Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The SGVCOG Scandal: Should Sierra Madre Consider Getting Out?

"Pretty cool ... let somebody be the guy who awards contracts to his own company, all the while being paid hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars. Apparently, that guy would be the Executive Director of the COG? Then when asked by the public about the allegations our elected officials simply say, "Well, that is confidential." Sorry, but the goings-on of OUR business is NOT confidential." - Gilman

There is a major scandal brewing at what Nancy Walsh likes to refer to as "The Cog." You know, the place that she informed us a week or so ago was having some sort of "internal conflict?" Well, that must be the civil way of phrasing it. Or perhaps it comes from the desire not to discuss the difficulties going on at our local 31 city so-called "regional government" in front of the hoi polloi. After all, the G4 City Council has some pretty strong ties there, and the last thing they'd want to do is invite the likes of us into what they might feel is a private conversation. The rumors of corruption there being none of our business.

And God bless us all, the bad news keeps piling up for the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. This is some serious stuff, with the makings of a true rip roaring scandal. With perp walks and everything. And I don't think we have done this story much justice here at The Tattler. Even though we've been griping about The COG for the last three years.

So today we're going to examine this matter a little more thoroughly. With the goal of asking if it is really a good idea for us to keep pumping our tax money into so ethically challenged an organization. That perhaps we should just do the right thing and get out.

The Pasadena Star News has run a series of articles on the SGVCOG Scandal, all written by staff writer Daniel Tedford. Who in my humble opinion should be considered for some sort of an award for his work here. By date, here is how these articles break down:

#1) Caltrans audit questions management practices of San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (May 4) - A Caltrans audit alleges the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments mismanaged a $245,130 Gold Line grant and improperly awarded contracts for consulting work. The COG is a joint powers authority of which 31 cities, three county supervisors and three water agencies are members. Its mission is to address issues that affect the entire San Gabriel Valley and give the region a greater voice in federal, state and county government.

Caltrans auditors also allege the COG, and its executive director Nick Conway, practiced poor bookkeeping, made overpayments, created overlapping billing times, and produced deviations from contracts.

Auditors also claimed Conway has a conflict of interest because his company, Arroyo Associates Inc., received a contract to act as staff for the COG. "By acting as the Executive Director ... the owner and President of (Arroyo) was making management decisions for SGVCOG that result in financial compensation (to Arroyo), and in turn, resulted in financial compensation to the Executive Director as the owner and President of (Arroyo)," auditors wrote.

That is quite a nifty operation Conway appears to have had going on here. You can't help but wonder if this is the only time such personally beneficial deals involving public money have been made at The COG. Are we talking exception or rule here? A question that just might get answered should the fellow discussed in the next article gets involved.

#2) D.A. receives complaint regarding COG's handling of Gold Line grant (May 5) - A prosecutor charged with rooting out public corruption said Thursday his office has received a complaint about the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. The complaint, which is under review, comes just days after Caltrans released a scathing audit of the agency. The 19-page audit alleges the Council of Governments (COG) and its executive director Nick Conway mismanaged a quarter-million dollar Gold Line grant.

At its heart, the current Caltrans audit alleges the COG mismanaged a $245,130 Gold Line grant and improperly awarded contracts for consulting work ... Caltrans auditors claimed Conway and the COG practiced poor bookkeeping, made overpayments, created overlapping billing times, and produced deviations from contracts. Additionally it implied that Conway has a conflict of interest as executive director because his company, Arroyo Associates, supplies the COG's staff.

So let's see if we have this straight. Nick Conway, who runs The COG, has a little side operation called Arroyo Associates. Which Nick hired to perform staff functions at the SGVCOG. And because of this nifty little arrangement Caltrans thinks Nick took some of their quarter million dollars and funneled it into his own backroom operation? Sweet!

So how do the folks at SGVCOG react to all this? It would appear that their lawyer has instructed them to dummy up about it.

#3) San Gabriel Valley Council of Government board members are closed lipped on Caltrans audit (May 11) - San Gabriel Valley Council of Government executive board members met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss a critical audit of the agency by Caltrans. While some board members walked out of the meeting visibly upset, no one talked about what was said in the small Alhambra conference room.

"Everything is confidential," said Monrovia Councilwoman Mary Ann Lutz, who is chairwoman of COG's Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee. Lutz said a formal response will be made at a later date and otherwise had no comment on the scathing audit.

Caltrans 19-page audit alleges the COG and its executive director Nick Conway mismanaged a $250,000 grant for the Gold Line between 2006 and 2008. The audit also outlined Caltrans' belief that Conway has a conflict of interest because COG contracts his company, Arroyo Associates, to work as COG's paid staff.

As Gilman so eloquently pointed out, when a taxpayer supported organization gets caught with its ethical pants down, "the goings-on of our business are not confidential." But apparently those living behind The COG walls have been so entitled for so long, perhaps they really do believe that a corruption investigation is nobody else's business but their own. Which I guess means that they could be in for a rude surprise before too much longer.

And how are the member cities of The COG taking all of this bad news? If Baldwin Park is any indication, some are seriously thinking of getting out.

#4) Stay or go: Baldwin Park officials debate whether to stick with COG following Caltrans suit (May 16) - The City Council is considering withdrawing from the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments in response to a scathing audit of the regional organization by Caltrans, officials said. The council is expected to air their concerns about the Caltrans audit at a council meeting Wednesday.

The audit alleges COG mismanaged a transportation grant and that COG's executive director Nick Conway has a conflict of interest as the organization's head administrator. The agency is demanding COG pay it back $250,000.

Councilman Ricardo Pacheco plans to ask the council to consider stepping down from COG until the audit issue is settled. "I don't think the city should be involved with any of these issues going on," Pacheco said. "I think because of the legal issues that could possibly come out, just to protect the city, it would be best to not be involved."

Now I would hope that members of our City Council would also consider discussing the issue of our continued membership in the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. I mean, how embarrassing would it be if the D.A. starts putting some of these characters in cuffs and walks them around in front of the TV cameras? Is that the kind of organization Sierra Madre should to be paying dues money? This question should at least be put on the agenda for future discussion.

And what is the vibe at the SGVCOG itself? It looks like they have lawyered up and are talking amongst themselves exclusively.

#5) Two-hour COG closed-session meeting ends with no action on Caltrans audit (May 20) - Board members with the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments met behind closed doors for more than two hours on Thursday to a scathing Caltrans audit of the organization's management of a quarter-million dollar Gold Line grant.

Despite the marathon closed-session meeting, no action was reported once the regular meeting of the Council of Governments (COG) began except to say the organization anticipated to have a response to Caltrans within 30 to 90 days.

In fact, board members generally declined comment on the meeting and the audit, saying they decided the COG attorney, Richard Jones, would be the only one to speak on the matter.

When the members of an organization, faced with serious legal issues, band together behind a lawyer and refuse to speak with anyone about anything pertaining to the situation at hand, you have to figure they are concerned about certain - and possibly unpleasant - consequences. In other words (and to use the cliche'), they have circled the wagons.

The timing of this last Pasadena Star News article probably couldn't have been timed more poorly. At least from the SGVCOG's perspective. Especially with cities suffering budget constraints due to hard times, along with certain misgivings about the organization itself because of all the scandal news.

#6) SGV Council of Governments' dues surpass those of others; officials plan to review costs (May 28) - Member cities of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments generally pay thousands more in annual dues than other similar organizations, documents show.

San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments cities pay about $15,000 to $30,000 in membership fees. For example, Glendora pays $20,849, while larger cities like Pasadena and El Monte pay $30,000 each.

Yet, Southern California cities that belong to other councils of governments pay less. Anaheim, with a population of 336,265, pays $11,626.81 to belong to the 33-member Orange County Council of Governments. In the 25-member San Bernardino Association of Governments (SANBAG), the county of San Bernardino pays the highest dues, just $15,867.

I have to assume that there is some real value to be had from belonging to regional organizations such as The COG. Cities banding together to use their combined weight when negotiating with Sacramento being the most commonly cited one. The inclusion of three water districts and all that entails being another. But why would belonging to the SGVCOG be worth so much more to its 31 member cities? To the point that each could pay up to twice as much to belong to it?

There could be a couple of reasons. One is that an organization run by someone who would hire his own staffing company to perform certain duties might not find itself being pressured by management to exercise the kinds of business efficiencies similar organizations practice.

Then there are the legal bills associated with the Caltrans situation. I am sure the SGVCOG's attorney, Richard Jones by name, does not come cheaply. Which does bring up the irony of taxpayers and cities having to pay the legal expenses of a governmental entity that has very possibly ripped them off. Both of their rights and money.

A condition that we might also see happening now in Sierra Madre.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Memorial Day always makes me think of my father. He was a veteran of World War II, having served four or so years on a Navy destroyer. He spent 2 years in the North Atlantic fighting German U-Boats, and his remaining time in the Pacific. Right up to what was to have been the invasion of Japan.

During his first two years of service he spent an 18 month stretch of time where he didn't set foot on anything but the deck of the vessel he served on. So vital was each and every ship to the US Navy that there was no time for shore leave or much of anything except fighting a war that at the time looked like it could have gone either way. He was 17 years old when his portion of that war began, when it was over he was barely 21.

He never made much of his time in service to this country during wartime. It was something he did because he believed it was his duty to do so. He never joined the VFW or American Legion, never marched in any parades. It wasn't that he didn't have the highest regard for those organizations and those who serve in them, because he did. It's just that he never seemed to have the time.

He hit the ground running after the war, started a few businesses, made and lost a couple of fortunes, then left all that behind and lived out the later years of his life in a house just off the 17th green of a golf course in South Carolina. Which was kind of funny since he was truly awful at the game. But that was his slice of the American dream, and trust me, he never gave a damn about anybody's opinion of how he lived it. Freest American I've ever had the honor to know.

I was looking around the internet trying to find something about Memorial Day that might have met with the approval of Seaman Bud Crawford, the guy who did his service during some difficult times, and once it was over never looked back. And I really didn't find anything that he wouldn't have raised a quizzical eyebrow at, then changed the subject. After all, it is always a sunny day where he is now, and there is golf to be played. Badly, I suspect.

So, out of respect for what I figure would have been his advice, I should probably have left it at that. But I won't. Not without this one observation. And it comes from an editorial that ran in the Santa Maria Times a couple of days ago. In a piece they call "A simple thank you might do," they bemoan how the holiday has become yet another heavily hyped day off for shopping, and just how few among us even know what Memorial Day is about. 80% are ignorant of the true meaning of today's holiday, by one poll.

But despite all that, they made a request. Here is how it was put:

The folks at the National WWI Museum have a suggestion, and we support it - take time Monday to pause in your busy schedule, find an active member of the military or a veteran, and thank them for the sacrifices they made and are making.

You also might consider visiting a local cemetery and placing a small American flag on a soldier's grave. If a friend or family member is a veteran or in active service, pick up the phone and give them a call. Even a text message or e-mail can make that person know you're thinking of them, and the sacrifice they made on your and the nation's behalf.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3208 will hold an 11 a.m. commemoration this morning at Pioneer Cemetery. It is a moving ceremony, and if you've never attended before, perhaps this is the year you'll set aside an hour or so and stop by. It both honors those whose service to this country is recent and remembered, yet also carries on a tradition with its origins all the way back to the beginnings of our country. A time that can now only be recalled through history books, and occasions such as this one.

City Councilmember MaryAnn MacGillivray will once again do the keynote address honors.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Joe Mosca: Redevelopment Agency Is Helping To "Clean Up Blight" In Sierra Madre

It was one of those moments when you couldn't help but wonder what the heck goes on in the mind of Joe Mosca.

Now available as a video on YouTube, then Mayor Joe Mosca spoke to Time Warner Cable "Local Edition" host Brad Pomerance last month about the possible elimination of Redevelopment Agencies as part of Governor Jerry Brown's efforts to slash wasteful spending and ease its effects on California's budget woes.

To access this video click here.

Now most of this interview is standard boilerplate news chat designed to give the impression that both the show's host and the talking head Mayor of Sierra Madre are deep in discussion about some truly weighty issues. Which is decidedly not the case.

It certainly is obvious that Joe is not happy about the possible elimination of RDAs, and he takes great pains to explain why that is. But what does stand out is the reason why he is opposed to the abolition of Redevelopment Agencies.

And that reason is the one truly newsworthy revelation that comes out of this clip. As you will see by viewing the above linked video, Joe Mosca claimed that Sierra Madre's Redevelopment Agency (RDA) is "essential" because it is helping to "clean up blight" in Sierra Madre. And he refers to there being blight in Sierra Madre three times!

A couple of questions come to mind:

1) What blight? What neighborhood, or what homes, is Joe referring to when he talks about blight? Does he actually view some of Sierra Madre's neighborhoods as "blight?" Do we, in his opinion, have a slum?

2) How is RDA cash being used in Sierra Madre to eliminate blight? Recently the City Council "encumbered" a fortune in RDA cash to hire consultants to study topics such as parking and resident consumption habits, reanimate a dead farmers market, and build a public restroom in Memorial Park. Among other things. All frivolous expenditures that help to make the case for getting rid of RDAs.

But where exactly is RDA money being spent to eliminate the blight Joe claims to see in our town?

The fact remains there is no blight in Sierra Madre. There are some smaller homes, and some older ones as well. But blight? Where, Joe? Where exactly is that Sierra Madre slum you spoke about on a regional cable television news broadcast?

Nowhere in this town is RDA money being spent to eliminate the blighted conditions that only exist in the imagination of Joe Mosca. RDA money is being spent on a lot of stupid stuff here, but nowhere is it being used to take control of buildings that have become blighted so that they can be redeveloped. Nor has the City Council authorized the spending of RDA money to "eliminate blight."

What a ridiculous and untrue claim for then Mayor Joe Mosca to have made. And how embarrassing as well.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Friday, May 27, 2011

Test

Why Is the New City of Sierra Madre Website Written In A Dead Language?

Well, OK. It isn't the whole website that is written in some strange language that hasn't been spoken for a few thousand years. Just the page with the biographies of Joe Mosca, Nancy Walsh and Josh Moran. The rest of the site, while obviously still under construction, is written in English. Or there is nothing written at all. There are some vast blank spaces here and there.

And who can tell, maybe it isn't a dead language at all. I was raised to honor the great commercial and scientific ascendancy of the American nation by speaking only English. So if it is a language of sorts - say Romanian - how would I know?

But if you want to see the page that concerns me this fine May morning, then click here. But let me warn you before you do. It might be some sort of spell or the work of a Necromancer or Druid Priest. So don't go saying I didn't warn you!

Last night when I was writing this troubling post I did attempt to phone some friends who actually received a real education, but they were wisely not picking up. So I called someone else and he informed me that it looked to him like some form of Latin. Now why the biographies of two City Councilmembers plus the Mayor Pro Tem would be written in Latin is a great puzzlement to me. Did Jerry Brown take away our City Hall and sell it to the Franciscans?

But also it piqued my curiosity. What exactly does all of this say?

So I took my search to the Google Translator and plugged in some of this alien looking tongue. What I found both frightened and concerned me. And once I'd typed it out here for all to read I began to fear for my eternal soul.

Here are the three opening sentences on the article regarding Josh Moran:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed felis leo, posuere vitae accumsan id, faucibus id mi. Sed in lacus felis, quis iaculis nulla.

Here is how those sentences are interpreted by the Google Translator:

Hello world! I am here to cancel meals. Events are a lion, to lay the accusations of life, and here and that, oh my. But in the lakes the cats, who dart? No.

Now what exactly is that supposed to mean? Is it some kind of ancient spell brought back to life by dark forces which we no longer have the necessary spiritual skills to recognize for what they truly are? And why would that be on the new City of Sierra Madre website?

Here is what is written under the picture of Joe Mosca:

Nunc lacus sapien, tincidunt ac varius at, feugiat non odio. Duis elementum aliquet nisi, et egestas maurius tristique congue. Aliquam eget gravida diam.

Which Gooogle translates as saying:

Now a hollow sapien, truncated of divers, wanting to display but not out of hatred. We, except the element of some, but the poverty, cunningly and congruous. This child is in need of a diameter.

Again, these words seem to make little sense. Even for Joe.

For Nancy Walsh the words used are as follows:

Vestibulum eu odio non magna pellentesque placerat. Praesant facilisis libero at odio condimentum pellentesque. In mollis id dolor ornare aliquet.

And if you translate this from Latin to English you discover the following:

Read more. Do not hate the great beauty, it is to please. Present easy at a free diet and not the hatred of feet. In the pain that you soften, which is clear to adorn.

All of this makes less sense than John Buchanan explaining the need for the sale of additional municipal bonds. If there is anyone who can shed some light as to why the new City of Sierra Madre website has been written in some strange variant of the language used by the Roman Empire, please share.

And unless this has something to do with all that "end of the world" talk going around, there really is no logical explanation. I'm completely at a loss to explain what all of this might mean.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Fine Collection of Topics for Your Consideration Today

I remember being worried when we first kicked off The Tattler that somehow we'd run out of things to write about. Sierra Madre is not all that big of a town, and perhaps there just wouldn't be enough stories of the kind I intended to write to sustain a daily news site? Certainly there must be some hard limits to the material available, and I feared that we would get there much too quickly.

Of course, that's hard to believe now. After 730 posts it's pretty obvious that we've left that concern far behind. Today the problem is that there is just too much going on to cover it all. And not enough free hours in the day to get it done. But I do promise to try. I enjoy doing this too much to have it any other way.

Topic #1: How much debt does Sierra Madre actually have? There has been a bit of a groundswell on this one, triggered by the revelation that our Community Redevelopment Agency (or CRA for the cool kids) is carrying $4 million in various kinds of debt. Much of it having its origin from way back in the 1970s. It became an issue this week when the City decided to transfer some CRA owned properties over the the City proper. Including the building known as our City Hall. The question being would the debt that made the CRA's original ownership possible also tag along with it when the property was crossed over. We were assured Tuesday evening that would not be the case, but who the heck knows what the real deal might be?

We've been burned far too many times to accept something like that at face value.

So here's the situation as I see it. We discovered that the City is carrying approximately $19 million in water bond debt when we began looking into the actual reasons behind the water rate hike a year or so back. And now we have also discovered that Sierra Madre's CRA is lugging around $4 million in debt because of this property transfer matter that suddenly arose last week.

We became aware of these two huge slugs of red ink because certain issues cropped up that made them very obvious. But what about the debts that don't have flashing neon arrow signs pointing directly at them?

The Tattler will shortly be filing with City Hall a Public Records Act Request for an accounting of all the debt this City is currently carrying. Even the stuff whose origins go all the way back to the '70s, like those CRA bonds. With all this crazy talk from the Mayor about selling new bonds, I think it is our duty to find out just how much we owe. It would be irresponsible as citizens and taxpayers for us to do otherwise.

Topic #2: Why wasn't the 4th of July Committee at City Hall Tuesday evening for the John Shear presentation? This has been a puzzlement to some, and the concern was expressed to me in both phone calls and e-mail. It was certainly their prerogative not to give John Shear the Grand Marshal slot for this year's 4th of July Parade. I obviously did not think it was the right call given the sacrifices made by Mr. Shear, but that wasn't my decision to make. And that The Committee came up with the Hometown Hero designation is to their credit, and it also showed a willingness on their part to recognize a true hero of Sierra Madre.

So why were they absent at the Hometown Hero presentation to John Shear at Tuesday's City Council meeting? You'd think that, as the inventors of this honor, they would want to be present at its very first official awarding. We should have seen at least one or two Committee members there. A very puzzling absence, to be sure.

Topic #3: Conservative Leaders and Property Rights Advocates Call On GOP Legislators to Abandon Defense of Redevelopment Agencies - That, friends, is the title of an article published by PR Newswire on May 24 (click here) announcing the formation of a coalition of Conservatives and Eminent Domain opponents who want to help Republican Legislators in Sacramento get past their strange phobias over doing away with RDAs. Here is how PRN puts it:

Today, conservative leaders and private property rights advocates announced a statewide public education campaign to convince Republican State Legislators to abolish California Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs) to advance conservative values of property rights and fiscal responsibility. In March, only one Republican voted for Governor Jerry Brown's budget plan to abolish 425 RDAs.

RDAs have come under considerable public scrutiny for wasteful government spending, eminent domain abuse and, according to independent state analysis, failing to increase the overall number of California jobs. The campaign is designed to build support among the public and to ask GOP legislators to sign a pledge to abolish redevelopment agencies. This pledge will serve as a commitment to conservative values such as protecting taxpayers and private property.

"Republican Legislators need to convince voters that they remain dedicated to defending private property rights and protecting taxpayers," said Jon Fleishman, a conservative blogger and former officer of the California Republican Party. "Pledging to abolish redevelopment agencies will reaffirm their commitment to conservative principles."

Of course, if you want examples of wasteful RDA spending, you don't have to look any farther than Sierra Madre. Needless to say, a copy of this article was forwarded to Tim Donnelly's office in Sacramento.

Topic #4: Sierra Madre Quality Bottled Waters - I can't believe that almost everyone missed the point about the so-called "One Carter Water Rights" discussion at Tuesday's City Council confab. Can it be that this agenda was so completely hidden that I was the only one to see it?

Obviously as a real estate developer One Carter LLC (aka Capital Source) has run into some serious problems. Not only have the lots at their "Stonegate at Sierra Madre" property been basking untouched in the sun like so many beached porpoises, even the handful that were bought as investment properties are back on the market (click here). These guys have made the Downtown Investors Club look like business geniuses.

Maybe they should be called the Uphill Investors Club?

So what this water deal with One Carter is all about is that Capital Source is getting into the quality waters business. Having gone $60 million in the hole over the boondoggle upside the hillside, they needed to rethink their business model a little bit. And realizing that the McMansion thing just wasn't going to work out for them, they changed their approach entirely. Look for Sierra Madre Quality Bottled Waters to make its appearance on the market soon. So far there are four brands designated for nationwide distribution, all labeled in honor of members of the 2004 Sierra Madre City Council that made One Carter possible. They are currently taking suggestions for possible names.

Topic #5: Who will represent the City of Sierra Madre in Court at the Prop 218/Water Rate lawsuit? Rumor now has it that when the water rate lawsuit finally gets to Court, the law firm that will be representing the City of Sierra Madre will not be Colantuono & Levin. Instead it will be some other fine law firm.

This will come as something of a shock to those who assumed that the doughty Sandi Levin would be leading the charge to defend Sierra Madre. Especially from those ruffians who dared to challenge her heartfelt assertion that the water rate increase process was handled properly because she's the one that did it. Which apparently, in her judicious opinion, should have been the end of it.

Whether it was the exorbitant cost of her services that lead to her being shunted aside, or a possible conflict of interest situation involving the League of California Cities, or perhaps because they're saving her for the appeal, is anybody's guess. And who knows, maybe there was a scheduling conflict with her bowling league.

Enjoy the rest of your day.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So Did You Believe City Hall?

Things have changed in Sierra Madre over the last several years, and the level of trust many once felt for City Hall just isn't there anymore. For some it was the recent water rate increase discrepancies that did it. For others it ended in 2004 with One Carter. Or the DSP in 2006. Or the 2008 revelation that the City had lost a million dollars, but it wasn't a big deal and no special audit needed to be done.

Or any number of questionable actions taken by those who we did once believe in.

When you watch a City Council meeting and you hear a discussion such as the one we heard last night about how the transference of Redevelopment Agency owned properties to the City would not be encumbered in any way by the nearly $4 million in debt the CRA is carrying right now, you really do have to wonder. Is it true? Should you believe them?

And was it really all being done so that Jerry Brown wouldn't run off with our Fire House? Or because somebody forgot to fill out some paperwork in 1988?

After all, the people who were making these claims are also the exact same officials who told us that the City had to raise water rates because the pipes were falling apart. Only to have to admit later on that the reason was actually something quite different. And then only after being caught red-handed by the very residents they had hoped to take in with that now discredited tale.

So as far as last night's City Council meeting went, who knows what was true and what wasn't? There was no real proof offered on the CRA property transference question, just assurances that none of that nearly $4 million in old debt would be transferred to the General Fund along with City Hall and other properties originally obtained with redevelopment bond money. Nothing was actually proven, we were just asked to take them at their word.

So look, it might have been true. The story seemed plausible enough. Or it might have been that the water rate increase strategy was back for another spin around the block. That one had seemed plausible, too. At least it did at first.

So who knows? Guess we will just have to wait and see.

Looking for a change? You can always buy yourself a discounted Sierra Madre pyramid.

This from the real estate happy website L.A. Curbed:

"World Famous" Sierra Madre Pyramid Now Under $1 Million - If Nicholas Cage ever gets his finances sorted out and can resume his hobby of collecting houses, he might wanna ease back into it with Sierra Madre's famous Pyramid House. Frankly, we can't imagine too many other people eccentric enough to want to buy the glass-and-steel landmark, which, according to a 1991 LA Times story on it, features such quirky touches as a wrought-iron spiral stairway salvaged from a London sewer and a round front door resembling an oversized wagon wheel that opens by being rolled out of the way.

But hopefully we're wrong, as it would be a shame to see the kooky pyramid, which was built in the early '70s by architect John G. McKinney, meet the wrecking ball. Located on a one-acre lot with views to downtown, the mystical property also includes a separate, non-triangular guesthouse. Per Redfin, the three-bedroom, two-bath home last sold in 1991 for $450,000; it was asking $1,098 million in 2009 (and was for lease for $3,500 per month). It's now listed at $925,000.

Follow the "Open House" signs to 751 Oak Crest and see it for yourself. The Pyramid has great views, and from all three directions. Also, as one of the commenters on the L.A. Curbed site noted, it has pyramid power. You'll never age and your razor blades will always be sharp.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

City Council Meeting Shocker! Jerry Brown Wants To Take Away Sierra Madre's City Hall!

I don't know if you will recall this, but during the run up to the last City Council elections Don Watts, who was running for re-election at the time, brought up an interesting issue. Who owns City Hall? Do we? Or had it been sold off to raise money for something nefarious. And if so, who exactly owns the building now? Nobody seemed to know the answer. Or at least no one wanted to say. That is, except for one person.

This matter was raised by Don several times, but most famously during a City Council meeting. And after he had raised these questions that particular evening, our City Manager, Elaine Aguilar, had her answers all ready. The City owns City Hall, reported Elaine. It is a fact and cannot not be disputed, she claimed. The implication being that to say otherwise would be to engage in irresponsible speculation that is not based in truth. At which point the issue died and wasn't heard of again during the election.

Funny person, that Elaine Aguilar. And very situational in her approach to managing our City.

So for tonight's City Council meeting the issue of who exactly owns City Hall has mysteriously arisen again. Only according to City Staff, this time the City of Sierra Madre doesn't own City Hall. It also doesn't own the buildings that house the Police Department or the Fire Department, either. Rather they all belong to something known as the CRA, which is very much our local Redevelopment Agency, but it owes all of its allegiance to Sacramento.

And even though the people running the Sierra Madre CRA franchise are our City Council members, it is most definitely not an entity owned by the City of Sierra Madre. It is Sacramento's baby, and paid for with Sacramento controlled property tax money. Which is why Sacramento has been able to take it away from us in the past when they wanted to. It's their money.

So the panic attack this evening is about saving City Hall and other CRA owned buildings from being stolen away from us by Jerry Brown. As you probably already know, Jerry Brown has vowed to end Redevelopment Agencies as a way of freeing up billions of dollars for such things as public schools and hospitals. Rather than the kinds of frivolous things that CRA money has been squandered on in cities all over California. The infamous mermaid tank (click on it) built into a Sacramento bar and paid for in CRA cash comes immediately to mind.

And as ludicrous as this notion might sound, apparently the Gang of 4 has now pushed their big red panic button and is claiming to any and all who will listen that Jerry Brown is going to take away our City Hall, and the PD and FD stations as well. I don't quite know how this will be done, but I am assuming that trucks will be involved. And wrecking balls. Maybe they'll just put all three onto flatbed semis and drive them north to Sacramento where they will be added to Jerry Brown's very own personal City Hall and Fire Station collection. He's got hundreds of them, you know. Altogether they cover 50 square miles.

Now when both Susan Henderson and Bill Coburn write about the same thing at the same time, and in some depth, I naturally assume there must be some sort of City Hall spin cycle going down. Which then triggers my easily provoked suspicions. Since neither of these two folks are ever likely to say or do anything that contradicts what the downtown establishment is thinking, or write about difficult topics unless they absolutely have to, what you need to assume here is they're doing what they've been asked to do. Which is delivering a message that City Hall wants put out there to the residents.

In an article entitled Protecting Our Property, here is how Susan Henderson delivered her version of the message in last weekend's edition of the Looney Views News:

According to the report, in 1972, the CRA issued Public Safety Facility Lease Revenue Bonds which provided the funds for construction of City Hall and the Police and Fire Departments facilities (sic). Title for the properties were held in the name of the issuing agency, the Sierra Madre Community Redevelopment Agency. The bond documents included a provision that called for title to the properties to be transferred back to the city when the bonds and other costs were paid in full.

So far so good. But here is where Susan gets herself into a little bit of a conflict with a few of the more popular tenants of reality:

In 1988, Tax Increment Bonds were issued that paid off the 1972 bonds in full. At that time, title should have reverted back to the City of Sierra Madre but were not (sic). It is that omission that the council is being asked to correct on Tuesday.

Actually what happened is that these 1972 bonds were rolled over in 1988. But this could have hardly resulted in the City of Sierra Madre paying off the CRA and gaining control of the three buildings in question, unfinished paperwork or not. After all, even rolled over CRA bonds would still need to use those buildings as collateral. So we're going to have to give Susan an "F" on that answer.

Bill Coburn, and in direct contradiction to what Susan claimed, delivers the message correctly on his Sierra Madre News.net site:

According to the staff report on this agenda item, the CRA issued bonds in 1972 that were used to construct the City Hall and PD and FD buildings. According to staff, the CRA owned the buildings and the City leased them from the CRA. The leases were to terminate and the properties revert to City ownership when the bonds were paid off. That was never done ...

Which is good as far as it goes. But the problem here is that neither Bill Coburn, or the Agenda Report put together for the City Council by City Staff on this troubling matter, discusses the true elephant in the room. Which is just how big a debt load we are talking about here. If the City is going to assume control of CRA owned buildings that are carrying some very large amounts of indebtedness, wouldn't the costs of servicing all of that unpaid old bond debt come along as well?

Fortunately for us here at The Tattler, we have a research staff that is willing to go that extra mile in answering so important (and obvious) a question. And wouldn't you know it, they didn't have to go any farther than the City of Sierra Madre website to find it! According to the CRA audit for 2010 (click here), Sierra Madre's CRA is carrying an outstanding debt load (and with interest included) of $3,918,000. Give or take a few grand.

Which raises this question. If the City takes over control of City Hall from the CRA, along with those PD and FD party pads, wouldn't it also have to absorb nearly $4 million dollars in debt as well? Bond or otherwise? And where exactly would you put that in the City's budget? Would it become a General Fund expense? And if so, how will we be able to afford that? We're barely eking by as it is.

Here is another set of questions. The City Council just spent a boatload of CRA money on such frivolous things as playground equipment, a second so-called farmers' market, consultant studies on Sierra Madre parking lots and grocery consumption habits, and new potties for Memorial Park. To name a few. So if all it would have taken to gain control of our most beloved city buildings (and save them from becoming a part of Jerry Brown's City Hall collection) would be to pay off $4 million in CRA bond debt, what in the hell were we doing spending that money on swing sets and lifestyle consultants?

If losing City Hall to Jerry Brown really is a serious concern, why did the City Council encumber all that CRA money instead of paying off this bond debt? And besides, Jerry Brown already has legislation in the works that will take that CRA money away no matter how it has been encumbered. In reality the only truly safe thing to have done with that money would have been to pay off the CRA's bond debt.

None of what the City will apparently do this evening on this matter makes much sense. And honestly, it is delusional to believe that Sacramento is going to take away our City Hall. What would they do with it? Open a Chinese restaurant?

This smacks of the kinds of distractions our city government comes up with when they are trying to do something completely different. Like when the City claimed that repairing water pipes was the reason for a rate hike when it was actually for something else entirely.

This CRA building swap has got shenanigan written all over it. It can't be the real issue. And by using Tattler Rule #1, it must be assumed that this has something to do with money. My guess? This is part of the run up to the sale of new bonds. Because if this City government is expected to swallow all of the additional debt load that comes along with those CRA buildings, then it will take a few rather hefty bonds to do it. And you know how Mayor Buchanan just loves his bonds.

Two Nice Things That Will Happen At Tonight's City Council Meeting

Both Pat Alcorn and John Shear will be recognized by the City Council tonight. Pat will receive well-deserved accolades for her recent "Older American of the Year" award. John Shear will be recognized for his amazing act of heroism at Santa Anita a few months back.

Two very good things that nobody should want to miss.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Stonegate Redux: "The Huge Castle that has Fallen Out of the Sky"

Capital Source was back at it again at the May 19th Planning Commission meeting. And you almost had to feel sorry for these knuckleheads. Almost feel sorry, I said. Because year after year they keep running headfirst into a buzzsaw called Sierra Madre, and no matter how hard they try to get out from under the monstrous blunder they made here in our little town back in 2004, they just can't seem to get themselves off the hook.

But then again, what kind of karmic reward should an east coast money lender receive for having financed Dorn Platz? While at the same time enabling the destruction of one of the last pristine wildernesses left in Sierra Madre? There isn't anything they are getting that they don't richly deserve.

The shining new faces that Capital Source trotted out for the occasion had a mission that only they might have thought wasn't obvious. That being to get one single solitary McMansion built up on the ancient Indian burial ground now ridiculously misnamed "Stonegate at Sierra Madre." This land, sacred to some but accursed to those who despoiled it, has become a huge financial burden to Capital Source. They are rumored to have lost $10s of millions of dollars up there, and try as they might, they don't seem likely to reclaim much of it. Only a minority portion of these extremely costly lots have been sold, and nobody has yet to build one solitary home at Stonegate.

And that is their biggest problem right now. Without a single example of what can be built up there, no potential customer can see what might be possible. Take the Realtor tour today and all you will see are empty lots choked with weeds. Which is hardly the kind of thing that would attract the million or so bucks per lot that Capital Source needs to get to save their financial hide. They desperately need to build a McMansion. Just one McMansion to break the ice. Because without an example to reassure the marks that such a thing is possible, the place just doesn't justify the price.

So that is the background. And into the City Council chambers that evening sauntered the latest sacrificial victims, Brad Donaldson of Capital Source, and an architect straight out of Pasadena by the name of Adele Chang.

Adele Chang is an interesting specimen. A partner in the architectural firm of Lim Chang Rohling & Associates, Inc., she displayed an enormous range of attitudes that we will examine in a moment. If you go to her firm's website (here) you can see that they are indeed one of those kind of outfits. A portion of the gauche, oversized homes and mixed-use flat-topped generica that has littered the California landscape these last 20 years can be traced directly back to them.

That so much of what has now fallen into disfavor with California consumers can still be seen on their website would seem to indicate that somebody forgot to include LCR&A on the tacky alert e-mail list.

But what really endeared me to Adele was the two faces she brought with her into the room. The face she showed to the Planning Commission was one of solicitous concern and compassion for the great challenges they face. Yet to those residents who stood up to speak in defense of what we all think of as Sierra Madre, she was disrespectful and rude. At several points in the meeting actually rattling her papers as people she disapproved of dared to speak. It was as if Adele believed she was winning favor with the Planning Commission by dissing their neighbors. As if she and the PC were somehow on the same side, and shared a common enemy.

It was an incredible show of cluelessness on her part.

Brad Donaldson of Capital Source visibly withered under the questioning of the Planning Commission as the meeting went on. Brad boldly kicked it off with statements such as "We are looking to be a partner to the community," and "We want to integrate into the community." But by the end of the meeting a humbled Brad was down to little more than, "We certainly appreciate what you guys are saying," and "We really want to work with you guys." I don't know where Capital Source finds these fellows, but I swear they all end up folding like the exact same brand of cheap suitcase.

Around 20 Sierra Madre residents stood up to speak, and all made a strong case for not approving the looming McMansion Capital Source wants to build over our community. Here are 5 that really stood out.

Marguerite Schuster spoke of how the prospect of massive buildings jammed together in this way would obliterate the foothill views that are such an important part of life in this town. An example she gave of the consequences of such a debacle is La Vina. A Stonegate that would feature homes of the size Capital Source wants to build would be a lasting monument to our failure as a community. Marguerite warned the Planning Commission that to give an inch to these people would open the floodgates, and once one McMansion was built there would be nothing to stop the rest.

Carol Parker noted that this house would swallow up the neighborhood, casting a long shadow upon those unfortunate enough to live nearby. Carol quoted Adele Chang regarding the question of views being obscured by so large a house. "It depends on where you stand," is how Adele had tartly put it. To which Carol rhetorically replied, "We're all standing in Sierra Madre."

Heather Allen made an observation that I found to be thought-provoking and wise. "It's almost as if you need a law to give open space the right to exist. What you don't build is as important as what you do." Heather noted the distressing trend in town of overly large houses on small lots. Such as the still unfinished castle on Grove.

John Hutt laid out a very good case for not going forward with Capital Source's project. He noted that the house was truly large and imposing for a site which, when you consider the troubled past of the One Carter debacle, would only fuel further distrust and anger in the community. John had studied the staff report and saw that what CS was complying with were the bare minimums required by the General Plan and Hillside Ordinances. The bulk and the massing in no way fitting in with the spirit and goals of either. As a former member, John told the Planning Commission that they do have the authority to ensure consistency with both the HMZ and General Plan.

The most effective speaker of the evening was Diane Scalzo. Living directly south of the proposed Cap Source project, she would be among those directly experiencing the effects of so large a structure. I have known Diane for a while as our kids play in Little League together, and I know that this did not come easily to her. It was a very courageous thing she did, and her forthright observations had a visible effect on the Planning Commission. To her this project indicated that no thought was given to the neighbors of Stonegate. And if the size of this house, the first to be built there, is any indication of what would follow, then it is a truly awful thing that these people have planned for us. "I can't believe that this can happen here," is how Diane put it.

Not a single speaker stood up to to defend Capital Source's plans for Stonegate.

The Planning Commission deliberated, and the good guys won Round One. The supercilious architect was directed back to the drawing board, her orders being to design something far smaller. A two car garage instead of a three car garage, and four bedrooms rather then five, were the goals set for her. The Commission understood the applicant's motives perfectly. If this first house were to get by as it was originally designed, all the others would then be built to look just like it.

The best description that evening of the Cap Source McMansion came from Commissioner Spears. "The huge castle that has fallen out of the sky."

It looks like it has landed, and with a thud.

The Mountain Views News and the Lawyers of Starbucks

In this week's installment of its usual journalistic befuddlement, the MVN published a list of all the nominees up for the 4th of July Parade Grand Marshal honors. Including folks who said they wouldn't accept it, and those that didn't even know they had been nominated.

Also included on the Mountain Views News list as nominees for Grand Marshal are "The Barristers of Starbucks." Now I have been a sucker for triple lattes' ever since I moved to the Golden State, so I have done my time in Starbucks. (Though, to tell you the truth, I much prefer Beantown.) But what I had never once picked up on in my visits to Starbucks is that I was being served by attorneys at law. This is a touch that you don't often get in coffee shops, or at least the ones that I frequent.

But I have to be straight with you. I think what we might actually be looking at here is a malapropism. You see, the folks who cook up the coffee beans at Starbucks are known as Baristas, which is Italian for bartender. Starbucks fancies a foreign sounding lingo, believing (I guess) that this makes them sound exotic and sophisticated. Which is also why they call their large drinks "Grande," and the jumbo-sized ones "Venti." Or so I suppose. A continental flair that you'd have to be from Seattle to appreciate, I guess.

The baristas of Starbucks are lawyers like Susan Henderson is a lawyer. The only difference here is that the helpful baristas down by Kersting Court have never claimed to be one.

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