Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Will of McLean, Acosta's Long Game

The Santa Clarita City Council is a group of five people whose roles are essentially identical on paper. In practice: not so much. This point was made abundantly clear by Mayor Marsha McLean when it came time to allot committee appointments this evening. Her seniority by title (mayor) and years served (since 2002) led her to self-affirm certain privileges, like taking nearly twice as many committee seats as newish Councilmember Dante Acosta. It was a big powerplay for little practical gain apart from further underscoring the "us" (Acosta, Kellar, McLean, Weste) versus "them" (well, "him", Boydston) dynamic of the City Council.

Unanswered Prayer

Councilmember Dante Acosta opened the meeting with a prayer: "Help us work together for the good of all concerned. We are of diverse opinion here, and yet we wish to reach agreements satisfactory to all. Please bless our deliberations and bring us success this evening. Amen." Several members of the audience amen-ed in response. Many were parents of the Santa Clarita Christian School girls' volleyball team, which became CIF champion. Acosta's own daughter was team co-captain last year, so he was thrilled to announce their accomplishment and call them forward for certificates and photos with the council. The audience size was more than halved when the girls and their parents left immediately thereafter.

A presentation from the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Committee came next. Don Fleming provided some introductory fluff (public-private partnership, never been stronger, 38 board members, blah blah blah) and introduced Holly Schroeder, President and CEO of the SCVEDC, to describe the past year. She said business attraction was challenged by a lack of available space but looked forward to the construction of "sorely needed" new industrial space. The SCVEDC trademarked the tagline "Still golden." (I was surprised one of our many senior living communities didn't grab that inspiring slogan first.) Her speech was at times vague, like when she remarked, "We focused our efforts increasingly and strategically on our target business clusters." All in all, it's safe to conclude that the SCVEDC did some business-y stuff in 2014 and will do even more in 2015. The City Council--and most especially Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar--was pleased.

Tagwell Haunts Council

Elaine Ballace, who regularly speaks out against mobile home park rent increases, addressed the issue in a new way tonight. After staff advised her to speak to the councilmembers directly, she called all of them three times. Only Boydston and McLean replied, so she went pretty easy on them, despite disagreeing with Boydston's contention that Santa Monica faces issues with rent control. Her attacks on the others were crafted based on the biographies posted on the City website. Ballace called out Kellar for claiming he's "available" to residents when he wouldn't even take her call. She said Weste claims to look out for the dignity of seniors and other residents, but asked how they can have dignity if they can't afford to keep their homes. Acosta's biography alludes to his being an actor. She said he has no IMDB credits (a friend of hers looked it up, she explained) and asked how the people of SCV can believe in him when "you mean to tell me you couldn't find one producer in Hollywood to believe in you?" Ballace herself has several credits on IMDB, including "wedding guest" in Robinhood: Men in Tights and "background inmate" in Jailbait.

Steve Petzold spoke next, thanking the City for opening up East Walkjer Ranch for a disc golf tournament. He then asked why the Sheriff's Department didn't get the word out about the tragic disappearance and death of the little girl from Newhall to the community more immediately than they did--several hours lapsed between when they and the community at large found out.

"Is there a George Tagwell out there?" asked Mayor McLean. He had apparently left a comment card but elected not to speak, much to the delight of Santa Clarita Community Facebook users in the audience. They knew the name to be from  a suspicious account set up to support installation of digital billboards when Measure S was in contention. Thus, McLean's question of "is there a George Tagwell out there?" was more apt than she may have known.

Finally, Cam Noltemeyer spoke about an important supplementary EIR pertaining to deep-well chloride disposal in Santa Clarita. She said the supplement came out as a response to SCOPE pointing out that the original site for the wells fell under a conservation easement. The new site would be an undeveloped area of Tournament Players Club Golf Course. Noltemeyer was outraged that this site would endure months of 24-hour drilling of test wells and another half-year or more of continuous drilling for the actual wells.

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to a couple of speakers. He noted that the City Council has not yet had a chance to weigh in on the proposed mobile home park ordinance and revisions. He added that a minimum 3% rent increase each year is already on the books, so inclusion of this term in the proposed ordinance would not be a novel policy. He then addressed Petzold's critique of the Sheriff's Department, saying they were too busy investigating the disappearance of the infant to release the information immediately.

No on Trains and Mining, Yes on Post Offices

Councilmember Boydston and Mayor McLean both have eyes on "the train", hoping to keep high-speed rail from bulldozing through any sensitive part of the city. Councilmember Weste and Mayor Pro Tem Kellar, meanwhile, are still trying to work out a solution to CEMEX mining. Weste said Congressman Knight is making it a top issue. (So said McKeon, battle-weary Claritans thought.) Councilmember Acosta described a recent government conference he attended and reminded residents that even when not at City Hall, "We're out there workin', workin' hard for you." Mayor McLean closed councilmember updates by asking for Claritans to contact the US Postal Service and encourage them to keep an office in Newhall, ideally near the one they recently vacated for a site in Stevenson Ranch. My grandma strongly agrees with McLean, for what it's worth.

Olsen's Appeal

Per usual, the consent calendar was full of items relating to transportation and construction contracts. Cam Noltemeyer spoke on Item 7, which approved the final tract map for Five Knolls. She opposed the development, which she felt gives the public little benefit from the "destruction derby." Open space preservation along the Santa Clara River was essential, she said. Councilmember Boydston had to recuse himself from voting on Item 8, which recommended arts and community service grants to many groups, including his Canyon Theatre Guild.

Item 10 required preparation of a list of local appointments. This perfunctory task triggered one of the more contentious discussions of the evening. Julie Olsen asked that the appointment for the North County Transportation Coalition be tabled/reconsidered. Arthur Sohikian, who was hired to lobby for digital billboards along freeways, currently serves on this coalition. She argued that a better representative would be Moazzem Chowdhury or David Barlavi, both of whom are heavily involved in the community. This item wasn't technically the proper place to discuss such a change, but Councilmember TimBen Boydston was sympathetic to her request for reconsideration and asked City Attorney Montes if it could be discussed under committee appointments--Item 14 under "New Business." After some prodding, Montes agreed the appointment could be discussed.

And once the consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions, that's the very item the City Council tackled.

Acosta's Long Game

The mayoral rotation brings with it customary transitions in service on committees. The mayor and mayor pro tem usually serve on the key ones, and the many other appointments are shuffled around as needed. Mayor McLean began by reading the committees and the councilmembers set to serve on them. There was a brief discussion of Arthur Sohikian serving on North County Transportation Coalition, but it was clear that he had the full support of Kellar and Weste, so a change in appointment as brought up by Boydston wouldn't be discussed. Boydston would, however, vote "no" on confirming that particular appointment.

Mayor McLean was set to serve on the most committees at 9 or 10--depending on if Eco-Rapid Transit was counted since the City's not a supporting member any longer. Weste would have 9, Kellar 8, Boydston 6, and Acosta 4. Boydston pointed out that it would be fairer to have everyone serve on 7, with the mayor taking 8. The rest of the discussion was spent with him trying to get more committees for Acosta by asking others to give some up. In response, the mayor made a case that her seniority mattered and she had earned her committee appointments. I'd work this out in narrative form, but here are bits and pieces raw, presented in chronological order.

ACOSTA: "I have four committee assignments, and I'd like to, you know, participate in more. [...] I think, uh, Mayor, that puts you up to ten committees at this point."

MCLEAN (interrupting): "Not...I'm going to answer that after we discuss it because you keep throwing around that I have ten committees and I don't really." [...]

BOYDSTON: "When you've been around a long time, then you get to, you know, you get to play in the sandbox a lot more. You get to  make decisions a lot more. And I don't think that it's fair, and I don't think that it's right. [...] It goes to the mayorship as well. You all know I've been here for four years serving on the council with three of you in the past, but when my supposed "turn" [air quotes] came up, it was never even discussed. [...] This lop-sidedness where certain councilmembers seem to be more equal than other councilmembers is nonsense." [...]

MCLEAN: "Everybody likes to throw out that I have a large number. However, now as mayor, there's two that I have to be on as mayor and one does not meet, and um, I actually have six if you take a look at those. We all have different avenues of interest and such, and while it's nice to want to just divide them up, some of us have been serving and serving well, serving this council well, and not everyone can have everything they want. It has been the precedent in the past of the mayor being able to select the committees, and there's been some discussion and some changes are made. However, most of the times it's been respected...except for lately. And, taking committees away from people who really wish to remain on it, it just doesn't seem correct at this point in time. [ Acosta:] You took SCAG away from me and I would like you to not take the League away from me." [...]

BOYDSTON: "As I recollect traditionally, here in the City of Santa Clarita, when a council person is newly elected, they are given their choice of the people they would like to have on, um, the commissions, and as I recollect, you didn't feel that that was an important and necessary thing to allow me to have my first choice on the commissions. That's the first time that's ever happened in the history of Santa Clarita."

MCLEAN: "There may be an opportunity for him [Acosta] to move up."

I'll stop there. In addition to these remarks, Boydston also talked about serving on the sanitation district, but Kellar called him a "loose canon" whom he said couldn't be trusted to properly represent the City. Acosta got the public safety committee seat from Kellar, but things stayed largely the same otherwise apart from alternate spots: it was a clear victory for the status quo and seniority. Voting was a bit confused because there was a substitute motion made in the midst of trying to shut up Boydston, who went on for quite a while, but all was approved in the end.

Interestingly, Acosta had an ask-then-retreat strategy throughout. He stated that he wanted more appointments, and he even named the three big ones he was after. However, so much of what he said was couched in the language of acquiescence or apology--he's the new kid on the block; with all due respect; "that's fine"; etc. It was his way of showing that he wants to be an active councilmember, but he is always ready to defer to the seniority of the others. Basically, I read this as Acosta reaching out to say, "I'm one of you." Indeed, it seemed Boydston was pushing harder for Acosta appointments than Acosta himself. Not to be too speculative, but I daresay we'll accordingly see a Mayor Pro Tem Acosta before we see a Mayor Pro Tem Boydston.

The meeting ended shortly after Stacy Fortner came forward for the second round of public participation. She said she had intended to take a new approach with the council, being respectful, dispassionate, and reserved. However, she became emotional as she sincerely asked the councilmembers to stop their negativity, pettiness, and fighting. "It's hard to listen to you, Mr. Kellar," she said of the mayor pro tem in particular. Kellar himself got a bit worked up as he responded, saying that speaking his mind is a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't proposition. Adjournment came at 7:55.
[1]Enjoy the agenda. Really, do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Old Woes in the New Year

It's been a while since the last Santa Clarita City Council meeting, but things picked up right where they left off.[1] Indeed, all of 2014's issues are now issues in 2015. Mobile home park rents? Still a thing. Advertising and signs in public spaces? Still a thing. Chiquita Canyon Landfill? Now an even bigger thing. The present looks very much like the past--some people are just sitting in different chairs now.

Great Men and Great Works

To kick off the evening, Councilmember Laurene Weste delivered one of her most puzzling invocations yet. She alluded to the approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but then waxed abstract, talking about America's various other "great men." She described how Teddy Roosevelt saved a lot of wilderness acreage. She mentioned Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. She even detailed Franklin Roosevelt's hopes for the social security system. And then she got to King ("who was also a great man") and civil rights and such. And there, the curious journey ended.

There was but one award to be received this evening, and it came from the august stewards of the Southern California Chapter of the American Public Works Association. They declared the Newhall Roundabout to be the project of the year. Mayor Marsha McLean went so far as to say that it has helped rejuvenate Old Town Newhall. So the next time you drive around that small, circular bit of road, know that it's an award-winning small, circular bit of road.

Public Participation

During the first bout of public participation, several speakers addressed mobile home park rents. The City's draft ordinance calls for annual rent increases of at least 3% and no more than 6%. The 3% floor has many residents upset because they live on fixed incomes that don't necessarily grow as quickly as their rents will. Doug Fraser spoke, per usual, but the most fiery remarks came from a woman speaking on behalf of her mother and seniors: "I think you all should be appalled at your behavior." She went on to say that the city councilmembers should step down if they won't stand up for residents, and she attacked City Manager Ken Striplin for collecting a substantial income while not doing more for mobile home park residents.

The owner of Fiesta Auto Insurance came up to express his dismay that the City won't allow his mascot--a person in a crow suit--to stand on the curb and advertise insurance. You may have seen the Fiesta bird:
City Manager Ken Striplin confirmed that these avian advertisers aren't allowed to roost on public sidewalks.

Dennis Conn, a man we might describe as a "colorful local personality/aspiring politician", rose to ramble. He spent a while describing how his arms were hurt in a bicycling accident, his visions for the future, and his strategy for effecting change, using just one word at a time.

Steve Lee and Cam Noltemeyer spoke about Chiquita Canyon Landfill, which will become the biggest landfill operation in the United States if the planned expansion is approved. Both implored the council to take a more active role opposing it. Noltemeyer said that Elsmere Canyon was outside of Santa Clarita's boundaries when McLean and others fought plans for a landfill there, so Chiquita should be no different.

The topic of the nation's largest landfill operating next door would seem to be the most important thing to address, but what really got to Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar was the story of Fiesta Auto Insurance being unable to advertise via bird costume. He asked that compromises be considered and help be offered. As for mobile home rents, City Manager Striplin said that the ordinance final draft will be presented to the council on February 24th. He said that there have been a number meetings to discuss the ordinance drafts, and that since mobile homes weren't on the agenda, the council couldn't really discuss rents at this evening's meeting. Mayor McLean seized on what Striplin said and suggested that people just needed to be informed about the process. To the contrary, it seems the residents are very much involved in the process and simply trying to stop some provisions (like the 3% annual rent increase) before they come to the council as a final draft.

The Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion was spoken of in mildly sympathetic terms. Striplin and McLean noted that a letter had been sent in response to the draft EIR for the project. The mayor explained, "I don't like landfills. I think landfills need to go away." She wished there were other viable options, but since there aren't, she concluded it's just an unfortunate situation without a clear solution. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if there could be another meeting to bring up concerns. City Attorney Joe Montes said these concerns could be communicated, but Chiquita would not be obligated to respond to them in writing.

After covering public participation, the city councilmembers shared news and updates. Several touched on Charlie Hebdo, and there were quite a few remembrances of recently deceased Claritans. The death of 98-year-old Melba Walker was particularly poignant. She was one of the children who lived in the cabins of Placerita Canyon and was truly a pioneer, as Councilmember Weste put it.

Consent Calendar

Nothing on the consent calendar prompted much in the way of support or protest. Cam Noltemeyer spoke on Item 5, which awarded a contract to prepare an EIR for a large mixed-use development in Canyon Country. A project at the site had been proposed before, and she felt they were recycling much of the old work, but Striplin informed her that the project was undergoing a complete, new evaluation.

Item 6 recommended that Accela, Inc., be awarded a contract  to update permitting systems. Boydston was concerned there was no bidding process, but a member of staff assured him that other cities have been "very happy" with Accela.

Alan Ferdman questioned Item 7, in which staff recommended awarding a contract for a reserve study of the city's landscape maintenance district operations. About 1,200 acres are involved, and the study would be used for long-term financial planning. He thought it seemed somewhat redundant with other efforts, and Boydston pursued this notion in conversations with staff, but he was willing to vote for it in the end.

Finally, Jim Farley submitted a written comment expressing his approval of a switch to outdoor LED lighting along paseos in Northbridge.

In sum, the consent calendar passed with the recommended actions on all items.

Public Hearings

After a relatively routine annexation into a landscape maintenance district (protested by a routinely outraged Cam Noltemeyer, who was upset that developers vote to join the districts only to pass costs on to eventual residents), there was a very unnecessarily drawn-out discussion of the Soledad Canyon Road Corridor Plan. I can summarize the plan more succinctly than staff: the style will be the same, only possibly a bit better and more uniform. There was grand talk about "creat[ing] a clear identity" for Canyon Country and "rustic Californian" architectural style, but changes for new development aren't exactly sweeping.

Councilmember Boydston ruined an already over-wrought discussion by making some points about traffic on Soledad. He argued that the plan was based on certain traffic assumptions, and he spoke more generally about the sorry state of traffic congestion in Santa Clarita, predicting the eventual SFV-ification of SCV if something wasn't done about it. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar countered Boydston with a useless anecdote about how quickly he can get from point A to point B on Soledad, contending that it's better than it used to be. In the end, everyone voted for the corridor plan except Boydston, who felt it missed addressing some real issues.

Public Participation, cont.

Stacy Fortner brought up Chiquita Canyon Landfill again. She pointed out that Kellar showed more concern for the auto insurance mascot than the people of Val Verde. "They're not being heard," she argued. A couple from Val Verde also spoke, using a map, news stories, and statistics to build a case that the planned landfill expansion would harm residents and diminish quality of life valley-wide. Patti Sulpizio asked the council "to advocate for us" on the landfill, since it's within the city's sphere-of-influence. Overall, people just wanted the council to give the landfill expansion some consideration and discussion, which has been fairly minimal to date.

There was a bit of a discussion over a point Sulpizio brought up in regard to SCVTV. She recalled that it had run political ads for Measure S during council meeting broadcasts, and she asked if this was proper for a channel so heavily subsidized by the City of Santa Clarita. Boydston took up and pressed her points with City Attorney Joe Montes. Montes didn't see any overt wrong-doing, but he was reluctant to render a firm legal opinion without knowing more details. The meeting ended a bit after 8:30. 

[1]Here's the agenda.