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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
City 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.
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.
Claritans complain all the time, but it’s not every day that a handful of public grievances get a new law on the books. Today was that day at City Council. In response to six written complaints, an ordinance restricting the use of electronic smoking devices (ESDs) was passed to its second reading. The plan to treat vaping like smoking was met with fierce debate by residents when initially presented a few months ago, but tonight’s discussion was brief and subdued by comparison. But vaping wasn’t the only cause for dissatisfaction tonight. New complaints about Sacramento legislators, continuing complaints about soccer noise, and eternal complaints about incompetent local officials comprised the balance of the meeting. Let’s relive the memories.
High Holidays, Near Drowning, School Self-Promotion
With summer ending, Mayor Weste’s invocation looked ahead to “the holiday season.” She delivered an invocation that was equal parts well-wishing and Wikipedia entry: “This month, our Jewish friends celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and they commemorate the Day of Atonement, called Yom Kippur. […] For the Jews, these holidays are very important.”
Following the flag salute, many emergency responders were recognized for helping to save the life of a little girl. She passed out in a pool, was pulled out of the water by her father (who had to get over a ten-foot fence to reach her), and then received life-saving aid from Deputy Christine Shaffer, Deputy Jason Goedecke, and others. She’s made a full recovery.
Next came an enthusiastic presentation from Sulphur Springs administrators and educators. They explained that technology was being embraced by teachers and that students were learning, which I had perhaps mistakenly thought was the norm at schools. The speeches culminated in a video of students tapping iPads in slow motion as an exultant piano melody played in the background.
The Public Speaks
Public participation consisted mostly of familiar faces. Elaine Ballace lamented Santa Clarita’s incompetence at embracing its local artists, actors, and entertainers. She mocked the Arts Commission, which she said seemed to do nothing, had no real power or money, and was too dependent on waiting for an arts master plan.
The SCOPE (Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment) contingent made its presence known, expressing more appreciation than is usual. Lynne Plambeck and a local high school student used their time to applaud the annual river rally and clean-up. Cam Noltemeyer was appreciative of what she called “the CEMEX decision”. Noltemeyer isn’t typically so effusive, but it soon became clear that she only brought up CEMEX as a counterpoint to Chiquita Landfill. That is, Congressman Knight got action against CEMEX mining by holding them to their contract. She hoped someone would hold Chiquita Canyon Landfill operators to their contract as well rather than extending it. (Note that staff and council members have yet to rejoice–or even to acknowledge–what had at first been hailed as an unqualified victory against CEMEX mining. Noltemeyer’s mention this evening did not change that.)
David Keating was tonight’s only speaker on the topic of Villa Metro/Santa Clarita Soccer Center. He said he was representing “at least 42 other residents” who don’t like the noise from the soccer field—the long-standing soccer field that they bought a house right next to. He played a recording, and it sounded exactly like you’d expect things to sound if you bought a home right next to a soccer field: the nighttime chirping of crickets punctuated by shouts from soccer players. “We love the houses, we just don’t like the noise,” explained the man who—sorry if I’m belaboring this point—bought a home right next to a soccer field.
Responses to public comments followed. City Manager Ken Striplin countered Elaine Ballace, saying of the Arts Commission members, “They’re really doing a great job.” His defense likely came because Ballace did have something of a point—the commission doesn’t do a whole lot. But that’s largely because the City Council has tied its members’ hands by second-guessing their recommendations and emphasizing reliance on a master plan rather than on good judgment.
Councilmember TimBen Boydston asked about whether noise had been monitored at the soccer center and if any violations had occurred. Striplin called Jeff Hogan forward, and he said that noise monitoring is done all the time by the City, the developer, and others. “Currently, there are no violations,” said Hogan. That is, the soccer center is operating exactly as it’s legally allowed to.
Other remarks from the City Council included announcements of upcoming events and praise for past events—the usual. Mayor McLean said that tiny bells will be available for use on trails. Affixed to mountain bikes or horses, they’ll let hikers prepare to safely step to the side or pass when they hear the tinkling of bells. It’s part of the “Make a Little Noise” campaign, a title that was no doubt salt in the wounds of the Villa Metroans.
Stay out of it, Sacramento!
Mayor McLean made comments on two items on the consent calendar, both pertaining to state bills. SB 254 would make it easier for state highways to be handed over to local agencies. McLean said that this could pose a problem because the roads wouldn’t have to be in good condition and the city or other agency couldn’t decline accepting and maintaining them. AB 806 would give cities less power to oppose/restrict the installation of certain antennas and other broadband infrastructure. McLean said that both bills would give Claritans less control over Clarita, so she opposed them.
McLean asked for Mike Murphy, Intergovernmental Relations Manager, to come forward and tell residents what else they could do to oppose the bills. He said that there could be more meetings or outreach, and McLean and the other councilmembers encouraged him to ramp up these efforts. I think McLean was hoping for more of a call to action of the citizens—contact the governor and politicians and so on—but no particularly inspiring rallying cry was made.
Lynne Plambeck and Cam Noltemeyer spoke in opposition to an item on the consent calendar that paved the way for a new franchise for Valencia Water Company. Noltemeyer said, “The public’s business should be done in public,” arguing that there have been too many backroom deals pertaining to water supply, development, and disposal. Plambeck, who sits on the Newhall County Water District Board, made the same assertion. She said that the Valencia Water Company (VWC) should act as a public company and that the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA) shouldn’t own VWC anyways. The contentious (Plambeck calls it “illegal”) acquisition of VWC by CLWA is still very much on her mind, and she saw tonight’s item as a chance to hold CLWA accountable for gaming the system. “They can’t be public and private at the same time!” she declared, explaining that CLWA is a public agency but keeps VWC’s actions private. The public can’t attend its meetings, request its records, or elect its board, so much remains unscrutinized. City Attorney Joe Montes chose not to weigh in on the legality of the CLWA/VWC arrangement, simply stating that the City would have some rights to oversight of the VWC books since it’s entitled to a franchise fee.
The consent calendar then passed with the recommend actions on all items.
A few months ago, the City Council heard a lot of testimony about a plan to treat vaping with electronic smoking devices (ESDs) the same way it treats smoking. It seemed like an easy pass, but residents explained how they had used vaping to quit cigarettes, how vapor was less unhealthful than smoke, and how water vapor wasn’t a major public nuisance. This led to a revision of the ordinance and a revisitation tonight.
The ordinance only came back stronger in its opposition to ESDs. Associate Planner Jessica Frank gave a surprisingly inept talk—overkill of the highest order. “Staff has received a number of complaints from the public regarding ESDs,” she began. By “a number” she meant 6 written and 11 verbal comments. That’s 17 remarks in the several years that ESDs have been used in a city of over 200,000. Then she worked on building the case against ESDs. She read a list of chemicals that have been detected in the vapor, including some carcinogens and heavy metals, without bothering to mention how much or under what conditions. Then she moved into a discussion of ignition hazards, stating that there were concerns that ESDs could somehow lead to fires in our open spaces because they’re a heat source. Then she linked ESDs to marijuana use by youth. LA County Sheriff’s Captain Roosevelt Johnson came up to address this topic further, stating that he spoke to “one of our narcotics investigators, and he witnessed personally an eighteen-year-old child who had actually smoked THC and committed suicide because of a psychotic episode right after using that drug.” The message was equivocally unequivocal: ESDs might kill you with the drugs and carcinogens they deliver or with the fires they just might start in our open space.
There were far fewer comments from the public tonight than many had been anticipating. Steve Petzold argued, “Cats don’t equal dogs; tobacco is not vapor.” He felt that the staff presentation had been totally unbalanced, stating, “I can’t believe that she hasn’t been rebutted at all”. He said that he supported liberty, not more intrusion into actions that seem to be a less harmful alternative to smoking. He asked the council to really consider if they’d prefer their children to smoke cigarettes instead of using ESDs. Cam Noltemeyer, on the other hand, was in full support of the measure, saying that vaping “is nothing more than a drug problem” to be treated like other drug problems. The final speaker represented the interests of the Vaping Dept. (located in Santa Clarita). He said vaping isn’t synonymous with marijuana use and cited international and federal studies that countered some of the health concerns raised in the staff presentation.
Councilmembers Boydston and Acosta were the most sympathetic to the vaping community, acknowledging that ESDs can be a better alternative to smoking. Acosta gently poked fun at some of the more hyperbolic fears raised in the presentation, saying that it would be ridiculous for a hiker to call the authorities upon seeing a fellow hiker with an e-cigarette on the next ridge over. He expressed his bewilderment at how a handful of comments had brought about such a strong response from staff. “I have issues with a lot of this,” he said, but he felt OK supporting the ordinance if it might protect kids. Boydston got some clarification on enforcement, learning that if law enforcement sees people smoking where it’s not allowed, the smoker is usually just requested to stop, not cited. The other councilmembers were more uniformly supportive of the plan.
Ultimately, the ordinance passed to a second reading, which means that in a couple of weeks, ESD use will be treated about the same as smoking, though it will be allowed in vaping shops. The meeting ended without further comment.