Thursday, October 29, 2015

Self-denial and Curious Requests

Say what you will about the Santa Clarita City Council, but its members aren't getting rich--they make in a year what the city manager makes in a month. And at this evening's meeting, they nobly denied themselves a raise when given the opportunity. So who are we to deny them their bickering? Tonight, the disagreements centered on the future of Old Town Newhall, the right policy for solar power, and whether homeowners ever really need big trashcans. It's recapping time.

Land of the freeEEEE!

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar's invocation was a rousing call to the ballot box. He encouraged residents to make an informed vote this November, and he reminded them that men and women have died to protect our voting rights. Kellar may have been preaching to the choir--I don't think too many non-voters watch council meetings--but it's always good to be reminded.

"Now we get to go to a very lovely part of the meeting," said Mayor McLean, ushering in a diverse (i.e, long) procession of presentations. Sergeant Danial Dantice was applauded for his outreach to Santa Clarita's homeless population. The diminutive Dantice has helped connect homeless people with local resources and has been both compassionate and successful. Next, October was designated as a month for domestic violence prevention and breast cancer awareness. The Santa Clarita Domestic Violence Center, Circle of Hope, and Soroptimists came up to speak briefly, the latter group giving a $10,000 check to Circle of Hope.

The Master's College Chorale was then invited up for a performance. They began with "Tap-tap," Sidney Guillaume's piece about Haitian public transportation. Yes, really. According to its composer's website, the song "is inspired by the beautifully colored buses and taxis in Haiti...a metaphor encouraging people to 'jump on the bus' and not let opportunities pass them by." The group then transitioned to singing the national anthem--of the United States, not Haiti. The singers surrounded the audience during their performance, and they really reached for the high note on "land of the freeEEEE." The chorale was warmly applauded and praised for its interesting performance. This seemed like a natural finale for the City Hall presentations, but it was not. A representative of the LA Economic Development Corporation came forward to recognize Santa Clarita for being a finalist (i.e., not the winner) of LA's most business friendly large city award. Santa Clarita's many business-friendly programs and policies were praised.

Slow Your Road

A new issue emerged during tonight's public participation. Or, more accurately, a new version of an age-old issue emerged. Residents of Dorothy Street recently became connected to Golden Valley courtesy of the Five Knolls project. This has turned a quiet residential street into a busy thoroughfare. As one man put it, the street is now "an unregulated speedway." Residents explained that it's hard for them to even back out of their driveways. One woman said that she can't allow her grandchildren to play in the front yard any more, and she added that the dangerously high speeds of motorists force her to act as a human shield as she helps her disabled daughter to cross the street.

Elaine Ballace brought us the latest developments on mobile home rent increases. The unanticipated jumps in rents have residents scrambling for help and appeals, and she felt that the City has been helping park owners more than renters. "The City is in bed with the greedy landowners," she contended. Ballace said it's fine for Santa Clarita to get awards for being business friendly, but she wondered whether they were equally friendly to mobile home park residents.

With an oddly apologetic tone, Santa Clarita Soccer Center owner Scott Schauer said that he was gradually moving forward with the process of relocating his facility. It has operated legally for years, but new residents in the area have continued to complain about the noise. Rick Bianchi of The New Home Company (Villa Metro Developer) said he supported the decision to move. This was not too surprising because it means his company won't have to build a giant, ugly, and expensive sound wall between the soccer field and homes. Anyone who's been to Villa Metro knows that it's surrounded by enough giant, ugly walls already. Bianchi revealed that, "We had to make adjustments to sales prices because of this business," and he defended their disclosures of the soccer center's presence to prospective buyers. So it seems that people who bought homes next to the center paid a lower price for the bother, and now they've almost succeeded in driving said bother out of the neighborhood.

Too Late to Un-Laemmle?

City Manager Ken Striplin responded only to the comments about Dorothy Street. He said that some money from the Five Knolls development had been set aside for "traffic calming" measures. Once traffic patterns have settled after the opening of other roads in the area, staff will conduct studies and present traffic management options to residents.

The councilmembers went around to offer comments next. Councilmember TimBen Boydston had an idea for a project opposite the library in Old Town Newhall. This is the Laemmle spot. It's not officially called that because negotiations to build a Laemmle Theatre still aren't finalized, but that's what four-fifths of the council and over 90% of public speakers have said they want. Boydston had been excluded from these talks previously because of his own theater business. He was able to speak on the topic tonight, however, and he asked if any other councilmembers would agree to agendize a public discussion of the Laemmle proposal and/or of his alternative idea. No one would support him. Councilmember Dante Acosta employed two metaphors to explain his reasoning. He said that the City was dating Laemmle, and that they're moving towards a commitment so it would be inappropriate to look for a new partner now. He also suggested that there was a giant cruise ship sailing towards a common future, and Boydston couldn't expect to change course of the whole ship now that he was on board. Throughout the discussion, Boydston never actually mentioned what his alternative idea was, but since it shall never be, I guess we don't really need to know.

The other councilmembers made less contentious comments. Veterans Day events, the State of the City Luncheon, flu shot clinics, and other harbingers of winter were discussed. Mayor McLean thanked staff for helping to arrange a conference in Santa Clarita with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other mayors. She said they were "impressed." Naturally.


The items on tonight's consent calender were a humdrum mix of maintenance contracts, recreation projects, and bookkeeping measures. There were a couple of exceptions.

An item on waste management franchise agreements upset both Cam Noltemeyer and Mayor McLean, but for different reasons. Noltemeyer used the agreement as an excuse to discuss the City's deafening silence about the proposed Chiquita Canyon Landfill expansion. She asked why they weren't opposing the dump or at least talking about it. Noltemeyer felt that she was always dismissed for being a community activist, so she reminded the council that she was a trash ratepayer as well. Patti Sulpizio echoed Noltemeyer's remarks in a more upbeat style. She said that Chiquita may be outside the city boundaries, but that was also the case for many other issues in which the City had nonetheless involved itself. Tthink Elsmere Canyon, Cemex's mining site, and the proposed high-speed railway, she suggested. "Fight with us, fight for us!" Sulpizio encouraged.  

Mayor McLean spoke on the same item. She first appeased Noltemeyer by saying, "I don't yell at people...I think community activists are just swell." She then asked City Manager Ken Striplin whether the City had taken a stance on the Chiquita Canyon Landfill EIR. He said that staff had sent a letter, but apparently the council didn't read it because McLean requested to look it over.

Then McLean got back to the item itself, which wasn't about Chiquita so much as it was about temporary bins and roll-off boxes. She was appalled that some very large temporary trash bins would be allowed in residential areas. "How could they possibly have that much solid waste?" McLean demanded to know of staff. Explanations were offered. Sometimes a lot gets thrown away in a big move, or after a death, or after a big party. This was not enough for McLean, who wanted specifics. "Items, items, items, what items?" she wondered. At one point, Ken Striplin actually detailed the sorts of trash one could expect in the wake of a party, such as disposable paper goods.

Mayor McLean remained unsatisfied. "I have a problem with this," she said, contending that most waste is recyclable and that recyclables and garbage shouldn't be mixed in one bin. She called the waste bin contract, which seemed relatively routine, "Completely new and different than what has been provided before."  McLean tried to make a case that people could abuse large bins by using them to throw away electronic waste and other items forbidden from the normal trash-stream, but no one stepped up to support her. Most of the council and staff seemed satisfied with the idea that the waste haulers would appropriately sort the waste to find recyclables. "Alright so fine," she said, sensing defeat. In a separate vote on this item alone, only McLean opposed the measure, wanting more time and details.

The rest of the consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions. One final item of note was a plan to start preserving all recordings of council meetings indefinitely. "They said we wouldn't live forever, and there you go," smiled TimBen Boydston.

Public Hearing

A public hearing to grant Valencia Water Company a franchise inspired a crisis of identity. The franchise agreement was written up as it would be for a private entity, but whether the VWC is private was up for debate. During comments, Lynne Plambeck explained that the Public Utilities Commission had ruled that upon being acquired by a public entity (in this case the Castaic Lake Water Agency),  the VWC's private status was no longer valid. Plambeck and Cam Noltemeyer argued that the CLWA has tried to keep VWC private because it benefits from the status and lack of public scrutiny. Beverly Johnson, VWC Vice President and Controller, insisted that Plambeck and Noltemeyer were mistaken. "We are a private corporation," Johnson said. It's not quite as simple as anyone was claiming because there are still suits and appeals in the court system. Public/private status may not be determined to everyone's satisfaction for a long time to come. In any case, tonight's franchise agreement really just kept up business as usual. Water will be bought, provided, and charged for, with about 1% of the rate going to the City.

Before the vote, Councilmember TimBen Boydston and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar engaged in a pointless argument about whether more water conservation actions could be demanded of Valencia Water Company or CLWA in the franchise agreement. Boydston asked, for example, why more recycled water wasn't used. Kellar wanted to keep the discussion brief and focused, but Boydston said leadership was the business of the council and that a comprehensive discussion was needed to lead the way. In the end, everyone but Boydston agreed to the franchise.

Debate over another tricky topic--how residential solar power is paid for--was deferred until next meeting. Mayor McLean made it known that she was frustrated with California's demand for energy conservation while diminishing the financial benefits of home solar power. Boydston and Acosta began to offer some counter-arguments about the cost of the electric utility infrastructure. In any case, a meeting withe SoCal Edison will be held to go over technical details of the changes in store for solar. Ultimately, the City can do little to change decrees from Sacramento, so this will probably prove to be another futile discussion.

No Raise For Now

The City Council is allowed to adjust the compensation of future councils. Since people tend to stay in office for so long, it's basically voting to give yourself a raise--just not technically. The opportunity comes around every two years, and the council could have given itself as much as a 5% raise for both 2015 and 2016, amounting to a 10% raise overall.

The only speaker was Cam Noltemeyer, who said no one (except maybe TimBen) deserved a raise. Boydston agreed that they should keep their compensation as is. When Boydston explained himself, it sounded to me like he was gearing up for some back-and-forth, but pushback never materialized. Mayor Pro Tem Kellar seconded his motion, and the majority of the council decided to forego raises for the next two years. McLean, who voted against the 0% raise, had pointed out that they'd only be getting about $200 more a month for being on call 24 hours a day, attending many meetings, and serving in many functions.

Councilmember Boydston tried to start a discussion about the disparity in benefits among councilmembers. The longer-seated ones are getting thousands more per year than newer members, like Boydston, for cash-in-lieu of healthcare benefits; this has to do with changes to benefits plans for city staff. However, City Attorney Joe Montes advised Boydston that it was not the right time.

Keating Complains Again

The meeting closed with public participation. Al Ferdman became unusually animated as he spoke out against the council for being unwilling to discuss alternatives to a Laemmle Theatre. By Ferdman's math, it would take 350 years of tax benefits for the Laemmle to cancel out the $14M subsidy the City will likely provide.

Lynne Plambeck returned to the podium for some follow-up on water and waste issues. Plambeck asked the City to look into Chiquita Canyon's use of green waste as an "alternative daily cover" for its landfill. She said that the practice is contributing to odor problems, and she was troubled that green waste was being counted as "recycled" when it was really ending up in a landfill.

Finally, Villa Metro's most sensitive resident came forward to remind anyone who had forgotten that life in Villa Metro is loud. David Keating felt that progress on the soccer center noise issue amounted to too little to late. He sounded like he was auditioning for the part of plaintiff in a civil suit as he said that his wife had to be hospitalized because of the noise. "My wife has been hospitalized because of the trauma, noise, sleep deprivation, psychological effects... We moved out of our home for six weeks. The new home company didn't disclose the soccer center to us." He claimed that his tremendous amount of trust in The New Home Company and the City of Santa Clarita had been misplaced. In short, it seems that Keating is both extraordinarily sensitive to noise but was extraordinarily oblivious to the presence of a noisy sports facility by the home he bought. The meeting ended with Keating, as yet, unsatisfied.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Longer Princessa, Quieter Villa, Stricter Vaping

For my November insideSCV column, I wrote about how too many of Santa Clarita's victories don't really feel like winning. Think Cemex, where every apparent triumph hasn't actually been one. Tonight was more of the same. Mobile home park renters recently secured lower annual rent increases, but now park owners are using pass-throughs to get their money in lieu of rent hikes. Villa Metro residents may succeed in driving out the noisy but legally-operating Santa Clarita Soccer Center, but only after demonstrating a hideous lack of self awareness. And vaping has been banned in most places, which would be satisfying had a vaping problem ever really existed. Tonight, many people seemed to get their way, but I'm not sure anybody actually won.
Performing Art

Councilmember Dante Acosta opened the meeting with prayer. (He says "awe-men" rather than "ae-men".) The flag was saluted, the introductory spiel spieled, and the agenda approved. The sole award of recognition for tonight went to ballerina Anatalia Hordov, who was one of only three Americans to have been invited to the Genee International Ballet Competition this fall. She even made it to the finals, the only American to do so. Hordov posed for a photo with Mayor McLean, an accomplished dancer in her own right, and the rest of the council.

Arts Commission Chair Patti Rasmussen spoke about arts programs that involve local schools and students. These ranged from a Cowboy Festival-inspired lesson in harmonicas to various art competitions to an artist in residence (for a week) program. Rasmussen said that she and the rest of the commission "anxiously await the findings of our arts master plan." That master plan is being completed by LA-based The Cultural Planning Group. Until then, Claritans remain all but powerless over their own art.

Rent Pass-throughs and Villa Metro "Plight"

After the update on the arts, Mayor McLean began working through a full roster of public participation. She said that if anyone needed translators (some would say she was really after interpreters), their services would be provided. Naturally, this announcement was made only in English, but things would awkwardly work themselves out in both English and Spanish over the course of the meeting.

Elaine Ballace spoke first, saying that the IRS and the City of Santa Clarita disagree without giving much in the way of background. It became apparent that she was talking about their apparent disagreement over what costs could be passed through to mobile home park renters. Ballace explained that park owners are now using pass-throughs to get residents to cover costs on everything from office furniture to computers, not just on capital improvements. She said that it was time to challenge these "greedy landowners." Another mobile home park resident agreed that pass-throughs were being used to cover questionable expenses and routine maintenance instead of major improvements. He said that it's retaliation for the recently adopted 0% floor on annual rent increases. Teresa Galvez, speaking with an interpreter, said that management is very difficult to work with at her mobile home park. Her manager doesn't answer questions or respond to complaints, she claimed, and it made for a situation where renters were paying a lot to get very little.

David Keating used his time at the microphone to complain about continuing noise issues at Villa Metro. Keating, who purchased a home directly across from a soccer field, has been deeply distressed that people play soccer on said field. He said that he and others are "subject to a lot of noise," calling the situation his "plight." "We're suffering over there, every single day," he contended. The soccer center's owner, Scott Schauer, spoke as well. After 20 years of legally running his business at the same spot, Schauer said he's ready to support construction of a sound wall or to look for a new location. Keating was pleased that the center might move, and he asked for the city to help Schauer relocate. He explained that the city is "partially at fault for his [Schauer's] disposition...being where he is." In sum, Keating knowingly bought a home next to a soccer field, hasn't liked the noise, and now feels entitled to request that city resources be used to move the field elsewhere. One hopes that the soccer center owner will make a tidy sum if he does sell his field due to pressure from Villa Metro residents. One also hopes the property will be bought by a company that manufactures car alarms or firecrackers.

Mr. Keating, who lamented having to listen to loud soccer games played near his home, may have a different definition of "suffering" than much of the world.

Other comments covered varied topics. Steve Petzold laid the groundwork for remarks he would make later in the evening about the vaping ban. He asked how items end up on the agenda, particularly ones that seem as trivial as the use of electronic cigarettes. "This is a non-issue in the City of Santa Clarita," he said, correctly. Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer rounded out public participation with their thoughts on water and chloride treatment. Ferdman brought up the issue of "redundant" reverse osmosis plants and the place of as-yet-unbuilt Newhall Ranch in Santa Clarita's waterscape. Noltemeyer was pleased that sanitation district meetings were now being held in Santa Clarita, but she said there were many more issues that needed to be resolved.

On the Menu

City Manager Ken Striplin responded first to the concerns of mobile home park residents. His reply, delivered bit by bit in English, then Spanish, amounted to "be careful what you wish for." He explained that in response to a floor of 0% on annual rent increases, changes in business practices were being made, and they seemed legal. Planning Manager Jeff Hogan explained the appeals process that residents could use to try to keep costs down. City Attorney Joe Montes said that the city's mobile home park ordinance also states the criteria for capital improvements. Ultimately, though, everyone pointed to the mobile home panel, which has much of the control over appeals, over interpreting what counts as a capital improvement, and over mediating disagreements between residents and owners.

The councilmembers offered their usual remarks about upcoming events and about past, successful events. Councilmember Dante Acosta fretted before one of his announcements. He said he felt like he was back in school, when a teacher would chastise him for chewing gum by asking if he'd brought enough for the whole class. Tonight, that "gum" was an announcement of his friend's "Welsh Cakes" business, and he regretted that he could only spotlight one of his favorite local businesses. Most would agree that a little plug at a City Council meeting won't be the big break for any business (viewership can often be counted on one hand), so his worries were probably for naught. Mayor McLean also had food on her mind during the comment period. She said that she had picked out the lunch menu for this year's State of the City Luncheon. McLean promised that it was not chicken, and she hoped people would like her choice. Her eyes sparkled mischievously and she flashed an enigmatic smile, but gave no additional hints.  

Councilmember Dante Acosta couldn't help but mention his recent commercial spot when he asked residents to support a charitable diabetes walk coming this fall.

Consent Calendar

Throughout the meeting leading up to consideration of the consent calendar, a woman had been interpreting on- and off-again for Spanish-speaking residents. She mostly just interpreted the dialogue pertaining to mobile home park rents. It had been a little cumbersome (interpretation has been handled far more smoothly in the past with headsets), and Steve Petzold made a point of this when he came to the podium to speak about Santa Clarita's vaping ban ordinance. Petzold asked for an interpreter, and the mayor asked whether there was anyone in the audience who needed Petzold's testimony to be translated from English to Spanish. Two individuals indicated that they would benefit from such a service. The interpreter moved between the front of the room and the audience as the council tried to decide whether it was better for her to speak at the microphone or to speak directly next to the Spanish-speaking attendants. Petzold would begin speaking, but he was stopped as he wasn't pausing enough to allow for translation. The whole exercise took a few minutes and flustered Mayor McLean. Petzold mostly just smiled with quiet self-satisfaction. Or exasperation. Probably both. He can be hard to read.

When he finally began speaking uninterrupted, Steve Petzold lambasted the ordinance to ban the use of electronic smoking devices. E-cigarettes or vaporizers would be treated the same as conventional cigarettes despite presenting far fewer health risks. Petzold's critique was wide-ranging and unforgiving (except it seemed OK to ban them on buses). Several others cam forward to speak against the ordinance as well. Since vaping would be allowed in shops that sold the devices, which had been a non-negotiable for owners of vaping businesses, their remarks were really aimed at diminishing the stigma around the activity. A veteran said that seven other veterans he knows have successfully switched from cigarettes to vaping, and they're the better for it. Some have dropped nicotine altogether. Speakers involved in the vaping industry or community said that vaping isn't synonymous with illegal drug use, that international health authorities have said it's a better alternative to smoking, and that it was factually wrong to say that vaping is the same as smoking.

The comments weren't terribly productive. Tonight, the ordinance was before the council for a second reading/final passage, so not much was likely to change. Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked if anyone would support him in allowing vaping in Santa Clarita's extensive open space network, but he found no takers. In other words, it will be illegal for a resident to use an electronic cigarette even if alone on a trail and miles from civilization. The ordinance--and all other items on the consent calendar--passed with recommended action. Those other items included installing a water monitoring well at the Valencia Library and some landscaping contracts.

Build Roads, Screw Toads

The last big item of the evening was a public hearing about plans to extend Via Princessa between Golden Valley Road and Sheldon Avenue. A final EIR and master case were up for approval. Cam Noltemeyer and Lynne Plambeck expressed their misgivings about the project. The environmental impact report concluded that, "Significant and unavoidable impacts would occur due to loss of vernal pool habitat and vernal pool-dependent species...Even with the implementation of mitigation, impacts would remain significant and unavoidable." Sensitive local vernal pool-associated species include arroyo toads, several annual wildflowers, and aquatic invertebrates. Plambeck was dismayed that protecting habitat and wildlife only seems to be a priority for the council when it can be used as a tool to stop unpopular developments, such as the landfill at Elsmere Canyon.

The City Council was supportive of the road extension. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kellar stated, "Folks, it is our responsibility to do what we can to take care of the human race." He said that someone told him that the top three priorities for those seeking public office should be roads, roads, and roads. Kellar closed with a lament that there are people (SCOPE members, presumably) who "oppose everything!" Councilmember TimBen Boydston gave a more cynically supportive response, stating that people weren't going to get out of their cars en masse and that a functional road infrastructure was critical. Councilmember Acosta agreed, stating that Soledad Canyon Road is gridlocked much of the time and that more big roads are needed, especially near Canyon Country. Acosta said he'd start a collection to fund the road if needed, and Kellar jokingly produced cash to make a donation. Mayor McLean was the last to express her support for the road despite its negative biological impacts. As she was explaining herself, Noltemeyer or Plambeck (or both, I didn't see) made for the exit. She scolded her/them, saying smugly, "So if you're leaving, then apparently, you don't care."

The project is far from a done deal. More work has to take place to mitigate habitat loss, some $38M in additional funds need to be secured, and the work itself will take years. But a big road that's been in the works for a while cleared its most recent major hurdle with the support of the full council.

More Villa Noise

The second round of public participation saw more speakers on Villa Metro noise and mobile home park pass-throughs. One theme of the mobile home park comments was the perceived lack of communication between managers/owners and residents. No resolution is in sight.

One speaker complained not about soccer noise but rather about train noise at Villa Metro. Recall that Villa Metro was sold/built around the idea of "easy access to Southern California's regional rail" (per the New Home Company's websites). It seems that once the soccer field has been driven out, removing trains from the train-based community may be the next goal. Such is Villa Metro.

During his comments, Ray Henry mentioned that he didn't like it when councilmembers highlighted businesses at meetings. Acosta had offered his own mini-commercial for Welsh Cakes tonight, but Bob Kellar is the usual promoter. Before the meeting ended, Kellar asked City Attorney Montes if local businesses and "restrunts" could indeed be mentioned, and Montes replied in the affirmative. The meeting ended before 9.