The Kid Can Cook
The meeting began, of course, with recognitions and presentations. Fox’s MasterChef Junior is a TV competition in which kids aged 8 to 13 cook restaurant-worthy dishes and then usually cry. SCV’s own Jimmy Warshawsky competed this season, and he made it to the top four before being eliminated. Mayor Marsha McLean applauded his strong showing, saying, “I thought that you totally deserved to move forward.”
Next, representatives from UCLA Health spoke about how they are markedly increasing their presence in Santa Clarita. Some 100,000 square feet will likely be in operation by 2015, covering everything from digestive health services to dermatology. Locations are presently on McBean Parkway or Tourney Road. A woman from their marketing branch spoke next. Her tone was somewhere between eager and aggressive—they really, really, really want to become part of the community. She promised UCLA Health will be seen everywhere in Santa Clarita. They’ve already started outreach including event sponsorship and using a “huge, giant, inflatable colon” to educate people about colon health.
The Disposal Proposal
All of the speakers in the first round of public participation addressed plans to dispose of brine in wells near (or even under) homes in the Stevenson Ranch area. Many of the Stevenson Ranchers (hereafter “Stanchers”) said they had just heard about the issue, so here’s a quick summary if you’re among them: Santa Clarita has been compelled to lower the chloride (salt) levels in its wastewater. The target chloride levels seem to have been set arbitrarily low and it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to reach the target, which has upset many people for many years. Nonetheless, plans have been drafted to remove salt by reverse osmosis, which generates concentrated brine in the process. The current proposal is to dispose of this brine in wells thousands of feet deep. The proposed site for the wells somewhat recently moved to an undeveloped portion of the Tournament Players Club. This has greatly upset and mobilized residents on the west side of the valley. They understandably don’t want to live with a brine disposal field thousands of feet beneath their feet. In short, the City has to find the least sucky option to get rid of excess salt in its water, and right now the plan is to dump it underground in Stevenson Ranch.
The first speaker was Gary Morgan, president of the Westridge Estates HOA. He wanted the City Council to take an official position on deep well brine disposal, so he requested that they “Please put us on your agenda so we can be heard.” A couple of speakers tried to personalize the proposal. “It needs to be put somewhere where there aren’t families,” one woman said. Others brought up the possibility of earthquakes that might be triggered by deep well brine disposal. One man said that, when he first heard of the issue last week, it was so outrageous that “It sounded like a joke.” All of the comments had the same basic message: (1)Move the wells, and (2)Agendize the matter so the council can formally promise to support moving the wells.
Mayor Marsha McLean was the first to respond. She informed the crowd that they were speaking to the wrong people. “We don’t like what we’re being mandated to do…and we tried very hard to fight it. We ask you to help us to help you.” The mayor wanted the Stanchers to redirect their energies and efforts to contacting the water control boards and the governor’s office. That is, McLean wanted them to target the people behind the chloride mandate that’s the root of the problem. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar supported McLean’s comments and stated, “This has been put upon us by the State of California.” Each time McLean or Kellar said something about the matter being out of their hands, the audience grew more restless. By the time McLean said, “We’re not the ones who can help you…you need to understand how the process works,” people were actually yelling to challenge her words.
Councilmember TimBen Boydston successfully read the crowd and seized the moment. McLean and Weste are on the Sanitation District Board, so he challenged the idea that they were powerless to do anything about the deep wells slated for Stevenson Ranch. “They absolutely do have the ability to change where those wells go!” he proclaimed. Thunderous applause boomed from the audience in response. Boydston went on for a few more minutes to even more cheers. He was the only councilmember who explicitly acknowledged that chloride mandates from the State of California was an issue separate from the choice of how to dispose of chloride brine. In other words, the council-dominated sanitation board could choose a different means of chloride disposal or select a different location to satisfy the underlying requirement.
Boydston’s approach did not sit well with Mayor McLean. She said, “Some of the statements that have been made are simply not correct and are not true. I mean it’s great to speak and incite a room, but it’s also necessary to show some integrity and tell the truth.” But the Stanchers were already Boydston’s. Amidst growing discontented murmuring she tried to tell the crowd that they needed to hear the history of the issue. “We are on your side!” she exclaimed, but they simply wouldn’t have it.
At this point, Councilmember Laurene Weste lulled the frenzied crowd with a wearisome account of the chloride issue. She went all the way back to the 1970s and the Clean Water Act, recalled the effort to eliminate water softeners, and finally got back to the present day issue. It was unduly tedious.
The City Council offered a lot of comments on this non-agendized item, which isn’t the norm, and they agreed to put it on the agenda for what will likely be an even longer, more heated discussion next week.
A Hiccup of Consent
The Consent Calendar passed with the recommended actions and with few remarks. It included an item to widen Golden Valley Road Bridge at a cost of $6.4M. Alan Ferdman spoke in support, thanking the council. Two other items involved issues in Old Town Newhall. One demolished an old building on Lyons, and the other addressed the legacy of redevelopment funds
Mobile Home Ordinance Update Explained
To the surprise of many Stanchers, there was another big issue to discuss tonight. After years of meetings and dismayed public comments, Santa Clarita's mobile home park ordinance had been updated and was presented for a first reading this evening. The ordinance regulates the relationship between mobile home park owners and residents and it has been in place—and largely unchanged—since 1991.
Erin Lay presented the item in a crisp and efficient manner. She explained that there are 16 mobile home parks with about 2,000 spaces in Santa Clarita. Lay summarized the current ordinance as costly and difficult to interpret for residents and owners alike. The City of Santa Clarita has spent over $250,000 in the past three years to administer the ordinance. Registration fees, which are supposed to cover these administrative costs, cover only 8% of the amount. Appeals, consulting, and legal fees are particularly expensive, she explained.
The entire ordinance was inspected and revised, with some whole sections cut out. Key adjustments included expanding noticing requirements for rent increases and reducing the number of reasons which owners can use to justify non-standard rent increases. Staff also created an appeal petition form to help residents.
The real sticking point, however, was the annual standard adjustment. The revised ordinance proposed keeping a 3% floor and 6% ceiling on these rent increases. They’re in place to let owners collect more rent as maintenance costs grow over time. The ceiling is intended to protect residents from unreasonable increases but, as Lay would explain, the ordinance was “not intended to create affordable housing or rent control based on residents’ income.” This was the subject of nearly all comments from residents.
Two Languages, One Message
Doug Fraser, a familiar advocate for mobile home park residents, got the ball rolling. He spoke on behalf of an audience member whose anxiety precluded her from public speaking (though she seemed alright with yelling that she had an anxiety condition from way back in the audience). He explained that she was concerned she wouldn’t be able to afford increased rent. Fraser said he’d be speaking on behalf of more residents, but Mayor McLean nixed that plan, stating that people had to speak on their own behalf. An interpreter was present for Spanish-speaking residents, she explained. Fraser felt that not allowing someone to speak on another’s behalf violated the Brown Act, but City Attorney Joe Montes didn’t agree (though his language was a bit equivocal).
Al Ferdman stated that he felt the mobile home ordinance issue had festered, and he said the council should have to hear final appeals and stand by their decisions. Next, several park owners (or their representatives) came forward to speak. Most felt that the new ordinance added clarity and that the 3-6% standard adjustment was fair. They claimed they had agreed to compromises.
Ray Henry, another familiar face on this topic, said that residents have had to rely on costly appeals because there were multiple interpretations of the same ordinance. He said they were forced to take matters into their own hands because the City wouldn’t step in. “If you cannot fix something properly, don’t break it more than it already is.” At this point, Mayor McLean asked people applauding for Henry not to applaud. Mayor McLean often uses time to tell people how time-consuming applause is rather than letting the applause play out; I don't know if she breaks even or not. From the back of the room, Elaine Ballace yelled, “The rich people can applaud!”. (McLean had told the Stanchers not to applaud, but she relented after a while, which is what Ballace was referring to. Some Stanchers were sitting to her left and nodded in approval of mobile home park residents’ right to applause.)
Felipe Rosas was one of several speakers to say of Latino residents, “We are a little bit afraid of speaking up.” Another speaker said she was speaking on behalf of many others who “were not brave enough to speak.” But ultimately, many residents did speak. With the help of an interpreter, Fausto Martinez said, “Unfortunately, the owner doesn’t contribute with any improvements. We don’t have a playground for the kids. So the owner is getting the money for his profit.” A lack of property improvements was a common complaint. Others spoke about how they worked hard but don’t necessarily receive raises while rent can increase annually. “Help us” was a refrain heard several times. One man pointed to the “In God We Trust” motto on the back wall behind the council. He said, “I’m asking God to touch your hearts.”
Beth Simon, who sits on the mobile home panel and lives in one of the parks, said “I am pleased to support the changes made.” The self-described “happy camper” felt that her park was great but understood other parks might not be managed as well. She was dismayed that so many who spoke tonight had not shown up to prior meetings. Cam Noltemeyer, who spoke immediately after, addressed Simon’s complaint with a snappy, “I assume they didn’t show up because they were probably trying to work.”
TimBen’s Curious Speech
When the time came for the council to respond, Councilmember Dante Acosta spoke first. Since the standard adjustment is intended to keep pace with the CPI-U, he proposed lowering it from 3% to 2.6%, the average increase. This was quickly seconded. He also cautioned against going any lower, noting that mobile home parks are on flat land which developers are often keen to buy up. That is, mobile home park owners have to get enough income to want to keep the parks rather than sell them for a housing tract.
Councilmember Laurene Weste suggested lowering the ceiling to 5%, and she asked City Attorney Joe Montes to clarify the legality of adjustments and how they’ve held up in court. Montes said that slight adjustments tend to fare well, but major adjustments may be overturned by the court in the interest of protecting the owners’ rights.
Everyone was more or less on the same page, but Councilmember TimBen Boydston felt that he needed to take a chunk of time to really address the concerns of Latino residents. He may have had good intentions, but his speech quickly turned into a bizarrely condescending attempt to assure mobile home park residents that their concerns had been heard.
The build-up to his speech was heightened by the fact that the professional interpreter had left at the last recess in the meeting since everyone had turned in their interpretation headsets. This led Mayor McLean to wonder if the meeting could continue, and another recess was called to look for an interpreter. During this recess, a man who volunteered his services from the audience was angry he wasn’t being used, and Councilmember Dante Acosta tried to talk him down. (In the process, Acosta explained that he’s very comfortable listening to Spanish but less comfortable speaking it.) Staff clamored to find an interpreter and then to get the headsets to work. It was a bit of a mess; City Manager Ken Striplin even got up out of his seat to try and sort out the headset situation.
The situation was resolved by getting management analyst Elena Galvez to act as an interpreter-who’s-not-an-interpreter-by-trade. She spoke into the microphone for the whole room to hear. Since she was caught a bit off guard by this new role, TimBen spoke very slowly. His gestures were pronounced and he dipped in and out of an unintentionally (I think) affected Spanish accent. For example, “increase” turned to “eencreese” and “owners” turned to “ohnairs.” I believe this was done because Galvez wasn’t a practiced interpreter so her delivery was slow and he was trying not to go too quickly, but it was a very awkward presentation in its own right. He began: “I have a heart for those who work so hard. My father came from the dustbowl back in the 1930s to California for that dream. He picked beans in the fields of Oxnard for two dollars a day. He did that so his children could have a better life, the same that you are doing for your children.”
Here are a couple recordings--you can decide if he assumed an accent or not.
After expressing this solidarity and understanding, he tried to justify his support for a 2.6% floor on rent increases. “So when we are considering this very important ordinance it’s important to know that we are looking at both sides.” And this is where it got a bit condescending: “For there to be more house built, for there to be more buildings built, we need people who will build them. So if we make the rents too low, then there is no profit or there is no money for the owners. Then there won’t be the new housing. But this community is very expensive to live in so we have to find a balance.”
In the end, the 2.6/5% floor/ceiling were approved, and this item will be back for a second and final reading at the next City Council meeting. Mayor McLean closed the remarks with her own unfortunate attempt to connect with Latino residents, offering a soft, “Gracias.” Then she said “Oui…” and laughed that she had slipped into French.
Final Stanch Remarks
Elena Galvez was excused and received applause for interpreting on the spot and while feeling ill. A couple of speakers had stuck through the entire meeting to convey their own remarks on the deep well brine disposal slated for Stevenson Ranch. Al Ferdman thanked everyone who had come from the west side and channeled Boydston when he proclaimed, “They did not mandate deep well injection!” And, like Boydston, he received applause. Jerry Young called the deep well solution a non-permanent fix, explaining that they’d have to find a new spot every 50 years. He also cited USGS studies which had concluded that earthquakes could be triggered by deep well disposal. Allan Cameron told the council that they had not pursued all of their options to appeal fines levied for inaction on chlorides. Trevor Pooley asked for the council to lead, pleading, “We need leadership.” Comments concluded with Marilee Christofferson, a mother of five (a fact she reminded us of more than five times). She said, "Two different issues here were being lumped into one issue...we are just asking that this site be looked at and moved so that it's not under our homes any more." She was optimistic they could "fight this seemingly unfightable fight."
Boydston asked why the site had been moved in the first place, and Weste explained that LA County called the original spot a "sensitive ecological area," so it had to be moved. McLean then said, "I cannot tell you how many years I have been waiting for a huge, very effective, very intelligent community to help us fight this thing." Based on the vague pronouns, I know she wasn't trying to insult the SCV, but it still stung my Claritan ears ("Aren't we effective and intelligent like Stevenson Ranch, too?")The meeting ended with an adjournment by Mayor McLean over Elaine Ballace, who was yelling that she hadn’t had her chance to speak during public participation.