First we need to congratulate everyone on helping to beat back the Gang of Only 3 in their obvious desire to appoint Joe Mosca's replacement. I have no doubt that had there not been all of the conversation in this town about the need for City Councilmembers to be elected by the people, this City Council would have put their interests first and hand picked a like-minded individual to rubber stamp whatever it is they want. Instead they blinked, deciding to send this matter to the voters where it belongs. Once again Sierra Madre rose to the occasion and forced John Buchanan, Josh Moran and Nancy Walsh to recognize that they were up against something far too big for them to merely push around.
There are now three seats up for grabs next April, which means that the two year reign of the worst City Council regime in modern memory could very well be coming to an end.
Sandra Siraganian got the meeting off in proper style by delivering a couple of particularly important points at Public Comment. Her indignation over the appointment of Bart Doyle to a PUSD Committee seat was heard was loud and clear. That someone who was the COO of a redevelopment corporation currently under investigation by both the FBI and HUD, and who is also being sued by the City of El Monte on any number of issues related to that case, could be appointed by this City Council to a school board is beyond the pale. Sandra demanded that the City Council revoke this ill-considered appointment.
And then Ms. Siraganian also spoke about something we have repeatedly discussed on The Tattler. That being City Hall's refusal to make otherwise existing Staff Reports on items up for discussion at City Council meetings available on the town website. $40,000 was budgeted by the City Council to make this happen, yet the simple function of downloading black and white reports onto a very basic website remains beyond the current capabilities of City Hall.
The City Manager's response was the same as always. "Our schedule for doing that is this spring." Presumably by "this spring" Elaine is talking about after the election. Making this yet another case of oddly fortuitous timing.
Heather Allen brought up something rather amazing. Apparently Joe Mosca never signed his resignation papers. Heather asked if this means that Joe is still legally a member of the City Council. The City Attorney, who apparently doesn't believe needs have to answer any of Heather's questions directly, snapped, "It really doesn't matter that it wasn't signed." Heather found this to be an inadequate answer and attempted to press the Mayor for some better information. Buchanan also dodged, and seemingly implied that Heather should stop talking about it. Which struck some as being less than civil, or in any way transparent.
It is rather telling, however, that Joe's former colleagues did not seem to care whether he completed his paperwork or not. In their minds he is gone, and whether he finished this final duty to the people of Sierra Madre or not by properly resigning his office was of no concern to them. The important thing being that he is - in their minds - officially gone.
But this hardly means that we here at The Tattler are not curious about it. Why Joe Mosca wouldn't sign his resignation papers is an intriguing matter. Does this mean that Joe believes that he has legally left open the option of his returning, and that by not signing the resignation papers he never actually quit the Council? And that he can come back in the next year or two and demand to be seated?
The matter of putting the Utility User Tax back on the ballot for another 4 year run was the main round, and you could easily sense that John Buchanan's past has now come back to haunt him. Something that has left him with a major credibility problem when it comes to reselling what is just about highest UUT rate in the State of California. That is, if it stays at 10%. If it ever goes to its 12% maximum, it will set a new state record.
In 2008 the 6% increase in the Utility User Tax (which brought this tax up to a potential, though yet to be used, 12%), was presented to the voters as necessary to help the City provide fire, police and paramedic services. A good example of how this tax hike was marketed to the voters can be found in the ballot language of Measure UA itself. Check this out:
"If Measure U, the increase in the Utility Users' Tax is approved by the voters, should the additional revenue generated by that increase be used to fund public safety services including paramedic programs, police salaries and benefits, and additional safety staffing."
Measure UA was approved by an overwhelming majority, and that vote was driven by the desire to fulfill the monetary requirements of maintaining these services. And because of this the people of Sierra Madre have always believed that the extra money they now pay on a monthly basis for things like cell phone service and garbage collection goes for those emergency services alone.
But that is apparently not quite the case, and much of the language contained in both Measures U and UA is sadly deceptive. Both measures give the distinct impression that the money raised would go to things like paramedics and police salaries exclusively. But that is isn't the real deal here. Because of some very legalistic language contained in Measure U the funds raised through the UUT increase can actually be used for whatever the City prefers to use them on.
The City appeared uncomfortable at that suggestion, but gave no accounting of how that money has actually been used over the last few years at this meeting.
Fay Angus went to the podium and asked some very pointed questions about this situation. "Have the UUT funds been used exclusively for fire, police and paramedics, or has any of it been mingled with the General Fund?" As in Heather's case, Fay received no worthwhile answer to her questions.
Fay also had another good point. Both Josh Moran and Nancy Walsh have said that each City Hall is operating at a bare bones level, which, as Fay put it, "is rhetoric." She then asked, "What positions have been cut? What services have been eliminated? And what downsizing of salaries have been enacted?" The answer to each of these questions is none. The City cut $1 million dollars out of its budget and no demonstrable effects on its operations are apparent.
Which begs this question. If they could cut $1 million out of the budget and no jobs were lost and no services cut, what had they been spending it all on?
The 12% maximum UUT rate versus the 10% that is being charged now came up for considerable discussion. "The rate is 12%, we only collect 10%," being John and Josh's mantra. Something that they repeated over and over again as if it was a kind of magic juju to ward off MaryAnn's suggestion that the new version of the UUT increase be capped at its current 10% level. But they weren't having any of that, instead claiming they were defending the right of City Councils of the future to charge a 12% utility tax should that be their desire. Apparently in the minds of The Mayor and his sidekick The Pro Tem, future City Councils will have forgotten how to raise taxes on their own.
The City's marketing approach may have convinced a lot of people to vote themselves a tax increase here in town in 2008. Their advertising was ubiquitous, and the message of saving our Police Department and Paramedics was an emotional one, at time driven by fear tactics, and it hit home with many voters.
But how will people react to similar Measures next April once they've learned that the original versions were not exclusively about public safety services remains to be seen. Despite what John Buchanan believes the voters might have known last time, the Police and Paramedic issue was front and center all throughout the 2008 UUT election. But once in place that additional money raised went into the General Fund and could very well have been used for all sorts of other purposes as well. There was nothing legally binding in place to assure that this money went for what the vast majority of voters believed they had approved.
Comedic moment. The City Attorney, for whatever reasons, brought up our old friend from the water rate increase debacle, Prop 218. To which Josh hurriedly commented, "I don't necessarily want to get into any of those issues." I'm sure he doesn't.
Josh Moran also had his old nickel and dime windmill in gear. He elaborated, and again not for the first time, about how small the difference between paying 10% and 12% would be to the average UUT paying Sierra Madreano. Which is exactly the same argument he made for increasing water rates, or approving PUSD's failed Measure CC. Nickel and Dime Moran. The guy really does need to get some new material.
John Buchanan had a momentary message lapse that needs to be pointed out as well. Despite the deceptive language contained in the two 2008 UUT rate hike measures, Buchanan declared that "the voters were not confused." He then proclaimed that he was tired of hearing it said that the voters do not know what they want, and cannot see through things like the wording he succeeded in getting into those two April 2008 UUT ballot questions on this matter. But isn't this the same guy who famously declared that people often didn't know what it is they're signing when petitions were being passed around in opposition to the water rate hike, or to get Measure V on the ballot?
Talk about rhetoric. This is one that you just can't have both ways.
You can fool almost anybody once. But this attempt to renew the Utility User Tax increase will be the second go-around, and it might not be quite so easy this time. With the 2008 version now having been exposed for claiming to be something that it was not, how are you going to make this work all over again? The novelty is gone, and the message (to use a retro cliche'), now has more holes than a Swiss cheese factory.
(For more information see Monday's article, "The UUT Was Never Specifically For Public Safety." Click here.)
Without the emotional public safety issues and scare tactics available last time, the result in 2012 could very well be a much closer vote. I don't think people will be quite so moved by the argument that the City needs the money to fund employee pensions, or pay for City Council trips to League of California Cities conventions.
Of course, this isn't to say that some scary stuff won't be cooked up. Isn't that what they usually do?