In listening to last night's City Council meeting I couldn't help but reflect upon what it is the Gang of 4 really fears here. And that is the people of the town they claim to govern.
Take the water rate hike. Their first year proposed increase was 15%. But then a group of folks went out, collected over 2,000 protest signatures, and effectively shut their water rate hike down. So now they're talking about what, a 7% first year increase?
If the people of Sierra Madre hadn't hit the streets and gotten all of those signatures, that original 15% water rate hike would not have only stood, but we'd also be paying it by now.
The people of Sierra Madre defeated this City Council over raising the cost of water, forcing them to come back and ask for less than half of what they'd hoped to get in the first year.
Obviously "The Gang" has something to be concerned about.
At last night's meeting we heard plenty about "tiered payments." The Gang of 4 spent an awful lot of time defending them. For an hour or so it was just about all they talked about. Was that because they really care all that much about what is statistically, at least in its current form, something that amounts to only a little money? How do you explain this strange passion?
The answer to that question is clear. In order to avoid a return to the Proposition 218 protest process (in their opinion), this City Council could not in any way change their original water rate increase proposal. And that includes the part about tiered payments. If they had heeded the will of the people and gotten rid of something almost unanimously reviled here, it would trigger Proposition 218 and bring it back into play. And that could lead to the same kind of embarrassment at the hands of the people of Sierra Madre they'd experienced last spring.
A prospect that obviously disturbs them.
MaryAnn MacGillivray proposed the formation of a rate payers committee that would study the water funding problems this town faces, and come back with some recommendations for the City Council. You could almost hear the squeak of John Buchanan's Fruit of the Looms climbing up into his great beyond. Because a committee that would represent a cross section of Sierra Madreans could only mean one thing, the potential for them not getting our money for a second time. And the last thing this City Council would ever want is to have to hear the voice of the people on that topic again.
After what happened last April and May, they have some trust issues.
MaryAnn also raised the point that in order to properly engage the rate payers of this town in raising the cost of water, the City Council should really consider bringing back the Proposition 218 process. After all, if the rate hike proposal they're cooking up now is fair and equitable, whatever would they have to fear?
You'd have thought the Gang of 4 had just seen a ghost.
Many of the misgivings the people of Sierra Madre feel for their City Council stem from the perception that it is a closed and secretive society, one that steadfastly refuses to listen to anyone but its own small circle of friends. That it is the voice of an elite group of people, one that believes only their own opinions and priorities count. An entitled group that instinctually feels the need here is to rule through force and intimidation rather than consensus and compromise.
And by attempting to shut down the rate payers right to redress their grievances over this badly mishandled water rate hike, that is exactly what this City Council showed us last night.
Let me tell you what I believe this is really all about. You might not agree, but at least you are allowed to post your opinions here and be heard. Even if it takes more than three minutes. Or involves clapping.
What this City Council is actually concerned about here is Sierra Madre's bond rating. Currently we hold a bond rating of 'AA,' which puts us in the third tier (so to speak) behind cities holding 'AAA' and 'AA+' ratings. Double A is not a bad thing. It is considered to be the mark of a town that has an acceptable balance sheet and is capable of paying its bills on time. But it is an inferior rating. And in a time when credit is as tight as it is right now, why would any financial institution want to give its best rates and terms to an also-ran rated City like ours?
But if water rates were increased, allowing the City to accumulate cash above and beyond the bond covenants that bind us, our rating could very well rise back up to the 'AAA' level we enjoyed before the Shenanigan Era laid us low. Despite our being $19 million dollars in debt.
Joe Mosca, speaking at this City Council's recent "Strategic Planning Goals & Objectives Retreat" held at the YAC, expressed his feelings about the need to sell more bonds. When Elaine Aguilar expressed her doubts about this being a politically wise move right now, Joe challenged his fellow Councilmembers to act like leaders and convince the people of Sierra Madre that in order to function like modern cities we would have to take on even more debt than we have now. It was an embarrassing moment for the adults in the room.
The Gang's agenda is based on the sale of more bonds, and the accumulation of more debt. The rate hike would barely touch the pile of water infrastructure repairs that are required, instead, as Elaine Aguilar noted in her letter to Earl Richey, go almost exclusively to the servicing of bond debt. With the actual repairs requiring an additional $14 million above and beyond what the rate hike would provide. There are also sewers and street paving to consider, and bond sales are the preferred route there as well. The Gang apparently wants to run this city on the Sacramento formula of debt and indifference to the burden it will put on future generations.
All of which made John Buchanan's "duty now for the future" remarks seem especially trite.
It is also important to look back and see how this City Council's position on the water rate hike has changed over the last few months. At first it was all about repairing the City's water infrastructure. And that was how the 37% water rate hike was first marketed to people here. We needed to hand over more of our cash or face the catastrophic collapse of our water delivery systems.
But now that argument is apparently inoperative. Mostly because of the revelations about massive bond debt first made public on this blog. And at last night's meeting it was all about maintaining the sanctity of our bond covenants lest we some how go into some sort of credit crisis that would cause us all sorts of financial misfortune. Like a collapse in our bond rating, or the loss of some as yet to be identified federal grant money.
But as we said, there really would be precious little money in this water rate hike to fix our pipes, no matter how rusty or old. Despite what you might have heard now from this same City Council last Spring, it was always about bonds and servicing the debt.
So why wasn't information about Sierra Madre's considerable bond debt shared with the residents last spring when the rate hike process first began? As legally required? Why were we told this was really all about raising the cash necessary to repair water infrastructure instead?
Because back then we had legal recourse through Prop 218, and paying more money for something as mundane as Enid Joffe and Bart Doyle's costly bond investments might have had an unintended effect on the bill payers. Or so they feared. They chose to go with the rusty pipes story instead.
This City Council believes that they have effectively denied us our Prop 218 rights, thereby rendering us powerless in this process. So now they can afford to tell us the truth. Why? Because they think we can no longer fight back.
It might be your money, but this City Council believes it is their right to take it, and with minimal bother from the likes of you. As we saw last night, they get very annoyed when people put up a fuss about such things.
But you know what? You really aren't supposed to know all that much about this stuff. It's just the kind of information you needn't have. Because if you did you might begin to question the legitimacy of claims just like the ones that were made last night from the City Council dais.
If there is one thing the Gang of 4 does not like, it is townies with opinions and the desire to express them. It is obvious that they just don't trust those kinds of folks, or particularly want to hear from them.
Just ask Earl Richey about his experiences with a very snotty Joe Mosca.
One more thing
Yesterday this blog went over the 100,000 'page views' mark. When Blogger (a part of Google and the host of The Tattler) first put a "stats checker" function on this site last July, I was astonished by what it showed. This little local blog, which discusses the political affairs of a rather small out of the way LA County town, actually has an awful lot of people reading it. Far more than I ever thought.
What this means is that every time someone clicks on a Tattler article, a "page view" is registered. And since July 1st of this year 100,000 such page views have been counted. And friends, that is quite a few for a town like this one.
People are hungry for real and meaningful news about this town, and know they just aren't getting it from poorly executed lockstep party line publications like the Sierra Madre Weekly and the Looney View News.
And the numbers show it.