Embezzler, Butchery, Wall

Vivaldi. It’s always Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that plays while waiting for the broadcast of the Santa Clarita City Council meetings to begin. Who really needs such a forceful reminder of time’s passing–or is it times passing? All those frantic violins. Don’t worry, we’re getting to the recap. But my council-watching mind, atrophied by six blissfully meetingless weeks, is loath to start. Yet start we must. For tonight, the embezzlement scandal was covered, the war memorial wall was accepted, and business as usual returned to the SCV.

 

Oak Butchers

“We ran a little longer in closed session than we anticipated,” apologized Mayor Bob Kellar as the meeting kicked off 18 minutes late. Councilmember TimBen Boydston, who had tonight’s invocation, chose to open the meeting by reading a prayer for Labor Day and asking that God bless the City of Santa Clarita.

Awards and recognitions followed and had a decidedly international flair. Two student artists were lauded for their entries in the Sister Cities International program (Santa Clarita’s sister cities are Tena, Ecuador and Sariaya, Philippines). Then, a delegation of students and others that went to Nicaragua for a school and literacy program was thanked for their outreach.

Five speakers came to the podium for public participation. First up was Al Ferdman. He had reviewed the recent report on the embezzlement case that rocked City Hall earlier this year (about a half-million dollars was taken by a former employee, split among some 58 different checks over a long time period). Based on the report, he characterized the City’s financial operations as rife with “lax practices” that had allowed for embezzlement to take place unnoticed for far too long. “You should be directly involved in oversight!” he chided the City Council. Reena Newhall, a small-business owner and matriarch of Santa Clarita’s royal family, spoke about problems anticipated to result from $15/hr minimum wage. Lynne Plambeck complained about the fact that the City of Santa Clarita has begun to landscape street trees in Happy Valley. She described it as being charged $50 a year for unwanted oak tree trimming that was so excessive that it violated the City’s own oak tree ordinance; her beloved oaks now stand “butchered.” Cam Noltemeyer described a strange meeting relating to Santa Clarita’s development and open space dealings, and Doug Fraser expressed some concerns about the makeup of Santa Clarita’s mobile home park rent adjustment panel membership. Fraser is concerned about who the fifth member will be. Finally, a mobile home park resident asked about a leasing contract she has that she feels hasn’t been used fairly.

City Manager Ken Striplin said that the employee who had embezzled funds is facing eight felony charges and could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. “We take this very seriously,” he promised, and he stated that they have already “tightened up things” based on the full investigation and an audit. Striplin told Plambeck that staff would double-check on the apparently excessive vigor with which arborists seem to have been trimming heritage oak trees. He closed his responses by telling Fraser that they weren’t far enough along on the mobile home park panel process to meaningfully discuss the fifth member position.

Councilmember updates were long and wide-ranging–fires, social events, potholes. There were a lot of deaths to be remembered, perhaps most notably the sad passing of 21st District Senator Sharon Runner.

TimBen Boydston had the most to say during his turn. He wanted to talk more about the embezzlement. He said that he took the theft of a half-million dollars very seriously. He felt personally ashamed and apologetic because they checks had been on the register for him and the other members of the council to see. He apologized. It was all beginning to be a bit much, and then it became even more. He said that he had questions for the group that has produced an audit of a couple hundred pages covering the embezzlement and the City’s financial practices. But Boydston said that City Attorney Joe Montes had stopped him from questioning the auditors, and this deeply troubled Boydston. He felt that he couldn’t fulfill his duties to the public. Montes explained that an audit had been commissioned and delivered, and that the whole council would have to agree to request responses to a new line of questions or at least be able to hear the answers to Boydston’s questions. Thus, Boydston asked for support for this line of action from the other members. No one gave him that support. Mayor Pro Tem Dante Acosta felt that there had been enough independent review, and he said that the City’s insurance company would be investigating as well and had a vested interest in finding any weaknesses that could be corrected to minimize its liabilities. Councilmember Marsha McLean said that she knew the embezzlement was a major source of embarrassment for City Manager Ken Striplin and knew that it was being addressed. Mayor Kellar said that most staff members were quite trsutworthy and that this one incident shouldn’t be all-consuming: “Folks, let’s get this behind us.”

This led Boydston to pursue his questions at tonight’s meeting instead. Kellar again tried to dissuade him, suggesting that it might be more “appropriate” to put the questions in writing instead. “No, Sir, it would not be more appropriate!” bristled Boydston. “That is the people’s money that was taken!” As he proceeded with his questions, he was interrupted by McLean, who asked, “Why are you asking questions that were answered in the report?” Boyston responded, rather loftily, “People ask me these questions!” Even for fans of Boydston’s role as council gadfly, his tone was uncomfortably self-righteous. Luckily, the questions were relatively few–mostly along the lines of whether the insurer would certainly cover the losses and how that might affect things long-term.

shame_rev

 

The consent calendar was up for discussion next, but no discussion occurred. The only substantive items were a contract for environmental review of the to-be-built Canyon Country Community Center and traffic control measures for Paragon Drive. All items were approved with the recommended actions.

 

A Quiet Victory

Bill Reynolds has been the man behind a push for a war memorial in Veterans Historical Plaza in Newhall. There are other war memorials in the city, but he felt this was an important location. His plan has changed over the course of a year, both in form and location, but the plan before the council tonight was for a granite wall with names of Santa Clarita’s war dead on the front and a mural on the back. It would be placed in a tree-filled vertex of the triangular site.

Comment were entirely supportive of the plan. “The monument is very modest both in size and cost,” said Bill Reynolds, who said that it would be funded by business and community donations. Al Ferdman said, “Implement it as fast as you possibly can.” Another speaker said that waiting a year had been long enough. Opposition in the past has come from the fact that the plaza was carefully designed. Certain council members (notably McLean and Weste) wanted to make sure the memorial would be well-designed and well-integrated, not upsetting the profound symmetry of the spot.

No such objections were raised tonight; it was unclear whether the whole council had been swayed or merely relented. Councilmember Boydston moved that the memorial be built as it was presented on page 40 of the agenda packet. I’m not normally one to put too much importance in who makes and seconds motions, but I thought it would have been Acosta (whose son’s name will appear on the memorial) to do it. Acosta did give the second, however, He said his only reservation was wanting to be certain that there would be room to add any more names that might sadly need to join the approximately 50 names that will already be appearing on the memorial. Acosta said, “I’m glad that it took a year,” because that meant time and effort had gone into getting the memorial right. With approval, the meeting ended.