Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Happenings: A Raise, Lyons Planned, Presentations Aplenty

After tonight’s meeting, there is an official vision for the Lyons corridor, council members will be paid more starting next term, and at least a fraction of Santa Clarita’s youth are committed to being drug-free[1].  But none of it may matter if the whole valley becomes an ashen wasteland as the worst fire season in a century approaches. 

The Worst Fire Season in a Century

With Independence Day drawing nearer, Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste quoted Thomas Jefferson for the invocation and then spoke about the great and glorious tradition that is Santa Clarita’s Fourth of July Parade.  This year’s theme, “The Winning Spirit”, is sure to inspire Claritans valley-wide.

Presentations to the City Council followed; the bad news came first.  LA County Fire Chief Daryl Osby spoke about the upcoming wildland fire season.  He went on record with the prediction that the worst fire season in a century awaits us.  Fuel (or plants, as us non-fire people say) will be reaching a critical combustion stage in July rather than in fall, as would be expected in wetter years.  He stressed the importance of avoiding fireworks, clearing brush from around homes, and following evacuation orders—if it should come to that.

Next came an update on the recently implemented “Drug-Free Youth In Town” (DFYIT—“defy it”) program.  Students from seven junior high schools and six high schools volunteered for the program.  This involved a few hours of community service (just over three on average, based on the summary statistics), getting educated (learning things like drug “refusal skills”), and undergoing random drug tests.  Some 800 students signed up and, encouragingly, 100% of their drug tests were negative.  Then again, I harbor serious doubts that the teenage heroin addicts most in need of such a program are very likely to sign up when they know random testing awaits them.

Finally, Santa Clarita won the SCAG Compass Blueprint Award for working with LA County to plan One Valley One Vision.  Councilmember Marsha McLean said that when the honor was initially bestowed, LA County reps took the award, so she had to request this special presentation and an award to display at City Hall, too.  Typical LA County, jaded Claritans muttered.  (Not really.  Well, maybe.) 

Public Participation

Public Participation began with Alan Ferdman, who reminded us that he is running for City Council even though everybody already knows and we really doesn't need to hear the "in the interest of full disclosure" bit every single time.  Anyhow, he was pleased that LA County's Clean Water, Clean Beaches proposal has been set aside for a bit again, noting that the plan is costly, controversial, and perhaps the result of interests more political than environmental.  Cam Noltemeyer spoke next, asking about $210,000 that was approved to give to Community Conservation Solutions.  This comes in addition to the approximately $900,000 that has been given to the group already for outreach and education about water and chloride issues.  She asked, essentially, what we’ve got to show for the expenditure of over one-million dollars.  A representative from Goodwill (I missed her name) spoke about the new career center that will open tomorrow morning on Lyons.  Ron Haywood with SEIU spoke on behalf of City employees, asking why (“with the City thriving as well as this one is”) employees have to worry about the vesting schedule and the diminishment of benefits for those hired recently.  Local punctuation enthusiast Steve Petzold asked to hear more specifics about which chloride treatment option the City is considering as the least onerous choice to meet mandates.  “I would like to see more leadership,” he said.  Finally, Alan Cameron used his sonorous voice to mask the fact that his predictions about chloride treatment mandates weren’t as rock solid as he seemed to think.  “We are going to win this chloride situation […] it is inexorable that we’re going to win.”  He cited some recent legal cases and predicted the State would relax chloride standards if a lawsuit forced them to pay for the cost of treatment.

From the Dais

Most of the updates from members of Council were the same old thing…this event was a success, this other event is coming up, do these really obvious things to make your summer safer, etc.  There were two exceptions.

First, Councilmember TimBen Boydston said that he was shocked that the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s Dan Masnada would be so cavalier as to claim Santa Clarita has water in abundance, so much so that we could tap the local aquifer to meet the provisions of one of the chloride treatment plans without ill effects to current residents or new growth.  Second, Mayor Bob Kellar asked Mike Murphy to come up and describe the lobbying that Murphy, Kellar, and Weste conducted in Washington, D.C. last week regarding Cemex mining.  They met with representatives from the offices of Senators Boxer and Feinstein along with several members of the House.  Boxer introduced bill S771 to “resolve the now 14-year-old dispute” (yes, it’s been that long).  Murphy went to some pains to express how sincerely Congressman Buck McKeon supported the bill despite the fact that he would introduce no companion legislation himself, given the House’s rule against earmarks.  It wasn’t terribly convincing.  In short, Murphy said conversations were had, and there might be a hearing for S771 in the late summer or fall, but as of yet, nothing concrete (get it?) has been accomplished. 

By 7:13, we finally got to the Consent Calendar.

The Contentious Raises

Mayor Kellar did an awful job of organizing the discussion of tonight’s consent calendar.  By having everyone from the public give comments on every item all at once (rather than on an item-by-item basis), he ensured that the issues got muddled.  Then everything was brought up again as the city manager responded, then items were brought up a third time as the council members commented.  It was a mess.

With regard to the City budget and several specific projects, Cam Noltemeyer expressed unease over how freely funds were borrowed and transferred from once district or account to another.  She wondered about who benefits and who pays.  (City Manager Ken Striplin would respond that all of the City’s budget policies were legal, prudent, and transparent, even if they look convoluted at times.  Trust us, to paraphrase.)  Apart from the 2013-14 budget, the consent calendar also included items for a substantial bridge widening, beautification of the Sand Canyon gateway, street improvements and maintenance, and improved parking for the Valencia Library.

However, council member compensation drew the most attention.  Tonight, all members but Boydston voted for a 6% pay raise for the next council term.  Boydston said it would be nobler to say "no" to getting more.  He advocated being a model of restraint.  Alan Cameron, during public comments, disagreed.  He said the Council is underpaid for the work they do, and better pay would allow more people to afford the time to serve on council.  Cameron used the initial unpopularity of women’s suffrage as an analogy with which to parallel  the unpopular—but justified, in his mind—idea of supporting a raise.  It was a stupid analogy, but his deep, booming voice concealed this. 

Councilmember Marsha McLean sounded a bit emotional as she tried to justify the raise which, as City Manager Ken Striplin pointed out, could have been as much as 10% instead of 6%.  “I wasn’t going to say anything, but now I have to,” she said, when Boydston finished his remarks in favor of no raise.  She explained how she spends at least 40 hours a week on council business, and her take-home pay is $1400 per month.  That’s $8.70 an hour, and she hoped no one would deny her or her fellow members marginally more than that.  As stated, the raise passed with everyone’s affirmative vote but Boydston’s.

Lyons Corridor

The final item of the night was a rather drawn-out discussion of the future of Lyons Avenue.  The Lyons Corridor Plan anticipates the growth and changes outlined in the General Plan (OVOV), and directs growth and (re-)development to follow certain guidelines.  There is an emphasis on moving storefronts to the sidewalks, not behind parking areas.  Architectural styles are Victorian and Crafstman, but diversity is encouraged.  Walkability is stressed, and there are incentives to encourage businesses to invest in changing their facades and the like.

The one point most people argued with was an incentive of 20% reduced parking requirements if a business were to dramatically change its structure in accordance with plan guidelines.  People wondered why it would be worthwhile to reduce the number of customers that a business’ lot could accommodate. 

Councilmember McLean, the perpetual micro-manager, wanted to have an option to review essentially all architectural changes, but she relented and agreed to only review the major ones.  Councilmember TimBen Boydston squandered 10 minutes talking about traffic flow grades and how increased development on Lyons would affect them, ignoring the fact that the changes laid out were done so only to be consistent with the master plan.  Eventually, Mayor Kellar interrupted him to say that they couldn’t change or undo a major part of One Valley One Vision that night, and Ferry pushed forward a motion that effectively ended the discussion.  Boydston was the only member who voted “no” on the plan, noting serious concerns about traffic and environmental effects.
The meeting ended at 9:09. 

[1]Here's the agenda.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Happenings: A Raise, "The Ferdman Plan", and Budgeting

Tonight’s City Council meeting was about money—I suppose they all are, but this evening was more explicitly about finances than usual[1].  The $180M budget was presented, council members voted to increase their future salaries, and fees were levied.  Councilmember Frank Ferry was absent, Councilmember TimBen Boydston was grandstanding with alacrity, and Mayor Bob Kellar was wishing it would all be over sooner rather than later.  In short, the council behaved as expected throughout.

A Dramatic Opening

Councilmember TimBen Boydston opened the meeting with an emphatic reading of the “Prayer for Government” written by Archbishop John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, in 1791.  Perhaps it was slightly modified.  He closed by requesting that God Bless Santa Clarita. 

Then, Boydston led the flag salute by inviting those in attendance to “face the flag of the greatest nation on earth” and pledge allegiance. 

Yet more dramatic flair came from Mayor Bob Kellar.  He spoke with sincere amazement and adulation about an Eagle Scout project completed at Wildwood Canyon.  Scout Justin Reust managed meetings, resources, and twenty volunteers to install 2 benches, a kiosk, and some mulch.

The final dramatic flourish came from Alan Ferdman during Public Participation.  He laid out the appropriately—and modestly—titled “Ferdman Plan” for meeting chloride limits.  UV radiation is a central feature of the plan that would save millions of dollars over the existing preferred treatment options.  “That’s quite a title,” said Kellar of the plan.  It was.  Ray Henry was the only other public speaker, mentioning that he would like to have a meeting between Sand Canyon Mobile Home Park residents and members of the panel that review rent increases. 

Consent Calendar

There was very little discussion of the Consent Calendar.  As one might expect in Southern California, the roads received a lot of attention—street sweeping contract, the spiffying up of bus stops, and landscaping and pedestrian improvements on Sierra Highway.  A $110,000 allocation to support the Concerts in the Park series over the next two years and a number of other bookkeeping items rounded it out.  All of the items passed with the recommended actions, though various members abstained, as needed, if they lived too close to a project.

Matters Monetary

According to the agenda, the Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget is $180.6M—or about $900 for every man, woman and child in the City.  Sales tax is the single biggest revenue source, generating 17% of the total budget figure.  In terms of expenditures, public safety has surpassed parks, recreation, & community services, gobbling up $21M while $20.7 goes to parks & rec.  This represents a somewhat staggering 33.5% increase in public safety spending since the start of the recession.  That is staggering, right?  (I've been told I stagger too easily in the past).

City Manager Ken Striplin highlighted some particular changes and expenditures. He noted that extra law enforcement at Jake’s Way (2 two-deputy units) has decreased crime by a third, so it will continue to be supported.  Additionally, over a quarter-of-a-million dollars will go to hire more librarians for young-adult programs and to assess Saugus’ library needs.  I waited for a library privatization critic to comment, but none did.  Striplin made the obligatory speech thanking the City Council for leading the way to a balanced budget with a healthy reserve.  I found TimBen Boydston’s comment more refreshing: he thanked the taxpayers for giving the council money to spend on projects for which the council could then take credit.  He also lamented the expenditure of $9,500 for a River Rally biologist each year and many other state agency-mandated line items, but was generally OK with the budget at large. Ultimately, the budget was accepted and will most likely be formally adopted at the next meeting.  Councilmember Marsha McLean used her exasperated “yes” on the budget hearing as a vehicle with which to convey her annoyance at Boydston’s many questions and rhetorical flourishes.  (I consider myself one of the foremost readers of meaning in McLean’s votes at the dais).

A series of public hearings formally accepted the adjustment and/or levying of fees for open space, stormwater pollution prevention, special districts and the like.

Paul Strickland left the Arts Commission, and Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste appointed Patti Rasmussen to fill-in for the remaining 7 weeks of his appointment.  The other members of the City Council confirmed her choice, a courtesy not extended to TimBen Boydston when he tried to make appointments last year.  (No one else brought it up so I thought I should).  Weste’s reasoning behind the appointment was that Rasmussen would do well in continuing Strickland’s work to establish an Arts Foundation.  Establishing such a foundation is critical in that it would make art initiatives in Santa Clarita eligible for federal grants and the like.

A Raise For Us, On Us

The City Council is allowed to increase the salary of future council members (they don’t vote on their current salaries but those received in the next term) by up to 5% per year, not compounded.  This is a sore subject, because TimBen Boydston receives significantly lower cash-in-lieu benefits than do the other members of council, though his salary is the same.  As Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer would remind the Council during their comments, this disparity does not sit well with many in the community.  City Manager Striplin talked about the “cafeteria-style plan” with the ability to customize benefits and packages, but it’s an issue that is still rather raw.  When City Attorney Joe Montes chose not to say anything on the subject, Kellar and Weste laughed (more nervously than inappropriately, I think) at the attempt to keep the issue from flaring up again.

Boydston suggested that there should be no increase in salary.  “When we have the opportunity to say ‘no’ to ourselves, it is a good thing.”  No one would second his motion.  Weste and McLean agreed that, like other City employees (which aren’t the same as elected officials…but logic doesn’t always reign at CC meetings) they should receive a pay increase.  McLean suggested 3% per year for the past two years.  Her motion passed, with Boydston dissenting.  The cynical may argue that it was easy for Boydston to vote “no” in the knowledge that he could look selfless while still receiving the pay increase, but he had motioned for no increase initially, so perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt.  In any case, effective July 2014, salaries will go up by 6% such that members will make about $100 more than the current $1,728.84 they earn each month.

Public Participation at the end of the meeting included only Cam Noltemeyer.  She was upset that Laurene Weste served on the board of an environmental group that received nearly $1M for chloride and water quality outreach.  Weste pointed out she hadn’t been a volunteer on the board for nearly a year, but this point comes up rather persistently, nonetheless.  Finally, Boydston griped about not being invited to a chloride meeting held between business interests and regional water board administrator Sam Unger (the guy who holds up binders of papers as evidence that science has happened).  Boydston didn’t have any new points to bring up, but he was butthurt—in today’s vernacular—that the council gave the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet that funding doesn’t buy them all an invitation to regionally important meetings.  Kellar, who had been invited, basically advised him to get over it—though not quite so directly.  The meeting then ended.

[1]Enjoy the agenda.  Really, please do.