Saturday, December 13, 2014

Why You Should Help Count SCV's Dinosaurs

Would you be interested in seeing some living, breathing, flesh-and-blood dinosaurs? Well then you’re in luck, because thousands of them call Santa Clarita home, and on Sunday, December 21st, there will be a valley-wide census. We love our dinosaurs, and this count helps us keep track of how their populations are doing year after year. If you’re feeling a bit anxious about taking a dinosaur safari on your own, worry not: there will be plenty of experts to guide you, and the dinos don’t bite—not often, at least.

I probably can’t sustain this come-watch-dinosaurs pitch much longer without making a confession. I’m talking about birds, or avian dinosaurs (things like T. rex and Triceratops are classified as non-avian dinosaurs). They’re the only dinos we have left, so we best keep an eye on them. One of our best means of doing so is the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This year marks the 115th annual CBC, a massive effort that will span the Americas and enlist the help of well over 50,000 birders, ranging from amateur bird-watchers to professional ornithologists. Santa Clarita’s count is an invaluable part of the effort.
If counting birds is so awesome (it is), why tease with dinosaurs? Well, Santa Claritans have a miserable record of showing up for their own CBC, instead relying mostly on the efforts of birders who drive up from the Valley or LA. We've got great birds like bald eagles, greater roadrunners, phainopeplas, orange-crowned warblers, and red-naped sapsuckers, to name just a few. But this means little to most Claritans. So I'm unashamedly going the dinosaur route. The SCV CBC may be your best chance to give the whole family the priceless holiday magic that is encountering real life dinos.  
Here's a simple but scientifically sound phylogeny/tree-of-life for Archosauria to prove my point. It shows that while not all dinosaurs are birds, all birds are dinosaurs. 
Whether you call them birds or dinosaurs, there's no arguing that these counts are key to conservation. The nationwide dataset amassed since 1900 is enormous, and it allows for comprehensive analyses of the status of America's birds across space and time. But the counts are even useful at the local level. For example, we can say California quail are undergoing a statistically significant decline in Santa Clarita based on a 10-year time-series, shown below. Who doesn't love these anxious, talkative, crisply-attired little butterballs? And we know their decline is a mathematical trend, not merely an anecdote, so maybe it's time we start paying closer attention.
The total number of quail counted at each Santa Clarita Christmas Bird Count has declined from hundreds in early 2000s to dozens in recent years. Effort among years has remained nearly constant at about 50 hours of observation spread across the SCV.
If you don't know a goldfinch from a golden-crowned kinglet, you can still show up for the CBC and be a big help. Locals who can navigate Santa Clarita or keep tally of the birds people shout out are much beloved but in short supply. So mark your calendars for next Sunday. It's the day to count all the amazing dinosaurs flying around your home town.
Pertinent details:
*Meet at 7:00 am sharp on December 21, 2014 at Western Bagel (Kmart shopping center at Bouquet/Soledad).
*Ready yourself as you would for a day of leisurely hiking: dress in layers, don hat, select boots or shoes that can get some nature on them. Complete ensemble with water, sunblock, snacks. Binoculars ideal, but unaided eyes and ears work, too. If you can neither see nor hear, your enjoyment of this activity will be limited to the refreshment of strolling through nature on a brisk winter morning.
*Find a destination of your liking (Placerita? Bouquet Canyon? Castaic?), join the group, and carpool or caravan to site, taking notes on the identify and count of all birds observed.

*Regroup at lunch (typically at Tacos y Burritos el Pato, perhaps since it's named for a bird) to share findings.

*Take the rest of the day to do last-minute Christmas shopping or attend a holiday party, remarking to all who you encounter about the surprising abundance and diversity of dinosaurs in Santa Clarita.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Weste the Silent replaced by McLean the Perplexed

Tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting saw some title shuffling[1]. Mayor Marsha McLean is in command once again, with Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar waiting in the wings. This largely ceremonial business demanded some 90 minutes of the evening, pushing the City Council meeting proper back to 6:30 pm. Once underway, there was some discussion of the final results of Measure S, acceptance of a gift of 10 acres to be preserved as open space, and a slew of announcements since the next meeting won't be held until 2015. Let's review.

Singing the Praises of Laurene the Silent  

If Santa Clarita City Councilmembers bore sobriquets, Mayor Weste's would surely be Laurene the Silent. The most remarkable accomplishment of her fourth reign as mayor, by my reckoning, was complete avoidance of the billboard issue that so consumed the news and conversation this year. She recused her way out of the matter entirely. Nevertheless, people found plenty of reasons to laud her for the past year of service as mayor.

The ceremony kicked off with the musical stylings of Valencia High School's choir, singing a cappella. They belted out a couple of Christmas carols, one of which included some kid beatboxing, which I guess is still a thing. They ended with "Silent Night", which was well done and sufficiently moving to color Mayor Weste's voice with emotion as she recalled the year that was. She cited progress on the Canyon Country Community Center, the successful DFYIT program (youth anti-drug outreach), and work resolving CEMEX as some of her proudest accomplishments. She spoke for quite a while, remembering 2014 as thoroughly as she remembers Santa Clarita's departed souls during her frequent eulogies.

City Manager Ken Striplin spoke next. While the mayoral role is largely symbolic, he did point out that Mayor Weste had some extra work this year since she was the City's face of CEMEX opposition. This meant taking a 4:00 am drive to the airport for an important trip to Washington, D.C. "Do you know what it's like to feed horses at 3:00 am?" asked Weste when Striplin brought up the trip. Without missing a beat he said he'd heard all about it more than once. Laughter followed. Once Striplin had completed his comments, the following individuals/groups or their representatives recognized outgoing Mayor Weste: State Rep. Scott Wilk (there in person; he actually brought the wrong proclamation for Weste, joking he had grabbed the one meant to recognize Steve Petzold's ("Petz") 70th birthday in a few days--he then had to explain he was joking when someone said Petz, who was sitting in the audience, didn't look 70), Castaic Lake Water Agency, College of the Canyons, Rep. Buck McKeon (his representative explained that the flag Mayor Weste received was the US Congressman's last official public award before retiring from office), State Sen./US Rep.-Elect Steve Knight, State Sen. Fran Pavley, LA County Mayor/Sup. Mike Antonovich, William S. Hart School District, and Safe Action for the Environment. Most praised Weste for her commitment to growing open space and for opposing CEMEX mining in the eastern Santa Clarita Valley.

Her last action as mayor was handing over the gavel to the City Clerk, who then asked for nominations for mayor.

McLean and Kellar In, Boydston Left Out

Public participation preceded nominations for a new mayor of Santa Clarita. Steve Petzold and Patti Sulpizio both advocated for Boydston to serve as mayor. Their reasons were several. They explained that he has served on the council for some time but never in the mayoral capacity, he is deeply involved in the community with his work, he was aligned with the majority of the public's view during the contentious digital billboard debate, and he might not be reelected during the next go-around, whereas Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean has most of a 4-year term left to be mayor yet again. However, the council didn't discuss any of these points, instead unanimously electing Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean as the new mayor. This was expected. She received the gavel and applause.

After McLean read a speech about what the upcoming year would bring, presumably prepared by Gail Morgan and her minions, it was time to get Santa Clarita a mayor pro tem. Again, Petzold and Sulpizio asked the council to consider the merits of TimBen Boydston. And again, their pleas were rebuffed. Councilmember Dante Acosta made a motion for Bob Kellar to be mayor pro tem, despite the fact that Kellar was very recently mayor (2013). Again, there was no discussion, and again, the motion passed unanimously.

A Side Note on Rotations and Kellar's Flip-Flopping

Now, there is an unofficial rotation of the mayoral title among councilmembers. It's a title without much power, but the mayor gets to advocate/advance a special project (think "Mayor Dude" during Frank Ferry's term), runs the meetings, cuts the ribbons, and represents Santa Clarita at home and abroad. It doesn't make one's votes count more or give one immunity in elections (Laurie Ender lost her election even when she was mayor), but being mayor still matters somewhat. The rotation is a means of giving everyone a chance to assume the role and its additional responsibilities. Boydston has served for years on the Council and has never held the title, while conventional wisdom says Acosta is much too new (in his seat for mere months) and McLean, Weste, and Kellar have all been mayor multiple times. So it was Boydston's turn--unofficially, of course. That he wasn't made mayor pro tem was an unmistakable shunning of Boydston by the rest of the council. He is regularly the odd man out on votes, and here he was the odd man out yet again.

During her remarks, Patti Sulpizio tried to elicit some sympathy for Boydston from Bob Kellar. She said that Kellar has also been the odd man out before, as with votes pertaining to the library and the Newhall Memorial expansion, but he was still allowed to serve as mayor/mayor pro tem. Kellar also knows what it feels like to be skipped over during the mayoral rotation. Frank Ferry cut in front of him for mayor pro tem, and Kellar voted against Ferry, saying "I would prefer to go with the usual progression." In other words, Kellar was upset when he didn't get his turn, whether the concept of a rotation/turns was taken as official or not. Yet Kellar did the exact same thing to Boydston this evening that so upset him in December of 2011, the only difference being that he did not self-nominate. It seems he only wants to go with "the usual progression" when it brings him a mayoral title.

Cake Break

A spice cake and a chocolate cake were served after all of the mayoral pomp and circumstance. I chose the latter, a decision I do not regret.

Deaths, Events, Public Participation

For his invocation, Councilmember Boydston read from Isaiah on the topic of leadership far more Divine than the distinctly human leadership of the council. Weste and Boydston told Mayor McLean they'd need to discuss/abstain from votes on a few items, and we moved to public participation.

Patti Sulpizio rose to speak again. She explained she "wasn't prepared for what just happened," and deemed it "completely despicable" for Boydston to have been passed over. No offense to the speaker, but she was likely the only one surprised that the City Council chose Kellar over Boydston. A woman named Elaine (I missed her last name) spoke about mobile home rents, a matter to be discussed fully by the City Council early next year. Her mother lives in a mobile home community and is on a fixed income, so proposed minimum annual rent hikes are a real concern. She said she was particularly frustrated that she felt like she was doing staff members' jobs for them and not being adequately served. That is, she's had to do a lot of research and make a lot of phone calls on her own time.

Cam Noltemeyer brought up a small basket as a prop for her remarks. She said that she is deeply offended when she sees councilmembers on their phones at the dais instead of paying attention to public speakers, and she gave the City Clerk the basket as a receptacle for phones so that everyone may give their undivided attention. Noltemeyer suspected Weste and others were texting consultants during important council discussions and deliberations for advice or instruction. Finally, Steve Petzold spoke approvingly of the response he received when he filed an eService request pertaining to some street lights in his neighborhood.

City Manager Ken Striplin responded, saying that he appreciated praise for the eService program's responsiveness. The program has addressed 19,000 requests over the past year (that's over 50 requests a day). He also said discussions of rent and mobile home policy were premature, as the council has not yet formally considered ordinance changes. Additionally, Councilmember Weste and Mayor Pro Tem Kellar said they never used their phones during council meetings (Kellar leaves his in the car, he told an audience hopefully not comprising thieves). City Attorney Joe Montes said phone use would be allowed, but that anyone getting information influencing their decision would have to disclose it (or better yet, avoid it in the first place).

Committee reports and updates from the council spanned a variety of mostly dull topics. One highlight was the revelation that the Cowboy Festival found a home for next year in Hart Park and Old Town Newhall. Acosta and Weste remembered several recently deceased Claritans in whose names the meeting would adjourn. Mayor McLean advised audience members to watch out for an IRS phone scam, and she asked the lady who called her and left a scrambled message to call back, as she couldn't hear her name/number due to the poor quality of the recordning. In case you need reminding, Mayor McLean freely gives out her home number so that anyone may call her about City issues. "I'm in the phone book," she's often said, to which Claritan youth reply, "What's that?"

Consent and Dissent

The Consent Calendar mostly dealt with landscaping issues (beautification projects, landscape maintenance district contracts), about which speaker Alan Ferdman advised the City to make sure its getting its money's worth--he's seen many dead plants in medians lately.

Item 7 was the official declaration/certification of the Measure S vote, which revealed that the majority of Claritans have a distaste for digital billboards. Several speakers noted that it was a unique vote in many regards (went against the majority of the council, was put on the ballot by citizens, showed an unambiguous result to finally resolve the billboard debate, etc.). Most suspected a similar matter could be brought back a year from now, when it's legal to do so. Petzold hoped they might only propose digital billboards near voting precincts that weren't strongly opposed to them. Sulpizio asked for a round table discussion of digital billboards, and she asked the council to reverse ordinances that had zoned areas in anticipation of erecting digital billboards.

Here's a chart showing what made the Measure S vote unique in terms of numbers--a product of it falling with a midterm election and eliciting a surprising amount of community passion and involvement. To put it in words, 21,488 voters voted "no" on Measure S; this means 19% of all eligible voters opposed digital billboards. That's 1 in 5, far more than the 1 in 25 eligible voters, for example, who voted for Dante Acosta in 2014.
[Note that Santa Clarita wasn't a city when the vote for incorporation occurred, and I couldn't find the exact number of voters eligible to vote, so the estimated percentage of eligible voters voting in favor of it is an estimate based on the city population in 1989. All the other numbers come from]

This led to a rather tense discussion among the whole council. Mayor McLean contended that the Norland Road site that had been re-zoned from open space to accommodate a billboard wasn't "honest-to-goodness open space." (It might be helpful if Mayor McLean generates a map of the various grades of open space for future discussions--honest-to-goodness, not quite honest-to-goodness, not honest-to-goodness, etc.) Councilmember Weste added that the land in question hadn't been purchased with Open Space Preservation District funds. Councilmember Boydston countered that the land was originally going to be used by LA County as the site of a homeless shelter, but Weste had opposed this plan by saying that the area needed to be bought by the City and preserved as open space. All of this played out years ago and has been brought up many times. Councilmember Acosta even weighed in, saying that he knows "there doesn't seem to be an appetite" for digital billboards among Claritans. Nonetheless, he believes the land should be left zoned as is, and not revert back to open space, because the City needs all the options it can get as it considers a new billboard deal in a year or so. He also said the plot was so small no business could really build there anyhow, so it was going to be safe as open space for the time being, even if not officially designated as such. Essentially, Boydston pushed hard for the council to recognize that they had turned open space into a business zone, but Weste, McLean, and Acosta tried to say it was more complex than that.

Once this discussion ended, there was a similarly unproductive talk about landscape maintenance district planting policies. Boydston asked that no new plants be installed until the drought is over, but the rest of council seemed OK with installing drought-tolerant plants which they contended would not use much water and would give ratepayers of landscape maintenance districts some landscaping for their tax dollars.

Ultimately, the consent calendar passed with the recommended actions. Boydston dissented on the matter of installing landscaping, and both Boydston and Weste abstained from an item each, but this had no real effect.

Drainage Benefit Assessments: Controversial?

A public hearing on establishing a drainage benefit assessment area for the River Village community upset Cam Noltemeyer. She said these assessments are passed by developers before people move in, and these residents end up actually paying the assessments. Indeed, there was only one vote on this matter, and it came from the developer in favor of the assessment. But, as City Manager Ken Striplin explained, environmental impacts must be mitigated as a condition of development, and if the community-to-be weren't assessed, other Claritans would have to pick up the tab. Weste noted people can choose to live elsewhere if they don't wish to pay a drainage benefit assessment.

A Gift of Land, Acosta Doesn't Nominate Boydston a Second Time

A couple donated 10 acres of land near an existing area of Santa Clarita's open space, and it was graciously accepted. Weste called it a "remarkable gift", but Kellar abstained from voting because he said the donors were very good friends of his, whether that's an official conflict of interest or not.

Finally, Mayor McLean was automatically appointed to the LA County Sanitation District Board, a big appointment because it deals with the chloride issue that is costing Santa Clarita nine figures. The other member and an alternate needed to be nominated and confirmed. First, Cam Noltemeyer spoke, saying that no one on the board over past years (Weste and Kellar, especially) had really looked out for Santa Clarita and defended its best interest. After her comment, Mayor Pro Tem Kellar gave a long speech explaining that the City has done so, so much to look out for ratepayers in the unfair chloride battle, which mandates that we pay to treat chloride to a concentration that seems arbitrarily low.

Kellar said he would nominate TimBen Boydston, a passionate advocate for Santa Clarita on chloride matters, but he gave Boydston some patronizing marching orders to "not create havoc" and cooperate positively with other parties if he served. (This is actually why Kellar had been criticized by Noltemeyer--she felt he hadn't done enough to force hard discussions and create workable alternatives). It was a bit unclear if Kellar was nominating Boydston to be the other member or an alternate, but Acosta took over the floor again by nominating Weste to serve. Weste was approved, and then Acosta and Boydston tried to push the alternate spot on one another. Neither wanted it, Boydston explaining that it's an unsatisfying spot to occupy with no real power. In the end, Kellar was chosen to be alternate. This was another rejection of Boydston by the council at large, and Acosta couldn't quite fight back a satisfied smile as he helped orchestrate it--he'd worn the same smile when nominating Kellar instead of Boydston for mayor pro tem.

The Choice that Wasn't There

Al Ferdman gave the only closing public participation remark. He was far louder and, frankly, angrier than normal. He felt that re-zoning a chunk of open space to accommodate a billboard meant no parcel of open space was safe from being re-zoned on a whim to accommodate something more profitable. He made some good points, but the response was...odd.

Rather than discussing the ordinances that regulate how open space can or can't be re-zoned, Mayor McLean asked the City Manager to describe the options that had been on the ballot regarding billboards. Striplin looked utterly confused. Eventually, it was realized that McLean was talking about the original petitions against digital billboards, and she mistakenly believed signers had a choice to say they opposed the billboard deal or simply wanted to put it to a public vote. Having confused the issue with this discussion, the meeting ended.

[1]Here's the agenda.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

3% Rent Increases, 56% Billboard Rejection, 100% Senior Center Support

Tonight's City Council meeting stretched for a solid two hours, but so much went unsaid[1]. The hugely contentious billboard deal on the ballot mere weeks ago was already a non-issue. Apart from Councilmember TimBen Boydston, the Council acted like Measure S never even happened. Cam Noltemeyer made another plea for someone to say something, anything, about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion, but her demands were met with silence. Frustrating the most people was a lack of meaningful discussion about mobile home ordinance updates. The room was full of families upset at the proposed 3% minimum annual rent increase, but a discussion is on hold until draft language is formally presented in January. The Council always has a lot to say, just not necessarily on the topics people want to hear about.

A Poem, A Message

Mayor Pro Tem Marsa McLean read a poem called "The Thanksgiving Ghost" for tonight's invocation. It is an elaboration of the humorous premise that a ghost ate the missing Thanksgiving leftovers, not people.  Here is the unattributed poem:

The last piece of apple pie is gone;/ How did it disappear?/ The bowl of delicious stuffing/ Has also vanished, I fear./ It happens each Thanksgiving,/ When leftover goodies flee,/ And each of us knows the responsible one/ Couldn't be you or me./ The only way it could happen/ Is readily diagnosed;/ It must be the crafty, incredibly sneaky,/ Still hungry Thanksgiving ghost."

The light-hearted rhymes did little to mask McLean's true, much more sinister message. Her not-so-subtle point made, the meeting continued.

Metro Love

There were just a couple of awards and recognitions tonight. The City recognized some deputies who had shown extraordinary bravery in a housefire, pulling a woman to safety.

Next, the City recognized LA Metro for doing, ostensibly, what LA Metro receives money to do--transportation stuff. Mayor Weste noted that Metro helped with the Newhall Roundabout, a project which has inexplicably won the 2014 Project of the Year from the Southern California Chapter of the American Public Works Association. It was a real love-fest between the City and Metro, perhaps an apology that the Council didn't manage to pass the billboard deal that would have given Metro a new revenue stream.

Undo the Rezones, 3% Floor Unacceptable

Public participation this evening could be cleanly split into two categories, billboards and mobile home parks.

Steve Petzold addressed the defeat of Measure S, which would have added digital billboards along Santa Clarita freeways in exchange for removing some billboards in town. He joked, "I'm gonna take out all the things I was going to say about Metro" in light of the presentation that had just been made. He promised, "I don't hold any ill will," and asked the City Council to reverse the zoning amendments that had been made to accommodate planned digital billboards. Many others echoed his entreaty, noting that fully 21,488 Claritans had voted against digital billboards. By most standards, that's a bunch.

The first speaker on the topic of mobile home park ordinance changes was Concepcion Hernandez. She stood up from the audience and asked that Doug Fraser speak on her behalf, so he did. Her proxy said that the City was proposing that rents at mobile home parks would increase every year with a 3% floor and a 6% ceiling. The 3% floor seemed unfair because cost of living doesn't always increase by that much each year, yet park owners would know they were guaranteed at least a 3% increase in revenue from rents each year. Another Parklane Estates mobile home park resident asked people in the audience to raise their hand if they were there to protest the proposed ordinance, and dozens of hands shot straight up. The room was packed, and opposition was abundant.

One exception to comments on billboards and mobile home parks was a statement by Roger Herring. He described how various stakeholders and the City had been working on a project to address environmental problems in the Bouquet Canyon watershed, outside of the city proper. He was dismayed that the City had backed out on a funding plan because of concerns about new labor regulations and requirements. It wasn't a very clear comment unless you were familiar with the issue, which nobody but the City's Environmental Services Division seemed to be.

Responses and Non-Responses

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to the concerns of mobile home residents by saying that a draft ordinance would be presented next year, likely in January. The ordinance has been undergoing revision in a public process, but he hinted that it was unlikely the 3% floor on annual rent increases would be revised down to 0%, as many hoped. He said they have been trying to balance the needs of residents and park owners, and he noted that the loss of redevelopment and low-income housing funds complicate this realm of problems. In short, expect big, complicated meetings about mobile home matters in 2015.

City Attorney Joe Montes spoke about the Bouquet Canyon watershed project. It was his understanding that the City, which would pass-through funds from a granting agency to tackle the project--had offered to work on a smaller amount so that new regulations could be avoided. More discussion will ensue.

In light of a strong public vote against digital billboards and comments asking that rezoning be addressed, Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if the billboard ordinance of interest could be added to the agenda for the next meeting. He needed two members of the City Council to support him, but no one said a word. Indeed, a community that voted against digital billboards will continue to have areas spot-zoned to accommodate them for the foreseeable future.

Death Abounds

It's been a while since the last City Council meeting, so there was a lot of eulogizing to be done. Notable Claritans like Henry Schultz and Robert Newhall Chesebrough III recently passed away and were remembered. Perhaps most notable was Gladys Laney, who lived her whole life within just a few blocks of Santa Clarita, witnessing the transformation of dusty proto-Santa Clarita to the city we know today. Mayor Weste recalled visiting her at work when she turned 100.

Santa Clarita's Legislative Platform and Einstein Academy

The consent calendar was mostly a dull mix of traffic and construction matters. Item 2 was of interest because it formalized Santa Clarita's positions on legislative issues for 2015. These included points like support for creating St. Francis Dam National Memorial, opposition to unfunded state mandates, and so on. Federal and State topics were addressed ("Yet a giant landfill in Castaic is somehow too far out-of-bounds and far-removed to talk about?" some might hypothetically wonder). McLean asked that one item, which largely opposed high-speed rail, be amended to include support for other consumer rail projects.

There was a somewhat related discussion of lobbyists, which the City was proposing to continue employing for matters related to Cemex and the like. Boydston wondered at their efficacy, and Kellar assured him they were important and effective in furthering Santa Clarita's agenda on a variety of fronts.

Item 8 formally denied the request of Albert Einstein Academy (AEA) to build and operate an elementary school at an office building in an industrial park. Alan Ferdman thought it was unfair that the school was being denied for not meeting standards that weren't actually in the code, so he supported the project. Mayor Pro Tem McLean, too, was supportive, asking for this item to undergo a separate vote so she could express her support. Ultimately, though, the consent calendar exclusive of Item 8 was approved with the recommended actions, and Item 8 received 3 yes votes (Acosta, Boydston, Kellar), 1 no vote (McLean) and 1 abstention (Weste).

Just before the vote, Mayor Weste spoke to explain why she had abstained last time on the AEA vote. She claimed she "never abstains," but was sympathetic to AEA because there hadn't been an appropriate solution or alternative to the project identified. She couldn't vote to satisfy all parties, so she had chosen not to vote at all. It was an odd mix of reasoning--part protest, part frustration, part symbolic--but it didn't exactly scream "leadership" as one might hope for from their mayor. She instructed staff to determine where schools can reasonably go if they disrupt neighborhoods, aren't compatible with industrial/business parks, and can't buy out whole shopping centers. It's a fair question, but probably answered better by policy than a technical solution to be uncovered by staff.

Senior Center Funded

Santa Clarita has a large population of senior citizens, and after LA County agreed to pony up over $3M to find, acquire, and build a new SCV Senior Center, the City voted to match it with $3M of its own. Councilmember Kellar explained more funds would be needed, but this was an adequate start. The approval was very popular with everyone in the audience and on the Council. Councilmember Boydston observed that it had made unlikely allies of Berta Gonzalez-Harper and Alan Ferdman, for instance. Mayor Weste said she was "very proud to see this day."

Closing Remarks

Those for whom there hadn't been time during the first bout of public participation were given a chance to speak at the end of the meeting. Cam Noltemeyer said the Council's refusal to discuss Measure S related zoning changes "shows your contempt for the community." She continued by demanding that Mayor Weste make a statement about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion, but was left unsatisfied.

Patti Sulpizio also expressed her deep disappointment at the lack of discussion about the remains of the billboard ordinance in the wak of Measure S's defeat. She then made a play at embarrassing the City Council by passing out copies of their norms--highlighted, no less--and asking that they abide by their own rules of conduct. She was particularly upset that no one had spoken up when Rick Green was very rude to Cam Noltemeyer in a highly personal comment from the previous meeting. Sulpizio then read a letter from David Barlavi, a leader of the campaign against Measure S. It was rather witty, asking that the City stop attracting "vulture-like" enterprises (Allvision, the red light camera operators, Cemex, etc.) to the valley.

There were many speaker cards that went unclaimed as most of the mobile home park residents had left by this point in the meeting. One woman remained to say "this is abominable" in response to a 3% floor on annual rent increases. Her mother, she explained, is on a fixed Social Security income increasing only 1% per year, so she wouldn't be able to keep up. The meeting ended with this and other matters unresolved.

[1]Here's the agenda, especially for you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eating Santa Clarita: Purple Sage for Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving feast was more foraged than farmed. Sure, Pilgrims and the Wampanoag grew corn, but deer, fowl, fish, and other foods came from the wild. Foraging then was a matter of necessity. Today, foraging is a means of giving the Thanksgiving feast a truly local flavor. It’s an opportunity to consider what the wilderness provides—to connect with nature at the fundamental level as a gatherer. More practically, foraging is a pleasant reason for a hike or a task to assign those whom you wish to go take a hike.

I am planning to harvest and taste a few native foods as we approach the big feast. Some will be novel, but we begin with a local species of sage, that most quintessentially Thanksgiving of herbs. It makes for a warmly welcoming introduction to eating Santa Clarita’s indigenous flora.

Meet Your Food

Sage adds an ineffable roundness to the turkey and stuffing at the center of Thanksgiving; dinner wouldn’t be the same without it. A few species of sage are indigenous to Santa Clarita, and of these, purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) is the choicest for culinary applications. It's related to the familiar culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which hails from Europe. However, purple sage grows almost exclusively in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties—a plant of discriminating zip codes, to be sure. Since it’s rarely sold in nurseries (the “purple sage” you see for sale is usually the same name applied to a very different species), you’re one of a tiny percentage of people who can feasibly incorporate this flavorful plant into your meal.

Are you leery of consuming leaves off a bush growing in the middle of nowhere? Take some solace in the fact that California's various sages have a long legacy of use by several Native American tribes. In Edible and Useful Plants of California, Charlotte Clark writes that the native black sage “was used by early settlers to season sausage, poultry, and meat stuffings.”(111) Purple sage makes an appearance in Judith Larner Lowry’s recently published book California Foraging, where she writes, “The leaves have a future in edgy cuisines, since they are attractive and tasty when lightly fried to garnish pasta or eat as appetizers. The hint of bitterness will please those interested in re-introducing such complex tastes to their palate.”(82) If you’re still nervous, remember that you’re only using a little bit of it as a seasoning and, more importantly, you can confirm it’s sage with the sniff test—an unmistakably sagey aroma.

Recognizing and Harvesting

 Note the unique, pebbly texture and silvery/gray/white leaves of purple sage.

Purple sage is a woody shrub with small, elongate leaves with blunt edges. They are a beautiful silvery gray and have an uneven, pebbly surface texture. Don’t expect any purple on the plant this time of year; pale purple flowers come in spring. The strong, sagey smell is evident when leaves are brushed or bruised. It’s a plant of lean soils and steep hillsides. Good places to find it are the hills forming the southern flank of the Santa Clarita Valley. There are many popular hiking spots here, as you’re likely aware. If you want to be sure you know what it looks like, take a look at the photos below. To get to this particular plant for the purposes of identity confirmation, park at the City of Santa Clarita’s East Walker Ranch parking lot. From the map kiosk, walk 20 paces down the trail and there, within a tangle of green, is silvery purple sage. Dozens of other purple sage plants dot the hillside. 

East Walker Ranch is full of purple sage, like most of the hilly areas in the southern Santa Clarita Valley. Here's one that's just yards from the start of the trail if you want to verify what it looks like before gathering your own.

You should only gather purple sage on a property where you have permission. It’s not endangered or threatened by any means, but it’s still not something you can legally collect at, say, Placerita Canyon State Park. I wouldn’t be unduly concerned about the impact you’ll have on the wild populations of purple sage by pinching a few leaves, though. It’s locally very common and a robust plant that can withstand quite a lot. On a more philosophical note, I think we’re more apt to notice troubling declines in plants like purple sage if we identify and responsibly monitor or use them. Plants may well be more susceptible to demise from disinterest than from occasional, responsible harvesting.

Eating Purple Sage: A Test with Chicken  

To use purple sage fresh, just rinse off the leaves. If you want to use it dried (the way culinary sage is often sold), leave stems in a paper bag in a cool, dry spot to discourage mold. Wait a couple weeks. Then strip the leaves and crumble them for use.

Since sage is often used with poultry, I decided to taste it with chicken. I seasoned a small piece of chicken breast with a mixture similar to what you might use when roasting a turkey, keeping sage as the sole herbal component: 1 teaspoon melted butter, ¼ teaspoon lemon juice, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and 2 purple sage leaves, very finely chopped. For a comparison, I made the same marinade with culinary sage leaves as well. After the chicken marinated for 15 minutes, I cooked it in a skillet.

 The purple sage in this photo looks a little more green than usual because it came from a watered plant, which leads to greener (vs. grayer) leaves. The culinary sage is of the favored 'Berggarten' variety.

Purple sage gave a savory, woodsy flavor with sweetly floral elements somewhat reminiscent of lavender. Culinary sage made the chicken taste rich and round and contributed a sweet-bitter flavor like pine or rosemary. Both were unmistakably “sagey”, but side by side, differences were evident. Given my deep Claritan roots, I was hoping I’d like the native sage better. However, centuries of selective breeding of culinary sage have produced a familiar, tasty plant. I probably would have given it a slight edge over purple in a blind taste test. For this, I am ashamed.

The Verdict

Sage is probably the most accessible way to add a wild-foraged element to your Thanksgiving meal. The flavor of purple sage isn’t so different from culinary sage, so it will be a nice blend of novelty and familiarity at the table. It can make an appearance in turkey, stuffing, or flash-fried for a crispy garnish. It won’t taste exactly the same as culinary sage, but you’ll get most of the flavor you’re wanting and expecting. Purple sage's novelty and Claritan credentials will surely make up the difference. Just think of how you will regale family and friends with the story of how you hiked, searched, and triumphed in your quest to bring a wild-foraged piece of Santa Clarita to the feast. Why wouldn't you?

My next culinary trial will be California Bay, friend to pumpkin and potatoes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Einstein Denied, Last Stand on S, and Coyote Gangs

The big decision facing the Santa Clarita City Council tonight was whether to approve Albert Einstein Academy's proposed elementary school project on Rye Canyon Road[1]. The denial  of the project wasn't so surprising, but the vote was. Councilmembers Acosta, Boydston, and Kellar were not in favor of the proposed site, Mayor Pro Tem McLean was, and Mayor Laurene Weste abstained. Rather than seizing on an opportunity to take a stand after so many recusals from important matters, Weste's opinion was no opinion. Even when she doesn't recuse herself, she recuses herself, to put it in vaguely Seinfeldian terms. Though the meeting lasted over four hours, this debate and a couple of very personal confrontations (McClements vs. McLean; Noltemeyer vs. Weste vs. Green) made for a not uninteresting night.

Awards and Recognitions

Councilmember Bob Kellar decided to show a video for tonight's invocation. It was John Wayne and many of his famous pals singing "God Bless America" from 1970. Kellar suspected that some in the audience, which was full of young Albert Einstein Academy (AEA) students, might not recognize the faces in the clip. Indeed, most of the kids watching have been alive fewer years than the featured celebrities have been dead. But it was still well received and drew applause.

A lengthy series of awards/recognitions inevitably followed the invocation.First up was a third-grader who designed the t-shirts given away at Santa Clarita's River Rally this year. This may not have been the most essential five minutes of council content we've ever had. Mayor Weste called forward Akash Moreno, the young artist, for a photo and gushed that she "fell in love with him" when she met him earlier. Akash smiled and presented Weste with another drawing, which delighted her until she realized he hadn't signed it. She called him back up to remedy the situation but, lo and behold, he had already scrawled his signature on the back! What a fun exchange. Next came proclamations for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) and Domestic Violence Prevention Month (November). This was followed by the presentation of the Helen Putnam Intergovernmental Collaboration Award for the Drug Free Youth In Town (DFYIT) program. Mayor Weste was proud of youths who are making a drug-free lifestyle the "in thing." Finally, there was recognition and applause to mark the 20th anniversary of the Santa Clarita Teen Court Program, which creatively punishes wayward Claritan youths so they can avoid a criminal conviction on their record--at least for a little while.

After the City did so much presenting, it was time for it to receive a presentation of its own. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation lauded Santa Clarita for being a finalist for "2014 Most Business Friendly Large City". Streamlined permitting processes, no or low fees, incentive programs, and other biz-friendly qualifications were mentioned and praised.

Public Participation

Most comments from the public were on the topic of Measure S, which  will be voted on next week. Should you be unaware, Measure S would allow three large digital billboards to be installed along the 5 and 14 in exchange for removal of many of the conventional billboards in the city itself. Al Ferdman said he was surprised and disappointed at how misleading the "Yes on S" campaign has been, mentioning a fake Facebook profile designed to help their cause. Steve Petzold cited the thorough research of SCVTalk's Mike Devlin, which revealed that all of the major Measure S supporters reside outside of California and can be linked to Allvision, which will profit handsomely from the billboard deal. Petzold lost the audience a bit when he got into the topic of "nepotistic advantage" as it relates to some of the S supporters. But as his three minutes drew to a close, his voice grew louder and filled the room with clear, booming opposition to the measure.

Patti Sulpizio's comments condemned in a more softly devastating way. She meditated on the ribbon cuttings and grand openings so often celebrated in Santa Clarita, expressing her doubt that giant billboards would be the kind of thing people turn out to welcome to the community. She wondered how Weste and McLean had gone from Elsmere Canyon preservationists and open space activists to supporters of a plan that rezones some open space to allow a large digital billboard to be built. The most succinct, accessible comment of the night came from Nanette Meister. She kept things simple for a crowd of (mostly) newcomers, explaining why she didn't want billboards in the community--better deals could be had, unsavory businesses could be advertised, they would be very conspicuous and unsightly, and so on.

Darryl Manzer was the voice of support for Measure S. He rambled for a bit about sociology experiments from several decades ago that proved people would sign anything, and he reminded the audience that outside money funded the petition drive that put Measure S on the ballot. Then he summoned all of his outrage and directed it at Councilmember TimBen Boydston. He said that he is "severely embarrassed" of his conduct, especially when Boydston speaks on his own behalf rather than as a councilman. "You are always a council member no matter where you are and what you are doing," he chastised.

Planned revisions to mobile home park ordinances drew three comments. Managers in particular seemed concerned about any moves that would dramatically change current policies, which they seem to be OK with. Mobile home rents and other concerns are a persistent topic of public comments, and the usual response from the City is that they're looking into it. Tonight's uptick in comments might signal that things are finally moving forward and ready to be more thoroughly reviewed and addressed.

A confrontation over proper campaign sign conduct was brought to a conclusion this evening. At the last meeting, Larry McClements confronted Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean over challenging his right to show support for a candidate on public property. McLean was very dismissive of his account of an exchange they had, wherein she told him he was breaking the law, took his photo, and didn't realize she herself was campaigning on the property (there was a sign on her car). "You are a hypocrite," said McClements. And he was only getting started. He took umbrage with McLean's implication that events hadn't happened like he claimed (he had video evidence to back up his version, too). "I think it is disgusting that you would try to discredit me." The take-home message from McClements was that this event provided further evidence that "our city does not tolerate dissent very well." McLean would not respond.

Finally, a resident of the Belcaro gated senior community complained about coyotes that seem to be gobbling up everybody's little pets. She was gracious that her complaints have fallen on mostly sympathetic ears, but without a coyote trapping program, the best that people can do is refer her to yet another expert or agency to make more ineffective suggestions. She half-jokingly imagined an 80 year-old having to fight off coyotes with their cane, likely breaking a hip in the process. But she was very serious about asking for someone to control the coyotes, which she says have lost all fear of humans in the area. Notably, she observed that the coyotes in Belcaro run in "gangs", not packs.

Consent Calendar

There were very few remarks during the portion of the meeting reserved for councilmember reports and updates, so let's jump straight to the items on the consent calendar. (OK, a quick pause before the jump: Boydston refuted Manzer's suggestion that he's always acting in the capacity of a councilmember. Boydston explained he tries to do what the City Attorney has advised--making it clear when he's speaking as an individual versus when he's speaking on behalf of the whole council. Mayor Weste remembered recently deceased Stanley Bronstrup and the Way Station, the establishment he built and cherished. She recalled how he'd bring coffee to those waiting in line for plates of hash browns and big pancakes).

Comments on the various consent items were few. Alan Ferdman supported Item 2, which refurbishes medians on Soledad Canyon Road. It wasn't a useful comment, amounting to "good plan, thanks", but it shows he can be supportive of some City actions and isn't a perennial naysayer unlike, say, Cam Noltemeyer. Speaking of whom...on Item 4, which approves the final tract map of Five Knolls (380 residential units), Noltemeyer said "the public benefit is going out the door because apparently you don't know how to write covenants." Her explanation of her objection to approving the covenant and agreement to develop was a bit vague, as it seemed from the text that development of community benefits was included. Dr. Gene Dorio was opposed to approving Item 4 because he has concerns about the health effects that nearby power transmission lines may have on future residents. He advised the City to do a thorough study of electromagnetic radiation impacts before proceeding.

Item 11 of the consent calendar sought approval for a revised letter to the Southern California Regional Rail Authority. The Vista Canyon development is transit-oriented and hinges on the inclusion of a new Metro Station. The Via Princessa Metro Station is rather close by, however. This letter asked whether both can be feasibly operated. The letter strengthened wording from its initial presentation at the last meeting so as to indicate that the Via Metro Station is priority one for the City (i.e., if one station has to go, it would be Via Princessa). On this item, Cam Noltemeyer was upset that the City was giving the developer everything he wants with full funding. Lynne Plambeck expressed her continued opposition to the project as a whole.

After public comments, all items on the consent calendar were approved with the recommended actions. Items approved without discussion included a $60K partnership with auto dealers for a "shop local" campaign and reducing the speed limit on a portion of Copper Hill Drive from 55 to 50 mph, which means people will now likely drive at just 60 instead of 65 mph.

AEA Project

A short break preceded discussion of impact fee deferrals for the "Habitat for Heroes" development. I walked around a bit and heard some local captains of industry chatting about motivation. One was complaining that her husband had given her a book that explained the science of the mind, motivation, etc., when she really just wanted bullet points of how to make people do what you want them to do. Einstein parents talked teachers and speculated about when the meeting would finally wrap up. But the break was a short one, so I didn't get to hear much more than that.

The "Habitat for Heroes" program was looking for some help from the City of Santa Clarita in the form of certain fee deferrals. The City waived a presentation on this topic and was happy to approve of the deferrals as laid out on the agenda.

Then it was time for the big discussion of the night. The Albert Einstein Academy wanted to adapt a large commercial building on Rye Canyon Road into an elementary school for 650 students. After the Santa Clarita Planning Commission denied the project, they modified their plans to accommodate far fewer students, reducing the traffic impact to the area. Based on projections of staggered drop-off times, traffic would be increased by no more than if the building were used as an office, staff had concluded. It was staff's recommendation that the revised project be approved.

David Armstrong, a lobbyist and real estate advisor for AEA, did much of the speaking on behalf of the project. He explained that traffic would not be an issue, and he said the proposed location was very suitable for a school.

Nearly 20 public comments followed. Some came from people or groups whose feathers AEA has ruffled. These included a man who lives near Old Orchard Parkway, a street clogged daily as parents pick up their children from the AEA campus hastily established there with inadequate consideration of traffic impacts. Another came from David Huffaker, President of the Castaic Union School District Board. The proposed charter school would be operating in his district, and he said he didn't like their history of taking public funds without following all of the rules (e.g., starting construction before permits are pulled). If you've paid any attention to the local news at all, you know there are many strong opinions about charter schools, but especially about Albert Einstein Academy.

However, most comments against approval of the project came from businesses operating in the industrial park that would host the school. Some speakers, like Jeff Lage of B&B Manufacturing, said an industrial setting wasn't safe for kids, appealing to parental protectiveness. The owner of Technifex worried his limited parking and busy lot would be overtaken by parents waiting to pick up children. Others associated with the Chamber of Commerce, SCVEDC, VIA, etc... including Terri Crain, Don Fleming, Calvin Hedman, and Holly Schroeder didn't worry as much about the kids' safety as they worried about loss of industrial space that attracts and retains businesses. It was a question of protecting industry from schools, not schools from industry. Kathleen Mercer said that conversion of industrial space to mixed business use is what "ruined Glendale" and would lead us to that most dreaded fate of becoming SFV North. Don Fleming phrased his objection to fit on a bumper sticker: "Protect our business parks."

The property owner, Al Ferdman, and a couple others spoke in support of the location and project, but the numerous parents sitting in the audience did not get up to speak. They had brought their children and sat through an entire meeting but, when they had their chance, did not come to the microphone. So while supporters probably outnumbered detractors in the audience, the public speakers skewed very much in the other direction. This confusing choice was explained by Armstrong as an effort to respect the time of the audience and City Council, since everyone knew AEA families had shown up in support of the plan. Still, you'd think at least one of them would have said something.

Armstrong's rebuttal following public comments included assurances that parents wouldn't trespass onto business lots; that the business/industrial park was a preferred location for a school, not a last resort; that traffic plans had been expertly designed; and that AEA was an excellent school, highly ranked by Newsweek (didn't they get the some stats wrong in that ranking?).

The City Council weighed in, and Bob Kellar volunteered to speak first. He said he had read through the material for this item three times because he took the decision so seriously. He said that while the plan had been revised, as a rule, he didn't like to go against the Planning Commission, which had voted 5-0 against approval of the original proposal. He was also troubled that AEA got permits from Agua Dulce but was building in an area that falls within Castaic Union School District. He also mentioned how AEA had begun work before proper permits had been pulled. "You've not been a good neighbor," he concluded. He also believed the site was not the safest for a school, and for all of these reasons he said he was planning to vote against the project.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston spoke next, asking why AEA had begun construction before permits were pulled and why it didn't accept a site offered for a charter by the Saugus Union School District. Armstrong said they had fired the contractor that had moved forward without permits, and he let Rabbi Mark Blazer explain the reasoning behind looking for a different site. Blazer said Prop 39 made stipulations that might make serving students from a broad geographic area difficult to do at the Saugus Union site.

Blazer took the lead from Armstrong in responding to questions from this point forward. As Councilmember Dante Acosta would point out, Amstrong's inability to answer Boydston's and other basic questions about AEA was not the mark of a solid, thoroughly familiarized lobbyist. Acosta, who has been a big supporter of Einstein Academy in the past, quickly signaled that he would not be supportive of this project. He had two concerns. First, he didn't think it would be occupying a safe site in the industrial park. He painted the image of a tanker full of solvent losing its breaks and busting through the building. He knew such a fiery demise was exceedingly unlikely and that he might be thinking like a "nervous Nelly", but the site choice simply did not sit well with him. Second, he worried something analogous to the "airport effect" might happen with AEA families. He explained that people will complain about living next to an airport even if the airport existed when they bought their house. Something similar might happen with AEA parents complaining about industrial operations next to their kids, even though the industrial operations were there first.

With Kellar, Boydston, and Acosta against approval of the project, it didn't stand a chance (Kellar had actually made a motion to deny the modified project, which was seconded by Boydston, but discussion continued well after). Mayor Pro Tem McLean, however, made a solid effort to change some minds. She said she wanted to keep all of the politics that surrounds Einstein Academy out of their decision-making process, saying it really boiled down to the question of whether a school was an appropriate use of the property. She said all schools are a traffic nightmare for drop-off/pick-up, so those concerns shouldn't be held against AEA. When she asked if there are any dangerous materials used by the companies that operate near the proposed school site, nobody really knew. As City Manager Ken Striplin explained, they're private companies, so as long as they comply with various hazardous material laws and regulations, they can work with whatever materials they need. It's not as if every business reports the chemicals it uses to City Hall. Undeterred, McLean made it clear that she supported the school's right to use the property. Mayor Weste echoed McLean, saying she didn't see what was specifically inappropriate about the site. Only hypothetical dangers had been raised. Weste gave Blazer many opportunities to speak, and he made a last-ditch effort to save the project by saying that they might be able to reduce the number of students at the Pinecrest school if they could have this property to work with.

It seemed like Weste and McLean would stand together, voting to approve the modified project. Ultimately, however, the male members of council voted to deny approval of the project, McLean voted against their motion for denial, and Weste simply said, "Abstain." The audience was not pleased to hear this, grumbling more than they did when Acosta, Boydston, and Kellar had voted against the deal.

Public Participation, Part II

The timing couldn't have been better for Cam Noltemeyer, who came forward and railed against Mayor Weste's lack of leadership. She said that Weste and the rest of the Council have not spoken out against the massive Chiquita Canyon Landfill project slated for the Castaic/Val Verde area. Noltemeyer said that it's typical of Weste, who wouldn't take a stand on AEA and who often must recuse herself on major issues facing the City Council. Noltemeyer demanded an answer from Mayor Weste about support for or opposition to the landfill expansion, and when silence followed--the policy of council, incidentally, is not to address speakers during their comments--she stormed away from the podium, utterly outraged. And I do mean outraged, even by her own lofty standards. "You are by far the worst city council I have ever seen!" she growled.

It was not Noltemeyer's finest moment. But Richard Green, the next speaker, made a truly outrageous remark about Noltemeyer as he came to the microphone next: "Can you imagine rolling over to that every morning?" Thankfully, most of the AEA crowd had left the room by this point, but the few who remained were shocked by his remark. Stacy Fortner gasped, looking around the room as if to confirm that he had really said what it sounded like he said. Green then spoke in favor of Measure S.

The last speaker of the night was Fortner, who introduced herself to the City Council, reminded everyone of her candidacy for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, and promised that the community and Council would be seeing a lot more of her.

The meeting ended a bit after 10.

[1]Here's the agenda

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Digital Billboard Hacking 101

There are many types of electronic billboards, and many types have been hacked. From left to right: (1)Billboard in Hong Kong hacked by self-promoting thrill-seekers, via NY Daily News, (2)Digital billboard in Moscow hacked to show pornographic film, via BBC, and (3)Billboard hacked in Belgrade using iPhones, followed by a giant game of Space Invaders, via ABC News.

Councilmember Bob Kellar is a staunch supporter of Measure S, which proposes replacing conventional billboards in town with digital billboards along freeways. One of the reasons he favors this deal is that the City has no control over the content of conventional billboards, which can advertise all manner of vices; a board promoting La Vida Gentlemen's Club is often referenced in this regard. But Kellar argues that, as the landowner for new digital billboard operations, we will finally have control over content and be able to keep objectionable ads out of Santa Clarita.

Oh, will we?

During a discussion of digital billboards tonight, a friend said, "I wonder how long until those things get hacked..." This possibility (inevitability?) has received rather little attention. So as we sat at the  Rose & Crown Pub consuming chips and beer, I decided to investigate the world of digital billboard hacking.

Within 10 seconds, I had downloaded notes on digital billboard hacking from the DEF CON Hacking Conference onto my phone. In another 10 seconds, I was watching the corresponding presentation by a woman called Tottenkoph. She detailed "Hijacking the Outdoor Digital Billboard" (March 28, 2013; 1,517 views).

The vulnerabilities of digital billboards are surprisingly many. Logins and passwords like "admin" and "password" are often used. Over-eager sales teams are described as all too ready to give away technical details about digital billboards in hopes of securing a deal. Security may consist of a single camera aimed at the billboard face, not the infrastructure below. I'm guessing there are more than a few individuals in this valley who, given sufficient motivation and bravado, might work out all of the hacking particulars that went unsaid in the presentation. After all, people have managed to hack into payment information from Home Depot, into the PlayStation network, into the iCloud accounts of celebrities, and even into Iranian nuclear facilities (recall the Stuxnet Attack). Given these past breaches, it's hard to imagine that digital billboards are invulnerable.

If Santa Clarita's proposed digital billboards are, Heaven forfend, approved and installed, they may very well be attacked. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. The images at the beginning of this post show how digital billboards have been commandeered for self-promotion, mischief, or major disruption. From games of Space Invaders to hardcore pornography, the images projected by hackers can truly run the gamut.

There was a widely publicized case of skulls being projected on Los Angeles digital billboards in 2008 as part of a hack, but it was a false alarm that ended up being a legitimate, paid-for art installation (via Wired). Indeed, try as I might, I wasn't able to find any confirmed case of the hacking of an LA area digital billboard. Perhaps my concerns about hacking amount to nothing more than fear mongering--an attempt to enhance the logical objections to Measure S with anxiety and paranoia. For while we might reasonably agree that all digital things are hackable, that doesn't mean hackers will devote their energies to finding a way in. Since it's so close to Halloween, though, why not dwell on this frightful possibility just a little longer? Here's a bit of what Tottenkoph had to say in her talk:

"Now the great thing about this, about their wireless network, is that it's unencrypted, and it's not protected at all. We did a simple drive-by and we were able to see the network that the billboard was projecting from and connect. You could capture packets to see where the billboard is broadcasting to, spoof that IP address...and then, you know, etcetera, etcetera, but again, I don't know how to do this [winkingly] because this is all in theory." Audience laughs.