Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happenings: Beginning of the Ender; Ferry Puts Self First

It was a big night.

While a tribute to Marsha McLean’s term as mayor was touching and Laurie Ender’s ascent was momentous, this was really the night that Frank Ferry snubbed Bob Kellar[1]. In a surprising twist, Ferry nominated himself to serve as Mayor Pro-Tem. While there’s no formal rotation, the informal one is almost always adhered to[2]. Bob Kellar was set to serve as Mayor Pro-Tem in 2011-12 and, it would follow, as mayor from 2012-13. Kellar would not acquiesce to Ferry’s self-nomination power-grab, but Ferry was easily carried by the affirmative votes of the female council members. He would hint obliquely at his motives by the end of the meeting, but we must wait for further explanation and to better understand the implications of this maneuver.

The evening started on an unusual note. The Senior Center Silvertone Singers were seated in the front rows. After several lengthy anecdotes from their director, they sang “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Home for the Holidays.” I couldn’t really hear the singing because the accompanying music was louder than their voices, but no matter—it felt festive.

Ferry's an ambitious fella, fa la la la la, la la la la,
Gonna steal Pro-Tem from Kella, fa la la la la, la la la la...

Out-going Mayor McLean was positively tickled, saying ““Let’s just make it a tradition, right?”

Next, McLean recalled some of the important strides made during her term as mayor. “It has been an incredible year for me and our city,” she began. Notable achievements included: very successful community gardens; Creekside Road streetscape; Fallen Warriors Memorial Bridge; grand openings of the public libraries under local control and issuance of 35,000 library cards; crime reduction; acquisition of Haskell Canyon Open Space; Senses and other events promoting Newhall; the various festivals and events like the marathon, concerts, Cowboy Festival…; city-wide landscaping projects; and keeping the record of passing a “100% balanced and on-time budget.” She closed with flashes of her fighting spirit, promising to keep opposing CEMEX mining and to hasten the clean-up of the Whittaker-Bermite site. She thanked her fellow council members, staff, the community, and her family for their support.

Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin presented McLean with a plaque and a bag she can use to carry all of her papers as she busily commutes to the various boards and committees on which she serves.
Oh, Ken, how ever did you know?

Then it was time for people to thank McLean. Local institutions and representatives from the offices of Buck McKeon, Cameron Smyth, Sharon Runner, and Tony Strickland were present to commend McLean for her excellent service as mayor. When posing for a picture with Marsha McLean, Scott Wilk and Scott Wilk Jr. stood next to Bob Hauter—they're not always the chummiest, especially since the race for State Assembly.

When it was time for nominations for mayor, Frank Ferry jumped in to nominate Laurie Ender, a motion that Marsha McLean seconded. Ferry said that Laurie Ender showed great leadership in pushing for the expansion of the Newhall Memorial Hospital campus and in spearheading the library takeover. Everyone gave their yes (or “aye”, in Weste’s case) to Ender.

Beaming with nervous energy, Ender called her family to stand next to her as she was sworn in. Ender made a crack about her son being so excited to have to stand with her, and Ferry jumped in to further embarrass the lad, saying, “He was flirting next to a cute girl and you interrupted him.” He has such a way with youth.

For a City Council that has, for so long, seen the same faces in different chairs, it was truly momentous for Laurie Ender to be taking on the role of mayor, even if the title is largely symbolic in importance. After the hugs and applause and handshakes, she joked that “The gavel may come in handy since I have three teenage boys!” Her first joke as mayor, awww!

When asked for nominations for Mayor Pro-Tem, Ferry very quickly nominated himself. There was a brief pause as people took in this unexpected power play. McLean was the first to respond, seconding the nomination. Mayor Ender asked for other nominations, but Bob Kellar did not nominate himself—nor did anyone else. He expressed his unhappiness at Ferry’s bold move by refusing to support Ferry’s nomination. “I would prefer to go with the usual progression,” he said, voting no. But everyone else said yes, so Frank Ferry is now Mayor Pro-Tem. This move distanced Kellar from the rest of the City Council to perhaps a greater degree than ever before. Ferry’s mention of HMNMH expansion and the library takeover, both of which were questioned by Kellar, seemed all the more meaningful in light of this maneuver.

Cake—and presumably some very strained conversations—followed.

The meeting resumed around 6:20. Mayor Laurie Ender presided over a couple of rather memorable acknowledgements. The first was so because it involved a vast sea of student volunteers in the “Safe Rides” program, the teens who drive their drunk peers safely home from parties[3]. McLean and Ferry were particularly adamant about thanking this group.

Bill Kennedy and his wife, Kathy, were recognized next. The pair has been a community fixture for just over a decade. Bill Kennedy’s work on the Planning Commission and his involvement in business and philanthropy were noted. Kennedy called his departure “bittersweet” because, while he’s losing the community he has been so involved in, he and his wife are moving to be closer to their grandsons. Kennedy had many kind words for Councilmember Kellar, by whom he was appointed to Planning Commission.

During reports and updates from the council, there was a little of everything. Kellar plugged Sake Bistro & Sushi. He has an old-timey sort of affinity for the entertainer, “Jimmy,” and made the joint sound like a swell place for you and your gal on a Sunday night. Ferry thanked Santa Clarita’s arborists for pruning trees so that recent windstorms didn’t topple them over, as happened in other Southland communities. McLean encouraged everyone to see the moving exhibit “Highwire Act: Insights into Substance Abuse”, at the town center through early January.

The Consent Calendar was approved without discussion or public comments. This meant that measures allotting funds for concrete repair and accepting a mini-grant to fund twelve sobriety checkpoints were approved.

Falling under New Business were the mid-fiscal-year budget review and adjustments. Ken Striplin said that despite the fact that that State of California is vying for local funds and has not reimbursed the City for certain expenses, the budget isn’t in fine shape. New spending would take place to fund a Canyon Country Community Center, improve the accessibility of open spaces, beautify Railroad Avenue, design more parking spaces for the Valencia Library, support community group use of the Performing Arts Center, and other sundry projects. $140K was allocated to improvements to the first floor of City Hall, including the council chambers.

In what probably should have been a separate item, staff also proposed establishing a trust to cover post-retirement health care benefits. Striplin said that the City is unique in being able to cover these liabilities without going into debt; the same cannot be said of other municipalities.

There were no speakers from the public. Councilmember Weste asked about staffing for the Canyon Country Center, and Striplin said it would be covered by full-time staff already under the employ of the City, with new part-time staff hired as needed and volunteers making up the difference. The recommended actions on budget adjustments and benefit funding were taken.

During Public Participation, the sole speaker was Berta Gonzalez Barbier. “I am a little confused as to how this works,” she said, referring to the fact that Bob Kellar hadn’t been voted Mayor Pro-Tem. “Just from a casual observer [her observations are hardly casual, most would agree], it sort of appears to me there’s been an effort to marginalize Bob.” Exactly. She said she wasn’t happy about the fact that he has lost his seat on some committees, and she was even less happy to have seen him skipped over at tonight’s meeting.

Ferry decided to respond. In a rambling, wide-ranging, unstructured, generally incoherent speech, he said that his life has changed a lot this year. He awoke from the coma, his sons are finishing school, and he may be getting ready to marry his partner. He said that after much “reflection and re-prioritizing”, he decided he really wanted to be mayor for his sixteenth year on the City Council. “I am looking forward to my life for what my future may hold,” he said. His speech was chock-full of “me”s and “my”s and mine”s. It was, truly, all about him (or his family, a more generous listener might contend).

One logical interpretation of his train of thought was that this was Ferry saying his life is moving onto a new phase. He either wants to go out as mayor, leaving on a high point (he did stress how very long he’d been at City Hall), or he’s seeking mayorhood as a means of reaching higher office and wants to have the big title while he pursues his ambitions. And of course, he has to get back at Kellar for his support of David Gauny, who almost took Ferry's seat, and who has fought Ferry and the rest of the council on a number of items. More clarity will emerge soon.

[1]This was definitely not on the agenda.
[2]Leon Worden goes over a couple of exceptions at SCVNews.
[3]I know, they’ll also drive people home who are just in unsafe situations and are not drunkards, too. And yes, I quite agree it's better they drink and call than drink and drive.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happenings: Smart Meter Scares, Open Space, and a Plaque

The two biggest points of contention at tonight’s City Council Meeting were not agendized: (1)A local advisory committee felt ignored and disrespected, and (2)The mayor expressed serious concern over the impending installation of smart meters by Southern California Edison.[1]

The meeting began, as usual, with an invocation. “Thursday’s Thanksgiving,” revealed Councilmember Bob Kellar, who then gave a brief overview of the religious, familial, and political implications of the observance.

After the flag salute, the City Council applauded seven awards from the International Festival and Events Association. They included recognition for excellent events for children, stellar event websites, and even a bronze for the “Best Pin or Button” category (Cowboy Festival, in case you were wondering. I still have mine—it‘s a fine pin).

When each member of the City Council had a chance to share updates, Councilmember Ferry passed. Mayor Pro-Tem Laurie Ender spoke about Thanksgiving dinner at the community center; over 600 people came. She also highlighted Santa Clarita Public Library’s support of book clubs, and she expressed her delight that a number of students from Valencia High School were attending the City Council meeting for class. Councilmember Bob Kellar lauded the annual Festival of Trees, benefiting the Boys & Girls Club. Councilmember Laurene Weste reflected on the death of Alan Mootnick, the man who ran the Gibbon Conservation Center in Saugus.

Mayor Marsha McLean focused her comments on the installation of smart meters throughout Santa Clarita. Southern California Edison is adding the electricity-monitoring devices in the valley beginning this month. They're "smart" because they can transmit electricity usage information remotely. McLean expressed some anxiety over what installation means for people on life support equipment, since power is briefly disrupted to install the device. She also mentioned concerns about the safety and security of transmitting information about energy use. McLean encouraged residents to visit the SCE website or call their hotline if they wished to be put on a delay list out of concern over power disruption, radio wave emissions, etc. Her main issue was a lack of earlier notification of installation, and Councilmember Weste was sympathetic to her concerns[2].

The Consent Calendar wasn’t very substantial. Two items improved traffic signals and safety on Carnegie/Barcotta as well as Seco Canyon Frontage Road.

Another item recommended purchasing about 18-acres in Placerita Canyon to set aside as open space. Including fees and improvements, the price tag was $90,000. Cam Noltemeyer said of the property “It’s probably worthless in this market,” citing personal concerns over contamination from oil and the Whittaker-Bermite site. Jim Farley, who maintains that the assessment funding open space acquisition is improper/illegal, said that he thought the acquisition would be of limited benefit to the community. Rather than contributing to a green belt around the city, he said the property merely provided a site for Placerita Canyon horse owners to go trail-riding.

Finally, per the requirements of the Maddy Act, the last item presented a list of local appointments to various commissions, committees, and boards. Staff recommended it be made available in local libraries for review. Cam Noltemeyer saw the list as a reminder that term limits might be useful (some appointments have been in place since the 90s).

A motion to take the recommended actions for the six Consent Calendar items was seconded and passed with a unanimous vote.

During Public Participation, Anna Frutos Sanchez, representing SoCal Edison, was eager to set the record straight about smart meters. She said that she was there to share information and correct the rumors (it was reminiscent of how the CC addresses purportedly misinformed citizens). “Given the technological changes it is understandable that some people may have questions,” she said. However, she asserted that the smart meters raised no privacy concerns, had been tested for safety, and were no cause for alarm. Mayor McLean thanked Sanchez for her message, but closed the topic by re-stating the number to delay installation of a smart meter at one’s home. It was clear that McLean had not been convinced.

Pam Hogan, of Veterans Memorial Committee, Inc., spoke about a subject that clearly upset her. A pedestal/plaque was recently added to the Veterans Historical Plaza. It honors State Senator Pete Knight, an accomplished Air Force vet who helped secure funding for the plaza before his death in 2004. The trouble was, Hogan and other members of the Veterans Memorial Committee didn’t want the plaque. As summarized in an agenda item from August of this year, “SCV Veterans Memorial, Inc. considered the proposal, and prefers that the recognition for Senator Knight be consistent with the recognition for Assemblyman Runner, as both gentlemen were pivotal in securing funding for the purchase of the property that became the Plaza.[3] In other words, they wanted Knight’s name on the donor wall, not on a special plaque. Hogan and her husband, a Vietnam vet,felt that the City Council had seriously disrespected them by ignoring their opinion on the plaque. I’m not clear on why the recognition was so contested and the cause for so much offense (comment if you know), but you can read the old agenda item for more information[3].

Before the meeting adjourned, Laurie Ender turned to Frank Ferry and reminded him that he came very close to death due to surgical complications this time last year (she used different words, obviously). “Of the many things I’m thankful for, a year later, you’re still here,” she told Frank.

Happy Thanksgiving.

[1]Here's a very small agenda

[2]Common questions about smart meters, answered

[3]Here's the item

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happenings: Cam Takes a Stand, Pulskampery Ensues

They got their voting stickers: did you?

Our City Council, august and meticulous as it is, sometimes appears to just rubber-stamp staff recommendations. Despite the fact that millions of budget dollars, tens of thousands of people, and hundreds of acres of land were affected by this evening’s Consent Calendar[1,2], no one on the City Council had anything to say except Mayor Marsha McLean, who made a brief remark about permeable pavement. The lack of discussion was of concern to beloved/maligned local activist Cam Noltemeyer—a concern she made apparent with her unique brand of civic theatrics.

Rather little happened before the Consent Calendar portion of the meeting. The invocation was Councilmember Frank Ferry’s. He read a nice prayer in honor of Veterans Day. The sole presentation came from Southern California Edison/Edison International. It was a proclamation detailing SoCal Edison's greatness and its appreciation that Santa Clarita does business with such a great company. Handshakes and pictures followed.

Mayor McLean asked if there were any items that public speakers wanted pulled from the Consent Calendar for discussion. The City Clerk rattled off a list that may have been longer than McLean had expected. The Mayor’s visage and voice sank ever so slightly as she accepted the stack of speaker cards with a drawled “OoooK.”

Public comments on various items followed. By public comments, I mean comments by Cam Noltemeyer. She decided to take a stand against hasty agenda approval this evening by forcing attention on several items for at least her three minutes of allotted speaking time. Lynne Plambeck would assist in this endeavor.

First up was a $60,000/year recurring advertising campaign on behalf of local auto-dealers, part of the “shop local” program. In case you didn't know, local purchases generate local tax revenue that is spent--you guessed it--locally. Here, it was Noltemeyer versus Fleming. (I issued a FlemWatch Alert on Friday; I hope you took heed.) Noltemeyer pointed out that $50,000 was given to Hart Baseball at the last meeting, but it was contingent on delivering concrete results (i.e., specific numbers of hotel rooms had to be booked for baseball tournaments). She wanted to know why the auto dealers weren’t being compelled to deliver similarly concrete results.[3]

In support of the advertising plan was Don Fleming of Valencia Acura, as if you didn’t know. He said a lot of words about partnering and community and trying to do a billion dollars in sales on auto row.

It was satisfying to hear City Manager Ken Pulskamp directly respond to a public question on this matter. Cam had asked “Where are the goals that they’re required to meet?” When it was his turn to respond, Pulskamp replied “There’s a very clear goal: explain to the public the benefits of shopping locally.” OK, so the actual content of the reply wasn’t particularly satisfying, but you take what you can get. He went on to claim that for the $60K investment, the City makes back “$3,822,000 and some change.” Obviously, this is baloney. The total amount of tax revenue from auto dealers is about $3.8M for the year. Unless everyone who bought a car in Santa Clarita did so because of the annual $60K shop local advertising campaign, that’s a grossly inflated figure for return-on-investment.

More items on the Consent Calendar slowly ticked by, marked by Noltemeyer's approach and retreat from the microphone. In many instances, it was the principle of an item—rather than the specific item itself—that was cause for concern. Regarding a plan to reimburse a developer for road construction, Noltemeyer expressed her dismay that taxpayer dollars are used to help build roads and bridges that will make the Mission Village development feasible. “Lennar should have paid for it”, she said. (The item in question was unrelated—a road construction reimbursement going to Williams Homes for work on Sierra Highway.)

When it came to the question of whether to purchase land for a park-and-ride, Lynne Plambeck was pleased with the idea of promoting the use of public transportation, but she wasn’t keen on the location. The proposed site comprises 6.4 acres of oak savannah by McBean and Valencia Boulevard for a price of $1.2M. Plambeck suggested a multi-story structure could be installed closer to the mall in order to keep a remnant of valley oak savannah from being paved over. She also wondered about the status of CEQA planning and compliance for the project, since it will be destroying a small but significant chunk of wilderness. The next speaker was a man who works at Boeing. He was wholly supportive of the park-and-ride. He described the difficulties of finding a parking lot that can accommodate the vehicles from his daily 14-person vanpool. He pointed out that the proposed site was rather ideal in that it would be safe and convenient, located near both transit facilities and the freeway.

City Manager Ken Pulskamp’s response proved unsatisfying from an ecological perspective. First, he deigned not to respond to a direct question about CEQA. Regarding the chopping down of three stately Valley Oaks, he said that it was three oaks cut and 87 oak saplings planted for “a net gain of 84 oaks.” .” Technically, he’s right. But then, so too would be someone who claimed that chucking a trio of Picassos for 87 Thomas Kinkades would be a net gain of 84 paintings.[4]

Public Participation followed the City Council’s unanimous, discussion-less approval of the Consent Calendar. It served as a forum for an elderly man to convey the need for a local police department. More focused comments came from Doris and Kent Carlson. They complained about filming companies getting carte blanche with their filming permits. Kent Carlson related an incident where he was bothered by extremely bright filming lights at night. He said that he spoke to a deputy from the Sheriff’s Department (paid $802 for the night by the film company, Carlson claimed) who was dismissive and told him to move along when he asked to see the filming company’s permit and asked questions about permit enforcement. Pulskamp asserted that filming is an important and valued industry in Santa Clarita, but that they work to be mindful of homeowner needs as well.

The meeting ended at 7:20.

[1]Here's the agenda.
2]No, those numbers are not employed rhetorically. Millions of dollars: land purchases, road projects, and so on add up to millions of dollars for tonight's various items. Tens of thousands of people: land purchases and tax-dollar expenditures affect all residents directly or indirectly. Hundreds of acres of land: zoning and annexation for 540 acres in Sand Canyon for pre-zoning/annexation.
[3]Furthermore, the Hart money came only from a special tax on hotels. When Cam went to return to her seat, the Mayor said she should stay up front since she had turned in a number of speaker cards and would be at the microphone again soon.
Noltemeyer kept walking, which caused Mayor McLean to say “Well we’ll start your time from when you walk up.” When Noltemeyer returned, she would snap back by saying “Don’t yell at people when they come here.”
Pulskamp’s style of answering questions will be immediately familiar to anyone who has watched the Republican debates or interviews with legislators or White House briefings—he responds like a politician. Questions are met with over-simplified statements and generalizations, and he simply doesn’t answer the ones he doesn’t like.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happenings: Baseball Tourism, Historic Indecision

Tonight: the City Council acted as middleman in a tourism deal, the southern Sand Canyon area is all but annexed, and history hangs in the balance (well, at least historical structures)[1].
Councilmember Laurene Weste delivered the invocation. She made an appeal to support the Homes for Heroes program which is doing a major renovation of a local veteran’s home as its November 5th kick-off event. The primary sponsors are the Southern California Gas Company in partnership with KHTS[2].

What would a City Council meeting be without awards and recognition? Shorter. In any event, the ladies of Soroptimist International were on deck this evening. I learned that there are two distinct chapters—one for Santa Clarita Valley and the other for Greater Santa Clarita Valley. These competing factions called a truce to support the “Color Me Pink” and “Color Me Purple” campaigns. Pink (and the month of October) are devoted to the fight to end breast cancer, and purple (and November) to the fight to end domestic violence. A sea of soroptimists flooded the dais to receive the recognition, each member insisting on giving hugs to each and every council member. It took a solid two minutes.

Next, the new director of the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, Rachelle Dardeau, introduced herself. She was gracious and warm, thanking the City for their support of the center’s important mission to nourish the oldies with food and friendship.

General comments from council members were given next, and they would take up a hefty chunk of the evening. Councilmember Frank Ferry recalled asking staff to provide resources for resolving neighborly disputes, which have been increasingly common and violent of late. There is now a page on the City’s website that links you to resources about how to talk to a neighbor you’re having problems with. To meet Ferry's request, staff apparently Googled "neighbor disputes" and pared down the results for Claritans in crisis.

I like the ironic modifier: "Neighborly Disputes".

Ferry also suggested that families visit Saugus Speedway to catch a glimpse of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. The piney cadaver will be placed on big trucks and carted into town on its way to Washington, D.C. If you’ve never seen a large, recently felled tree lying on its side in a truck, here’s your chance[3]. A food drive is also part of the event, and sounds decidedly more worthwhile. Mayor Pro-tem Laurie Ender had no comments apart from wishing Councilmember Weste a happy birthday. In a charming moment, Frank told everyone Laurene was turning 29 years old.

Perhaps because she was reminded of her own mortality—that’s what birthdays are for, right?—Weste devoted her comments to preserving Santa Clarita’s historic structures. She said that she wanted staff to do a study of what communities have done “across the nation” to preserve their local history.

Councilmember Bob Kellar emphatically disagreed with Laurene’s plan for additional research. “At some point in time we have to say, ‘We’ve done our homework.’” He contended that that time was now, noting that the City has been working on a permanent ordinance for historic preservation for half-a-decade. Ferry weighed in next, saying he would require a clear definition of what makes a structure historic, the ability to opt-in to a listing program rather than be forced into it, and an emphasis on pursuing public ownership of valuable, historic buildings. Mayor Marsha McLean said that she agreed with Weste that more study was needed and wanted the Planning Commission to reconsider the issue.

At this suggestion, Ferry said “I have no idea what the Planning Commission did. I don’t watch them…” (Shocker.) McLean explained that they had essentially de-fanged the ordinance, making historic listing a strictly opt-in process. There was considerable discussion of this, and City Attorney Joe Montes was visibly uncomfortable. He reminded the Council that they could only discuss whether to instruct staff to perform more research, since the topic of historic preservation was not on the agenda for the evening. Everyone but Kellar agreed to more study, which City Manager Ken Pulskamp said would take about six months.

Some, like Laurie Ender and Bob Kellar, were worried about how owners of the 49 listed properties would deal with the financial burdens of being unable to modify their property and having to disclose the possibility of historic designation to interested buyers for at least six more months. In a rare moment of empathy with the affected owners, Pulskamp said that he imagined the people on the list would feel that their property values were being adversely affected. Unfortunately, he immediately followed this statement by equivocating on whether they’d be right or wrong about feeling a financial burden.

Once this discussion was over, the Consent Calendar was approved in its entirety. There was some interest in an item to give Hart Baseball $50,000 (and up to another $50,000 per year for the next three years). The funds will be used to improve the fields and facilities in order to support tournaments that bring with them out-of-towners who spend money on hotels, at restaurants, and so on. Alan Ferdman objected to using taxpayer dollars to benefit baseball players and hotel owners. However, Pulskamp said the money would be coming from a tax that Claritan hotels pay expressly in order to boost tourism. In short, the City is the middleman, taking money from hotels and giving it to Hart baseball so that visiting ball players’ families will make more money for hotels. Dana Cop of the SCV Chamber of Commerce gave the proposal her full support. City Manger Pulskamp said this was a key way to get families to start “spending a whole lot more money” by being required to stay one or more nights in Santa Clarita. The goal is to have eight tournaments hosted in Santa Clarita by year four of this tourism partnership.

There was also a bit of discussion of Agenda Item 3, which renewed a contract with Data Ticket, Inc., a private parking enforcement company. Mayor McLean said that she wanted a bit of “discretion” in how harshly parking was enforced. She relayed an email from a man who was literally forced to carry his daughter from his car and who parked where he oughtn’t for a mere five minutes. Ferry and Ender pointed out that showing discretion in such circumstances is a very hard thing to do. One can’t tell if a car is parked illegally for the worst or best of intentions; red zones exist for a reason; etc. McLean was forced to be satisfied with the recommendation that special circumstances be handled in an appeal at court. The City Manager also promised to remind the company that it use good judgment when enforcing parking. The parking program is revenue-positive for the City ($300,000 in expenditures, $450,000 in revenue, of which $125,000 goes to the State). Furthermore, people in Santa Clarita love to help enforcers. 2,523 eService requests were completed, most for parking enforcement or abandoned vehicle requests.

Per usual, road maintenance and beautification projects provided additional, comment-free bulk to the Consent Calendar. Once those items were approved, a measure to approve the annexation and pre-zone of nearly 700 acres in south Sand Canyon was passed to a second reading. There is a movie ranch overlay zone to accommodate the Sable Ranch and Rancho Deluxe movie ranches. In case you had forgotten, the Santa Clarita Economic Development Corporation reminded us that movies are a big industry in the SCV.

Public participation followed. Alan Ferdman, who is nothing if not persistent, spoke about sanitation fees and board meetings. He was concerned that Santa Claritans have not been afforded a convenient opportunity to speak out against the millions of dollars being spent to comply with questionable chloride limits. He reminded the audience that more than $20M will be spent on planning a treatment plant alone; implementation and operation of the plant would cost many times more. A woman named Jennifer Adams also spoke. From her mobility scooter, she said that sidewalks near her home are in poor repair and make it difficult for her to get around. Pulskamp was distressed (embarrassed?) that she had felt compelled to come to City Hall to make this appeal and said a simple call would have received a response. Apparently there is a “pot of money” for just such unforeseen repairs.

The meeting adjourned at 7:27.

[1]Care to read the agenda? You can.
[2]Homes for Heroes
[3]That’s really the event. Read more here and here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Happenings: City Upset That Newhall Fills Vacancy

This is written in response to Leon Worden's article from SCVNews[1], which broke the story of the phoenix-like rebirth of an American small business. He, however, used somewhat more pejorative terms. The article can be read here. Be sure to check out the helpful map.

Automotive Technology, Mike Hagerty’s shop in Newhall, employed about a dozen people, did well over a million in sales, had several 5-star reviews online (and one one-star review, to be fair), and managed to keep its doors open through the recession[2]. Quite logically, the City of Santa Clarita decided to kick them out of town. In an article from The Signal[3] last year, Hagerty reacted to being evicted by the City, his new landlord:

"'With the old landlord, it was a handshake, a phone call,' Hagerty said. 'I was 15 days late to renew the five-year lease, according to the paperwork. So it’s out by the first of December. Merry Christmas to our family and everybody else around here. What did Automotive [Technology] do that was so bad?'"

Now, Hagerty has beaten them at their own game. He was made to shut down shop in downtown Newhall, but is right back again--right back in downtown Newhall. The City and Redevelopment Agency are not happy about this[4].

You see, the powers that be want downtown Newhall to become a place for a night out. They envision a land of theaters, wine bars, galleries, cafes, and boutiques. They do not want it to be a place that meets the more mundane, day-to-day needs of Newhallians, such as auto repair. Leon Worden elaborates in his article published yesterday:

"Current city codes prohibit the types of businesses that would impede that vision of a pedestrian-oriented shopping, dining and entertainment corridor. Banned from the five blocks of Main Street are auto shops, big-box stores, medical clinics, print shops, movie sound stages, drive-through restaurants and other businesses that interfere with a window-shopping and outdoor patio dining experience."

Indeed, Automotive Technology interfered with the sacred “window-shopping and outdoor patio dining experience.” To get them to leave town, the City bought (well, technically your tax dollars bought) a whole block that included the space Automotive Technology rented. The City evicted them and paid out a settlement of $255,000.

Automotive Technology found a new place to do business, and they started leasing there. The brilliant bit is that the new space is a stone’s throw away from their old shop, within sight of the new library, the nascent crown jewel of Old Town.

They managed this coup by moving into a vacant space formerly occupied by a motorcycle repair shop. Property owners can lease to “forbidden” tenants (vehicle repair shops, in this case) if done within 180 days of the other tenant leaving. This seems like a common-sense provision so that owners don't lose too much money waiting around for a more "desirable" business to rent their space.

While Worden calls the 180-day provision a "loophole" and sees a story of look-what-they-got-away-with!, I see it as a story of an-underdog-finally-won!. The City/Redevelopment Agency wields unprecedented power in Newhall. They are owner and landlord of more than a full block of town, they are generally successful in dictating what kind of business can and cannot set up shop, they spend taxpayer dollars on events to woo shoppers into town (events not lavished on other parts of the City of Santa Clarita), they have sunk millions of dollars into a library to replace an existing one mere blocks away, and they have used the power of eminent domain to forcibly take property. When a small business manages to persist with such uneven odds, it's hard not to cheer.

Now we just sit back and wonder whether more eminent domain awaits...

[1]SCVNEWS. Compare this with the story from The Signal (linked in footnote 3), which is far more sympathetic to the evictees.
numbers are from BizFind and may be outdated (or inaccurate--it's the Internet, as they say); there's simply no indication of how current they are. At least they serve to give you a ballpark estimate of the scale of the business.
[3]From The Signal for additional background and quotations.
[4]I base this inference on Gail Ortiz's quotation that they are trying to stop a similar event from happening again.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Only in SCV: Big Day for Birds--and Birders

The Big Year premiers today[1]. You may have seen previews—it’s that movie with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson about the obsessive pursuit of birds.

The National Audubon Society has, rather troublingly, spent six-figures on advertising the movie to its legions of birdwatching members and potential new recruits, so pivotal do they feel this moment will be in birding culture[2]. Obviously, the movie isn't going to be a blockbuster. It's being reviewed with words like "amiable", "affable" and "pleasant" at best. But I'm a pragmatist, and I too will seize on this moment, ideal or not, to talk about Santa Clarita's birds and the people who heart them...people like me. Really, how often are we topical?

You do what?

People always seem perplexed by what birdwatching/birding[3] is and why we bother. It’s exactly like it sounds—you look at birds and identify them, although any decent birder can also identify species by their calls and songs. Where’s the fun in that?, one rather logically asks, eyebrows furrowed. For starters, over 600 species of birds have been documented in California alone[4]. Learning to identify them and appreciating their stories quickly becomes engrossing. Our humble backyard mockingbirds somehow hold hundreds of different songs in their hazelnut-sized brains. In spring, you can train your binoculars on the night sky to see warblers and thrushes silhouetted against the moon, the merest indication that literally billions of birds are flying by night to reach breeding grounds thousands of miles away in Canada. And at any moment, miles offshore, there is a stream of skuas, shearwaters, and murrelets for which land is as alien as their open sea home is to us. The lives of birds are as diverse as they are astounding.

Another part of the appeal comes from birding’s listing aspect, the basis for big years. There is something in human nature that loves collecting. Tallying lists of the birds we observe satisfies this compulsion—lists of species seen in a particular place, over the course of a year, or throughout a lifetime. It's exciting to pursue birds that have no interest in cooperating with us. But even when not thrilled by the hunt for new list birds, the act of recording our observations gives a reason to be outside, sharpening and structuring our observations of nature. It also constantly renews our passion--this may be the millionth Canada Goose I’ve seen in a lifetime, but it’s the first one one for today.

Finally, one of our core motivations for birding (I hope) is a commitment to conservation. A drive to conserve birds has produced some of the world’s most rigorous examples of science conducted by non-professionals. Breeding bird surveys, nestbox monitoring projects, and migration counts mean we know more about birds than any other taxon of wild animals. It's made birds our best sentinels of environmental change and ideal poster-children for conservation.

That’s the best case I can make for birding’s appeal. But like any other avocation, something just has to click for you to really get into it. Some people are going to get a rush from seeing a Black Swift wheeling lithely overhead or from hearing the call of a drab little bird that cinches its identification as Cordilleran Flycatcher. Most will not. But if you’ve ever been obsessed with a sports team or winning a baking competition or memorized all the lines to some dumb sci-fi movies (no offense), you can at least sympathize with the single-minded, at times obsessive, pursuit of birds.

As for how this pursuit plays out in Santa Clarita, here are three vignettes.

The $11 Loon

The great thing about birds is that they fly (well, most do), and can end up far from where they are supposed to occur when, say, they make a wrong turn on migration. One of the big motivators for birders is the knowledge that some of these birds—vagrants, as they are called—will blunder into our local patches of field and forest.

When a vagrant is seen, there is a predictable cascade of events. First comes a moment of disbelief, followed by intent study of diagnostic characteristics of the particular species, followed by hurried photographing or note-jotting to document the rarity, followed by getting the rare bird alert out over phones and online. Depending on how good the bird is, other birders will hurry out into the field, keen on seeing the rarity and verifying your sighting.

Santa Clarita’s last big rarity was Yellow-billed Loon. Loons are sleek yet solid birds with massive dagger-like bills, stout compositions, and powerful legs. This puts them at home on the water, where they dive for fish. Many species are easy to find, but a Yellow-billed Loon is not one of them. That particular species is really at home in northern Canada or Siberia. But on March 8, 2010, a group of twenty birders found a Yellow-billed Loon on Castaic Lake.

This is what happens when a good bird is found. A posting on the LACoBirds group on Yahoo instantly reaches 1,057 LA-area birders, a few of whom may drop everything to chase down the rare bird.

This became LA’s first chaseable Yellow-billed Loon. I say “chaseable” because it stayed put for a while, allowing eager birders to re-sight it again and again. The sole other record for the county was seen as a fly-by off the coast in the late 1970s—decidedly not chaseable. The Yellow-billed Loon sitting on Castaic Lake, then, represented a first-in-a-lifetime species for LA’s many birders. That’s another key note: California birders are passionate about their county lists and want to add a bird like this to it, even if they've already seen it dozens of times outside the county.

I had to get out to Castaic Lake to see the loon, my drive considerably shorter than the one faced by birders coming from Orange County or San Diego. As I got close to the pull-out, I looked for a tell-tale clump of birders huddled around expensive Swarovski spotting scopes and impossibly enormous telephoto lenses. That’s a sure sign that the bird is still on the water. I scanned and scanned but didn’t see that reassuring clump of humanity. Regretting that I had waited a few days to come out for the bird, I drove up to the parking kiosk. The attendant said hello and apparently noticed my binoculars, for she knowingly proffered a very birderly statement, one that gives the hearer as much satisfaction as the teller: “It’s still here!” After her three words, our shared smile, and an $11 parking fee, I had seen it, too.

Bird-watching pumps $36 billion into the economy each year[5], and here was Santa Clarita’s own little piece of the pie[6]: scores of $11 parking passes purchased by people who had come to Castaic not to jet-ski or bass fish but to stare at a Yellow-billed Loon, their first real chance in the history of birding in LA County. Considering most birders are, ahem, older, the senior discount made it not a bad deal at all.

The Endemic, Rare, and Endangered

Even our common birds are good ones, if you keep a global perspective. In twenty minutes on the Santa Clara River, you can see about half-a-dozen of California’s endemics or near-endemics—bird species found nowhere on earth but California, sometimes a bit of Oregon, Nevada or Baja as well. These birds are Oak Titmouse, California Towhee, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Nuttall’s Woodpecker and, on a good day, maybe a flock of Tricolored Blackbirds (don’t you just love bird names?). For people living outside the Golden State, these are destination birds. They don’t do much in the way of migrating or dispersing far afield, so it’s very unlikely they’re going to inadvertently make it to Florida or New York, much less Britain or Australia. Many of our endemics are rather drab, blending in well with their brushy homes. But what they lack in color they make up for in song, filling our hills with a chorus of chips, chants, whistles, and trills that can only be heard in California.

In addition to these endemics, many of which are locally abundant, we also have some globally rare birds. The endangered California Condor is in a class of its own. It is immense, weighing over 20 pounds with a wingspan of nine feet, an arresting image in flight. But it is another number that’s far more staggering. There are just shy of 200 California Condors living in the wild at this moment; most of us have more Facebook friends than there are condors. Without extraordinary captive breeding efforts and millions of dollars spent in on-going monitoring, feeding, and conservation, they would most certainly have gone extinct. Yet the few that remain are often seen in and around town, especially on canyon drives through Placerita and Sand Canyons[7].

There is something bittersweet about glimpsing a species like the California Condor soaring free. The sight is special for a reason in which you can take no relish: we almost lost them and may still lose them yet.


Let’s close this discussion in the way we close the year of birding in Santa Clarita: with the Christmas Bird Count. A CBC is an attempt to identify and count every single bird in a 15-mile diameter circle in 24-hours. The National Audubon Society makes all of the data collected available to scientists and enthusiasts alike. Some count circles, as they’re called, have been counted for more than 100 consecutive years. A map on Audubon’s CBC website shows that America is literally blanketed with these end-of-year counts, a vast and comprehensive data pool for biologists.

The effort in Santa Clarita usually yields some 130 species of birds. Non-birders are often astounded—maybe astounded is a strong word—by the fact that there are so many species in Santa Clarita. Most of the SCV’s CBCs also turn up unusual finds. Black-and-white Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Harris’s Sparrow, and Red-necked Grebe are all fine birds seen on previous CBCs, not typical of this part of California (again, such wonderful names). One discovery, a Painted Redstart, even got local kids birding. It’s a gorgeous creature: jet black with a brilliant scarlet belly, bold white wing patches, and a delicate white crescent cradling its eye. For weeks, one darted among the pines of Newhall Memorial Park, as it would have done in the forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, where it was expected to occur. The kids at the adjacent Boys & Girls Club took a trip to visit the bird, naming it Paco[8].

Christmas bird counts continue annually, drawing anywhere from 15 to 30 people. It’s a mixing of seasoned observers with enthusiastic beginners. This is especially true in years where The Signal runs a story and draws in locals. Otherwise, Claritans are sorely lacking at the event. It may be an odd way to spend the morning, counting the number of Glaucous-winged Gulls on Castaic Lake or estimating the size of a flock of Cedar Waxwings flying overhead or going to great lengths to make sure that we are indeed counting a bird as Red-naped Sapsucker, not Yellow-bellied or a hybrid. But count we do, every year. We put on jackets over jackets and imitate owl calls at five in the morning and slog through mud in pursuit of animals that we love to watch and long to know and have a vague but intent urge to protect for others to enjoy long after we’re gone. We count birds because birds count—to us, at least.

[1]It’s shocking to learn what the movie is about judging from the previews, which made it look like The Bucket List, but with more falling down. Here’s the film's website and generally unimpressed reviews from Rotten Tomatoes.
[2]There is supposedly some Audubon branding throughout the movie, but really, this investment of my dues makes me cringe. A small fraction of people may be deeply affected by movies—say those who perversely got clownfish after watching Finding Nemo or kids who dive into dictionaries after watching one of the spelling bee movies—but let’s be sensible here. This is, at best, a sweet little pleasant film, not a force to spawn thousands of eager new birders ready to send checks to their local Audubon chapter.
[3]People get overly concerned about the distinction between bird-watching and birding. Birding is just shorter and easier to say, so many people use it as their default bird verb. However, it usually connotes a more intense and practiced pursuit of the observation of birds than, say, enjoying “the pretty red bird” that eats at your sunflower seed bird feeder (it’s called a House Finch). Birders are also often the sort who will travel to “chase” rare birds that are reported elsewhere, whereas bird-watchers are typically happy watching most anything.
[4]Here’s the list of all those birds, as published by the California Bird Records Committee. World-wide, there are another 9,000+ species more. Literally no one on earth has ever seen all the living species of birds. Ever. Some have gotten close.
[5]So says the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
[6]Well, technically, the money went to the County, but you’ll allow me some thematic license, won’t you?
[7] LA’s most authoritative birder, Kimball Garrett, reported seeing one from near Vista Valencia golf course this past May, so most anywhere is fair game for a condor flyover.
[8]Paco may have been a girl. There's no way to tell from afar. So here's his/her story.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Happenings: 65 Minutes of Nothingness

Sometimes I wonder, Councilmember Weste.

All of City Hall’s important business is saved for just before the holidays or when people are away on summer vacations[1]. This mid-October meeting, then, was predictably tedious—just a consent calendar and the usual chorus of come-to-this and donate-to-that and hooray-for-us.

Mayor Pro-tem Laurie Ender delivered the invocation. She said that breast cancer is a bummer, the refrain we hear most everywhere this time of year.

Recognition went to the Rubber Ducky Regatta fundraising event held annually at Castaic Lake for Samuel Dixon Family Health Centers. A large yellow ducky came up to accept the proclamation for Rubber Ducky Regatta Day. Well, I thought it was a duck until it strode off stage and pulled off its head, revealing it had been an imposter—a man wearing a duck costume!-all along. This disappointing revelation soured my enjoyment of the rest of the meeting.

Next, LA County Sheriff Captain Paul Becker spoke about his anti-gang task-force. He said that gangs have been “migrating” from major cities to suburbs, drawn by Santa Clarita’s proximity to Los Angeles and the promise of customers with plenty of disposable income for drugs. He also talked about using localized crime prevention zones to maximize efficient deployment of law enforcement resources. And he stressed that Santa Clarita has never been statistically safer, judging by aggregate crime statistics.

The City Council harbors the collective illusion (or delusion; take your pick) that more than a handful of Claritans are watching them conducting the City’s business. As such, they indulge in a round-robin series of updates and reports that—whether dull or innocuous or important or admirable—aren’t really heard by too many people. But they like going through the motions. As such, Councilmember Laurene Weste spoke about the Homes for Heroes kick-off event next month to help meet veterans’ housing needs. Councilmember Kellar reiterated that the rubber ducky regatta was a worthwhile event. Mayor Pro-tem Ender encouraged people to attend Daniel Pearl World Music Day, a tribute to the journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by Al-Qaeda. Councilmember Frank Ferry applauded the marriage of Dennis Luppens, long-time bachelor and Santa Clarita Special Districts Administrator, to Carrie Barnes. The ceremony took place in the very chambers in which the council was presently assembled. Aww. Finally, the Mayor wants you to take a survey about community services on the City of Santa Clarita’s website, and she mentioned that you can learn a new language using software available for free at the libraries. Swell updates, all.

The Consent Calendar was approved without much in the way of discussion, save some recognition of City employees for completion of the most recent phase of the I-5/Magic Mountain Parkway road improvements. Laurene Weste also expressed appreciation that the City will try to acquire open space in Agua Dulce by applying for a grant from the State. It would cover up to $250,000 of an unmentioned purchase price. The parcel is over 1100 acres of potential mining property—ask the nearest real estate agent to do the numbers (one's never far off in the SCV).

Among other items approved were revisions to personnel rules to govern City employees. These rules are mostly what you’d expect: helpful reminders to employees that no, it’s not OK to threaten co-workers with a gun and you can be disciplined for being drunk at work, accepting bribes, or sleeping on the job (that last one is Rule XI, Section 2S). Why even bother showing up for work? However, the revisions approved pertained to representation by Service Employees International Union, the rightly maligned and dreaded acronym that is SEIU. Finally, Newhall Hardware has been officially freed of the shackles of potential designation as a historic site with the second reading and passage of an ordinance modifying the current Historic Preservation Ordinance. Basically, it is no longer of official historic value--yay. The City shouldn’t have been able to have it both ways, at once destroying the shop when it altered Old Town Newhall's traffic flow, then refusing to let the owners sell their place to let it become something else. Many other buildings are still in a kind of historic preservation limbo.

There was some confusion as a woman wanted to be sure that she got to speak while the council members were trying to unanimously approving the consent calendar. After assurances that she could speak in just a moment, all items were passed with the recommended actions.

Public Participation followed. An elderly man expressed concern over Lee Baca and prisoner abuse. He was distressed at how much condemnation is coming out from the media before all the facts are known, yet also made it clear that prisoner abuse is a very real problem that must be adequately addressed, yet also emphasized that Baca should have his day in court, and also felt that taxpayers shouldn’t be put in a position to be liable for violent abuses perpetrated by law enforcement. Everyone found something to agree with. Alan Ferdman had a more focused message, challenging the City Council to stay committed to fighting unfair chloride regulations. Recall that millions of dollars are being spent to start planning for a chloride treatment plant that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Mayor McLean would tell Ferdman that they are only doing what must be done to avoid potentially enormous(er) fines from authorities.

Finally, Rudy Losorelli pleaded with the City to help him reach some kind of solution to his problem with a profoundly inconsiderate neighbor. You likely remember the name and the story. Losorelli and his family live literally feet away from a fenced tennis court with very bright lights. The court is only one part of what they describe as a “commercial sports complex” in the middle of the otherwise quiet Happy Valley neighborhood. He and his wife spoke about safety concerns as 100 mph tennis balls might come flying into their yard or through their windows at any moment. Mrs. Losorelli said that a number of City personnel have been out to try and mediate the problems, but “We’re losing faith,” she despaired.

“Folks, I gotta tell you something: [dramatic pause] You couldn’t give this house away,” lamented Bob Kellar, folksily. He said the City needs to work harder and faster on the problem, and wants an agenda item to look over code to insure that no other homeowner is forced into a situation like the one facing the Losorelli family. “This…stinks!” said Ender of the situation, after talking about how the man who uses the courts doesn’t even live on-site.

The meeting ended at 7:05.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happenings: Not Enough Garbage, Too Many Ballots

At tonight's City Council meeting, the members took a very hands-on approach to reducing competition for local businesses, contemplated landscape districts, and were warned about becoming party to a UN conspiracy to wrest sovereignty and freedom from the United States, one city at a time.

Best in the World

Of course, none of this could happen before the City Council took time for awards and recognitions. The Hart Pony Mustang Baseball Team defeated teams from Texas, Illinois, the Philippines, Mexico, and ultimately Puerto Rico to become Pony Mustang World Series champs. One of their coaches said that when he told other teams that they were from Santa Clarita, "They say, 'Wow, that's a great place.'" (Apparently the whole world hearts SCV). Next, Andrew Skinner and the Triumph Foundation were recognized for their service to people with spinal cord injuries.

Box Town

Councilmember updates followed the feel-good portion of the evening. Councilmember Bob Kellar had already mentioned the many wonderful programs held in recognition of 9/11 during his invocation (he specifically lauded Route 66, the Elks Lodge, a very impressive turnout at the Performing Arts Center, and a service at Northpark Community Church.) He suggested residents continue in the patriotic spirit by attending an upcoming Constitution Day Summit. Councilmember Laurene Weste reminded the audience about the website; she said, with grave emphasis, "The high is a lie." Mayor Pro-tem Laurie Ender talked about an event where you can sleep in a cardboard refrigerator box city for a night to raise money for Family Promise[2], which helps homeless families in Santa Clarita. I have many fond memories of time spent in refrigerator boxes so, rather perversely, I look forward to this event with a mix of nostalgia and charity. If you want to send me donations to help reach the $100 fundraising goal for entry into Box City...nevermind, that would complicate our blogger-reader relationship; just send money to Family Promise directly. And Mayor Marsha McLean said, among other things, that children will have a chance to "read to a dog" at local libraries, a means of getting over the fear of reading aloud and public speaking. Sigh.

A Grand Conspiracy

The City considered joining the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability (LARC) as a step toward meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals as mandated by AB 32. On the LARC Membership Charter is language regarding a United Nations goal of sustainability, and LARC counts among its members ICLEI--Local Governments for Sustainability (the retained but now defunct acronym stood for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives). The reasons the City Council plans to join are simple: it may make meeting EIR demands for greenhouse gas reduction easier (this is relevant to big projects like One Valley One Vision), and the commitment to greenhouse gas reduction implied by membership would provide "leverage for grant funding," in the words of Mayor McLean. Basically, they pay to join an organization that makes them look green and thus more deserving of green grant money.

Though membership wouldn't place any requirements for action on the City, a few public speakers thought joining LARC was tantamount to treason. Ed Ventresca called it "seditious, if not treasonous behavior" to surrender power to the ICLEI/UN operatives planning to assume some measure of world control under the guise of greenhouse gas reduction. (I may be misstating the particulars as his tirade was a bit non-linear). The typically reasonable Alan Ferdman expressed similar concerns. While membership in LARC may be ineffective or unimportant or lame, it's hardly the end of the world it was made out to be, but Councilmember Kellar was sufficiently disturbed by public testimony that he had discussion of this item continued to the next meeting.

In another atypical moment for Ferdman, he would applaud the City. He was pleased that there were measures to make Santa Clarita safer for pedestrians and drivers. These included tonight's acceptance of intersection safety enhancements.

Not Enough Trash?--Ditch Free Market Ideals

In Santa Clarita, a temporary-bin and roll-off franchise began in 2006. Ten enterprises joined the franchise, eager to cart off and recycle trash. Membership declined to six enterprises in 2010, when franchise agreements were extended for another five years. But what about other waste-hauling companies that want to get in on the game? These include people like Tom Ybarra who spoke at tonight's meeting. He raises his family in Canyon Country, and he said that he and his wife want to work where they live, serving the waste disposal needs of the entertainment industry in Santa Clarita. No such luck.

City staff placed a request for proposals (RFP) in The Signal last month, and three enterprises sought to join the franchise. But the RFP will be terminated, and proposals for new franchise agreements not reviewed. You see, the six companies with existing franchise agreements were able to pressure the City into letting them enjoy their collective monopoly on temporary-bins and roll-offs for another several years. Speakers for nearly all of these franchise holders came forward to say there wasn't enough business, and they didn't want to face more competition. Of course, they phrased it by saying the City needs to support local business (hell, even the Chamber of Commerce showed up) and noted that they had diverted a lot of trash from landfills but, ultimately, they just didn't want anyone else competing with them.

It was surprising that Kellar and Ferry didn't offer a word of protest, instead lending this measure their full support. So companies that were around in 2006 got lucky--others will have to wait until at least 2015 when the City *might* let more haulers apply to work in Santa Clarita. Don't count me as surprised if the six current holders of franchise agreements donate to reelection campaigns.

Landscape Maintenance Districts--Part I

Reading this section is not for the faint of heart.

The City's plan for landscape maintenance assessments is, in a word, a mess. Even The Signal got it wrong in their story on the subject, conflating "districts" with "zones"[3]. And boy oh boy are those not synonymous. In any case, we should have a little background.

There are Landscape Districts 1 and T1, comprised of many different zones. Property owners in each zone vote on assessments that are scaled to and serve the landscaping needs of their zone. Votes are weighted by parcel size/property-type. But here's the weird part: since all the zones are in one district, if a majority of voters vote in favor of a body of rate adjustments, the various rate adjustments are made on all zones within the district. And here's the shady part: the vast majority of voting weight resides in the hands of residents in zones that will see a small reduction in their landscape maintenance assessment. Relatively little voting weight was held by Newhall residents, who will be paying new assessments. Assuming people vote for a measure that lowers their taxes and against a measure that raises their taxes, the assessment adjustments will pass for all, carried by the yes votes of people who stand to save a little money over their current assessment. We will find out how the votes went down once they are counted (it will take a couple days), and if there is a majority in favor of adjustments, the City Council will vote to accept them (or not). So, in a sense, tonight's discussions were either too late (to affect voters) or premature (complaining about a voting outcome not yet made official).

Councilmember Bob Kellar was understandably baffled by the situation. He asked why there couldn't be many districts instead of many zones, so that each local, geographic region could vote on their own landscaping maintenance assessments alone, and not on a sweeping, valley-wide plan. Deputy City Manager Darren Hernandez and Assistant City manager Ken Striplin (City Manager Ken Pulskamp wasn't present this evening) tried to say that they kept one big district to streamline things for City staff, essentially. This was hardly a satisfying answer. Jim Farley was among the speakers opposed[4]. Though he stands to save $13.46 with assessment adjustments, he didn't think it was fair that his vote would be forcing a new assessment on Newhall residents. Of course, most voters didn't know about the convoluted and confusing voting structure, so the many will take their tiny assessment reduction while the few (i.e., Newhall Residents) start paying a lot more. Hernandez and Striplin peddled some bullshit about how they didn't know how the votes would turn out, which is insulting and disingenuous in about equal measures.

To make this even more of a cluster-you-know-what[5], City Attorney Joe Montes said that, "in an abundance of caution," Weste, McLean, and Ender ought not participate in this discussion or, ultimately, in approving the Engineer's Report to implement the adjustments (likely to be up for a vote at the end of September). They live in or near areas undergoing the district adjustment, so they might have a conflict of interest. Montes was emphatic about stressing that it was a "potential" conflict of interest only. But that left only Ferry and Kellar, and two votes aren't enough for accepting the changes. Therefore, envelopes were given to the female councilmembers, and Weste drew the one that will let her participate in and vote on this matter, so long as she states her potential conflicts up front and goes through some other basic protocols.

In short, all of this is being played out to Weste, Kellar, and Ferry alone, and Kellar's pretty frustrated by the whole thing (the other two are mum). Look for Part II come September 27th.

"The most obscene thing I have ever seen..."

During Public Participation, we heard another ICLEI guy speak, but the most relevant comments concerned chloride and its removal from water sent down the Santa Clara River. Cam Noltemeyer was outraged about plans to spend $21M on a facilities plan and EIR for a treatment center to reduce chlorides[6]. Councilmember Weste explained what had prompted the action. They had received a Notice of Violation for high chloride levels. Weste said the City couldn't stand to face a fine, which could be as high as $10 per gallon per day that water exceeds the acceptable chloride limits. And with 20-million gallons of water sent downstream per day, that would be a potential fine of $200M a day[7]. "The fining is the most obscene thing I have ever seen...the most egregious abuse of power...I resent it," declared Weste. Without saying it directly, it seemed like this design plan and EIR are being funded to buy some time to work out the chloride issues without paying more dearly in fines or outright embracing a plant costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build, let alone operate. Of course, if the plant is eventually required, the plans and EIR will come in handy.

The meeting ended at 8:13.

[1]Here is the agenda.
[2]Come to Box City.
[3]Here is The Signal's take, but if you read the agenda, it clearly says Newhall is a new zone, not district as the paper suggests.
[4]A relevant site.
[5]I don't know why I'm being so crude with the language tonight; apologies.
[6]Published at West Ranch Beacon.
[7]Surely that can't be right...can it? She certainly said it.