Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Happenings: Cash for LSSI, Vista Canyon Approved

Most of this evening's speakers were against $1,348,000 in funding with which LSSI will acquire new materials, furniture, and marketing services leading up to their July takeover of local libraries. In addition to the 26 speakers[1], Lynne Plambeck offered over ten-thousand signatures opposing the library takeover. Berta Gonzalez-Harper was the only person present in support this evening, but Darren Hernandez assured us that focus groups were enthusiastic, and Laurie Ender said that "almost to a person" she has been told "I believe that you're doing the right thing" with regard to the libraries. Bob Kellar had the best line of the evening when he said of these purported, excited supporters: "They weren't excited enough to be here."

Tonight’s City Council Meeting was long—six hours, six minutes with two potty breaks[2]. It was dominated by discussion of the library takeover and the Vista Canyon development. The residents of Santa Clarita opposed the library because they were misinformed (acc. to D. Hernandez and F. Ferry), but they generally supported Vista Canyon, ostensibly because they were well informed. That’s how it works.

Mayor Marsha McLean delivered the invocation. She touched on the tragic death of Army Medic Rudy Acosta. He grew up in Santa Clarita before he was shot on March 19 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. McLean’s voice was raw with emotion as she asked us to observe a moment of silence.

Awards and recognitions were but one—Jim McCarthy, Councilmember Laurene Weste’s husband, won the LA County Star Award for his work as a “protector of our natural resources, advocate for trails and open space.” Weste said he was selected out of 88,000 employees. In addition to doing good environmental work, McCarthy sports some truly remarkable facial hair.

The councilmembers didn’t have much to say during their reports—they knew there was a big agenda ahead of them. Mayor McLean did mention the annual bus trip to Sacramento where she and others spoke with State legislators about issues near and dear to Santa Clarita, particularly redevelopment agencies.

With the exception of Item 11, the Consent Calendar was approved with little discussion. Alan Ferdman did mention concerns over sanitation district fees, wondering about impending increases and service to newly annexed areas. TimBen Boydston applauded a measure to regulate (i.e., ban) the mobile billboard advertising that has popped up around town.

Item 11 brought out Santa Clarita’s library devotees. The item appropriated funds for more books, furniture, and other goodies to make an impressive show once LSSI assumes operation of the libraries. What’s $1.4M for some positive PR? While virtually all speakers opposed the item, their opposition took one of two distinct forms. Some just expressed generic opposition to LSSI for all the well-known reasons--it was poorly vetted, there have been unforeseen costs, it will employ likely fewer highly-skilled librarians, etc. These folks asked that the City Council stay the contract with LSSI. After the first speaker suggested this, there was some applause. McLean overreacted ever so slightly: “If you break out into applause I will clear the room!” she threatened, “I am not going to accept any disrespect.” Speakers emphasized that opposition to LSSI had both “depth and breadth,” in the words of Lynne Plambeck. She said opposition included conservatives and tea partiers along with union liberals and SCOPE types. “That should REALLY worry you,” she said of the broad opposition. David Gauny stressed that it was ridiculous for the City to maintain its position that it was firmly in control and the public was suffering from misunderstandings and unfounded doubts: “I don’t think you [City Council] realize how many people are embarrassed for you.”

The more topical speakers addressed the particulars of the item on tonight's agenda. They noted that LSSI receives 5% of the money used to acquire new stuff and services, so it would be in their interest to overstate the need for new materials. Deputy City Manager Darren Hernandez revealed that the need for new books was decided after a “qualitative analysis” of the collection. The quantitative analysis was reserved for the County, which confirmed that there were 287,000 items on the shelves of Claritan libraries.

The dauntless Berta Gonzalez-Harper comprised the pro-LSSI contingent. She highlighted the benefits of local control and asserted that “LSSI works for us, not the other way around.” She supported the item because a recent visit to the Canyon Country Library confirmed “those shelves are very, very sparsely filled.” All those who matter—City Staff and Council—agreed with Gonzalez, so she had all the company she needed.

Responses from Darren Hernandez and most of the City Council were predictably dismissive. Hernandez was unimpressed by the 10,004 signatures collected to support the LA County Library System over LSSI. “Obviously the items in the petition are either incorrect or misleading,” he said. The four items he contested can be viewed here, and briefly state that there have been (1) cost overruns; (2) a lack of transparency and rushed approval process; (3) loss of access to the LA County system; and (4) a lack of a Board of Trustees, which may have been necessary for the service contract. A judge threw out the lawsuit concerning the last item (i.e., the City was OK to proceed without a board), so that’s a fair thing to dismiss. But all the other points are true. The City never anticipated it would pay to complete the Canyon Country Library renovation. The project was rushed from beginning to end, and emails and meeting records reveal that the City had, essentially, a working relationship with LSSI before they were contracted. Hernandez insisted that the project hasn’t costing more than anticipated and that it has been a transparent process throughout. It's incomprehensible, but Darren will admit nothing has gone wrong. Were he a better actor, you might think he actually believed it.

Councilmember Bob Kellar offered some validation for those who had spoken in protest. He said that the City had no idea that they wouldn’t collect the special tax (the City Attorney is waiting to offer his next opinion on that matter until May 10th!), have to pay for Canyon Country renovations, or lose access to LA County’s collection—a situation that may or may not be rectified. He called BS on Hernandez’s promise that people are excited about the takeover: “They weren’t excited enough to be here.” Kellar would be the only dissenting vote on the plan.

Ferry made an unsuccessful bid to make it seem like everyone agreed about the libraries. “We are furious, as you are, when it comes to library services.” Who “you” refers to is uncertain, since no one has complained about inadequate library hours, service quality, or collections apart from City Staff pushing the takeover. Perhaps he was talking to them. Then Ferry lectured the audience on how annoying it has been for him to have to deal with even more ferocious public opposition on other projects like the hospital parking structures, Performing Arts Center, etc. that have been viewed as essential since construction. People just don’t seem to know what’s good for them. As a final treat, he offered condescending remarks to the opposition, such as “You were given bad information” and “There’s always fear of change.” Indeed, opponents are still being caricatured as poorly informed sticks in the mud.

There was a recess before discussion of the Vista Canyon project. The City Council was asked to consider approving the development. The same item also made provisions for annexing the newly developed area and other local areas, like Jakes Way and Fair Oaks Ranch. Jeff Hogan described Vista Canyon as a “transit-oriented neighborhood” on 185 acres. High-density housing and businesses are located in close proximity with the developer promising an “up to” 4:1 jobs:housing ratio. A proposed Metrolink station and bus transfer station would facilitate use of public transportation. The project proposes massive amounts of grading, importing some 500,000 cubic yards of soil in order to build up the floodplain (it’s located on the edge of the Santa Clara River).

Speakers generally approved of the plan, including a number of business men is suits who gave adulatory remarks about the project they’ll soon be selling. People were thrilled that Canyon Country was getting something big, master-planned, and new. 28 speakers expressed support with only 7 expressing some level of opposition. Shockingly, even Carole Lutness conceded “Vista Canyon in many ways is a very good project.” Noltemeyer and Plambeck noted that many of the planned amenities might not come to be, but it was clear the project would be approved (and it was).

Approval came with a number of conditions. They’re too numerous to list fully, but Councilmember Weste made several provisions to maximize the amount of open space, ensure a functional wildlife corridor, preserve the unique Mitchell Hill and Mitchell Family cemetery, and try to facilitate relocation of the Metrolink Station from Via Princessa to Vista Canyon. Laurie Ender did worry that the lighting Weste preferred—down-lit, so as to not disturb animals. “Crazyy séance stuff” will move from the cemetery to the park if it’s poorly lit, worried Ender. Sand Canyon and Lost Canyon Roads would also be linked with a turnabout, the City Council decided, after receiving a presentation on their superior safety and about how to drive through one.

These and other conditions were included as part of the approval. Jakes Way and other neighborhoods will be annexed alongside Vista Canyon, though Mayor McLean worried about the costs of patrolling Jakes Way with its potentially higher crime rate.

After approving an item about parking at Valencia Town Center, Mayor McLean suggested that the remaining two items on the agenda be continued to the next meeting. They concernced reevaluation of a landscaping contract and creating a public safety sub-committee.

With these items moved off the calendar, only Public Participation remained. Todd Hoover asked the City to reevaluate OVOV because the Attorney General had problems with the County’s plan, particularly air quality. Alan Ferdman touched on sanitation fees again, asking why they will serve newly annexed residents when the district loses money with every new user. The meeting ended shortly after midnight.

[1]David Gauny is the missing speaker of the 26; I missed a screenshot while jotting down his speech. I suppose you could also add Marsha, Frank, Laurie, and Laurene to the "In Support" column and Bob to the "Opposed" column.
[2]Neither potty break appears on the Agenda.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happenings: City Council Won't "Landscape Local"; Redevelopment Woes

Tonight’s was a quick City Council meeting[1]. The most heated discussion was reserved for a $260,000 landscaping project--exciting, no? (Kellar wondered why an out-of-town company was selected over a homegrown company that made a lower bid.)

The evening began with Councilmember Kellar’s invocation. “On Saturday, I was invited to join the Gelig family,” he explained. They recently hosted a one-year remembrance for their son, Sgt. Ian Gelig, who died while serving in Kandahar. His death would also be mentioned by the Grandmothers for Peace group, three members of which spoke at the end of the evening.

After Kellar’s opening remarks, the camera pulled back to reveal that Councilmember Frank Ferry’s chair was empty. And no, it wasn't empty because he was sitting on Marsha's lap; he was absent.

Next on the agenda were some presentations to the City. Mayor Marsha McLean invited law enforcement speakers to take to the podium. Mark Divis, Vice President of ALADS (Association for LA Deputy Sheriffs) offered McLean a scroll with important dates from Santa Clarita’s history as part of “a simple thank you.” It was odd. McLean said “We are more than supportive of the 8200 deputy sheriffs that do their jobs here and we appreciate it so much.” Captain Paul Becker followed, delivering an update on public safety. He said that addressing juvenile drug use remains a priority for SCV Sheriffs. The J-Team (Juvenile Intervention Team,) has been successful since its formation last summer, receiving 147 crime tips that resulted in 57 arrests. Becker also said that a program focusing on recidivism among juvenile offenders has proved very successful, far-exceeding the normal standards of efficacy. Everyone thanked Becker for his leadership and outreach.

It was next time to address the Consent Calendar. Three written comment cards supported a move to prepare boundary maps for north Copperhill, a concrete step towards annexation. The City formally adopted a revised retirement policy that was introduced at the last meeting. Also notable was a purchase of the leasehold interests of auto businesses in Old Town Newhall. When the City bought the property these businesses leased, they became landlord. As such, they just didn’t like the locally operated, locally patronized automotive businesses, so they've given them the boot. Why let people work when you can buy them out, pay for new buildings, and try to attract a new business more in keeping with your personal taste? Planners envision the spot as "a mixed use project which may entail a theater, an art show room, retail space, and residential units."

While the Consent Calendar was approved as a whole, there was some friction on Item 5. City staff recommended that the council award a contract for landscaping along Sand Canyon Road to Santa Ana’s Valley Crest Design Group. They proposed a $258,848 project. However, Santa Clarita Landscape Development, Inc. proposed a $240,104 project--$18,744 cheaper and a way to “shop local.” According to the agenda, “Based on the review of the consultants' proposals, which included their technical qualifications, understanding the scope of work, Caltrans experience, and references, staff invited three qualified firms to participate in oral interviews with City staff.” Both Valley Crest and Santa Clarita Landscape Development qualified, but staff picked the guys from out of town. Kellar wondered why. Curtis Nay, Assistant City Engineer, said that Valley Crest had more experience, the primary criterion for awarding the contract (by law, it can’t just be the lowest bid) and that SCLD Inc. left some things out of their proposal. Pulskamp said that Valley Crest has had more experience with Caltrans as well. It appears that the City is just more comfortable using a company that’s worked for them on similar projects before--probably easier on them, too.

Bob Kellar said that there will be an article in The Signal coming up—they are usually written by staff and just signed by a councilmember, he revealed—in which “he” will promote all that the City does to help local businesses. He said he wouldn’t feel comfortable making that claim while snubbing a qualified, less expensive landscaping company from Santa Clarita, so he voted no. Ender joined him, but Weste’s “yea” and McLean’s “yes” were enough to award the contract to Santa Ana’s Valley Crest Design Group. (City Attorney Montes said 2 votes were enough as it wasn’t a resolution.)

During councilmember reports, Weste gave an update on Newhall Memorial Hospital. She said that some sycamores have been plopped in front of the hideous parking structure now hovering oppressively over residents of Valencia's lowlands. (She didn't phrase it that way.) Her comment was a classic case of window dressing--twofold, unsuccessful window dressing. Obviously, there's the reality that a couple of trees can't hide a concrete monstroisty. But more importantly, after a lackluster poll of patient satisfaction[2], a doctors’ vote of no confidence in CEO Roger Seaver[3], power plays on the board[4], and some shocking salary figures among executive[5], nobody really cares about a few sycamores. An update on landscaping ignores the slightly more important question of whether HMNMH is in a meltdown.

McLean gave the lengthiest updates. She asked people to voice their support for redevelopment agencies, arguing that they are invaluable when it comes to revitalizing communities and that their funds should not be redirected, as the State may well be preparing to do. She also announced a volunteer Senior Transit Ambassador program and suggested that everyone tune into the Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Cam, a camera that watches a Bald Eagle nest, as a “fun thing.”

When the Public Participation portion of the meeting arrived, Lynne Plambeck spoke first. She was concerned about the City’s plan to use money for bicycle trails to expand a bridge. Pulskamp replied that a 16’ wide Class 1 trail is part of the bridge and that only $6,000 in bike funds are being used on the $1M+ design contract for the project. She and several speakers were curious about an upcoming special session for the City Council, the topic of which was a mystery. David Gauny wondered aloud whether the City would use the meeting to cover their ass for not appointing a Library Board of Trustees, the basis for a recent lawsuit aimed at blocking the LSSI takeover. Pulskamp stepped in to say that the meeting will deal with redevelopment law. He frets redevelopment money may be going away very soon, and he wants to look at moving property and funds from Old Town Newhall's Redevelopment Agency to the City. He said they are in “defensive mode.”

Finally, the Lutnesses and a couple of grandmothers lobbied the City Council to consider a resolution to become a “City of Peace.” One woman said that, compared to 2005, she gets more honks and fewer middle fingers when she holds up her peace signs on Sundays, suggesting the public sentiment has changed over the years.

People criticized the Santa Clarita City Council for talking about immigration, saying it was an issue they had no control over. There’s no doubt that the City has even less control over foreign policy and warfare. Still, the grandmothers were able to speak their mind. So too did Kellar, who felt “there’s no good war,” but believed that implementing the ideas of the pacifists would lead to a “life expectancy of America of about two seconds.”

The meeting adjourned at 7:10.

[1]The agenda, for agenda seekers.
[2]No way to spin a lack of enthusiasm for the hospital
[3] Jim Holt wrote about it.
[4] Changes
[5] West Ranch Beacon has devoted a special blog to rants and raves about HMNMH--there seems to be a lot more to rant about than rave.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happenings: Don't Mess with "Rural Equestrian Community"

The Planning Commission spent more of tonight listening than speaking[1]. It was the penultimate meeting on One Valley One Vision. Come April 19, they’ll be weighing the Final EIR and making recommendations for the City Council, which is having a study session on OVOV in early April. The County, meanwhile, is taking its time and won’t discuss its plan until May 25. Recall that One Valley One Vision is a misnomer—the City of Santa Clarita and County of Los Angeles are both producing plans. Differences are supposed to be minor, but there are still differences.

Senior Planner Jason Smisko offered a refresher on what OVOV means for Santa Clarita: 459,000-483,000 residents, increased commercial densities, more jobs, less urban sprawl, less rural density, mixed use-development, fewer car trips... He’s had a lot of practice repeating these phrases—they come out with the rote fluidity of someone reciting a prayer, which probably isn’t too far off. Still, his delivery is consistently sincere and he never comes off as condescending. He could teach Pulskamp a thing or two. This does not preclude Smisko from making questionable remarks. Tonight, for instance, he said that Santa Clarita has “actually been a slow-growth city since incorporation” with an average of just 255 new units a year. (I think it's one of those City vs. County type statistics)

Next, the residents of Santa Clarita had their chance at the microphone. Here’s a summary:

Carole Lutness: She wants to make sure there is adequate low, very low, and extremely low income housing, saying that even rentals “ are far above fair market value, and far above what most low income people can afford.”

Diane Trautman: Clad entirely in black—a portent of impending judgment—Trautman swept up to the podium. She offered a withering critique. The massive size of the OVOV documents “runs contrary to CEQA’s purpose of informing the public and decision-makers.” She worried about transportation, about transparency, about the naïve expectation that all the crucial pieces will fall into place. If even a few don’t, she worried, the plan’s promises would be in serious jeopardy. She advocated taking a lot more time to consider the plan and forming a General Plan Advisory Committee.

Todd Hoover: "Reopen and extend the comment period for at least another 6 months, preferably a year.”

Minerva Williams: Williams asked a number of questions, many that she first posed at the City Council meeting last week. Funding road construction projects and cleaning up the Whittaker-Bermite site were primary concerns.

Sandra Cattell: A resident of Placerita Canyon, she worried about the potentially high-density projects coming to her neck of the woods. She dropped the phrase “rural equestrian community” four times to make it clear what Placerita Canyon and North Newhall are and ought to stay.

Valerie Thomas: “I’m back with the same comments: circulation.” She didn’t accept the response that developers are going to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for roads. As a Placerita homeowner, she also worried about proposals for the Smiser property that seem to ignore the serious possibilities of liquefaction and flooding.

Cam Noltemeyer: The local government’s persistent critic seemed a bit exasperated. She asked what good a plan is if it’s only going to be ignored. “You’ve approved a lot,” she observed, referencing exemptions to the General Plan granted to developers. Oak tree and ridgeline ordinances seem to fall by the wayside when necessary for a big development. She concluded graciously: “I know you’re going to approve it because I think you have your marching orders.”

Rob Hall: Another member of the PPP (Protect Placerita Posse), he made sure to drop the term “rural equestrian” again.

Arnold Graham: The Attorney for the Placerita Canyon Property Owners Association requested more time to sort out the concerns of residents. He was encouraged by recent meetings between members of the PCPOA and City staff. No wonder Placerita Canyon gets special treatment—half of them show up at the faintest whiff of a project near their beloved canyon, lawyer at the ready.

Ben Curtis: Also from Placerita, he said “we simply need more time to get anything accomplished” and spoke the magic words, “rural equestrian community” for the umpteenth time. Maybe “rural equestrian community” is some kind of a trigger phrase, repeated for good measure, to awaken a sleeper agent on the Planning Commission who will now work to destroy OVOV. (My money's on Eichman.)

Lynne Plambeck: Suffering from allergy-irritated eyes, she couldn’t read her prepared notes or any excerpts from the 100+ pages of comments she and SCOPE submitted regarding OVOV. So she just asked that the planners try and strengthen the language in the plan. She said that responsible development is “not gonna happen with ‘promote’ and ‘encourage.’”

Alan Cameron: Winning the night’s insensitivity award, he made a Nazi analogy. Cameron was upset that the City is accepting “F” grades for circulation on some heavily traveled roads. To paraphrase, he said that the room they were standing in could accommodate 180 people, but based on how Germans pushed Jews into train cars, it “could” conceivably fit 500 people. It was as awkward and tasteless as it was unnecessary to make his point that there’s a difference between can and should.

Jason Smisko responded. He said that the roads will get funded with a combination of City funds and developer fees, meetings about the fate of north Newhall will continue, and that he is all for strengthening the language in OVOV where possible, as Plambeck suggested. He knows not to mess with Placerita Canyon, and promised continued meetings regarding the community’s “rural equestrian” character—yes, he said it—and that new language would be drafted for OVOV based on talks with the property owners. They’ll have it to review by the end of the week. Now that’s service!

The commissioners didn’t add a whole lot. Commissioners Kennedy and Ostrom agreed that stronger language should be used wherever possible. Ostrom also touched on traffic issues and thought that “report card type designations” that grade circulation as A or F over-simplified matters.

Vice Chair Dee Dee Jacobson was relieved that the PCPOA and City were talking face-to-face and said, a little sternly, “Stay on this, get it done quickly.” Eichman concurred.

Dee Dee wants people to get their stuff in order. Fast.

The Planning Commission approved a motion to continue the item until April 19. Staff will have the final EIR, responses to comments, and recommendations for the City Council ready by that meeting.

After OVOV, the Commission passed a recommendation that the City Council pre-zone 792 acres of Elsmere Canyon for annexation. They also supported altering the designation of the area, making it "open space" instead of "residential estate" (a single home in the vicinity will maintain the latter designation). The meeting ended a little after 8 so that Chair Burkhart could dash home and watch American Idol.

[1]Here’s the agenda. Minutes are up already—how snappy these meetings are compared to the CC.