Claritans complain all the time, but it’s not every day that a handful of public grievances get a new law on the books. Today was that day at City Council. In response to six written complaints, an ordinance restricting the use of electronic smoking devices (ESDs) was passed to its second reading. The plan to treat vaping like smoking was met with fierce debate by residents when initially presented a few months ago, but tonight’s discussion was brief and subdued by comparison. But vaping wasn't the only cause for dissatisfaction tonight. New complaints about Sacramento legislators, continuing complaints about soccer noise, and eternal complaints about incompetent local officials comprised the balance of the meeting. Let’s relive the memories.
High Holidays, Near Drowning, School Self-Promotion
With summer ending, Mayor Weste’s invocation looked ahead to “the holiday season.” She delivered an invocation that was equal parts well-wishing and Wikipedia entry: “This month, our Jewish friends celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and they commemorate the Day of Atonement, called Yom Kippur. […] For the Jews, these holidays are very important.”
Following the flag salute, many emergency responders were recognized for helping to save the life of a little girl. She passed out in a pool, was pulled out of the water by her father (who had to get over a ten-foot fence to reach her), and then received life-saving aid from Deputy Christine Shaffer, Deputy Jason Goedecke, and others. She's made a full recovery.
Next came an enthusiastic presentation from Sulphur Springs administrators and educators. They explained that technology was being embraced by teachers and that students were learning, which I had perhaps mistakenly thought was the norm at schools. The speeches culminated in a video of students tapping iPads in slow motion as an exultant piano melody played in the background.
The Public Speaks
Public participation consisted mostly of familiar faces. Elaine Ballace lamented Santa Clarita’s incompetence at embracing its local artists, actors, and entertainers. She mocked the Arts Commission, which she said seemed to do nothing, had no real power or money, and was too dependent on waiting for an arts master plan.
The SCOPE (Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment) contingent made its presence known, expressing more appreciation than is usual. Lynne Plambeck and a local high school student used their time to applaud the annual river rally and clean-up. Cam Noltemeyer was appreciative of what she called “the CEMEX decision”. Noltemeyer isn’t typically so effusive, but it soon became clear that she only brought up CEMEX as a counterpoint to Chiquita Landfill. That is, Congressman Knight got action against CEMEX mining by holding them to their contract. She hoped someone would hold Chiquita Canyon Landfill operators to their contract as well rather than extending it. (Note that staff and council members have yet to rejoice--or even to acknowledge--what had at first been hailed as an unqualified victory against CEMEX mining. Noltemeyer's mention this evening did not change that.)
David Keating was tonight’s only speaker on the topic of Villa Metro/Santa Clarita Soccer Center. He said he was representing “at least 42 other residents” who don’t like the noise from the soccer field—the long-standing soccer field that they bought a house right next to. He played a recording, and it sounded exactly like you’d expect things to sound if you bought a home right next to a soccer field: the nighttime chirping of crickets punctuated by shouts from soccer players. “We love the houses, we just don’t like the noise,” explained the man who—sorry if I’m belaboring this point—bought a home right next to a soccer field.
Responses to public comments followed. City Manager Ken Striplin countered Elaine Ballace, saying of the Arts Commission members, “They’re really doing a great job.” His defense likely came because Ballace did have something of a point—the commission doesn’t do a whole lot. But that’s largely because the City Council has tied its members' hands by second-guessing their recommendations and emphasizing reliance on a master plan rather than on good judgment.
Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked about whether noise had been monitored at the soccer center and if any violations had occurred. Striplin called Jeff Hogan forward, and he said that noise monitoring is done all the time by the City, the developer, and others. “Currently, there are no violations,” said Hogan. That is, the soccer center is operating exactly as it's legally allowed to.
Other remarks from the City Council included announcements of upcoming events and praise for past events—the usual. Mayor McLean said that tiny bells will be available for use on trails. Affixed to mountain bikes or horses, they’ll let hikers prepare to safely step to the side or pass when they hear the tinkling of bells. It’s part of the “Make a Little Noise” campaign, a title that was no doubt salt in the wounds of the Villa Metroans.
Stay out of it, Sacramento!
Mayor McLean made comments on two items on the consent calendar, both pertaining to state bills. SB 254 would make it easier for state highways to be handed over to local agencies. McLean said that this could pose a problem because the roads wouldn’t have to be in good condition and the city or other agency couldn’t decline accepting and maintaining them. AB 806 would give cities less power to oppose/restrict the installation of certain antennas and other broadband infrastructure. McLean said that both bills would give Claritans less control over Clarita, so she opposed them.
McLean asked for Mike Murphy, Intergovernmental Relations Manager, to come forward and tell residents what else they could do to oppose the bills. He said that there could be more meetings or outreach, and McLean and the other councilmembers encouraged him to ramp up these efforts. I think McLean was hoping for more of a call to action of the citizens—contact the governor and politicians and so on—but no particularly inspiring rallying cry was made.
Lynne Plambeck and Cam Noltemeyer spoke in opposition to an item on the consent calendar that paved the way for a new franchise for Valencia Water Company. Noltemeyer said, “The public’s business should be done in public,” arguing that there have been too many backroom deals pertaining to water supply, development, and disposal. Plambeck, who sits on the Newhall County Water District Board, made the same assertion. She said that the Valencia Water Company (VWC) should act as a public company and that the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) shouldn’t own VWC anyways. The contentious (Plambeck calls it “illegal”) acquisition of VWC by CLWA is still very much on her mind, and she saw tonight’s item as a chance to hold CLWA accountable for gaming the system. “They can’t be public and private at the same time!” she declared, explaining that CLWA is a public agency but keeps VWC’s actions private. The public can’t attend its meetings, request its records, or elect its board, so much remains unscrutinized. City Attorney Joe Montes chose not to weigh in on the legality of the CLWA/VWC arrangement, simply stating that the City would have some rights to oversight of the VWC books since it’s entitled to a franchise fee.
The consent calendar then passed with the recommend actions on all items.
A few months ago, the City Council heard a lot of testimony about a plan to treat vaping with electronic smoking devices (ESDs) the same way it treats smoking. It seemed like an easy pass, but residents explained how they had used vaping to quit cigarettes, how vapor was less unhealthful than smoke, and how water vapor wasn’t a major public nuisance. This led to a revision of the ordinance and a revisitation tonight.
The ordinance only came back stronger in its opposition to ESDs. Associate Planner Jessica Frank gave a surprisingly inept talk—overkill of the highest order. “Staff has received a number of complaints from the public regarding ESDs,” she began. By “a number” she meant 6 written and 11 verbal comments. That's 17 remarks in the several years that ESDs have been used in a city of over 200,000. Then she worked on building the case against ESDs. She read a list of chemicals that have been detected in the vapor, including some carcinogens and heavy metals, without bothering to mention how much or under what conditions. Then she moved into a discussion of ignition hazards, stating that there were concerns that ESDs could somehow lead to fires in our open spaces because they’re a heat source. Then she linked ESDs to marijuana use by youth. LA County Sheriff’s Captain Roosevelt Johnson came up to address this topic further, stating that he spoke to “one of our narcotics investigators, and he witnessed personally an eighteen-year-old child who had actually smoked THC and committed suicide because of a psychotic episode right after using that drug.” The message was unequivocal: ESDs might kill you with the drugs and carcinogens they deliver or with the fires they just might start in our open space.
There were far fewer comments from the public tonight than many had been anticipating. Steve Petzold argued, “Cats don’t equal dogs; tobacco is not vapor.” He felt that the staff presentation had been totally unbalanced, stating, “I can’t believe that she hasn’t been rebutted at all”. He said that he supported liberty, not more intrusion into actions that seem to be a less harmful alternative to smoking. He asked the council to really consider if they’d prefer their children to smoke cigarettes instead of using ESDs. Cam Noltemeyer, on the other hand, was in full support of the measure, saying that vaping “is nothing more than a drug problem” to be treated like other drug problems. The final speaker represented the interests of the Vaping Dept. (located in Santa Clarita). He said vaping isn’t synonymous with marijuana use and cited international and federal studies that countered some of the health concerns raised in the staff presentation.
Councilmembers Boydston and Acosta were the most sympathetic to the vaping community, acknowledging that ESDs can be a better alternative to smoking. Acosta gently poked fun at some of the more hyperbolic fears raised in the presentation, saying that it would be ridiculous for a hiker to call the authorities upon seeing a fellow hiker with an e-cigarette on the next ridge over. He expressed his bewilderment at how a handful of comments had brought about such a strong response from staff. “I have issues with a lot of this,” he said, but he felt OK supporting the ordinance if it might protect kids. Boydston got some clarification on enforcement, learning that if law enforcement sees people smoking where it’s not allowed, the smoker is usually just requested to stop, not cited. The other councilmembers were more uniformly supportive of the plan.
Ultimately, the ordinance passed to a second reading, which means that in a couple of weeks, ESD use will be treated about the same as smoking, though it will be allowed in vaping shops. The meeting ended without further comment.