Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Future for SCV Intersections, Fire Stations, and BMX Families

Tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting did away with red light cameras at intersections, solidified support for a community fighting installation of a powerful telecommunications tower, and saw the dream of a local BMX track take hold. Depending on whose view of the future you believe in, this means that months from now, intersections will be about the same or have become total death-traps; a big cell tower will have been avoided or will be bathing north SCV in radiation; and a BMX track will be within reach or remain as far off as ever. With so much of the future contingent on so much else, who knows...let's stick to summarizing the recent past.

Welcome Spring

For her invocation, Councilmember Laurene Weste remarked on how blessed we are to be experiencing such a lovely spring and encouraged people to enjoy the outdoors. Fittingly, the City was then recognized as a "Tree City USA" since it has a $2+ per capita budget for urban forestry and hosts an Arbor Day event.

Public Participation

Elaine Ballace, clad in canary yellow, spoke about a perceived imbalance in the accessibility of councilmembers to mobile home park owners compared to mobile home park renters. In the wake of new information affecting the City's mobile home park ordinance, she said that many councilmembers had met with park owners, but her own requests for meetings between councilmembers and residents have gone unfulfilled. "You should take a meeting with the people...they need to be represented!" she scolded, loudly.

Al Ferdman spoke about drought, water conservation, purple pipe network (the type that carries reclaimed water) and laid out some ideas for improving Santa Clarita's water efficiency. The following speaker also addressed water issues, specifically deep well disposal of fracking wastewater. He wanted the council to take a stand against polluting water supplies in the name of oil extraction. The direct connection to the SCV wasn't apparent.

A few speakers also rose to ask the City to build a BMX track. They argued that BMX racing is a wholesome family activity and were dismayed that they have to go to Simi Valley to reach the closest tracks. After a short burst of applause for one of the BMX speakers, Mayor McLean said, "We kind of have a rule where applause isn't allowed." She then explained that the proper way to show support is to raise one's arms and shake one's hands as a visual analog of applause. So routine are Mayor McLean's explanations of proper applause procedures that the City Clerk should probably just give a demo at the start of meetings, like a flight attendant.

Steve Petzold announced formation of the "Save Open Space--Stop Deep Well Injection in the Santa Clarita Valley Committee". That's SOS--SDWIITSCVC for short. It's on file with the State and everything. Petz explained that the goal of the group is to keep an eye on billboards, deep well injection projects, and other unwelcome additions to Santa Clarita's open space. He also suggested that Councilmember TimBen Boydston should take a position on the sanitation district to better represent Santa Clarita's interests.

Dennis Conn made a characteristically memorable appearance at the podium. He spoke on a wide range of topics, including the selling of Christmas trees to local sand/gravel magnates, his wish of stocking the Santa Clara River with trout, and his hope that councilmembers received Blarney Stones for St. Patrick's Day.

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to several of the speakers. To the BMX crowd, he said that a track was part of Santa Clarita's master plan for the sports complex, but it's part of the final phase of construction and there aren't enough funds to build a track right now. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar asked Striplin to counter Ballace's assertion that the council hadn't been meeting with mobile home park residents as much as they've met with owners. Striplin said that there have been "several community meetings," and Councilmember Boydston mentioned that he has personally spoken to Ray Henry and Doug Fraser about mobile home park residents' concerns. Ballace was not appeased.

Updates from the councilmembers followed. Several mentioned the recent KHTS bus trip to meet with politicians in Sacramento. Mayor McLean said that she met with the Governor's chief environmental aide on the topic of chloride mandates and fines. After Santa Clarita decided to look at alternatives to deep well injection, some LA Regional Water Quality Control Board members threatened to rescind the timetable of goals Santa Clarita must meet to avoid fines. McLean said the aide "would contact the chair of the committee and ask him to not touch the time frame." She also spoke to some officials about whether deep well injection induced quakes are exempt from being covered by insurance, and she said answers will be coming from Sacramento. Finally, McLean brought things back to the very local scale and encouraged residents to support keeping a post office in Newhall. She said it serves some older people who rely on being able to walk to the post office. That old people who use the post office are confined to a small region of Newhall was news to me, but apparently it's just not useful in the present Stevenson Ranch location.

Consent Calendar

The items on this evening's consent calendar included awarding a contract to design a new bike trail in Newhall, acquiring 174 acres of open space near Pico Canyon Park for $1.9M, and renovating the Valencia Glen Park pool. There wasn't much discussion, and all the items passed with the staff-recommended actions.

Red Light for Redflex

Redflex is the company that operates Santa Clarita's red-light cameras, and the City's been contracting with them on a month-to-month basis after questions of the cost and effectiveness of camera enforcement arose. Before the City Council considered continuing use of the cameras, traffic engineer Andrew Yi made a presentation. He started with some dramatic videos of near-collisions (and one actual collision) that have taken place when vehicles make left-hand turns on red lights. Mayor McLean gasped "Oh my goodness!" after one of the clips, and the audience was likewise on-edge watching the footage.

Yi explained that Santa Clarita has seen fewer per capita collisions and deaths on the road since the early 2000s, when the cameras went into place. Crucially, he was referring to all accidents/collisions, not just the type caught by red-light cameras, a point that would be made later. He said the decline was the result of many changes to the roadways, not just the addition of cameras. Overall, most types of collisions did decline at intersections with red-light cameras, except for rear-end collisions, which increased. If all of this sounds a bit convoluted, that's because it was: too many changes have taken place on Santa Clarita roads to clearly credit red-light cameras with specific changes in traffic accidents. One issue that was clear was that the cameras cost more to operate than they generate for the City; it's about $200,000 to keep up camera enforcement each year. Overall, Yi summarized the issue by saying that there are about 4,600 red-light violations at the seven monitored intersections each year, and he predicted that removing cameras could lead to more collisions and would require more sheriff enforcement.

Public speakers followed. First up was Scott Dwyer, a motorcyclist. He said that despite his vulnerability to being broadsided by left-turning cars, he didn't feel the cameras were effective. Jennifer Pack, a local mother, told the story of her red-light violation next. She said she was in a long-turn lane for a major intersection and had to make a split-second decision about whether to stop sharply or try to make the yellow light. (Most of us would call this "driving", but  she dramatized the turn rather effectively.) She said it's hard to guess as durations of turn arrows and yellow lights vary, so she felt she had been trapped when she triggered the cameras. The huge fine really hit her family budget hard, and she said the cameras needed to be taken down. Several more speakers followed, including Jay Beeber and Jim Farley, who have been the two persons perhaps most dedicated to fighting red-light cameras. Both brought up data questioning the effectiveness of cameras, suggested other "fixes" (like changing the duration of yellow lights), and pointed out that red light camera enforcement is on the decline throughout California.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar was the first to respond. He said that his experience in law enforcement taught him that it was necessary for a person to make judgment calls about running reds, not a camera. He had supported the cameras in 2003, but he felt engineering changes had mostly addressed intersection safety and that the cameras were no longer warranted. That is, not all violations are the same. Councilmember Dante Acosta said "I really object to these cameras on Constitutional grounds alone." He said that he's never gotten a red-light ticket, but he thinks they're an expensive burden on residents that mostly generates money for the State. It w

"This has never been about money, this has been about safety," said Councilmember Laurene Weste. "I can't put a price on your family...if you take them [cameras] away behavior will change, and some of you will have losses...there's no way to take away a person's grief when they've lost a loved one...cause I've had grief, I know what it is; I've seen people at funerals of their children, the loss of their family, and it is gut-wrenching." This was perhaps not the best thing to say while sitting directly next to Councilmember Dante Acosta, who lost his son in war. He didn't respond immediately, but a bit later on in the discussion he brought up the death of his child. He did this to make the point to Weste that he absolutely knew what grief and loss were, so he took the decision to remove cameras and the possible consequences of that action very seriously.

At this point it was 2-1 in favor or removing cameras, and Councilmember TimBen Boydston spoke next. He asked Yi how many fatalities have been caused by turning left on red, and the answer was none. This helped illustrate Boydston's contention that the cameras aren't doing much to prevent fatalities or change the behavior of people in the same way additional law enforcement might. He suggested an "incredible deterrent" might be to leave video cameras running on all major intersections, just without the associated red-light tickets. That way, motorists would know their behavior was on record and could be reviewed if there was a major accident, but they wouldn't be penalized for crossing an intersection tenths of a second too late. Boydston moved to end the operation of Redflex red-light cameras, and Bob Kellar seconded the motion, but Mayor McLean wanted a chance to speak before the vote.

She asked city staff a series of questions that began rhetorically: "How much would it cost to have seven officers and seven locations 24 hours a day?" (A lot.) She then got clarification that the cameras take pictures of license plates and drivers. This was an attempt to counter Boydston's earlier point that people do weird, unsafe things to avoid red-light tickets, including pulling down the visors so the cameras can't get a picture of their face. However, City Attorney Montes would clarify that a face picture is a requirement to enforce the ticket, so McLean was wrong in thinking that a photo of a license plate was enough. The conversation was more of the same for a whie thereafter, with Mayor McLean seeming somewhere between rhetorically questioning and legitimately confused. "When does the camera get triggered: does it get triggered on the yellow light or the red?" Her ultimate points were two. First, she said she hears far fewer brakes screeching and crashes after enforcement began at an intersection near her home. Second, she thinks it's dumb to run red lights, period. "I am really fearful if we take away the opportunity for tickets when people are dumb enough to run a red light. [Audience reacts audibly--many had spoken about missing a yellow by fractions of a second.] You don't think that anybody who runs a red light is dumb? I do. [Laughs. Audience reacts more loudly.] Alright! Alright! I'm not going to argue with you."

More discussion followed, and a representative from Redflex made a not terribly effective stand for the cameras. As a vote neared, McLean asked Boydston if he'd be amenable to a substitute motion for just a one year suspension followed by a review of changes in collision rates. Kellar and Boydston were not receptive, and the vote was called after McLean said, "Gosh sorry that you won't consider some viable options." Acosta, Boydston, and Kellar voted in favor of removing the cameras, and McLean and Weste voted against them, so the motion passed.

LA-RICS Installation Strongly Opposed

The final item of the night was consideration a communications tower set for construction on county-owned fire station property in Santa Clarita. It's part of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) aimed at improving communication reliability for public safety agencies. Residents had only found out they were going to be living near a tower when construction began--there had been no prior outreach.

Anna Mooradian spoke on behalf of Mayor Antonovich. She said that at a meeting, Antonovich had made a motion to request an extension of the grant funding LA-RICS (this would take off the pressure to build towers immediately), halt construction at all sites except those completely unopposed, and to get a report on the possibility of co-location of other communication infrastructure. More outreach and meetings had also been called for. Residents and speakers from the fire department stated their opposition to the building of a communications tower at Fire Station 108 in Santa Clarita.

The City Council was united in feeling that the staff recommendations on the matter were too weak. So rather than asking for more meetings, outreach, and the exploration of new sites, Weste and Kellar pushed motions to express opposition to the towers more broadly. With some input from City Manager Ken Striplin and City Attoenry Joe Montes, Striplin summarized his understanding of the council's intent as being "opposed to any sites within the City of Santa Clarita." The vote was unanimous, and the City of Santa Clarita will also withdraw from the LA-RICS Joint Powers Authority, but since it's county land, the decision still lies in the county's hands.

The final round of public participation brought up more people in favor of building a BMX track in Santa Clarita. Councilmember TimBen Boydston joked that the $200,000 saved each year on red light cameras could be used to build a track. More realistically, Ken Striplin sais that staff could explore whether constructing a cheap interim track would be possible. And then, the meeting ended.

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