Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happenings: Gateway, $1000, LaRouche

Mayor Pro-Tem Marsha McLean began this evening’s meeting with three quotations[1]. (She erroneously called them “quotes”.)

from the Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

from Henry Ford: “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.”

from Elbert Hubbard: “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Clearly, McLean chose these quotations to rebuke her (supposed) naysayers, the ones who find fault in everything she does without offering any solutions of their own. McLean couldn’t quite contain a grin at her own cleverness.

After the invocation, Mayor Weste applauded some young horseback riders who did an exceptional job with their ponies at a competition in Los Angeles. She then moved onto individual reports and had to deliver less cheerful news[2]. The Regional Water Board is now on Santa Clarita's case about bacteria levels in the Santa Clara River. Bacteria could be very expensive to treat and make high chloride levels seem like the least of our problems. Weste then showed what real water pollution looks like with an impromptu slideshow of the birds covered in oil from the Gulf. She reminded the audience that all of the City’s emphasis on alternative energy and environmentally-responsible programs helped decrease our demand for fossil fuels so we can contribute less to the demand for oil. (Recall that Santa Clarita isn’t immune to oil spills in our own backyard; we’re rather prone to them. There was a spill of 190,000 gallons of crude into the Santa Clara River after the 1994 earthquake, and another of 74,000 gallons of crude in 1991[3]. Both happened near the I-5, and both were settled for about $37 per gallon spilled, which seems far too cheap).

The next disaster discussed was the plan for the Newhall Gateway. This is the narrow plot of land between Sierra Highway, the 14, and Newhall Avenue that the owners have hoped to develop for a number of years. However, the City wants the “gateway” to Newhall to make a grand statement, and the owners have previously presented plans deemed insufficiently grand. Tonight, we saw how their plans improved after the City threw $200,000 at the planning/design consultant called the Poliquin Kellogg Design Group.

Before the improved plans were drafted, there were a number of “stakeholder meetings” that included precisely two stakeholders: SFSX Partners, the group that wants to develop their property at the front of the gateway area, and USC, the so-so university that is looking to sell its property at the back of the gateway area. After these meetings and an economic feasibility analysis, Brian Poliquin presented plans for a unified development on both the SFSX and USC parcels including a hotel, office space, some retail, and a five-level parking structure. The verbose Poliquin seemed quite pleased that he had preserved the riparian strip that runs through the center of the gateway area[4].

Unfortunately, Marsha thought all of the architecture was ugly. She essentially said it’s very nice for someplace else in Santa Clarita, just not the gateway area. That’s not what Claritans want to hear after dropping $200K on plans. (Though the agenda notes “it is the Agency’s intent to recover costs of this conceptual plan preparation if and when a master developer submits a formal application for this plan.” Yes, “if and when…”). Brian Poliquin did not seem opposed to the idea of spending more money on improving the architecture, and Lisa Hardy assured McLean that there was still plenty of room for change and the plans were more concept than anything else.

With her reservations mostly allayed, McLean and the other members of the CC/Redevelopment Agency directed City Staff to work on implementing the plans with the property owners. Councilmember Laurie Ender pointed out that the economic feasibility analysis suggested that the City could make $1M in annual tax revenue from the property if developed as proposed, so she thought it had been a worthwhile exercise. In other Redevelopment Agency developments, the City acquired yet another piece of property and the annual operating budget and capital improvement programs were adopted.

After the Redevelopment Agency portion of the meeting ended, the Consent Calendar passed readily. The City approved some conservation easements as mitigation for streambed alterations; awarded a $4M+ contract for a solar-power-producing shade structure at the Transit Maintenance Facility (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money); and acquired property on Newhall Avenue. The sole point of contention was Item 17. Currently, Santa Clarita subsidizes some local businesses by charging them less for permits/licenses than it costs the City to obtain those licenses from the County. Item 17 introduced an ordinance to bring City pricing in line with County pricing over the course of three years (immediately if the difference was less than $100). Everyone but Councilmember Bob Kellar passed it to a second reading.

Next there were a number of Public Hearings. Federally-issued Recovery Zone Facility Bonds, which are tax exempt, were issued to Aerospace Dynamics International. The $20M in bonds are expected to create 200 high-paying jobs. There was the annual levy for the Open Space District. Here, Kellar said that while he is an absolute supporter of preserving open space, he couldn’t agree to an increase in the assessment. His fellow councilmembers yessed it through, though. Finally, there was a public hearing for a Claritan who wants to build a 7,000-square foot single-story home on an undeveloped parcel in Circle J Ranch. It will be 23’ tall—so it’s effectively two-stories high—and will be on a significant ridgeline, so it could ruin views. To show that the ruination would be minor, rather questionable “photo simulations” were presented and the City Council gave their go ahead on his project.

At last it was time for New Business. Councilmember Frank Ferry presented an item that would increase campaign contribution limits from $360 to $1000 and make it impossible for anyone to donate anonymously (currently, your donation isn’t listed if you give less than $100). Ironically, Ferry evoked the idea of “independent expenditures” as the rationale for his proposal (e.g., Citizens for Integrity in Government, the Political Action Committee that has made tens of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates like Ferry). He said they could be countered more effectively if Claritans could donate more money themselves. Ferry went on to explain why he set the maximum contribution at $1000—it’s the same amount allowed for those running to serve on other local boards like the Castaic Lake Water Agency or Newhall School District.

Most speakers felt that the real reason Ferry proposed the increase is because he knows that it's just incumbents who are in a position to receive $1000 contributions. Just a few of these would go a long way, and many of those doing business with the City of Santa Clarita are only too happy to make the maximum contribution to “friendly” councilmembers each election cycle. As speaker Valerie Thomas wryly observed, “This proposal makes The Signal’s April Fool’s edition, ‘Council for Life’, seem prescient.” The other eleven public speakers also disliked Ferry’s proposal. Carole Lutness said “you gotta dance with the ones that brung you,” arguing that bigger contributions will translate into more time spent dancing with business interests instead of the public. Demanded Lutness, “You must have integrity and you must dance with me!” TimBen Boydston didn’t mind an increase in contribution limits quite as much as he minded doing away with anonymity. Many people donate $99 so that their potential customers, currently elected councilmembers, etc. don’t punish them for their political views.

The best part of the discussion came when Frank Ferry addressed his own illegal campaign contribution (he spent over $10,000 to send out a mailer promoting Bob Kellar and Laurie Ender). Kellar didn’t quite remember this, so Ferry reminded him of the mailer and through smiles and chuckles told Kellar, who obviously won, “you can thank me.” Kellar was not at all amused at how gleefully Ferry remembered his illegal contribution. In the end, all the City Councilmembers save Kellar voted to increase the maximum contribution to $1000, but they didn’t approve reporting the names of those who donate less than $100. When City Attorney Carl Newton was asked whether the City could pass ordinances to limit spending by Political Action Committees, Newton said the City was powerless.

During Public Participation, the only speakers were disciples on Lyndon LaRouche, the failed political figure with views that range from reasonable to bizarre to offensive. LaRouche manages to win cult-like devotion from twenty-somethings that appear otherwise normal. The first LaRouche-head, a guy named “Dash”(?), argued that the City should pass a resolution in support of the reinstating the historic Glass-Steagall Act. Dash suggested that it could control the looming threat of hyper-inflation “which would put a little glitch in the enterprise zone.” Other LaRouchies followed and encouraged separating commercial from investment banking, one warning that we’re “playing with the future of future generations.” An articulate young man named Ian Brinkley closed, observing that the Glass-Steagall Act was passed in “Ninteen-thirty-something…I forget right now” and encouraging it to be revived. Weste thanked the speakers for their time and said she would give the resolution consideration. With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Here is the agenda.
[2]On the bright side, this was the first meeting I can remember that didn’t adjourn in the memory of some wonderful community member’s untimely death.
[4]Though it will certainly be made devoid of life once shaded by the very tall buildings and filled with people who frighten sensitive animals away.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Happenings: Salt Tastes Better than Dichloropropene

Ventura strawberry farmers—or the people who represent them—delight in playing the role of victim. They lament the fact that Claritans fill water with chlorides and then send it downstream. There, hapless growers are forced to irrigate their strawberries with water too salty to abide. So while choride is common, natural, and essential to life, farm interests talk about it like it’s pretty sinister stuff[1].

“Increasing the salt content of water applied to crops is like slowly applying poison.”
-Ventura County Agricultural Water Quality Coalition, FAQ[2]

“In recent years, thanks to rapid growth in the population of the Santa Clarita Valley, the water released by those treatment plants has become laden with chlorides and other salts. The chloride levels have risen so high that they have begun poisoning some of Ventura County’s most important crops, including strawberries, avocados and nursery stock, all of which are particularly salt-sensitive.”
-Farm Bureau of Ventura County[3]

“It’s the obligation of the upstream dischargers to comply with (the standard) and protect their downstream neighbors from the consequences of their contamination.”
-John Krist, CEO of Farm Bureau, in an article in The Signal[4]

Instead of relatively benign salt, conventional strawberry farmers prefer bathing their fields with hundreds of tons of halogenated hydrocarbons, organophosphates, and other pesticides, herbicides, and fumigants. Many of these chemicals just aren’t found in nature and many aren’t very well-studied. We know they do wonders killing fungus and nematodes, but many are also suspected or confirmed toxins, carcinogens, or endocrine disruptors.

At , one can view how pesticides are applied by crop type, county, and year. You can easily produce a table like the one below, which documents pesticide use by Ventura County strawberry growers in 2008, the most recent year available:

Click on the table for the full list of pesticides used[5]. Note: “A PAN Bad Actor” is a chemical that the Pesticide Action Network has identified as being one or more of the following: carcinogen; reproductive or developmental toxin; neurotoxin; groundwater contaminant; or acutely toxic according to the World Health Organization

Chloropicrin, a devastating chemical weapon from World War I, is used as a fumigant for strawberry fields. It sterilizes the soil, killing organisms that might harm strawberry plants (it also kills many organisms that are harmless or beneficial). Over one-million pounds of chloropicrin were used on Ventura County strawberries in 2008, applied at about 122 pounds per acre. The good news is that chloropicrin decays within a few days of use. The bad news: its breakdown releases chlorides[6]. Chloropicrin is 65% chlorine by weight, and it releases chlorides within minutes or hours of being applied[7]. Thus, application of 1,011,790 pounds of chloropicrin adds over 650,000 pounds of chlorides to strawberry fields every year. I was unable to find a study documenting whether these chlorides might damage crops, but it seems well worth investigating.

Nearly 750,000 pounds of dichloropropene was also used in 2008. Strawberry farmers, eager as they seem to protect water quality, may be unaware that the California Pesticides Database lists dichloropropene as a “highly toxic groundwater contaminant”. Fields are treated with methyl bromide as well. Unfortunately, the chemical depletes the ozone layer, so it may be replaced with metyhyl iodide, which has made the news recently because it is profoundly toxic and carcinogenic[8]. In addition to all of these chemicals, literally tons of fenhexamid, thiram, malathion, boscalid, chlorpyrifos, and bifenazate are used in Ventura strawberry fields.

There is evidence that high levels of chlorides are bad for strawberries—a fact I’m not disputing. But where is the concern over chemicals far more toxic to humans than chloride? It is absolutely disgusting for agricultural interests to call chlorides “pollution” and “contamination” while they fill their fields and bathe their berries with chemicals far more deserving of those labels. While these pesticides don’t flow upstream, many are persistent in the environment and can affect us indirectly. There haven’t been comprehensive experiments to establish the levels of chlorides that harm strawberries, much less experiments that look at how spraying chemical pesticides, herbicides, fumigants, and fertilizers might affect chloride sensitivity.

The voice of Ventura County agriculture has driven the Regional Water Quality Control Board to set a low chloride tolerance. But if it were up to me, I’d rather have millions of pounds of salt added to water than millions of pounds of synthetic pesticides sprayed in the soil, leached into water, and filling the air. Perhaps having water too salty for strawberries wouldn't be so bad after all.
[1]Of course, the amount of chloride is key; to quote Paracelsus, "Poison is in everything, and there is no thing without poison. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison."

[7] and


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Happenings: Fees, Water and Terror

This evening’s meeting began with a delay[1]. In early May, Councilmember Laurie Ender suggested that the Golden Valley Bridge be renamed to honor Cameron Glover, a local Sheriff’s Deputy who died in a traffic collision. In the time since her suggestion was made, Ender mentioned that a number of people had expressed concern. They told her that the City Council should try to formalize its approach to naming City monuments, structures, events, etc. in honor of various Claritans. Thus, no bridge was renamed, and the topic will be revisited at a future City Council meeting. Duane Harte threw in the idea of a collective memorial to “Our Fallen heroes […] to which we add names as it becomes necessary; we could pray then pray that it does not become necessary.”

Awards and recognition aplenty were meted out by the City. Among them were three awards for excellence in communications and marketing, at which Gail Ortiz communicated her delight.

Moving onto the Consent Calendar, the City Council found its plans to approve everything halted by comments from Cam Noltemeyer. She made a last-minute effort to keep the City Council from adopting an ordinance that will remove term limits for those serving as City Commissioners or on City Boards. She said that three terms were enough, and fresh ideas and fresh blood were needed for commissions (as well as for City Council). During this comment—or perhaps Noltemeyer’s subsequent comment about tree trimming—Mayor Pro-Tem Marsha McLean light-heartedly asked “What would we do without you, Cam?” Cam curtly reminded McLean that she could speak after her three-minute comment had come to an end.

There was also concern over Item 12 on the Consent Calendar, which proposed increasing the fees businesses pay for various licenses and permits. The City of Santa Clarita acts as a sort of middle-man between businesses and the County. It collects fees that are sent to the County, which takes care of the actual permits and licenses. But while the City has kept its fees that same since 1994, the County has raised its fees several times. Taxpayers subsidize local businesses by making up the difference. For example, Laurie Ender pointed out that an acupressure establishment pays $121 to renew its license with the City, the same it would have paid in 1994. However, the County fee is now $354, so Claritans make up the difference of $233. You can view all the discrepancies on the agenda item's page[2]. At the high end, the City doesn’t charge a fee to establish a body art establishment, but the County requires $2,254 for the establishment.

Ken Striplin, filling in for Ken Pulskamp, said that this ordinance would only impact certain businesses in Santa Clarita like restaurants, massage parlors, and carnivals. He noted that the City wouldn’t be profiting from the fee increases—it would just be recovering the money it currently pays out on behalf of local businesses.

Councilmember Frank Ferry made the damning observation that instead of subsidizing cheaper tattoos and massages since 1994, the City could have increased spending on law enforcement or recreation. Both he and Ender wanted to correct the fee pricing disparity, but the other members of the City Council would not agree. Bob Kellar was particularly adamant about not raising fees assessed to businesses, preferring those who live and work in Santa Clarita to give up more of their money instead. For the time being, then, businesses will pay 1994 prices for 2010 services. McLean suggested that staff work on language to raise business fees incrementally until the City is in line with the County, and that proposal will be discussed at a future meeting.

Finally, it was time to discuss chlorides, too many of which are being dumped into the water supply according to the Sanitation District. As discussed at the last meeting, Santa Claritans are being asked to fund a large new desalinization facility to correct this problem. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and primary benefits will be realized by avocado and strawberry farmers in Ventura.

There were a number of public speakers, almost all of whom expressed frustration that the City can do only so much to protest without facing major retribution in the form of fines or retracted deals. TimBen Boydston made the most interesting and hopeful (delusional?) remarks. His argument was complex and full of legal references to Prop 13, but he basically suggested that “only special benefits are assessable.” That is, Claritan property owners can’t be forced to pay assessments for which they do not receive a special benefit. And since Claritans would pay to treat water that goes to farmers outside the SCV, there would be no special benefit realized. Boydston didn’t quite finish laying out the argument during his three-minutes, but Mayor Weste said “I hope you’re right.” Other speakers were angry that Claritans would have to pay for the digging of wells in Ventura; that saline removed from water would be dumped into oil wells; and that the new water treatment plant would pave the way for more development without making the developers pay their share. People, in short, were upset.

Thus, it took some courage for Lynne Plambeck to express her support for the idea of chloride reduction. She said that farmers are really being hurt by chlorides (debatable), and hoped that deciding how to fund water improvement measures wouldn’t prevent them from being implemented.

The City Council didn’t have a lot to say after spending hours on this issue two weeks ago. Mayor Weste gave a nice, sincere little speech that encouraged Claritans to do what they can, and she reminded residents that this would be a long battle.

The idea of a “two-pronged approach” was frequently mentioned and supported by both speakers and the City Council. It sounds decisive and proactive, but it's not. According to the agenda, “The first prong is to continue with the current work to develop environmental analysis and design specifications, with an intent to maximize cost efficiencies. The second prong includes developing a legislative and potential legal strategy dealing with overall water policies and laws at the state and federal level driving the limits mandating desalination.” In other words, the City is going to try its best to minimize costs however it can.

Finally, everyone but Bob Kellar voted for Councilmember Frank Ferry to become the alternate for the Sanitation District Board (McLean and Weste currently serve on the board). Bob Kellar wanted to stay on as alternate, but Ferry described his experience with this body and success in past negotiations, so he was selected to replace Kellar.

Apart from a few people who spoke about the problem of selling tobacco to minors in Santa Clarita, the Public Participation speakers focused on Councilmember Frank Ferry’s tirade about “developmental terrorism ”—the opposing of new developments before they’ve even made it to the Planning Commission. Many people flattered themselves by suggesting that Ferry had called them developmental terrorists. In fact, Ferry had reserved that label for a few politically active, not-explicitly-named parties: TimBen Boydston, David Gauny, and maybe SCOPE. He thought these were the masterminds behind opposing developments, and everyone else was just mindlessly following their orders.

Laura Stotler was the first to admonish Frank Ferry. This was appropriate, since Stotler’s remarks were the ones that triggered Ferry’s speech. She and many others would tell him that his choice of words was somewhere between inappropriate and outrageous. She also reassured him that she could make up her own mind on issues. Not everyone who came before the City Council was an easily manipulated pawn, as Ferry had implied. Finally, she identified and lamented Ferry’s “disdain for homeowners who come before you with local concerns.” Most comments that followed expressed more of the same idea. Boydston was predictably loud during his remarks, prompting Councilmember Laurie Ender to ask that the microphone be turned down. David Gauny, who was next to speak, brilliantly replied “Would you prefer it all the way off?” Delighted giggling from the audience followed.

With great aplomb, Gauny delivered a short speech in which he defended himself against the accusations of Ferry and McLean that he was lying, manipulating and frightening Claritans for political gains, and masterminding opposition to new developments. He closed by telling Ferry “You may be on the City Council but you are hardly a winner.”

Before the meeting ended, Marsha McLean read a prepared speech from the dais, reviewing her greatest hits in the realm of community activism. She said that she had only objected to remarks last week because Laura Stotler said that the City approved projects which it in fact had not. McLean wanted to set the record straight that she likes having citizens come forward.

Ferry responded by listing community activists and saying the degree to which he liked and/or respected them, and immensely useful exercise. For example, he respects Lynne Plambeck because she’s upfront. Ferry didn’t say anything about his choice of the word “terrorism.”

The meeting adjourned in memory of U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Jake William Suter, who died while serving in the War on Terror in Afghanistan.

[1]Agenda me
[2]Here are the discrepancies