Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happenings: City Buys a Block

Mayor Frank Ferry was not present for tonight’s meeting, so Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste took the center seat at the dais. As is usually the case, the manner in which the city (mis)spends its residents' money was the primary topic for this evening’s speakers[1].

As most of Santa Clarita is unaware, there’s an election coming next week. Voters inhabiting the various unincorporated areas around the City proper (I call these people “others” or "hostiles", à la Lost) will have a chance to admit on a ballot that annexing into the City of Santa Clarita is their dearest ambition. Having these others annex into the City of Santa Clarita also appears to be the hope of Councilmember Laurie Ender. Indeed, during her invocation, Ender extolled the many virtues of self-governance. In light of a recent event honoring our City’s first leaders, she said of Santa Clarita “I couldn’t think of a better example of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Though she couldn’t (and didn’t) officially advocate for the annexation option, her message was clear: hooray for local governance.

After the flag salute, the dreaded Awards/Recognition/Presentations part of the agenda arrived. In the long-held tradition of giving minor causes minor recognition in hopes of eliciting major participation, Councilmember Marsha McLean announced support for Heal the Bay’s “Day without a Bag” coming in December. As an alternative to plastic bags, she suggested going to one of our local markets to purchase reusable grocery bags which are “really nice looking cute little bags, and they’re only 99 cents!” Next, Laurene Weste recognized City employees for their excellent work in marketing and communications. The City-County Communications & Marketing Association gave many awards to Santa Clarita for achievements like “Guide to Opening a Small Business in Santa Clarita” and the Extreme Neighborhood Makeover program. Apparently, Santa Clarita won more awards than any other city in the country. Gail Ortiz, Jason Crawford and their teeming minions came forward for a photo and applause.

Next came a series of perhaps over-reactionary announcements from City Manager Ken Pulskamp. He described a meeting that was held with the residents of the Bonelli Tract in Saugus; you may recall that these were the people who were very upset about aggressive code enforcement in their older community. Skampy said that the City would “terminate proactive enforcement for the Bonelli area," put a hold on demands set forth in recent citations, and continue to communicate with residents until some resolution was reached. I think the City could have just gotten a nicer code enforcement officer and given people more time to comply, but oh well.

In an apparent attempt to wash away any impression that the City was bullying homeowners to comply with code, he then showed a clip that aired recently on KCAL-9[2]. It was a complete puff piece about Santa Clarita’s Extreme Neighborhood Makeover program which tries to “work with those who want to get their homes cleaned up.” In an example that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so shockingly absurd, the news reporter visited Barbara Post, a Santa Clarita woman who was cited by the City for having a brown lawn. She asked the City for help fixing the problem and was referred to Pastor Gary Parker of Desert Springs Church. He and his flock helped repair Post’s sprinklers and replant her lawn. That’s right, the faithful assembled not to feed the hungry or comfort the sick but to improve curb appeal. This is what charity looks like in Santa Clarita: helping a woman increase her landscape’s aesthetic value.

Is it wise to exahust community social capital on lawns? Click on the picture to be taken to the video.

From individual councilmembers came announcements and updates of little of interest.

Then the redevelopment agency convened. Up for discussion was the purchase of a whole block on Lyons Avenue, the neighbor of the block that will host Old Town Newhall’s much-hyped library. The cost was a mere $6.2 million.

First to address the planned purchase was TimBen Boydston who found it “somewhat disturbing” that there were six million dollars available to acquire property but not enough money to complete that streetscaping in Old Town Newhall. Cam Noltemeyer came forward to continue with the criticism, focusing in particular on the fact that the City would be paying some half-a-million dollars more than the property’s appraised value. She noted that the present owners were in a considerable amount of debt on the property and asked, “Why don’t you pick it up in foreclosure?”, adding that the commercial real estate collapse is just now picking up steam. Finally, Mimi Hiller, the owner of Cookbooks Plus, came forward to express support for more streetscaping as a priority and drew attention to the troubles (and hopes) of the local businesses.
City Staff responded to the first concern raised by saying that the money to be spent on acquiring the property came from a different source than money that could be used for streetscaping. Councilmember Bob Kellar re-emphasized this point, noting neighborhood stabilization funding from the State of California and other sources was to be used to get the property. As for why the City was over-paying for it by half a mil, a satisfactory answer was not really given. The City defended its actions in the Agenda with the argument that “the note holders on the property are not motivated sellers” and with the following: “Given the block’s proximity to the future Newhall Public Library site and its location in relation to the overall revitalization of Old Town Newhall, staff is of the opinion that the acquisition of this block can provide the Agency with a variety of opportunities to potentially seek quality development of this area.” In short, the City will pay far more than what the property is worth because it really, really wants it. Indeed, we heard that the chance to buy and control the fate of a whole block was a rare and wonderful opportunity. Even Ken Pulskamp seemed very moderately excited, which is exceptional. The purchase was “yessed” through with Laurene Weste recusing herself from the vote.

As for the regular Consent Calendar, Item 11 was a point of contention. Its recommended action was for the City Council to approve a feasibility study on the need for banquet and conference facilities in Santa Clarita.

Several Claritans came forward to comment on this topic. A story of development favoritism quickly began to emerge. Several speakers pointed out that the need for more conference space (actually a proper convention center, which is quite different from a conference center, apparently) in Santa Clarita was a foregone conclusion. It was suggested that the proposed study was for the benefit of the planned Sheraton, which some had criticized a few weeks ago for not providing enough conference space to balance out the competition it would present to extant hotels. The area between the proposed Sheraton and the Hyatt would be the presumptive home of a new conference center, and it would be a boon to business for both hotels. This helped explain why the Sheraton’s developer, the Packard Companies, was going to pay half the cost of the feasibility study and why they had been party to formal, closed-door talks with the City about the idea of bringing a conference facility to Santa Clarita. Neither of the City Council challengers (Boydston and Gauny) were pleased with the idea. Cam Noltemeyer (whom I have missed) also thought the study amounted to a ridiculous favor to Packard at taxpayer expense.

When it came time for the City Council to respond, Laurie Ender and Marsha McLean tried to argue that the feasibility study was completely separate from the issue of the proposed Sheraton Hotel. They, along with City Manager Ken Pulskamp, said that the initial part of the study would just look at the need for conference space in Santa Clarita, later looking to suitable locations throughout all of Santa Clarita without any particular bias or favoritism for one location. Of course, the agenda item made the City’s intentions clear:

“…all stakeholders were in agreement that a feasibility study is the next step to obtain a third party expert analysis, examine the recommended size of the banquet/conference facility, and identify possible sites for the property.

Preliminary discussions have included the possibility of the banquet/conference facility residing on the property between the Hyatt Regency and the proposed Sheraton hotel. However, alternative locations may be considered in the Town Center/Civic Center area. Following this meeting, The Packard Companies (developers of the proposed Sheraton hotel) agreed to jointly commission the first phase of the study with the City of Santa Clarita.”

In short, Packard’s money was not being given altruistically, and the intent of the initial study (to use $10,000 in tax-payer dollars to help pave the way for a conference center that would benefit the proposed Sheraton) seemed implicit to many public speakers.

Laurie Ender wisely motioned to have staff rewrite the proposal, and her motion carried.

Next there was a very brief public hearing. The Child & Family Center will use money from the sale of bonds to help build a community mental health clinic. There was a brief round of applause for the CFC which, observed Kellar, does many fine things in Santa Clarita.

After the hearing, Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste prematurely said “And we are out at five to eight”, until she was reminded of Public Participation and let out a defeated sigh-groan noise. The Public Participation comments were as follows:

1. “Old ladies” are apparently happy with the City’s proactive approach to code enforcement.
2. A homeowner was charged $655 in penalties for his malfunctioning alarm, which was triggered four times in a 24-hour period when a motion sensor went out. He wanted the fees for law enforcement response waived.
3. Boydston came forward yet again. He did a bit of self-promotion by thanking the City for responding to the Bonelli residents, people who had sought out Boydston to help them get the City’s attention. McLean politely but sternly replied that the City was already helping address the concerns of those very residents and that the City was very responsive despite a certain speaker’s implications to the contrary.

And then it all ended.

[1]Here’s the agenda.
[2]The clip

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Happenings: Bonelli Brouhaha: Bullying Prompts City Apology

Tonight’s meeting was of the “Surprise City Hall, You Effed Up” variety[1]. That is, the City Council coasted easily through presentations and the Consent Calendar only to be ambushed by angry homeowners during Public Participation. While this meeting format is usually reserved for those upset by traffic changes, the speakers this evening were deeply distressed about code enforcement in their Bonelli Tract homes. Many mentioned encountering serious problems with Daniel Rivas, a City Community Preservation Officer, whose intimidating tactics and threats over code violations drove some to tears. But before we dissect the case against Rivas, it would be prudent to discuss the events preceding the Bonelli brouhaha.

Laurie Ender got the ball rolling by reading a proclamation to make October and November the months for Breast Cancer Awareness and Ending Domestic Violence, respectively. Local members of Soroptimist International have been championing these important issues for women[2], and several were recognized for their dedication and campaigns like “Color Me Pink and Purple.” All parties steered clear of mentioning the recent and unfortunate political side of the domestic violence issue, and the recognition portion of the evening ended as it always does--with smiling faces beneath the City’s seal and a camera's flash.

Next, the City Council received an update from Steve Cole, chair of the Santa Clarita Valley Water Committee (formerly the “Drought Committee”). Cole was glowingly optimistic about local water supplies, summing up the status of H2O in SCV with “It could be worse.” He said that good groundwater supplies, water banking, and an 11% reduction in water use since last year have allowed Claritans to forgo mandatory water rationing.

Councilmember Marsha McLean got the individual reports portion of the meeting off to a rousing start. She delivered “the best, most exciting news” first, namely: AB 110 was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger[3]. The bill allows Elesmere Canyon to be included in the Santa Monica Mountain Agency’s “Rim of the Valley Trail Corridor”, affording the canyon protection from development. This brings more relief to those who fought against the proposal to turn picturesque Elesmere Canyon into a landfill, a fight that began more than two decades ago. There goes what would have been a great spot for a MRF.

Other councilmember comments went by in an indistinct auditory blur, but Laurie Ender’s remarks were a treat. After mentioning improvements made in Old Town Newhall, Ender described dining with a friend there. Apparently, Ender’s friend was very surprised to learn that there was “a nice Mexican Restaurant” (El Trocadero) in Newhall. It’s hard to believe that there are people who wouldn’t expect great restaurants to complement the amazing art, wonderful shops, and vibrant culture that make Old Town Newhall the major destination that it is. Perhaps the new library will encourage such people to spend even more time getting to know Newhall.

When we moved onto the Consent Calendar, two items were devoted to open space acquisition and improvement. Those who read this blog doubtless read J-to-the-Wilson’s SCVTalk, where you may review information on a property-to-be-acquired as open space along with some interesting comments[4]. Essentially, it's a 10-acre parcel of nothing in the middle of Placerita/Quigley Canyon. It's neither a big piece of land nor a particularly pretty one nor very much in line with creating a greenbelt; it just connects some larger open space areas. The only comment made at tonight’s meeting on the subject came from Valerie Thomas on behalf of the Placerita Canyon Property Owners Association. She thanked the City for spending the better part of one million dollars ($615,000, to be precise) for the late Phil Rawlins' property[5]. She said it would have meant a lot to Rawlins and means a lot to those in Placerita Canyon that there is now more open space. Curiously, no one else in Santa Clarita came to say thank you.

The other items on the Consent Calendar passed with the recommended actions. These included a $105,000 pool chemicals contract and adoption of the stormwater pollution prevention fee adjustment.

Though not yet 7:00 p.m., the meeting appeared to be ready to end. But when Mayor Ferry gathered a thick stack of speaker cards for Public Participation and said he would be calling speakers forward three at a time, it was clear that the meeting was far from over.

The first speaker suggested thinking about Stevenson Ranch annexation as if it was a novel idea. (City Manager Ken Pulskamp would quietly respond that the speaker would have a chance to vote on that very matter in about three weeks). Speaker the second, Nadine Teter, said that the Canyon Country Advisory Committee would be extending invitations to all City Council candidates to address the CCAC, a great honor indeed. Next, Bill Kennedy announced plans for the SCV Economic Development Corporation. In an eye-roll-elicitng analogy, Kennedy explained that the corporation would be the wingman to pilot City of Santa Clarita. They would support each other in trying to grow business in Santa Clarita. An audible sigh of relief escaped the audience at this announcement. At long last, there will be a group looking out for business in the SCV. Given the importance of the SCV Economic Development Corporation, its development will be agendized and discussed soon.

The next thirteen speakers all had one thing on their mind, and it wasn’t an economic development corporation. They were homeowners from the Bonelli Tract, the neighborhood around Soledad and Santa Clarita Roads, who had been the victims of a code enforcement blitz. Beginning around the time of Extreme Neighborhood Makeovers, residents began receiving harshly worded letters that they were violating the City’s Unified Development Code concerning driveway width, fencing materials, lawn maintenance, and other landscaping matters of grave importance. It’s an old neighborhood, built long before the codes it presently violates were even written. The codes had never been enforced before, and many seemed inappropriate for the community.

But they were suddenly enforced with great zeal by a certain Daniel Rivas, City Community Preservation Officer. By all accounts, Rivas is a most unpleasant person to deal with, driving three speakers to tears as they delivered their statements about him and his department. Here are some lowlights:

1. A woman said Daniel Rivas took pictures of her driveway without even introducing himself and threatened to put a lien on her home if she and her husband didn’t comply with code.

2. Another woman said that a member of code enforcement (whom she would later identify as Rivas) told her “the front yard looked like crap” and threatened a lien and jail time if she didn’t pave the driveway. After paving the driveway, he told her there was now too much concrete and instructed her to reduce the amount, all of this at considerable personal expense.

3. A middle-aged man said Rivas “has no compassion whatsoever.” He said that he has“a lot to learn,” and complained about being targeted for having weeds in his lawn.

4. In the most troubling comment, a man came forward to describe how Rivas told him that he needed to fix up his yard. As he got into his story, he began to cry and a neighbor had to step in and finish reading his written comments for him. You see, the man’s mother and mother-in-law both died within weeks of one another, and when he asked Rivas for more time in light of these tragic losses, his plea “fell on deaf ears.”

In a word, YIKES. These are all allegations, obviously, but it seems reasonable to accept the consensus that emerges from many statements based on many separate interactions with Rivas. Whether Rivas is an asshole by nature or because his superior told him to take an extremely unyielding and insulting approach to code enforcement is unclear, but one hopes he will be relieved of these duties with due haste.

City Manager Ken Pulskamp did the best he could to address these concerns. Pulskamp sincerely apologized to the Bonelli Tract residents and said that the treatment they had received was not in keeping with the City of SC’s values and policies. He regretted that “our approach is perceived as heavy-handed” and hoped to better “balance community preservation and property rights.” He also said that the driveway codes weren’t/wouldn’t be enforced. He had to repeat this assurance to quiet a skeptical reaction from the audience.

Councilmember Bob Kellar also apologized on behalf of the City, which garnered applause. Laurene Weste said the City needed to be more sensitive and accommodating in its codes, especially for older neighborhoods. Laurene also said she was sorry. It was an unprecedented chorus of apologies, and Pulskamp directed that the City staff meet with the affected residents and take care of the issues raised after the meeting.

And so it ended.

[1]This distinction was not made in the agenda, which you may review here.!
[2]And men, too, since there are about 2,000 cases of male breast cancer diagnosed every year according to the American Cancer Society.
[3]Read more about Cameron Smyth's
bill here.
SCVTalk's page on this; read especially the comments
[5]He was a stuntman and director in Westerns, and has a star on the Western Walk of Fame