Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happenings: Movies, Mosaics, and McLeanisms

Tonight’s City Council meeting wasn’t just two-and-a-half hours long; it was a long two-and-a-half-hours. Even worse, it was an unnecessarily long two-and-a-half-hours, riddled as it was with minutiae about air-conditioning units, plastic bag recycling promotions, and islands in Special Standards Districts. There was a whole lot of nothing obscuring the few moderately important things that happened.

The evening got off to a bad start with individual reports from council members. Councilmember Laurie Ender talked about a serious food shortage facing all of the local food pantries. She recommended that when you go to the market to “get a couple extra of everything” and drop said extras off to benefit the needy. Councilmember Bob Kellar spoke about trees. He applauded the Festival of Trees and looked forward to the HMNMH Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony.

Kellar next spoke about a recent tour of the site that is to become a major studio complex for Disney. While there, he learned of a possible, significant change to LA County Fire Department's policies. Ken Striplin elaborated. Apparently, any film set or structure that would be standing for more than 180 days would be considered “permanent” and require more inspections and code compliance than is typical for sets. Though temporary for all intents and purposes, the structures would need official inspections before they could be used, require high-capacity fire sprinklers, and be subject to standards that would make filming in Los Angeles much less convenient and far more expensive. Kellar called the plan a “job-killer” that would drive even more productions outside of California. With five movie ranches in Santa Clarita, the Council agreed to oppose this plan at an approaching December 10 meeting of stakeholders. It seems that LA Fire Department Chief Freeman will have the final say.

Councilmember Marsha McLean had a lot to say during her turn, as usual. After talking about reusable grocery bags for the umpteenth time in as many meetings, she moved onto her second favorite subject, the League of California Cities. The League will push for a ballot measure to protect City money from being used to balance the State budget. McLean went on to say that when she speaks with people from other cities at League meetings, “They are so jealous of our city!” with its balanced budget and thriving economy. Finally, she described some rather bizarre events that will be taking place in Old Town Newhall. There will be a dance at the Senior Center ("Ach! My hip replacement's acting up!") and “Cowboys and Carols” at the Hart Mansion in early December. The latter event takes place in Hart’s living room. Those who have taken the tour know the living room is big but not “that” big, so you may want to buy your $20 ticket early if cowboys and carols are your thing.

Once the Redevelopment Agency meeting was convened, it was time for some real business. There was a recommendation to dole out $199,200 to an architectural firm “for the purposes of providing conceptual architectural design and an economic feasibility analysis for the southeast quadrant of the Newhall Gateway area.” There were a number of things wrong with this proposed action. First, the land in question is privately held, but public redevelopment funds would pay for the study. Second, the City’s rationale for the study is little more than that it’s an important piece of land, so the land should be developed in line with its (i.e., Pulskamp et al.’s) vision. Third, the developer of the project already has an appointment over an appeal scheduled for December 8th. In light of the third problem, Mayor Ferry asked if it would make sense to wait until December 8th. This was the eventual course of action, but one not taken until Marsha McLean voiced concerns over the actions of the developer (he was apparently saying one thing at the meeting, another over the phone). Laurie Ender said that it would be a mistake to not spend $200,000 as the beauty of the Newhall Gateway Development may make-or-break Old Town Newhall’s long-term success.

On the Consent Calendar, nothing of much importance was approved. Particularly unimportant was approval of a conceptual proposed art project for the student group “Visions in Progress.” Mayor Ferry called twelve high school students from VIP to come forward and introduce themselves. They spoke about their plans to have a mosaic art installation created. From the agenda, it seems the goal of this mosaic will be “to help the individual be part of the community, and help the community allow the individual to be part of it; therefore, celebrating the dignity and worth of the individual.” We don’t yet know much this nonsense will cost taxpayers.

Two public hearings followed. The City Council was happy to make a Special Standards District for Happy Valley. Plans for such a distinction have been tossed around for at least a decade, and the SSD seemed popular with the vast majority of residents. Manny Santana was the only speaker to voice concerns, stating that he didn’t want his future development plans threatened. It was explained, however, that the Special Standards District wouldn’t do anything to prohibit development but rather require that the character of future developments be compatible with the character of the community.

The second public hearing began with a staff presentation that took the better part of

forever. The hearing concerned changing a piece of property on Oak Ridge Drive currently zoned “industrial” to “commercial neighborhood”. This would allow the developer to put in a commercial center complete with restaurant, shops, medical offices, and 203 parking spots. During the presentation, we learned everything from the width of proposed versus conventional landscape buffers to the architectural styles that would be used to how a mitigated negative declaration had been arrived at. Several speakers came forward to voice concerns about how the project would impact traffic near the railroad and whether it was in the best spot for a commercial development. The matter that had Councilmember McLean talking the most, however, was the number and noisiness of air-conditioning units that would be installed. The architect and McLean talked about AC unit models, decibels, and modes of muffling noise until Mayor Ferry finally put his foot down and put the plan to a vote. The recommended action was taken--that is, the zone change will be passed to a second reading.

During New Business, Laurie Ender was nominated to serve on the governing board of the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments. Both Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean were eager to serve as her alternate, and Ferry decided with the flip of a coin (yes, that's correct) that Weste would play back-up. Councilmember McLean was not too pleased, saying that the role of alternate would complement the many other offices she holds, but admitted that one can’t do everything.

The last item on the Agenda was consideration of increasing compensation for City Council members. Rarely has a group of people been so eager to reject a raise. Thus, the City Council serving in 2010 will be paid the same $1,571.67 per month that the present members of the City Council receive.

Finally, it was time for Public Participation, and Cam Noltemeyer expressed the cynicism we’ve come to love and expect from her. Most interesting, I thought, was her discussion of the political capacity that the new SCV Economic Development Corporation plans to have. She feared that this could lead to campaign contributions rewarding the very CC members that had voted to fund the corporation. TimBen Boydston, making his four-hundredth comment of the evening, closed the meeting by reading some rousing words from George Washington about Thanksgiving.

Speaking of which, Happy Thanksgiving.

[1]Here's the long agenda

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happenings: What's $200,000 Between Friends?

Tonight’s City Council meeting was all about one ungainly acronym: SCVEDC, the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation[1]. The SCVEDC inspired a kind of passionate devotion rarely seen in City Hall, and—based on the comments made tonight—it is probably the single most important institution that Santa Clarita has ever had the high privilege to call its own.

Of course, there were a few matters of lesser significance to deal with first.

The meeting got rolling with recognition of students who are part of Valencia High School’s “Circle of Friends.” This circle is meant to spread “compassion, inclusion, and acceptance” from typical students to their special education peers. More than 300 students have participated. It seems that 10% of the school really wanted to befriend special ed. kids, but it was only when the “Circle of Friends” program began that they found a way to actualize this ambition. What formerly went unrecognized—when that rare, wonderful student went out of his or her way to be friendly with special education students—has now been formalized into an activity well-suited for gracing college applications. But it’s rude to presume what motivates these volunteers, so let us instead accept the happy presumption that empathy has grown exponentially amongst the high school set.

Individual reports from the City Council ranged from mundane to very mundane. Councilmember Bob Kellar announced that the City of Santa Clarita is part of a “California Green Community” environmental competition of sorts. The Environmental Media Association is sponsoring this rather vague, feel-goodsy contest about which Kellar said “I’m looking forward to the day we win by-golly.” Councilmember Laurie Ender described what sounded like a ridiculous bus trip to promote the Think SCV (i.e., shop locally) campaign. Far more amusing were details about her approaching arm-wrestling match to benefit the SCV Youth Project[2]. Councilmember Marsha McLean commented on the I-5/14 interchange project, noting it won’t be completed until 2012. Mayor Pro-Tem Laurene Weste congratulated City staff on running a successful, well-organized marathon and described a successful first meeting about where to locate the City’s much-needed Materials Recycling Facility.

After these comments, the whole consent calendar was passed with the recommended actions and without comment. The more significant items were to fund the April election, accept grants for “Click It or Ticket” and sobriety checkpoint programs, and to express official partnership with the 2010 Census.

Next, it was time for the City Council to nominate members for the new Arts Commission. Councilmember Bob Kellar’s role in supporting the formation of such a commission was lauded by Mayor Ferry and public speaker TimBen Boydston (though McLean made sure to mention that she had the original idea). The Kellarisms kept coming as he described his excitement. “I’m rah-rah boom-boom when it comes to this commission,” he began. “Holy mackerel, what a list of talent!” he exclaimed when describing all of the qualified applicants for just five spots on the commission, continuing “Sweet Lord! I wish we had twenty slots.” The nominations/appointments were, in order awarded:

*Kellar nominated John Dow, President and Marketing Director of the Santa Clarita Symphony
*Ender nominated Eric Schmidt, part of the Santa Clarita Master Chorale Founders Circle and successful freelance composer
*McLean nominated Dr. Michael Millar, music industry professional, lecturer, and former Director of Santa Clarita Symphony
*Weste nominated Paul Strickland, who has 30 years of experience in animation and credits Weste found too numerous to mention
*Ferry nominated Sandra Fisher, 2-yr president of the Santa Clarita Artists' Association and artist using multiple visual mediums

Of course, Ferry spoiled the nomination of Fisher by saying that he was having trouble deciding between two well-qualified candidates but ultimately went with Fisher because “I do think this commission could use a woman on there.” Unlike his fellow members of City Council, he didn’t really describe her resume or review her achievements, but rather pointed out that she had two X chromosomes that would balance an otherwise XY-dominated board.

The enthusiasm inspired by officially kicking off the Arts Commission only grew when the City moved onto the last and most important bit of new business, “Support for Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation (SCVEDC).”

It was immediately clear that this matter was important as City Manager Ken Pulskamp decided to talk things up himself, rather than leaving the presentation to a staff member. He described the wonderful things that a non-profit EDC could do and introduced the word “duplicative,” as in, the EDC won’t duplicate the functions of other business-promoting organizations but rather complement or integrate such efforts. (This idea was to be as popular as it is silly). He said the City was proposing giving the EDC $50,000 to start and another $50,000 with the stipulation of being matched by LA County funds.

A number of speakers—a veritable “who’s who?” of SCV business—came forward to express their hope that the City contribute financial support to the EDC.

The first few speakers were supportive in generic terms, but soon David Gauny introduced the idea that the City should give the EDC $200,000, not the maximum $100,000 proposed under “recommended action” on the Agenda. Speakers that followed Gauny echoed him, including Don Fleming (FLEMWATCH alert!) and the well-known, strangely intense Larry Rasmussen, who said anything less than $200,000 just wouldn’t work for the EDC. A couple of speakers said that the Economic Development Corporation would help Santa Clarita with the most important issue of the day, “Jobs, jobs, jobs!”

I can’t imagine that it was a surprise to the City Council that the EDC Board of Directors wanted $200,000, not $100,000. It’s inept at best, deceptive at worst that the City agendized the item as it did with funding coming in two chunks of $50,000, not the $200,000 that everyone seemed to really want. Either way it’s not “a lot” of money by City standards, but $200,000 might have garnered more opposition.

Laurie Ender did an excellent job of pointing out the faults of this dearly beloved plan. After noting that the agenda didn’t accurately reflect the amount of money that the EDC Board really wanted, she reminded the City Council that the money comes from taxpayers and that “It’s not my money to spend.” She argued that since more than $1.6 million dollars is being spent on internal economic development efforts by the City, it was difficult to accept that more money was needed to support a group that would also focus on economic development. She said “Duplication of efforts” would be a “huge concern for me.”

Bob Kellar came next and chose not to respond to Ender’s perfectly rational objections but rather to make an emotional appeal. He described his real estate business and working with people who cried and were losing their jobs. His emotion was very deep and real—probably too deep to discuss this item dispassionately. He essentially wanted carte blanche for the SCV Economic Development Corporation, suggesting that they receive $200,000 without restrictions. The EDC, he claimed, would do so, so much to help working Claritans through these harrowing times; it was almost as if he transferred miraculous powers to the EDC, praying “Lord Mercy, help our families survive.” Kellar thought that the EDC’s board (which includes Bill Kennedy, John Shaffery, Dianne Van Hook, Larry Rasmussen, Don Fleming, and—eventually—Ken Pulskamp) was beyond reproach and shouldn’t be hindered with things like specific points of accountability. This marks one of the rare instances where I just couldn’t get behind what Kellar was saying—at all.

McLean countered Kellar, saying that SCV’s conservative spending has kept the City safe and in the black. Thus, she wasn’t overly-eager to just hand over a lump of money. Further, she said that she had no problem asking for a “return on our investment” in the form of the deliverables and other stipulations Kellar found so distasteful.

Mayor Ferry resolved things by taking something of a middle (but more Kellar-esque) road. He proposed that the SCVEDC receive $75,000 from the City plus another $125,000 in matching funds, which were all but guaranteed to come from the County and local businesses. Both McLean and Ender relented, expressing support for the idea in principle but serious concerns that the EDC would be getting money to do something that the City and other groups already do. To me, it seemed this is exactly what happened. All five members voted to lend the SCVEDC the monetary support, to which Kellar responded “Can I give a big thank you to everybody? This is huge!”

Call me old-fashioned, but I find the unending love-fest between businesses and the City something between tiresome and troubling. But it’s a fact of life in Santa Clarita, one there is no getting around. So now a man who runs a car dealership in Santa Clarita will be partially in charge of how money from the City will support local businesses that in turn support the City. It's dizzying.

With this, the meeting ended; there were no public comments.

[1] Agenda
[2]Fun fact: she is left-handed.