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.

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