Saturday, September 20, 2014

San Marino's Effort To Recall Dennis "Poopgate" Kneier

Dennis "Mayor Poopgate" Kneier caught in the act. Videos here and here.

(Mod: The following article was put together by some residents of San Marino. They are facing the same kinds of wacko development pressures that a lot of other small cities are facing, and rather than let their little piece of the valley paradise descend into developer hell, they've decided to fight back. Sound at all familiar, friends? Of course, they have the additional burden of their very famous Mayor Poopgate, that adamantly developer forward fellow who attracted so much attention recently for a very inconsiderate act. Who could have known that this moment of doggy decrepitude would soon serve as a remarkable metaphor for so destructive a record in office?)

A Little Town Under Siege: If you drive through the town of San Marino these days, you'll see lots of new city construction work - street and sidewalks torn up, the ficus trees along Hungtington Drive ripped out and replaced with new trees, a center median irrigation water system replacement all throughout town on Huntington Drive, new and unneeded drives along Lorain Road, and lots of curious street reworking projects such as those at Monterey and Oak Knoll. Add to it the new bicycle lane striping on Del Mar Boulevard, also forced upon the city residents by City Hall, along with many other unwanted projects being rushed to the front of the construction pipeline, and things aren't looking so very good right now.

Additionally, streetlights are about to be "replaced" with entirely new lampposts, this even though they were relamped a few years ago. City Hall has also completed its very own building reconfiguration and remodel of its interior spaces, with a strange little "fountain" being built outside the place, embedded with the City's seal. As if that shiny civic badge somehow sanctifies their many bizarre activities.

And therein lies the tale. Tremendous numbers of proposed and mysterious new construction projects are being spawned from the dark heart of City Hall, then released upon the residents of this town as if they are Dorothy's flying winged monkeys. And just in time for Halloween, too.

All things that are neither needed nor wanted by the local folks. Tearing down the trees in Lacy Park to expand unnecessary parking lots being yet another if these travesties.

And oh, yes, there's that "parklet" in the middle of town, built for no particular reason except maybe to say there is now a parklet. They're all the planner rage these days, you know.

Or how about spending thousands of dollars on consultants to create a rationale for painting 30% of the streets with striping? Narrowing Huntington Drive down to two lanes in a vast bike lane scheme, and in a town with comparatively little such traffic.

Then there is the spending of $50,000 for public meetings designed to manipulate and manufacture public consent for tearing down one of the city's prime historic structures, Stoneman School (now owned by the city), done so that the actual program provider could maximize her personal profits. Oh, and City Hall will get more revenue, of course.

The cost? Upwards of $15 million dollars!

Where is the city getting the money for all of these misappropriations? The word coming from the City Manager and former Police Chief is that these folks plan on shifting some new bonds to pay for it all, done so that residents can pay out their collective nose for the destruction of a building on the historic register. One containing a mural that is both historic and irreplaceable.

Add to all this new olympic-sized pools, repaving and rebuilding the Huntington Drive interchange at the Civic Center, remodeling the Women's Club building, build underground parking structures, oh my!! The list is apparently endless.

But the city's coffers are nearly bare.

So where is all of this massively expensive wizardry coming from? From none other than former Mayor (and still Councilman) Dennis "Poopgate" Kneier. That very infamous gent has now inflicted upon us all a massive construction juggernaut, done by instigating projects that he himself puts on his own quite spurious "Make San Marino Better" list.

It's like handing out candy at the door to all the little goblins and ghosts that put in an appearance on Halloween night.

Those little hands-out-at-the-door have been clearly abundant in the last few years, and with outsourced construction and services going to all kinds of interested outside providers, these trick-o-treaters have now grown into a full mob of Poopgate entitled developers and contractors.

All of whom have found abundant candy love in their new happy home at City Hall.

So, as a result, a group of concerned local residents has recently emerged. Their purpose? To get rid the city of Profligate Poopgate once and for all. Their website, (link), is now collecting signatures to recall Dennis Kneier, with a filing set for October 22.

Good information can also be found at (link).

While he has resigned as San Marino's Mayor, Poopgate Kneier continues to insist that he will stay on as a member of the City Council. He has sought legal counsel in order to complete his doggy term, which ends in October 2015. Clearly, both he and the City Manager have a predatory development agenda that they keenly desire to further implement during his remaining time on the Council. Hence the urgent need to remove him.

But until that happens the development siege continues, and San Marino's seemingly endless Halloween night continues to cast a pall over the town.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Planning Commission: The Stonegate At Sierra Madre House Of Many Shapes And Sizes … Changes Again?

(Mod: It is about 2AM, just got home from a very productive work trip to Portland, Oregon. Where, by the way, it was 62 degrees and rainy. It was a very good day. What made it even better is four people sent in reports from the Planning Commission meeting last night, for which I am truly grateful. If you ever decide you want my friendship, then write something for my blog. Especially when there was a meeting as important as this one, and I had to miss it. Here are those reports, plus one very cool picture, reiterated.)

Reporter #1:
Meeting began approx 7:25 pm.

Applicant offered a revised proposal.

Members of the PC offered input:
-Lower the ceiling heights
-Reduce bedrooms by 10%.
-Shift the staircase

Frequently, members of the PC said, "You are close" (to approval).

While the commissioners were speaking, however, private discussions were being whispered between McDonald, Chang, and a third man sitting in the audience. (I do not know him … he might have been the project manager.)

After the PC members spoke, Chang approached the podium. "We've been to so many hearings … I'm getting kind of tired of it."

McDonald requested that the PC approve the project with conditions or vote on it. He asked that they articulate the points so they have those to consider.

The city attorney suggested fleshing out the concepts here, and getting a thumbs up or down. McDonald and the Asian man walked out to the foyer. McDonald came back alone. Later, the manager?) came back into the chambers. More whispering took place between him, McDonald, and Chang in the audience. McDonald requested a continuance, as well as a list (of specific concerns/suggestions).

The Planning Commission voted in favor of continuing the project at the October 2 mtg. Applicant will bring new drawings.

Reporter #2:
The meeting began 25 minutes late. City Attorney reported that there was a matter of anticipated litigation, direction was provided, and no action was taken.

Ex-commissioner John Vandevelde took up to 10 minutes of public comment time to discuss, in detail, inconsistencies in zoning codes and definitions. Maybe legitimate areas that need to be addressed, but not really swift to bring them up there and then. In fact, Adele Chang referenced it to her advantage.

Barry Gold - great. The general plan needs to reinforce goals and guidelines to save our city from the developers who want to build "the largest houses they can on the smallest lots they can to make the most money they can." The PC being on top of the GP will save a cherished way of life for all of those who will live here for time to come.

Adele Chang: We’re hardly asking for anything compared to what “we are allowed under the settlement agreement” Repeated and emphasized"we are allowed" She did not bring up the fact that there is, under the settlement agreement, no guarantee.

The architect talked about her slide show of big houses in Sierra Madre, the one she made when the commissioners suggested that she drive around to look at the diversity of homes in town. She wished that she’d brought it with her so that the commissioners who hadn’t seen it could see it. Each of those big houses were on equally big lots. False comparison doesn’t even begin to say what a hustle that was. Deliberate misrepresentation is more like it.

Used Vandevelde's comments about inconsistencies to her advantage. Who didn’t see that coming?

Commissioner Pevsner asked her if she had lowered the ceiling heights (as had been suggested previously) “No, I didn’t. My client is still concerned with marketability” She then went on to suggest that she could probably convince the client to lower ceiling heights, if the PC would approve the project with conditions of approval. That was the theme for the next hour. Or two.

Marguerite Shuster was once again the best representative Sierra Madre could hope for.

Commissioner Pevsner asked to talk to the resident who had discussed things with the applicant’s lawyer. The resident said that “There were more promising elements in play than were presented at the following meeting.” In other words, the developers went back on their words.

Each commissioner said there was still too much bulk and mass, and that the ceiling heights need to be lowered. Frierman-Hunt suggested taking a foot off the 2nd story height and 6 inches of the first story height, for an overall lowering of 1 and 1/2 feet. 

Chair Desai had numerous suggestions for reconfiguring the second story that would “keep in the program" the applicant wants but reduce bulk (reduce the Master suite by 10%, one bedroom by 10%, 1 bath by 10% - and adjust some placement downstairs to do that.)

Later Chang asked if she could add square footage downstairs if she reduced upstairs, and Desai said you don’t have to - in his reworking he reduced upstairs and added nothing downstairs.

Chang flipped and said “I’m getting tired, maybe you guys like doing this, but vote up with conditions, or down." Later she said, “I am asking for an up or down vote” But that was the biggest fib of all. She and MacDonald huffed and puffed and then rolled over.

The commissioners would not vote to approve with conditions because they all said they had to see the plans before they could do that. The city attorney said the commission needed to see what it would look like.

The commissioners went into great detail on their suggestions.

Somebody put it brilliantly: people were coming here and destroying our town, one lot at a time, maybe not intending to, but destroying it anyway.

Continued to next PC meeting, October 2.

Reporter #3:
Some of the best quotes of the evening:

Adele Chang when she first went to the podium - "I'm getting kinda tired of it." Referring to the PC meetings.

Adele Chang: Our plans are now correct.  Gina noted except for one thing.The plan still says there is a 6 ft retaining wall on one page and not on the other.

A One Carter neighbor, referring to the tour that Adele said she made. Adele said she found a lot of big home in Sierra Madre. The speaker disagreed with the assumption, and said those were big homes on big lots. What you want to do is build a very big house on a small lot.

Deb Sheridan: Allowed doesn't mean guaranteed.

Kevin  Paschall: Adele you said these are hard lots to build on. We did not force you to buy them.

Adele is now calling it a Spanish Colonial, no longer Santa Barbara … she must have read The Tattler.

Livable sellable space is 3,886.

Reporter #4:

McDonald wants approval with the comments from commission. Desai says no. Needs to see changes. Fees we've come a long way. More comfortable seeing changes. McDonald says he does understand still request approval, vote on it and articulate what it is the commission wants.

- City Attorney: needs design changes, even if they agree to changes commission wants to see it. 

Gina - we're not too far away from agreement. We need to see a concrete plan. Can't say yes without plan. We can discuss what needs to be changed and willing to come back. Take off foot an half of ceiling. 

Adele - shaking her head no. This is controversial in Sierra Madre. Adele says we have been told we are close before. A commissioner stated previous plans have been wrong. Adele said everything was checked 3 times. Plans are correct. 

Gina - told her there were still mistakes. 

Adele - said her client still wants up or down vote. 

Mc Donald - approve it with conditions if not chair articulate changes. 

Desai - said he will articulate them now. On ground floor shifting of stairwell and powder room to the east, allow second floor to shift mass. Bedroom 3 truncated entrance, work on bathroom, pushes back front, bedroom 2 10 percent reduction. Master bedroom lessened 9 percent, a little reworking of master bath. Desai went thru the motions and knows it can be done.

(Mod: Thanks again to all who wrote in!)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Endlessgate: The Planning Commission Goes Another Round With CETT Investments Corporation Tonight

No protective headgear
It seems like this has been going on for almost ever. The folks from CETT investments Corporation, along with their busy architect Adele Chang, plus the always warmly humorous attorney for "the developer of the Stonegate lots," Richard McDonald (link), are back with yet another iteration of what they hope to build someday at Baldwin Court. Or, as we like to think of it, Sierra Madre's "Stairway to Heaven."

There have been so many of these fabulously designed proposed plans that it has become hard to keep track anymore. Though I do know for certain that everyone will be relieved that they are holding to the "Santa Barbara Design." Even though this isn't Santa Barbara. We lack the beach.

And just so you know, "Stonegate" is what the developer has taken to calling the place we all know as One Carter. Their unexplained need to change the names of things in our community being a kind of unwelcome presumption in my opinion. Though the way things are going they should probably call it "Empty Lotsgate." It would be more accurate.

The good folks over at the Preserve Mater Dolorosa group sent out the following e-mail yesterday. I think it summarizes the situation pretty well. I am re-posting it here for those of you who are not on their mailing list.

Dear Supporters:
Attached is the agenda for tomorrow's Planning Commission Meeting scheduled for Thurday, Sept. 18th at 7:00 pm. Right towards the top is going to be a very important agenda item: The owner's of One Carter/Stonegate are applying for a Hillside Development Permit and Conditional Use Permit.

Because our Coalition is expanding its focus into over-development concerns for the entire City of Sierra Madre and not just a concern for a possible development at Mater Dolorosa, we are taking an official position of being opposed to this project as it now stands unless substantial changes are made to conform to development standards in Sierra Madre and the repeated requests of our Planning Commission.

We would urge our supporters to attend the meeting and support our Planning Commission which, thus far, has held the line in the face of the usual bullying, intimidation and threats by the developer's lawyers.

Our Planning Commission has done an exemplary job and they deserve our support and our accolades. Thank you.

Steering Committee, Coalition to Preserve Mater Dolorosa and Stop the Housing Project

The Planning Commission agenda referred to above can be accessed by clicking here.

So what exactly is afoot this evening? Assistant Planner Dereck Purificacion lays the big rhubarb out this way (link):

So there you go. The celebrated architect for the Stonegate lots, the highly regarded Adele Chang, has shrunk the basement a bit. Which wasn't really all that visible to us above ground. She also removed the "Snoopy Deck," which means that all of the other homes in the area shouldn't have to buy air raid curtains.

But are these changes adequate? Has the rest of this joint been brought into legal compliance, as requested all those many times before? Will the Planning Commission end up feeling like they are getting jerked around again? Those are the big questions that could be answered at this evening's meeting.

It all kicks off at 7PM tonight. I have to work late and won't be able to make it. But if you do go, please leave a comment or two here so that I will be able to figure out what happened when I eventually do get home. Be more than a witness. Be a Tattler.

There is also a "Special Agenda"

"Special Agendas" are what they call it when the lawyers get involved. These events are done in private, which I guess is because they're special. And lawyers get involved when there is a lawsuit afoot. After all, when it comes to attorney work product, lawsuits are to lawyers what the honeypot is to Pooh Bear. Here is what this particular pot looks like:

You know what it is. Many here are of the opinion that this indicates CETT Investments whatever is going to take it all to ugly town if they don't get their way tonight. No surprises there.

What that also may mean is this whole mess could go on for yet another couple of years. Which also means the "One Carter Curse" is nowhere near its end. That is, if it actually has an end. Some things apparently do not.

Thank you, 2004 City Council. Ten years later and you guys are still screwing things up.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The 2014 Fourth of July After Action Report Is Now Out!

Our previous Mayor's favorite confab, the Community Services Commission, met this week. And of course there was the usual staff generated Agenda Packet. Something that can be very interesting reading if you are into going deep on the City Hall stuff. And really, who isn't?

I always enjoy checking it out myself. Of course, I read just about everything. It takes a lot of info to keep this little city blog rolling along at its daily pace. And contained somewhere within this particular document is the 2014 Fourth of July After Action Report. It is where City Staff gives their critique of how the 4th of July Parade was conducted this year, and what might be done to improve the collective experience.

Now in our opinion the intrepid volunteers of the 4th of July Parade Committee did a marvelous job this year, just as they did the year before. And kind of like it is with completely independent organized efforts like Alegria's famous Halloween bash, or the world famous Sierra Madre Rose Float folks and what they do so well, these parades pretty much run themselves. City Hall's involvement being kind of a superfluous add on. Certainly they must have more important work to do, and ought to be relieved that the residents can take care of these things all by themselves, right?

Well, not exactly. Apparently City Staff wants you to believe that they were deeply involved in the planning and execution of the 4th of July Parade. And judging by the amount of money they confiscated from the 4th of July Parade Committee for their pains, it must have been a mighty effort indeed!

Here is how the finances all break down, as detailed deep within our long awaited 2014 Fourth of July After Action Report.

Where this all stops to make as much sense as it ought to is with the "personnel expenses." What exactly does staff do that justifies an $84.00 per hour expense charge? And 120 of them at that? Someone from City Staff does attend the 4th of July Committee meetings, and apparently at the rate of $84.00 an hour. Even though that staff member is on salary, and therefore is already being paid for his/her time once.

But what else?

Besides, don't the volunteers of the 4th of July Parade Committee pretty much run this all by themselves? This parade is a Sierra Madre tradition, one where the institutional knowledge needed to run it has been handed down from committee to committee for years. 

What exactly did City Staff do that took all of 120 hours? Or justifies an $84 dollar an hour charge? Is there any kind of itemized bill that was presented to that committee justifying the $11,738.00 they had to turn over to City Hall?

Also doesn't it seem odd that the amount City Hall charged the 4th of July Committee almost entirely accounted for whatever money was left over after expenses? 

Who gets to keep the change?

There are two other events where City Hall presents volunteer organizers and those who fund them with a large bill every year. The first is the Mount Wilson Trail Race, and the other the Huck Finn Fishing Derby. Again these are events that have been going on for quite a long time, and pretty much run themselves. Why that big take away?

Think of how much stronger the volunteer organizations in this community would be if they were allowed to reinvest that kind money in their events. Occasions like the 4th of July Parade and the Mount Wilson Trail Race would only become better than they already are if they were could put it into the events they run.

It would also be a far better use for these funds. When this money is siphoned off by City Hall, where exactly does it it all go? Is that how this money should have been used?

City Staff is already paid once for their time by the taxpayers. They have salaries, benefits and pension funds. It makes no sense that this city's volunteer organizations should have to pay them a second time for these employee hours. After all, they're taxpayers, too.

Trouble in the Beer Garden?

This paragraph is also found in the 4th of July Action Report:

Does anybody know what happened?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Chris Koerber: Goodbye California, Hello Tennessee

 “To everything there is a season. A time for every purpose under heaven.” The Byrds  "Turn, Turn, Turn" (OK, Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Many of my friends and family have asked me:

How can you leave California? How can you leave Sierra Madre? There are a number of reasons I could give. Among them were:

- My parents are aging – Now I can be a half day’s drive or less away, even on short notice, instead of a whole day’s flight time.

- Hot real estate market – If we didn’t cash out now, would it be years before we could sell at a good price?

- An increasing number of my insurance clients seemed to be going out of business, moving out of CA or merging out of business.

- Our kids are either in Texas or plan to be relocate back East.

Yes, I will miss this.

When we looked around, Tennessee really seemed to work.

- Nashville, a major Southwest Airlines hub, is only one hour away, or about the same time as it took to get to LAX from Sierra Madre most days.

- Home prices are very reasonable even with an acre or two of land attached.

- Lots of super nice folks.

- Not a lot of traffic.

- Lots of great state parks, lakes and hiking trails.

- And, by golly, no state income tax.

The overwhelming answer was: It was time for a change.

Wish I could send y'all some!

Q: When did you make your final decision?

Around the beginning of May, Halcyon and I took a short trip to Florida. I was burned out. Too much work for too many years, I suppose. After talking it over with Halcyon and some prayer (actually, a lot!) it came to me – what if we could sell my share of New Century Insurance Services as well as our house this summer (2014)? The Insurance agency was doing well and the Sierra Madre Real Estate market was hot.

We could relocate to a lower cost area. And I could get back to the business I love; helping people save enough with which to retire!

After we made the decision, everything went so quickly. Sandi Siraganian of Sotheby’s International Realty took care of the listing and selling of our home and did a great job! My attorney negotiated the sale of my share of the insurance business in less than 2 months. Be careful for what you wish for – it could just come true!

So here we are, in Cookeville, Tennessee. I’m working from home for now and really enjoying the pace – it seems like I get a lot more done in a lot less time, too.

With all the packing and business move planning happening at the same time, we hardly got to say a proper good-bye. Sorry about that.

We miss our Sierra Madre friends but are enjoying settling into a simpler life here. And, let’s face it; some of the luster of the “Golden State” has unfortunately faded away.

When we stopped in Dallas on the way to Tennessee, I described the new plastic bag ban that had just passed. Upon hearing that, my future daughter-in-law remarked: “California sure has a lot of rules.”

Yes, it does. But not for us. Not anymore.

(Mod: If you want to get in touch with Chris you can do so by clicking here.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

WeHo News: Who Threw Danny Under The Train?

Valentino Court
Mod: In early 2008 Danny Castro was a figure of some controversy in his hometown of West Hollywood. As the volunteer Chair of that city's Cultural Heritage Commission, Danny had become embroiled in a situation that (for certain concerned residents there, anyway) put his integrity in doubt. A weekly newspaper known as the WeHo News published a series of three articles on the matter, the first of which appeared in January of that year. We are posting the third, which was made public on February 7, 2008. Danny had become our Director of Development Services three days earlier. Whether any of this had any influence in the decision to hire Danny here remains unknown. Given the politics of that time, it is possible we may never know.

WHO THREW DANNY UNDER THE TRAIN? (link): West Hollywood, California (February 7, 2008) – While West Hollywood is drowning in over development, beleaguered tenants have learned not expect any help from City Hall in protecting their homes from developers; indeed the public servants at West Hollywood City Hall seem to throw tenants a rock when they need a lifesaver.

For a City that was founded on the notion of protecting tenants and keeping them in their homes, our current City leadership views tenants who oppose the demolition of their rent controlled units as subversive.

Indeed many of the tenants who have had the courage to stand up against developers have found themselves demonized by a City Council who seems to have forgotten why we incorporated as a City in the first place.

So it goes with the residents at Valentino Court at 1342-46 Hayworth. Trying to protect their charming 1920′s Spanish revival building from demolition has forced them to fight a two front war.

Not only must they take on the well heeled developer and his politically connected consultants, they have to fight the folks at City Hall, who are anxious to expand the City’s tax base by supporting the construction of out of scale, luxury housing.

At the City Council meeting of January 22nd, City bureaucrats were caught lying in their efforts to thwart the State from considering the nomination of Valentino Court to the National Register of Historic Places.

And it wasn’t just a little lie, it was a whooper. And to make matters worse, once they were caught in the lie, they just kept on lying in a desperate attempt to cover their tracks.

The bizarre tale of the City’s letter to the State Office of Historic Preservation signed by Chair of the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission, Danny Castro, is a sad commentary of betrayal at City Hall.

In response to nomination of Valentino Court by the buildings tenants, the City was required to send the State Office of Historic Preservation a form responding a simple question: Did the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission considered declaring Valentino Court a historic landmark? A simple question, which warranted a simple response.

On the State Office’s form, The City’s Planning staff checked the box that the City’s Historic Preservation Commission had considered the issue if the building was culturally significant.

The City submitted a cover letter under the signature of Danny Castro, Chair of the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission, (HPC), that clearly inferred that the Commission had in fact weighed in on that sensitive issue. The letter falsely implied that the Commission had in fact considered the issue and voted against recommending the property for designation.

Unfortunately none of this was true. More importantly, everyone involved knew it was not true; the Historic Preservation Commission was never even allowed to vote on that issue.

The problem was that the City had prevented it’s Cultural Heritage Commission from considering the issue on the merits. The building came before the Historic Preservation Commission only to comment on a draft Environmental Impact Report, (DEIR), that was later approved by the Planning Commission.

Due to the City’s restrictive policies on allowing the application for a historic nomination, the nomination by the Valentino Court tenants was deemed untimely so the issue of whether or not the building should be considered historic was declared moot.

No City body, including the Historic Preservation Commission, could consider the issue under the City’s existing rules.

Rather than simply tell the truth, the Staff checked the box on the State’s form letter that read that the West Hollywood Historic Preservation Commission had reviewed the building and denied recommending it for historic designation.

After checking that box, the form requested that the City to set forth the Commission’s reasons for it’s decision. Rather than tell the State the truth – that the Commission never deliberated on this issue – the City simply attached a copy of the minutes of the meeting.

It seemed pretty obvious that the City was hoping that no one at the State Office would bother to read the minutes, which clearly reflect that there was no hearing on the merits.

Despite the City’s failure to support the nomination, the State Office of Historic Preservation agreed with the preservationists and sent a letter to the State Historic Resources Commission recommending the nomination of Valentino Court to the National Register of Historic Places.

The State then provided a copy of the letter signed by Castro and the attached form to the Valentino tenants. If the State had not sent this letter to the residents, the issue would have never come to light.

Indeed, when the City Council was deliberating on the issue on January 22nd, the letter was conspicuously absent form the City Council agenda packet. The Valentino Court supporters made the letter public at the City Council meeting.

At this point staff should have just admitted it’s mistake and let it go. But they decided to lie again.

Instead of fessing up, staff indicated that it prepared the letter and then had it reviewed by the Commission Chair, Danny Castro. Staff then claimed Castro “made modifications and amendments” to the letter they prepared.

The staff inferred, and the City Attorney backed them up, that the fact that the letter to the State Office of Historic Preservation was misleading and inaccurate was due to the “modifications and amendments” of Mr. Castro.

I was at the City Council meeting that night and it was pretty clear to me that staff was throwing Castro under the train. Had Castro made “modifications and amendments” to the letter to the State, those changes would have to have been quite extensive in order to make the letter that evasive.

Indeed it is unlikely that any civilian volunteer would make any substantive changes in a letter prepared by Staff. Furthermore if Castro had in fact changed the letter and made it inaccurate, it was staff who had the legal responsibility to confront Castro and refuse to allow him to make changes that would have represented a substantial departure form the original letter.

Why would staff allow Castro to send out an inaccurate letter?

It is pretty clear to me that staff had drafted the letter and that Castro had not made any substantive changes. That was confirmed a week later when Danny Castro, at the Historic Preservation Commission, spoke to the issue and emphatically stated that he made NO CHANGES to the letter.

He simply signed it as staff had prepared it. Castro apologized to the community and said that, in the future, he would never sign any official document without carefully reading it.

He admitted that the letter, was, at best, confusing.

Frankly it took a lot of courage for Castro to state that staff was lying. While some members of the community were demanding his resignation, it is clear that Castro was being used as a scapegoat.

The only question I have for Castro is why he would remain on a Commission when the City had so little regard for his character and reputation. Castro should have at least demanded an apology from the City for staff’s ill treatment of his personal integrity.

The larger question is why is staff purposely taking the side of the developer? Who at City Hall is giving Planning staff direction?

It seems pretty clear that someone at City Hall is making decisions that should be made by the City Council in public session. What happened to the concept of making City policies in the light of day?

The most obvious evidence of City Hall corruption is that fact that none of the City Council members demanded any investigation into how this situation occurred.

There was some concern raised about “the process”, but none of the Council members apparently wanted to know who was actually responsible for writing the letter.

Obviously there was someone at City Hall who did not want Valentino Court to obtain this designation. None of the Council members asked any hard questions on that issue. We know that the Council has pretty much been bought by developers but they could at least put on a pretense of outrage.

Instead it’s business as usual at City Hall.

To their credit, at least two Council members, John Duran and Jeff Prang, expressed that they might vote to preserve the property based on the State’s decision, providing the cover for the Council to postpone it’s decision until after the State had an opportunity to review the matter.

As Americans were have come to expect lies coming out of Washington D.C. But West Hollywood prides itself on being a progressive community that elects allegedly thoughtful officials of unquestioned integrity.

Unfortunately lying has become the norm at West Hollywood City Hall.

These are sad days for West Hollywood. We can’t trust the team at City Hall any more than we can trust the Bush/Cheney team in D.C.

Mod: If you would like to read more about this matter, the two other WeHo News articles are called "Valentino Letter To State Causes Concerns" (link) and "Urban Fabric: More Chicanery" (link). For the record, Danny remained the Chair of that Committee, and continues in that role (link) ... Danny Castro is leaving Sierra Madre for a new job up north in Sausalito this October. He leaves behind here a record that can at best be described as uneven. While the job he did with the Canyon Zone Committee was commendable, there is also the matter of the controversial Camillo Road project. You have to wonder if he read the documents before signing that one as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Try and Stay Cool Today, and Tomorrow. And Tuesday.

2 PM Sunday
Mod: We don't ordinarily like to do the weather here at The Tattler. Mainly because that is just about all the news outlets in Los Angeles and elsewhere ever talk about, especially now. But this heatwave is quite impressive, and not in a good kind of way. It happens once in a while, of course, but the intensity of this one does seem a bit excessive, even for always sunny Southern California.

As you can see by the graphic I cut and pasted to the left, it hit 111 degrees in Sierra Madre at 2:00 PM today. It could get hotter, with Monday and Tuesday showing some real potential for temperatures that are even higher than today. Here is what the National Weather Service is putting down for us right now.

Mod: While you're stuck in your house today trying to beat the heat, you might want to check out the following column from the always interesting Joel Kotkin. Given the current upheavals here with the Sierra Madre City Hall community planning apparatus, it does seem fairly relevant right now. And you just can't beat that title.

You can read the rest of this article by clicking here.

Mod: The Los Angeles Unified School System, home of the high end iPad, has come up with exciting new ways of dealing with student discipline problems. At least according to this Los Angeles Times editorial. The war to end smoking in the boys room once and for all has now been taken to a whole new level.

Click here.

Mod: One more. Cool picture of our friend Tony Brandenburg and his band The Adolescents rocking the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood last night.

Just so you know, the tickets left for Renatta Cooper at will call were never claimed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

City Hall Confidential: Danny Castro Is Hanging It Up

Our Danny
All good things must come to an end someday. But that doesn't mean just the good things come to an end, others do as well. As a matter of fact, everything comes to an end. Except The Tattler, of course. We'll just keep doing this forever. Or at least for as long as there is a Sierra Madre, which is known to many the world over as the 2nd Eternal City. Rome being the first. Not that anyone should take offense at that, because the good news is we are catching up.

There are those of us who look forward to Fridays not just because it is the beginning of the weekend, but also because it is the day a new Sierra Madre City Manager's Report comes out. While it might be true that the City Council is clipping her wings a bit these days, Elaine Aguilar's weekly report remains tops in town for exciting new revelations regarding the goings-on at our happening local governmental agency. Something that we the people often refer to as City Hall.

And this week's edition of the City Manager Report does not disappoint. Here is news that has stunned the dozens of people who care enough to follow this stuff:

Well there you go. Another one bites the dust. How much more can we stand? Will we make it through the night? Yeah, probably. We usually do. And there is always plenty of coffee in the morning to help us make our way.

The website (whatever you do, don't call it a blog), posted a publicity fluffer in 2008 that welcomed Danny Castro into our little world. And greeting him in this piece (link) was the same person who is today escorting him out, City Manager Elaine Aguilar. The veritable Alpha and Omega of one's municipal career in the Foothill Village. Here is that account:

City Hires New Development Services Director
After an extensive recruitment process, the City of Sierra Madre is excited to announce that Danny Castro of West Hollywood will be joining the All-America City team as the new Development Services Director.

Danny Castro brings to Sierra Madre over 15 years’ experience in the local government planning process, with expertise in both the public and private sectors. Mr. Castro was with the City of Beverly Hills Community Development Department for over 10 years in a number of positions, each with increased responsibilities. His work included a wide variety of residential and commercial developments, zoning and land use studies, and staff liaison for the Planning and Architectural Commissions.

Mr. Castro’s private sector background extended his expertise in project management as well as interests in historic preservation. At The Kor Group, a Los Angeles-based real estate company, Mr. Castro specialized in the conversion and rehabilitation of historic structures into residential uses. As a private planning consultant, his clients have included the cities of Claremont and Santa Monica, reviewing projects subject to design review, compliance with historic preservation policies, and environmental review requirements. 

Mr. Castro resides in West Hollywood where he is currently the Chair of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission, which, through various means, helps to preserve the community’s character through the protection, enhancement and preservation of cultural resources. 

Danny Castro is a native Californian, and grew up in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. He graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban and Regional Planning. 

City Manager Elaine Aguilar stated, “I welcome Danny to the City of Sierra Madre. I think he brings the perfect balance of experience, technical expertise, and approachability that’s important in his new role as Development Services Director.” Mr. Castro will begin his tenure with the City of Sierra Madre on Monday, February 4, 2008.

Danny, we hardly knew ye. Though I should probably point out that the press release is always longer when you are coming in than it is when you are going out.

Unhappy Canyonite
So what will Danny's legacy be here in town? Some good, but some not so good I am afraid. Perhaps the apex of his reign as what had until recently been known as Development Director was his work with the Canyon Zone Committee.

Despite the howls of dismay from the usual smattering of unshaven and halitosis challenged troglodytes living up the wash (or "The Canyon" as it is known, mostly because there can be no other), Danny's work with some of the more enlightened preservationist residents there helped to transform that chaotic and funky lowdown into one of the hottest real estate markets in Southern California.

Proving once and for all that given their druthers home buyers will go for the quaint and time proven over the new, clunky and generic every time. And, most ironically, today those who did all the bitching are now happily enriching.

However, there's also a dark side to Our Danny, and that was revealed by his apparent unwillingness to enforce some of the design restrictions on the creation of new structures in town as spelled out by the General Plan. The Double LULUs on Camillo Road could very well end up being monuments to this Development Director's inability to work with the people in town on what truly is the preeminent concern here. That is keeping Sierra Madre as it is, and not succumbing to Arcadia Syndrome.

We have written about this before, and you can access our most recent article on that topic ("A Return to the Twin LULUs of Camillo Road") by clicking on this word.

Here is the part of that post where we attempted to explain the limitless depth of our disappointment:

Here are the passages from the 1996 General Plan that could have been applied to the Twin LULUs of Camillo Road. The new GP will have better protections, but as we've noted it isn't in effect yet. However, if the relevant portions from the "Old '96" GP had been enforced, the necessary protections were there.

From the 1996 GP Introduction:

Page 17 - Overview of Land Use Policy: The fundamental principle behind the land use policy of the General Plan is to maintain the existing low-density, village character of Sierra Madre in the same urban development pattern that exists today.

Page 17 - Residents are able to identify structures which “fit” in Sierra Madre versus those which do not.

Page 18 - Ensuring that new development is compatible in its design with older established development in stable neighborhoods …

I am not sure any residents were consulted when the Camillo LULUs were in their planning stages, which is unfortunate. There is also this from the portion of the 1996 General Plan titled RESIDENTIAL LOW DENSITY:

Page 21 - Require that new development mitigates impacts on the City’s open space, infrastructure, transit services, and other public needs.

Page 21  - Objective L6:  Ensure that the massing and scale of new infill construction, additions and alterations to new structures be consistent with that of the existing block.

Page 21 - Policy L6.3: Limit new buildings in height to reflect the prevailing height patterns on the street and within the Sierra Madre community.

To paraphrase a comment left on this site just the other day, apparently Danny's front counter at City Hall was also functioning as a back door.

Hopefully the next person occupying that position will understand that in Sierra Madre the General Plan represents what the people living here want for their community, and for that reason alone carries as much weight as any ordinance or zoning code.

And please, whoever you turn out to be, no more LULUs.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Is It Possible To Censor And Remove Public Comment From City Council Meeting Television Rebroadcasts?

A resident not seen at public comment lately
Mod: Under the tutelage of Mayor John Harabedian the hostility we had previously seen surrounding public comment at City Council meetings here in Sierra Madre seems to have abated. John, to his credit, often appears interested in what people have to say, and even responds to some of them. A rather surprising development that not too many could have predicted just a few short months ago.

The three minute clock, which was just about the only thing our previous Mayor appeared to care about when people were sharing their concerns with the City Council, seems to have now fallen into disuse. Not to mention the three minute cutoff button that Joe Mosca enjoyed using when he was Mayor. Another complex individual who had an undue amount of complicated problems with the public's demands.

However, the truce we presently enjoy could end someday. Nothing lasts forever, you know. And it certainly doesn't exist everywhere in Southern California. As proof of that I have now received some pretty troubling information from our good friend George Edwardz.

George, who has the good fortune to reside in a city with politics as interesting as ours, had this for us. It appears that in La Habra Heights things have gotten so edgy for certain members of their City Council that they are attempting to remove all public comment from television rebroadcasts of their meetings.

All I can say is it's a good thing Nancy Walsh never thought of that one. Think of all the public comment that would have ended up on the cutting room floor had she gotten out the scissors. Outside of Gene Goss, and perhaps Paulie Goosebumps, there would have been nothing left.

George sent me the following Agenda Report, which deals with that City Council's efforts to censor and gag public comment in his town. Here is a portion of it.

I am not going to repost this entire agenda report here. A lot of it is pretty standard government-speak, and Lord knows we get plenty of that here. But what follows has got to be two of the most astonishing paragraphs I have ever read in a City Council Agenda Report. Anywhere. See if you don't agree.

Needless to say I am more than a little jealous. And I would never have suspected that public comment at a City Council meeting could drive down property values. You learn something new everyday. Is there a consultant we can hire to look into this? Maybe we can get a big fat C.A.R. grant?

However, there is a distinct possibility that a sinister motive is behind all of this. La Habra Heights exists in that portion of Los Angeles County known to have oil deposits. And certain petroleum companies are now jockeying to set up fracking operations there. Not exactly the kind of thing anyone would want to see in their backyard. Being a proud card carrying NIMBY myself, I can easily understand why people there might be upset about such a thing, and cussing out their slacker City Council because of it.

And honestly, where would do you find the water to do such a thing these days? Fracking is the ultimate water hog. Even modern families don't consume that much.

George forwarded me the following statement, which was issued by an organization called Heights Oil Watch. Or HOW. They have a pretty good blog, and you can access it here.

I think we can all figure out how this one goes. The oil companies want to dummy up the citizenry as much as possible, and the highly suspect City government in La Habra Heights is more than happy to assist them. After all, there is financial gain in this.

So which is worse for a small city? Having a frackable oil patch, or having a bunch of godforsaken McMansion developers lurking about?

I'll let you mull that one over.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Return to the Twin LULUs of Camillo Road

A couple of LULUs
We last posted something about the twin LULUs of Camillo Road (LULU being the acronym for "Locally Unwanted Land Uses") back on August 28th. They had become a matter of some concern both in that neighborhood and throughout the community, with many wondering how exactly such a thing could have happened in Sierra Madre. A community noted for its planning rigor when it comes to sore thumb architecture like those two structures. Some had written in to The Tattler about this, and in my opinion the situation was pretty much summed up by Carolyn Brown, who had this to say:

The two monstrosities being built on Camillo, one lot up from Grandview, did not go in front of the PC and Danny Castro did not give this a pass. The developer knew the city regulations and did everything as he was allowed. There were two lots of record and as someone earlier posted you can see from google earth the house and garage were very modest. The big mistake here was that the PC did not get the new regulations in place to stop this. We did in the new canyon zone building standards for the second story building envelope and the city now has this for the entire R-1 zone. I am not sure about R-2 and R-3. The second story has to fit in a pulled back area of 45 degrees from a line drawn up 8 ft from the property line. 

Sierra Madre resident Judy Gold wrote in to Danny Castro at City Hall to find out on her own what the rest of the story might be. Danny, formerly of Development Services (his portion of the Puzzle Palace is currently being renamed the much sunnier "Planning and Community Preservation"), quickly replied. Danny is pretty good that way, and he writes in a briskly pleasant and efficient style.

Here is how that initial exchange went:

Name: Judy Gold
Subject: Ordinances
Message: Mr. Castro,

I have had a difficult time finding building code ordinances on the website. I would like to see info regarding the allowable footage for a house, including setbacks, etc. also, I have questions about the horrible houses at 319 Camillo. These 2 houses are built to cover the entire lot. I can find nothing that allows this. Plus the architecture in no way fits the area as the city plan suggests. Any answers or direction would be appreciated. - Judy

From: Danny Castro
To: 'Judy Gold
Sent: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 11:04 am
Subject: RE: City of Sierra Madre: Ordinances

Hello Mrs. Gold, 
The City's Municipal Code is on the City's website.  Click on "Online Services", scroll down, click on "Municipal Code", on left side scroll down to "Title 17  Zoning - Chapter 17.20 R-1 One-Family Residential".  Click on it and the entire zoning ordinance is included, such as setback requirements, floor area, parking, lot coverage, etc.  This chapter was amended in May 2013.    

The houses that are being constructed at 319 and 321 Camillo are in compliance with the City's zoning code in effect at the time they were submitted to the Development Services Department for plan review, or what we call "plan check". Those plans were submitted in January 2013.  The City Council approved amendments to the R-1 zoning ordinance in May 2013, which included angle plane height requirements which push the second floors further away from the sides. Also, the calculation of floor area has been redefined to include all areas with a solid covered roof (except first floor porches facing the front of the house), regardless of enclosed walls or not.  Unfortunately, these new requirements did not apply to these homes because these rules were not in effect at that time.

The 319 Camillo house is 2,715 square feet in size, and the house at 321 Camillo is 3,136 square feet, both in compliance with the R-1  zoning ordinance in effect prior to May 2013.  

You are welcome to review the plans here at the Development Services counter. Please let me know and we can set the plans aside for you to review at your convenience.  

City of Sierra Madre | Development Services Department

Judy Gold had one more question for Mr. Castro, and she wrote her follow-up this way:

From: Judy Gold 
Sent: Tuesday, September 02, 2014 11:52 AM
To: Danny Castro
Subject: 319 & 321 Camillo

Dear Mr. Castro:

I found the codes. Thank you for your help. I have another question or two. If the plans for these 2 structures were submitted today for a plan check, would they be approved? If not approved can you tell me why? - Judith Gold

Here is Danny's rather tragic reply:

From: Danny Castro
To: Judy Gold
Sent: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 12:03 pm
Subject: RE: 319 & 321 Camillo

Dear Mrs. Gold,
If the plans for these two structures at 319 and 321 Camillo were submitted today they could not be approved.  It is obvious that they would not meet the angle plane height requirements (building setback areas along the sides) and we would be calculating additional floor area for all covered roof areas like the carports, but not sure if the additional floor area would result in exceeding what’s allowable for the lot sizes in today’s zoning code.

There you go. The developer of the Camillo LULUs obviously had a passing fair knowledge of what was permissible in Sierra Madre at the time, and took full advantage of that situation. At least as far as the applicable zoning codes and ordinances went.

So I've been mulling over the name change at Development Services, and I have come to the conclusion that the exchanges above between Judy Gold and Danny Castro could be called a Development Services kind of conversation. Applicable codes and ordinances were discussed, and then cited as the definitive reasons why things happened as they did. The conclusion being that this is how things are, the LULUs happened because of that, end of story.

So what will the difference be now that Danny's suzerainty within the Puzzle Palace has been renamed Planning and Community Preservation? Or, and as some once troubled children of the late 20th Century might appreciate, PCP?

And my conclusion is that the PCP would not have rolled with these ordinances and codes alone, but would also have brought the General Plan into play as well. In this particular LULU case the 1996 General Plan would have been applicable since it was, and at least for now still is, the one that establishes how this community is supposed to look. Among other things.

Here are the passages from the 1996 General Plan that could have been applied to the Twin LULUs of Camillo Road. The new one will have better protections, but as we've noted it isn't in effect yet. However, if the relevant portions from the "Old '96" GP had been enforced, the necessary protections were there.

From the 1996 GP Introduction:

Page 17 Overview of Land Use PolicyThe fundamental principle behind the land use policy of the General Plan is to maintain the existing low-density, village character of Sierra Madre in the same urban development pattern that exists today.

Page 17 - Residents are able to identify structures which “fit” in Sierra Madre versus those which do not.

Page 18 - Ensuring that new development is compatible in its design with older established development in stable neighborhoods …

I am not sure any residents were consulted when the Camillo LULUs were in their planning stages, which is unfortunate. There is also this from the portion of the 1996 General Plan titled RESIDENTIAL LOW DENSITY:

Page 21 - Require that new development mitigates impacts on the City’s open space, infrastructure, transit services, and other public needs.

Page 21  - Objective L6:  Ensure that the massing and scale of new infill construction, additions and alterations to new structures be consistent with that of the existing block.

Page 21 - Policy L6.3: Limit new buildings in height to reflect the prevailing height patterns on the street and within the Sierra Madre community.

So maybe that will be what distinguishes the old Development Services satrapy from the new Planning and Community Preservation model. That is, the General Plan will also be consulted, along with the kinds of codes and ordinances that were the sole guidance used when the Camillo LULUs were being hatched.

Because if the current General Plan had been brought into play, as it should have, neither of those LULU structures would exist today. And we wouldn't have needed to have this conversation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Last Night's City Council Meeting: Raises For Everybody?

Would you trade in a Maybach health care plan for a $40,000 raise?

I suppose the City Hall types could have come right out and said that a lot of employees there could be getting some extremely large raises, but that would have probably been too easy. Nothing quite that clear ever makes it out of the Puzzle Palace. So instead we got a jargon rich ("compaction," "market value") sales pitch designed to make people believe that a lot of money is going to be saved. Oh, and that things are going to be organized a little better as well.

Why? Because the embarrassingly huge health care plan costs that were first revealed on this blog courtesy of are going to be mercifully cut. That this little city was shelling out for health care plans costing upwards of $37,000 a year is beyond absurd. No other government agency in California has been doing such a thing. That this City did so while also wailing about how broke they were, and how badly they needed too raise our utility taxes to the previously unheard of level of 12%, is just unconscionable.

I don't expect we'll ever get an explanation for these shenanigans. Much less an apology for so aggressive and obvious fibbing, either. Quite the opposite, actually. It is my guess that there are those in this City who, given the chance, would do it all over again. UUT 3 might be just around the corner.
I have often wondered what the health care plan the Obama family receives might cost. I think it's quite possible that it is pretty much in line with the $37,800 health care plan our Water Superintendent over at the pump house currently receives.  Perhaps the highest costing government employee plan of its kind in California, and possibly even the entire country.

So anyway, while some health care cost cuts are being made, and that is a step in the right direction, just take a look at some of the the raises they might soon be handing out as well. These can all be found in the City Council Staff Report (click here). But let me warn those of you with weak hearts, reading the following numbers might not be right for you.

The City Manager's salary could increase by a little less than $40,000. The cost of Elaine Aguilar's health care plan would decrease by around $9,000. That would be a $31,000 pick up for our most senior City Hall official.

Bruce Inman's salary could increase from $107,724 to $134, 532. Quite a nice jump. Bruce's health care plan costs would decline from $26,250 a year to $18,000. Advantage Bruce. I am sure some of the spectacular success Bruce has experienced running the Water Department had a lot to do with it.

Chief Larry Giannone is hopefully coming out of his most recent bad patch, and he really did work the room most of last night. You know, just to show everyone just how on top of his game he is. And because there are no hard feelings, let's give Chiefy a $33,000 raise. Even though many cities would have summarily fired him for what happened last week, and justifiably so, at least he means well.

Here are a few more raises:

The rationale for all of this is that the management team of the Foothill Village must be brought to within 15% of what they would be paid if they worked for a city like Pasadena. That is, if they could be hired there. Even though their supposed equivalents in that city manage approximately 10 times the number of employees, along with exponentially larger amounts of budget and responsibility.

To put it in hotel terms, it is like comparing the General Manager of the Chateau Marmount in Hollywood to a guy who runs a Holiday Inn Express on Foothill Boulevard.

There is a silver lining to all of this. If the resolution put together by Denise Delmar and Rachelle Arizmendi passes, the health care plans get cut and the raises detailed above do not happen. With the exception of the Police and Fire Chiefs. If it does not pass, then anything is possible. The library ploy from former Mayor Rob Stockley last night was just the first salvo in the reaction to this effort. That old bloody shirt is now out of the safe and being waved around in the usual wild way.

And please remember this. These were raises called for by the previous City Council. We're talking about our ongoing Nancy Walsh hangover.

It is a very elaborate dance going on right now. How do you get the City Manager under control, and how do you hold off the old guard? You take away their money. This one is not going to be easy, or readily apparent at first. And the demagoguery of Stockley last night (all stuff we have heard before, btw) is a good indication of where exactly the opposition is coming from. Get ready for a long and bumpy ride. You're watching how government in this town gets changed, and for the good.

Here's the disconnect. On the one hand we're being told by City Hall we will be facing some very hard choices in two years because of the soon to sunset UUT, on the other massive raises could be doled out so we can keep up with the neighbors. Oh the cognitive dissonance.

Gene Goss, for whatever reason, nailed it. The people of Sierra Madre voted down UUT increases twice in two years because they wanted to see cuts. The taxpayers did this because they do not see the logic in paying the highest utility tax rates in California for services that do not matter to them.

Why doesn't City Hall want to understand that?