Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Legal Bullying Backfires, Star Oil House to be Dozed

The motivation behind our City Council's actions can be bewildering. Tonight, it seems as if legal threats from mobile home park owners actually strengthened council's support for mobile home park residents. With a 0% floor on annual rent increases as of tonight's vote (it could have been as high as 2.6% or 3%), things certainly worked out better for residents than the night when they all showed up, spoke, and made only modest gains. The rest of the meeting wasn't particularly eventful; the dramatic rent change was likely boldness enough for one meeting.

A Late Start  

The meeting began 40 minutes late--if there's anything more fun than a council meeting, it's waiting for a council meeting. "We apologize for the delay," said Mayor McLean, before handing things over to Councilmember Dante Acosta for the convocation. He offered a moment of silence for the victims of the devastating church shooting in South Carolina. Afterward, Acosta prayed for the Lord's guidance of their actions that evening.

 The City Council next recognized achievements by Santa Clarita's young and by her old. High school swimmer Victoria Kirshner was applauded for winning a pair of CIF titles, and Harold and Jacquie Petersen were recognized for their philanthropic work. Councilmember Weste gushed over the Petersens as she spoke about their award. She adored how they're still so very much in love and "cute" after meeting in 1946.

Nurses vs. Management

Douglas Delahunty was the first speaker during public participation. He said that he and his fellow Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital nurses were looking for help to avoid a stroke. The critical issue in the contract, it seemed, was the hospital's insistence on a clause that would forbid class-action lawsuits. Robbie Bailey, a veteran nurse of HMNMH, said that she and her fellow 600 nurses faced many unfair labor practices like having to clock out and then finish their records and duties. She said patients could suffer if management stretches nurses too thin.

The other group of speakers present for public participation were waiting intently for the mobile home park ordinance hearing. Since they had to reserve their comments on that topic for later, they spoke on more peripheral topics. Doug Fraser asked for the mobile home park item to be moved up earlier in the evening as man families had school and work early the next day. Ray Henry called out a nameless councilperson for unethically promoting private businesses from his seat at the dais (clearly, he was referring to Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar, who gave a shout-out to a restaurant last meeting and has done so on occasion before.) If anybody actually watched council meetings, Henry's point might be more valid. Finally, Henry Soliz complained that the City hasn't always been cooperative with translation services in the past, though some were present tonight.

Finally, a young speaker asked for support of a proposed amendment against corporate personhood, and Cindy Howard asked for the City's help in attracting a new adult daycare business or in facilitating transport to a center in the SFV since Santa Clarita's will no longer be available. Almost in tears, she described the difficulties of balancing work with driving her mother to such a center.

In response to comments, City Manager Ken Striplin said that he'd have someone from Dial-A-Ride speak with Howard. He acknowledged but didn't quite delve into the other topics addressed. Boydston and Kellar overtly acknowledged the restaurant plugs from the past and asked City Attorney Joe Montes for his opinion. (It sounded like there wasn't anything glaringly illegal, but Montes would look into it further.) The council also agreed to move the mobile home park item up earlier in the meeting.

The male members of council elected to forego their comments during committee reports and updates. Weste and McLean didn't go quite that far, but they did keep things brief, mentioning the Fourth of July Parade, high-speed rail updates, and the "positive" direction in which CEMEX work is moving in D.C.

Option No

The consent calendar wasn't particularly voluminous tonight. It included a second reading of the budget and a number of items relating to infrastructure and maintenance, like a contract for pool chemicals. Councilmember Boydston asked about Item 5, in which the City expressed its support for one of the proposed alternatives from the Rim of the Valley draft study. Staff recommended Option D, but Boydston preferred a modified Option C, because he didn't want to get too much in the way of development (Option D did the most to save land and was favored by a number of conservation groups). Weste said that the study has been a long time coming and wouldn't lead to decisive action very soon. Additionally, picking an option part C, part D would confuse the issue, she said. Her points were reasonable and seemed better-informed than Boydston's, but Boydston and Acosta would both ultimately vote against support for Option D. The rest of the consent calendar was approved unanimously.

More Than Residents Hoped For

The mobile home park ordinance has been drafted, discussed, and debated for a very long time. It looked like an ordinance was going to be passed months ago. Recall that there was a meeting with a huge turnout of mobile home park residents. The council, sympathetic to their endlessly rising rents, voted to decrease the annual minimum increase from 3% to 2.6% (the average CPI in past years). This led to legal posturing from mobile home park owners. They threatened lawsuits if they couldn't realize a fair rate of return on their properties, arguing that a reduction from 3% to 2.6% would do just that.

Thus, the issue went back to staff for a while and meetings were held. The draft presented tonight had changed and strengthened and clarified some language, but the big point of contention remained the floor on annual rent increases. During comments, Doug Fraser brought up some other points relating to board composition and the appeals project. Elaine Ballace was unimpressed by the council's attempts to help residents, and she said there's a reason Warren Buffet has billions in the mobile home industry--it's very profitable from the owners' side. Ray Henry asked why the City was so afraid of lawsuits and changed so willingly in response to the mere threat of suits from owners. Still, the 2.6% floor was the big problem for most; Fraser just hoped it wouldn't go back up to 3%.

After comments--surprisingly few from residents and none from owners or management--Boydston spoke. He gave an unnecessarily long speech about how he was trying to see things from the perspective of owners and renters alike, explaining each of their interests to an audience that, using common sense, could also identify these interests themselves. But then he delivered a bold proposal: lower the floor from 2.6% to 0%, allowing owners to increase rent in accordance with CPI by right. They could increase the rent further if required for capital improvements or to realize a fair rate of return, but they'd just need to submit evidence and a petition through the mobile home park board. Councilmember Weste enthusiastically supported Boydston's proposal, and she used the strongest language of anyone in supporting renters. She said their situation is "appalling" and almost impossible to work out for people on fixed incomes. When she got applause, she told the audience to be silent because the little the council could do wasn't worth celebrating: "This is just a tragedy." Acosta was also OK with the changes proposed by Boydston, though less enthusiastic. He reminded people that owners could sell the parks to be developed as more profitable homes: "Be careful what you ask for."

McLean and Kellar weren't convinced. They wondered whether they could face legal consequences. Montes, who had drafted another page of clarification for the ordinance, assured them that language clarified owners' right to earn a fair rate or return and gave them a process to do so. McLean and Kellar also worried about whether the plan could backfire and lead to even higher rents. Kellar didn't want so much meddling, even dropping the "s" word (socialism) about getting involved with private business. He said things were more complicated than CPI alone. In the end, Boydston's measure went through with a vote from everyone but Kellar. McLean gave her support at the last minue, but she offered an ominous prediction that things might not work out so well.

Interestingly, one of the things that seems to have worked against owners tonight was their aggressive approach of legal threats. Boydston said a letter he received last night used a lot of invective and threats, and he said this was not called for. Likewise, other councilmembers felt that being constantly threatened wasn't the most productive approach. So the residents, some of whom were just hoping to still get a 2.6% floor, came out better than they expected. Now, rents will increase by the CPI, with a cap of 5%. Additionally, there is clear language allowing owners to raise rents higher if needed for a fair rate of return or to make improvements.

The Bulldozer for Star Oil

24148 Pine Street is home to two old structures, one of which is the so-called Star Oil House. It once hosted magnates from Southern California's fledgling oil industry, so it was designated as a historic building. But when a fire swept through, the building suffered and is considered a "total loss." Tonight's hearing removed the historic designation from the structure and directed it and the other structure to be torn down.

Leon Worden spoke about some historical ambiguity concerning the identity and significance of the second structure. He asked that it be allowed to remain until the SCV Historical Society could investigate further. Unswayed, Laurene Weste pushed for the recommended action of tearing both structures down. She assumed that City Manager Striplin would have enough sense and prudence to let the historical society look through the building for artifacts, etc. before directing it to be destroyed. Boydston and Striplin, however, preferred more explicit direction, so it was ultimately decided that there would be a month during which the SCV Historical Society could investigate. Unless something significant was discovered, both structures would be taken down.

After Cam Noltemeyer offtered a wide-ranging and characteristically dissatisfied remark about the state of things in Santa Clarita, the meeting adjourned at 9:21.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Open Space Aplenty, Big Budget Numbers

I would be remiss if I didn't begin tonight's recap with a note--more of a lament, really--about the state of Santa Clarita news. After recently downsizing its paper to five printings a week, The Signal is also looking to downsize its home, abandoning the long-held Creekside headquarters. The daily news briefs of SCVTalk are no more; Josh Premako's talent for new aggregation and digestion will be dearly missed. And tonight, KHTS new director Perry Smith sat in on his last council meeting after taking a new job. He has forsaken Santa Clarita and her goodly people for that other valley. With so much change, consumers of Claritan news are scared and confused. We can comfort ourselves by paraphrasing that line from Lost: "If anything goes wrong, Luke Money will be our constant."

Kellarian Efficiency

Tonight's meeting began with just three councilmembers--Boydston, Kellar, and Weste. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar led the meeting in the absence of Mayor McLean, explaining that she had been busy with high-speed rail matters all day and would be arriving later. Councilmember Acosta, he said, was on business in Washington, D.C. Councilmember Weste provided the invocation, a tribute to fathers delivered in the form of "Did you know?" questions. For example, did you know that babies can distinguish the voice of their fathers by four weeks of age? Well now you do.

Kellar kept things moving briskly, and soon it was time for public participation. Steve Petzold said the center median lane of Creekside Road has to be used for the loading/unloading of vehicles at the car dealerships as there is no other spot for it. It's unsafe and less than ideal. He suggested that the auto dealers acquire the property being sold by The Signal to use instead of the center median. Apparently, he reached out to Don Fleming (FLEMWATCH alert!), but received no response. Cam Noltemeyer encouraged the City to file a lawsuit to make more headway in fighting high-speed rail. She also said there should be a lawsuit on the chloride issue (she didn't explain which aspect--presumably to contest the stringent chloride levels required). In short, Noltemeyer wants a more litigious Santa Clarita. Finally, Doug Fraser brought everyone up to speed on developments pertaining to the mobile home park ordinance revision. He thought the City should do more to keep mobile home park residents apprised of developments, and he wanted to know the date when the matter would return to council.

With just a few updates the sparsely populated dais, it was time for the consent calendar at 6:30.

Your Space is Open
Much of this evening's agenda pertained to open space, including two items to acquire parcels for preservation. There was a 1/3-acre parcel along Sand Canyon Road that would help with trail connections and a 60-acre parcel that would bolster holdings in Quigley Canyon. Cam Noltemeyer was upset that the Quigley Canyon land was part of an oil operation. City Manager Ken Striplin objected to this characterization, and he had Rick Gould explain that there was no active oil equipment operating there, just remnants. There is, however, a lease for water wells and pipelines, operation of which requires under an acre of the property. Speaker Sandra Cattell of the open space audit panel said that she hoped lease revenue (~$40,000) would go back into the open space account. Gould said the lease money would indeed go to the City.

Other items pertaining to open space included improvements to Pacific Crest Park and submitting a grant application to restore a Canyon Country flood control channel to a more natural state. The entirety of the consent calendar passed with the recommended actions. Mayor McLean arrived toward the end and was able to vote. 

Budget Numbers

City Manager Ken Striplin presented the $187.2M budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. He began with the usual introductory spiel about how financially responsible Santa Clarita is. There are ample reserves that will be increased even further. The council guides staff with its fiscally astute and conservative decrees. Revenue has rebounded to pre-recession levels (there will be an anticipated $34M from sales tax alone). It was a lot of back-patting.

Striplin said parks & rec and public safety were the largest items on the budget, accounting for nearly half of it. Additional budget items included $40,000 for more ranger services for open space; $84,000 for "river encampment clean-ups" that will remove homeless people and their homes from the wash; $109,000 for the Tourism Marketing District; $138,000 for CEMEX advocacy; $50,000 for public television; and, of course, $80,000 for holiday lights in Newhall.

Al Ferdman was troubled about the budget's "indicated re-launch of the extreme neighborhood makeover...unfortunately that particular activity has not been successful." He complained that it never went to completion in any neighborhood and that there had been no follow-up. Conflicts over codes were many, and he said the Bonelli tract makeover effort was particularly disastrous. City Manager Ken Striplin felt like it would be an important program to help preserve older neighborhoods, and he acknowledged that the program wasn't a particular success in the past. Mayor McLean tried to paint a rosier picture, saying that, "The good far outweighed the bad." But Councilmember TimBen Boydston disagreed, calling the program a failure and hoping for a re-brand at the very least.

Boydston brought up a few other issues on the budget, but the one of most interest was likely fixing Newhall Avenue. Striplin tentatively promised re-paving by fall. The budget was unanimously approved thereafter.

Several public hearings on fee/assessment collections and adjustments followed. Mayor McLean was a bit dismayed at the plan to increase the open space district assessment from $30 to $31.50 per household. She said that as the population grows, Santa Clarita is already collecting more revenue each year. Boydston challenged her, saying $1.50 wasn't that much. City Manager Striplin also noted that the cost of monitoring, maintaining, and acquiring open space is always rising. McLean was swayed by their arguments, so she agreed to the hike.

Affordable Housing

Erin Lay made a characteristically concise presentation on an affordable housing project slated for Newhall. She explained that Santa Clarita is in serious need of affordable housing, and she described how a partnership between the City and other parties specializing in these projects could help make it a reality. Three contiguous lots in Newhall were of interest, two owned by the City (including the current park-and-ride) and one by a private party. Together, all three could be used to build a large residential complex and some retail space, but the middle lot owner wouldn't sell. Thus, the presentation was for a 30-unit project that could potentially grow some day.Depending on income of the residents, rent for a two-bedroom apartment could be as low as $384 per month, a fraction of rents in surrounding areas.

Most were supportive of the plan, but concerns over water availability stretched out the discussion. At Boydston's urging, CLWA's Dan Masnada spoke for quite a while about how there was enough water available for the project. He said that they're anticipating serving about 500,000 people in the Santa Clarita Valley eventually, and that right now water is provided for about 280,0000 Claritans. Masnada said the equivalent of 4 years' worth of imported water is banked in Kern County, so Santa Clarita is in good shape overall. Reductions in water use are being made to meet state mandates, not because Santa Clarita is running out. Less reassuringly, he said that if we're in the beginning stages of a mega-drought, then "all bets are off." The take-aways from this water discussion were that drought-tolerant landscaping would be used at the complex and that 30 units of housing wouldn't bring drought and ruin to the SCV at large.

There were also concerns over the park-and-ride that would be lost to the project. Lay stated that there are other spots for park-and-ride near Sierra Highway, and Striplin said that he thinks they'll be able to work out an agreement to use the large, unused lot that's currently pay-to-park for Whitney Canyon.

Everyone voted in support of the item except for Councilmember Boydston. He said he supported low-income housing, but he felt that existing residents of the neighborhood should have been noticed about the project. They had received notification when the project went before the planning commission, but not before council. With that, the meeting ended.