Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happenings: E-Billboards Approved Despite Overwhelming Public Opposition

Note: To the earliest of readers, note that this was edited and bulked up with additional details earlier this morning.

Tonight's meeting was an odd one because I attended in person.[1] I saw Gail Morgan and Ken Striplin peeking timidly through the glass doors of City Hall to glimpse the anti-billboard protest before the meeting. I sat within spitting distance (not that I would, of course) of many city council hopefuls, observing their meeting-watching tics.[2] I even got to shake hands with one Steven Petzold, legendary local punctuation activist, during a casual introduction. But the most lasting impression was something rather bleaker: a sense of the profound disconnect between the sentiments in the cheap seats and the actions of those at the dais. Indeed, despite a protest, a petition drive, dozens of public comments, and an exhaustive effort by Councilmember TimBen Boydston, the vocal public's will was ignored, and the ordinance to swap existing billboards for digital billboards was approved 3-1.

The single most asked question of the evening--what's the rush?--never received a response from the 3 councilmembers voting in favor. Instead, they justified their decision by claiming that those against digital billboards were misinformed and that a silent majority was likely in favor of the deal. It may sound like I'm painting with broad strokes, but they're only as broad as the generalizations tossed out by members of the council. Apart from final approval of the billboard contract, this was also a night where we said goodbye to Frank Ferry, a night that saw a significant change in red light camera policies, and a night that moved council elections from April to November of even-numbered years. With so many substantive topics, speakers, and discussions, the meeting stretched on until 12:40.

Later, Frank

After a thorough thanking of the folks and organizations involved in the Every 15 Minutes program, it was time to say farewell (or good riddance, as some whispered) to 16-year Councilmember Frank Ferry.  There wasn't as much spectacle as I would have anticipated. It was mostly just Frank nodding a lot as people heaped praise upon him for what he had done for the community's youth. Indeed, Mayor Laurene Weste cited youth advocacy and transportation advocacy as Ferry's major achievements while on council. CLWA, COC, William S. Hart and Saugus School Districts, representatives of George Runner and Fran Pavley and Mike Antonovich, and several others lauded Ferry's career in public service.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston was generous and sincere (apparently) in his comments to Ferry, thanking him for building programs that serve local teens so well. Boydston noted his own daughter was now entering the "age of danger" and might well benefit from these programs. Mayor Pro Tem Weste said, "Frank, Frank, Frank," which Frank immediately responded to with the amusing "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!" She thanked him for speaking frankly--though she didn't use that most appropriate adverb--and said that he said the things others thought but dare not say themselves. Councilmember Kellar called it an honor to have worked with Ferry. Mayor Weste said "I don't think too many people have Frank's sense of humor," which she cited as the reason for his success with educating youth.

When it was Ferry's turn to speak, he recalled having a passion for governing since his elementary school days. He recalled working tirelessly during his early bids to be elected to the city council, scribbling down voter names from city records in pencil for hour after hour. That hunger, which regular viewers will regard as long gone, was somewhat reawakened during tonight's meeting. Vacillating between pride and humility, he cited some of his prouder accomplishments while also freely admitting, "I don't know how to run a city." He remembered conversations with Buck McKeon about how serving on city council is one of the hardest government jobs, because you have to interact with friends and neighbors even after unpopular votes--there's no isolation like that encountered in Sacramento or D.C. He closed by framing his decision to re-invent himself around the mid-century mark in a positive light: he is looking forward to marrying his fiance in June, and he said that his near-death hospitalization in 2010 let him realize what was truly important in life. Applause followed. People in the audience wondered aloud whether the thunderous applause was for the man and his career or the man and his departure. The answer, obviously, was both.

Public Participation

Former Mayor Carl Boyer was the first public speaker, and he succinctly advocated for exploration of countyhood as a means of keeping the governance of the SCV local. Cam Noltemeyer asked why there was no campaign number on a mailer published and mailed on behalf of Marsha McLean. Glo Donnelly mumbled in her usual, semi-coherent way about being sad to see Frank Ferry leave. Sandra Bull asked why some small portion of $80M in unrestricted funds couldn't be used to shore up things at the Senior Center, which she contended is sadly neglected. Ray Henry spoke out about mobile home park issues, per usual. Lynne Plambeck worried about oaks being improperly trimmed, which risked the health of the tress. And Dennis Conn jumped from topic to topic in his usual, extremely erratic (but, at moments, glimmering with the promise of genius) style.
Consent Calendar

The Consent Calendar had a number of items that might have received more discussion on a less packed night. An item presenting the high-speed rail draft financial plan for 2014 was briefly examined, but so much is so tenuous that it's hard to say what it all ultimately means for the people of Santa Clarita. The Senior Center received almost $30,000 to meet a budget shortfall that would have prevented them from delivering meals to seniors in need. Alan Ferdman and others said that even more needed to be done, noting that "seniors eat on weekends too" in light of the lack of weekend meals. During a response from City Manager Ken Striplin, the audience was reminded that the City spends some $600-$700K per year in support of the center, and the possibility of a new (or additional) facility near the cross-valley connector was mentioned. An item addressing the regional water management plan was met with skepticism by speaker Cam Noltemeyer, who said she was aware of many (or the threat of many) deleterious substances in our water supply. Councilmember TimBen Boydston also had some questions about the water supply item, but since it was more of a summary than a legally-binding future plan, he didn't pursue it for too long. Ultimately, the City Council approved the consent calendar with the recommended actions on all items.

Billboards: The Public Speaks

The big item tonight, of course, was billboards. Council had its second reading and considered formal adoption of the ordinance removing dozens of conventional billboards in exchange for erecting three large digital billboards along our freeways. The profits are split amongst LA Metro, the City of Santa Clarita, and Allvision. As you'll recall, everyone except TimBen Boydston was in favor of the deal at previous meetings, so the hopes of digital billboard opponents weren't particularly high going in. The strategy seemed to be asking for a continuation.

There were nearly 30 public speakers, and with few exceptions, they were against the electronic billboards swap.  Gloria Mercado-Fortine delivered a thorough, logical explanation of her opposition to passing the deal tonight. As one of the more polished public speakers (whether you like her or not, she can certianly orate) she was particularly effective, asking "What's the rush?" repeatedly. This question became the common refrain heard throughout the evening. And when it was revealed that the County wouldn't even review the contract until late April, the answer was apparent (i.e., there was no need to rush at all). Mary Smith gave a dramatic reading of a narrative about how startling and out of place electronic billboards can look, disrupting views and changing the atmosphere of whole communities. Tony Newhall wondered why there had been so many clandestine meetings and no public forum on the topic. He also noted that a 50-year contract is a very long time indeed. ("Why 50 years?" was the night's other common refrain). As he terrifyingly phrased it, that contract duration was like 3 back-to-back Ferry council careers. Stephen Daniels condemned the council, asking them to prove their confidence in public support for the contract by waiting until after the election to see if pro- or anti-billboard deal candidates would be elected. Reena Newhall and a local attorney both spoke about major concerns over the City's supposed indemification in lawsuits over accidents caused by the billboards; it wasn't the airtight protection many hoped for. Michael Oliveri asked why the public had to so stringently follow norms and procedures when the City apprently did not, noting a violation of the rule to stop new business and adjourn at a certain hour of the evening. Alan Ferdman wondered if people could trust the SC City Council that they would keep land preserved as open space when they promised to do so. He was addressing the fact that an area that was zoned as open space would have to be re-zoned to allow for a billboard to be erected. 

There were many, many additional comments, but two really stand out. Mid-way through, Cam Noltemeyer came up and asked Frank Ferry very purposefully, "Do you meet the legal definition of residency, yes or no?" Ferry would not reply in what has become his typically evasive style. He makes it seem as if he's not answering to goad the combative Noltemeyer, but one wonders why he doesn't simply affirm that he lives in Santa Clarita. Cam repeated the question later in the evening, but this first query provoked the most audible gasps from the audience, so bold and unflinching was it in its directness. The other memorable speaker was Larry McClements, who wore a shirt with a ridiculous image of Frank Ferry as "Mayor Dude" (his skateboarding, youth-directed persona from a few years ago) below the text: "Normal???" (This was a reference to the last meeting, where Ferry said normal people don't attend council meetings and would be in favor of the billboard deal).  McClements' comments exceeded his shirt in hilarity. He noted that Arthur Sohikian, who has been hired as a lobbyist for Allvision, threw Marsha McLean and Laurene Weste a fundraiser just days after the first yes-vote for the billboard deal from which Allvision will reap many tens of millions of dollars. He said this had made him realize that billboard opponents needed a new strategy--passing a hat around until they collected enough cash to throw a McLean fundraiser of their own. Of course, it was a lot funnier when he said it than now, when I'm rather clumsily paraphrasing it. It tickled the audience with the right amount of brashness, humor, and condemnation. Despite the edgy comments, Ferry left the dais to take a selfie with McClements and the MayorDude shirt. 

Some speakers liked the billboards--most came off as angry or slightly spacey. Richard Green said people had it all wrong and electronic billboards were much better than the conventional ones, and he ruefully recalled earlier tangles with the City's sign ordinances. Glo Donnelly rambled on about how her husband had pushed for cityhood (a very pertinent fact in this discussion) and that people only show up if discontent. A man whose name I did not catch gushed about the wonderful service of the council and said electronic billboards were amazing, recounting a story of watching one change again and again and again right before his very eyes, a childlike sense of wonder in his voice. Berta Gonzalez-Harper was the most capable speaker, but so complete was her preference for the digital billboards that she sounded like a hired lobbyist for Allvision. She also played up intra-city rivalries, somewhat, noting that she lives in Canyon Country and doesn't deserve to be stuck with the blight of billboards that other parts of town don't have to endure.

But ultimately, it was clear from public participation that the idea was unpopular overall.

TimBen's Last Stand

TimBen responded for in excess of an hour. He started off strong. One of his clearest arguments against the electronic billboards was a suspicion that their construction would likely violate the Highway Beautification Act, which forbids "spot zoning" to convert land use type expressly for the purpose of building advertising structures. One of the proposed signs is not near any commercial zones, and so it appeared to meet the very definition of spot zoning to the benefit of an advertiser.

He tried asking some very direct questions to City Manager Ken Striplin and City Attorney Joe Montes, but it was hard getting a clear response. For example, he asked Montes if they were preparing to violate the Highway Beautification Act by allowing for the rezoning, but Montes would only say that arguments could be made on both sides. He could not be compelled to offer a legal opinion clearly stating whether they were or were not preparing to violate the act. Boydston had some less successful moments, as when he went on a long discussion about how much profit the billboards would make, and how it being a lucrative deal was somehow undesirable. I believe his point was that this contract was more concerned with generating profit than with thinking about the viewsheds of Claritans, but it was a bit hard to follow at times.

When Boydston said he had questions for Allvision, a Metro representative came up and a very awkward exchange ensued. Boyston re-stated that he had questions for Allvision and asked if someone from the company was present, and the rep made him undergo a mini screening process, if you will, asking if it was a key question before letting Boydston actually address the person he needed to.

When Bob Kellar spoke on this issue--he had spoken earlier as well, but only to complain about how much TimBean talks--he said his mind hadn't changed. He invoked the idea of misinformation, claiming that people were told billboards would go up but not that dozens of conventional ones would come down. Frank Ferry waxed idealistic about being an elected official and not governing by popular vote, though this suggested more stubbornness and close-mindedness than true leadership ability. Marsha McLean also went on a disinformation rant. It's hard to know what a person's to do: don't show up and be counted among the informed-but-silent, or do show up and be counted among the misinformed-fringe. TimBen said he was sad to see the government taking away such a large chunk of the private sector for it's own gain, and he said he was sad to see the council doing this "to the people." Mayor Pro Tem McLean harshly replied "It's not to the people, it's for the people." It went over about as well as you might imagine. Ultimately, the vote passed 3-1, with Boydston as the sole dissenting member. McLean closed by warning us that a hit mailer is coming out because of how she voted tonight (she had received a threat-by-phone earlier in the evening, she said), and this made her awfully upset.

Edwards Family Bought Off, and Other Items

It was late at this point, so there needed to be a 4/5 vote to continue the meeting. Mayor Pro Tem McLean asked, rather amusingly, how many of them that meant (to be fair, fractions are hard after midnight). The meeting was extended to address a contract item with the Edwards family, which was being compelled to accept a little over $1M as compensation for taking down their billboards. Frank Ferry postured as some kind of hero to the tearful Edwards matriarch, saying they needed to give her peace of mind. As Boydston would point out, she was all but coerced (she said that word was a bit strong, but in the right direction) to sell as part of all the billboard goings-on, but Frank tried unsuccessfully to smear electronic billboard opponents as first championing the Edwards family and then turning against them. I report this not because it made any sense, but because Ferry said it. After the compensation deal was approved, a few items remained.

A deal to modify red light cameras--longer turn window and, most critically, month-by-month renewal of the contract with the company that provides the service--passed, as did an item to switch elections to November, in response to a voting rights act lawsuit. The meeting ended after midnight, and I might type up more tomorrow because it's really late, so for now, this is all.

[1] Here's the agenda.
[2] Maria Gutzeit has frequent opinions which she whispers to her chair-neighbor for the evening, Nate Imhoff; Gloria-Mercado Fortine is tied to her phone and watches with a poker-face; Berta Gonzalez-Harper turns to scowl at people talking/enthusing out-of-turn; Al Ferdman plays it cool, his posture slowly eroding over the course of the evening; Dennis Conn is just, well, Dennis Conn; Sandra Bull sits up front and offers warm and immediate shows of approval to speakers who've just presented--and with whom she agrees; Stephen Daniels starts getting a bit fidgety when it's getting to be time for him to speak; and I didn't see the other hopefuls there, apart from the obvious two on council. As for the journalists, Perry Smith of KHTS arrives a bit late and Luke Money spills things, but they seem to be otherwise firmly in control of their domain.

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