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


Anonymous said...

Oh please, I live in Cyn Ctry and the code enforcement folks have been a godsend. The Bonelli homeowners have foudn the way to make the city back down, complain, cry. While I feel for the man who had deaths in the family, most code enforcement issues are a result of YEARS of neglect. Clean up your property!

Anonymous said...

I live in Canyon Country and have been very pleased that the City's Community Preservation team is taking a proactive approach and dealing with homeowners who let their properties go. When residents do not follow the rules, it lowers my property values too. Most of the code violations are not big money items to fix. Pick up your trash, clean your yard of weeds and debris, get rid of junk cars, things of that nature. Instead of complaining put your energy into cleaning up your property and neighborhood and then Mr. Rivas or whomever won't darken your door. Give me a break...

The Writer Currently Known as Rory said...

Pick up your trash, clean your yard of weeds and debris, get rid of junk cars, things of that nature.

Uh, senor, these junk cars are family projects. ;)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 and 2,

Haven't you ever heard of property rights? Some people live away from CC&Rs for a reason and the last thing they need is a jerk telling them they need to weed their lawn. There are bigger issues to deal with people.

Santa Clarita Rd Resident said...

RE: comments from "anonymous", anonymous", and "rory"

It looks like you would love to live in the country that is ruled by the iron fist. There are still few countries like that in the world. They would meet you with joy .... because it looks like you are wiling to sell democracy to increase your property value. They need people like you - it is hard time for them now! They may even provide you with well kept property in gated community behind a very neat barbed wire fence. Would you like to go to North Korea? To Cuba or Venezuela? We would gladly buy one way tickets for you!

Property value is not a cornerstone of the American values. There is a bit more than money here. There is democracy here! You guys just don't get it! You probably missed lots of classes. Just go back to school!

The Writer Currently Known as Rory said...

It looks like you would love to live in the country that is ruled by the iron fist. There are still few countries like that in the world. They would meet you with joy .... because it looks like you are wiling to sell democracy to increase your property value. They need people like you - it is hard time for them now! They may even provide you with well kept property in gated community behind a very neat barbed wire fence. Would you like to go to North Korea? To Cuba or Venezuela? We would gladly buy one way tickets for you!

Hey jackass, I was making a facetious joke. I took on none of the tack exhibited by Thing 1 and Thing 2. Don't lump me into it.

The Writer Currently Known as Rory said...

And besides, I don't live in that area of Saugus. Doesn't matter to me.

Anonymous said...

I am anonimous number 2, just did not want to sign up, etc.
You know, if someone does not agree with your point of view, you just get nasty! Very mature way of getting people to support your position.
Cities enact ordinances because there are too many people like you who believe your rights are more important than mine. I have a right to live in a nice clean neighborhood without junk cars parked on the lawn, trash cans as my view, oversize vehicles like RV's blocking my line of sight backing out of my driveway, barking dogs at all hours, paved over front yards etc. And yes, I do think of property values and quality of life too.
Since you suggested I go live in a communist country, I suggest you go live in a third world country where no one cares what anything looks like, smells like, etc. Grow up and clean up your property and stop whining.The city will work with residents if it really is an unfair requirement for your particular older neighborhood. But you know, you should not get away with substandard property issues just because you scream louder either. Move if you don't want to be in this City. Good riddance. Geez!

Lindsey N. said...

Dear Author, thank you for pointing out that there are some nice places in Old Town Newhall. Lots of people look down on OTN, and without reason, I think. Personally, OTN is my favorite part of the developed SCV, and I'd hate to see it torn up, redeveloped, and turned into a LITTLE VALENCIA. YUCK.

Anonymous said...

SCV is no longer AWESOME town and Daniel Rivas is a ridiculous unsympathetic nazi code enforcer. I no longer feel a sense of community in the city I've lived in for 22 years.

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