Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Only in SCV: 50 Shades of Mud

50 Shades of Mud
Poem for the Old Town Newhall Library's Grand Opening this Saturday
As the library op’ning nears
I find the structure looking...drear.
Its towers soar, its rafters span,
But the impact’s short of grand.
It’s quiet, this new place in town,
In muted shades of ashen brown.
It’s all tinted about the same,
This color, praytell, what’s its name?
This color of a soggy plain,
This color of dust slaked by rain,
This color of dirt after flood,
Ah yes: It’s fifty shades of mud.
Columns in mud-colored stone,
Pillars stained a muddy tone,
Murals of mud-coated steeds,
Mud shelves for mud-covered reads.
Chairs picked for their muddy hues,
Halls with muddy light imbued,
Odd quotes from muddy intellects,
Each turn finds muds more muddy yet.
But just, perhaps, it’s by design:
Libraries are built for the mind,
So why not drab-en outward glory
To highlight words, books, and stories?
Let their celestial light efface
The chthonic tones of this dull place.
 And further yet, mud’s the hue
That fits dear Old Newhall most true.
The great West is tan, dusty, dun,
We honor shades that others shun.
Libraries of New York and Rome
Can shine in glass and gleam in chrome
Can keep their marble, rose, and gilt,
We like mud for the one we built.
[NOTE:]These pictures come from the City's wonderful Flickr account.

Happenings: History Deferred, God Trusted

Is Nothing Sacred?

At tonight’s meeting of the Santa Clarita City Council, we witnessed history, God, and scavenging for recyclables all come under attack.  These are turbulent times for us Claritans, so we best get straight to recapping[1].

I am laboring under a slight handicap, however, because SCVTV now broadcasts meetings with obnoxious commercials popping up at the most inopportune moments.  Thus, for the introductory portion of tonight’s meeting, I can tell you that Councilmember Marsha McLean delivered the invocation, but I cannot say about what in particular.  Following her words and the pledge, there was a proclamation for Hispanic Heritage Month about which Paul de la Cerda spoke at some length.  He recognized several leaders in the Hispanic community, then posed for a photo beneath the City seal. 

PP: Rent’s Too High and the Anti-Petz

Public participation followed, including two comments about the difficulties facing those who live in mobile homes.  With rent prices on the rise, many are finding it hard to get by and looking to City Hall for help.  The City is supportive of those whose rents are being raised by more than the legal amount, but it seems any hikes—even below the legally allowed limits—may be the problem.  Another speaker wondered why the City was enforcing a scavenging ordinance that prevents people from taking recyclables from bins.  Mayor Ferry would explain that it’s enforced to protect public health and because waste haulers count on some revenue from recyclables in bins, which scavengers may divert.

The most contentious comments, however, came from a certain Mario Alvarez.  He gave a peculiar opening to his speech, asking the council to listen to him using their most "civilized" and "educated" of sensibilities.  Then he got to the punchline—he was a speaker representing those who are “free of all gods and all religions.”  He continued: “We are the most discriminated group against."  He explained their goal of freedom from (not of) religion, and restated “We get offended more so than any so-called ‘people of faith’ when we see phrases like that one up there,” pointing at the proclamation of “In God We Trust.”  Alvarez said, “We would like very much for that to be removed from the City Council,” and also asked for removal of all traces of God-trusting from the new library.

Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Kellar addressed his comments.  He said that hundreds of major American cities, especially Washington, D.C., bear the phrase “In God We Trust” on their important structures.  Councilmember TimBen Boydston would try to clarify the difference between freedom of/from religion, but Alvarez tried to engage Boydston from his seat, prompting Mayor Ferry to threaten Alvarez with being removed if he couldn’t be silent.  For convenience' sake, I may hereafter refer to Mario Alvarez as the anti-Petz.  Petz, of course, is the nickname of realtor Steve Petzold, who worked dilligently to get “In God We Trust” displayed in City Hall—without quotation marks.      

Marsha Frets People Crushing

During reports and updates from the council members, we learned that Councilmember McLean earned a perfect score in the “Dancing With Our Stars” charity event.  Some $200,000 was raised by the dancers for twelve Claritan non-profits.  Other comments concerned the very busy Saturday we have approaching, with the library grand opening, street fair, jazz and blues festival, box city homeless fundraising event, pet shelter fundraising event, youth grove evening of remembrance, and more[2].

With their thoughts on the most epic Saturday ahead, the council members had relatively little to say about the consent calendar, which would pass with the recommended actions on all items.  Councilmember McLean did offer a few suggestions, however.  On item 3, she wanted a letter opposing military spending cuts that would adversely affect Santa Clarita to be written more succinctly.  On item 8, which concerned community grants, she expressed interest in being more dilligent about rotating grant review responsibilities.  But her gravest concerns regarded item 6, which would entail adding many ominously named BigBelly Recycling Units to the SCV.  These units collect and compact recyclables, and they’re “smart” units, allowing workers to remotely determine whether a unit needs to be emptied.  McLean was worried about people climbing into or being thrown into these devices and being, well, compacted.  City Manager Ken Pulskamp assured her the openings were too small for that, so the good people of Santa Clarita are unlikely to be squashed in a BigBelly. 

Other items on the consent calendar were plans to spend $32,500 to preserve a few acres in Wildwood Canyon, the purchasing of six buses for $3.8M from Yolo County (and why not? only live once), and establishing a loading zone in front of Egg Plantation for the loading/unloading of human cargo, specifically.  The calendar was reviewed and approved by 6:50.

History Takes Time

Discussion of an ordinance to protect Santa Clarita’s historic monuments lasted well over an hour.  The discussion dragged on because the ordinance on this evening’s agenda was a very weak one.  It made the process of historic designation contingent on the property owner’s consent—a 100% opt-in process.  Property owners would get certain tax benefits and other perks for listing their historic structure as such, but they would lose the ability to make many structural modifications without approval.  Unlike previous ordinance versions, a property owner would have to be on-board before his property could be listed.  This was good or awful, depending on one’s perspective.

Thinking it was a good idea were Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar, TimBen Boydston, Alan Ferdman, and others.  Boydston had to recuse himself on this item and speak strictly as a private citizen since a historic (no, not “an historic”) building is where he makes his living.  During his speech, he spoke with Jeffersonian rhetoric, arguing that we should not ignore private property rights in our quest to protect historic structures. 

Many of Santa Clarita’s residents didn’t fully agree with Boydston’s support for the ordinance, however.  Thoughtgul comments from Carol Rock, Leon Worden, Alan Pollack, Berta Gonzalez-Harper and others suggested that this ordinance was toothless, doing nothing to force and little to entice property owners to list their structures as historic  If the goal was saving the most historic of local buildings, this version of the ordinance was not the way to do it.

Despite disagreement in the property rights/historic preservation debate, there was consensus that some buildings need protection and that there should be stronger incentives for property owners to make up for limitations associated with historic listing. 

When public comments ended around 7:40, it quickly became clear that the ordinance was not going to pass this evening.  McLean almost immediately revealed that she’d be voting no, saying “We can do much better.”  She didn’t like the opt-in approach, and she thought a commission for historic preservation might be a good idea.  Councilmember  Weste also signaled that she would be voting no, saying she wouldn’t be the person to vote for an ordinance that would do so little to prevent the demolition of historic structures.  Mayor Pro Tem Kellar liked the fact that the ordinance respected property rights and thought that a $5000 check for every person who opts in might work well as an incentive for participation.  Mayor Ferry also wondered why there weren’t more concrete incentives for owners of historic properties, and he brought up an idea from last year about simply buying the structures that are most central to the City’s heritage.

At one point during the diuscussion, Kellar asked “When are we gonna put this thing to rest?”, noting that six years of discussion had failed to produce a solution.  Councilmember Weste tried to offer an idea, prioritizing 11 structures (including Newhall Ice Company, Melody Ranch main gate, Old Newhall Jail, American Legion Hall, among others) to preserve, noting that each might need special treatment.  The ice company is still a viable business, for instance, but all would be watched and funds made available if the structure needed to be purchased and moved, etc.

City Manager Pulskamp tried to distill the many, potentially conflicting directions he had been given by the council members.  The ordinance—the public hearing for which was continued to a later meeting—will be discussed again with more incentives, opinions from the LA Conservancy, ballpark values on Weste’s eleven most valuable historic monuments, and language for a preservation process a la Weste.  McLean added that something about plaques would also be useful.  History, in short, remains to be written.

The other special items—statewide community development bonds for Einstein Academy and a new EIR for the Master's College development (200 new dorms units first, extension of Dockweiler second)—were yessed through pretty quickly, and the meeting ended at 8:44.
[1]Here's the agenda.
[2]Here's that busy Saturday.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Happenings: Striplin to Rule; Boydston still "Difficult"

Tonight’s was a one-issue meeting, that issue’s name being Ken Striplin.  After mostly supportive comments from the public regarding Striplin and a half-hour closed session at the behest of Councilmember TimBen Boydston, the contract to make Striplin our next city manager was approved.  Apart from dealing with this most central of personnel issues, the council had to pat itself on the back for an awful lot: becoming LA’s third largest city, a rather favorably spun public opinion poll, and the glory of a triple-A rating from Standard & Poors.  In short, we got approval for a new city manager who will, by current indicators, be inheriting an all but perfect city[1].

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar delivered the invocation this evening.  He considered how his September 11, 2012 was experienced in a way not unlike the same date in 2001—watching the horrific footage and feeling a sense of shock both then and now.  He ended by remembering George Bush’s words that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation” and by appreciating those who have served in the armed forces to fight terrorism.

 Next, Councilmember TimBen Boydston delivered a proclamation for National Preparedness Month.   He cited the memory of 9/11 as an impetus for preparing our families for a variety of threats both natural and man-made.  His words were prefaced with the concern that Islamic labels were being used in the public discourse about 9/11 and called the events acts of terrorism rather than acts of a particular religion.   

Councilmember Laurene Weste was in charge of the next proclamation, which supported “No Texting While Driving Pledge Day.”  She said 43% of teens admit to texting while driving and repeated the pledge day’s catchphrase, “It can wait.”  I’m not sure how well city council meetings do with viewers in the 12-17 age group, but others will be repeating her message, I’m sure. 

The final presentation covered highlights from a recent public opinion poll commissioned by the City[2].  Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin gave the presentation, his hands characteristically fidgety and his voice animated in a forced sort of way.  He promised highlights and, indeed, only highlights were offered.  According to the poll, people trust the City of Santa Clarita, overwhelmingly approve of its services, believe we’re in a stable financial position, and are satisfied with our parks, landscaping, and stores.  Notably missing were statistics about the areas where less than a majority is thrilled with the City, like regarding its performance in protecting air quality, controlling growth and development, and attracting new jobs (though he would lament that 52% of Claritans work outside the valley).  Striplin chose to let the City bask in its favorable statistics rather than hear mention of the less spectacular stats.  Even when he reached the topic of Cemex, he explained the lack of public knowledge/interest in the topic as the result of less City outreach following the truce between city and corporation.  He was proud that 49% of people surveyed knew at least a little bit about Cemex “even with the limited outreach that we’ve done.”

The last page of the poll  results presentation said that residents want an “Applebees”, omitting the apostrophe.  In any case, a gentleman from the polling firm said Santa Clarita had truly excellent numbers compared to other cities and advised “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”  In response to Councilmember Marsha McLean’s question about sampling methods, he revealed that calls were made from a pool comprising both landline and cell phone numbers.  In response to TimBen Boydston’s question about what the City could do better, he was at a loss to answer, noting his papers were presently elsewhere.

During public participation, John Cassidy of Isabella Parkway expressed “grave concern” about his street and how fast people drive on it, often to cut through.  City Manager Ken Pulskamp promised a speed measuring trailer and increased speed limit enforcement. 

Committee reports followed, during which we learned about Santa Clarita’s excellent triple-A rating from S&P and the official annexation of Fair Oaks and Jake’s Way into Santa Clarita.  Kellar said that the annexation makes Santa Clarita the third largest city in Los Angeles County, behind LA and Long Beach but ahead of Glendale.  For his comments, Boydston asked that agendas be published well in advance of meetings and hoped that contracts set for voting would be furnished to council members so they have enough time to read them over prior to the meeting.

Discussion of Ken Striplin’s contract to serve as city manager began next.  City Attorney Joe Montes said that a few modifications needed to be made regarding penalties from abuse of the office or felonies.  Language regarding cost of living increases was also updated. 

Most Claritans had good things to say about Ken Striplin during their comments.  Duane Harte and many others thanked the City for saving money by hiring in-house rather than starting a lengthy, cross-country job search.  Dee Dee Jacobson was thrilled at the hiring of who she called "a comapny man."  A few speakers, however, were upset at the expeditious hiring and said they would have preferred to see a more thorough and open candidate search.  The tone of most speeches was congratulatory and expressed great confidence in Striplin, though his qualifications were described rather vaguely.  He handled communications well during the serious wildfires a few years ago, he’s a good baseball coach and involved in numerous community non-profits, and he has spent a lot of time listening to Ken Pulskamp.  Those, in a  nutshell, were among his most notable qualifications. 

Mayor Frank Ferry said that he and others had known all along that Striplin was well-suited to work as City Manager.  In one of the worst analogies ever, he said losing Pulskamp was like losing Steve Jobs, but Striplin was a solid Bill Gates, so it was better to hire him right away than to go to Atari and find its manager. 
Councilmember Laurene Weste said that Striplin’s knowledge of local issues like Cemex was invaluable in that it saved the City the downtime of an outside applicant reading up and get acquainted.  Weste had an interesting perspective on what makes the SCV interesting itself—our cowboy history, consumer culture, colleges, and unified opposition to outside forces that will change us (e.g., Cemex, the Elsmere landfill...).  Kellar moved to approve the contract for Striplin, but Boydston stepped in and said he had questions.  Indeed, he did.  After asking about benefits, severance packages, etc, he requested a closed session to discuss details of the contract.  Mayor Ferry said the council could vote on the standing motion to approve Striplin’s contract, but with support from Bob Kellar, they instead entered a closed session for just over 30 minutes. 

Since it was a closed session, there’s not much to say, but TimBen Boydston emerged from the session voting “no” to approve the contract, making yet another 4-1 vote.  He explained that he thought all executive positions should enjoy pay raises as a reward for performance, not automatically to keep up with cost of living increases.  That said, he expressed great faith in Striplin and had no complaints about him.  All the other council members were happy to approve the Striplin contract.  After Boydston’s explanation for a “no” vote, McLean was clearly annoyed and said “no” to Boydston when he asked if he could offer a comment.  Luckily for Boydston, McLean is not mayor, and Mayor Ferry allowed Boyston to talk to his heart's content.  McLean wanted to express what had been said in closed session but couldn’t directly, so she hinted that Striplin wasn’t making out with the kind of outrageously good compensation that Boydston might have suspected.  She did so by asking if she could ask whether the employee got the amount he originally asked for, smiling slightly as she spoke and was told to keep mum by City Attorney Montes.

Striplin’s approval was followed by examination of an utterly unremarkable consent calendar, and the meeting ended at 8:25. 

[2]Here's the survey