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


Anonymous said...

I thought it was refreshing to hear the Einstein discussion focus only on the applicability of the proposed school site, instead of on school choice, whether or not the charter should be approved and so on. Just on the school site. I have compassion fatigue for Einstein. Too much woe is me and "everyone is against us."

I had to laugh when the Einstein rep said school districts have facilities departments, and Einstein had to rely on their contractor re: the permits. Like any reputable contractor wouldn't know you need to pull permits before you start a job.

I agree with the 3 council members who said it's a bad place for an elementary school. ANY elementary school. Not picking on Einstein.

Exactly how many school sites are they trying to open? There are some in other parts of CA, some out of state, and more here in Santa Clariita. What possible benefit to local kids is there in trying to open as many sites as possible? Maybe they would be more successful if they dial it back adn focus on their existing sites.

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