Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happenings: Santa Clarita's Hidden Heroin Problem?

Tonight’s City Council meeting ended up being not about the recent City Council elections but rather a local family’s agonizing loss[1]. Krissy McAfee told the story of losing her son to a heroin overdose. Black tar heroin, she said, is entering our communities largely unnoticed and unopposed. She hoped that speaking at tonight’s meeting would make Santa Clarita’s media, law enforcement, elected officials, and families understand the damage the drug is doing.

Prior to her speech, the meeting was rather routine. It didn’t actually begin until 7:06 pm, after over an hour of apparently non-televised "todo" over the re-elections of Marsha McLean, Laurene Weste, and Frank Ferry. After being sworn in, a ceremony that has surely grown tedious the fourth time around, the re-elected trio moved to the back of the room for a small reception.

Once everyone had their fill of cake and congratulations, Councilmember Laurie Ender read a declaration making April “Autism Awareness Month” in Santa Clarita. She cited a figure that 1 in 67 of Santa Clarita’s schoolchildren have been diagnosed with some form of autism. Members of SCAAN, the Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network, came forward with their children and spoke about the prevalence of autism. They then posed for the traditional photo beneath the City Seal, one little boy making jazz hands next to Mayor Pro-Tem Marsha McLean. Ender observed that making the autistic kids endure an hour of election-related pomp and circumstance might not have been the best idea, but the City Council applauded them for their good behavior.

During Councilmember reports, Laurie Ender went on to thank Adele MacPherson for her 18 years of hard work at City Hall, handing her a bouquet of flowers and giving a hug. Bob Kellar applauded Santa Claritans for raising some $200K for over twenty local charities at the recent “Dancing with the Stars” fundraiser. Marsha McLean, who lamented traveling to Century City to foxtrot, stated that one of her goals over the next four years will be to get a big facility in Santa Clarita that can host such events. McLean then reported on business beyond the City Council’s control, and for once the news was good: there will be no cuts to Santa Clarita library service, and the feared cuts to Antelope Valley Metrolink service will not take place—there will be a 6% increase in fares instead. (Whether we can actually afford all this without going deeper into debt was not mentioned.)

Finally, Mayor Laurene Weste remembered the lives of four recently deceased Claritans in whose honor the meeting would adjourn. Her voice trembled as she spoke words in memory of each, especially Trae Daniel Allen[2], the young man who died from a heroin overdose. She had spoken with his parents earlier and said that the City has to do more to help out families struggling with drug addiction.

The Consent Calendar was approved with the recommended actions taken for all items. It was quite a mundane list: addition of some new no-stopping zones on busy roads, approval of checks, and additional money for landscaping at the Discovery Park project.

During Public Participation, Trae Daniel Allen’s mother, accompanied by her daughter, spoke about the dark conclusion to her son’s four year struggle with oxytocin and heroin addiction. On Tuesday, March 23, she went out to warm up her car for work and saw her son lying on the driveway with foam coming out of his mouth and his nose. She started shaking him and screaming until the rest of her family ran out of the house. “All I could say was please wake up, please wake up!” Krissy McAfee said that it was Trae’s 17-year-old brother that called 9-1-1 to say “My brother’s dead.”

McAfee continued, recalling that she had tried many times to get local law enforcement to follow up on information she provided about drug dealers. She said that she knew the man who dumped Trae on her driveway that morning, and despite repeated calls from both her and neighbors, she never heard about any action being taken against heroin dealing. She went on to say that a week after Trae’s death, another person died of a heroin overdose, and a third person died last week.

Since none of the three heroin-related deaths have been covered in The Signal, McAfee said that many don’t realize the problem posed by Mexican black tar heroin. She described how dealers are infiltrating middle-class communities throughout Santa Clarita.

There’s nothing harder to watch than a mother talk about the death of one of her own children. That she was upset with the Sheriffs for a perceived lack of response to her calls is understandable; we count on them to keep drugs off of the streets. They may have taken action and not reported back to her, but we won't know until they issue comments. And it was clear that McAfee felt responsibility too, describing unbearable guilt over not stopping her son before it was too late. And, of course, there’s the uncomfortable fact that Trae was ultimately responsible for his own actions, at least until the addiction took over.

Councilmember Frank Ferry said that he wants to do away with the school district’s zero-tolerance drug policy, which he called “antiquated” and ineffective, doing little to stop serious drug problems. Ferry said that at his school, they give drug-users one chance to stay if they sign a contract, submit to weekly drug tests, and meet minimum attendance and academic standards. He said that this approach is far better than simply transferring a student to a new school.

Councilmember Bob Kellar had some stern words for the Sheriff’s Department. He said this was not the first time he had heard of people calling in tips to the Sheriff’s Department with nothing being done. Kellar looked the new captain in the eye and said “This is not acceptable.” He ordered Becker to come back to the City Council in two weeks ready to report on what he will be doing to stop this growing drug problem.

Laurie Ender asked a group of girls who had come forward to speak about international child rights and welfare to talk to their friends about what they had heard. She said the story means so much more coming from peers than adults, and the girls nodded tearfully.

There's only so much that anyone can do to save people from themselves and their addictions, and heroin addiction is said to be one of the most intense there is. We don't yet know the whole story, but it will be important to find out the scope of this problem in Santa Clarita.

[1]Here is the agenda.
[2]I'm going with the spelling of his name presented on the agenda; KHTS said it was "Trey", however. His last name differs from his mother's as she re-married after he was born.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happenings: David vs. Ferryliath

The Final Count

For those who like their councilmembers loud, dismissive, and burnt-out, today was a good day. Incumbent Frank Ferry won reelection to the City Council, defeating challenger David Gauny by a mere 32 votes. He will be joining fellow incumbents Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste for another four years behind the dais. Ferry is perhaps best known for his decision-making style. After hearing about a difficult issue, he immediately makes up his mind and then zones out until it’s time to vote.

We are well used to Frank Ferry by now. The Santa Clarita City Council has included him more often than not. Indeed, both he and Laurene Weste have been in charge for more than half of Santa Clarita’s years as a city. Like herpes, once the City Council got Ferry, he was there to stay. (He’s usually quiet, but the flare-ups can be something.)

Click to make this chart larger. It was constructed using the timeline in the excellent The City of Santa Clarita: Celebrating 20 Years of Success by Gail Ortiz and Diana Sevanian.

Before his tenure could be officially extended, however, 600 or so votes had to be counted. These were votes that remained after the main count last week and that would decide whether Frank Ferry or challenger David Gauny won a seat.

Watching this morning’s count proved exhausting. SCVTV played what are apparently its only five music clips, each of which was about a minute long and combined the worst elements of 80s synth, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music, the Disney Electric Parade theme, and background music from the Oregon Trail computer game circa 1996. I recorded clips but for some reason can't embed them--sorry.

"Hey buddy--my eyes are up here."

After the counting, City Manager Ken Pulskamp announced the winner. Gauny had waited for the results in the front row with his lovely family by his side. But victory was not to be his.

A Good Fit

Why did Ferry get those extra three-dozen votes? It’s tough to say, but I have found one variable that was very tightly correlated with the number of votes that the top five candidates received: the total square-inches of glossy campaign mailers on which they appeared. I gathered the dozen or so campaign mailers that were sent out this year, measured them, put the numbers into a spreadsheet, and fitted a logarithmic model. It has an R^2-value of 0.995, which means that the very simple model describes the actual election data extremely well. The logarithmic nature of the relationship suggests that even a single campaign mailer made a big difference in the number of votes a candidate received, but there were diminishing returns as a candidate put out more and more mailers. But the relationship between mailers and vote shares is only correlational—it doesn’t imply causation.

That’s just one of many problems, I know. I fit a curve using only five data points; I made it after the fact so it can’t be tested; important variables are missing; I excluded half of the candidate pool… Still, it’s a really good fit. This is probably because the number of mailers issued is an accurate indicator of many factors important to winning the race. As Tim Myers has pointed out, these important factors tend to be correlated. There are those candidates with lots of money, lots of endorsements, and lots of mailers (we call them incumbents); and then there are those with very little of anything. So, at least for this election, it looks like square-inches of campaign mailers ended up being a very good indicator of how the candidates would perform.

What’s Next?

In real world match-ups of David versus Goliath, things don’t always end Biblically. But Gauny has already demonstrated that he can work effectively using his three-minute comments at City Council and reaching out to his neighbors, and the City Council would do well to heed his words considering that more than 6,000 Claritans voted to put Gauny behind the dais. If he runs in two years, he might well take over the seat that Bob Kellar has occupied for a decade, something that both parties would probably be pleased about.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Only in SCV: A Family Affair

It is not uncommon for members of the ruling class to be related. Monarchs marry their cousins, titles are bestowed on relatives, and sometimes a proclivity for the political life just runs in the family. In keeping with the long tradition of politics being a family affair, this month’s election is forcing two relatives to fight each other for a seat on City Council.

Candidates Frank Ferry and David Gauny are related. It’s a non-blood, only recently discovered, rather convoluted kind of related, but related they are. Seriously[1].


After a family party, the link became apparent. David married Tracy, who happens to have a cousin who had a child[2] with a woman whose uncle is Frank Ferry (one can only imagine the meeting; it would be wonderful if it went something like "David and Tracy, I'd like you to meet Uncle Frank!"). Put another way, Frank Ferry is David Gauny’s wife’s cousin’s child’s great-uncle. Put yet another way, there exists a child who will likely invite the Gaunys and Great-Uncle Frank to their wedding some day, as that child is related to both parties.

For those who think best linearly:

*David Gauny married Tracy

*Tracy’s cousin had a child with a nice young woman

*That nice young woman’s uncle is Frank Ferry


If Ferry and Gauny didn’t get along as well as they do, this could have made things really awkward. Happily, Ferry and Gauny share a mutual admiration that long outdates discovery of their family tie. The two even josh each other as relatives are wont to do. If you’ll recall, Ferry good-naturedly teased David with “You threw the first punch, and we’re coming after you now…you’re going to learn the hard way” to which David joked back “Ferry exemplifies everything that is wrong with our government.” And now, they’re cousins—of the kinda sorta variety.


The union of the House of Ferry with the House of Gauny, however tenuous, has several important implications. In a tight election where every vote will count, the discovery means that Tracy Gauny has only one of three bubbles not yet inked in (assuming familial loyalty obliges her to vote for her husband and Frank Ferry). Hence, the remaining candidates must fight especially hard to win her third vote. With regard to social etiquette, I presume Frank, as family, will be obliged to attend David’s victory party even if he (Frank) loses. If both win, they can celebrate together. Finally, City Attorney Carl Newton will have to get to work crafting another of his famously rigorous legal opinions as to whether Ferry and Gauny could serve together without violating the City’s nepotism policy.


In any case, David and Frank will have to start being nicer to one another. There's a young person out there that shares 6.25% of his/her genetic code with Tracy Gauny and 12.5% of it with Frank Ferry (I calculated the coefficients of relatedness[3]). That child might well tune into a City Council meeting, and it would be a shame if they had to watch a family quarrel.


[1]Confirmed by sources that are undisputed experts on the Gauny family tree.

[2]And I shall refer to him/her exclusively as "the child," not only for its somewhat miraculous connotation, but in the interest of keeping said child's identity private.

[3]The coefficient of relatedness tells one the probability that two individuals will have the same copy of a gene because they both inherited it from a shared ancestor. It's 0.5 between mother and child, 0.25 between grandchild and grandparent, 0.25 between aunt and niece, etc.)