Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Personal Ad: Pet Seeks Forever Home

Many people find it nicer to see animals alive and happy in homes than alone and frightened in animal shelters. As one such person, I have decided to post information on an up-coming pet fair put on by a wonderful local 501(c) 3 organization:

Annual Bow-Wows & Meows Pet Fair (<-- click for link)
Sunday, October 11th, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Enjoy a beautiful day at William S. Hart Park in Newhall. Meet over 70 vendors of pet-related supplies and services, plus take part in a raffle, eat yummy people food, play in the "kidz zone," watch fun demonstrations, meet an animal photographer and a pet psychic, take advantage of the low-cost vaccine clinic - and of course – cross “paws” with lots of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens from all six LA County Animal Shelters that are available for adoption and in search of their forever homes! Admission is free; 661-297-5961 for more info.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happenings: 49 Minutes in City Hall

I missed the first few minutes of tonight’s meeting in order to finish watching Sunday’s episode of Mad Men[1]. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sufficiently tardy to be spared the spectacle that is awards-and-recognitions[2]. Tonight, there was just one rather drawn-out acknowledgement extended to the judges serving the Community Court Diversion Program. As explained on the City’s website:

In 2006, the Santa Clarita Community Court Diversion Program was implemented as an alternative to the juvenile justice system for first-time, non-violent, juvenile offenders. Juvenile offenders who commit non-violent petty crimes are sentenced by a judge to perform community service, make restitution, attend diversion classes, and pay financial penalties. If the juvenile completes the program, their crime does not go on their record. The program was started to help first-time offenders learn from their mistakes, and to ensure that youth perform their community service and pay their restitution here in Santa Clarita where their crime was committed. [3]

The system handles cases that range from illegal U-turns to vandalism to speeding to possession of drugs or alcohol.

It seems to me that the Community Court Diversion Program was devised by well-intentioned but na├»ve persons who believe in the fairy tales of “good kids who make bad choices” and “teens in need of a second chance”, people who forget how easily most students can muster a seemingly sincere apology to avoid a mark on their record or harsher punishment outside of SCV.

I very much encourage you to visit the program’s web page[3]. Try the “Stats & Testimonials” section where there is an excerpt from a 13 year-old girl who was in possession of marijuana. She wrote “I have learned my lesson.” Then there’s the 16 year-old boy who wrote “I am going to make sure that I am the safest driver on the road from now on.” In the immortal acronym of their generation, LOL.

[NOTE: I was just talking about this program with my little sister. She reminded me that she served as one of the student “jurors” on such a case some years ago--prior to the current program, but essentially operating on the same idea. She contended that the student jury was very harsh, issuing the maximum penalties for a student who committed vandalism with a Sharpie, writing his name on a school bench. Apparently, he was “cute and popular” and the jury was, well, less so, explaining their enthusiasm for harsh sentencing. This gave me hope that we could count on the ruthlessness of peer-issued punishments to balance out the baseless optimism at the heart of the court diversion program. Alas, the judge had the final say and issued a more lenient punishment.]

Next, the City Council's five esteemed members gave their individual reports to the community. Councilmember Laurie Ender talked about the annual League of California Cities Conference that she attended with Councilmember Marsha McLean. One of the conference highlights was a presentation on the role of libraries in economic development. (Can I write LOL twice in one posting?) Ender thought this subject was “ironic” given that Santa Clarita is building its very own new library[4]. Once the library opens, Ender would do well to visit it, obtain a dictionary, and reevaluate her understanding of the word “irony.”[5]

Councilmember Kellar spoke about a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new ion exchange system. The Castaic Lake Water Agency will use it to treat perchlorate, our valley’s favorite persistent aqueous pollutant. This is a lovely development, but perhaps we should ease up on the ribbon cuttings. Overuse dulls the giant ceremonial scissors, and an exorbitant ribbon budget is hard to justify in these trying times.

Attention then shifted to Councilmember McLean who, as usual, had a lot of county- and state-level matters to discuss. She expressed concern about the progress and direction of the California’s high-speed train project: it’s not as far along as some have suggested and current plans may need to be revised to incorporate the most cutting-edge, environmentally-friendly technology. She was decidedly more pleased with the League of California City’s resolution to close loopholes that have allowed that State to take money from cities. These are the very loopholes that legislators used to take about $3M from Santa Clarita to close the California’s budget hole, and they'll be voted on by the People at a future election.

Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste made a few announcements about the upcoming Native American Powwow at Hart Park and open space dedication near Placerita Canyon Park.

Finally, Mayor Ferry decided to give his time to LA County Fire Department Assistant Chief (I think I got that title right) Johnny Jee. Ferry’s preface was a very entertaining riff on being stuck with an unfortunate name. He said that he was teased for having the last named “Ferry” and suggested that Sheriff Captain Anthony LaBerge “bulks up” because of his delicate surname. In contrast, Ferry found Johnny Jee’s name—pronounced like “Johnny G.”--downright awesome and perfect for someone in the fire department. This was actually all more interesting than Jee’s speech introducing himself and giving some updates.

During the actual business of the meeting, essentially everything on the consent calendar passed with the recommended action and without discussion. These included measures for additional geological testing and inspections at the Sports Complex, acceptance of a project of traffic circulation improvements, and some ratifications of City Manager Ken Pulskamp’s actions regarding American Recovery and Reinvestment Act cash that will go to big road improvement projects.

There was exactly one person who made one comment on one item, and I’ll give you one guess as to who that person was. You’re right! Mr. Alan Ferdman came forward to comment on Item 10, which declared results of the landscape maintenance district vote. The voters overwhelmingly approved assessment changes and some modifications of various landscape maintenance district zones. Ferdman said that the City hadn’t made basic, critical information about the changes available such that people couldn’t really know what they were voting on. Unfortunately, this is one of those items that hasn’t captured sustained public interest, the kind that only traffic issues seem to be able to garner. Thus, Ferdman was more or less alone in his crusade tonight. The City Council responded to his concerns rather curtly, asking someone from City staff to talk with Ferdman after the meeting. And suddenly, we moved to Public Participation.

There were three speakers. Guy #1 said he thought it would be a good idea to do away with compact parking spaces to accommodate the bigger cars beloved by Claritans. Guy #2 said he had been bothered by an over-zealous code enforcement agent who was trying to get him to bring his front yard into line with some code that had remained unenforced for twenty years. He mentioned that the code enforcement agent told him he would need to green up his lawn, and when he mentioned that local water agencies recommended conserving water, the agent responded by saying that his agency had nothing to do with water districts (essentially instructing the property owner to water his grass more, conservation-be-damned). Guy #2 had an ambiguous accent and was old, which gave him instant credibility: could his story about oppressive code enforcement and being told to water despite supply restrictions be true? Finally, Guy #3 came forward to represent the community of Belcaro. He thanked the City for trying to help his neighborhood resolve the issue of too-big, too-ugly transmission towers that were erected near their homes by Southern California Edison. Since SoCal Edison proved unresponsive, he said that 43 residents would be filing a lawsuit against the company for damages.

Despite my voluminous ramblings, tonight’s meeting was a quickie and ended at 6:49. All in all, I preferred my hour investment in Mad Men to that in this meeting.

[1] “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”…but he doesn’t walk out! The best episode of the third season of a damn fine show.
[2]Do you crave an agenda?
You’re in luck.
[3]Divert this
[4]J-to-the-Wilson has a rendering and links at SCVTalk
[5]"Irony is one of the most abused words in the English language," said my 11th grade English teacher. "Serendipitous", "fitting", "coincidental", or "timely" might have been better choices in this case.
[6]Here is Ferdman’s
neglected Item 10.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happenings: A Sheraton Shame and City Bus Blues

FERRY: “Good evening everyone, how are you?”
IHSCV: “Annoyed that you’re late again and that you put so many public hearings on the agenda.”
FERRY: “…”

On this eighth night of the ninth month of the year 2009, the honorable Mayor Ferry invoked the Santa Clarita City Council Meeting[1] by telling the Japanese fable of “The House of a Thousand Mirrors.” In the story, a happy little dog trotted into the mirrored house wagging his tail. He looked around to see 1000 other little dogs wagging their tails back at him and decided that he would come back to the happy place often. A second little dog entered the same house, but he was ill-tempered. Upon seeing 1000 other little dogs growling back at his own growling face, he decided never to come back. The moral is one well worth remembering: keep dogs away from mirrors and Frank Ferry away from Japanese folklore.

After the flag salute and recognizing Brett Shields for saving some guy’s life (hooray!), City Manager Ken Pulskamp delivered a presentation to the City on the status of the “21-Point Business Plan for Progress”, SCV’s very own little stimulus plan. He claimed that the measures have been very successful, “having significant, positive effects on our local economy.” Tragically, this good news was tempered by the realization that Pulskamp would be going through updates on all 21 points of the plan, though he did so at a fairly brisk pace. Using unusually colorful language, K-Puls went on to say that business owners whom he and staff have interacted with have been “just elated” about the benefits of the various programs.

Updates from the five seated around the dais were given next. Councilmember Laurie Ender praised the recently held SCV Economic Summit as a “mini local think tank.” She also mentioned a memorial that would be held in Newhall for all those killed in the September 11th attacks. Councilmember Bob Kellar didn’t have much to say, so he applauded Pulskamp’s Plan for Progress and said “If you have a choice, shop local.” Councilmember McLean described how she went to a transportation meeting on the evening of her birthday (what a trooper!) and had gotten a big new idea for local public transportation. Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste mentioned the approaching Santa Clara River Rally at the Newhall Community Center. Finally, Mayor Ferry touted recent ribbon cuttings (Magic Mountain Parkway, Old Town Newhall streetscape) and reminded us of various local benefits in need of patronage.

A very short Consent Calendar was passed without comment by Council or public. It really only consisted of approving some public transportation contracts and the results of the vote on restructured stormwater pollution prevention fees (76% of respondents were OK with the change).

Finally, we moved into the much dreaded realm of the public hearing. There were four on the agenda tonight. The first two hearings concerned landscape maintenance districts and sewer connections, respectively, and as might have been predicted, they elicited little interest.

The third public hearing formally opened up annexation talks betwixt the City of Santa Clarita and Crystal Springs. The first speaker from Crystal Springs was a gentleman who gave the impression that he and his neighbors all welcomed annexation, but the lady that followed him was against it, worrying about increased taxes and decreased property rights if her community became part of the City. There was no decisive action taken tonight, and the City will meet with residents to discuss annexation options more exhaustively.

The most contentious public hearing was reserved for last. It concerned an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of the proposed Sheraton Hotel. At seven stories, the hotel would tower about 80 feet on the parcel where the Greens currently resides. The appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval was filed by the “Positive Solutions Association” on several grounds. Perhaps most notably, the association found it unacceptable that the developer had been issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration that spares them the scrutiny and expense of a full Environmental Impact Report.

Of course, the reasons to despise the proposed Sheraton Hotel went well beyond the fact that an EIR hadn’t been drafted for the massive project. Renderings show the new hotel will be ferociously unattractive, an even uglier version of the sprawling beige boxes currently found in the heart of town. Residents of the Woodlands community will have open views--for which they paid a premium—marred by the Sheraton, and several homeowners from the area said they worried about their property values if the hotel is indeed built. With only one entry to the hotel, many of the twenty speakers against the project mentioned their worries about increased traffic congestion on already congested McBean Parkway.

An architectural elevation of the proposed Sheraton. Blech.

Then there was the matter of whether there was a need for more rooms in SCV. A woman who works at the nearby Hyatt came forward during public comments to say that she and her coworkers had taken a 20% cut in pay and hours because of low occupancy rates. Hyatt manager Chris Aldieri restated her concerns and said that more banquet space was needed to drive hotel demand in the area, not just more rooms. Unfortunately, the proposed Sheraton would provide only about half of the 13,000-15,000 square feet that Aldieri and others said would be desirable. Though those from the Hyatt were obviously biased towards self-preservation, their point about generally low hotel occupancy rates seemed sincere.

Mayor Ferry asked the much-needed “If there’s no business in the area then why are they going to build a 200-room hotel?” sort of question, but no answer was given. I hope someone will respond to this question the next time the issue is brought up.

Finally, there were some concerns about the Kew Fault and the safety of the site. The fault was discovered during the Northridge earthquake and runs through the Greens property. I don’t know all the technical jargon, but what was essentially the no-build zone around the fault was recently moved 50 feet after some kind of geological reassessment. Conveniently, this move makes the proposed Sheraton possible. Woodland homeowners had been reassured (some said guaranteed) that the fault would prevent any building that might obstruct their views, but things seem to have changed in the applicant's favor. The situation made many at least a little suspicious.

Before all of the comments I’ve summarized were made, Jeff Lambert, the former-boss-who-still-has-friends-in-City-Planning argued for the project on behalf of Brisam Valencia LLC. His higher-pitched, at-times faltering voice was followed by the smooth baritone of Allan Cameron, who spoke on behalf of the appellants. During remarks for the appellants, several concerns about adequate public notice and the availability of requested materials from the City led City Attorney Carl Newton to suggest that the matter be continued to another date. This would give interested parties enough time to gather and review information. The City Council and speakers were all in favor of this, so there wasn’t a lot of debate tonight. Still, the CC had a chance to give some brief comments before more heated discussions that will surely follow. At first blush, it was clear that McLean wanted the developers to really consider the need for more banquet facilities, and Weste asked that the developer give some thought to mitigations for those in the Woodlands homes and to consider increasing banquet space at the hotel or in the immediate area. Kellar said he had some concerns as well, but did not elaborate. At least to me, it seems that the concerns aren't of the magnitude that will lead Councilmembers to vote no on the project. Still, Lambert has drawn his line in the sand saying he simply can't downscale the number of rooms in the project. With limited flexibility to make concessions to the City Council, we'll see how this plays out. I just hope to minimize the amount of time that I have too look at/listen to/think about J. Lambert.

In the end, a motion was made to continue the hearing to an indefinite date and that motion was unanimously approved.

Finally, we moved onto Public Participation. Linda Ejedawe said that she was troubled by safety issues with our city’s new(ish) bus company, MV Transit. Bus drivers, she claimed, were treated poorly and made to work long hours so that they were driving with little sleep. A bus driver named Victor came forward to echo her remarks, saying that 20 bus drivers, many of them experienced, were fired when MV took over driving City buses. He said their motivation was cutting costs, as the company saves $5 an hour when they employ bus drivers with little experience instead of bus drivers with a decade or more of experience. He also found working conditions stressful and generally unpleasant. Both speakers went to speak with City staff after their comments.

Finally, Alan Ferdman spoke up for civilized bikers at Route 56, but didn’t find a sympathetic ear.

Closing fun fact: when it comes to the “Route” in "Route 56", City Manager Ken Pulskamp appears to says “ROWT” instead of “ROOT.”

[1]Here's the agenda for you, dear reader--check out the item on the Sheraton for more renderings and details and such

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New and Unimproved, Part I: Trader Joe's

When the old Trader Joe’s closed its doors on August 28, there was a chance that things could get better. Alas, they have not. When I visited the new store on Saturday, what I found—apart from mini cookies and pineapple salsa—was unrealized potential. There is more stuff and space, to be sure, but the sole manifestation of Trader Joe’s in Santa Clarita has undergone a slight but unwelcome change in character.

As I strolled the new, expansive aisles of concrete stained a hideous shade of terra cotta, I found myself longing for the familiar embrace of the Cinema Park store with its maze-like aisles barely wide enough for two carts, oppressively low ceilings, and harshly industrial lighting. The comforting sense of claustrophilia I once experienced at TJ’s has given way to an uncomfortable sensation of agoraphobia. The slightly longer and wider aisles of the new store are entirely too accommodating. It’s as if they no longer have enough delicious things to fill the space, so a store that once spoke of overwhelming abundance has given way to one where emptiness plays a much larger role. It’s like moving into a newer, larger house without buying very many new things. Worse, this open space makes more room for people, the least enjoyable component of the Trader Joe's shopping experience.

While the character of the store has changed, the basic layout is the same. Frozen victuals reside in the middle aisle, freshly harvested chunks of plants and animals are stacked on the right wall, and live and shorn flowers decorate the entrance. The wine section and selection are larger, doubtless to accommodate those who will be mourning the loss of the old store with a drink.

The clientele, like the store itself, is unimproved. Most of the shoppers were middle-aged mothers from Valencia. Their sun-damaged, freckled cleavage peeked out of summer dresses while they toted the two bratty kids who had suckled at said bosom. These mothers competed for free samples, the better hummus flavors, and pink-and-white-striped bags of Kettle Corn with fierce and unapologetic intent, seeing other shoppers as mere obstacles to the fulfillment of their instincts to gather. It's comforting that despite the changes, there are some things you can count on.

If the dress code and complete obliviousness to the people and world around them weren’t enough indication that these shoppers were from Valencia, suspicions were confirmed as nearly all of them handed in a coupon for a free reuseable bag at check-out. Obviously, these promotional mailers had not found their way to the barrios of Newhall nor the trailer parks of Canyon Country.

It was at check-out that my dissatisfaction with the new store crystallized. On one of the street signs that mark the various stations were written three poignant words: San Fernando Road. At first, I tried to convince myself that this anachronism was a harkening back to an older, better era of SCV. Of course, I realized it was really nothing more than ignorance of the valley TJ’s calls home. As the checker passed my pretzels and salad greens over a laser beeping in recognition of familiar bar codes, I resigned myself to staring at the uninspiring murals on the opposite wall and sighed.

When I left with my groceries, I entered a parking lot that is just one nightmare traded for another. Though there are now many more parking spots than there were at the old location, there’s also the behemoth Best Buy next door. This means that Christmas Eve will be a perfect storm of people running to Trader Joe’s for wine/cheese/appetizers while others run to Best Buy for over-priced electronica. I can’t say with absolute certainty how it’s all going to work out, but I’m fairly sure that at least one Claritan will be hit by a car in the parking lot. Odds are pretty good that it will be someone who deserves it.