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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Water Headaches, City Survey, McClements vs. McLean

NOTE: Word on the street has it that a trivia team playing at Tilted Kilt last night had "No on Measure S" as their team name. The name was announced every round with scores, followed by a tagline that changed each round, such as "No backroom deals for Santa Clarita" or "No digital billboard blight." They won.

Chlorides. Billboards. Vista Canyon. Lobbyists. Mobile homes. Rail. Perchlorate. Campaign signage. Cemex. Drought. This was a city council meeting[1] that exhausted attendants with a thousand issues...each its own complex narrative struggling to stay at the forefront of a fickle Clarita's collective mind. Though no single issue took center stage, all got at least a little attention tonight. It's a reminder that in Santa Clarita, much remains open-ended, unresolved, and ultimately out of the control of the City Council. Indeed, apart from agreeing to some tennis court design contracts and deciding to leave the floundering Eco-Rapid Transit Joint Powers Authority, tonight was far more talk than action. We were also reminded that if you want to get an in-meeting response to your comment to the City Council, you should be named Hunt Braly or Jim Backer.

Front Matter: "Reading is so good for us."

Councilmember Dante Acosta delivered the invocation; it seemed like more talking than he's done in the past several meetings combined. Acosta lamented the fact(?) that more people vote in American Idol than in official elections. He said that he sincerely hopes everyone votes on November 4th. After that, twenty or so scouts led the pledge of allegiance and were given thunderous applause once completed. Impressively, almost all of them sat through the meeting until at least 8 tonight. The woman sitting next to me was a scout mom, and she alternated between taking notes for Bible study and shaking her head in disappointment as residents expressed their dismay with various council actions.

I felt a profound darkness closing in on me as I looked on the agenda and saw the queue: two recognitions and three presentations. At ten minutes or more apiece, I knew I wouldn't be getting out before 8 (I was right). The first recognition was issued in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Technically that happened last month, but giving the award in October just extended the good times a little longer. Mayor Weste said that 12% of Santa Clarita businesses are Latino-owned, and added that the Latino population makes many important cultural contributions to the community. Photos followed. The next recognition went to Santa Clarita Friends of Library volunteers. Mayor Weste spoke about the many important library services supported by the Friends group and its fundraising. "Reading is so good for us," mused Weste. Photos followed.

Presentations: Heart Attack, Water Conservation, We Want Cheesecake

This brought us to the presentations portion of the meeting. A video from LACo Fire Department was aimed at informing the public about the potentially life-saving PulsePoint app. In the event of a sudden cardiac arrest, quickly administering CPR can improve chances of survival, and Pulsepoint alerts people trained in first aid to help nearby victims, providing aid before emergency personnel arrive. The video was very heavy-handed, especially its soaring musical score: old couple in store, man has heart attack, wife just around and emotes, guy at store next door runs over to save the day after notification from PulsePoint. Unlike me, Bible-study lady liked the video, gasping as the old man in the video crumpled to the ground from his heart attack and expressing her own concerns that something similar could happen to a family member.

The next presentation was brought to us by Castaic Lake Water Agency General Manager Dan Masnada. Masnada can bore a crowd like few others, and tonight was no excepection as he spent more than ten minutes explaining that we're in a drought and ought to conserve water. He tried to sneak in a jab at environmental groups that have sued the CLWA, saying they would have prevented us from having water, but his vilification fell on mostly uninterested ears. Masnada said that conservation is happening, and Santa Clarita's water use for 2014 has been about 3% less than use in 2013. He noted that groundwater supplies would increase, explaining that much of this had to do with aggressively pumping water from some wells to control the spread of perchlorate in groundwater. Once treated, water formerly contaminated with perchlorate "will be available for consumptive use," he explained. Yum.  Finally, Masnada noted that securing additional water supplies to make up for shortfalls cost CLWA $1.7M this year, but they elected not to pass this on to the retailers in the form of a surcharge. I looked over and saw Cam Noltemeyer shaking her head, suggesting at least one attendant didn't believe CLWA's claim of always looking out for the customers.

Before Masnada stepped away from the podium, Councilemember TimBen Boydston had a couple of questions. He said that the number one question he gets from residents is whether CLWA can assure  new housing developments of an adequate water supply if we're already working so hard to conserve what we have. Surprisingly, Masnada agreed that if drought conditions were the norm, new developments wouldn't make sense based on the water supply. However, he said there will be wetter years ahead, and growth is planned based on the average water supply, not supply in severe droughts. Boydston then asked if some of Santa Clarita's water from the planned reverse osmosis facility could be pumped back into our basin. Masnada said that was being looked at, but requirements for recycled water dilution and residence times would diminish how much could be reclaimed. In the midst of this dull but rather useful discussion, Bob Kellar took to the microphone to tell Masnada and Boydston that they had the rest of the meeting to get to. Kellar, who has complained about residents voting based on incomplete information in the past, is a difficult man to please in terms of how much conversation about a topic is acceptable.

The final presentation was a fun one--the public opinion poll of Santa Clarita residents that comes out every other year. City Manager Ken Striplin explained that for the first time, cell phones were called in addition to landlines, giving a more representative picture of what Santa Clarita thinks and wants. 400 were interviewed, and the margin of error on the poll was +/-5%. Some 80% of residents trust the City of Santa Clarita. (Cam Noltemeyer darkly chuckled at this number). Striplin spent most of his presentation giving breakdowns on what people liked best about Santa Clarita, such as when he presented a slide entitled "Reasons for Residents' Satisfaction with City Services." There was no sister slide explicating reasons for residents' dissatisfaction. He revealed that the most coveted businesses for town are Cheesecake Factory, Nordstrom, and Porto's. (I credit Porto's being on the list to the rumor-mongering efforts of news-breaking blogger Mike Devlin. He gave us hope for delicious pastries and then took it away.) In response to the survey, which found very little wrong with Santa Clarita, Mayor Weste said, "I feel like we shoud just say 'Bravo!' or something." City Manager Striplin's job seems secure.

Public Participation: Larry Has Video

We were well into the 7 o'clock hour at this point and the real business of the meeting still hadn't started. Public participation included comments from a representative of Parklane Mobile Estates in Santa Clarita. Mobile home rents and ordinances are being examined city-wide effort, and he expressed his feeling that "the vast majority [of residents] are happy," and didn't want to foster more tension between management and residents. Cam Noltemeyer scolded the City for passing on expensive water projects to ratepayers. Al Ferdman said that City Attorney Joe Montes had not written an impartial analysis of Measure S, the billboard swap deal, because he didn't mention that 22 billboards will come down regardless of whether Measure S passes or not due to another agreement. This makes it a poorer deal than the impartial analysis seems to suggest. Hunt Braly asked for the City to defer some fees on the homes being built for veterans in the community. Steve Petzold spoke passionately against Measure S. He also questioned whether Montes had penned an impartial analysis of the deal, and he was dismayed to report that out-of-state interests have been big funders of "Yes on S" efforts. Patti Sulpizio asked whether it was legal for SCVTV, which is heavily subsidized by the City of Santa Clarita, to run ads for "Yes on S" during broadcasts of city meetings.
Al Ferdman says 22 are coming down anyways, even if measure s doesn't pass

Finally, Larry McClements came forward and spoke about a run-in he had with Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean during the last elections. She told him he couldn't campaign while on public property--he had a sign and was at the Newhall librbary--and McClements asked for clarification as to whether he and Marsha--who had a sign on her own car in the same lot--were acting properly or ought to be thrown in the slammer. His extensive detailing of the confrontation was thoroughly enjoyable.

Responses & Updates: "So far beyond reality..."
After a hearty round of public participation, the only comment that really got a response was the one from Hunt Braly about fee deferments for veteran housing. It will be agendized for discussion.

Councilmember Boydston pushed for City Attorney Montes to say more about some of the legal questions which had been brought up, especially campaigning on city property. Boydston said his own vehicle had a sign and joked that he might have to run out and move it to a different lot. Montes said he would discuss the issue more fully after some additional research, but said that signs would be really problematic if displayed with one-hundred feet of a polling place on election day.

Mayor Pro Tem McLean couldn't leave the comments from Larry McClements entirely alone, so she said that the claims he made were "so far beyond reality" they didn't deserve to be dignified with a response. From the audience, McClements shouted back, "I've got video." And so he does.

Updates from the council followed. McLean thanked the Valley Industrial Association for a work program with high school students, and she held back tears as she spoke about a gravely ill Henry Schultz, longtime advocate for Santa Clarita and its open spaces. Acosta thanked the City for recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month, and he encouraged everyone to visit our city's many trails, which he toured extensively in recent weeks. Kellar read some emails from residents thanking City staff for performing City services. Weste mentioned the recently declared San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, noting that it is near the planned Cemex mining site and Santa Clarita's open space district. She also touched on recent meetings about chloride treatment, and contended that moving forward with a $100M+ treatment plan was much better than the initially feared $500M+ plan. She also asked that staff agendize discussion of LA County's recent allocation of $3M for the SCV Senior Center; the council will talk about what they can contribute to continue supporting the center's mission. Updates from the council ended with a plea from Kellar, who wants people to donate to the Boys & Girls Club.

Consent Calendar

At 8:08, we finally arrived at the consent calendar. There were two comments on Item 7, which simply lays out a list of local appointments. Al Ferdman and Patti Sulpizio were dismayed to see that Arthur Sohikian,who is a lobbyist for Allvision, represents Santa Clarita on the North County Transportation Coalition. They argued there is a conflict of interest since Sohikian is being paid to push for digital billboards along freeways. City Attorney Montes said he didn't see a problem so long as Sohikian recused himself from commenting or voting on issues where he had a vested interest. Councilmember Kellar made a point that the City doesn't pay Sohikian to serve.

Other items approved on the consent calendar included extending a parking enforcement contract with Data Ticket. It's a $300K contract, and revenue from citations is expected to exceed costs. The item included a survey saying that the assholes residents who call Data Ticket to come and leave citations on others' cars are satisfied with the service. There was no survey of how satisfied the cited parties are. There was also a contract awarded for designing a tennis facility at Central Park.

 New Business: Controversial Letter, Bye Eco-Rapid

At the urging of the council, the City composed a letter inquiring about whether the Via Princessa Metro station could continue to operate even after the Vista Canyon Metro station is operational. Developer Jim Backer thought it made more sense to go ahead with the plan (he accused the Council of going back on its stated plans and preferences) to have a station for Vista Canyon and turn Via Princessa into a park. He didn't want Vista Canyon's planned station to be in jeopardy. Councilmember Kellar said, "we looked like a bunch of goofballs to Metro" for going back and forth on station plans, and he said he stood with Backer. Boydston tried to calm worries by stating that the letter wants both stations. "We don't want to upset the Vista Canyon project at all" promised Acosta to Backer. At Acosta's suggestion, the letter will go back for revisions to state even more forcefully that Santa Clarita wants to support the station for Vista Canyon.

The final bit of new business was a decision to leave Eco-Rapid Transit, a joint powers authority that was originally the Orangeline Development Authority. Mayor Pro Tem McLean, who has worked with this group for years, said it has moved away from a planned magnetically levitated (maglev) train system. Other cities have jumped ship. Worst of all, she said, they rejected going forward with issuing a request for interest even after the Japanese and Korean governments expressed considerable interest in partnering on a maglev train. She summarized her recommendation to leave on the grounds that "our interests are no longer being met" and that she's "really saddened" by the reduction of scope, lack of vision, and poor feasibility of Eco-Rapid's projects. The Eco-Rapid Director made a comment, but he could not keep Santa Clarita involved and excited. The City will even try to get its past dues (about $30,000 a year) reimbursed. McLean hoped things will get back on track (get it?) because an innovative rail project for SoCal is "such a worthwhile endeavor." With that, the meeting ended.

[1]Here's the agenda.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Boydston vs. Kellar at The Signal's Measure S Debate/Forum/Event

Councilmember Bob Kellar wasn't smiling for long once the debate got underway.
Tonight, The Signal hosted a debate on Measure S, which, if approved, gives the go-ahead for installing large digital billboards along freeways in exchange for removing some conventional billboards in town. Amidst the tired talking points and middling moderation, some surprising information emerged. A major revelation was that the billboard deal was being formulated for years behind closed doors--back to the Pulskamp era, according to Councilmembers Bob Kellar and TimBen Boydston. Another was the presentation of what might be deemed the Boydston Plan, which radically suggests both Allvision and LA Metro are effectively middlemen that can be cut out of billboard negotiations. Boydston went after many perceived flaws in the billboard deal, leaving Kellar to play defense for the majority of the night. Below are some observations.


The debate took place for a little over an hour with a short break in the middle. Councilmember Kellar spoke in favor of Measure S, and Councilmember Boydston spoke against it. There were opening and closing statements, and moderator Jason Schaff helped direct the conversation with questions. He was rather informal, telling Bob Kellar “You should!” when Kellar said he’d take advantage of discounted advertising prices for the digital billboards to promote his real estate business. He also called current billboards some colloquial pejorative (scummy? I can’t remember the exact word), asking if anyone really liked them. He didn't seem to be playing favorites, though, as he asked some probing questions of both men. The debate definitely went more in-depth into the nature of the Allvision deal at the cost of breadth. “Is it a good deal?” was the fundamental question of the night, perhaps rightly so.

Bob Kellar often referred to and read from written statements. When speaking freely, he tended to make appeals to authority. To paraphrase, Santa Clarita has great people working for it and a legacy of fiscal responsibility, so it ought to be trusted to handle billboard negotiations and implementation in the community’s best interest. TimBen Boydston spoke much less from the script and had more control over the conversation. His style was more pragmatic, asking Claritans to think about the numbers and terms and conditions rather than trust in the institution of the City of Santa Clarita.

Billboard Plans Began in 2010?

Jason Schaff asked Bob Kellar why so many of the deal’s negotiations had gone on behind closed doors and how long discussions had been taking place. Kellar said that Allvision and Metro were in discussions back in April 2010, though it's not clear how involved the City was at that point. Boydston confirmed his understanding that much of the deal had been hammered out by former City Manager Ken Pulskamp and former Director of Community Development Paul Brotzman. Both of those men retired in 2012. In short, there were at least a couple years of work on the billboard deal before the public got wind of any of it. While Kellar said this was normal and proper for a discussion of this nature, Boydston said he had asked City Attorney Joe Montes if the negotiations could have been more public, and Montes said that would indeed have been legal.

The revelation definitely played to the advantage of the No on S crowd. There was a hushed but audible gasp audience-wide when Kellar dropped the 2010 “start date,” and such lengthy closed-door discussions did not manage to yield an airtight, criticism-proof contract.

A Bird in the Hand vs. A Line of Applicants
or, The Boydston Plan Emerges

The vast majority of this evening was spent talking about whether Measure S was the best deal Santa Clarita could get.  Boydston called it terrible, Kellar called it great.

The Kellar argument was that the real goal of any negotiations was getting billboards taken down, and indeed, more billboards go down than go up with Measure S (whether they are equivalent in nature was an unanswered question). He said any revenue was better than the $0 the City currently receives from conventional billboards. His central metaphor was of the deal as a bird in the hand. It’s one we can take to the bank today, and who knows if we’d do as well if things went back to the negotiation stage? Kellar generally shied away from specifics, but he said the 65% share of net revenue likely represented 28-29% of gross revenue, a decent percentage comparable to what other cities receive. Further, he claimed that estimates suggesting $500K-$1M in annual revenue weren’t “phony baloney” but based on revenue generated in other installations. Nonetheless, Kellar admitted there were no guarantees of any net revenue. He said by the same token, there were no guarantees the roof of The Signal’s creekside home wouldn’t come crashing down at any moment.

Boydston asked Claritans to envision a better deal. While Metro owns the land on which the billboards are leased, CBS and Clear Channel own and operate the billboards. They were not involved in the negotiations, but ought to have been. A deal involving Santa Clarita and these companies would mean splitting revenue two ways, not among several parties, and could mean tens of millions of extra dollars would go to the people of Santa Clarita rather than middlemen. Kellar insisted that Clear Channel knew about the deal, despite Schaff presenting an official letter that indicated otherwise. Kellar said Clear Channel should have taken the responsibility to draw up their own proposal and present it to Santa Clarita. Boydston found this suggestion ridiculous as the City had issued no request for proposals. Boydston continued with his assertion that Allvision and Metro didn't need to be involved in billboard removal efforts or contracts, pushing for a simpler, more profitable contract.
Boydston countered Kellar's bird-in-the-hand argument next. Companies seem to think hundreds of millions of advertising dollars are up for grabs in an SCV billboard deal. Therefore, he has no doubts that if we kill the present deal (or let the bird in the hand go, to use Kellar's metaphor), we'll have many more deals to consider thereafter (or a handful of birds).

The Second Deal vs. The Universal Deal

There will be 25 conventional billboards left even if Measure S passes. This includes one billboard presently advertising for a gentlemen’s club (Kellar and Boydston are both opposed to it, for whatever reason). Kellar, whose ideas of the proper role of CBS and Clear Channel varied throughout the night, said he hoped they or others might approach the City with a second deal after this first one passes that will result in the removal of all remaining boards.

Boydston rejected hopes for a second deal, instead arguing that remaining billboards skyrocket in value after the removal of others (supply and demand), so the present deal must be scrapped and a universal billboard agreement reached in its place. This round, too, seemed to go Boydston's way, as there was disapproving murmuring in the crowd when Kellar said he hoped another deal would be made.

Other Bits

*Boydston reminded viewers that the land which would accommodate a digital billboard near Elsmere Canyon had been purchased after building a homeless shelter there was proposed. The council at the time suggested the land was needed for trails and open space. Thus, if a billboard is built there, it means a potential homeless shelter site was effectively bought up to turn into an advertising venue instead.

*Kellar did not touch on the utility of billboards to public safety officials, a major talking point in the Yes on S literature. Again, he seemed to be playing more defense than offense. He did manage to get in a disclaimer that the electronic billboards would not be Vegas-type billboards.

*Kellar estimated 5 years to amortize costs associated with the Measure S deal. After this period, the City could expect to receive net revenue, though again, it would not be guaranteed.

*The cost to advertise on digital billboards will be markedly reduced for local businesses in the first two years of operation, but after that it goes to market rates. These could prove extremely costly for small local businesses ($8000 monthly rates on digital billboards was one figure thrown out but not officially accepted/rejected).

*Audience questions were not well integrated into the debate or forum or whatever you want to call it, and there were no direct questions at all.

The Crowd

Only 15 subscribers were allowed to attend with one guest each. No one off the list got in. Schaff sheepishly thanked attendees for subscribing to The Signal at the start and end of the event, and mugs commemorating The Signal’s February 6th, 2014 candidate forum were available for free. (I snagged two.) Many instantly recognizable community names were present: Braly, Mercado-Fortine, Sohikian, McLean, Ferdman, Newhall. Most everyone was civil and well-behaved. Lila Littlejohn did give Steve Petzold a note requesting that he put his shoes back on after briefly removing them (despite no offensive odor), but that was about it.
Reena Newhall introduces herself to Allvision lobbyist Arthur Sohikian with, "So you're the bad guy."

During the break and at the end of the meeting, however, things were more heated. Reena Newhall turned around in her seat, looked at Arthur Sohikian (lobbyist for Allvision) and said, “So you’re the bad guy.” Sohikian tried to laugh it off by saying he’d get an appropriate outfit from the Newhalls' costume shop, maybe the Joker, and Reena replied that she would be quite capable of costuming him…as a robber. Hunt Braly and Alan Ferdman exchanged words as well, and though I didn’t see the spat to its resolution, I daresay neither man changed his mind. The entire event was taped and will be made available to a much wider audience, though I’m not sure how many will watch.

The Last 100-or-so Closing Words of Each Spokesman

Kellar: “Look at the people and the entities that have come forward in support that I reiterate: The Chamber of Commerce, Valley Industrial Association, Board of Realtors, and a long list of people that are very accomplished. The people, ladies and gentlemen, are of the quality that have come together over the years that has made Santa Clarita the success it is. They’re the people that have [missed a couple words] not necessarily elected not necessarily working at city hall but people that are volunteers and care about this city, those are the people that are saying, "Yes on S." This is a good thing. Let’s keep this city moving forward and vote yes on S.”

Boydston: “Then they went out to have a referendum. They went out and got signatures: 18,000 signatures were collected then because people thought this was a lousy deal and they didn’t want it to go forward this way. So let’s not forget about the people when we talk about that, let’s not forget about the 18,000 people. Let’s not forget about the people that are out there right now, grassroots out there, that are telling their neighbors and they’re walking around and telling people that they need to vote no on Measure S. It’s a bad deal.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free the Tree

Stevenson Ranch, a community unremarkable in most every regard, holds one unique distinction: the Guinness Word Record for largest tree transplanted, Old Glory.[1] At the time it was transplanted, the oak weighed over 458 tons—about the same as 50 bull elephants—and measured 104 feet across, which is twice as wide as a typical Stevenson Ranch lot. The tree's record-breaking move resolved a standoff between tree-sitter John Quigley and the developer who wanted to cut it down for road expansion. Quigley had perched in the tree for 71 days to save it, saying “the tree has a miraculous spirit.”[2] Or, as Dave Bossert chose to remember the events, “local environmental terrorists used the tree as a pawn to prevent the widening of Pico Canyon.”[3]

After its move in the winter of 2003/2004, a chain link fence was built around the oak. Ostensibly, this protected roots sensitive from being transplanted, shielded visitors from limbs which might die and fall as the tree adjusted to its new location, and separated the famed oak fromthose who might want to do it harm. From behind this fence, Old Glory's fans waited anxiously to see if the tree would survive the shock and stress of the move.
It fared splendidly. In 2011, The Signal ran a story explaining that the County of Los Angeles, which manages the park, would be taking down the fence because the tree had received a clean bill of health from the arborists who knew it well.[4]
Unfortunately, the fence remains. Arborist Jose Mercado has recommended fencing at every turn. His reasons have included "lessen[ing] the chance of liability in case a limb falls"[5] to "discourag-[ing] any climbing on the old oak."[4] I'm hesitant to cast a villain in this tale of transplantation, but at every turn, Mr. Mercado has seemed determined to keep the oak behind bars. Throughout Santa Clarita, other valley oaks (Quercus lobata) stand unfenced in communities where yes, they sometimes drop limbs, and where yes, they might be climbed, but only Old Glory stands in dreary isolation. Even the Oak of the Golden Dream, California Registered Historical Landmark No. 168 and perhaps the most significant oak tree in the state, is far more accessible to the community, surrounded by nothing but a short, rustic fence that's as much seat as security.
The fact that Old Glory remains fenced is a shame. We ought to let the neighborhood that saved it from chainsaws and bulldozers enjoy it unimpeded, to let animals move to and from the tree freely--in short, to let it be integrated into the community.

This "Oak-tober", it’s time to take the fence around Old Glory down. Contact Mike Antonovich's office at LA County. Report chain link fencing as a violation of landscaping codes if you live in Stevenson Ranch. Somehow, let's get the fence down.
[2]Read the Quigley interview with Leon Worden.
[4]The headline from 2011 reads "Old Glory still glorious"
[5]Mr. Mercado wants to keep a fence between you and your tree