Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happenings: Ferry's Back, the City Courts a Developer

He was back lean and less-mean.



“Frank, welcome back,” said Mayor Marsha McLean to Councilmember Frank Ferry. He sat diminished in proportion but not in spirit, smiling warmly as McLean and others wished him well. It was a fine meeting during which to make his return—nothing too strenuous and no decisions to leave Claritans howling with indignation.

There was a lot of fluff at the beginning[1]. George Runner was recognized for serving as State Senator, during which time he helped secure funding for the Veterans Historical Plaza; helped author and negotiate legislation banning chloride-dumping automatic water softeners; and championed the preservation of Elsmere Canyon (to be fair, who didn’t?). Next, the Sheriff Department was recognized for helping recover a food delivery vehicle stolen from the SCV Senior Center (i.e., doing their job). This saved the center some $38,000 and allows them to continue their good work. Then Dave Hauser was recognized as Posse Member of the Year, a title awarded by the LA County Sheriff Department. Next, Councilmember Laurene Weste proclaimed the upcoming Charlie Chaplin Film Festival. It is the 75th anniversary of Modern Times, part of which was filmed in Santa Clarita, including the final scene along a relatively unchanged Sierra Highway. Finally, Captain Paul Becker came forward to announce that Santa Clarita’s crime rate had fallen in 2010. “It is a historical reduction,” he said. I have never understood the need to draw a line between two points and call it a trend; seeing fewer stolen vehicles in 2010 than 2009 is swell, but is it meaningful? That will be addressed later.

Frank Ferry was the first to offer comments during the period reserved for just that purpose. He recalled his invocation prior to Thanksgiving when he said people should cherish their family as life can change in an instant; he didn’t realize he was talking to himself. Ferry spent 35 days in the hospital (he mentioned, incidentally, that Alan Cameron made near daily calls and that he had heard from other “regulars” like Alan Ferdman and Annette Lucas). Even in his coma Ferry described himself as stubborn, attempting to pull out tubes and remove wires placed carefully by doctors. This forced his nurses to set up a 24-hour watch duty staffed by friends and family. Now recovered, Ferry will at last be leaving his parents’ care and heading home.

The other councilmember comments weren’t quite so interesting, although Mayor McLean mentioned that she’d like to do a team-building exercise with her fellow members of the City Council. Go team!

On the Consent Calendar, a few Claritans spoke about naming the cross-valley connector bridge “Fallen Warrior Memorial Bridge.” There was debate over whether it should recognize all those in the armed services or pay special tribute to those who have died while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The City Council chose the latter, Ender noting that it was as difficult and unusual as it was important to build a memorial for a war still in progress. The name will be changed to “Fallen Warriors Memorial Bridge” as well.

The next agenda item that drew comments was one declaring “Opposition to the elimination of redevelopment agencies and enterprise zones.” Governor Brown wants to cut these to help balance the budget, but they are beloved institutions in Santa Clarita. Leon Worden lamented that “Newhall has been in decline since the birth of Valencia," arguing that redevelopment monies offered a real chance for recovery. He and others said that while there were bad and wasteful redevelopment agencies out there, the one helping revitalize Newhall wasn’t one of them. Bill Kennedy made a similar argument about enterprise zones, saying “Santa Clarita is doing it right and it deserves to be preserved.” Cam Noltemeyer and Allan Cameron didn’t disagree with the statement of opposition outright, but they both wanted the City to offer alternatives of what could be cut to help balance the budget.

There were plans to move forward with a vote on a $19 special library tax, but the item was continued until May. The County collected about $28 per parcel as a library tax to support the SCV’s County-run libraries, and the City wants to be able to collect a $19 per parcel tax to support the libraries once LSSI starts operating them in July. There has been posturing over whether the City can really take the money (can you “reduce” a tax that you’re not allowed to collect in the first place?), and the continuance of this item clearly points to things not going so smoothly. However, the City has packaged the delay as a chance to be particularly assiduous with the details. While the library takeover passed in a single meeting, councilmembers must take more time and solicit more feedback when it comes to insignificant tax "reductions": “this recommended continuance will provide the City Council with additional time during which to discuss the issue of the special library tax with the Santa Clarita community.” Cute.

Needless to say, the item attracted many comments despite plans for the continuance. Carole Luteness spoke about the library on a few occasions throughout the evening and called the whole situation, variously, a “tragedy”, a “shotgun marriage” between LSSI and Santa Clarita, and a “foolhardy decision.” She also implored staff to stop purging emails regarding LSSI as she claimed they were doing. Alan Ferdman wanted to hear the rationale behind the City’s plan to collect a tax written to support County libraries. We’d all like to hear it, Alan. Deanna Hanashiro lambasted the City for spending $20,000 to collect opinions about the special library tax. By her count, the City had been freely given thousands of dollars worth of comments from public speakers, most of which were dismissed. Hanashiro added “No professional staff are planning on applying with LSSI,” so that it will truly be goodbye to all of the librarians that Claritans have come to know. Finally, David Gauny worried about the City’s seemingly baseless confidence in the takeover as a money-saving exercise. He also challenged McLean, saying that she had characterized those who protested the takeover as being union members, from out of town, or as simply misinformed. “The words you just spoke were not true. You weren’t there, so…” replied the Mayor.

In response to the public, City Manager Ken Pulskamp answered unansweringly. “Suffice it to say, we will have more books,” he offered, followed by “everything we do is open to the public,” and, “The hours will be increased.” He did not describe the rationale for tax collection, address the loss of staff, offer a basic outline of which sources will fund the library, justify the tax survey, or clear up the essentiality of the special tax. This little act of Pulskamp’s is most unbecoming of a man his age—it’s as if he sees comments as flies and lazily swats down a couple of slow ones, leaving the others to buzz annoyingly unanswered. The one meaningful thing he promised was that the vote on a special tax would not give developers votes to match their development potential, as happened with the vote on the Open Space District. He said they would get one vote if they lived in the City and that would be all.

Other proposals met less opposition. There is now a vehicle dealer sales overlay zone that will confine car sales to a few carefully chosen locations.

More importantly, the City Council approved Lewis and Shapell Operating Corporations as “prospective business partners” for developing the Whittaker-Bermite property. The City was given the option of acquiring ownership by purchasing the $13M lien on the property, and Lewis and Shapell are being, well, courted I guess? (Pulskamp used an awkward dating analogy to describe the situation after Valerie Thomas warned “Marry in haste, repent in leisure.”) There is only one year to act, so competitive bids weren’t solicited. Ferry made it sound like it had taken some doing to find a partner that had enough money, experience, etc… to jump in on such a large undertaking. Pulskamp said their first step is an open house at City Hall (5 o’clock on February 23rd) where Claritans can meet the prospective business partners.

Many members of the Citizens Advisory Group for Whittaker Bermite expressed guarded optimism. They were delighted that the City could be in control of the property. However, everything has moved so slowly with concern to the property in the past, so the speed with which the City was moving inspired concern. “You’ve got an awful lot on your plates,” warned Valerie Thomas, who believed that “This, too, is a done decision, and that concerns me tremendously.” She and others wanted more opportunity to evaluate the potential development partners. The other big concern was the cost and completeness of clean-up. “By law, Whitaker Bermite is still on the hook for this clean-up” assured Councilmember Bob Kellar, and the City Manager confirmed that the City would not be responsible for any clean-up costs of the polluted site.

The other members of the City Council were less guarded in their optimism than the public. It’s “the best news of 2011 so far,” cheered Laurie Ender.

Finally, Public Participation saw a few more comments on the issue of illegal immigration. There was some discussion of formalizing the City’s policy but Laurie Ender and Marsha McLean were very worried about the potential for such policies to lead to expensive lawsuits. It seems Kellar will come back with something to discuss at a future meeting. Former Mayor Carl Boyer hoped that Public Participation could be moved back to the start of the City Council meetings—where it belonged. Kellar and Ferry seemed receptive to the idea so long as there were safeguards to prevent a three-hour hijacking of the meeting via unending comments. Kellar said they could entertain only the first 10 speaker cards and hear the rest at the end of the meeting, while Ferry preferred Boyer’s idea of dividing a half-hour comment period by the number of speakers. But for now, public participation does—and did—signal the end of the meeting.

[1]The Agenda, for your reading pleasure.

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