If there is one thing that distinguishes this City Council from the previous it's that the present incarnation seems to believe they know better than the people of Sierra Madre. And rather than inviting the taxpayers in to discuss matters of real concern (like taking more of their money), it seems like this City Council's belief is that they are the ones who will decide everything, and few amongst the residents will have either the will or the wit to contest their pronouncements.
However, that rather presumptuous belief seems to have all come crashing down last night. Because in what must have stunned certain members of our City Government, the citizens of this town, armed with Proposition 218, rose up and performed an almost impossible task. That being they turned in 1,941 signed rate payer protest forms contesting the City Council imposed 40% Water Rate Hike. Something that our highly compensated City Attorney, a leading legal expert on all things Prop 218, said could never be done.
The highlight of the evening was the public comments. And for once Mayor Mosca allowed people the time to fully speak their minds. The result was rewarding and at times surprising observations from some very astute and motivated people. Here are some of the observations that I thought were among the best:
Tracy Thompson spoke about how people on fixed incomes would be the ones who would really suffer from the 40% water rate hike. And that people were very upset this City Council would consider such increases in what is a terrible economy. This became a theme that others picked up on as well.
Ed Vanderpool gave some members of the Council (especially the Mayor) a history lesson on just how business had traditionally been done in Sierra Madre. That being funds paid by the citizens for water, rather than being used for infrastructure work that would have saved us from much of what is going on now, were spent on things such as fire trucks and parks. Mayor Mosca contested this, something that clearly shows he has some glaring gaps in his knowledge of this town. If you go to yesterday's post on this blog and click on the Los Angeles Times article linked near the top of the page, you will see some very clear proof of everything Ed was talking about.
Caroline Brown came up with what I thought was the quote of the night. "You can't make a City solvent by making its citizens insolvent." She also noted how some of our most vulnerable residents were terrified by the hike, and told her of their fear that this might be only the beginning of a process that would economically force them out of Sierra Madre.
David Darbyshire brought up first what was to become another theme for the evening. That being City Hall was careless and dismissive about the job they were supposed to do in explaining what this water rate hike was all about. That no ballot was sent by the City to the rate payers in its mailed literature seemed as if it was done by design. Rather than offering people the tools they needed to make the right decision, the City opted to do legal bare minimum required in hopes that only a few would know what to do.
Pat Alcorn called for a new beginning. It is her opinion that the City should issue instructions to its consultant to humbly rework its formulas in a way that reflects the fact that over 50% of the rate payers in town stood up and protested their previous handiwork.
Jim Engle, who spoke about an issue I have discussed here, took a strong stance on behalf of this City's very large senior population. With something like 1,000 senior couples living on fixed incomes in Sierra Madre, who would profit should life for this segment of the population become impossible here? Gentrification, the economically engendered removal of a distinct group within a community's population in order to redevelop the resulting vacated property for profit (which in this case would be $10s of millions of dollars), could very well become of real concern here if such rate hikes are implemented. Jim also asked how Councilmembers Buchanan, Mosca, Walsh, and Moran could actually state that they were "comfortable" with this hike when so many of their fellow Sierra Madreans would suffer. How out of touch with their constituents are they?
De Alcorn told the City Council that they need to listen to those who protested this large rate hike. Business owners, landlords, and residents alike all found reasons to sign protest papers and send them in to the City. Certainly the Council and City Staff can realize that this protest was the direct result of their failure to properly communicate real issues. You can't expect to get money from people here by merely trying to scare them. Chicken Little doesn't fly in this town.
Bill Coburn gave a very complete report on the concerns of this City's business community. He also raised the specter that the unique mix of independent shops we find in Downtown Sierra Madre could become a thing of the past should this radical hike be instituted. Something that would harm Sierra Madre's claims to having a small city charm.
Derrick Bush stepped up to give a thoroughly damning appraisal of the tier system. He found it puzzling in that it seemed designed to punish those who conserve water while letting the big users off the hook with a substantial percentage break. He concluded that the obvious moving force behind this tier system was generating income rather than conservation. Something that is a serious slap in the face to the green pretensions of certain City Councilmembers.
Fay Angus, with her usual gracious style and eloquence, proclaimed that the best source of water conservation is recycled water. She has long been an advocate for the use of "grey water" for things such as taking care of plants and cleaning cars, and this was the perfect venue for continuing that dialog. She also thanked the many people who stepped up and informed the residents of their options with these issues. In the process taking on a role that should have been performed by City Hall. She described this situation as the result of "an appalling lack of communication from the City." Fay also took up the issue of how seniors would have been affected by the hike. Describing her generation as being "a proud one," Fay stated she would rather go thirsty than face the humiliation of having to go to City Hall and show her income tax filings in order to get a rate cut.
Wade Bonds had the second best quote of the night when he said that he is not opposed to the City getting more money, he just didn't want them to get it from him. Wade, like many people struggling to make ends meet in this terrible economy, is just sick of all the nickle and diming. "Where is Robin Hood?" he asked. "All I see on this City Council is the Sheriff of Nottingham." He also mentioned that he had been congratulating those in the crowd who claimed they didn't mind having to pay more money.
Carol Parker described some of her experiences on the streets going door to door to get signatures for the water protest. Nobody worked harder than she did to make last night's victory happen. Some of the things Carol observed in people she visited was the confusion many felt over this poorly designed initiative. The City, if it was sincere in its claims for needing more water money, should have had sense enough to invite Sierra Madre in.
One more (slightly ominous) thing ..
At the end of this meeting the acting City Attorney said that the protest won't officially be declared victorious until all of the water protest forms are properly examined. With nearly 100 more than what is needed to stop the rate hike, I don't think there is much to worry about. However, if City Hall does manage to throw out enough protest forms to take this resident victory away, there will be some considerable anger in this town.
The good news is there's a remedy should this occur. The protest process that we all just went through is not the only solution available through Proposition 218. We could, if we had to, then turn our grievance into an initiative and put it on the ballot. This would involve us going out for signatures again, but we know how to do that. It would also cost the City a substantial amount of money, and things could get very contentious here, but it is an option that Prop 218 provides to people facing such a predicament.
Let's just hope the City doesn't force us down that path.