Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Happenings: Case-studies in Us vs. Them

Standing room only.

Last night’s City Council meeting stretched on and on until 12:45[1]. If we had a local television media presence, there would have been plenty of material for sound-bites: Ken Pulskamp was declared Don Pulskamp by Bruce McFarland, Carole Lutness hoped Ferry would let Laurie Ender off her leash, John Parker growled “This is a disgusting place!”, and we were regaled with stories of teenagers fornicating on quiet cul-de-sacs. By the end of the evening, the City Council had dramatically changed the way in which City Council races will be funded, and it appears that there has finally been some resolution to the traffic problems plaguing Benz Road and Linda Vista for years.

The Parts That Don’t Really Count
Councilmember Laurie Ender delivered the invocation, expressing her appreciation for libraries and library volunteers. She quoted Clarence Day, an unimportant American author, who wrote: “The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out, and after an era new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the heart of men centuries dead.” It seems Councilmember Ender had to scroll nearly half-way down the first webpage generated by googling “library quotes” before she found Day’s words.

Next, City Attorney Carl Newton confirmed that he would be resigning as City Attorney at the end of the year. He expressed nothing but appreciation and affection for Santa Clarita. He called Santa Clarita “undoubtedly the finest quality city in the state of California […] I hope that our firm has contributed in some small ways towards the success of the City.” Newton explained that he would attend half of the year’s remaining meetings while his replacement, Joseph Montes, will attend the others. Though Carl Newton won’t be gone for another five months, everyone on the City Council lauded him this evening. Councilmember Ferry thanked Newton for helping Santa Clarita become a City and for saving the community “tens and tens of millions of dollars” through the years. (He has?) Mayor Weste called Newton a “most gracious gentleman,” and thanked him for offering legal counsel over the phone even when he vacationed in Hawaii. She also revealed that Newton wrote the stirring, patriotic words that are found in the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza. It was all good practice for the far more drawn-out goodbye that will take place this winter.

During presentations to the City, we saw renderings of many new fire stations that are being built in Santa Clarita and that will open over the next couple of years. They will blend in well with their local neighborhoods, looking rather like single-family homes with especially large garages. Paul Strickland, president of the Hart School District’s governing board, introduced Rob Challinor as the new superintendant. Strickland said that the board knew from the start that Challinor was the best of 37 applicants, and that he has “hit the ground running.” The final presentation came from the Mayor Laurene Weste. To celebrate the 90th anniversary of women’s voting rights, she displayed a series of old photographs accompanied by fascinating historical details and anecdotes about the events preceding passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste then fondly reminisced about their days as suffragettes.

When it was time for each councilmember to share news and updates, Frank Ferry applauded HMNMH for being ranked highly when it comes to emergency care. He was excited by the noisy, dusty clearing and construction taking place there which he, unlike nearby residents, doesn’t have to live with for the next decade. Laurie Ender returned to the subject of libraries, and made a bold suggestion that the City of Santa Clarita consider taking control of all three of our local libraries, two of which are already City-owned properties. Doing so would allow all library tax dollars to stay within the SCV; at present, Claritans pay more in library taxes to LA County than they receive in services. Ender explained how the money could be used to keep the libraries opened an additional ten-hours each week. The rest of the City Council seemed excited by her proposal, and it will be agendized for discussion at a future meeting.

Mayor Pro-tem Marsha McLean reminded residents to return their Sanitation District surveys, to support Proposition 22, and then congratulated State Assembly Member Cameron Smyth and his wife, Lena, on their newborn daughter. She showed all the items in a baby gift set that will be sent to the Smyths. The bib, onesie, and other goodies commemorate the geography of conception with the charming words “Made in Santa Clarita.”

It was up to Laurene Weste to address the death of Matilde Garnica, the local mother who was killed at the Fourth of July fireworks show. As you have doubtless heard, a driver struck her after running a red light and colliding with another vehicle, and six children were also injured. Weste called it a “heartbreaking and senseless tragedy.” She said that the Sheriff’s Department will release a complete report later this month, and the City will immediately implement any new safety measures that the report recommends. The Mayor then shared two unrelated facts: (1)If you pay 11 months ahead on trash, your twelfth month of pick-up is free, and (2)Gladys
Laney, who has lived in Santa Clarita her whole life, is celebrating her 100th birthday. She has a lot of stories about Santa Clarita, and Weste is really looking forward to hearing more of them. Perhaps Leon Worden or some other enterprising historian will record them for all of us.

With the mayor’s comments concluded, the City Council at last got down to business.

Redevelopment and Consent Calendar

Item 2 extended the nomination period for those who wish to serve on one of Santa Clarita’s commissions or panels. Bruce McFarland used the item as an opportunity to goad the City Council as only he can. In a sweeping summation of the SCV’s history, he described going “full circle” from a little city trying to protect itself from LA County development interests to a much bigger city where it’s now local elected officials who don’t care about what development is doing to the residents. He then offered a crime family conceit: “The little family we have here has turned into the Mafioso,” one in which City Manager Ken Pulskamp is the Don and “controls the City.” Applause and laughter peppered McFarland’s speech, which would be continued later.

Another item that drew concern was spending $94,171 on new street signs. According to the agenda: “As part of an overall effort to capitalize on the positive image of the City of Santa Clarita, the City Council requested staff to design a new street name sign for City intersections. Staff from several departments worked together to design an aesthetically pleasing street name sign as a means to uniquely identify the street name and the City of Santa Clarita.” Alan Ferdman was outraged that so much was being spent in the interest of aesthetics, but Ken Pulskamp retorted that “It’s a safety issue,” explaining that more visible signs will help drivers arrive at their destination safely. It’s miraculous that people have managed to navigate streets with green street signs up to this point.

There was also discussion on the speed limit for the cross valley connector, which will be 55 mph. Several councilmembers thought that was too fast, but City Traffic Engineer Andrew Yee said that he can’t lower it because the State provides guidelines about how speed limits must be set. Councilmember Bob Kellar asked people to raise their hands if they preferred the lower speed limit, and the better part of the audience did. Mayor Weste joked that she was glad he didn’t ask how many wanted it at 75 mph, at which several hands shot up.

Finally, there was an item to crack down on “slap tags”—essentially graffiti in the form of hard-to-remove stickers that are slapped on utlity boxes, walls, and benches. Marsha McLean suggested that garage sale signs could be lumped into the same category, calling them an eyesore and going on for several minutes about how annoying they are to look at on utility poles. Laurie Ender and Ken Pulskamp shut her down with some much needed perspective—they’re just garage sale signs, after all. No one asked McLean why her campaign signs, which are displayed for weeks on end, are more aesthetically acceptable than signs put up by others.

Public Hearings: Campaign Contributions & Fee Subsidies

Three weeks ago, the City Council (minus Bob Kellar) approved of an ordinance that will charge businesses more for licenses and permits. It was a cost recovery measure because the City currently charges business less than it costs to get the licenses and permits through the County. For fees less than $100, the increase would be immediate, and for fees over $100, the increase would be phased in over three years. Again, everyone but Bob Kellar approved of this measure at the last meeting, so it was passed to a second reading.

But when it was time for final approval, Frank Ferry apparently hadn’t bothered reading the agenda item (for the second time). He had to have Ken Pulskamp explain what he was voting on, rather like an impromptu tutoring session for someone who hadn’t done their homework. Once he was brought up to speed, it became clear that Ferry wanted a unanimous vote on the item, so he appealed to Bob Kellar by saying that many of the businesses being subsidized by taxpayers are undesirable ones, like massage parlors and tattoo shops. He also suggested increasing all of the fees, even rather high ones, immediately. But even after some back-and-forth and attempts at negotiating, Kellar would have no part in making local business pay what it actually costs to obtain licenses and permits. He insisted that now is no time to increase fees or taxes, even when that means residents must subsidize private businesses.

Next, a contentious ordinance was revisisted: raising the maximum donation to City Council candidates from $360 to $1000. Actually, it wasn’t contentious at all—every one of the 22 speakers thought the increase was an absolutely awful idea. However, those serving on City Council stand to benefit from the increase when they run for reelection, and they got to decide the matter.

Before they held their utterly predictable vote on the ordinance, the public spoke. Carole Lutness advised us to review our “Ferry Tales,” pointing out that Frank was plainly the emperor with no clothes. She expressed some hope that Ender might go against Ferry and vote to keep campaign limits at $360, saying “I thought Frank had taken Laurie off her leash last time.” Bruce McFarland continued with his crime family kick, suggesting that Don Pulskamp’s vision for the City includes “a desperate need to grow.” The bashing continued with Cam Noltemeyer, who stated “If you have the nerve to call us developmental terrorists, we should call you developer puppets.” More reserved was Robin Clough, who represented the Senior Center. She said that increasing contribution limits to $1000 would essentially swamp the small contributions of seniors and, in so doing, reduce their political influence. The politically-minded from the Summit also made their presence known. David Gauny said the real problem with campaigns was PACs like Citizens for Integrity in Government, the G&L Realty funded group that spends tens of thousands of dollars each election to help reelect incumbents. Reena Newhall continued in the same vein, wearing a T-shirt that read “Poison PAC” (will they be available at her store?) and asking the City Attorney to investigate the feasibility of regulations similar to those that the City of Santa Monica uses to keep PACs under control. She also read a letter from former Mayor Carl Boyer, who was deeply upset about how the local election game has devolved. Most of the City Council listened unmoved, so Lynne Plambeck had little hope in her voice when she asked that the CC at least consider making Political Action Committees disclose their spending earlier than they do at present.

Reena Newhall models summer's hottest anti-PAC fashions.

Frank Ferry was forced to listen to the public before he was allowed to insult and dismiss them.

When it came time for the City Council to respond, Bob Kellar went first. He was in complete agreement with the speakers, and he thought the people of Santa Clarita had made their opinion abundantly clear: keep limits at $360, not $1000. The considerably less popular Frank Ferry spoke next. He started things off with a couple of insults, essentially saying that he could have predicted all of the people who showed up to speak at tonight’s meeting. He implied that they only came to speak because David Gauny sent them an email. A couple of people started yelling at Ferry in protest. He turned to face them and said, roughly, that it was his turn to talk and that he had done enough listening. Mayor Weste ordered silence and, when it didn’t come, sent a deputy to escort the most vociferous audience member outside. I didn’t see who it was, but I applaud them. Ferry then delivered profoundly disingenuous words, stating that the increase in campaign contributions would help out challengers far more than incumbents. Ferry, being about as altruistic as he is subtle, was not widely believed.

There was laughter after Marsha said “Nobody, absolutely nobody buys my vote.” This really upset her, and she appeared visibly hurt and near tears when she talked about how rude people were being. McLean really does do a lot for the City Council (and certainly a lot more than some members) but she ignored the fact that it was only four people who sat at the dais who wanted to increase contribution limits; the ordinance had absolutely no public support.

Mayor Weste identified this disparity in support among the public versus the elected as the cause for angry, frustrated words. Ultimately, though, she voted alongside Laurie Ender, Marsha McLean, and Frank Ferry to increase contribution limits to $1000. The consequences of this change will be seen in a little over a year. As for measures to control or regulate PACs, most thought it was a good idea but claimed nothing could really be done.

Public Hearings: Road Regulations

The results of adding speed cushions to Benz Road were revealed tonight. The residents of the small, residential road suffer from huge amounts of cut-through traffic that dimishes their quality of life. The speed cushions helped lower speeds by 3-4 mph on the road, but didn’t have a huge effect on the volume of traffic.

A survey asking residents whether they favored keeping the speed cushions found that a slight majority did, but an overwhelming majority didn’t want to have to pay up to $100/year for ten years to fund the traffic slowing devices. Benz Road resident Tony Natoli, who sounded exasperated beyond all measure, said that the cushions had helped but not much. Others complained that it was a public road and that people who supported turn restrictions and speed-reducing measures were vexing thousands of other drivers. One particularly rude speaker called people living on Benz Road “whiners” and advised them to “MOOOOOVE!”

The City Council quickly agreed that it was unfair to make residents pay for problems they were the victim of, not the creator. Frank Ferry was correct when he said “We screwed this one up. Let’s be straight up. […] We’re gonna make nobody happy. […] We just made it worse, and worse, and worse.” In the end, they decided to leave the speed cushions in place as they provided some help. Marsha McLean was the sole dissenting vote, as she hated the idea of forcing people to live with noisy, jarring speed cushions in their front yard.

Finally, 20 speakers from Sunset Heights came to speak about a proposed Memorandum of Understanding for their community. The MOU would get the ball rolling on the street vacation process, the first step to closing off Linda Vista with a gate that would prevent cut-through traffic and unsavory characters from passing through the quiet neighborhood. Most speakers were opposed to the idea, as it blocked off access to Sierra Highway. Rich Smith, the president of the local HOA was in favor, though the other members of the association were split. One woman claimed that Smith was selling a different bill of goods to those who would live inside and outside of the gates. He apparently offered to sell entry to those living on nearby streets and who wished to use the gated road. It all sounded like a bit of a power trip.

In any case, there wasn’t a huge amount of discussion from the City Council. There was no consensus on what residents wanted (or there were at least serious flaws in the survey that professed to show that 80% of people wanted a gated community), so the City stuck to its policy of leaving public roads public. The MOU will not be issued.

Overall, it seems the City Council has finally realized that it’s often best to do nothing when it comes to traffic problems. If they cannot be avoided, any measure that benefits one group will anger and alienate the other, often at great taxpayer expense. Perhaps planners will try to avoid creating these situations in the future, and neighborhoods won’t have to go to war over traffic.

After a second bathroom break, the City Council returned for public comments. Alan Ferdman and others who hold the Canyon Country Advisory Committee near and dear had waited over five hours to have their three-minutes to speak. They were united in their hope that the City Council would find a way to allow them to meet at City facilities without having to pay. They provide a benefit to the City by communicating news to residents, hosting debates, and so on, so Ferdman felt the least the City could do was give them a spot for their meetings. Valerie Thomas mentioned that the money that the City wastes on things like unnecessary street restripings and library architecture do-overs could easily cover the cost of meeting space. City Manager Ken Pulskamp essentially answered with a shrug, saying that if other groups have to pay, so too must the CCAC. With that, the meeting adjourned.

[1]Here's the agenda.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happenings: The Parade that Barely Was

The Grand Marshall of the Santa Clarita Fourth of July Parade was silent film actor William S. Hart[1]. Though alive in our hearts, Bill is thoroughly dead in the traditional, corporeal sense, so we made do with his likeness and someone dressed as the iconic screen cowboy instead. Rather like the Grand Marshall, this year’s parade was more of a spectral suggestion of the past than a vital presence. As one parade-goer summed things up: “That was it?”

We took our seats near the yellow, Victorian-style shops on Lyons Avenue. The morning was cool and slightly overcast, making for unusually bearable viewing conditions. Tens of people shared the block with us, and everyone was more spread out than usual since a seat in the shade wasn’t essential. We sat. We waited.

The arrival of four horsemen is usually interpreted as a sign of the end, but this morning, four members of the LA County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse signaled the parade had begun. We greeted the parade’s color guard with the resonant honk of vuvuzelas[2], and bits of applause drifted from the diffuse crowd. The four horsemen were tailed by every vehicle that the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments have in their possession, apparently ready to squash any minor Armageddons.

Mayor Weste is greeted by the trumpeting of a vuvuzela.

In the long-standing tradition, miniature American flags were handed out to everyone as the parade got underway. Small children dashed between a truck bearing thousands of flags and a crowd of grabby hands. Other bits of free patriotica included red and blue Mardi Gras beads and delicious Welsh cakes with white chocolate, cranberries, and blueberries[3]. The latter did much to ease those Anglo-American tensions that inevitably rise on Independence Day. Commercial entries like Sports Clips and Newhall Coffee Roasting Company passed out coupons and coffee, respectively, and NorthPark Community Church passed out handy guides to redemption and salvation. This was a stunning change for the church which, in years past, has had hundreds of its members marching to the beat of contemporary Christian pop with enormous inflated stars, eagles, and air dancer figures.

Nine children, nine flags, one Vampire T-shirt.

Preaching a more political message were the SCV Congress of Republicans, Democratic Alliance for Action, and SCV Tea Party Patriots. The dems were the most overtly political, carrying “Jerry Brown: Governor 2010” and other campaign signs. How better to unite neighbors and than by carrying tacky, partisan political posters? The Tea Party float was a mish-mash of historical reenactments. A Betsy Ross impersonator sewed the American flag whilst others dressed as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington admired her work, and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at his desk. The group was conveyed on a trailer hitched to a historically accurate white truck.

The rest of the parade was marked by variations of a few themes. Antique cars were driven by antique Claritans. A younger crowd drove jeeps, including a fat idiot who sat on the roof rack of his Wrangler and steered the car with his feet[4]. Perhaps he can be persuaded to stay home in Canyon Country next year. Local officials passed by in convertibles or on trucks, though Mayor Laurene Weste preferred the Wells Fargo Stage Coach and The Signal was represented by a flag-bearing hand held out of a limousine window. Pageant winners were uniformly displayed from the backs of red or white convertibles with crudely fashioned posters displaying their names and title mounted to the door. And interspersed in the sea of cars, cub scouts, beauty queens, and horses were a handful of truck-drawn trailers adorned with balloons and masquerading as floats. A few of them actually recognized the parade’s theme of “Movietown USA.”

Yes, he's really driving the Jeep with his feet. This is especially disturbing in light of the car accident that killed a mother and injured six children at the Town Center fireworks show--and the fact that kids run freely through the parade route.

In short, this year’s efforts were extraordinarily perfunctory—even by Claritan standards. Attendance still remains mandatory, as it’s important to clap for veterans and outwardly display appreciation for our freedom and independence. However, it’s clear that the parade needs to fight its gradual descent into nothing more than a stream of cars moving down streets at one-tenth their normal speed. The Parade Committee can do only so much; the people of the SCV must work together to bring bands, real floats, and perhaps even a little--but not too much--joy to this oldest Claritan rite. Until that time comes, parades will continue to pass not with a bang, but a whimper.

[1]Parade line-up
[2]Vuvuzelas, those very loud horns from the World Cup in South Africa, were purchased from the better of two soccer shops in Old Town Newhall. This pumped an outrageous $15 into the local economy; you’re welcome, City.
The Welsh Baker