Saturday, December 13, 2014

Why You Should Help Count SCV's Dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Weste the Silent replaced by McLean the Perplexed

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

Singing the Praises of Laurene the Silent  

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

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

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

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

McLean and Kellar In, Boydston Left Out

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

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

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

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

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

Cake Break

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

Deaths, Events, Public Participation

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

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

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

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

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

Consent and Dissent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drainage Benefit Assessments: Controversial?

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

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

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

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

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

The Choice that Wasn't There

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

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

[1]Here's the agenda.