Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rent, Landfill, Gas, Sewage: The Ends are Near

Tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting was full of inflammatory statements. Elaine Ballace said "They are raping both of us!" in reference to recent business practices by mobile home park owners. "We're sitting in a circle of death!" said a Val Verde resident of Santa Clarita's proximity to landfills and a natural gas storage field. And Councilmember TimBen Boydston proclaimed, "There is a special place in Hell reserved for you," that "you" referring to mobile home park owners who raised rents so as to effectively force seniors out. The heated rhetoric was certainly contagious--likely a result of discussing many issues that hit close to home (literally) tonight. Apart from fielding residents' worries about Chiquita Canyon Landfill, Honor Rancho, and mobile home rents, the council also managed to officially raise its future salary (second and final reading), shuffle around committee appointments (no luck again, TimBen), and take further actions in the ongoing mobile home struggle.


Actually, That Wasn't Jefferson

Mayor Kellar read many quotations from Thomas Jefferson to open the meeting. More correctly, they were quotations incorrectly attributed to Jefferson on certain websites and in some popular social media posts but for which there is no evidence of Jefferson's authorship. These included, "The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government," and, "The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not." The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has a full page devoted to clearing up these spurious attributions. Kellar closed with the observation that "He was a very, very intelligent man...many of his thoughts and writings...they apply every bit to today's society." Invocations are one of the portions of the meeting not scripted by city staff and, consequently, are prone to error.

Awards and recognitions followed. The Valencia High School Marching Band was applauded for winning a recent competition despite the fact, we learned, that the program really struggles with funding and must use some 20-year-old instruments. Deputy Curtis Foster was recognized as the Santa Clarita Sheriff's Department Deputy of the Year, and the crowd was quite vocal in its support of him. Finally, the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Committee came up to celebrate itself. Holly Schroeder gave an update on the SCVEDC's year of accomplishments, which included attracting Logix Federal Credit Union's corporate headquarters to Santa Clarita--they're currently in Burbank. She said this would lead to an anticipated $1.7M boost in tax revenue each year. "If the economic development committee had not been involved in this project they would not have chosen the Santa Clarita Valley," Schroeder asserted. Other accomplishments included taking credit for listening to businesses, taking credit for businesses staying in Santa Clarita, and taking credit for the tagline, "Still Golden," which the SCVEDC was able to trademark because no hair color company or luxury retirement community was convinced that "Still Golden" was the right direction to take their marketing (my inference).


The End is Near

There was a decidedly apocalyptic tone to many of tonight's public participation remarks. Elaine Ballace spoke about mobile home park owners who are trying a variety of tactics to get more money from renters. She called them selfish and successful only because "he who has the best lawyer wins," not because justice has been on their side. "The landowners need to answer a little bit more clearly to the people, and to the city, because they are raping both of us!"  she pronounced.

A couple of Val Verde residents spoke about their experiences with Chiquita Canyon Landfill and the Castaic Area Town Council. Steve Lee described how residents found "receipts of deadly substances that the Chiquita Canyon Landfill accepted." They asked the CATC to write a letter to Supervisor Antonovich about the allegedly dangerous landfill practices, but the request was tabled multiple times until it was decided that no letter would be written. "One of the reasons was that to do so would cost them the promise of money from the landfill," said Lee. This inspired a recall effort, but there were many more obstacles to finding out exactly how many voter signatures were needed and to getting agencies to stand by their numbers (Lee said that the L.A. County Registrar, Congressman Knight's office, and others were contacted in this effort). Lee closed by stating that three people in Val Verde had recently died of cancer and that action was needed. Susan Evans, also of Val Verde, spoke about the CATC recall and predicted the valley's demise by some combination of the dumps, natural gas field, and oil pipeline: "We're sitting in a circle of death, in my opinion...we're sitting ducks waiting to blow up."

Sandra Cattell and Cam Noltemeyer were also worried about Santa Clarita's natural gas storage field, Honor Rancho, in the north part of the valley. The massive gas leak at Aliso Canyon was used to urge the City Council to be more active in assessing the safety of Claritans.

Lynne Plambeck implored the city to look into the proposed merger of the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) and Newhall County Water District (NCWD). She said that it would do nothing to benefit ratepayers: "Bigger is not better, a huge water monopoly in our valley will just increase our rates." She said that the CLWA has "had its way" with Santa Clarita for long enough.

City Manager Ken Striplin tried to calm concerns over Honor Rancho, which he said had just one-third the storage capacity of Aliso Canyon and was being thoroughly monitored for leaks. Striplin said that scrutiny by various oversight agencies is strict and that staff have been in communication with the gas facility. There was still interest from the council in learning more about the facility and about the potential effects of Aliso on the SCV. At the urging of some residents who had contacted her, Councilmember Marsha McLean asked that the Air Quality Management District make a statement about whether the Aliso methane plume could be impacting air quality in Santa Clarita.

Overall, most councilmembers agreed that Aliso Canyon and Honor Rancho were not the same beast. Mayor Pro Tem Acosta stated, "This is a much different facility...it is quite a bit newer." And he should know, as he recalled "being chased off the [Aliso] property a number of times" in his wayward youth.

Mayor Kellar asked for the council's interest in discussing the CLWA/NCWD merger, and interest was high. Councilmember McLean, in particular, wanted to ask "a lot of questions" because she is a NCWD ratepayer and would be affected.

The council was mute on the topic of Chiquita Canyon Landfill and the politics of the Val Verde recall. These are out-of-city issues, certainly, but it wouldn't be untoward for Santa Clarita to look into Chiquita Canyon Landfill practices considering it's a nearby neighbor with whom the city shares an air- and water-shed. As readers don't likely need reminding, Chiquita has spent money on Santa Clarita politics, so it certainly seems to think that it's already on the radar.


Separate Votes

The consent calendar had a number of items that were handled in separate votes due to conflicts of interest or disagreement among the council members. Let's cover them in order, briefly.

On Item 3, the second reading of the plan to increase 2017-18 councilmember salaries by 10%, Councilmember TimBen Boydston and Mayor Kellar voted no while the others pushed it through with their yes votes. Boydston reiterated his statement from last week that a raise wasn't warranted given that seniors hadn't seen an increase in social security, inflation hadn't shot up dramatically, and the workload of councilmembers remained about the same.

The Cross Valley Connector was proposed to be renamed "Santa Clarita Veterans Memorial Parkway" in Item 4. Councilmember McLean asked that the word "Memorial" be removed so that the road would honor Santa Clarita's thousands of living veterans as well as the deceased, and everyone agreed.

Item 5 presented $155,755 worth of grants to Santa Clarita's arts and community services groups. Groups recommended for funding ranged from the American Diabetes Association to the Gibbon Conservation Center to the Santa Clarita Philharmonic. The majority of groups that applied for funding were funded, and Councilmember McLean suggested that those which weren't funded seek help form the city on preparing their applications for next year. Boydston and Weste had to sit out votes on the Canyon Theater Guild and SCV Historical Society because of their involvement, but both of their groups were also funded.

Finally, on Item 6, Al Ferdman expressed some dissatisfaction with the loan repayment arrangement between Santa Clarita's redevelopment successor agency and the city. Ferdman pointed out that only a tiny amount of the loan was being paid back and actually brought up one of Kellar's erroneous Jefferson quotes about the importance of paying off one's debts. City Manager Ken Striplin disagreed with Ferdman's assessment, however, stating that the State dictated interest terms and the repayment schedule. He added that it was good news that Santa Clarita would be getting paid back at all--the loans repayments could have remained unenforceable. The recommended loan modifications were approved.


That Special Place in Hell

If anyone had thought that the City Council's major overhaul of mobile home park ordinances would have helped ease tensions between park owners and renters, they were proven wrong yet again at tonight's meeting. In response to testimony from renters about senior parks changing to family parks (a change usually accompanied by a hefty hike in rents) and a problematic recusal policy for the Manufactured Home Rental Adjustment Panel, two actions were taken. First, the council approved an urgency ordinance that prevented any parks from changing from mostly/only seniors to all-age rentals. It went into effect immediately and will last 45 days. Second, the council passed to second reading a plan to appoint replacements on the mobile home review panel, which hears appeals. Currently, if someone on the panel owns or rents at a park under review, they must recuse themselves, which makes for a lopsided vote (the panel is composed of two owner reps, two renter reps, and one neutral arbiter, so losing an owner/renter could doom a vote from the start.) The new policy will be to allow the third-highest vote-getting representative from the effected side (owners/renters) to replace a recused panel member for a particular vote. Obviously, the replacement will have to come from a different park.

There were a number of speakers on this item before it passed, and the council's sympathies seem to remain most strongly with renters. Some residents spoke about the nightmarish conditions that have followed new ownership at parks, their inability to keep up with rent increases, and less than respectful treatment from owners and managers. Councilmembers Laurene Weste and TimBen Boydston were among the most insistent on seeing that seniors would not be forced out of their homes by increases in rents. It was at this point in the meeting that Boydston informed park owners who forced out seniors via rapid rent increases that "there is a special place in Hell for you." The statement ended with a steely glare from Boydston into the beyond and surprised but mostly supportive utterances from the audience.


No San for You

Committee appointments are an important opportunity for the mayor to exert his/her limited power through recommendations of who should serve on which committee. Before Mayor Kellar read his adjustments to committees, a few speakers had some recommendations of their own. Al Ferdman asked that lobbyists not serve on committees. This was in reference to Arthur Sohikian, the man who lobbied to erect massive digital billboards along Santa Clarita's freeways, who has long represented Santa Clarita on the North County Transportation Coalition. Sohikian is the only non-councilmember to serve on a committee. Steve Petzold and a few others recommended that Councilmember TimBen Boydston serve on the sanitation district. Petzold said that Boydston is among the best-informed on sanitation-related issues, and he felt that perennial sanitation district member Laurene Weste wasn't qualified to serve any longer based on her past performance. "I can't see putting her back on the board after the complete disaster we saw in 2015 with deep-well injection," said Petzold.

After public comments, Kellar read his list. Everyone for 10 or 11 committees (either as a member or an alternate), which is a more even distribution than we've seen in the past. However, Boydston was only named as an alternate to Kellar and Weste on the sanitation district. He asked whether Weste was a sanitation district ratepayer. "For my rentals," she replied. He said being a ratepayer can be helpful in getting action, but he didn't push it further. There was also some discussion about the cost-efficacy of having sanitation meetings in Whittier or in Santa Clarita, and Weste restated her expertise and efficacy regarding the chloride disposal issue. She felt proud that they had reduced chloride removal costs by a projected $400M. In the end, the list was approved. Councilmember McLean, who has jealously guarded her committees in the past, only gave a little mumble instead of a strong yes on the item. Though she didn't address it in comments, perhaps she missed out on some wanted appointments.

During the closing round of public comments, Al Ferdman suggested that the council needed to be more technologically up to date with the ability to show written materials on-screen and to use teleconferences to save money on traveling to meetings. Stacy Fortner spoke about the council's plan to discuss the recent CLWA proposal. "There is some backroom, shady business going on" said Fortner. She did not deign to go into too many specifics, but she felt there was ample cause to carefully examine the issue. The meeting ended at 9:18.

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