Smyth Shaping Pot, Arts, Homeless Agendas

At tonight’s meeting of the Santa Clarita City Council, Mayor Cameron Smyth distinguished himself from his fellow councilmembers in small but suggestive ways. Smyth suggested that it’s time to “evolve” on the issue of marijuana, though like his fellow members, he was still in favor of an emergency ordinance limiting its presence in Santa Clarita. Making Old Town Newhall an arts district is the pet project of several councilmembers, but Smyth made it clear that he didn’t want to micromanage things when he pointed out how odd it was for the City to lease and manage a theater for the arts–he still voted for the action, though. In the past, the council wouldn’t even give former Councilmember TimBen Boydston the support to agendize/discuss homelessness. But tonight, Smyth suggested and earned support for an ad hoc homelessness committee from the very people who stymied Boydston. In short, Smyth is using the mantle of mayorhood much more proactively than his predecessors. He votes with the majority while nudging the trajectory of futures votes and policies. Let’s recap.

 

No Fuss, No Frills Oath of Office

 

Councilmember McLean giggled as she began tonight’s invocation, noting that she was going to make two totally unrelated remarks. The first consisted of reading the dictionary definition of “perception”. “How does perception become the reality?” she asked with all the profundity she could muster. McLean didn’t mention the specific words or actions that she felt had been unfairly perceived (it probably had something to do with filling the vacant council seat by the appointment of establishment-friendly Bill Miranda rather than by allowing citizens to votes). In any case, her second remark was more patronizing than political. She praised volunteers, quoting someone who said, “Volunteers are not paid not because they are worthless but because they are priceless.”

With extremely little fanfare (not even so much as an introduction–just an invitation for Miranda’s family members to join him), Mayor Cameron Smyth announced that it was time for Bill Miranda to take the Oath of Office. He did, there was applause, and new Councilmember Miranda made very succinct remarks, promising, “I will do my best to serve the City of Santa Clarita.” That was it.

The lack of fuss over Miranda was underscored by the excess of fuss over titles recently bestowed upon this fair city. Santa Clarita earned the designation of “Runner Friendly Community”, and there were speeches, a 5-minute video, and effusive statements and applause. But that was nothing in comparison to the unbridled celebration of Santa Clarita being named LA County’s “Most Business Friendly City.” Almost every councilmember had something to say about Santa Clarita’s amazingly business-friendly environment. The Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corporation’s Holly Schroeder said that they had added some 2,000 jobs over the past year. She gushed about Scorpion, an Internet marketing and technology services company, which is staying in Santa Clarita as it continues to grow. In short, a lot of running trails and an IT company got more fanfare than Miranda. Perhaps the council was trying to minimize any appearances of affection for the newest councilmember in light of inevitable comments about the appointment process to come during public participation.

 

More Miranda

Elaine Ballace was the first speaker during the public participation segment of the meeting. “You are business friendly…but it seems to be at the cost of people,” she observed. Ballace criticized the appointment of Bill Miranda instead of holding a special election to fill the vacant seat, saying, “It seemed that it was already pre-chosen…there should have been an election…you have the money.” Both Ballace and Cam Noltemeyer would also ask that the council discuss the expansion of Chiquita Canyon Landfill. It won’t.

The next speaker was a woman who described how unpleasant it is to deal with code enforcement–it’s a sentiment heard a few times a year in one form or another. Her particular case involved a very tall wall that apparently didn’t meet local construction standards, but which she said had survived the Northridge Earthquake and which contractors had told her was structurally sound. Since it would cost her $50,000 to $100,000 to replace it, she asked for special consideration from the city–McLean made sure someone would work with her.

A self-identified 20-something noted that there are no night trains on weekends to/from LA (well, unless you want to call it a night at 8 pm). You could see Councilmember McLean perk up excitedly at the mention of a train–and by a young person, no less!–because rail-based transportation is one of her favorite subjects. She even told him not to leave after making his comment because she would address it later.

Finally, Steve Petzold made some remarks that related to the appointment of Bill Miranda. He said that the City should have a contingency fund to pay for special elections–that way, it wouldn’t be able to make the excuse that “it’s too expensive!” to justify an appointment over an election. Petzold also warned the City about the possibility of another voting rights lawsuit. On the Talk of Santa Clarita podcast, Stephen Daniels recently interviewed Kevin Shenkman, who has filed such suits in the past, and Shenkman’s continued “interest” in the valley had Petzold very concerned about the prospect of losing more money in legal fees, legal battles, and settlements.

Staff and councilmembers spoke next–words were brief and wide-ranging. Councilmember Bob Kellar asked for an agenda item relating to a proclamation against hatred or bigotry–it was a bit vague, but the request came in response to a push by a few residents in prior weeks for Santa Clarita to make some kind of anti-hate proclamation. Kellar noted that this has always been Santa Clarita’s stance, but he was happy to indulge the request. Councilmember Marsha McLean invited the young transportation enthusiast to attend a Metro meeting and make his voice heard. City Manager Ken Striplin described “several hundred tons of sand and boulders” that came down Iron Canyon in the recent heavy rains. The flows were strong enough to breach two retention structures, but damage will be addressed. “You did a marvelous job with your rain dance,” Mayor Pro Tem Weste said to the people of Santa Clarita in light of all the storms.

 

CONSENT CALENDAR

There were many items on the consent calendar but only a few attracted comments. Item 6 recommended that the City agree to a $166,000 lease of the currently vacant Repertory East Playhouse in Old Town Newhall. The space would function as a center for the arts community to make use of. Patti Rasmussen came up to speak on this item, but most of her remarks had to do with her own pet project of the Newhall Auditorium, which is a larger, nearby facility undergoing restoration. Item 7 recommended $180,000 in community arts and services grants, and TimBen Boydston spoke in support of this support for the arts–Boydston and the Canyon Theatre Guild that he directs have received these grants in the past.  Al Ferdman spoke on an item relating to financial practices and auditing. He identified some budgetary deficiencies or potential problems that he asked to be addressed in light of the past embezzlement scandal. Other consent calendar items that weren’t commented on included increasing the amount of funds for a job training center and a contract to replace the roof at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex.

On the matter of the theater, Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste said that she was concerned that the theater space was too small to be a center for the arts, but she said it would suffice for the time being. She didn’t want it to be turned into retail space and was happy that the City was supporting the arts community. Mayor Cameron Smyth had a markedly different view, saying, “This is a new tangent.” He didn’t think that leasing and running theaters was a core duty of local government, so he wasn’t particularly supportive of the idea of leasing and essentially micro-managing the arts scene in Newhall. He still voted with the other councilmembers, but only because the theater lease is relatively modest and short-term. City Manager Ken Striplin reassured Al Ferdman that the City actively monitors its financial practices and has outside audits.

The consent calendar was approved with all of the recommended actions by all councilmembers.

 

Committee Me This

Mayor Smyth made some adjustments to committee appointments for the various councilmembers. Most committees stayed the same or made customary swaps (e.g., mayor always serves on certain committees). In the past, Councilmember Marsha McLean has been the most vocal about committees because she relishes service on some of them and can never seem to have enough. Smyth wisely gave her a bunch, and she seemed satisfied. There was an objection from Al Ferdman about lobbyist and electronic billboard enthusiast Arthur Sohikian serving on the North County Transportation Coalition, but Ken Striplin pointed out that one seat has to be filled by a non-councilmember, and Marsha McLean said that Sohikian works for the city’s interests. “I don’t want to use the word ‘lobby’,” she said, but that’s what he seems to do to get Santa Clarita’s fair share.

Mayor Smyth said that he thought an ad hoc committee on homelessness was needed, and McLean and Miranda were happy to support this idea and offer to help. When former Councilmember TimBen Boydston tried to open up a discussion on this very topic in the past, he could get no support from his fellow councilmembers.

 

Emergencies: Pot and Seniors

Two emergency ordinances were discussed at the end of the meeting. The first prohibited marijuana in Santa Clarita insomuch as it’s possible after the passing of Prop 64. Councilmember Bill Miranda said that while he may not agree with the full proposition, he acknowledged that the people of California have spoken and wondered if an emergency ordinance was merely a “delaying tactic” putting off the inevitable arrival of the legal recreational marijuana industry. Mayor Smyth took it a step further, stating that he has met with people who make a living in industries in some way related to marijuana, and stating that delivery businesses and manufacturing businesses might be more welcome than, say, recreational retail shops. He was very careful about his phrasing and said that he supported the emergency ordinance for now, but he did ask whether it was indeed time to “begin to evolve our thinking” on pot. City Attorney Joe Montes wondered about how state and federal marijuana policies would mesh, but he told the council that they could alter marijuana policies even with the emergency ordinance in place. Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste tried to “clarify” (i.e., constrain) Smyth’s words by suggesting that he was drawing a line between a medically necessary pharmaceutical and a recreational drug. For now, the emergency ordinance goes on. Ultimately, though, it seems as if Miranda and Smyth are not as steadfastly and reflexively anti-marijuana as the others.

A second emergency ordinance extended a prohibition on converting senior mobile home parks to family mobile home parks. The former are defined as parks in which at least 80% of residents are 55 or older, and they are more affordable. Park owners usually try to convert park types because they can ask higher rents at family parks. A few speakers thanked the city for extending protection of seniors, and most of the council was outspoken in support of keeping senior home parks from converting. Councilmember Miranda voted “Absolutely!” instead of a mere “yes” to extend the ordinance. Mayor Pro Tem Laurene Weste was also deeply supportive, saying seniors have no where else to go.

Before the meeting ended, TimBen Boydston came up to make a strongly worded comment about what Weste had said about theaters and the city’s role in the arts. He said he was disturbed that she wanted to exert so much control, but Councilmember McLean suggested part of the disagreement might be confusion over what Weste wanted for the Rep versus the Auditorium. One can be confident that Boydston will let us know what he thinks as matters continue to develop. The meeting ended just after 8:30.

New Commish Appointments, Mayoral Tweets

It’s a new year, a new mayor, and a new recap, at least inasmuch as anything “new” can ever really happen in Santa Clarita.  The main on-the-record highlight was Mayor Cameron Smyth and Councilmember Bob Kellar appointing various Claritans to various commissions. The main off-the-record highlight was unusually playful banter between a councilmember and a public speaker. With just four members of the City Council, all of whom get along and aren’t looking to stir the pot, the meeting lasted only one hour. Let’s recap.

Artistic Achievement 

Mayor Smyth’s invocation was a somber one. He asked for a moment of silence in observation of a local 14-year-old’s recent suicide. Smyth said the tragedy hit particularly close to home because his own son is 13 years old, and he expressed his sincere sympathy for the affected family.

Awards and presentations followed the flag salute. Both of tonight’s honors fell under the category of the arts–some students were recognized for drawing pictures about the dangers of distracted driving, and city staff were recognized for excellence in web design. Instead of the usual round-robin of reading copy about local, upcoming events, Mayor Smyth read through the whole list of announcements, which included the Cowboy Festival and a count of homeless people. Eulogizing duties were shared among the councilmembers, and individual reports from councilmembers were pushed back a bit later into the meeting than has been the norm.

Public Participation

All the regulars showed up tonight. Al Ferdman spoke about the water supply. There’s a need for groundwater sustainability planning now (dictated by the State), but Ferdman wondered about whether existing urban use/planning documents could be updated instead of starting from scratch. He also sought clarification on the respective roles of the relevant parties, especially the City, County, and the CLWA. Cam Noltemeyer switched the topic to trash, asking Cameron Smyth to agendize discussion of Chiquita Canyon Landfill. She pointed out that the City of Santa Clarita frequently gets involved in issues outside of city boundaries, but it has long avoided wading into the Chiquita mess on the grounds that it’s outside the city. Elaine Ballace spoke on a few topics, one of which was asking where the pay-for-grocery-bag fees went. She reported that at least one store clerk had told her the money went to the City, though she was informed that this was an erroneous statement by Councilmember Marsha McLean.

Steve Petzold brought up the big issue of who is going to take Assemblyman Dante Acosta’s former seat. He said that many speakers at the previous meeting, most of the participants in an online poll by The Signal, and he himself felt that a special election would be superior to an appointment by the councilmembers. To help bolster his point, he mentioned the possible threat of another lawsuit by Kevin Shenkman because the City still hasn’t gone to district-based voting and because an appointment might not be viewed as the most equitable means of filling a vacancy.

Stacy Fortner began her comments tonight with a special request of Mayor Cameron Smyth. I’ve transcribed it to the best of my abilities below:

FORTNER: “First of all, it’s Julie Olsen’s birthday today, so, Happy Birthday, Julie! [turns to face companion in audience, applauds; continues, coyly] And Cam, I was hoping…maybe…you could sing ‘Happy Birthday’…to Julie?”

SMYTH: “You know I’m more of a rapper…”

FORTNER: “Yeah, oh? Even better! I’ll even cede my three minutes…” [gestures with arm as if transferring her speaking time to the mayor]

SMYTH: “As an artist, you know, you understand, as an artist, you can’t just turn it on like that. I have to have some inspiration, so tonight, I’m a little bit, just not feeling right tonight.”

FORNTER: [nodding understandingly] “Maybe a little later.”

SMYTH: “Yeah I need a little more notice so I…”

FORNTER: “We’d like to see you get jiggy wit it.” [reference to 1998 composition by Will Smith]

SMYTH: [defensively] “I can…”

KELLAR: [interrupting] “There’s a ‘Sweet Lord!’ if I ever heard one.”

Clearly, such playfulness would not have been abided under the formerly Kellerian Council. Fortner then got to her more material remarks, explaining that she was also curious as to why the council wasn’t more seriously considering the option of a special election to fill Acosta’s seat.

City Manager Ken Striplin responded to most of the speakers with his usual brisk efficiency.

 

 

A Bridge Broad Enough for Bikes

The consent calendar was very short. One item awarded a contract for the widening of the Newhall Ranch Road bridge, which currently narrows Newhall Ranch Road from eight lanes down to six,  impeding the flow of traffic.  For approximately $11.4M (plus contingencies and supporting funds), the bridge is going to be widened. Nina Moskol, chair of the Santa Clarita Valley Bicycle Coalition, came up to speak in support of the measure because it will include accommodations for bicyclists and pedestrians.

There were a few other items on the consent calendar, including adding one additional motor deputy and forming a new landscape maintenance district zone. All items were approved with the recommended actions.

Commissioners Appointed

James Farley came up to speak before Bob Kellar and Cameron Smyth made their picks for city commissions. Farley dedicated a lot of time to researching the open space district assessment when it passed many years ago, and he reminded the council that he has always worked to protect the interests of taxpayers and to make sure that land acquisition guidelines are followed. During his time on the Open Space Financial Accountability and Audit Panel, he reminded Kellar and Smyth, he found a recommended purchase that fell outside the allowable area for land acquisitions–that is, he corrected staff on having not followed the assessment spending regulations properly. He was also the only person to show up to lobby for a (re-)appointment tonight.

He didn’t get it.  Instead, Councilmember Kellar and Cameron Smyth made the following appointments:

ARTS: John Down (Kellar), Vanessa Wilk (Smyth)

PARKS: Donald Cruikshank (Kellar), Kieran Wong (Smyth)

PLANNING: Chuck Heffernan (Kellar), Renee Berlin (Smyth)

OPEN SPACE: Frederick Andre Hollings (Kellar), Henry Rodriguez (Smyth)

Interestingly, Smyth said of the open space accountability panel that, “Adding he [Henry Rodriguez] and Andre [Hollings] to that board is going to be a real dynamic board where you’re going to see a lot of great activity.” Since the board’s essential activity is seeing whether all provisions are being appropriately followed, I’m not sure how dynamic it’s going to become. In any case, everyone approved the nominations.

Before the meeting ended, Lynne Plambeck asked people to come to a hearing on Newhall Ranch development (she called it outdated “dinosaur planning”) at Rio Pico Junior High School this Thursday evening. The Signal is having a forum for city council candidates the same night, which she found unfortunate over-scheduling of one evening as both events will impact the City’s future.

The meeting then ended. Since little of substance happened, the real takeaway tonight was a character study of Cameron Smyth. He’s been gone for quite a while, but he reminded people that he likes to make his presence known and that he is willing to directly engage the public far more fully than anyone since, say, Frank Ferry. One means of doing this is Twitter; he reads tweets during the meeting–well, at least during tonight’s rather slow meeting. I know this because I and others live-tweet the meetings (use #SCCouncil to follow along), and Smyth liked and/or re-tweeted some of the tweets while it was still going on. This opens up a new avenue of very direct, very real-time access to the mayor that I could see being used to influence future, contentious votes. We’ll see.