A Problem of Symmetry, New Sheriff’s Station

The Santa Clarita City Council can be accused of many things, but their support of veterans and military families has never been in doubt. That’s what made tonight’s council meeting rather uncomfortable. Bill Reynolds’ proposed memorial wall was up for discussion–the one he’s pushed to have built in Newhall Veterans Historical Plaza. After much contentious discussion about where/how it’s appropriate to honor the military dead, the council agreed to put off agreeing to some date uncertain. Far less contentious was a $51M plan for a new Sheriff’s Station. But that’s the way it is in Santa Clarita–the amount of discussion can never be predicted by pricetag alone.

The Coyote Wall

For her invocation, Councilmember Laurene Weste contemplated Memorial Day from both national and local perspectives.

Two individuals were called forward to be recognized by the council. First, a recent West Point graduate was applauded for his long list of academic, military, and personal accomplishments. He said that, after graduating two days ago, many of his peers went to Cancun or other party destinations. But he said, “There’s no place that I’d rather be than here [Santa Clarita].” Damn straight. Next, we heard about a detective who solved a case involving the theft of some plants–not drug plants but landscaping plants. He, too, was recognized by the council.

Public participation consisted of just three speakers. Steve Petzold encouraged Claritans to vote against Measure E, the quarter-billion dollar bond measure that would bring new buildings and more parking to College of the Canyons. He said that the current campus and parking facilities are adequate, and he mentioned the massive amount of debt COC is already saddled with. Petz suggested that flashing the debt on the school’s electronic billboards would be an effective wake-up call–the amount taxpayers are on the hook for. Elaine Ballace spoke out about the mobile home review panel and the lack of help for renters. She said responses from city staff are often unhelpful or dismissive. She singled out Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta, asking him why he was running for State Assembly. Ballace claimed Acosta is “un-representing” plenty of people already.

The one other public speaker tonight described coyote attacks on pets along the bike trail through Bridgeport. He described the existing fence as “completely open and vulnerable to coyote attacks,” so he proposed a “proper fence” along the trail or relocation of the coyotes. His was the only comment to which City Manager Ken Striplin responded. Striplin said that he was sorry to hear about family pets being “accosted” by the predators, but he added that coyotes can get over even a six-foot fence and are to be an expected part of life (and death) in the SCV. He added that staff would look at whether fences in the area were inadequate.

In the past several recaps, I know I’ve just breezed past councilmember updates because I find them the most exhausting and tedious portions of the meeting. Tonight was a typical reflection of what you’re missing.  Councilmember Laurene Weste: Hearing on St. Francis Dam Memorial Monument. Free movie series at Hart Park. Councilmember Marsha McLean: Description of a half-dozen transportation meetings and issues. Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta: Duane Harte park dedication. Community gardens. Santa Clarita’s swimming facilities for summer. Councilmember TimBen Boydston: Resolution to coordinate homeless initiatives with LA County (doesn’t get support to agendize discussion of this). Mayor Bob Kellar: Military banner program. Deceased SCV resident John Nuzzi. As always, it was a mix of remembering the dead and promoting activities for the living.

The 15-Year Clause

The consent calendar had been scrutinized by Al Ferdman and Cam Noltemeyer prior to the meeting, and both had questions about a couple of the items each. Ferdman expressed concerns about how a new roof for the special districts administration facility was being funded. He said that the costs must be divided among those who will benefit. He brought up more Proposition 218 concerns on another district-related item. Ferdman asked about whether some districts in the red were being funded by those in the black, which would be improper.

During her two turns at the microphone, Cam Noltemeyer expressed disappointment in various aspects of Claritan government. Item 6 adjusted rates of solid waste service providers (multifamily residential rates up 3.88%), which led Noltemeyer to the topic of Chiquita Landfill and becoming (or remaining) the valley of the dumps. “I want to see some leadership!” she said, hoping that landfill expansions could be fought off the way a dump in Elsmere Canyon was. Noltemeyer then spoke about an item awarding a design contract for the Vista Canyon Metrolink Station. “Who’s paying for it?” she asked, noting that over $4M will be required for design and preparation costs alone. She was concerned about how much the actual station, additional track, and amenities would end up costing.

City Manager Ken Striplin said the speakers’ concerns were, as always, misplaced. He explained that costs for the new roof would be fairly allocated. He added that, “Proposition 218 is being fully complied with,” such that loans to various districts are carefully accounted for and will be repaid. Striplin then mentioned that Elsmere Canyon had become protected as open space instead of being turned into a dump in response to Noltemeyer. Cam’s comments can be wide-ranging and difficult to follow, but his response was more just a way of evading discussion of Chiquita, the dump-that-shall-not-be-spoken-of by City Council. 

Once items on the consent calendar had been approved with the recommended actions, City Manager Striplin expressed his excitement to present plans for a new Sheriff’s Station. He explained that the current station had been built when the population of the SCV was about 50,000 people, 1/6th of what it is today. It was out-of-date and inadequate and not centrally located. The item he presented was a memorandum of understanding between the City of Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County concerning a new 44,000 sq. ft. station to be built on Golden Valley Road. The cash will come from a variety of city funds and other sources, including $15M from the county. However, if Santa Clarita chooses to end its contract with the Sheriff’s Department within fifteen years of construction of the new facility, it will have to pay that money back to the county. Santa Clarita will own the land and the station, and it will be used by the Sheriff’s Department rent-free. 

Al Ferdman came up to comment. He said that he would prefer two stations (the new one and the existing one) rather than just going with one big new one. He offered an interesting theory that crime would shift from the east to the west with the relocation of the Sheriff’s Department. 

The council was generally supportive of the plan for the new station. Everyone agreed that a bigger, newer station was needed, and the location proposed seemed to be about as geographically central as could be hoped for. Councilmember McLean asked about the provision of paying the county back if the city ended its contract with the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Could the penalty be pro-rated?, she wondered. The short answer was no, or at least not without slowing down a process that’s taken too long already. The MOU was approved. 

Old Town Newhall was discussed next. You may recall that an urgency ordinance was recently enacted that placed a moratorium on any new businesses in the area except those which supported the goal of an arts and entertainment district. This most urgent of ordinances got extended for another 10 months without comment or discussion. Councilmember Boydston had to recuse himself from the item do to his business in the area. So worry not; there will be no new businesses in Newhall unless they’re adorable boutiques, fashionable galleries, wine bars, or the like.

Black Granite

The most contentious item of the evening was the proposal for a memorial wall by the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Memorial Committee. This project has been discussed for a while and was moving forward largely because of the efforts of a very determined Bill Reynolds. The wall would be located in Veterans Historical Plaza in Newhall or some other site that the council deemed fit

Public comments came after a brief introduction of the proposal. Many speakers were very concerned about the semantics of it all. Was it a wall, memorial, memorial wall, or monument? Was the plaza for veterans expressly or could it serve a memorial function, too? What did the “historical” in historical plaza actually mean? The most ardent supporter was Bill Reynolds, who read a long list of fellow project supporters and explained that various individuals and businesses had already stepped forward to cover the costs of installing the wall. It belonged in the plaza, he said. Julie Olsen also made a memorable speech in which she described some of the stories of those who had died in war and who would be remembered on the wall.

Dick Jeffrey was the most outspoken opponent. As a veteran himself, he said that he knew something about the wishes of the fallen. “I know one thing for sure, from the bottom of my heart,” he began, continuing that the fallen would want to “give the money to the living.” It wasn’t primarily monetary concerns that gave Jeffrey pause, though; he said the plaza has a “non-memorial character” and mentioned that there is already a wall for the fallen at Eternal Valley Cemetery. He speculated that the wall was really just “a way to glorify one man’s [Reynolds’] inflated ego.” Other speakers against putting a wall in the plaza included R.J. Kelly, who said that Eternal Valley is for the fallen, not the Veterans Historical Plaza.

Councilmember TimBen Boydston expressed his surprise that some people were opposed, saying, “I think we will not be spoiling the beauty of the plaza.” But the beauty of the plaza was exactly what made Weste, McLean, and Acosta concerned. The plaza is just so symmetrical in its present form. Putting a wall in the middle would preserve symmetry but interrupt the unbroken view, and putting it off to one side would upset the balance. Councilmember Weste took a lot of time to express her concerns and comments (“I have a lot of ’em!” she warned), and she made it clear that everyone supported veterans, regardless of their thoughts on the appropriateness of a wall for the plaza. Weste felt that the plaza had been almost perfectly designed and ought not be altered. “You don’t deconstruct,” she said, adding that it would be inappropriate to, “Geez, go plop something down.” Even the material proposed for the wall made her worry. “There’s no [other] black granite in that plaza!” she observed. Councilmember McLean was worried that a wall in some shady corner could give cover to certain unsavory activities. Mayor Pro Tem Acosta wondered whether the Rotary Club gardens might not be a better spot.

MarshaMonument

Mayor Kellar made a motion in support of a wall on the periphery of the plaza. He said he wanted to move forward and “not keep talking about it.” He added that the speakers in favor (the vast majority had been) represented “a compelling gathering of people.” Kellar has heard from even larger crowds of residents on other items, but this was the first time he said that his actions were being motivated by such a crowd. Councilmember McLean warned against acting simply out of visceral support for a monument: “You need to be practical and not emotional.” Mayor Pro Tem Acosta, whose son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, expressed serious distress over having to potentially vote “no” on a wall that would honor his son simply because the location wasn’t right. It was evident that Kellar’s motion would fail 3-2. Weste then made a very long motion of her own. It asked for staff to take a hard second look at the monument/wall and afforded a lot of oversight/discretionary control to the council. Placement, material, and other aspects of the memorial design could all be negotiated, but it would end up somewhere in the plaza (a point Boydston was insistent on getting added to the motion).

The meeting ended after Doug Fraser made a comment about the confusing and troubling legal status of spouses as owners of mobile homes. Recent hearings have hinged on whether a spouse counts as an owner if his/her name isn’t on the documents. City Attorney Joe Montes refused to second-guess how the panel had interpreted ownership. It seemed like a pretty simple question of community property, but Montes didn’t want to get into it. With that, the meeting ended.

Routine Council, Some Public Venom

Tonight’s Santa Clarita City Council meeting lacked controversy, tension, and suspense. Most items were financial in nature–investment policy, bonds, fees, service contracts–and decisions were more formalities than turning-points. It was the kind of meeting you forget, even as it’s happening. But I persevered so as to recap, if solely for the sake of a few quotable moments.

“That’s a plus.”

Councilmember TimBen Boydston read some excerpts from President Barack Obama’s National Day of Prayer speech. Mayor Kellar then welcomed a Boy Scout Troop–“all the way from Canyon Country!”–to lead the pledge. It took an inordinate amount of time because the young scout at the helm added grave and dramatic pauses whenever possible.

Next, May was proclaimed Bicycle Month. Fittingly, there will be group rides and events and the Amgen Tour to celebrate bicycles and the people who ride them. Mayor Kellar said he’s delighted to see what must be “thousands” of bicyclists riding about Santa Clarita every weekend. Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta was in charge of the next presentation. He described the awards Santa Clarita’s communications team received from the California Association of Public Information Officials. Gail Morgan arranged her mostly female team for a celebratory photo with the council, and Councilmember Weste observed, “They’re not only good at their job, they’re gorgeous, so, that’s a plus.” I suspect the remark would have played somewhat less favorably had it been delivered by a male councilmember.

“Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.”

Public participation was short and bitter. Elaine Ballace, who spoke shortly after the pledge, began, “Liberty and justice for all…unless you live in a mobile home park.” She complained about how the new(ish) mobile home ordinance has been put into practice and asked for more support from the council, naming some city staff members she’s found less than supportive (e.g., Erin Lay) of residents struggling to get by as rents continue to rise. Ballace ended with a rather foreboding proclamation: “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord!”

Next, an elderly Claritan man from Belcaro gave his thoughts on a memorial for SCV veterans. He thought that a proposed outdoor monument wasn’t the best idea (it gets cold/rainy and hot/unpleasant outside, he fairly pointed out) and suggested a museum as his preferred alternative. He explained that it could educate young people about veterans and American history, which he said is not really being taught in schools these days. Cam Noltemeyer spoke next. She enumerated her many and familiar grievances against redevelopment in Newhall. Using the library as an anchor and lavishing subsidies on private entities were among the choices that Noltemeyer found “disturbing.”
The final speaker was Steve Petzold. He drew parallels between Measure M (the College of the Canyons one from 2006), Measure S (the billboard one from 2014) and Measure E (the College of the Canyons one going on now). For all these measures, Petz was interested in who was funding support efforts. He researched it (this required a trip to Norwalk) and found support from the philanthropic arm of COC and several other parties, including “Westfield Valencia Mall [for] $12,500.” Petzold’s opposition, he re-stated, was to the premise that Claritans in the district should pay for the whole college bond despite accounting for only about half of attendance. “This is a scam folks,” he cautioned.

PetzCity Manager Ken Striplin responded once public participation had concluded. His remarks were polite acknowledgements of speakers or refutations of some of the more outraged contentions. Updates from the council were protracted and routine, for the most part. Mayor Kellar spent some time encouraging residents to purchase banners for members/veterans of the armed forces. The banner program includes the display of large, personalized banners along the road for major, patriotic holidays. The families then get to keep the banner. While the costs of the banners are being partially covered by donations from local businesses, families must cover the rest. Kellar explained that this made sense–another city had covered all the costs in its banner program and eventually ran out of funds. This seemingly innocuous comment would become important later.

“I know it’s kind of confusing.”
The consent calendar brought more questions than answers. Councilmember Boydston asked if there were any derivatives in Santa Clarita’s investments (Item 5 was a review of investment policy). There aren’t, apparently. Al Ferdman spoke on Item 8, which had to do with initial administration of the recently formed Santa Clarita Parking Authority. “What is it going to do?” Ferdman asked. Item 9 added to the confusion, because it replaced the Redevelopment Successor Agency with the Parking Authority in the Santa Clarita’s joint powers agreement. “I know it’s kind of confusing,” said City Manager Striplin. He explained that one agency was just being swapped for another and that despite the name, it didn’t have to do with the parking structure proposed for the next stage of Newhall redevelopment. “The two just kind of coincided,” he said of the parking authority and parking structure.

The consent calendar passed with the recommend actions on all items.

“Let’s pay for the whole deal.”

A few more items followed the consent calendar. First, the annual stormwater pollution prevention fee was set at $24.04 per year for an average 7,000 square-foot parcel. Councilmembers Marsha McLean and TimBen Boydston expressed some displeasure over county/state plans to increase the fee. This hasn’t happened yet, but it was clearly on their minds. In a rare, almost affectionate moment, Mayor Kellar remembered an amusing remark Boydston made when testifying about stormwater fees before the LA County Board of Supervisors. Kellar chuckled as he recalled Boydston saying, “God gave us rain and government’s trying to figure out how to tax us for it.”

The final items had to do with refunding Golden Valley Road and open space bonds, which saved the city some cash, There was no discussion or comment and the proposals were approved as written.

The meeting would have ended then and there, but Al Ferdman decided to submit a card for the closing round of public participation. He said he hadn’t planned on it until he heard a particular remark. “Then something happens that raises the hair on the back of my neck,” he said, building suspense. He explained that honoring veterans with banners was great, but not covering the entire cost was “shameful.” (Recall that Kellar had made a case for asking families to cover some of the costs.) Ferdman pointed out that the city spends almost $100,000 on holiday lights for Newhall and will be giving about $4M to Laemmle Theaters. Why, Ferdman queried, couldn’t it spare about $20,000 for veterans? “Kick in that twenty grand and let’s pay for the whole deal,” he emphatically suggested. The meeting then ended.