Monday, February 28, 2011

The Water Rate Protest: One Last Appeal to Reason Before We Take the City to Court

Never let it be said that we didn't try. After two very detailed letters spelling out just how those currently in charge of the City of Sierra Madre's affairs did not live up to their legally mandated obligations to the water ratepayers, last week myself and my attorney former Mayor Kurt Zimmerman decided to give it one last try. We sent to City Manager Elaine Aguilar a letter in the form of an "Administrative Claim Regarding the Sierra Madre Water Rate Increase." For those of us who speak pedestrian, this is a formal notice demanding that City Hall either comply with Proposition 218, which is a voter approved amendment to the California Constitution, or face the music.

This demand also requested that the City remedy its violation of the Due Process clauses of our Federal and State Constitutions as well. The question here being the City's unfortunate assumption that their Prop 218 mandated notice on the Water Rate increase needed to have only been published in English. Which is just about as bad as it gets as far as the Feds and Sacramento are concerned. You can only wonder how a City Council that repeatedly asks for political correctness when their concerns are involved could have been so egregiously slack about that sort of thing when the rights of others are violated.

While this step was in no way legally required, we went this extra mile so that the City Council would have one more opportunity to accede to reason on the water rate hike. It remains our fervent hope that they will listen to us so that it won't take a Court of Law to force them to comply with the California Constitution.

Think of this as both an intervention and an attempt to keep the noted anti-Prop 218 law firm of Colantuano & Levin from spending our money to further an agenda that may have precious little to do with Sierra Madre. Something that John Buchanan and Joe Mosca seem all too willing to enable. It is important to note that all three parties mentioned here share a strong connection to the League of California Cities, also a rather adamant Prop 218 opponent.

An answer to our Administrative Claim has been requested, and we are now awaiting a reply. When - or if - something shows up in the Maundry mailbox, I will update you here on The Tattler. But just so you know, we fully expect City Hall, our City Attorney and their 4 complicit bosses to reject our request, at which time we will be forced to file a lawsuit with the appropriate California Court.

Kurt and I are confident that if this matter does end up before a judge the water ratepayers of Sierra Madre will emerge victorious. More than 1,600 people signed water rate protests last Spring, and their will must be both honored and defended. That is our intention.

The case we could be putting forward soon is not without legal worth. Notwithstanding our pricey City Attorney's comments to the contrary, our legal arguments are meritorious. In a case in Northern California a Court decided in favor of arguments similar to those in my letter to Elaine Aguilar, ruling in favor of the ratepayers and against their errant city government.

We have also been notified by no less than the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association that it "remains interested in our case for possible amicus involvement." Which means they are now considering filing a "friend of the court" legal brief in support of our water rate challenge. Their involvement in our cause is very important when you consider that it was the Jarvis people who actually wrote Proposition 218, and have used it to successfully challenge many similar rate increases in cases filed throughout California.

This is, of course, in direct contradiction to the obvious disinformation spread by the Sierra Madre Patch and on Joe Mosca's Facebook page a few weeks back.

Here are the reasons why the City's many failures to follow the law in this matter will result in their defeat should their continuing irresponsibility cause this matter to go to Court.

1) The Notice Sent To Owners Did Not Satisfy Proposition 218's Constitutionally Mandated Noticing Requirements. That the information City Hall mailed to property owners made no sense almost goes without saying. There was nothing about the amount of the fee or charge increase they were looking to receive. The most important question here was exactly how much more people be would charged, and there was nothing included making any additional costs to the ratepayers clear. Also there was nothing about the real reasons for raising our water rates. All things that are among the minimal requirements for Proposition 218 compliance.

Especially interesting here is how the City attempted to disguise the primary reason for the water rate increase, which was repairing Sierra Madre's bond rating. Instead we were treated to vast gouts of disinformation on the state of the City's water infrastructure, especially old and worn out pipes. Not that there aren't problems with these things, after all the City has been neglecting them for decades. They just weren't the reason why the City Council wanted to raise our rates. It was always about bond debt. As was made abundantly clear here on this blog when we published City Manager Elaine Aguilar's now famous letter to Earl Richey confessing to just that very thing. (Click here for a related article that quotes heavily from this letter.)

One other serious deficiency in City Hall's Prop 218 mandated water rate increase process was that they neglected to send out notices for all the hearings on the proposed rate increase as is Constitutionally required. There were several City Council hearings on the water rate increase, with topics as wide ranging as billing tiers to the actual percentages of the increased rates themselves. But only one was accompanied by a legally required notice, and that one was sadly inadequate.

As most now know, this was one fouled up and legally deficient mess from the very beginning. A process so poorly conceived that you almost have to wonder if it was deliberate.

2) Discrimination Against Non-English Speaking Sierra Madreans. The one Proposition 218 mandated 45 day notice that we did get was only sent out in English. This meant that the City guaranteed that every non-English speaking ratepayer would remain unaware of the water rate increase. This is in direct violation of each non-English speaking property owner's due process rights as Americans. It was an unfortunate omission that could very well be taken as an inadvertant admission of bias by City Hall.

What the City must now do to avoid a lawsuit on this matter.

Immediately repeal the water rate increase ordinance. This is a non-negotiable demand. Thereafter, should the City Council decide to raise water rates again, they will need to conduct a public hearing on their rate increase no less than 45 days after mailing a legally adequate, written notice of the rate increase to the owner of each identified parcel.

Each and every notice would be required to include:

a) Sufficient information for each property owner to estimate their proposed rate increase, including, and with all possible clarity, a precise explanation of how to apply any tier-rate pricing formula.

b) An accurate and complete description of the reasons for the proposed rate increase including, without any limitations, exactly how the revenue from the proposed rate increase is to be spent. We will need to see some actual truth this time around.

c) A definition of the term "low income" including precise income qualifications so that property owners can figure out if they are entitled to such a discount.

d) A translation of the English text into Spanish and other non-English languages spoken in Sierra Madre so that everyone can participate in the process as equals.

All things that the City Council should have done when they attempted to raise rates the first time, but did not.

Why the G4 believes themselves to be blissfully above the law in this matter remains a mystery. If it takes a trip to Court to prove to them that they need to follow the law like the rest of us, then myself and the many others who have stood up to defend our Constitutionally guaranteed rights in this matter will be more than glad to send them there.

People fought and died in wars to defend just the kinds of rights we are talking about here today. We will have failed as Americans should we allow the likes of this Gang of 4 to take them away from us. That is something we must not allow them to do.

The line in the sand has now been clearly drawn. Let's hope these people can finally find it in themselves to make a right decision. There is precious little time left.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eeny, Meeny, Miny & Mo

One of the big deals that gets made about the free local press in this country is the idea that outside independent journalistic inquiry helps to keep the politicians honest. A big job I know, but if the folks we have given the responsibility of being legal and financial guardians of our affairs know that their actions will be critically discussed in places that everyone can see, they tend to be a little more careful.

And if you have places where no properly functioning free local press exists? Think Bell. It wasn't until the mighty Los Angeles Times stepped in and turned over some rocks that all the centipedes and beetles that had taken over that town were exposed. An absence of rigorous local journalistic inquiry became, for the likes of Ratso Rizzo, a license to steal.

But what about Sierra Madre? Here we have five news venues that lay claim to being fine examples of local journalistic integrity. There is the Mountain Views News, The Sierra Madre Weekly, Rooster Coburn's Sierra Madre News.net, the Sierra Madre Patch and, of course, the Sierra Madre Tattler. That is quite a lot of newsers for a town of under 11,000 souls.

But how many of these fine news providers function as independent journalistic entities that actually inquire into the affairs of this city? How many are watchdogs that see the peoples' interest as their number one reason for existing? Not so many I'm afraid.

If we use the coverage of Monday's "Sierra Madre: State of the City" event as an example, it can be shown that all that has been made available from 4 of this city's news venues are publicity releases. In other words, all that has been published in these places are City Hall approved public relations press blurbs that offer absolutely no insight into the event, the politics or personalities involved.

How you feel about Joe Mosca is your business. For some he is a fine fellow who certainly can make his presence known at a social function. He does have the politician's gift for glad handing, back slapping and, for those vulnerable enough to need it, empathy. For others he has become the epitome of bad government. The broken promises, the shilling for outside economic interests and dishonesty have made him a figure of real controversy for many in this town.

So when a "State of the City" address by Mayor Mosca was announced by the City, you would expect the independent local press in town to inquire a little bit into the reasons and causes for such an event. Plus look into the records of the persons running the show. A fair inquiry into the personalities and particulars involved should be expected. Or at least an acknowledgement that there are two sides to the story.

So did that happen? No, it did not. As a matter of fact, Eeeny, Meeny, Miny & Mo all published essentially the same thing. You'd have thought you were reading about an upcoming flower show or social tea. Here are the first couple paragraphs of the articles on this event from the Mtn Views News, Sierra Madre Weekly, Sierra Madre News.net and the SM Patch:

The Mountain Views News: On Monday, February 28, 2011 from 6:00 - 7:00 pm the City of Sierra Madre will be hosting its first ever State of the City address at the Community Recreation Center in the newly renovated Sierra Madre Room at 611 East Sierra Madre Boulevard. This year's theme is "Working Together the Sierra Madre Way" and this event will highlight programs and services the City has provided over the past year and give residents insight to the City's goals for the next fiscal year.

Mayor Pro Tem John Buchanan will emcee the evening. A special performance by Sierra Madre School Third Grade Students will precede will precede Mayor Joe Mosca's State of the City address. Representatives from each City Department will have booths highlighting current programs and projects and will be available to answer any community questions.

Sierra Madre Weekly: (See the Mountain Views News as the SMW published the exact same thing. No "tweets," no Facebook "likes.")

Sierra Madre News.net (See the Mountain Views News as the SMN.net published the exact same thing. No "tweets," 2 Facebook "likes.")

Sierra Madre Patch: (Note - the Patch piece is a rewritten version of the same press release the previous 3 venues published verbatim. I assume this was so the site's editor could claim it as his own. No Facebook "recommends.") Next week, Sierra Madre Mayor Joe Mosca will deliver the city's first ever "State of the City" address at the Community Recreation Center in the newly renovated Sierra Madre Room at 611 East Sierra Madre Boulevard. The host of the event will be Mayor Pro Tem John Buchanan, and the Mayor's speech will also be preceded by a performance by third-graders from Sierra Madre Elementary School.

In addition to the performance and keynote address, staff representatives from every city department will man (sic) booths meant to provide information about current Sierra Madre programs and projects. The staff members will also be answering questions from members of the community.

None of these articles in any way discussed issues or controversies facing this town or its political leadership right now. Something that any legitimate news outlet would have put front and center when discussing such an event. Which, given Eeny, Meeny Miny & Mo's past records for obsequiousness, is hardly surprising.

On Monday we will be posting an article which, in our opinion, is about one of the biggest issues to face this town in several years. It should be a nice tee up to the address that evening from the Mayor.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Friday, February 25, 2011

Jerry Brown Stays A Step Ahead of the Gang of Four

One of the highlights of Tuesday evening's City Council meeting was Josh Moran and his "encumbrances." If I properly picked up on what he was laying down Josh's notion is that if you stick redevelopment dollar signs and numerical figures next to the names of downtown projects on an official looking ledger sheet, they became "encumbered." And, according to Josh, that would mean Jerry Brown wouldn't be able to repossess Sierra Madre's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). Or at least its couple of million remaining dollars. Which is where the real action is at.

It was a thought provoking display of some very special knowledge. I kind of like to think of it as a form of Redevelopment Agency Magical Thinking (RAMT).

Magical thinking which in the end, sadly enough, seemed all too easy. Even our occasionally inexact City Attorney saw that this notion wasn't quite lashed down to the deck, and gently informed Mr. Moran that it really was possible that Sacramento might find a way around all of his "encumbering." To which Josh just chuckled and went back to looking at the list of many fine suggested Redevelopment Agency projects City Staff had thoughtfully provided to him and the rest of the City Council for their august consideration.

And if I were to tell you that the divvying up our CRA cash at Tuesday evening's meeting was all for naught, and an exercise in sheer futility to boot, would you believe me? Well, OK. You're right. It really isn't all that big a secret.

An article posted yesterday on the San Francisco Chronicle's blog dealing with politics shows that it is going to take more than Mr. Moran's encumbrances to stop Jerry Brown.

Bill to end redevelopment would allow state to kill approved projects - Looks like Gov. Jerry Brown's office has a contingency plan for all those cities around California that have been rushing to approve redevelopment money before the state can kill the program ... Included in a bill proposed by brown's office that would eliminate redevelopment which would let the state "review the validity of the adaption or amendment of a redevelopment plan at any time within three years after the date of the adoption of the ordinance adopting or amending the plan, if the adoption of the ordinance occurred after January 1, 2011."

And just so people understand how serious he is, Jerry now has an actual name for the legislation that will kill off redevelopment agencies for good. This from the site Curbed Los Angeles:

Taking a step forward with his proposal to eliminate the state's redevelopment agencies by this summer to help close the $25 billion deficit, last night Governor Jerry Brown posted the language for the draft bill, "Redevelopment Agency Dissolution and Succession," on the Department of Finance's web site. It's called 502 RDA Legislation. Or, as the San Diego Voice put it: "Governor Puts Redevelopment Death in Writing."

I don't know, it looks like Jerry is way ahead of the G4 "Spend It Or Lose It" City Council. Oh, and here's a thought. Since Sacramento will soon be able to take a full three years to review all late blooming redevelopment expenditures, what if a City spent some real money on such a project now and then later the state decides it wasn't ever a for real deal?

Looks like trying to spend CRA money today in order to not lose it to Sacramento later could be a risky proposition. I'll bet they would try and make cities write them a very big check for money already spent on an unapproved redevelopment project. Wouldn't that put us in one heck of a hole?

Gang of 4? You need to be very cautious here. Because if you are not the one thing you might very well be encumbering is the future of Sierra Madre. Take that to the Old Church and reflect.

More Redevelopment Humor

One of the things we have always heard from the likes of John and Joe on the redevelopment tip is that it helps to create jobs. And at least on the surface that does make some sense. You spend a lot of money to build something through the use of CRA funding, and whoever is building the project will have to hire people to make the dream come true. And this way the State of California would produce hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Simple, right?

Apparently not so much. According to the blog Californiascapitol.com, the actual results are something quite different. Here is what they had to say:

"From the state's perspective, $3.2 billion was spent to create 14,723 jobs costing $217,347 each."

No mention of how many of those CRA gigs were green jobs.

You can read all about it by clicking here.

And then there is this from the Little Hoover Commission:

(Capitol Weekly) California's public pension system is abused and based on faulty math, and state lawmakers should take immediate steps to reduce the retirement benefits of current employees, not just new hires, the Little Hoover Commission says. "The situation is dire," the study said, adding that public employers should be permitted to make the same sorts of cuts the private sector have done.

Speaking of the Little Hoover Commission, has anyone heard back yet on our brilliant idea of allowing cities to place their legal advertising on-line, thus saving local governments in California millions of dollars yearly by not having to pay for print? Something they are now legally compelled to do under antiquated state laws. Fay Angus spoke most eloquently at last Tuesday's City Council meeting on this, and I know people have written in.

Sadness at the Maundry Compound

Because of the anticipated heavy rains tomorrow the Little League parade has been postponed to a week from now. If then. Plus Opening Day could be pushed back as well. We're disappointed but holding up.

Happy Friday, anyway.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who Will Be Our Next Mayor Pro Tem?

It is quite obvious that when April arrives and the City Council reorganizes, John Buchanan will become the next Mayor of Sierra Madre. He has been there a few times in the past, and everyone should be quite familiar with his style of governing.

What John will actually do with what tradition dictates should be his last go-around at this town's greatest political honor is anybody's guess, however. We can only hope it won't cost us too much.

However, the real question here has to do with who will be the next Mayor Pro Tem.

Much was made about tradition a couple of years back when Joe Mosca was deemed unfit for the job of Mayor by the previous City Council alignment. Many seemed quite upset that Joe had been passed over for Mayor, deeming his rejection for the office to be an egregious break with a long standing tradition. By right - or so the story went - his having sat up there for several years made the Mayorality something he deserved. And that he was passed over more than once for the job was considered by his devoted followers to be pretty much the crime of the decade.

Here is how Kathy Childs described her pain and anguish in an April of 2009 letter to Bill Coburn and his Sierra Madre News.net site:

Allow me to put on my "Citizen-Childs" hat for a moment. Next week at the Sierra Madre City Council Meeting a new mayor will be determined by decision of the collective council.

I am a firm believer in the tradition of the rotation method of assignment to the position of mayor. It has worked for years - however, if you will recall, the last time this event took place, our newly elected officials took it upon themselves to change the rotation and appoint a mayor out of order.

Well, it is time for me to follow the "if you don't like it do something about it or shut up" philosophy. I'm asking for your help. Please join me Tuesday Night at the City Council meeting to support fairness and tradition. Joe Mosca has earned the right to be mayor. He works very hard as a Councilman, attends City events, reports on the happenings around town, he cares about each and every citizen, and is not afraid to voice his opinion. Let's put politics aside and remember our town is so sweet and so good, we don't need the City Council playing politics and being so divisive by making decisions that go against the wonderful tradition of our town and the fairness to our elected officials.

This is important. Please join me in supporting our elected Councilman Joe Mosca by letting the Council know that tradition is important to a lot of us and we want Joe to be our Mayor!

So consider this. If the G4 City Council follows the "rotation method of assignment" in April and allows tradition to have its way, then Joe Mosca will be wrapping up his last - and only - term as Mayor. Having served this City for a very long eight years, yet for only one of those years as Mayor, might be seen as an unfortunate situation for Joe. One that could be a problem for someone harboring obviously larger political ambitions.

By that much ballyhooed tradition we just heard about from Ms. Childs, the next Mayor Pro Tem would have to be either Nancy Walsh or Josh Moran. After which the one chosen through observing tradition would then become Mayor, and the other our next Mayor Pro Tem. Which means that Joe Mosca would have to finish out the last three long years of his final term as merely a Councilmember. Only a break with "the tradition of the rotation method of assignment to the Office of Mayor" would change Joe's fate.

Here's my question. Will this "tradition of the rotation method of assignment" be pushed aside next April and Joe given his third term as Mayor Pro Tem? So that he can then become Mayor once again a year later? Will Nancy and Josh be encouraged to break with that tradition and step aside so that Joe will not have to face the political ignominy of being limited to just one term as Mayor during his eight years on the City Council? Will Joe's ambitions be seen as reason enough for justifying this kind of tradition busting?

And if not, who would be willing to stand up for tradition then?

If Redevelopment Dies, Are Football and Mermaids Next?

That is the title of a Joe Mathews piece on the possible end of the CRA, posted to the always provocative PROPZERO.com site. Apparently up there in Sacramento it has now been revealed that CRA money was spent on designing and building a mermaid tank in a local nightclub. With real terrestrial women dressing up as mermaids and swimming about in a fish tank so that those at the bar can have something more to look at than just bottles and glasses.

Here is how Mathews breaks it down:

Local governments who oppose Gov. Brown's plan to kill redevelopment agencies are talking up projects that might be at risk as a result. Among them: new stadiums for football's San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.

One problem with these sob stories: the victims aren't sympathetic. Stadiums for rich pro sports teams? Heck, given the Chargers' proven ability to break the hearts of everyone in San Diego, the town might well be happier without them. And if those teams are so important to those cities, Brown's proposal opens the door for a 55 percent vote of local voters who want to tax themselves for the privilege of a new stadium.

On the other hand, a new bar in Sacramento was built with redevelopment funds, and it has a giant tank of water with women swimming around in mermaid get-ups. And you have to love mermaids.

And to think there are those who wonder why redevelopment agencies have just got to go.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Facebook, CRA Dreaming, Farmers Markets and Business License Fees

"I'm 'friends' with all your kids." - Josh Moran, making perhaps the evening's most eloquent argument against social media.

The whole City Council was twittering about Facebook last night, but everyone seemed to miss the point on the issue of community privacy. It's not so much that Facebook knows who you are, it is how cumulative responses such as "likes" or "dislikes" or "friends" are tabulated and processed into a bigger picture. This is how Facebook creates and packages information that is useful to the people they sell this information. If Sierra Madre shows up on Facebook as a town where 61% of the people living here "likes" pizza, then a pizza chain might see us as being a place to open a restaurant. Or if 74% "dislikes" Jolly Ranchers, then a candy company would most likely want to avoid investing their money here.

If you want to sell tandem bicycles in this community (as an example), then you could pose a number of questions over the course of a few months that would tease out exactly what the attitudes here are towards two seated two wheeled transportation. That is the portrait of a community that you can help create with Facebook if you wish. With the prompts in this hypothetical case being the actual call of the City.

Or let's say you wanted to sell information about the city's attitudes on high density development. You could gather together some highly marketable information based on the community's grouped "likes" and "dislikes." Plus you could both further gauge and fine tune that community portrait through follow up questions. Facebook makes a lot of money selling this kind of information to corporations. And what they could gather about (and for?) the City of Sierra Madre through a community Facebook page driven by a G4 agenda could prove valuable to lots of potential clients and friends.

That is the real issue.

But I don't really mind. Just like with the rather giddy politico Facebook pages in town, a City Facebook site should prove to be an additional source of rewarding content for this blog. And it should also serve as a good resource for finding out exactly how they wish to market our community to their corporate constituency.

The City Council then spent a lot of time rearranging the deck chairs on the SS Sierra Madre CRA. During public comment Heather Allen pretty much nailed it when she spoke about the City's highly hinky list of non-blighted items designated for the spending of our CRA tax money. $50,000 for a parking lot study being a fine example, and one that Heather cited. And Josh's long tap dance about what constitutes an encumbrance or not, and whether we have obligated that money by putting a name next to a number on a ledger, was fairly amusing. Let's just make it all as wacky as possible, and then pretend we're going to get to spend some of it.

Not knowing what Sacramento is going to do, or what they would regard as being properly encumbered money, gave the proceeds a certain fantastical air. But the G4 did seem to enjoy their "Pretend Spend" session.

Of course, nobody stopped to consider whether or not this CRA money should be spent to retire some of our substantial bond debt. I guess that just wouldn't have fit in with the fantasy. Keeping the City government solvent is not always conducive to economic prosperity for businesses and everyone else who happens to live here. But the needs of City Hall always come first under the G4 Council.

Our City Hall, like so many others, just wants to spend their CRA money as quickly as they possibly can before Jerry Brown does something crazy with it. Like give it to cash strapped hospitals, schools and universities. Which he very well might end up doing.

Elisa Weaver then told us why we're not getting another Farmers Market any time soon. Which we already knew. Costs being the main reason, especially the large amount of cash needed to pay our very expensive Police Department for guarding the carrots. Wascally Wabbits I guess. But since this horse had already left the stable not much of value came out of this conversation.

Though Joe did seem to think that a farmers market was "an opportunity for folks to come together as a community." A conclave in the carrots and corn, I guess. And here I'd have thought a good bottle of wine was the answer. What this all actually means is that the issue will be back again. The Gang of 4 obviously wants this one badly. Why I can't exactly figure. Though I have some theories.

The fee structure for new business licenses crawled back out of its cave. The need to "bring equity to fee assessments" being the priority. Empathy was faked for a bit, but the result was inevitable. Buchanan cried crocodile tears about how badly he felt for the "little people," which are those businesses who can least afford higher fees. Then he voted to keep these fees at the highest possible level anyway. Sheer hypocrisy, classic Buchanan.

Nancy Walsh comically missed a cue and talked about three manicurists who were very upset about these high fee increases, so she agreed with Joe to keep to the status quo. Which were the higher rates that her manicurists were so upset about. Something the Nancinator didn't understand until later when Joe explained it to her. Poor girl. Her instincts were good at least.

Sierra Madre, for all its bogus commerce friendly claims, continues to disincentivize small businesses in town at every opportunity. Again, feeding our insatiable City Hall was the highest priority.

Josh Moran brought up the water rate hike as a justification for yet another absurd oversight committee. Joe, MaryAnn and Johnny B came up with some reasons for shooting the idea down. The lack of time for proper staff involvement being one of them. So instead all agreed on an advisory group at an unspecified point in the future. Though the thought of the G4 actually wanting to hear peoples' opinions about water somehow doesn't ring quite true.

The Strategic Plan question turned into a plug for this year's meeting taking place next month.

The "facades" issue also came up late, and since it was CRA money Joe was happy to pretend spend it. "It's only $30,000," he said.

Then it all stopped.

48 days until Joe Mosca's term as Mayor is over. But who is counting?

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Relatively Uninspiring City Council Meeting

There really isn't a whole lot that needs to be said. These topics are not without some points that require consideration, it's true. After all, even the most mundane things need to be dealt with, I suppose. Or at least some of them. But in the grand scheme of things, when stacked up against some of the more portentous City Council meetings we've had over the last few years, this get-together is just a little puff of barely warm wind. It will be little noticed, and then leave nothing much behind.

The Consent Calendar will cover the usual spending of lots of money, along with the replacement of a utility pole, something about new facades for some buildings, cars and traffic tickets, street rehabilitation (who knew they'd fallen into a life of crime?), the inevitable CRA payment, and some exciting news about assessment districts. Nothing much out of the ordinary there.

After all that rumbles by there is a rather perplexing call for a City Council discussion about social media. In particular an official Sierra Madre Facebook Page. Now I like smiley faces, thumbs up logos and "I (heart) you" messages just as much as the next guy. And there really is nobody like the person who has 2,390 "friends." Even if the lucky fellow can only remember the names of around 27 of them. But to drag the entire community into the Facebook thing, particularly at a time when that site's identification gathering techniques have become rather notorious to folks who care about things like identity security and privacy rights, might be pushing things a little bit.

Here's an experiment you might want to try. Go to Google and type in the words "Facebook identity theft." Notice how many references come up? The number is well into the hundreds. Here is a passage from an article I just picked out at random:

Facebook enables one-click identity theft option for rogue application developers - In a rather odd and haphazard move, Facebook has now made it possible for apps to read your home address and mobile telephone number. In the "Request for Permission" window -- the one you have to accept before using an app on the Facebook platform -- look out for "Access my contact information," with the subtitle "Current Address and Mobile Phone Number" ... As Sophos' Naked Security Blog points out, making such details available in a landscape that is already packed full of rogue spam and scam applications puts Facebook users at even greater risk.

Heartwarming, is it not? Somehow it reminds me of a certain gas station. With Facebook's reputation for selling the information it "harvests" from those using their services to large corporations in the name of market research, is this really something the Sierra Madre City Council should be leading the community into? Another counterintuitive decision by the Fab Four possibly awaits us.

Here's another question. We hear a lot about the workload City Staff is carrying these days. So who is going to maintain the City's Facebook page? Is there to be a new hire? A Director of Facebook Affairs? Or will that be a shared responsibility.

The next discussion for the City Council to ponder is in regards to Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) projects through the year 2016. Which, when you consider the many things going down with CRAs these days, could be pretty much tantamount to (pardon the over used cliche') "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Now those who follow state news know that Governor Jerry Brown, in an attempt to grapple with the effects of the worst financial crisis in California history (or at least since the Great Depression), has called for the demolition of CRAs as money squandering temptations to travesties against the interests of the taxpayers. And despite the outrage from many city governments and their aggrieved redevelopment allies, it now appears that Jerry Brown could very well end up getting his way.

This from the widely read news site Calitics:

As I went through today's California news clips, one thing is gradually becoming clear. Despite the resistance of cities across the state, Jerry Brown has the upper hand in the redevelopment fight at this point ... Jerry just might have been too darn slick on this one. I mean, who can really argue that redevelopment agencies are more important than K-12? Football stadiums or schools? While the agencies can play important roles in building forward looking cities, it is just too easy to point to a boondoggle here and there to justify their termination.

Maybe the City Council might want to put this one away for a while. You know, like perhaps in a time capsule scheduled for opening in 2050. Our CRA could very well be going bye bye very soon, along with all the rest of them. And to work on anything now would just be a waste of our time.

This is followed by yet another eye rolling struggle with acute disinterest regarding the Farmers Market. I really don't know what more can be said about a parking lot staffed by cabbage peddling greengrocers who don't always particularly look like farmers. I mean, I could go into downtown LA and buy some green stuff wholesale and resell it here at high prices, too. Would that make me a farmer?

Look, if a Farmers Market is the dream of so many in town, why did the last one do as poorly as it did? Could it have been people didn't understand why they should have to pay so much more for fruit and veggies than they would at - say - Albertsons? Our Farmers Market prices were high, City overhead for SMPD security through the roof, and unlike our hardworking local merchants these "farmers" paid little in the way of taxes.

Let's put the stake to this mess once and for all. The last thing we need to do with resident tax money is prop up another failed business model.

After the outdoor cabbage vendors we move on to a "discussion regarding supplemental assistance for business license fee increases." Now this one really gets me. The notion is that those applying for business licenses should be expected to absorb a greater level of expense because it financially burdens the city in manpower and administrative costs to process these licenses.

But let me ask you this. If you are paying taxes in this community, aren't you already paying for manpower costs to process and administer business licenses? And by having to pay fees on top of taxes aren't you being coerced into paying for the same thing twice? I mean, your money has already gone to pay the salaries of City Staff, among other things. Why should you be charged additional money on top of that?

The whole fee things is double dipping for the people who are already paying taxes in this town. And besides, didn't this City Council already declare that fees are not to go up? So who keeps putting this misery back on the agenda over and over again?

As if that isn't enough, it looks like we are now expected to endure a discussion about yet another "oversight committee." I believe this was Josh Moran's brilliant idea. Like the UUT Oversight Committee, this is yet another well-picked bone thrown to the tax and rate payers of this town because of an increased claim to our pocket books. In this case we're talking about the still unsettled water rate hike.

The supposition at work here is that you, the tax payer, just got hit by a big increase in something. But never fear, the City Council recognizes this. And as a reward for your knuckling under to whatever the latest money grab is, you will be the lucky recipient of an Oversight Committee. Yes, you truly are a stakeholder in the taking of your own money.

An oversight committee such as the one being proposed tonight is usually 5 or 7 poor souls who get to meet a few times and pore over City Hall ledgers in search of inappropriate expenditures. You know, like a keg of beer or an all expenses paid roundtrip to a doughnut shop in Pasadena.

This has more to do with public relations than anything else. Talk about insult to injury.

Finally, the last chapter of this meeting opens before us. And what might it be? Yet another discussion of the Strategic Plan October 14, 2010 Retreat. This time in the form of an "Update." This is the meeting where Joe Mosca let the cat out of the bag about Sierra Madre's supposed need to sell more bonds. Apparently for Joe further saddling our City with tens of millions of dollars in additional debt is "a leadership issue." It was a revelatory moment, though somehow has yet to be discussed in a City Council setting. It won't be brought up here, either.

Do you wonder why that is? I certainly don't.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

A Couple of Corrections to the Sierra Madre Patch Article on Jeff Hildreth

Neighbors of Jeff Hildreth contacted me last week about an article posted recently on the Sierra Madre Patch. This was in regards to their friend's struggles with City Hall over the building of his Sterlingoak wine and art bar on East Montecito. It appears that two quotes attributed to Jeff and used in this AOL/Patch article were not exactly accurate, and his friends wanted to know if I would want to take a look at what had really been said.

I suspect this was being sent my way in part because they feared the alleged Patch misrepresentations were damaging to Mr Hildreth's interests, along with causing him a certain amount of anxiety and stress. Somehow they needed to clear the air.

I said I'd be glad to do so and would it be possible to provide me with the misrepresentations along with what Mr. Hildreth had actually said? A couple days passed and I then received the requested information. After I got this e-mail I replied by asking if they would like the corrections posted here, and they replied that yes, they would.

Below are listed the two offending passages from the AOL/Patch article, and Mr. Hildreth's recollections of what he had actually said.

Patch wrote: "What was I supposed to do, let the walls cave in just because the city put a stop order on me?" "I have to protect my neighbor's house, too."

Hildreth's quote: "Did you see the rain we had last winter? I had to build a deck to protect my property and my neighbor's from rain until they city would let me pour (concrete.)"

The other misrepresentation is particularly questionable because it involves more than just the Hildreths' predicament alone, and seems to speak to a much wider agenda.

Patch wrote: Hildreth did say that local attorney and former Mayor Kurt Zimmerman had initially said he would help defend the couples' interests, but that Zimmerman later backed out, saying he couldn't step in now that the case was in litigation. "Isn't that exactly when you need lawyers, when you're in litigation?" Hildreth asked, clearly exasperated with the situation.

Hildreth's quote: "Of all the council members Zimmerman was the only one to call me back and offer to look into the case. He was unable to help because he (Zimmerman) was already involved in litigation with the city."

Quite a difference.

As we saw with its two articles dealing with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Proposition 218 here, the Sierra Madre Patch seems to be more than willing to play fast and loose with the words of others in order to put forward a certain agenda. And what that agenda might be is becoming more clear with each instance of misrepresentation.

Does the editor of the SM Patch believe that by skewing his reporting to suit the needs of City Hall he will somehow gain advantages there? Does he believe that there is some sort of establishment here in Sierra Madre that will reward those kinds of efforts with loyalty and support?

If so, then this certainly does show a rather absurd misunderstanding of what is actually going on in this town. You can only wonder what effluences they have been pouring into this overly eager and young out-of-town reporter's ears. The word "naive" doesn't do credit to it.

9 AM Update.

(Ed: Kurt Zimmerman responds to today's article.)

Mr. Hildreth's recollection of our conversation is substantially correct. After I had stepped down from the Council, I did offer to look into his dispute with City Hall. In fact, I did look into the dispute and it was obvious to me that communications between the parties had broken down. As a former Mayor and also an attorney who has spent twenty years litigating and settling legal matters, it was my hope that I might be able to bring both sides together and act as a mediator of the dispute.

Sadly, it appears that City Hall and especially the current City Council have no respect for my opinion or my legal experience. In fact, I am on the verge of filing a lawsuit on behalf of the ratepayers because City Hall ignored the notice requirements of Proposition 218. Obviously I am not the one to attempt to mediate a dispute between Mr. Hildreth and City Hall right now.

Is Jerry Brown's Next Target Libraries?

In his effort to wring every possible dime out of the statewide funding systems, Jerry Brown has famously called for the ending of the California Redevelopment Agency. Something that, should it carry, would retrieve nearly $6 billion dollars from the grasp of redevelopers and their willing servants on City Councils. This clawing back of funds would allow for a certain amount of replenishment to the state's public schools and universities, places that have been subjected to severe financial hits over the last couple of years.

There have been other things Governor Brown has chopped out of the mix as well. Jerry has halted the further purchase of state vehicles such as personal cars, put an embargo on new hires, purged about half the cell phones used by state agency employees, and let the bureaucrats under his purview know that they can no longer order up tchotchkes to give to citizens and business people when they come to visit them in Sacramento. These cuts won't make that big a dent in the $26.6 billion dollar budget deficit crisis, but it all does add up.

And it certainly makes for great press. Everyone enjoys watching bureaucrats being forced to make economic sacrifices. Something that runs contrary to their natural instincts, which is to spend freely.

And now it appears that California's Libraries are next up on the Governor's ala carte diet menu. This from Saturday's edition of the Sacramento Bee:

Jerry Brown's plan may alter how libraries are used, funded - All this winter, Gov. Jerry Brown has said the state needs to re-examine what it can pay for and what it must do differently to bridge a $26.6 billion budget deficit. His proposal to cut all state funding for local libraries - about $30 million - could force just such a change.

Although the suggested cuts are drops in the deficit ocean, they promise to transform how people use and pay for libraries and could push more libraries to adapt to a new era of online information. Among his proposals, Brown wants to erase funding that allows libraries with fewer resources to borrow books from more affluent facilities. Brown's budget would also cut off support that helps libraries hire staff, buy books and maintain hours of operation.

That total cut would open the door for some facilities to charge for library cards to make up for dwindling local resources, said State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. State laws prohibit libraries that receive state book-sharing funds to incur such charges.

"Right now, any Californian can walk into any library and use that library for free," said Jeff Crosby, administrative librarian at the San Joaquin Valley Library System. "As soon as the sharing goes away, library boards will start saying, 'How can I recoup these costs?'"

The cuts raise a question that libraries all over the country have been asking: How should they adapt to smaller budgets at a time when iPads and cloud computing are on the rise? "There have been so many changes as we move into the digital age that libraries have been working on the future direction of libraries," said Francise Fialkoff, editor-in-chief of the publication Library Journal. "I think that (budget cuts) are in a way speeding along some of that."

Local libraries receive only a portion of their budgets from Sacramento, with most of their operating cash coming out of local taxes. But this certainly isn't going to help them maintain their old school ways of doing business. With digitalized libraries there will come both a consolidating of information and changes in the ways it is presented to the public. Governor Brown sees this as a way of saving money, and is now making financial adjustments with that in mind.

Could City Advertising Published In Adjudicated Newspapers Be Next?

There were some calls here at the Maundry Compound about the mysterious absence of the Looney Views News on the streets of Sierra Madre this weekend. Such disappearances, while they do happen from time to time, are not in line with the responsibilities and obligations of adjudicated newspapers however, and legal questions do arise.

One wag, posting to the Tattler, put it best. "Maybe Susan has declared Monday to be the new Sunday? Why not, she also declared Sunday to be the new Saturday."

But this did raise a question here. Since Governor Jerry Brown is finding as many ways as possible to stop what he feels are unneeded government expenditures, wouldn't doing in the state law that mandates cities such as ours place legal advertising in so-called "adjudicated newspapers" rather than putting it on-line be the next logical step?

Look at it this way. Sierra Madre spent approximately $30,000 with its adjudicated newspaper last year. There are many cities that spend a lot more than that due to their greater size. So if you figure that there are 500 or so cities in California that have legal advertising, and you average the costs at $50,000 per year (which is conservative), you are talking $25 million per year cumulatively that cities should not have to spend. The nominal costs of putting the exact same information on city websites making that the fiscally agreeable alternative.

In an era when most cities are strapped for cash (or will be soon), I'd think that should mean something.

The Office of Governor Jerry Brown has established an e-mail account where concerned citizens can send in their cost cutting ideas. This address leads to an oversight agency called the "Little Hoover Commission." This commission is currently putting together a list of money saving ideas to present to the Governor for all levels of government in California. Their goal for 2011 alone is $363 million in savings.

If you like the idea of replacing costly adjudicated newspapers with free city website posting of legal advertising, please write them at http://gov.ca.gov/m_contact.php.

Let them know Tattler readers are on their side. Thanks!

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