified as fair game for eminent domain seizing. Because these are rental properties, though, they don't seem to really count. Apparently, if you rent a property, build a rapport with your landlord, and create memories and relationships there, it’s still not really your home. It soon became apparent that Pulskamp thought it would be OK to allow E.D. for these properties because they don’t fit in with his vision of what Santa Clarita should be: “It just doesn’t seem like there oughtta be a house there,” he remarked of a house in an commercialized/industrialized corner of the City. Someone needs to put a sock in the City Manager's underwear drawer and let him know it’s OK. Or perhaps we could skip the analogy and say it's alright to let some corners of Santa Clarita remain less productive than they potentially could be; not every place in this miserable valley needs to look like Valencia.

Props go to Mayor Ferry for trying to make the City staff be less duplicitous about the issue (e.g., “We’re not going to use eminent domain it…except we want to have the option to” and “It’s not going to affect residential properties…except that's exactly what it will do in two particular instances.”) The whole thing was annoying and Pulskamp and McLean strayed several times into the realm of condescension, especially towards the public speakers. They seemed to think that the only reason someone could be against the proposed extension of eminent domain powers was because they didn't understand. In any case, no action was taken tonight; it was just a Public Hearing to be revisited on the 26th of May. I've grown shrill and started to ramble, haven't I? Sorry.

The Council sped quickly through the consent calendar, which included a second reading that formalized an ordinance to keeps sex offenders from living almost anywhere in SCV.

The last big item was Councilmember Bob Kellar’s pet proposal to add “In God We Trust” to the City Logo. “I sincerely in my heart feel we need to get back to some of the basics that make this nation great,” he said while introducing his plan. He continued by quoting pithy statements made by politicians in other California cities that adopted similar measures. He closed by proposing that the people of Santa Clarita vote on the idea on the April 13, 2010 ballot.

The reaction was universally positive. Joe Messina said it was important to remember God and that we were serving “Something bigger, higher, and better than yourself.” (Bigger, higher, and better than SCV? Surely you jest!) Apart from a number of public speakers, there were also 15 cards written in support. Unfortunately, just as the City Council got into a discussion of whether “In God We Trust” would appear just on the big City Hall logo, on City letterhead, at other public buildings, etc. and whether the Council could just approve it that night rather than going to a ballot vote, my Internets died. My connection to the electronic world was revived only in time to hear Laurene Weste giving her “aye” to some pro-In-God-We-Trust motion. For specifics, go to The Signal or KHTS[3], the latter of which will probably have a better written story.

Personally, I’m all for the In God We Trust addition. Unless you’re a godless heathen (redundant? not quite), it's a nice gesture, and one I'm certain the people of Santa Clarita will endorse. After all, those four words are just the ticket for soothing the many souls troubled by over-consumption, infidelity, self-absoprtion, and the other vices that are the hallmark of Claritan life. To close with a more generous tone, perhaps those words will inspire us to do better.

[2]That makes him a Taurus, like yours truly. Taureans are boring homebodies who value comfort and stability, which may explain why we both heart SCV. :-/