Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Love Boat, Dark Fibers

Tonight's meeting of the Santa Clarita City Council made many happy by many means. An 85-year-old actor got a chance to shine before a receptive audience. A local veteran learned that his war memorial project will be discussed for the umpteenth time. A community desirous of truly high-speed internet saw a small but promising glimmer of possibility. And a little neighborhood called Canyon Country moved a step closer to getting a community center of its own. There were woes and concerns and nagging questions, too, but we'll get to those in the recap.

"A Gift from God"

Mayor Kellar delivered an invocation in which he read a bunch of quotations. They ranged from "you cannot help the poor by destroying the rich" to "you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves." His punchline was the revelation that these quotes came from President Abraham Lincoln. But they did not. The quotations are often misattributed to Lincoln, but they were actually written by William Boetcker ("The Ten Cannots"). This is the second time that Kellar has misattributed quotations to a major historical figure--six months ago there was some confusion about Thomas Jefferson. Blame the Internet.

Awards and presentations this evening were unusual. The first item was a proclamation that dedicated a whole day to love at sea. You see, Gavin MacLeod played the captain on The Love Boat and he has worked in the decades since as an ambassador for Princess Cruises, which is headquartered in town. Some PR mastermind clearly saw an opportunity, and Santa Clarita proclaimed "Princess Cruises Ambassador Gavin MacLeod Day." Bit of a mouthful, don't you think? In any case, the 85-year-old MacLeod spoke energetically, rapidly, and enthusiastically about a whole variety of topics once he was handed the microphone. He described what he likes about Santa Clarita--the free parking, the wide streets, the school system, that his family lives here, and even his favorite restaurant (Wolf Creek where his daughter is a pastry chef). He encouraged people to take a cruise: "Take one and you'll be infected and you'll want to go back!...The shows are great! The people are great!... Princess Cruises is a gift from God!" It was an experience, and the audience and council were generally delighted.

"Nobody told me I would be following Gavin McLeod!" said City Librarian Kelly Behle, the next person up for awards and recognitions. She highlighted the five-year anniversary of the Santa Clarita Library system, she promised cake to celebrate, and she described how libraries are used by tens of thousands of Claritans each and every month.

"A Memorial Granite Thing"

Public participation included just five speakers but lasted quite a while. Brian Baker spoke in support of Bill Reynolds' proposal for "a memorial granite thing" in the Veterans Historical Plaza. He wants progress rather than stagnation. Bill Reynolds spoke next. He said he was present with "a few friendly reminders" about the history of the memorial project he has been working on. He felt that he had jumped through all the hoops but kept meeting with resistance from the city. Reynolds ran out of time before he could fully conclude his remarks, but this wasn't the last we'd hear of the monument plan this evening.

Two speakers touched on the subject of dysfunctional public meetings. Al Ferdman condemned the
mobile home park rate adjustment panel and Cam Noltemeyer wondered why meetings about Santa Clarita's chloride issue continue to happen out of town. She also asked why Santa Clarita's representatives don't do more to look out for the SCV when they have the votes to do so.
The final speaker was Steve Petzold. After complimenting Darren Hernandez on his handling of a recent meeting (Hernandez, in the same video frame, was almost completely non-reactive), he called out Leon Worden and the enterprise that is SCVTV. Petzold was particularly troubled by the fact that ads and interviews for College of the Canyons/Measure E had appeared online at SCVTV while the bond measure was being debated in the community. Before it got any more public funding, Petzold felt that SCVTV needed to be open to public scrutiny as to whether it was meeting its obligation to provide fair coverage of local issues to the public.

City Manager Ken Striplin tried to respond in brief. Regarding the memorial, he said that staff were working on plans and that they had an architect on board. Recall that the last time this was discussed, the council decided that it ought to have a third party thoroughly consider all the options for the best placement and design of a war memorial in Veterans Historical Plaza. This decision was reached after a very lengthy and often contentious discussion. In his wisdom, however, Mayor Kellar called Bill Reynolds forward this evening to present a slightly modified version of the memorial wall. Reynolds explained that the new dimensions were a mere five-and-a-half feet tall by seven feet across. It's not routine for the mayor to invite people up to present on unagendized items, but everyone on the council decided to jump into the issue once again. Councilmember McLean pointed out that this smaller memorial really wasn't that much smaller--reduced by just six inches. And McLean re-emphasized her desire to take some time in considering the memorial. "We keep getting lambasted!," she said, for not acting more quickly. She made one of her concerns about the wall more explicit tonight. In the past she's said a large wall could shield unsavory activities, and she elaborated that this could include using the plaza as a bathroom (something similar has already happened in the area).

Councilmember TimBen Boydston and Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta wanted to know how much was being budgeted for an architect/consultant. Parks Director Rick Gould said it was about $18,000 but that the contract might not yet have been signed. Boydston found that figure "crazy." He felt that the wall proposed by Reynolds already had a lot of community support and that the $18,000 would be better spent on more pressing needs. Acosta added, "I like what I see here," though he would later backpedal and state, "We need to get this right." Discussion was beginning to consume a lot of time when City Attorney Joe Montes spoke up and advised the council to agendize the item. He said that their last direction to staff had been to develop the various possibilities (staff was doing that), but it seemed like the council now wanted to discuss whether it would make more sense to just take the plan submitted by Reynolds as-is. So look forward to yet more contentious discussion about a war memorial at a future meeting.

City Manager Ken Striplin continued with his responses to public remarks. "I agree that it doesn't work," he said of the mobile home panel. This is what Elaine Ballace and other mobile home park residents have been saying for months. Striplin said that they will look into what can be changed to make for fairer, more functional hearings once the current batch gets worked through. Updates about events and various goings-on from the councilmembers followed.

"It's Already Ugly"

The consent calendar had a couple of items that attracted the attention of Cam Noltemeyer. She spoke on the 2016-17 budget (some $220M), wondering about costs associated with water monitoring and a loan for road construction that included no timetable for repayment. Noltemeyer then spoke on an item that would implement the zoning and construction changes proposed by Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital at the last meeting. She said that the zoning change, which essentially allowed the campus to be built more densely (with council approval), was a bad idea. "It's already ugly and too dense as it is," she complained, and she predicted that the hospital and developers would push to build even more densely than they had originally agreed to.

Carl Kanowsky spoke on behalf of the Valley Industrial Association about an item that proposed leasing some of the city's unused ("dark") communications fibers to a third party, Wilcon. He said that the city spent a lot of money laying these lines for its use, and he wondered whether they could think bigger (e.g., sell/offer service on their own, look for a better deal, etc.). However, it was clear that Kanowsky felt that making high-speed internet access available was absolutely essential so he was generally supportive of the item. even if the deal wasn't perfect. He identified the "dearth of high-speed internet connectivity" as a "black hole" in terms of competitive advantages against other communities.

Councilmember Boydston asked about the dark fiber proposal. A member of the city staff came up and gave some helpful particulars. He said that only about half of the fibers that were laid are currently used for traffic and other communications, and that's in the busiest situations--it's often much less. Wilcon would lease just 2-8% of the fibers. Boydston wondered about the length of the contract (potentially 25 years if all renewal options are exercised), but it was explained that contracts are usually long-term in duration and that the city could get out relatively easily after 10.5 years. Mayor Pro Tem Acosta was familiar with the issue, and he added that there are other potential providers of ultra-high-speed internet, so while this would help businesses looking for fast connections, the city infrastructure would be just one part of the solution.
The consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions.

"A Real Coup for Canyon Country"

There were a couple of public hearings on assessments for open space and special districts, but these came and went with very little fanfare.

Far more interesting was the conceptual plan for the Canyon Country Community Center to be built at the corner of Soledad Canyon and Sierra Highway. Rick Gould explained that one of the main challenges facing the city is the oddly shaped and arranged parcels that have been aggregated for the project. The plan proposes a 20,000 square-foot community center, a dual-use parking-lot/"mercado" (e.g., for farmers' markets), and an outdoor event area. Gould explained that it was more of a "vision" than a binding, specific plan, and that things would be altered and negotiated. The only speaker was Al Ferdman, who gave it his blessing as a "really robust plan." And as he often reminds us, he is chair of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, so he's got the street cred.

Councilmember Laurene Weste found the plan "lovely." She felt good that Canyon Country would be getting some additional amenities, but she was worried about whether there would be safe access to the center. She hoped for a "paseo" style bridge that connected to Santa Clarita's trail system. Weste felt this would be good for safety, vaguely alluding to her concerns about the area: "If you're gonna have as many children there as I can imagine you will with the kind of neighborhoods that are there..." Acosta called the plan "a real coup for Canyon Country". Boydston thought it was a "great idea," and Kellar simply said, "Phenomenal".

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New Budget, Hospital Corridors, BMX

Tonight's Santa Clarita City Council meeting was a reminder that 2016 is fast losing ground to 2017. Preparations for the November 8th election got underway (Item 9). The budget for the new fiscal year was presented, with its usual mix of expenditures both prudent and peculiar. Even the councilmembers were sounding a little bit grumpy (and not just the usual one), perhaps in restless anticipation of the summer recess they'll be enjoying soon. What got accomplished? Some slight changes to the hospital build-out were approved, the budget got a general blessing, and BMX track proponents seemed to make a bit of headway in their push for a facility. Let's recap.

A Defeated Petz Speaks

Mayor Bob Kellar told the audience that Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta was waylaid and would be arriving late, so he gave the invocation in his place.  Kellar spoke of the attack in Orlando. He said such events are "occurring too often...[we are] in the middle of a strange form of war." After expressing his support for the victims, he invited the audience to observe a moment of silence. Then, he called Steve Petzold forward to give the pledge--it's usually some Boy Scouts.

Petzold was then also the first to speak during public participation. He reflected on Measure E, which recently passed and means a quarter-billion dollars from taxpayers for College of the Canyons. Petzold had staunchly opposed the plan. "I knew that the odds were long against me," he said, and he laid much of the blame on local news outlets. "The media coverage was terrible!" (He did note some exceptions.) He wondered why The Signal hadn't interviewed him and why Leon Worden hadn't presented all the viewpoints on the matter on SCVTV. As Petzold left, he told Kellar (I believe), "Here's a picture of you with a shotgun," while handing the photo to the city clerk. This was presumably a reference to the politically-motivated restraining order that COC's Dianne Van Hook sought against Steve Petzold prior to the Measure E vote. Petzold had made an anti-E video in which he held a pellet gun (brandished against tax increases, not Van Hook) which she apparently found threatening.

Elaine Ballace, another target of one of Van Hook's sensational restraining orders, also mentioned her notoriety rather obliquely. "Maybe you've seen my name in the news lately?" she said. (Ballace's was for remarks that seemed to advocate violence in opposition to Measure E, but Ballace's violence is strictly limited to her often venomous words.) Ballace reiterated her belief that city staff need to change their relationship with mobile home park residents and park owners. She said that the system works against the poor who need help the most but get it the least.

Christian Gadbois, Santa Clarita's most ardent let's-build-a-BMX-track activist, came to the microphone next. He said that he has gotten together most of what's needed for a BMX track and wants a place to store the stuff--or, better yet, a temporary site to build a track. Another parent spoke in support following Gadbois.

The last public speaker was Cam Noltemeyer. She was upset about the city giving perks to developers and she vowed to dig deeper into where Dante Acosta's campaign money has been coming from.

City Manager Ken Striplin responded briefly. He told Noltemeyer that the collection of development impact fees was merely delayed for some developers; they would still be collected eventually. In a change of course, Striplin also said that he would be meeting regarding the BMX track. Up to this point, he's said that it's a possibility in the future but wasn't making efforts to build one before recreational amenities that are already on the schedule.

Parks Active, Parks Passive

The consent calendar was the usual collection of items relating to contracts, maintenance, and bookkeeping. A few items did attract special attention. Gadbois came back to the microphone for Item 5, which proposed spending $70,000 to acquire 14 acres of open space. He re-stated his interest in building a BMX track, and he asked how open spaces were identified for purchase and how land use (passive use or active park) was determined. Obviously, he wants a parcel for a bike track.

Al Ferdman mentioned similar concerns on Item 8, which covered the annual open space assessment and increase--$1/year is allowed. He said that the city has realized cost savings when it comes to the assessment and he felt that an increase was thus unwarranted. He added that up to 10% of purchases can be active use park space, but to date, there is "exactly no acreage for active parkland" from the assessment. Why aren't people getting things like BMX tracks and active use facilities with their money, he wondered. 

In response to the speakers, Parks Director Rick Gould said the property proposed for purchase at tonight's meeting served the needs of wildlife better than the needs of BMX enthusiasts.  He explained that it was very steep but ideally suited to linking parts of the Angeles National Forest. Darren Hernandez, wearing an interesting tie, spoke next. In answer to a question from Councilmember TimBen Boydston, he said that 10% of open space assessment funds could go to active use and facility development uses per state law. However, he said that the intent of the assessment has always been "purchase and preservation of undeveloped land." Boydston seemed satisfied that active uses could be funded with the assessment (spirit of the assessment or not) and is clearly receptive to the BMX interests. The last word on open space went to City Manager Ken Striplin. He called the open space district "hugely successful," and he defended increases in the assessment to cover ascending debt, increasing maintenance costs, and to give them some cash on hand for unexpected property purchase opportunities.

The consent calendar was approved.

You may have noticed that no awards, recognition, or councilmember updates have been mentioned. Indeed, Mayor Bob Kellar put updates after the consent calendar this evening. It's unclear why this happened, but in any case, updates from the council were relatively brief. Councilmember Marsha McLean mentioned some advice that she gave students at Albert Einstein Academy when speaking before their graduating class. She said that they should never be afraid to ask questions, and she tied this to a more grown-up lesson of asking questions about coverage in the media. She said that she has been incorrectly quoted/portrayed/represented on social media, so she felt it was important to not believe everything one reads but rather dig deeper. McLean often paints herself as a victim of social media coverage, but specific grievances have not been forthcoming.

For his update, Councilmember Boydston asked about the city employee who had been caught embezzling (he made the news a couple weeks ago). City Manager Striplin said that an investigatory report would be coming out in about two weeks with more details.  


Patrick Leclair gave a devastatingly drawn-out presentation on a proposal to slightly change the build-out of the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital (HMNH, no longer the palindromic HMNMH as "memorial" is gone). He could have presented the whole thing in about a minute, but it took him that long just to lay out the schedule of his presentation. It seemed like a presentation made in anticipation of community opposition, a suspicion strengthened by the fact that Newhall Hospital's Roger Seaver (CEO) had brought a crowd of supporters and prepared his own tedious remarks about the changes. The proposal was to change the hospital land from being designated as "public/institutional" to "specific plan" and to let the inpatient building be about 30,000 feet bigger than had been originally suggested. The location of the helicopter landing pad would also be shifted a bit north.

Seaver claimed that the changes were made to make sure that the hospital would be in line with new requirements (bigger corridors were required, for example), and there were also some changes to the cafeteria and delivery rooms.  He asked supporters to raise their hands in support, be he had graciously requested they not all come to the microphone to voice their support. The only speaker was Cam Noltemeyer. She lives in The Summit and was very concerned about the change in plans. She mentioned a lawsuit was a possibility. Her grievances included the change in land use designation, which she felt could threaten development agreements made to the community. She also noted that the helipad would be closer to homes, and she wondered why an EIR hadn't been required. "This is about campaign contributions!" she concluded.

As for the council, most of the concerns came from Councilmember Boydston. He wondered why an increase of tens of thousands of square feet in hospital space hadn't also included an increase in parking. Leclair explained that parking already exceeded the requirement. Boydston was not satisfied, and eventually Roger Seaver came up to explain that most of the additional space wouldn't actually bring more people--it would be bigger corridors, multiple rooms into which the same patient might be alternately moved, and so on. Boydston asked if Seaver could guarantee that parking would be adequate, and while Seaver said he could reassure Boydston, he added, "I think my guarantee would be worthless." That is, he'd be meeting requirements but couldn't state it would work out perfectly. as for the changes in designation from institutional to special plan, City Attorney Joe Montes explained that the hospital's land use exceeded institutional guidelines, so they'd have to change the guidelines for the whole city or just make HMNH a special case. The latter option seemed more prudent. With these explanations offered, the hospital plan was approved.  

The Budget

The second big item of the night was presentation of the 2016-17 budget for Santa Clarita. Insomuch as he is capable of enthusiasm, presenting this item gets Ken Striplin pretty darn excited. He even allows such celebratory excesses as bold fonts and attention-grabbing captions, like in the slide below:

The budget is $219.6M. In terms of expenditures, it's about 47% operations, 23% capital projects, 23% personnel. In terms of revenue, sales tax and property tax together account for two-thirds. After going through the big picture stuff came the much more fun discussion of specific expenditures: $84,000 for river encampment clean-ups (homeless removal), $41,000 increase in the base budget for day camps, $50,000 for the tourism district (have your conference in beautiful Santa Clarita!), $78,000 to upgrade communter WiFi services, $135,000 for Cemex lobbying (nope, it's not over), almost $300,000 for public access television operations and technology, $2.5M for Saugus library design, $200,000 for the Safe Routes to Schools program, and, of course, $15.2M for a parking structure in Old Town Newhall because, well, just because.

There was some discussion. Boydston asked about money for public art (including art for the roundabout, a very sore subject from the past) and spoke scornfully of "stalling techniques" that had been used to effectively veto art that some councilmembers found less than desirable. Boydston also asked about payments for a company that ostensibly helps filter spam out of emails. "Can we fire that company and use a different company?" he asked. Boydston said 47 of 60 emails he had were spam.

The last hearing was on adjustments to fees (technically there was one more, but it was on streetlight maintenance districts so it doesn't really count). The city tries to cover its administrative/staff/material costs from the fees collected for various services. The hearing was on whether these adjustments were acceptable. Al Ferdman came up to speak. He first pointed out that there were different fees for different sorts of groups, such as for-profit vs. non-profit and resident vs. non-resident. He asked how that squared with the fees not being to generate revenue but merely cover costs. His second point was that some fees seemed unreasonable. For example, there's a special events fee of $25/day for each outlet used.

Boydston asked for a response to Ferdman's questions. City Manager Striplin said that while they could only recover costs, there were no laws saying that the city couldn't subsidize some groups (e.g., non-profits) with payments from others (e.g., non-Claritans). Rick Gould explained that the outlet cost came from the fact that there is a labor cost associated with, for example, going to a street light to open the outlet and then return to close it after the event. This seemed to satisfy everyone, and the meeting ended shortly after.