Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Happenings: The Public Disgracing of KHTS

TimBen Boydston left tonight’s meeting without an increase in benefits to put him at parity with other councilmembers, but at least he still has his good name[1].  The same cannot be said of KHTS, its owners, or Congressman Buck McKeon.  Reporter Mark Archuleta, recently fired from KHTS, took to the podium this evening to risk his reputation in order to destroy the reputation of his former employer, claiming that KHTS pandered to the desires and threats of Buck McKeon’s office.  He claimed it managed news coverage to favor the congressman as well as at least one city council member.  The bulk of the meeting was spent on mundane matters of landscape districts and employee benefits, but for three incandescent minutes, Archuleta did his best to take down an SCV institution and to preserve notions of journalistic integrity.  Pity so few people watch these meetings—sometimes they’re actually interesting.

But First…

The meeting opened with Councilmember Laurene Weste.  She offered a short, sincere invocation in anticipation of Veterans Day, expressing her gratitude to veterans and reminding Claritans of the ceremony to be held at the Veterans Historical Plaza.

The City of Santa Clarita was then presented with a prestigious Helen Putnam Award from the League of California Cities.  Specifically, the Neighborhood Services Team and Outreach Program won an award under the heading of “Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics and Community Involvement.”  Before cynical readers think up snide remarks about the accuracy of this lofty banner for Santa Clarita, note that the award recognized a specific program.  It addressed crime, social issues, and citizen involvement in some of East Newhall’s less idyllic corners, and had measurable success.

Reputations in Ruin

Mark Archuleta’s speech tonight was short but devastating.  He was (is?) one of the most accomplished reporters in Santa Clarita, and his political coverage was consistently acute and incisive.  He and Carol Rock—a gifted writer whose endurance, experience, and knowledge of local issues put her in a class of her own—were widely regarded as major assets to KHTS.  The firing of Archuleta and Rock led to much speculation with regard to timing; they were let mere weeks before the November election.  Those wanting more details got plenty tonight.

Archuleta opened by promising, “I’m here tonight to end my silence.”  You can read the full speech at NotesFromNewhall, but these are the main claims—again, claims; KHTS has not had an opportunity to respond—that emerged:

*He and Carol Rock were fired from KHTS for essentially political reasons.

*Buck McKeon made threats or complaints to the Goldmans, who own KHTS, over unflattering coverage on their website, written largely by Archuleta.  It was removed in response.  A McKeon endorsement and pulling Rock and Archuleta from McKeon coverage were additional favors extended to the congressman. 

*A City Council candidate complained about an interview with Archuleta, and Goldman would not let it be published without alterations, citing the political aim of preventing a voting bloc on the council.

*KHTS altered stories and coverage to influence elections; they bent to political pressure. 

The speech had many unpleasant ramifications.  First, the reputation of KHTS has been sullied.  News outlets are valued for being independent and expository, not for yielding to politicians and doing them favors.  How KHTS responds—and how The Signal covers this story—remains to be seen.  As for Archuletta, he probably won’t be getting a lot of local job offers, unless some new publication to serve an audience dissatisfied with The Signal and KHTS is in the works.  (Excuse my outrageous joking).  Congressman Buck McKeon has been painted as a media manipulator, and this isn’t the first time.  Then there’s the unnamed council member who used their sway to secure favorable coverage (based on timing, it would have to be either Bob Kellar or Laurie Ender).  And then there are implications for the new/remaining staff at KHTS.  Do they owe their job to being more receptive to the Goldmans’ purported aims? 

What a mess.   

The Others

Public comments following Archuleta were bound to pale in comparison.  Glo Donnelly twittered pleasantly about the State of the City Luncheon last week and highlighted Santa Clarita’s success in preserving open space.  Doug Fraser made a comment about mobile home rent increases, the most recent in a series of comments on this topic over the past weeks.  David Lutness offered political thoughts, arguing that people needed better salaries and that income disparity was a major problem in America.  Ray Kutylo advertised SCV Letters to the Editor, his Facebook group.  His remarks were particularly timely considering Archuleta’s words and the fact that this is “Free Speech Week.”  Carole Lutness was last to speak, and said, “I, too, am outraged at the firing of these two fine reporters,” referring of course to Archuleta and Rock.  She was particularly upset about Carol Rock (“who is an institution in this community!”).  Her comments then moved to The Signal, which she said recently stopped publishing the “Environmentally Speaking” column in its opinion section.  The column often challenges development and reminds readers of local environmental issues.  Lutness acknowledged her role in “plagiar-gate” at The Signal (i.e., she was caught plagiarizing and removed from her writing post a few years ago), but promised her criticisms were more than just sour grapes.    

City Manager Ken Pulskamp offered some comments in return.  Regarding mobile home rents, he promised to look further into the particulars brought up by Doug Fraser this evening.  As to the topic of KHTS and free speech he said, “We certainly support free speech. […]  There is no collusion among the City and other members of the media.  God knows we’ve taken our shots in all of those,” trailing off with a coarse chuckle.  Councilmember Weste made a point to support Carol Rock, saying the veteran reporter had her care and love. 

Updates, Consent

Individual councilmember updates were more of the usual.  Particular highlights were Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar’s promise that several notable SCV Olympians (even Allyson Felix) would be at the Rubber Ducky Regata, benefitting the Samuel Dixon Foundation.   Mayor Frank Ferry noted that public input was being solicited at an upcoming meeting regarding a master plan for a conference center in Santa Clarita. 

The consent calendar was addressed next.  Items that didn’t engender discussion included changes to dozens of speed limits in Santa Clarita (most were recommended to go up or down by 5 mph after traffic study); bikeway improvements and additions; and a janitorial contract.  An item concerning landscaping contracts drew Councilmember Boydston’s attention.  He spent a while discussing the nature of the contract, which included a large amount of money for unforeseen repairs and maintenance.  Boydston was told that the landscaping bid was actually quite reasonable, and all unforeseen costs were noted as line items, so they could be easily reviewed for any type of abuse.  After some inquiries by other members and assurances of the landscape company’s solid past performance, the contract was approved, with the stipulation that work would be reviewed in a couple of years to look at spending patterns. 

Master Plan Planning

An item to assess the feasibility of a master-plan-envisioned road extension connecting Lyons and Dockweiler in Newhall was controversial, as are most projects that affect the vociferous enclave that is Placerita Canyon (or almost-Placerita-Canyon).  Councilmember Weste recused herself from the debate on the grounds of “living way too close” to the proposed road connection, so she said she’d go have some dessert instead. 

Most speakers asked that this item be continued to a future meeting.  There was much concern about its inclusion of an at-grade crossing of the Metrolink line.  Other speakers, such as Nanette Meister, wondered at how much Councilmember Weste stood to gain from the project, which would likely increase her property value.  Other objections included insufficient notification of those who would be affected by the crossing and questions about cost-effectiveness. 

There was a fair amount of discussion, with Councilmember TimBen Boydston stating his sympathy for the concerns expressed by property owners in the area.  However, staff assured the council that this project would take at least a couple of years and was puaimed at producing preliminary documents to assess the feasibility of the project, not actually building the road.  Furthermore, the road was part of the master plan, and the bridge and thoroughfare funds for the study had to be spent on transportation by law.  Despite these seemingly compelling arguments to begin the study, TimBen Boydston did not vote to move forward as recommended, while his fellow council members did.  He chose to “vote ‘no’ with explanation,” stating that he was uncomfortable about proceeding when not all affected neighborhoods had been properly notified.  Councilmember McLean followed his vote with a “yes”, also with explanation.  She said a study didn’t impact neighborhoods, the actual road did: “this is giving them the information that they need.”  So the slow planning process will now get rolling. 


The final item before the council was consideration of benefits for council members.  While they all receive the same salary and the same healthcare benefits, if a council member chooses cash-in-lieu of health insurance, they receive quite different amounts.  Council members are treated like staff when it comes to payment and benefits, and in 2010, the council changed the structure of benefits for staff, such that those starting to work in 2011 wouldn’t receive as much cash-in-lieu of health insurance coverage.  By extension, TimBen Boydston, elected in 2012, also gets less cash for foregoing City health coverage.  His fellow members can receive $1,016.58 per month, but he can only receive $214.62.  That’s a difference of nearly $10,000 over the course of a year, all based on his later election date. 

Boydston recused himself from the discussion, though he could comment as a citizen during that portion of the item’s discussion (and he did).  The formerly cheerful Glo Donnelly was not pleased with Boydston’s fuss about the discrepancy in benefits, suggesting he find a new job if he was being driven by monetary gain.  Allan Cameron and Lynne Plambeck offered alternative legal interpretations to challenge City Attorney Joe Montes’ assertion that Boydston’s benefits could not be raised without also raising them for all employees hired since 2011.  Many thought it was only fair for Boydston to get the same amount of cash-in-lieu as other members. 

Boydston, however, offered the most intriguing solution.  Rather than raise the amount of cash he would receive, Boydston suggested that his fellow council members vote to reduce their own benefits to his level.  He said it would show they considered him an equal and would save taxpayers money, the whole point of the change in benefit structure to begin with. 

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar responded brusquely.  He lectured about the need to follow the exact letter of the law—at least on this issue.  Mayor Ferry responded next.  He spoke about having no intention of singling out Boydston when they voted on the new benefit policy two years ago.  He said of Boydston defeating former Councilmember Laurie Ender, “Didn’t see that one comin’!”  He then made some grand statements about declines in all kinds of compensation and benefits because of the sluggish economy, going so far as to imply that Boydston should be grateful he wasn’t receiving even less, as future council members may.  Ferry called his appeal for equal benefits “self-serving.”  Just like Kellar, he did not so much as entertain the idea of cutting his own cash benefits to Boydston’s level, however.

Councilmembers McLean and Weste were more understanding of Boydston’s dismay.   Surprisingly, McLean offered a very conciliatory statement.  Of the discrepancy in benefits, she said, “I totally understand where Councilmember Boydston is coming from […] it’s probably like a slap in the face.”  She and Weste both made dramatic, almost apologetic pauses before voting, as Ferry and Kellar did, to not change benefits for Boydston.   

There was a startling revelation/suggestion during Alan Cameron’s public comment following this item.  After talking about the other matters from this evening, he mentioned the LA Times’ investigation of Boy Scout abuse, noting there had been an incident, apparently, mapped to Saugus.  He asked for an investigation.  With that, the meeting ended.   

[1]Here's the agenda.