Thursday, September 30, 2010

We the People of Sierra Madre...

Today's blog is going to be brief, very brief. You, gentle readers, will do the heavy lifting as you post. Sir Eric can now grasp the handle of his 3/4 filled coffee cup and bring it to his lips but he's taken the day off from keying in a Tattler with one finger. So our exercise today calls for some two-handed, brain engaged typing. We're going to update our General Plan.

First a little background... the General Plan is the People's Document. In the next two years 11,500 or so residents of Sierra Madre will have an opportunity to tell our General Plan Committee, the People's Committee, what we like, don't like, want to keep, want to change, want to add new or simply eliminate. Surveys, little yellow sticky notes, white boards, markers on walls, you get the idea. Our committee will, well you know what committees do (gotta love 'em but ours is no different) and it'll take two years, give or take a Steering Committee member or two, and a milestone on the timeline readjusted to do it.

You are not limited to a single entry, not even to 25-words or less, but right here on the Tattler in your own unique voice, express your views on the actions you would take to make Sierra Madre a better community. Guaranteed! They'll be delivered to the our Committee and it won't take two years.

Just to give you an idea of the Tattler potential: if our regular daily correspondents each create 10 recommendations, by 6:00 pm tonight we could have hundreds of posts from the most engaged, intelligent and creative group of residents ever to call Sierra Madre our home!

Don't waiver! We The People of Sierra Madre were the authors of the 1996 Sierra Madre General Plan. And today we are updating our General Plan! We directed that a Steering Committee be formed to oversee the update and it has been formed. We directed that volunteers be recruited and they are being recruited. The process is engaged. Don't wait to be asked for your ideas. Make this your public outreach meeting.

Start now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sustainable Life Made Possible Through City Council Viewing

I read a story recently about a guy who found a way to slow life down and make it last. The premise being that everything seems to move by very quickly when you are having too much fun. And the more fun you have the quicker the years fly by. Which can only lead to a distressingly rapid denouement.

So what this fellow did was to fill his days with the most incredibly boring activities imaginable. Removing the rust from nails taken from old boards was one of them. Extremely repetitive factory work another. All of which made every day last for what seemed like a lifetime to him. And certainly a City Council meeting could also serve that purpose. Who knows, it might very well be the key to eternal life.

And just to show you that I too can appreciate the life affirming aspects of an evening watching paint dry, here is what I took away from last night's confab.

The council members had their normal round of opening remarks designed to enlighten us about their activities in the wild and woolly world of the governmental. It seems that everyone but MaryAnn went to San Diego to drink in the deeply pungent effluence of this year's League of California Cities get together. Josh discovered a little seminar there on the uses of on-line social media to help keep the public informed about important matters. We should all be expecting his "tweets" soon. John Buchanan got to revel in a sustainability meeting. Kind of an oxymoron as sustaining things is usually quite the opposite of the massive societal change advocated at such affairs. Nancy Walsh discovered a women's seminar where it was claimed that few of the fairer sex get into politics because of the nastiness. Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer all aside, of course. Joe did not discuss his League experiences, though he did confess to some loneliness when nobody visits him during his Kersting Court office hours. From now on it will take a phone call first if you care to chat with him there.

The Warrants were all lined up in a row, and the council folk gave their blessings to all.

The Canyon Zone Advisory Committee once again took the stage. In a metaphorical way. The question was whether or not to renew the moratorium on building in the Canyon until the CZAC's "Canyon Specific Ordinances" are approved. Much oxygen was consumed in the process, but an extra full year was finally settled upon. No bifurcation took place, either. Those persistent Hendersons got their 200 feet - which might seem like a lot - but is actually 800 fewer than a millipede.

Now the one truly cool thing that happened last night took place during the discussion on fee increases. It came out of the blue, and for a brief few moments the entire dais was silenced. Which is no small feat. The author of the council's blessed stupefaction was MaryAnn MacGillivray.

The discussion was about whether or not to raise the fees charged by the City for "services." The concept being that fees must be charged to specific recipients of the City's services in order to compensate for the amount of money spent to make them happen. In other words, the user must expect to cover the costs of that service. Which in itself is all fine and good. But here is where we get to the cool part. Even without raising fees our city's services are already outrageously expensive. It's like we're paying Musso and Franks prices for chili dogs. And if the City had to go out and compete with private industry for their services business, they'd quickly find themselves priced out of the market. Which would hopefully lead them to becoming more competitive.

So what MaryAnn asked is this. If a civic group or business wanted to throw some kind of shindig downtown, and found that the costs of doing business with the City were much too expensive, would they be allowed to go out and get competing bids from other agencies or companies? I'm telling you, you could have heard a pin drop.

A good example of how people get brutally dunned in this town is in the hiring of off duty Sierra Madre Police Officers for security at downtown events. The cost per officer here is $138 an hour, which is insanely overpriced. I hire off duty police officers all the time in my line of work. In Los Angeles County I always go with the LAPD because in my opinion they have the best skills when it comes to handling crowds. I am currently setting up an urban music event at the Wal*Mart on South Crenshaw that will conservatively draw at least 2,500 people. A very big music artist is involved. And I won't have to pay any more than $50 an hour per officer to get top notch security.

Look at it this way, an event with 2,500 people, plus a platinum recording artist and all the usual mayhem that goes with that, and I am getting off duty LAPD officers for $50 an hour. Compare that to the $138 per hour SMPD officers cost for things like the Dickens Village Xmas event where they guard some dude in a Santa Claus suit from crazed 4 year olds.

MaryAnn asked if it would be possible for someone to hire less expensive outside security for an event here in Sierra Madre. And the answer to that was a resounding no. Joe was particularly aghast. You would never get a permit to do an event in this town if you didn't first agree to pay through the nose for SMPD off duty cops. It just won't happen.

Which is why fees are so expensive in this town. City Hall has a monopoly on such services, which means you are not allowed to employ anybody but their people. And since they are the only game in town, why shouldn't they charge as much as they can get? It's kind of like the old East German system. The only people you can hire are government people.

The City Council generously consented not to raise fees costs above what they already are. But this is hardly the boon I suspect they believe they gave us. The best way to cut costs in this town is to open services up for competitive bids. If City Hall had to actually go out and compete for our business, the fees they charge now would shrink drastically.

The next act was the selection of four people to load up the General Plan Steering Committee. Colin Broderick is a good guy. I got to help coach a Little League Fall Ball team with him last year. But in the other three I'm afraid the Gang of Four got what they were looking for. Serious big development people that will push the SCAG/SB 375/Sacramento line that John and Joe so fervently support. And one of them is a lawyer that Buchanan works with at Edison? You can only imagine what that is all about.

Oh, and did you notice the move Joe made to assure that the proper nominees were selected? It must have been very important to him.

Street sweeping and the remarkable effects of the Tattler Blight Law closed the proceedings. And after that life sped up all over again.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Agenda Man Goes To The Dogs

So here we are in the dog days of, um, almost October? A little later than usual I guess, but you knew it had to happen at least once this year. And 115 degree heat can be an interesting experience, especially when viewed through the window of a well air conditioned room. I mean, how did people ever live without it? So in honor of our unique weather conditions as of late, Agenda Man has decided to go to the dogs. Because what else can any of us do about it? Just don't try and get between him and his water dish.

The City Council Meeting Agenda this week is short, but decidedly unsweet. There are some things on the list that have been bouncing around for a bit, so even a City Council as decision averse as this one might just have to make one or two calls tonight. As abruptly uncivil as that might sound. But even the world's longest tap dance has to come to an end some day. So rather than delay any further ourselves, let's get involved in appraising the important issues at hand.

The Consent Calendar (aka Item # 1) manages to spend nearly a million bucks by the time it gets to the letter "g." Which is a little off the pace of the previous meeting's figure. I'm sure that will be more than made up for in the not too distant future. After all, the economic recovery requires us to spend our little hearts out. In this particular set of economic stimulous warrants the Library, Payroll, CRA, Gateway Cities Council of Governments (GCCOG), Sewer Fund, Sully-Miller Contracting Company, Pasadena YMCA, UWMP, and the Recreation Center Fireside Room all get to lay claim a share of our tax money. The lucky dogs.

Someday I am going to have to figure out how to get from the tax paying side over to the tax receiving side.

Item #2 is poetically entitled Interim Moratorium Ordinance Regarding Land In The Canyon Area of the City. This is to be an extension of the previous moratorium ordinance that put on hold any further construction in the Canyon until the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee could come up with some common sense solutions for saving the unique character of what had become Sierra Madre's most threatened legacy. The CZAC's recommendations are now complete, have passed muster with the Planning Committee, and now face a final test before the City Council. But since exacting noticing procedures must be followed, it appears that the building moratorium would have run out before the City Council was able to make its final deliberations. Which means that the Canyon would have reverted to R1 zoning, unleashing God only knows what barbarity.

The time span for the extension that seems to be on everyone's mind is 6 months, so hopefully that call will be made. It is more than enough time for even this City Council to talk to all sides of the issue.

Item #3 looks to be well on its way to becoming quite a controversy in town. Not just because of what it is in itself, but also because it seems to be yet another move by our elected officials to cozen additional cash out from the pockets of what are already some pretty stressed out city taxpayers.

Why the City Council would be attempting to get even more money out of the taxpayers during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression really is a daunting question. And there is a disturbing pattern developing here. The almost 40% water rate hike, the recent revelations regarding over $22 million in hitherto unheralded water bond debt, the prospect of additional costly bonds for sewers and road paving, plus contract negotiations with the Police Officers Association that appear to be leading to yet another tax hike along the lines of the 100% UUT increase of a few years ago, all have contributed to the growing impression in town that the current City Council has decided treat us like the proverbial angry ex-wife out on the town with our Platinum American Express Card.

The topic here, of course, is a study of Sierra Madre's fee structure and its recommendation that the City start charging exponentially more money for services rendered. All courtesy of a consultant (NBS) that charged us $35,000 for their happy wisdom on the topic. Here are some examples off the "jo-el" site that we linked to yesterday as well.

Downtown District Street Light Pole Banner Hanging and Removal - was $309, under the consultant recommended new fee schedule, $1,216. So much for that Huck Finn Fishing Derby banner that gets unfurled over Baldwin every year.

Sidewalk Dining (the cost charged to restaurant owners for putting tables out on the sidewalk) - was $344, under the consultant recommended new fee schedule, $1,273. I can't imagine that too many of our struggling downtown eateries will be too excited about that. Hopefully the Rooster will be talking some down home sense to the City Council about this one.

Second Dwelling Unit Permit - was $459, under the new regime $2,242. What was that about encouraging residents to turn their granny flats into rental properties, thereby cutting our overall RHNA numbers? I guess someone figured out how to fix that problem.

Major Variance - was $2,670, in the brave new world? $5,604.00.

Minor Variance - was $748, in the nuttier future, $2,242.00.

Swimming Pool Piping Inspection - was $100, soon to balloon to $560.00.

House Sewer Connection to Public Sewer - was $100, in tomorrowland $280.00.

Sewer/Septic Inspections - was $100.00, could soon be $560.00.

The list goes on. Can you think of a worse time to be asking people for more of their money? And can you think of a worse time to be asking people for more of their money over and over again? As one poster put it yesterday, "What are they funding, a nuclear weapons program?"

Item #4 is all about the odd decision made by the Gang of 4 to suddenly add 4 new members to the General Plan Steering Committee, a group of folks who are already well into the process of updating this important document. The suspicion that many have being that Joe and John really don't want the citizen volunteer system to work in this case, preferring instead to monkey wrench the proceedings so they can spend a lot of money on outrageously expensive consultants that will give them the kind of General Plan they really want. One that would make large scale development here in the future far easier to initiate and carry out. The wishes of Sierra Madre be damned.

There is some irony here, however. Apparently 18 people have volunteered and asked to be included in the new 9 member GPSC. Many of them very good people who, entirely suspicious of the Gang of 4's motives, stepped up to help save their community from corporatist style overdevelopment. Watch the Gang of 4 completely sidestep some very highly qualified people with excellent resumes to pick their cronies from the house selling and home repair trades.

Item # 5 deals with educating the public about street sweeping. Did you know that street sweepers cannot properly clean a street when people park their cars on it? That is why the City asks folks to not park their cars in certain places when street sweepers are scheduled to do clean it.

Item #6 is all about furthering the cause of the Blight Ordinance. Something that was first proposed here on The Tattler a year or two back. Since this remarkable notion worked so nicely in gussying up the Killed Nursing Facility, the City has now identified a number of other downtown eyesores that could use a little TLC.

I wonder if the Downtown Investors Club is aware that this topic is up for discussion?

Monday, September 27, 2010

It Can't Be Easy Serving On The Planning Commission

I don't know if you caught the September 16 Planning Commission meeting or not. That kind of thing really is for the truly dedicated when it comes to following the affairs of our city government. Not that it wasn't interesting, because truly it was. I have to admit though, the taste for such a thing must be carefully acquired. Like eating frog's legs or slurping fish eggs. But you need to know this, the bread and butter of all governmental affairs here is the planning for and the building of buildings. Of all sorts. It is to Sierra Madre what computers are to Cupertino. And the Planning Commission is where that highly real nitty gritty gets talked over, done up, wrung out, and then, if things go well, approved.

Two things happened in the course of this 4 hour marathon. The owner and potential purchaser of a property located at 723 Camillo, an empty lot desperately looking for a house, were told that they would need to come back with a better plan if they were going to get the Planning Commission's approval. And the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee had their plans for preserving the unique character of that particular area of our community signed off on and sent to the City Council where its final fate is to be decided. Despite opposition from the usual colorful cast of characters.

Now if that is all you needed to know, then there you are. The whole story. But during this meeting a couple of fairly amusing things occurred and I thought I should share them with you.

First up was the 723 Camillo matter. The owner of that property, the owner's representatives, the folks considering buying that property, and their representatives (including the hoped for home's solicitous designer), were all there to plead their case to the commissioners. But apparently the problem is an extremely sensitive one. In Sierra Madre there are no easy properties left to build on. And most everything flat and rectangular already has a house on it, which leaves only those lots out on the wild mountain frontier available. And the sylvan locale on this night's docket is just about as wild as it gets.

This property is in a part our world covered by the Hillside Management Zone, or HMZ. The idea behind this is to only allow development that properly fits within existing landforms. Something put into place by the previous City Council in order to prevent things such as the building of a knock off Taj Mahal on top of a mountain, which would then dominate the city's topography like a toothache. The HMZ was also designed to ensure that any new homes would be constructed in such a way that we'd avoid the kind of McMansionization we have seen in places like Arcadia. They would need to be in character with existing housing. Yet another way that Sierra Madre has preserved its unique character in a part of the world where few towns seem to care about anything but easy money.

The property in question is located within the orbit of a prominent ridgeline. And you can't build on those things because of our "big house on the hill" aversion. As a matter of fact, you can't even build a house more than 50% of the height of a ridgeline, and then only when you're 100 or so feet away. Which for this particular property means the owners would be forced to build their house in a small corner, with the rest of the lot left entirely vacant.

And since the planned for home under discussion was a bit too large given these conditions, the project looked doomed. So it was then that a representative of that property's owner, someone obviously eager to unload what has basically been a financial white elephant I'm sure, stepped up with a bold gambit. He had decided that the best way to save his client's bacon was to declare that the ridgeline didn't exist. And that what all the members of the Planning Commission had seen with their own eyes wasn't actually there. It was a daunting task.

Steve Austin, the daring gentleman in question, stepped up to the podium and attempted to make his case. The folks at his company had checked all their maps, and they couldn't find it. The map didn't exist. Which in his mind also meant the ridgeline didn't exist. He also later said that this ridgeline, which didn't exist on any maps he had, and therefore must not exist, was located further to the west. A contradiction in many people's minds.

The Planning Commissioners replied that the map was included in the Environmental Impact Report, and was both EIR approved and included in the paperwork they were all holding. And this map clearly showed what Mr. Austin said did not exist.

Mr. Austin then wisely modified his claims a bit. There is something there he admitted, but it wasn't a ridgeline. Rather it is a high slope with a flat top.

The Planning Commissioners then asked that if Mr. Austin was certain the ridgeline that everyone else can see as plain as the noses on their faces isn't actually there, why doesn't he hire a surveyor and prove it doesn't exist?

Mr. Austin dodged that one. Racking up further expenses for his client wasn't what he was being paid to do that evening. He then attempted one more risky ploy.

"The map you have now is just something arbitrarily adopted by some group of people," ventured Mr. Austin.

To which one member of the Planning Commission tartly replied, "Oh, then you must mean us, the Planning Commission people. Because it was us."

It was soon decided that all the concerned parties would go back to the drawing board to modify their plans per Planning Commission recommendations, and then try again for approval at a later date. And it looks like, at least for now, that ridgeline has returned to the planet floor.

The Opposition To The Canyon Zone Advisory Committee Collapses Into A Wet Heap

There were only two final opportunities left to stop what the Red Herring Brigade fears the most. That being a neighborhood where local Bob the Builders can make some major dough dipping and flipping houses, but planning is controlled by the bothersome people who happen to live there. The problem being that those people, happy with their unique and attractive community as it is, really don't see the point in letting a bunch of gauche hammer jockeys wreck it just because they can't make a living doing anything else.

The Contra Canyonites who came to oppose the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee's Canyon Specific Ordinances had the following arguments to make:

1) People in the Canyon wouldn't have any place to park their Motor Homes and Recreational Vehicles. Thus endangering its reputation as "Upper Slab City."

2) The restrictions contained within the committee's recommendations are far too restrictive, and unenclosed open spaces such as gazebos wouldn't be counted as being part of your home's square footage. And if gazebos are endangered, where will Canyon dwellers go to spoon?

3) Everybody in the Canyon knows each others' names and they're pals, so you shouldn't have planning. It would rob the neighborhood of its neighborliness and that would rob people of their spirit. Great emotional misery would follow.

4) Under the CZAC's recommendations people would be able to count things such as their attics as part of their overall square footage. Which could then be used as habitable space. This diminishes the need for additional buildable space in the Canyon, thereby depriving Bob the Builder of money making opportunities.

5) Angle/Plane height restrictions would prevent the construction of anything but saltboxes and airplane houses.

6) Mighty fine houses that were built in years past would never be able to be built now. Which I guess means people would lose the freedom to spontaneously tear down their existing homes when in a bad mood.

7) CEQA reviews and CUPs would be required of those who don't want them.

After Public Comment was over, the Planning Commission briefly discussed the above objections. The CEQA issue was deemed to have some validity, and a tweak was administered to the paperwork that took care of the problem. The rest of these arguments were easily debunked, subjected to dry planning humor, then permanently consigned to a round file.

Personally I found this display to be a bit of a disappointment. I'd heard that the Contra Canyonites were a tough and well-versed band of ruffians with some serious arguments to make against the approval of the Canyon Zone Advisory Committee's recommendations. But in the end their overall effect at this meeting was not much more than a comedic interlude.

Of course, the Contra Canyonites do get one last opportunity to save the day. And that would be to stand before the City Council in a couple weeks and once again review such carefully reasoned arguments as how planning harshes people's mellows and jams their heads.

We have much to look forward to.

Bonus Coverage: Sierra Madre Fees Run Amuck

Another excellent report from "jo-el" has been posted. This time on the upcoming Sierra Madre Fee Hikes. The public hearing on the matter takes place during tomorow night's City Council meeting. You can (and should) link to it here. Post includes a link to the NBS Study on the matter. More on this tomorrow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The City Writes Back

On September 15th we posted something on The Tattler called The Letter City Hall Would Have Preferred You'd Not Heard. (Click here.) The letter in question being something sent to City Hall by myself and others detailing the reasons why the City of Sierra Madre's water rate hike notification process begun last spring was legally inadequate under the provisions of Proposition 218, a voter approved amendment to the California State Constitution that deals with the raising of such things as taxes and government rates. And as such the process initiated by the City was invalid and should therefore start over again from scratch.

In a letter dated September 17 (and postmarked September 22nd), the City replied. Here is what was said by City Manager Elaine Aguilar:

Dear Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Crawford, Mr. Herrmann and Ms. Delmer:

Thank you for your September 13, 2010 letter requesting the Council conduct another public hearing and Proposition 218 process for the proposed water rate increases.

As stated in your correspondence, the Council did not take action to increase water rates at their July 27th meeting. The Council also has not given direction or discussed any proposals to increase water rates since their July 27th meeting. Accordingly, at this time it would be premature to schedule any public hearings, or to perform a subsequent Proposition 218 ballot process, since we do not know what increase the Council would like to adopt or even if they intend to adopt an increase. Once staff receives formal direction from the City Council regarding whether and how to increase water rates, a determination will be made regarding the procedural steps necessary to implement the Council's directive. In the meantime, I will keep your correspondence and will take it under consideration, if an when the Council provides direction regarding water rates.

Thank you again for your correspondence and please let me know if I can be of any assistance in the future. As you're aware, I am always available to meet to discuss any City, or water department related questions, and I appreciate receiving your input and recommendations.

Sincerely, Elaine Aguilar City Manager

Now what is said in Elaine's letter in no way deviates from what was publically stated previously by Mayor Joe Mosca. In a Pasadena Star News article published on September 15 (two days earlier than Elaine's letter), a similar notion was aired out. Something that leads me to conclude that the line reinforced in the City's reply was not initiated by Ms. Aguilar.

Mayor Joe Mosca said the arguments expressed in the letter were premature since the city's staff is in the midst of an outreach campaign and the council has yet to have a policy discussion on the matter. Although the city did not receive enough protests to defeat the proposal, the city council - based on the number of protests received - has opted to postpone voting on a rate hike at this time and receive additional input from the public, he said.

"Depending on the policy direction of the council, this may be moot or not," Mosca said. "It's going to be a discussion that will be had at the end of our outreach" campaign.

Apparently in the Mayor's mind past injustices are undone by possible decisions not yet made. Which is rather like saying a thief is really an OK guy because he fully plans on stopping his unfortunate practices in the not too distant future.

As Kurt Zimmerman pointed out in that same Pasadena Star News article, "The letter that City Hall sent to the parcel owners regarding the proposed water rate hike was neither transparent nor complied with the detailed notice requirements of Proposition 218."

Leaving out of the City's May 17 water rate increase notification letter such things as $23.2 million dollars in accumulated water bond debt from the reasons why we would need to pay more being one particularly grotesque example.

I guess they just assumed nobody was paying attention and they'd never get caught.

What must be understood here is that the City's position is we no longer have the right to any Proposition 218 remedy. If you fail to get the necessary signatures the first time, they claim, then a rate protest of the kind we conducted here in town is no longer an option. This is the reason why City Hall fought as furiously as they did to disqualify enough of the nearly 2,200 signed water protest forms to defeat us. They needed to thwart the wishes of the majority of water rate paying residents in order to get more of their money. So whatever the future "policy direction" of the City Council, as things now stand we as water rate payers supposedly no longer have any Prop 218 protest rights.

Something that makes utter rubbish of Joe Mosca's disingenuous claim that nothing has really been done yet.

Which to my mind is the City's real agenda here. Once the mindless dog and pony shows finally grind to a halt Joe Mosca will go forward with the water rate hike. And he would prefer to be able to do so without any inteference from the likes of you all. In his mind your only real remaining role is to dig deeper and pay more. Which is pretty much what will happen should things stay as they are.

But trust me, friends. That is not the way things are going to go. Like so many things done by this City Council, the water rate hike process was badly botched. This is yet another one they just aren't going to win.

Friday, September 24, 2010

So Do YOU Believe In Coincidence?

"Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys." - Emma Bull

Sierra Madre Community Redevelopment Agency signs began sprouting up like toadstools on a freshly fertilized lawn yesterday. Downtown, in the so-called "Montecito Shopping & Arts District" (beware for the safety of your home any time your neighborhood is hung with a moniker that has the word "arts" in it), and just about the entire area that is covered by Measure V. Something that evoked in the minds of many area residents memories of not too long ago when this very same redevelopment agency was being employed in possible eminent domain seizures of private homes so that the Downtown Investors Club could make a little extra dough selling condos.

Now on the surface of it this rash of CRA signage wasn't as bad as it seemed. Apparently the State of California requires an update and review of local Community Redevelopment Agencies every 5 years. And Sierra Madre's CRA hasn't undergone such an update since back in the 1990s. What those cryptic looking signs were saying is that there's going to be a "study session" taking place on October 12, and this was the way the City wanted to invite you to the party. Helpful information regarding this confab will be available on the City's website next week. People should plan on attending because Sierra Madre's CRA goals over the next 5 years will be up for discussion.

Hopefully getting rid of the CRA will be one of the options being offered. After all, the CRA is just another City of Sierra Madre money pit serving no useful purpose whatsoever. And as we all know, the less money this City's government has to spend, the better off we'll be.

But is this where the conversation should end? I am not so sure. Because there seems to be a certain pattern developing here, one that now looks to be crossing from mere coincidence to a distinct and carefully planned purpose.

Any changes to the CRA cannot be accomplished without 4 out of 5 City Council votes. Those are the rules. Kind of like when John Buchanan tried to sell the city parking lot behind Howie's to the Downtown Investors Club and couldn't because he didn't have the 4 votes necessary to do it. If the CRA needs to be somehow changed from whatever it is now, that is the only way it can be done.

So if this CRA deal needs to be rejiggered every 5 years, why hasn't it been done since the 1990s? And why now? Was there something special about this moment that seemed appealing to some folks?

Which also brings to mind the Water Rate Hike. The now largely discredited notion that rates needed to be raised nearly 40% because suddenly everything is falling apart was, at first, the intended driving force. On May 17th, which is the day the legally required notices were sent out, it was those old 1920s pipes that took the brunt of the blame. And not the somehow unmentioned $23 million in accumulated water bond debt.

Of course, those pipes have always been from the 1920s, which means they have been old for quite some time now. So why the burning need to levy higher rates in order to spend millions to replace them today? Especially since the water bond sale of 2003 had raised $6.75 million, a tidy sum that should have been used to repair a whole lot of these problematic pipes already?

The Skilled Nursing Facility. It has been in pretty rugged shape for quite some time now. And it has also been the subject of some considerable controversy, with the usual suspects attempting to fix the blame for its condition on their political foes. But after 5 or so years of entertaining offers from people that would have turned the place into a needed Urgent Care Center, now all of a sudden one of Southern California's top home developers shows up wanting to turn the property into tract housing. Does anyone really believe this is a coincidence? That they just showed up without having had any prior discussions whatsoever with Joe or John?

All of this just seems rather ... sudden. So were these matters squirreled away for a City Council having certain viewpoints on these matters? Or is it all just a coincidence.

The Sierra Madre Police Officers Association Vs. Our Tough As Nails Negotiator

The Police Officers Association, an amalgam of about 100 local Police Departments from throughout the Southern California area, is recognized as being one of the toughest and most ruthless negotiators in the public employee union racket. Their coercive and hard nosed tactics have been discussed on this site before, and they ain't beanbag. The last time they roared through town we ended up getting stuck with a 100% Utility User Tax increase in order to pay for the wretchedly negotiated outcome. Now that deal is up and the POA is back for even more of our money.

So who has been sent in to negotiate on behalf of the taxpayers? Is it a consultant who specializes in difficult labor negotiations? Are the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem rolling up their sleeves and getting down to the nitty gritty of banging out a fair deal with so ruthless an opponent? I mean, it has got to be someone pretty tough, right?

Not exactly.

It turns out that the person who is handling these negotiations for us is Elisa Weaver, our Director of Community & Personnel Services.

I mean, Elisa is a nice lady and all, and certainly goes about her business with both purpose and panache. But as our negotiator with the POA? So why isn't the Mayor or his brain John Buchanan involved in this? Are they distancing themselves from what they see as a certain loser, and instead setting up City Staff to take the fall?

I am just a little astonished. You also have to wonder, how will they be peddling the tax hike this time?

Trouble On The Water Walk?

My fifth grader informed me at dinner last evening that all the students in his school have been invited to accompany Mayor Joe Mosca on the Water Walk taking place this Saturday. Now the last time I checked he wasn't a rate payer, and therefore his presence on this journey of discovery wouldn't really mean that much to him. He is pitching this Saturday for his Fall Ball Little League team, so he wouldn't be able to attend anyway. Baseball being a far higher priority in this household than hanging out in some funky old pump house with Uncle Joe Mosca.

I asked my son if his not going would be a problem, and he said I needn't worry. This water walk is in no way mandatory at his school, and if you have something better to do you're free to pass it up. And apparently almost everyone does since only three kids in his class are planning on attending.

I guess it is pretty bad when you can't get adults to show up for these things. But when even elementary school kids are dissing you, then you know things really have reached the end of
their proverbial rope.

Pasadena Star News article on the Amos/Jensen shooting settlement linked here.

(Photo courtesy of Neuroblast Films.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Gang of Four Now Has A Golden Opportunity To Keep Their 'Slow Growth' Campaign Promises

So a new developer has shown up to try their luck here in Fort Apache. And it looks like they have their eyes on the property now occupied by what remains of the Skilled Nursing Facility. This company is known by the name of Homes By Warmington, and the picture you see here is an approximation of what they have in mind for Sierra Madre's most contentious slice of property. I took it from one of their websites. Packed, stacked and whacked being the description that immediately comes to mind.

Here is how they enjoy being described on their Homes By Warmington.com website:

About Warmington, Our Legacy: Four generations ago, the Warmington name achieved recognition as highly sought-after (sic) builder of classic estate homes for some of the decade's emerging screen legends including Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. By the 1930's Warmington had become unofficially known as the "builder to the stars," and was designing and building custom homes in some of the country's most prestigious Southern California locations like Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Westwood, among others.

In the 1940's Warmington broadened its presence in the in the (sic) homebuilding industry by creating well-planned neighborhoods designed to meet the needs of the American family. Although less grand in scale, these homes reflected much of the same quality craftmanship and attention to detail that was present in the grand estate homes first built by the company. Over the next several decades, The Warmington group of companies remained committed to planning and developing a variety of new home communities and became a trusted name in the homebuilding industry for thousands of families. Today, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 families live in Warmington-built homes.

I swear it must be the same guy that writes all these plummy sounding developer websites.

All the assurances of superiority in homebuilding heritage and developing aside, the reality about the Warmington bunch that descended on our fair town recently is somewhat different. And by all accounts it would seem that they are serenely confident in their expectations that this town will give them all they need to bring their plans to life. After all, they knew Bing Crosby.

What they would like to do is construct a series of one and two story houses on the Skilled Nursing Facility site. The streetside front row of homes would be 1,400 square foot single story affairs. All in accordance with what they believe we want to see in our community, I suppose. Behind these would be two-story 2,300 square footers. And in order to maximize the property available for them to build on, the distance between each of these "meet the needs of the American family" cribs would be a mere 10 very shady feet. Or just about room enough for three blue recycling trash cans laid end to end.

There are some problems here, probably more than I know about as of this typing. But one thing that immediately jumps out is the zoning currently in place for that part of town. The Skilled Nursing Facility is in an area of that is zoned for commercial buildings and activities. In order for these wedged in wickiups to be constructed and inhabited by real American families there would have to be a zoning change to residential. When it was pointed out to the Warmingtonians that this could end up being both an expensive and futile little proposition, they didn't seem fazed. Which means they either have great confidence in the use of expensive attorneys for browbeating local governments into shape, or they just don't know what they're getting into.

I suspect it is a little of both. And who knows, maybe they've been watching our City Council meetings on SMTV3 and wrongfully assumed the Gang of Four is actually in charge.

This community has long had its heart set on some sort of Emergency Medical Facility for that property. And while many of those kinds of companies have been called, none ever stood up and saluted. At least so far. So the odds that an outfit of this ilk would eventually show up and place an application to build what is described above naturally improved over time.

During our recent election Joe Mosca, Nancy Walsh and Roots all solemnly stood before the people of Sierra Madre and testified about their allegiance to the slow growth traditions that are deeply ingrained in the Sierra Madre ethos. And certainly even they must understand that rezoning the Skilled Nursing Facility property for residential use so that some outfit can build densely packed generic row housing would not exactly be living up to those promises.

So maybe we owe a vote of thanks to the people at The Warmington Group. Because they have now given these three individuals the opportunity to show the skeptics that they really meant what they said. And they are going to stick to their promises.

It would be unfortunate if they didn't.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bell: A Public Burning For Our Troubled Times?

When I was a kid there was a book that really seized my youthful imagination. Written by a fellow named Robert Coover, it was called The Public Burning. I don't want to give away the plot, but the basic premise of this book is that in order to overcome what was at the time a great defeat for this nation, many experienced a need to focus their grievances and pain upon something. In this case it was a couple of decidedly unloved individuals, who were arrested and later executed. The tragedy being the theft of America's nuclear secrets by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the focus of our nation's wrath the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Both of whom died rather horribly in the electric chair.

Now I would never want to make it seem that I am in any way sympathetic to the plight of the 8 City of Bell officials who were rounded up and perp walked into Steve Cooley's world of tabloid infamy yesterday. Local pols that rob and cheat their constituents are certainly not in any way sympathetic or worthy of our pity. And obviously this is about the worst bunch of crooks imaginable right now. And talk about unattractive people, you just couldn't invent any more couture challenged chumps.

But let me ask you this. Has the Bell 8 become the focus of so much anger because their crimes are decidedly different from anything else going on in this state right now? Are they guilty of outrageous acts that haven't been seen in years? Or can it be that their crimes, while certainly extreme, are not without at least some similarities to what many people suspect is going on in their own communities. And that perhaps the eagerness of certain powerful individuals in Sacramento and Los Angeles County to take these bad dudes down has more to do with finding suitable fall guys than anything else. People who will answer for government corruption that is far more ingrained than our esteemed public guardians will ever care to acknowledge.

To me it seems as if the usual politicians want to make it appear that they're going after local government corruption without really dirtying their hands by doing something about it. And rather than prosecuting corruption in its many forms and degrees in cities throughout the state, they're giving us a show trial instead. The Bell 8 could very well become our own public burning, and in the process help governments all over the state atone for their own sins free of any deserved suffering.

Or, to make another analogy, the sharks are now eating the minnows. And in an election year, no less. We mustn't forget that.

The Wall Street Journal had this rather pungent observation to make yesterday.

Mr. Cooley said most of the arrests were without incident. However, a battering ram was used to enter the house of Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez who was "a little slow" in answering the door, Mr. Cooley said at a press conference Tuesday. Bail for Mr. Rizzo, who stepped down in July after the pay scandal broke in the Los Angeles Times, was set at $3.2 million.

The criminal charges come on the heels of a civil suit filed against former and current Bell officials last week by California Attorney General Jerry Brown seeking to recover millions in salaries and pension benefits from Bell officials. Mr. Brown agreed to file civil charges while Mr. Cooley pursued criminal charges.

Both men are in the midst of political campaigns. Mr. Cooley is the Republican candidate to succeed Mr. Brown as attorney general. Mr. Brown is the Democratic candidate for governor. Each have been accused by opponents of using the Bell scandal to burnish their election campaigns.

And then there is this from the Christian Science Monitor:

In addition to boosting awareness of government overreach, the Bell scandal may have provided election fodder for Brown, who is in a dead heat in the race for governor with weeks to go.

"What Jerry Brown is doing in Bell is standard operating procedure for him," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. He's using the scandal "to promote himself but also to solve an important governmental problem."

"Jerry Brown is doing what office-holders usually do: leverage their official duties for maximum media attention, says (Claremont McKenna political scientist) Jack Pitney. "It won't make much difference in November, but at least it diverts attention from his awkward comment about President Clinton."

Legal Newswire.com evens it up politically for us with this report:

Democratic candidate for California Attorney General Kamala Harris is calling for "immediate action" following revelations that her opponent has accepted campaign contributions from those he's currently investigating. On Monday, a Los Angeles Times article revealed Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican, accepted funds from those who were close to targets of inquiry in Bell Gardens and City of Industry.

"Following yet another troubling disclosure about L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley in the Los Angeles Times, Democratic nominee for Attorney General Kamala Harris will call for immediate action regarding campaign contributions Cooley has accepted from people under investigation by his own office for corruption," the San Francisco district attorney's campaign announced on Tuesday.

"Last week, LA Weekly revealed that Cooley has taken laundered campaign contributions from an ex-felon. Cooley's reply was the same: He won't give back the money or ask for an independent investigation - after all, the money has been spent and the statute of limitations has expired," her campaign said in a statement.

You have to wonder if the Bell 8 would have ever been arrested at all if they'd had the good sense to get out of town until after this November's elections.

Don't forget to bring matches.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tattler Repost: The Ana Ramirez Interview

(Ed: Back in February of 2009 we conducted an interview with a housekeeper named Ana Ramirez. We thought we would repost it today. To be clear, the first 24 comments below were made the when this piece was first posted.)

Ana Ramirez
is a housekeeper with clients in Sierra Madre. She works very hard and for a lot less money than it would take to live here. It is a difficult life, and you need to ask yourself how many of the people that you know could survive if somehow the roles were reversed. Ana impresses you as being a kind and forthright person, someone you could come to think of as a friend. She is paid "off the books," something that makes her subject to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. The purpose of this interview is to allow her to describe such an instance. Ana speaks little English, and this conversation was made possible by the kind assistance of an interpreter.

Tattler: Ana, thank you for taking the time to talk with us this morning. I understand that your health has not been so very good lately.
Ana Ramirez: Yes, I was taken to the hospital recently. The doctors aren't quite sure what the problem is and they did a lot of tests. The results should be in soon. I expect to have some of them Monday.
Tattler: Our prayers are with you, and we hope for only the best possible news.
Ana: Thank you.
Tattler: How did you first come to work for (Mountain Views-Observer publisher) Susan Henderson, a resident of some note here in Sierra Madre?
Ana: I was introduced to Miss Henderson by someone I was working for at the time. I believe it was either late in 2006 or at the beginning of 2007.
Tattler: When you first went to work for Susan, what were your experiences with her?
Ana: At the beginning I was treated very well. There were no problems. The checks she paid me with were easily cashed by the bank. I worked one day a week, usually Monday, and I was paid $125 for cleaning her house. Miss Henderson liked my work from the start and soon raised my pay to $130 per day. And then she raised my pay again, to $500 per month, with still no problem cashing the checks.
Tattler: But things did change, right? When did you first notice that things were starting to go wrong?
Ana: After 3 months or so, when I would take Miss Henderson's checks to the bank, the bank would return them to me saying there was not sufficient funds to pay me. I would take the checks back to Miss Henderson and tell her. She would give me partial cash and promise to pay the rest to me later. This condition lasted for a year. I got very tired of it and I told her that I can't stand this anymore. The bank keeps returning the checks and you won't pay me what you owe me. I have lost other clients, people who wanted me to work for them who would pay me what they owe me. You either stop this or I will go.
Tattler: What were your experiences working parties for Susan?
Ana: I didn't work a lot of them. The one that does come to mind was a 4th of July party. I cleaned her house the day before and the next day I worked at the party.
Tattler: And you were paid for that work?
Ana: Yes. $250 for the 2 days.
Tattler: Who was at that party?
Ana: It was for the people who work for her newspaper. And some of her friends that she plays golf with. And other friends.
Tattler: So you were nickel and dimed, and it continued for a year. And then you quit. How much money does Susan Henderson owe you right now?
Ana: $700.
Tattler: And when you try to collect that money, how does she respond?
Ana: When I call to Miss Henderson's house on the phone, she will not pick up the call. She sees that it is my number. When I call from a different number that she doesn't know Miss Henderson will pick up, and then tell me that she doesn't have the money and doesn't care that I need to have the money.
Tattler: Your son Mario has called on your behalf. He is bilingual and speaks English. When he calls to try and collect the money, what does Susan say?
Ana: She says "Me no money!" and hangs up.
Tattler: Me no money?
Ana: Yes. And hangs up.
Tattler: To my ears that sounds offensive. Do you have the same impression?
Ana: No, I don't believe it is offensive. But she is annoyed when I call, and she tells me to stop calling, that she doesn't have the money.
Tattler: You are kinder than I would be under those circumstances.
Ana: My sister has called her, and Miss Henderson tells her that she has no right to call her. Only Mario can call her now. And when Mario calls she hangs up the phone on him.
Tattler: Have you confronted her personally?
Ana: I have gone to her door, and when I knock on the door nobody will answer. Miss Henderson's car will be in the driveway, and I know that there are people home, but nobody will come to the door. And even while I was working for her, and she owed me a lot of money, she would take vacations to Hawaii and Rosarito Beach. She would always have lots of money to do that.
Tattler: Thank you for doing this interview, Ana.
Ana: Thank you.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Our Finest Journalists Speak Out On Sierra Madre's Prop 218 Notification Scandal! (Well, sort of ...)

Susan Henderson, Publisher and Obituary Writer for the Mountain Views News, put the issue into a fairly accurate perspective yesterday. Her paper, dated for Saturday and delivered per usual to the streets of Sierra Madre on Sunday (befitting its day late and a dollar short status here in town), had this to say in an article entitled Council Returns To Full Agenda:

Most notably was letter (sic) sent to the council by several members of the community alleging the city had not followed the law when it notified proposed water rate increase.

Of course, the City Council met last Tuesday, and will not be returning to anything this week except perhaps a couple of those delicious cheeseburgers at The Only Place In Town. And for the record, the letter was actually sent to the City Manager, Elaine Aguilar. But you get the picture. "The Prop 218 Letter," as it has become known here in town, is getting a bit of notice. Which brings me to the point of this first post of the week.

Where is all the screaming and yelling? Usually when we here at The Tattler attempt to launch so ambitious a narrative, the howling from both the official and unofficial voices of our friends at City Hall gets rather deafening. But this time? Not so much. There is no 4,000 word (small type) essay on the topic up on Rooster Coburn's News.net website. Nor is there one of those strange exercises in unhinged op-ed rage from Susan Henderson, either. And, equally telling in my estimation, we have heard absolutely nothing from John Buchanan. He doesn't seem to be talking to the press at all.

Now you'd think that for this rather brief MVN article there would at least be one quote from our man Johnny B on the matter. After all, when it comes to things like the reasons for the water rate hike, or the $23 million in water bond debt City Hall somehow neglected to mention when the water rate increase notification went out last May, who on that side of the City Council divide would be better equipped to deal with that? The Bobbleheads? I doubt it. They're the reason why Buchanan is rumored to be considering a run for a third term.

No, mysteriously John Buchanan has yet to say anything about this whatsoever. So has Susan not discussed the matter with him? And if she did, was that conversation "off the record?" There is nothing from Mayor Joe Mosca in the article, either. Certainly Joe is not bashful about speaking on things like "the process" or "proper procedures" when such matters of controversy emerge from the community. And since when has our City Manager, Elaine Aguilar, been unwilling to go on the record on a something like this? In the last few years Elaine has been cited as a source for information in the MVN more than anyone else that I can think of.

It's almost as if these folks are afraid to talk about it.

So do all the usual suspects see the unfortunate situation they find themselves in to be so fraught with peril that they have been struck uncharacteristically dumb? Certainly such a sudden silence could be taken as a more eloquent expression of what is actually going on than anything any of them may have said in the past. On any topic. And when you add the uncharacteristic reserve of our local media to the quietude from our usually chatty Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem, along with the City Manager, it almost seems orchestrated.

Which, I suspect, is what our highly compensated City Attorney has asked them for. To use the memorable phrase from The Godfather, they've "gone to the mattresses."

Susan Henderson did manage to venture the following opinion in Sunday's edition.

The allegations also suggest that the city failed to disclose the true reasons for the proposed rate increase. Information that was sent to residents and made public to the city suggest otherwise.

As is usually the case, no corroborating evidence supporting Ms. Henderson's claim was made available by her publication at press time.

Of course, there is one journalist who did speak out!

The crazy uncle of Sierra Madre journalism, who actually publishes his pronouncements out of a small office in Monrovia, is a gent named Terry Miller. Terry, recently anointed the head of all editorial at the Beacon Media family of papers (which includes the sadly diminished Sierra Madre Weekly), was previously renowned here in town for his contributions to something known as the Sierra Madre Cumquat. Which was an often obscene website noted for its abusive and scrofulous language, suggestive lewd allusions, all leavened with pictures of scantily clad women. So obviously Terry's recent elevation by his employer would make perfect sense.

Here is what Mr. Miller had to say about the Prop 218 Notification Scandal in Sierra Madre:

"A previous mayor of Sierra Madre, Kurt Zimmerman, plus blogger John Crawford, Anita Delmer, John Herrmann allege the city violated state law in the way it notified customers of a proposed water rate hike. At Tuesday night's council meeting the four residents argued that the city did not provide nearly enough information needed for parcel owners to comprehend complicated water rate increases 45 days before a public hearing, as Proposition 218 requires.

As one of the four signatories to this document, I can state categorically that I did not attend last Tuesday evening's meeting. I watched it on TV from the comfort of a couch located close to my kitchen. Nor, I believe, was Kurt Zimmerman, Anita Delmer, or John Herrmann at this meeting, either. The letter was read by a single brave soul at public comment, and not by any of those who had signed it. Rather than any arguing, the message was received by the City Council with stony silence.

Which I guess must mean that Terry, outre' journalist that he is, was pulling all of this out of his, er, cap. For hardly the first time, I might add.

It's no wonder City Hall forgot to call him. Given the choice, wouldn't you?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thank You For A Great Week Of Blogging

It was quite a week on The Tattler. We broke some big stories, attracted the attention of local mainstream media, and in the process brought a lot of traffic to this site. According to the "Stats Tracker " that the Blogger (Google) people gave me recently, we racked up over 8,000 "Page Views" in the last week, and 400 plus reader comments. All in a town of less than 11,000 people. These are very impressive numbers.

Which means that there really is a place for investigative news reporting in this town. When we began this site in December of 2008, the three existing Sierra Madre news outlets were not performing that function. Nor are they now, for that matter. What has passed for news coverage here for too long has consisted mostly of reprinting press releases written about the affairs and opinions of the same 20 or so people. All of whom are in complete lockstep agreement with each other about the big development pressures facing this town. Week after week. It is as if the other 10,480 people in this town, along with their viewpoints, don't even exist.

Again, thanks. Without you there would be little point in doing this. When the people of cities such as ours stand up for their interests, and speak their minds, we become stronger as communities.

And by the way, there really is a lot of this sort of thing going on in California right now. We live in what is perhaps the worst governed state in the U.S., and we've seen how the sad effects of that can filter down to the local level. Massive deficits and spending, the crisis in our public schools, industrial flight, an unemployment rate that continues to soar, and a pay-to-play regime in Sacramento that presumes to tell cities such as ours how we must change the basic design structures of our communities so that they can honor agreements made with the lobbyists that enrich them, all have contributed to this rising sense that we really need to start speaking up for ourselves.

Certainly the traditional news venues no longer seem willing to do it.

The Sierra Madre Tattler is all about giving you the chance to speak up and be heard. The amount of information received from residents and readers here that is used in our stories is far greater than you might think. And we do it in a way that protects the privacy of all who wish it. This blog does not accept advertising or cash contributions of any kind. Certainly we don't get money from the City. We are beholden to no special interests or industries. We answer only to you.

It is an honor and a privilege. See you again on Monday.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Unsustainable Jargon Process

"Depending on the policy direction, this may be moot, or not." - Joe Mosca

Have you ever found yourself watching a City Council meeting and wondering what exactly it is the Proto-Development Element is going on about? The words seem to have great meaning, and they do sound important. But somehow after you have heard them you are left feeling unfulfilled and empty. Kind of like if you were to attempt life on a steady diet of Twinkies. Here is an example of the kind of statement we're talking about:

The process is bringing us ever forward to a more green and sustainable livability, one that encompasses the urbanist mixed use smart growth approach with an appreciation for the kinds of civic engagement that naturally flows from a synergistic embracement of an enhanced, and advanced, regionalism.

Simply fraught with deep thought and a meaning that only the most advanced minds are capable of comprehending, I'm sure. But what if I told you none of it really means anything at all? And even those who share the perspectives mangled within that verbal voodoo stew are becoming aware of it? Because apparently that is what is happening. The great sustainability boom in urbanist scam planning is starting to lose the ability to use its own language. And could very well be falling apart under the growing weight of its own absurdity.

The National League of Cities, about as "smart growth" a bunch as you'd ever want to meet, has now published a very interesting article on this growing phenomena. Entitled "Emerging Issues: We Don't Know What We're Talking About," they boldly face up to the fact that they just aren't making a whole lot of sense lately. I'm going to post a couple of key paragraphs from the article here.

Orwell's critique about meaningless words applies today. For example, what is "sustainability?" Well, then, how about "civic engagement?" "The free market?" "Closing the borders?" "Livability?" "Smart Growth?" Each of these terms encompasses such a wide and changing range of idiosyncratic meanings that use of it tells us little about the topic.

Then there's "green." Kermit The Frog warned that "it's not easy being green," but enthusiasts are not daunted by puppets. And let's not even get started on "economic development" or "regionalism."

I don't know, if you were to remove from the vocabulary of John Buchanan and Joe Mosca words such as sustainability, livability, smart growth, regionalism and green, I am not sure they would quite know how to talk. A kind of balloon deflation process might occur. And they might be actually reduced to having to come up with something, well, more "reality based." Or at least coherent.

A recent study by Eric Zeemering in the "Urban Affairs Review" investigated what "sustainability" means to local officials throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He found that the term has "multiple meanings" to them including, for example: mixed use near transit hubs, green building standards, pedestrian and bike routes, retaining current businesses, human capital development, neighborhood revitalization and resident participation.

Sounds like a language process sustainability crisis to me!

The Hystaria Vine

The new issue of that noted public policy journal "The Wistaria Vine" showed up at the Maundry Compound yesterday, and that is a good thing. We do love leafing through its information packed pages as we peruse the many fine and enriching activities available to all the lucky residents of Sierra Madre.

And much to our surprise and delight we discovered a two page spread peddling the water rate hike. Now we're not too sure that a rather costly taxpayer funded and widely mailed City publication should only be carrying one side of the story. There are other viewpoints here in town, and unless they've somehow become like our other taxpayer funded publication, The Mountain Views "News," perhaps they really ought to consider entertaining other opinions as well. After all, since everyone pays taxes, shouldn't all opinions be expressed?

But something that must be noted, they do discuss our water bond debt in conjunction with raising water rates. Something somehow forgotten last May when it was legally required. Here is how the appeal is phrased:

In addition, the operating margin for the Water Department is in jeopardy of not meeting the legal requirements attached to the Water Revenue Bonds issued by the City in 1998 and 2003. While the City continues to make its bond payments in a timely manner, the City must increase its revenues to meet future operating expenditures, as well as the bond commitments, without jeopardizing capital reserves.

Yes, I would think that $23 plus million dollars in looming water bond debt could have an effect on that department's finances. And when you consider that the 2003 water bonds are currently on an "interest only" payment schedule, you can see how that might be a problem in the future. There are quite a few people who lost their homes in the last few years that also had entertained the benefits of such creative financing. And haven't the taxpayers been called in to bail out improvident investors there as well?

Of course, that wasn't contained in the Wistaria Vine literature on the topic. I guess they just didn't want to bother our pretty little heads about it.

Happy Friday.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Has Sandy Levin Embraced Chaos Theory?

Can it be that Sandra Levin, our highly compensated City Attorney here in Sierra Madre, has now revealed herself to be a secret devotee of Chaos Theory? It is not exactly what most people look for in a City Attorney. Sober assessments of the law with the purpose of giving a strong foundation to the greater good is what you'd expect most folks to want. A steady hand willing to share with us the rules of governance in a way that is both clear and reasonable.

But from Sandy Levin it now appears that what we're up for is a hugger-mugger of curveballs and dodges designed to, well, baffle people? That certainly is disconcerting. So what's next, water rates chosen by spinning bingo drums with Vanna White doing the lucky draw?

In today's Pasadena Star News there is an article entitled "Sierra Madre residents charge city violated law in proposed water rate hike." It covers much of what was discussed yesterday here on The Tattler without suffering the embarrassment of actually mentioning the likely source for the story. Which I guess makes us "research." Kurt Zimmerman is interviewed extensively, and he explains exactly how the water rate hike noticing procedure of the City of Sierra Madre was such a perplexing mess. As such being totally out of synch with the requirements of Proposition 218. He also goes on to state that this city's $23 million in water bond indebtedness was the likely driving force behind the steep rate hike the City demanded. A small matter the City decided not to share with us last May 17.

But Sandy Levin appears to be of a different opinion. Here is what she had to say to Brenda Gazzar of the Pasadena Star News:

"The fact that the notice raised questions in people's minds indicates that it did exactly what a notice is supposed to do. It's not supposed to provide all the possible information. It's supposed to provide enough information that it causes people to want to find out more, and that's exactly what it did."

So this Notice was actually supposed to be a kind of puzzle? Perhaps if what was sent out by the City was an invitation to a meeting or an ice cream social that would be more than fine. But under Proposition 218, a voter mandated amendment to the California Constitution, what is actually required is a bit more stringent than Sandy's "mood swing" and "hang loose" approach. Those requirements being a clear accounting of how much the rate hike would actually be, the reason for that rate hike, and the basis for how that charge was calculated. They come directly from Prop 218 itself, and anyone who can read should be able to figure it out.

None of which was adequately covered in the May 17th water rate increase notice sent out by the City. Though it did achieve Sandy's apparent goal of confusing people. Which might account for quite a few of the approximately 2,200 protest forms that inundated City Hall around that time. Most people are not really willing to mix their water bills and Chaos Theory.

You'd have to wonder why the City bothered to send a notification at all. Why not send out something more interesting, like a humorous water rate hike greeting card? Or a "Let's Be Water Friends" bouquet from FTD? Or maybe enlisting some earnest volunteers to travel door to door to recite the following topical poesy?

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Our pipes are real old
So we'll stick it on you!

That would certainly raise the kinds of questions that Sandy deems to be at the heart of a California State Constitutional process for legally raising water rates.

But when things seemed at their very darkest, along came Mayor Joe Mosca to provide some needed comedic relief.

Mayor Joe Mosca said the arguments expressed in the letter were premature since the city's staff is in the midst of an outreach campaign and the council has yet to have a policy discussion on the matter.

You'd think Joe would have provided a schedule for when it is appropriate to do some letter writing by now. Nobody wants to be premature in sharing their thoughts during an outreach campaign that is supposed to be all about finding out what people are thinking. Though what I do find kind of disturbing here is that the City sent out its questionable water rate increase notification without the Council having had "a policy discussion on the matter."

Maybe city staff was just feeling kind of wacky that day and wanted to use up some old stamps before the postage rates went up again?

"Depending on the policy direction of the council, this may be moot or not," Mosca said. "It's going to be a discussion that will be had at the end of our outreach campaign."

Yes, who would ever want to speak out on an important issue involving the taking of people's money until Joe and the City Council determines what it is we're permitted to talk about.

Only in Sierra Madre ...

Bonus Coverage: The first comment received to this post was so good that I thought I would move it up to the front page.

Deja Vu All Over Again:

Mayor Mosca's comment is actually consistent with his history.

As some may recall, it was "premature" to kill the DSP because he hadn't shoveled enough city cash to his buddies in the development plan business to consider the DSP complete. Who knows, maybe another $500k would have convinced the canyon dwellers that a companion condo canyon on Sierra Madre Blvd. was a good idea.

Result: Seeing the council could not be trusted to responsibly exercise it's discretion over development, the rabble stripped it of that discretion under Measure V (a bad but necessary law). Now it's "premature" to kill this water rate-tax hike which, if sent to the angry rabble, would no doubt fail. Why? Because the idiotic rusty pipe "outreach program" might convince the rabble to tax itself in the middle of a recession. The alternative of confronting our real budget concerns by, say, getting rid of the police department and saving $2 million a year, is too hard for our mayor, who really wants to be loved.

Last Add: The moderator is not thinking like a lawyer. Sandy Levin advocated chaos because it will lead to litigation which the lawyers always win. That's not chaos - it's business generation. Like all Sierra Madre litigation, it will drag on until the city reaches the inevitable conclusion that it can't afford the fees to fight to the death and caves by starting the water process over.

Last Last Add: Are there really people that buy Sierra Madre water bonds? Are they guaranteed by the state or something?