Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Voting Rights Settlement, Billboards Back, Ferry and the "Normal People"

Surprise! Billboard Deal Survives

"How very convenient this is," said Alan Ferdman. "I see here a bait-and-switch," said Cam Noltemeyer. These and many other speakers used their comments at tonight's City Council meeting to address the frustratingly convoluted developments in the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority billboard deal[1]. As you'll recall from two weeks ago, MTA wants to install 3 big digital billboards along SCV freeways. In exchange, they'll share the advertising profits with the City and remove dozens of conventional billboards in town. But the deal went from on to off to on again at the last minute, and this ruffled some feathers. Briefly:

*At the last meeting, nearly 30 people showed up to voice their opposition to the City accepting the MTA billboard deal.
*Despite the protest, the City Council (minus Boydston) approved the deal. One of their conditions was that the MTA indemnify the City in lawsuits relating to accidents caused by the billboards.
*In the days after the meeting, MTA said it would not accept the provision to indemnify the City.
*On the original agenda for this meeting, the recommended action was not accepting the deal, since MTA refused to indemnify the City.
*At the last minute, MTA said it was actually OK with the indemnification.
*At tonight's meeting, fewer people showed up than might be expected because the original agenda had strongly implied that there would be no deal.
*Consequently, the people who did show up weren't at all pleased. It was a case of fewer, madder people commenting tonight rather than a big crowd, but the opposition was there all the same.

To jump ahead, at tonight's meeting, everyone on council (save Boydston) said the deal was OK, so there will be a second-reading for final passage at the next City Council meeting. Fireworks are likely. And Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean, who leads these discussions since Mayor Weste must recuse herself from them, will probably need to clear the room when people get worked up and cheer or clap at that meeting. Indeed, just a few clappers led to her calling a 10-minute meeting recess tonight. But we'll get to her power trips in a moment....

California Voting Rights Act Settlement Costs City $400K (for now), Saves Millions(?)

The meeting began with an announcement from City Attorney Joe Montes. He said that after a discussion in closed session, the City Council decided 4-1 to settle on the California Voting Rights Act challenge facing the City. Mayor Pro Tem McLean was the dissenting vote. The action arises from Santa Clarita's at-large elections, which some have argued have the effect of preventing Latino voters from being able to elect Latino representatives (i.e., their voting power is diluted). Lawsuits filed on these grounds against other cities have been costly if the city chooses to mount a defense. So, on the grounds of a poor chance for a successful defense and an excellent chance for millions in legal expenses, the City is settling. $400,000 will be paid for legal fees, and the City of Santa Clarita will plan to move elections from April to November (which should lead to higher voter turnout) and implement cumulative voting. This voting system would let a voter cast as many votes as there are open seats, but the votes could be used on the same candidate if so desired. For example, if there were three open seats, someone could give all three of their votes to one candidate, two to one candidate and one to another, one each to three candidates, etc. Mayor Pro Tem McLean explained that she voted against the settlement because it was simply wrong. Later in the meeting, Councilmember TimBen Boydston would also express his dismay with the settlement, but he explained that he thought it was the right thing to do for "pragmatic reasons." He also suggested that the main effect of Voting Rights Act lawsuits was "enrichment of the attorney class at the expense of the taxpayers."

The invocation followed, provided by Boydston. He read some words from Pope Francis on the general topic of Lenten sacrifice and poverty, tying the theme to a recent photography exhibit that featured portraits of Santa Clarita's homeless. Then he asked that God bless Santa Clarita. Before getting much further into the evening's business, Mayor Laurene Weste noted that the Senior Center was facing a financial crisis--it couldn't afford to keep up its program of providing meals for seniors for much longer without more cash. She asked that an item to split funding costs with the County be agendized for the next meeting.

New Sheriff in Town, Public Participation Part I

Santa Clarita's new Sheriff Captain Roosevelt Johnson introduced himself to the community and council. He had some interesting words--speaking of a love affair with Santa Clarita, vowing to fight to keep Santa Clarita the safest community there is (are we?)--and was well received.

During Public Participation, former Mayor Carl Boyer expressed his disappointment in the City Council for its inaction with regard to City-County relations. Boyer said that more must be done to ensure that Santa Clarita's residents aren't ignored, brought up the idea of "Canyon County" again, and suggested that a commitment to these issues would be important in the upcoming council election. Alan Ferdman used his 3 minutes to suggest that not enough was being done and/or said about the important issues of chloride treatment and Whittaker-Bermite clean-up. Sandra Bull commented on the sad state of the senior center ("in disrepair", she said), wondering why some would brag about serving on its board when they clearly haven't left it in a very strong state.

Consent Calendar

Apart from the usual stuff (approving minutes, checks, tree trimming contracts, etc.) the Consent Calendar contained an interesting item: approving a 2014 legislative platform. This platform essentially articulates and prioritizes some specific legislative goals of the city. Legislative interests included everything from film industry incentives to grants for alternative fuel stations to opposition to unfunded mandates on local governments. With a few modifications to the language, the legislative platform and other agenda items passed with the recommended actions.

Following those items, the council received a brief presentation on the priorities for support from the Community Development Block Grant which Santa Clarita receives. Job creation, anti-crime programs, and youth activities were ranked as the highest priorities by the hundreds of residents completing surveys.

Billboard Opponents Misinformed or Abnormal, Acc. to some CC Members

Since I summarized the billboard deal background information above, I'll jump right into what people had to say about things. Generally, speakers were upset that residents hadn't been informed that a deal was back on the table. Alan Ferdman observed that people thought the issue was all but dead, so they hadn't bothered to show up and voice their opposition. Steve Petzold said that he hadn't planned to speak on the topic, but the turnaround and threat of view-marring digital billboards had upset him, offending both his "aesthetic" and "spiritual" sensibilities. He explained that, when driving north on the freeway, the beautiful view of the hills signaled an escape from LA/The Valley, but billboards would blur that line. Michael Oliveri shamed most members of the council, asking why Ferry derided Boydston for "filibustering" when Boydston's questions had revealed some important legal liabilities (i.e., thank him for talking, don't insult him). A man from Clear Channel asked why his company had been left out of all negotiations. He said that if the City just waited on the deal for a couple of months, they could offer much better terms for the City with regard to profit-sharing from advertising.

As speakers came and went, there was occasional applause. Mayor Pro Tem McLean was acting as mayor (Mayor Weste had recused herself, as usual, since the billboards were too close to her property and she had a conflict-of-interest), and she had little patience for the clapping. "If you continue to applaud after I've asked you not to, I will clear the room," she threatened. After a couple of people clapped for an anti-billboard speaker, she made good on her promise and called a recess. Whether she wanted to punish people for "disrupting" the meeting or was merely seeking an excuse for the usual mid-meeting bathroom break, we may never really know. After the clapping incident, however, she instructed people to shake their hands in the air (the American Sign Language sign for applause, sort of) if they felt they needed to show support. This led to an even greater disruption, as she couldn't keep herself from giggling at the hand-shakers as Petzold spoke, and she had to explain the reason for her amusement when he asked if she found his comments humorous. Objectively speaking, this discussion, her warnings to the audience, and the recess she called took up far more time than any amount of applause was likely to have.

After public comments, the councilmembers explained what speakers had gotten wrong. Mayor Pro Tem McLean said, "There is a lot of misinformation out there," and asked various officials to explain how the signs wouldn't be like Las Vegas flashing billboards, wouldn't use land bought with Open Space Preservation District monies, and so on. She ignored the fact that most people who attend City Council meetings are informed on these issues (that's why they attend) and simply disagree with her on the value of trading conventional billboards for electronic ones. As with the library issue from a couple of years ago, however, the main reason McLean thought people disagreed with her was because they were misinformed.

TimBen Boydston spoke next. He had real problems with the government taking such an active role in local business (i.e., picking which advertising businesses win and lose). He forced City Manager Ken Striplin to admit that one of the billboards would be built on a parcel currently designated as open space. Just as at the previous meeting, he wondered what the rush was, and he really emphasized the need to get the absolute best deal possible by, variously, negotiating with Clear Channel, having more talks with MTA, and including a gross profit sharing (versus just net profit sharing) agreement in the contract. His words fell on deaf ears, because when he motioned to deny the billboard proposal, he could not get a second.

Councilmember Frank Ferry spoke next. He said that he couldn't believe how good a deal this really was--getting rid of conventional billboards and making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on digital ones. Ferry likened those opposed to others who had been too near-sighted to see the future value of the cross-valley connector and other major city projects. Then, Ferry said that he represented the 99.5% of people who tell him, "We are just normal, we don't come to the meetings." He essentially promised that they'd be thrilled with the deal--that is, if they weren't too busy being normal to not have any idea it was happening. As you might have predicted, the audience reacted loudly and negatively to Ferry's remarks, but he was unapologetic. He then made a motion to approve the contract and pass it to a second reading at the next meeting.

Boydston tried to continue the discussion, but his fellow councilmembers wanted him to wrap up his comments and pushed a vote through after there was a second. McLean, Ferry, and Kellar (who was silent throughout) approved the new deal, and Boydston voted no.

Ferry Hides From Cam

The second-round of Public Participation followed. Berta Gonzalez-Harper ignored the rudeness of the City Council in favor of condemning the rudeness of the audience. She also spoke about her disappointment in the settlement for the California Voter Rights Act lawsuit, saying that the new system amounted to "block voting" and meant that a candidate like her (i.e., unconnected to special interests) would have a hard time getting elected.

Dennis Conn gave one of the most utterly incomprehensible comments I've ever heard, speaking about "the guy on the $20 bill", solar panels, drugs, calling Marsha Michele, and more. Finally Cam Noltemeyer came forward and asked if she could wait for Frank Ferry to return so that she could confront him (presumably about his residency, which she had brought up at the last meeting), but he chose to scamper into the backroom rather than face her, returning only once her comment period had finished.

[1]Here's the agenda. Enjoy.


DonRicketts said...

Has anyone seen the settlement document--term sheet, memorandum of understanding--whatevere the Council approved.

don ricketts

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