Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Sloppy Raise


Tonight's meeting was brief, but not brief enough to have spared several councilmembers from awkwardness. Councilmember Boydston generously praised the Canyon High School Theater Group's recent success in competition, but none of its members showed up for their certificates. Councilmember McLean had to ask City Manager Ken Striplin for a definition of "contract city." And Councilmember Weste and Mayor Kellar took quite a while to grasp the nature of the councilmember pay raise they were voting on. Even with all the bumbling, the council managed to approve a raise for next year in a 3-2 vote, reversing a decision they had made mere months ago. Things are off to an auspicious start for 2016.

Panel Me This

"Everybody's not home for the State of the Union--that's obvious," observed Mayor Bob Kellar as he opened the meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta then delivered the invocation, a freeform prayer of sorts: "May our words and our deeds be pleasing." Both Kellar and Acosta emphasized titles when referring to one another, helping December's transitions to sink in.

While Canyon High's drama students were dramatically absent for their recognition, Saugus High's phenomenally successful cross country team members came to the meeting to be recognized as CIF champions. They've spent an unprecedented 10 years finishing in the top three.

Public participation followed. R.J. Kelly requested that the cross valley connector be named "Santa Clarita Veterans' Highway" (or similar) in honor of the thousands of veterans living in the SCV. He pointed out that everyone on the council had served in the armed forces or had a family member serve. Kellar followed the remarks by asking whether fellow councilmembers would support agendizing the item, and they agreed.

A number of speakers addressed mobile home park rent and appeals when they came to the podium. The most compelling comments came from Dave Boizelle, a resident of Greenbrier Mobile Home Park. He explained that he is filing an appeal against his park's rent increase. The appeal will go before a panel which consists of two representatives for park owners, two for renters, and one neutral arbiter. Unfortunately, one of the renters on the panel is also from Greenbrier, and she will have to recuse herself from voting on the appeal. Boizelle believed this doomed his appeal, as park owners wouldn't vote against their self-interests. That would mean at best a 2-2 vote, and ties aren't enough for an appeal to be ratified. To highlight his point that park owners wouldn't be impartial, he read a statement from Dowdall Law Offices, which represents Santa Clarita's mobile home park owners: "This form of panel is not impartial but evenly unbalanced...two partisans cancel each other out." It seemed clear that a means of substituting owner/resident representation in cases of recusal was necessary.

However, City Manager Ken Striplin seemed to think that the system was working fine. After public participation concluded, Striplin said, "I understand the concerns that the speaker spoke of, but I can also tell you that, historically, that has just not played out...In the appeals that we've seen, we have not seen the decision of the panel come down to party lines, so to speak." This conclusion seemed utterly at odds with the structure of the panel, the forced recusal of the Greenbrier resident, and the statement from the park owners' attorney, but Striplin assured the council that despite recusals in the past, the panel had operated fairly and effectively.

Councilmembers McLean and Weste were not satisfied with Striplin's assurances. They made a point of asking whether they could do something to address the potential for unbalanced decisions, and City Attorney Joe Montes explained that the ordinance would have to be amended. Weste wanted to "find a way for there to always be an alternate." The council supported discussing potential amendments at a future meeting. Striplin added that there have been discussions about changing some senior home designations to family spaces, and the council also wanted to discuss that sooner rather than later.

Other remarks from Striplin and the council included support for L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Al Ferdman had expressed some misgivings about the station moving west of Santa Clarita and about the lack of a station in the east valley, and the city manager assured him that current discussions were aimed at improving presence rather than decreasing it. Mayor Kellar echoed Striplin's support, contending that Santa Clarita gets access to a lot of big department resources at a cost-effective rate through its contract. He seemed to be heading off any calls of "let's start our own police department!" at the pass.

Avoiding Larry

The consent calendar came and went without much discussion and without speakers. Most of the items dealt with bookkeeping matters like approving tract maps and landscape contracts. One item gave up to $130,000 to Southern California Edison to develop plans for "undergrounding" utilities along Soledad Canyon Road, which will make for a more pleasing skyline. All items passed with the recommended actions.

One of the votes went 4-0 instead of 5-0, however, because Kellar recused himself. The item was a parcel map approval involving Spirit Properties, and Kellar explained that he wouldn't vote because he had had "a business transaction in the past" with Spirit's Larry Rasmussen. Of course, Kellar hasn't always been so meticulous in avoiding votes that affect his pal. As Mike Devlin wrote in 2014, "Kellar voted 'yes' to pay Larry Rasmussen $1.1 million for the future billboard property." That was quite a long time ago, of course, but the question of when to recuse oneself is always popping up in a valley as small and connected as Santa Clarita.

Sloppy Vote

After approving a 3% increase in fire district developer fees (this puts Santa Clarita in line with the rate for unincorporated LA County), it was time to discuss councilmember compensation. Didn't that just happen a few months ago?, the attentive reader asks. Yes, it did. Tonight was a revisitation of last year's vote 3-2 against giving the City Council a raise. Recall that the council always votes on raises that will take place after elections.

Discussion began with Cam Noltemeyer making several points about how the council was already adequately compensated, especially if benefits were considered. She then pointed out that councilmembers receive different benefits (in line with city staff benefits when elected), but she believed, "Every single councilman should get the same pay. The same pay. And let's start being open with the public because you definitely are not." Noltemeyer meant that Boydston should be compensated as well as Kellar, McLean, and Weste, but she even extended her statement to include Mayor Pro Tem Acosta, who is also getting lower benefits since he came on so recently. "And Acosta too, I guess, reluctantly," she conceded.

Mayor Kellar asked if any of the councilmembers wished to discuss the matter. Councilmember McLean started with a question based on the use of the term "contract city" in earlier comments from this evening. She asked, "I was just wondering if you can explain what it means that we're a contract city?" City Manager Ken Striplin then explained that it meant that Santa Clarita contracts with LA for services like fire. "So it's providing for those types of services specifically and not giving contracts on individuals projects?" McLean queried. With that concept clarified, Kellar again sought action on the item.

Staff normally supplies a recommended action, but on the pay raises, all that was written was, "Provide direction to staff regarding Councilmember salary." This led to confusion.

Weste: "I'd like to move the recommendation for the increase of the council compensation."
Kellar: "I have a that the 5%?"
Weste: "If the council's willing, yes."
Kellar: "Do we have a second?"
Acosta: "I'll second it."
McLean, over Acosta: "Wh...OK, I was going to say if you don't I will but you did, so..."
Boydston, over Kellar: "Discussion! Yes, there will be discussion...I thought this was settled three months ago!"

Boydston contended that Councilmember Weste's motion had been improper, as she had moved the staff recommendation, which was only to provide direction--there were no specifics much less a recommended increase. Boydston's speech soon veered into into grandstanding. He said that council pay had increased roughly twice as rapidly as the rate of inflation, and that seniors weren't seeing any meaningful, comparable increase in social security benefits. He asked why the vote had to be brought up again--had their workload increased dramatically in the past few months?

Boydston has had a strained relationship with some staff and fellow councilmembers over compensation in the past. He once filed a claim against the City for about $10,000--the discrepancy in benefits between new and old councilmembers once a two-tier health care system had been adopted. Boydston contended that it wasn't about more money but about paying everyone the same to do the same job. He was unsuccessful. At the time, he had suggested being OK with everyone taking the lesser benefits as well so long as everyone got the same deal. Boydston used the tactic of less is more again tonight, suggesting that the council actually vote to cut its compensation by 10% and give the funds to senior care.

Though Boydston spoke a lot, the rest of the council was silently clamoring to get to the vote without engaging in the merits of a raise. Weste and Kellar showed that they lacked a rudimentary understanding of the item, since Weste thought they could only do a 5% raise (not 5% per year) and Kellar thought it only applied to one year and that's why Weste had said 5% (it applied to two). When asking for clarity from Dante Acosta, who had seconded the motion:

Acosta: "I believe it was 5% per year"
Kellar: "That was your interpretation, that it was 5% per year for a total of 10?"
Acosta: Nods, mumbles something

Weste's recommendation and stated understanding had been 5% total, so how Acosta came to this interpretation is not clear. Perhaps his earlier prayer had granted him greater clarity than that afforded me or The Signal's Luke Money, who tweeted "Unclear on whether the #SCCouncil approved a 5% total pay increase or for 10% (5% for two years). Will check as soon as meeting ends." In any case, the vote took place and  went 3-2, with those running for reelection this year voting against the raise (Boydston, Kellar), and those not running for reelection voting for it. And even though it's for 10% total (Money got clarification from the city clerk), that is a tiny amount relative to the budget, and it marks the first time councilmembers will receive over $2000 a month.

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