Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jerry Brown Takes the Ax to Redevelopment Agencies

Yeah, I know. Yesterday I said I was going to take some time off. And I really intended to do that. But then all this other stuff happened and I figured I should probably write about it.

I remember when I started this blog I worried a lot about how I'd run out of things to write about. Now I worry about where I will find the time to just keep up with it all.

So the big news is Jerry Brown has finally put the ax to the CRAs, or RDAs depending on your taste in acronyms. After decades of eminent domain abuse, truly awful development and the corrupting influence of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars placed into the hands of small town oligarchs and the redevelopers who love them, the monster has finally met its well deserved end.

Look at it this way, if Sierra Madre didn't have a redevelopment agency, the Downtown Specific Plan and Measure V, along with all of those unfortunate effects still afflicting us today, would never have happened.

Here is the good word from the LA Times:

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Wednesday proposals to abolish California's existing redevelopment program ... Under AB 26 1x and AB 27 1x, California will force its existing network of more than 400 redevelopment agencies, which spend property tax dollars to fix up blighted areas, to dissolve and join a new redevelopment program. The agencies would hand over $1.7 billion to the state for the privilege in the coming fiscal year, as well as $400 million each year thereafter. Supporters of redevelopment agencies have likened the plan to extortion and have promised to sue.

The cost of opting into the new redevelopment scheme being so high it is assumed that only the wealthiest cities will be able to participate, and even then may not choose to do so due to the vast expense. Of course, there are those who are so determined to have a redevelopment agency that they will spend $100s of thousands of taxpayer dollars for the privilege. And our very own John Buchanan has apparently already budgeted for just that contingency. Without having the kind of "conversation with the community" he plans to have about the UUT.

But then again, why should he? There isn't that much the community can do about it, whereas the UUT could be vastly diminished next April. Conversations apparently only happening when there is something that he wants.

Speaking of the UUT ...

I'm trying to get my mind around what looks, at least anecdotally, like a disconnect between the City Council and the UUT Oversight Committee. There is some suspicion that the UUT Committee, by coming up with their recommendation to raise utility taxes by 2%, was doing something that they had been encouraged to do. Which explains their shocked reaction when they realized that the City Council wasn't going to take their hard work to heart.

Larry David, who has a gift for being outraged without losing command of the language, put his sense of disbelief into these words:

"Aren't you going to ask why we recommended raising the UUT rate? Won't there be any questions, or any debate?"

All he got back were half smiles and silence. Nancy Walsh did note a little later that they had worked hard, helpfully pointing out that there are plenty of other commission positions open for them should they wish to continue serving their community.

In today's Pasadena Star News (click) there is an article that details the rather abrupt treatment the UUT Oversight Committee received in exchange for their pains. Here is how Mayor Buchanan shooed the flies:

"We felt that in these economic times, it was better to give our citizens a break," Mayor John Buchanan said on Wednesday. "We were able to balance the budget without increasing the rates, but yes, we had to make some cuts to our program."

There really is some kind of disconnect here. Previous UUT Oversight Committees (I was on one) never even considered the question of rates. The job was to check spends and make sure that they had been made appropriately. And when I was a part of that excitement the oversight from City Staff was not just present, but highly active as well. Short of requiring us to ask permission to use the bathroom there wasn't much that they didn't control.

For me it is hard to believe that this particular committee's decision to meet an extra 3 or 4 times to grapple with the issue of raising the UUT rate to its full permissible 12% was not done without at least the tacit approval of someone in authority.

So were they set up? Was UUT Oversight Committee's call to raise the rate 2% in order to deal with the $860,000 shortfall in public safety costs done so that the City Council could give the appearance of holding fast on tax increases? Could it be they were unwitting partners in a publicity stunt?

The NY Times calls Patch a "Content Farm"

Recently the NY Times published a very intriguing article called Google's War on Nonsense (click). The topic is "content farms," which are corporately-run operations that produce bulk internet nonsense with the express desire of "gaming" the Google rating system. The notion behind this exercise being to drive hits to an owned entity, improving that company's page views, thus enabling them to charge more for advertising.

Here is how the Times explains it:

Content farms, which have flourished on the web in the past 18 months, are massive news sites that use headlines, keywords and other tricks to lure Web-users into looking at ads. These sites confound and embarrass Google by gaming its ranking system. As a business proposition, they once seemed exciting. Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content an Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that "aim to produce content a a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it."

As a verbal artifact, farmed content exhibits neither style nor substance. You may faintly recognize news in some of these articles, especially gossip - but the prose is so odd as to seem extraterrestrial. "Another passenger of the vehicle has also been announced to be dead," declares a typical sentence on Associated Content. "Like many fans of the popular "Jackass" franchise, Dunn's life and pranks meant a great amount to me."

These prose-widgets are not hammered out by robots, surprisingly. But they are written by writers who work like robots. As recent accounts of life in these words-are-money mills make clear, some content-farm writers have deadlines as frequently as every 25 minutes. Others are expected to turn around reported pieces, containing interviews with several experts, in an hour. Some compose, edit, format and publish 10 articles in a single shift. Many with decades of experience in journalism work 70-hour weeks for salaries of $40,000 with no vacation time. The content farms have taken journalism hackwork to a whole new level.

The "content farm" phenomenon had become something of a problem for Google. Why would anyone want to use their search engine when most of the stuff any request turns up is content farmed junk?

So who is responsible for creating all this strange stuff? The NY Times goes on to identify the culprits:

Business Insider, the business-news site, has provided a forum to a half dozen low-paid content farmers, especially those who work on AOL's enormous Seed and Patch ventures. They describe exhausting and sometimes exploitative writing conditions. Oliver Miller, a journalist with an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence who once believed he would write the Great American Novel, told me AOL paid him about $28,000 for writing 300,000 words about television, all based on fragments of shows he'd never seen, filed in half-hour intervals, on a graveyard shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 7 or 8 in the morning.

So why would a company like AOL be doing this? Page views and money, of course.

Mr. Miller's job, as he made clear in an article last week in The Faster Times, an online newspaper, was to cram together words that someone's research had suggested might be in demand on Google, position these strings as titles and headlines, embellish them with other inoffensive words and make the whole confection vaguely resemble an article. AOL would put "Rick Fox mustache" in a headline, betting that some number of people would put "Rick Fox mustache" into Google, and retrieve Mr. Miller's article. Readers coming to AOL, expecting information, might discover a subliterate wasteland. But before bouncing out, they might watch a video clip with ads on it. Their visits would also register as page views, which AOL could then sell to advertisers.

The good news is Google has now responded to this threat to their credibility, and has instituted a new algorithm called "Panda." One designed to weed out content farmed nonsense so that legitimately produced news information can be easily retrieved by those using the world's largest search engine. Panda is apparently still a work in progress, but it is credited with already improving Google service in this regard markedly.

Which means that in the not too distant future, when you are looking up a topic of personal interest on Google, your search request won't automatically turn up a million Patch articles.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Taking a couple of days off ... But first, let me share a few things

The big 4th of July weekend is just about upon us, and I'm going to shut The Tattler down for a few days. Haven't taken a break from this in about 10 months, so a little time off to recharge the batteries and get ready for the long summer ahead is in order. There is also a bunch of stuff that needs to be done around the house, and I am going to give myself a little time to do it. My "honey do" list is now starting to look more like a phonebook. Time to unplug the Apple.

Before I split I would like to point something out. The mood of this community towards tax increases and rate hikes was clearly on display at last night's City Council meeting. Despite what was a clear and strong call for raising the Utility User Tax to 12% by the UUT Oversight Committee, the City Council could not do it. Not that they didn't want to, because it seemed fairly obvious to me that they did. Certainly they had been building towards making that happen over the last few meetings. But politically it would have been disastrous for them. So they blinked. They have clearly heard your voices. And the message received was, "Enough!"

We have reached a tipping point in Sierra Madre. Does City government stay as it has for the last decade or so, or do we return to something smaller, less obtrusive and financially less demanding? Clearly we now have a City Council that believes in staying the big spending course, and grabbing every dime needed to remain there.

And if you don't believe me, please consider that last night they approved the spending of $30,000 (or was that $50,000?) for a consultant to study our grocery consumption habits. An ethically oblivious and absurd spend in a time when many of our neighbors are having trouble making ends meet, and the rest of us worry that we might soon be joining them. Life in the private sector is like that these days, in case they hadn't heard. They should also understand that nobody is immune.

But this City Council is also hearing footsteps. And if they want the voters to renew their commitment to double digit UUT rates next spring, then, as Chris Koerber pointed out, they had better not heed the UUT Oversight Committee's call for a tax increase. Because otherwise their UUT dreams will "go down in flames" at the hands of the voters next April. And with it large and expensive government in Sierra Madre.

No matter how much "conversation" they hope to have with the taxpayers.

The people of Sierra Madre won a big victory last night. Make no mistake about it. Now we will have some decisions to make. Things are changing, and I believe for the better. Like I said, we are at a tipping point.

I have had the incredible privilege of being asked to ride with John Shear, our world renowned Hometown Hero, in this year's 4th of July Parade. And I have humbly accepted that honor. The Shears are close and dear friends to me and my family, and have been with me on my great adventures (and misadventures) in the world of politics. And my victories, as well. True friendships are rare in life, and I have been blessed with some.

I look forward to seeing you all at the 4th of July Parade. Let's celebrate America together, and the coming rebirth of Sierra Madre as well.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Return of the Prodigal Agenda Man

We fired Agenda Man several months ago. His writing was uninspired, his perspectives unremarkable, and frankly he was just way too self-involved to properly understand the vital importance of Sierra Madre City Council meeting agenda reports. We showed him the door and fervently hoped to never have to deal with him again. I know this might seem unnecessarily harsh to some, but in order to run a tight ship we need to keep our standards high.

However, for this particular post we had run into a bit of a problem. Nobody wanted to write it. After having reviewed this evening's agenda, all of the usual Tattler writers became despondent and just couldn't bring themselves to do it. "Look at all the money they're spending!" they wailed. "They want to raise our taxes again! After promising only two weeks before that they wouldn't do it!" they cried. "The new state mandated RHNA numbers will destroy this town! The fascists (or socialists, depending on who you were talking to) are winning!" On and on they went. It really was a pretty sad sight.

I mean, it's good that they care and all. But why none of them just couldn't suck it up and get the job done is, frankly, not good.

So we had no choice. We called Agenda Man and told him we'd give him one last chance. He seemed happy about the opportunity, and promised to turn in some good work this time. I must admit, Agenda Man seemed sincerely committed to the project. Perhaps this would turn out for the best after all.

So we took his word and told him the job was once again his responsibility. Here is what he filed with The Tattler for today's report:

The rituals will be performed, and the assembled will come to a bright new understanding of life and their role in it after hearing this evening's invocation and moment of inspiration from the cosmic councilman, Joe Mosca. Sierra Madre School Principal Gaye Bluemel will be recognized, which should be fairly easy since her picture has been seen everywhere lately. A small brace of long time Fire Department guys will retire, but we won't be told why they're all leaving at the same time. Which would be far more interesting than anything Mayor Buchanan will have to say on the topic.

After all of that a ridiculously large sum of money will be spent. And I do mean large. Which seems strange to me given that later on in the meeting they'll be looking to increase utility taxes. Or so the rumor goes. And you'd think there would be some recognition from the elected officials that a whole lot of money is going out the door. But I suspect they'll just act all entitled about it.

Here is the list:

City Warrants: $199,973.19
Sierra Madre Library Warrants: $12,822.47
Payroll Transfer: $328,283.73
CRA Revolving Note: $25,711.00
GASB 54: (No dollar value assigned on the agenda)
Community Media: $32,000
Downtown Retail Market Demand Study: $30,000
Sierra Madre Blvd Water Main Replacement: $1,092,750.00
Resurfacing City Owned Parking Lots: $471,500.00

Which, when all of the available numbers are added together, comes to a little under $2.2 million dollars. Add that to the spend from the previous June City Council meeting and that number balloons to over the $4 million dollar mark. Which is a pretty substantial number for a City of under 11,000 people to be spending in a single month. Especially a City that wants you to think it's teetering on the edge of some fiscal difficulty.

A discussion about Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers is up next. This conversation will be led by MaryAnn MacGillivray who, alone among our City Council members, has actually been going to the SCAG/CEHD meetings where these numbers are talked about. You'd think that just about the biggest development issue facing Sierra Madre in years would attract a little more Council interest. But with the exception of MaryAnn they are strangely quiet on this issue.

I don't want to go into too much depth here as this topic will be covered on The Tattler pretty exhaustively over the next few days. But it does appear that the state social engineers in Sacramento, armed with SB 375, are going to hit cities like ours pretty heavily over the next year or so. The number of housing units that we will be mandated to allow by the state could be unprecedented in scope, and their desire to resettle low income people here equally troubling.

In San Diego County, which was first region to suffer this process, small cities such as ours have been told that they must assume responsibility for low income housing numbers way beyond anything they have ever seen before. And I believe that will be what MaryAnn will attempt to explain to her smug colleagues.

However, I also believe that the bad news she will be delivering will not be received in quite the way it is intended. I suspect Joe, John, Nancy and Josh will actually find this to be a good thing. Because despite all of their election promises about wanting to keep Sierra Madre the kind of small and quaint place it is today, as are the wishes of so many living here, they actually couldn't care less.

They've all waited a long time for the state to cram development down the throats of towns like ours, making this a special moment for them. Finally the people of Sierra Madre will be overcome, and high density development will at last come to our downtown. Expect lots of talk about how we have to follow the law, what the consequences might be if we fail to knuckle under, and whatever can we possibly do about it, anyway. All washed down with copious quantities of crocodile tears.

After spending $4 million dollars in a single month, the City Council will then tell us about the UUT Oversight Committee's conclusion that utility taxes need to go up. Now most folks would feel a little sheepish about asking for more money, especially after having spent as much as they have, and like so many drunken sailors. But that wouldn't be the kind of thing Mayor John Buchanan would refer to as "making the tough decisions."

Expect a long meandering explanation from the Mayor about how spending all that money this month has nothing to do with the City needing to raise our taxes. Strangely enough, many people will actually believe him. Proving yet again that the adage about one being born every minute still holds true.

The meeting wraps up with the appointment of folks to vacant commission seats. I'm not certain which ones are up for grabs, but anyone with the ability to stay awake after having witnessed all of the above will then be rewarded with just that kind of information. You will have more than earned it.

Until then, I remain yours truly, Agenda Man. I hope to see you again in two weeks.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The City of Sierra Madre Spends Over $4 Million In the Month of June -- Begins Discussion About Raising Utility Taxes Tomorrow Night

If there was ever a month where the City of Sierra Madre spent more money, I've never heard about it. And I do understand, a lot of that $4 million came out of various funds and grants and all. It's not just General Fund cash. We've certainly heard about that enough. But do you want to know something? No matter what federal, state or local agency that money may have come from, it is still our tax money. And that is what really makes it all happen.

Unless, of course, you have figured out a way to not pay your taxes to Uncles Sam and Jerry. And if that is the case, then maybe you'll kindly share your finance secrets with us here?

This really is a conundrum, however. On the one hand we have the City of Sierra Madre and its City Council telling us that the budget is balanced and the bills are all being paid. All $4 million dollars of 'em in the month of June alone. But then on the other hand we have the UUT Oversight Committee handing in a report that says things are so bad City Hall needs to raise utility taxes again. All the way up to the 12% Measure U maximum rate.

Are they all reading off the same ledger? Dealing from the same side of the deck? And since when did the UUT Oversight Committee start setting tax policy in this town? When I was on that committee all we did was look through old Police and Fire Department bills for unauthorized beer and donut purchases.

If I'm reading the agenda for tomorrow night's City Council meeting correctly, it states that the UUT Oversight Committee report, which will be discussed by our elected officials, is a receive and file only. But that is not what two of Sierra Madre's foremost journalists are telling us this week. I don't know where they're getting their information (well, I actually sort of do), but according to them this Utility Tax grab is pretty much a done deal.

We'll start off with Bill Coburn, who issued this following report over the weekend on his completely comment-free Sierra Madre site.

UUT Likely to Increase to 12% at Tuesday's Council Meeting - The staff report for Item 3 on Tuesday night's City Council Agenda includes a recommendation by the UUT Oversight Committee that the Council increase the UUT rate to 12%. The Oversight Committee voted 3 to 2 to make that recommendation. According to the staff report, the recommendations state that for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, staff has estimated the UUT revenue will be greater than the base year (2008) revenue by $1,332,939, while public safety expenses for 2011 will be greater than the base year by $2,192,299.

Well yeah, you don't increase the SMPD all the way to 36 cops without running up a fat tab. And come to think of it, with every tenth car on the streets of this town now a police cruiser, that must explain why they've installed an application for paying traffic tickets on the new City of Sierra Madre website.

Apparently we have become that proverbial cliche' of the small-hearted little town, the place that exists as little more than a venue for handing out traffic tickets.

Susan Henderson, publisher of the always grammatically challenged Mountain Views News, also weighs in with a "taxes are going up" vibe.

On the agenda are the (sic) final report of the User Utility Tax (UUT) Oversight Committee which recommends that the city increase the UUT to 12% in the fiscal year 2012. "The UUT Oversight Committee was formed to review and make recommendations concerning the audit and appropriate expenditure of the funds collected by the increased UUT."

Actually the UUT Committee was formed to make sure that the additional UUT funds collected after Measure U was passed were actually spent the way that they were intended by the voters. Making recommendations about tax policy to the City Council is something completely new.

I have a theory, though. Some of you might recall John Buchanan commenting a few months back about how the UUT Oversight Committee would be doing things a little differently this go around. I didn't pick up on it at the time, but it appears the purpose as he saw it was to have the Committee recommend that utility taxes go up 2% so it wouldn't appear as if it was the G4 Council's idea.

This is hardly the first time Mayor Buchanan has used a resident committee to justify a tax grab. Apparently he thinks of such things as human shields.

The Hysteria Whine

Hail "Bopp" Hamilton gets positively hyphy in this week's Looney Views News over what he sees as the coming destruction of local government. Never mind that many such governments, including ours, seem incapable of making the same kinds of adjustments that private companies have been forced to make over the last decade. Instead let's just have a big old panic attack and raise utility taxes, water rates, fees and business license costs, and then start getting ready to unleash the biggest bond sale in Sierra Madre's history. All the while continuing to spend at a record pace.

Here is how Purple Prose Hail hyperventilates on the topic:

Small cities in California, like Sierra Madre, face one of the most daunting and widespread fiscal crises in decades - and it's only just the beginning. As a whole, these cities face nearly 3 percent budget shortfalls on average this year. And the sense of trepidation is ubiquitous across a diverse range of metropolitan areas, regardless of which aspect of the national crisis impacts them the most: declining consumption rates and increased property foreclosures; job losses in manufacturing or financial services; or record state budget shortfalls ... Sierra Madre could be been (sic) especially hard hit, experiencing a one-two punch to its key revenue sources, as a result of declining consumer spending (sales taxes) and depressed home values (property taxes).

Despite all of that "ubiquitous trepidation," sales taxes have never been a real producer of revenue for this town. And unless the value of your property is somehow adjusted downward by an assessor, you'll still be paying the same old property taxes you've always paid. No matter what the housing market happens to be doing.

People sometimes confuse the fiscal health of City Hall with what is going on in the town. Just because local government is having its problems hardly means that the condition of the community as a whole is bad. As a matter of fact, a community that functions well through the talents of its residents, rather than whatever it is the hired out-of-town bureaucrats and functionaries are up to, is probably the far better off place. In other words, just because City Hall is having trouble making ends meet does not mean the town has a problem. Life will still go on, and most people will not even know or care. Unless you raise their taxes, of course.

The relevance of small City government in the lives of those living under it's jurisdiction often being vastly overstated.

But as for what Hail and the rest of the Chicken Littles are saying? Somehow I get the feeling that we're going to be hearing a lot more of that sort of thing for a while. And why is that? It's tax-raising season in Sierra Madre. Once again.

And they always say these sorts of things when they want more of our money.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Which City of Sierra Madre Website Has the 6/28 City Council Meeting Agenda?

I have noticed a couple of posts this beautiful Sunday morning from people wondering why the 6/28 City Council Meeting Agenda has yet to be posted on the City's website. I think there is some state law or other (what isn't a state law?) which declares that notifications of gummint meetings such as this Tuesday's City Council confab must be made available to the public a full 72 hours before they can legally get their party started.

However, if you go to the current City of Sierra Madre site you will note that no such City Council Meeting Agenda is listed. ( This is as of 9 am this morning. Things do change sometimes after they are revealed here, so there is no guarantee that is the way things will be when you let your fingers do the walking.

But if you go to the still under construction new pastel color themed City of Sierra Madre website ( you will discover it listed under "Latest Events." The date June 28, with the time listed at 6 pm.

This presents a problem to my way of thinking. My way of thinking being, of course, to find problems. And here it is. If you look at the current City of Sierra Madre website the following is said:

The City of Sierra Madre will be launching a new website! The address will be the same, but (it) will have a new look ...

Which to me means that no notice has been made of this City Council meeting. At least on what is still the City's official website.

However, the City of Sierra Madre site is not the only place these meetings can be legally noticed. They can be hung on the wall at City Hall (Hear Ye! Hear Ye!) or just put on display at the Library where such things are seen by literally dozens of folks.

So it is no deal breaker. But as a public service to you, the Tattler reader, if you want to see this week's City Council meeting agenda, it's Go Sierra Madre!

After all, we'd hardly want an error as unfortunate as this one to suppress attendance at Tuesday evening's set-to. The scoundrels are set to discuss raising our utility taxes again. This after expressly stating on numerous occasions that they weren't considering such a thing.

It ain't right, I tell you.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tattler Puts Its Marketing Expertise to Work for the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce

As someone who runs the west coast marketing department for a major U.S. record label, I do know a thing or two about how to properly create an atmosphere conducive to the cause of commerce. And often I have thought about how I could help the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce with its "events problems."

Because let's face it, their prosaic 1950s "roadside attraction" approach to getting people up here to the crown jewel of the Angeles Mountains Foothills just isn't working out for them these days. In many ways times have sadly passed on by. It is something that we as Sierra Madreans need to be very concerned about.

In the age of X-Box and iTunes the thought of driving 20 miles to sit in the lap of yet one more Santa Claus just isn't going to drive the imaginations of today's thrill-seeking (and yes, jaded) consumers. Outside of the world's largest flowering plant, there isn't a whole lot here going on for them. And then what happens to their deal if it rains? Which at this year's Wistaria Festival it did, and in near Biblical proportions. As we have seen from the colossal gourmet food truck debacle, they are desperately seeking something. And quite obviously not finding it.

So how does a small town with a quaint (though commercially at-risk) downtown shopping area in need of a little foot traffic go about bringing in today's hard to please consumers? They get creative. They use what they have to get what they need. For your edification, here are two examples of small towns that are experiencing some wild success with their events. Both having what it takes to make it in our times.

The first event is run by the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Nederlands, Colorado. Here is how their slice of marketing glory is laid out in a front page article from the New York Times:

Frozen Dead Guy Festival for Sale (the Man Himself Stays on Ice) - As a business opportunity, Nederland's frozen dead guy is pretty hot right now. Well, technically, of course, he's still frozen, packed in dry ice in a shed outside town, as he has been going on 20 years.

But the concept and the rights to the name Frozen Dead Guy Days, the gleefully ghoulish late-winter bacchanal of ice and death and beer -- that's up for grabs. The Nederland Area Chamber of Commerce here in the mountains northwest of Denver owns the registered trademark to all things Dead Guy and has put those rights up for sale.

"It has grown out of our grasp," said Blue Hessner, the chamber's president. Mr. Hessner said that the board would consider all offers, with no pre-set price, and that depending on the buyer, "it could become a little more commercial."

Celebrating the mortals remains of an 89-year-old Norwegian named Bredo Morstoel, whose body became stranded here in 1993, is already a big local economic engine. Upward of 20,000 people came this year over a three-day weekend in early March to mark its 10th year and its packed agenda -- the coffin races, the parade of hearses, the crowning of an Ice Queen and the not-to-be missed frozen salmon toss.

The story goes on to tell of how Mr. Morstoel's body was at one point under the control of a cryogenics company in the area that was keeping him on ice - so to speak - until the time came when scientific technology advanced to the point when he could be thawed, brought back to life and (hopefully) full health. When local government outlawed the practice of storing frozen bodies in this way, Mr. Morstoel began a new career. The rest is history.

With the rights to the "Frozen Dead Guy" brand currently up for sale, I personally can't think of a finer way to invest Sierra Madre's CRA funds than to snap it up. I mean, 20,000 people showed up in Nederland this year! That is a lot more than Frosty the Snowman ever brought to our sparsely populated shopping district.

The other example of marketing wizardry comes from Yahoo News. It details the ability of one small village in France to attract thousands to its streets through the use of its signature natural phenomenon. Which, coincidentally enough, involves a mountain.

French village seen at threat from Apocalypse sects - The tiny hamlet of Bugarach has drawn scrutiny from a government sect watchdog over droves of visitors who believe it is the only place in the world that will survive a 2012 Apocalypse.

A report by the watchdog, Milviludes, published on Wednesday, said the picturesque village near Carcassonne should be monitored in the run-up to December 21, 2012, when many believe the world will end according to ancient Mayan prophecy.

Surrounded in legend for centuries, Bugarach and its rocky outcrop, the Pic de Bugarach, have attracted an influx of New Age visitors in recent months, pushing up property prices but also raising the threat of financial scams and psychological manipulation, Miviludes said in its report.

And what is it about the Pic de Bugarach that has so many in such an apocalyptic tizzy?

Bugarach, with a population of just 200, has long been considered magical, partly due to what locals claim is an "upside-down mountain" where the top layers of rock are older than the lower ones.

The internet is awash with myths about the place -- that the mountain is surrounded by a magnetic force, that it is the site of a concealed alien base, or even that it contains an underground access to another world. And now many have seized on it as the ultimate refuge with Doomsday rapidly approaching.

Doesn't Sierra Madre have it's own "magic mountain?" I mean, somebody named the town after it, right? There must have been a good reason for that. The "rise in property values" thing alone should get our many fine Realty firms interested in promoting Sierra Madre as a possible refuge from next year's exciting events.

On further reflection, however, I am not completely certain that attempting to recreate the successes of other places here is the way we'd want to go. I mean, I personally find both of these occurrences fascinating, but are they really for us? Could they be marketed here as successfully as they are in the places they come from? Possibly not.

Next Saturday, and exclusively on the Sierra Madre Tattler, we will reveal what we believe would be a uniquely Sierra Madre event. One approaching the caliber of the two described above. It involves a sadly disused asset of international importance, one that intimately, and most uniquely, involves our little town alone.

Until then, I wish you the best of all possible weekends.

UUT Rate Hike Update (9:00 AM) - Something we discussed earlier this week on The Tattler (June 21), Bill Coburn is now claiming on his site that the City Council will "likely" raise the UUT rate to 12% at Tuesday evening's meeting. Bill says they are using the UUT Oversight Committee's 3 to 2 vote recommendation as the rationale for doing so. This despite assurances from Buchanan that it would not happen.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chamber of Commerce: Gourmet Food Trucks Have Groupies

We are now in day two of our investigation into the impending arrival of the Gourmet Food Truck Horde. The community of Sierra Madre, concerned over the coming onslaught of brots, hots and sauerkrauts, is looking for even more ways to come to grips with this imminent threat. And since this blog got a boatload of comments and over 1,100 hits on yesterday's shocking expose,' we're all about milking this story for an additional day.

However, just so you know, we have been made aware of some key information regarding this situation, and when is the last time The Tattler ever held anything back? Like never? I mean, read the name of this site if you don't know what we're talking about.

So here is some of the deep thinking behind the conducting of a Food Truck Rally here in Sierra Madre.

o---:: The Chamber of Commerce is looking for a waiver of fees. I mean, who isn't these days? Yesterday we saw 2 articles on Patch saying solar panel installers shouldn't have to pay fees to the City, either. But in this case the apparent culprit was all that rain at the Wistaria Festival. It has left the Chamber a bit skint, and they need to make up some of their budgetary shortfall. So the CoC has decided to go into competition with our local restaurants on two summer Saturdays, July 30, and August 27. The hope being that they will raise enough money so they don't have to cut back services to their membership. Whatever those might be. Maybe they could establish a fund to help those restaurants who won't do any business on those weekends? Just a thought.

o---:: Food Truck Rallies are believed by the Chamber to be quite popular and chic with L.A. tastemakers. The Food Network has done some shows about them as well. They also do shows about chef cooking contests, which everyone in my house watches but me. But the idea is that this massive exposure on the Food Network (click here for ratings information), will help to ignite a sensation here in town. Perhaps approaching even Huell Howser levels, if I may dare to suggest such a thing. Can YOU feel the heat?

o---:: Gourmet Food Trucks Have Groupies. This is kind of a hard sell for me, but apparently food trucks, due to their use of social media, have developed a fan following. And because of that, hundreds of people who have become glued by their Twitter to (let's say) Heckle's Beanie Weenie Wagon, will follow their leader to the shady streets of Sierra Madre. Once here they will immediately fall in love with our grumpy little town and come back often to shoplift, smoke cigarettes, pick up our many available young women, and use the Kodiak in Memorial Park. Thus imbuing our little place in God's mighty firmament with the kind of Los Angeles street culture we've always lacked for here.

o---:: A full 20% of all the proceeds will be donated to the Sierra Madre Rose Float Association. Which sounds like it might be a lot, but since the Chamber of Commerce is only projected to net $750 for their pain, the Rose Float Assoc. stands to pick up $150 big ones from all of this excitement. I'm wondering if strategically placed lemonade stands throughout the City might actually generate a bigger payoff.

One additional piece of information. Just so you know as much as their social media driven devotees, the names of these Gourmet Food Trucks (beloved by their hundreds of cult-like followers) are Coolhaus, Nom Nom, Jogaski Burrito, Grilled Cheese, Great Balls on Tires, White Rabbit, Dim Sum Truck, Le Fashion Truck and Go Country 105. Which is also the country radio station that wants to broadcast some amplified twang 'n bang from a PA set up near the Memorial Park band shell.

Perhaps they should put in a call to the Congregational Church and see how that one worked out for them last Easter. City rules being what they are and all, even the Lord doesn't get to do that one.

Is it really all that smart not to pay Assembly members and State Senators?

One of the reasons I like the site is they do their snark right. Just as dry and sharp as you might like. Even the most jaded Tattler reader might enjoy it. And I mean that as the highest kind of compliment.

And sometimes PZ makes points that just warm my heart. Like with the article I'm talking about today. You do know that we the people voted in an amendment recently that requires Sacramento to not issue paychecks to state legislators when they do not craft a balanced budget, and do it on time. And that this was the reason why our elected state representatives hurriedly passed that cooked up chicken they delivered to Jerry Brown last week. Which he subsequently vetoed, and rightfully so.

But as popular as stripping these characters of their pay packets this week has been for many of us, there is also a potentially serious problem. One that needs to be carefully examined. And in an article entitled "Do You Really Want Politicians to be Short of Cash?," PROPZERO lays out this disturbing scenario:

For those worried about political corruption, now is the moment of maximum danger. Stripping politicians of heir paychecks is very appealing, unless you think about it. Thanks to Controller John Chiang, Californians have an opportunity to think about it. And we should be worried.

One reason to pay elected officials healthy salaries, as we do in California, is to limit corruption. You don't want politicians worrying about how they're going to meet the mortgage or pay bills. You want them thinking about doing their jobs. Relieving them of their salaries as punishment for not doing what you want is not going to create focus. It's going to create mischief.

Say you're someone who wants something corrupt from the legislature. Wouldn't now be the perfect time to get it?

Find a legislator who isn't independently wealthy and needs the paycheck, and offer him and her some cash to pay the bills, or a promise of future employment. In return, ask for a favor.

You might well get it. Right now, buying influence may never be cheaper.

I think they have made a very good point. I mean, our legislators peddle their influence even when they do get their paychecks. After all, they were getting paid by we the chumps when they passed the development industry's beloved SB 375.

So what's to stop them now?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Gourmet" Food Trucks Are Coming To Sierra Madre?

Well, it had to happen someday. You know the old story about putting 1,000 monkeys behind 1,000 typewriters, and if they all typed for 1,000 years maybe one of them might actually come up with a fine piece of classic literature? Unlikely, of course, but there is at least that sliver of mathematical probability to consider.

So after all this time, the Sierra Madre Patch has actually come up with a piece of interesting information. I know, you're wondering how can this be. With those meagre 4 or 5 paragraph articles written by bland folks famed for their ability to avoid saying anything the least bit controversial or challenging, how could anything of interest to a thinking adult come of that?

The revelation of interest to us today came from an Erica Blodgett article. That it was probably inadvertent doesn't matter, because it did actually happen. In her 6/20 article about food foraging, "A Little Taste of Greatness," Erica revealed the following:

... it reminded that (sic) a few weeks ago I was chatting with Bill Coburn, director of the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce, and he was telling me about a series of mini-food truck festivals he has arranged this summer in Memorial Park. The first is supposed to be next Saturday, June 25, and I am totally looking forward to it. I plan to park myself on a blanket on the grass in front of the bandshell and graze my way through the delicious samplings.

It turns out that the gourmet truck fleet Erica dreams of isn't coming to Sierra Madre quite yet. Here is what Bill Coburn posted on the Patch in response to Erica's food fantasies:

Erica: The first food truck rally, pending approval of our TUP, has been rescheduled for July 30th, with the second to be held on Aug. 27th.

Sorry all you parked park grazers, you're just going to have to wait a little bit longer.

Now here's the thing. I work across from the Warner Brothers Pictures lot, and there is a vast swarm of gentrified roach coaches on site at around noon every day of the week. The picture I took (above) of the Germany's Famous Bratwurst truck is just one of the many hoping to serve lunch to the area's harried office workers. You have a bar-b-que truck, the world's most whatever hamburger truck, a truck that features everything you can possible cook in a wok, the list goes on. It is all I can do to pick my way between them as I head to the Warner Brothers commissary for a sensible salad and heartwarming latte.'

So the sense of great anticipation and excitement that Erica has been experiencing over this upcoming CoC event is a little lost on me. Out there in big cities all across America the gourmet truck thing has been going on for quite a while. And frankly, it is getting a little bit over done. Restaurants in particular are pretty salty on the topic, and have been letting their feelings be known. And why shouldn't they? Food trucks represent some tough competition for them, and a not particularly fair version of it at that.

Here is an account that comes from New York's legendary Village Voice:

But as The Brooklyn Paper reports, these plans aren't going over so well with some of park Slope's business owners ... Melissa Murphy, the owner of Sweet Melissa Patisserie, and Naidre's proprietor Janice Pullicio are voicing the oft-heard complaint that food trucks infringe upon their businesses and have an unfair advantage because they don't pay rent. Murphy contends that "The fact that the community is supporting these non-local vendors is beyond ignorant," while Pullicio says it's "beyond infuriating" that the trucks "swoop in and out of nowhere and steal away our business at the height of our season."

And it isn't just in New York City that people with businesses in town are complaining. Restaurant owners in Los Angeles are equally upset. Restaurant & Hospitality Magazine published an article a little while back called "Are Gourmet Trucks Cheating?" Here you will read complaints strikingly similar to what the Village Voice revealed.

Well, it seems, not everyone loves Kogi and the cadre of food trucks popping up all over L.A. Tom LaBonge, a councilman there, says the food trucks are "unfair" to established restaurants. He has forwarded complaints from traditional restaurants to the police department, which has been issuing tickets to truck owners for minor violations. The truck owners, in turn, say the L.A. police are being used to stifle competition.

Much of the food truck action takes place on L.A.'s Westside, where up to a dozen food trucks compete daily with traditional restaurants to feed thousands of office workers. Alan Watts, senior v.p. of operations for Koo Koo Roo, told the Los Angeles Business Journal that restaurant owners in the area pay about $18,000 a month for rent and various health and safety permits. "We understand that more choices would be good for the people working there," he said. "But we don't think it's right to just park right in front and steal business we've cultivated."

Which takes us back to Sierra Madre. So why is it an executive of the Sierra Madre Chamber of Commerce would want to bring in these so-called gourmet food trucks? Particularly on weekends, a time when our local restaurants do the majority of their business?

It isn't just the City Hall financed farmer's market that local merchants will be forced to deal with, now the Chamber of Commerce, who is supposed to be an advocate for all Sierra Madre businesses, is enabling outside competition as well. Competition that is not from here and doesn't pay rent or taxes in this town. And will they be able to skate on fees and permits as well? At first glance it would appear so.

What is the Chamber thinking?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tattler (Hearts) Newspapers

We here at The Tattler love newspapers. I know there are lots of folks out there who will tell you that the internet is by far the best place to get your news, with so much of what is going on being just a couple of key strokes away. Everything right there for your reading pleasure.

But let me ask you this, where would the internet be without newspapers? So much of the content you see on news websites is actually discussions of what those running the site had read in newspapers. Complete with direct quotes. The only difference being that the newspapers paid good money to create that content, whereas the internet site merely posted it without paying much beyond a perfunctory cite and a link.

So in the spirit of internet cannibalization of the newspaper industry, while at the same time taking advantage of its hard work, today we are going to bring to your attention 4 articles dealing with topics of strong local interest, with an emphasis on a few public personalities we've all known and loved.

Orange County Register

Exec buys extra pension for time not worked - Hassan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) recently got a contract extension for another five years. It didn't come with a raise. In fact, Ikhrata hasn't had a raise since he was hired in 2008. But that doesn't mean he isn't paid well. His total compensation of $334,890 includes some handsome perks and retirement boosters.

For instance, the agency is paying $44,801 annually for five years to buy extra time on Ikhrata's retirement package -- meaning he'll get pension money for 5 years that he didn't work. The practice, called "airtime," is perfectly legal.

"It's a complete waste of taxpayer money and we get nothing in return for it," said (Marcia) Fritz, head of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. "It's a total scam developed by CalPERS so they could get more money."

Jack Dean, who writes a blog called "Pension Tsunami," explains it this way: "They're saying we can't give you the money now, but you'll get it later when you retire." Added Dean, "These purchased service credit years are underpriced to begin with, and now taxpayers are paying for their purchases? Outrageous!"

So it would appear that the head of SCAG, Hassan Ikhrata, besides being handsomely paid for imposing (and enforcing) SB 375 state housing mandates on unwilling towns like ours, is also receiving retirement money for years he has not even worked. How remarkable. The central planner and social engineer from the Soviet Union really has found a home in California. You have to wonder what that says about us.

Contra Costa Times

Rancho Cucamonga council takes retiring city manager's advice, hires his assistant - Less than a week after City Manager Jack Lam announced his retirement, the City Council took Lam's advice and promoted the assistant city manager on Wednesday. John Gillison, 43, who was Lam's assistant for the past two years, will take the city manager seat after Lam leaves City Hall on Aug. 31.

"He's way smarter than me," Lam said about Gilleson. "You never leave a place without someone smarter." Gillison has more than 15 years of experience in local government including a city manager post in Sierra Madre.

"My goal is to carry on what Rancho's been known for doing well and to support the council to the best of my ability," Gillison said. "And I'm going to do it with teamwork."

Now as many people who read this blog will clearly recall, John Gillison's time in town was pretty much a disaster for Sierra Madre. John was City Manager during the One Carter fiasco, plus he was working here in that capacity for the entire extremely expensive and divisive run up to the DSP, leaving just weeks before the whole thing went down in flames at the hands of Measure V.

Best of luck to our friends in Rancho Cucamonga.

Pasadena Star News

Sierra Madre to get new farmer's market - After a nine-month hiatus, the Farmer's Market is returning to town under new management and at a more visible location downtown. In a 4-1 vote, City Council members last week approved and awarded a 5-year contract to Calabasas-based Raw Inspiration, Inc to manage and market the city's Farmer's Market.

An earlier market run by Scholastic Gardens operated for less than 2.5 years before closing down last September due to financial challenges. It was in a parking lot behind businesses on Sierra Madre, between Baldwin and Hermosa Avenues.

"People just forgot it was there," said Councilwoman Nancy Walsh. "It slowly declined ... Our goal was to have something that could be seen from Sierra Madre Boulevard, provide shade so children would play in the yard, and it would just have a better location and have greater success."

But Councilwoman MaryAnn MacGillivray voted against awarding the contract to Raw Inspiration, after the city's Community Services Commission, to which she is the council's liaison, recommended not to move forward with the market.

During the nine months of discussion by the commission, "nobody came to speak in favor of that except Nancy Walsh," she said.

Resident Pat Alcorn, the commission's vice chairwoman, said she was concerned a farmer's market could take away business from local shops. "What concerns me most about the current contract is they did not limit the kind of vendors they are bringing in," Alcorn said. "The last time Community Service (members) were discussing a farmer's market, they limited it by saying no fresh flowers or anything that would be conflicting with current merchants in town."

I spoke with MaryAnn last evening. She had noted to the PSN that with the many important things going on right now (SB 375, RHNA numbers), why is all this valuable newspaper exposure being used on something as relatively minor as a farmer's market? That quote apparently got left on the cutting room floor.

Los Angeles Times

Recall elections surge in local and state governments ... Angry voters, helped by social media and 'tea party'-like fervor, are organizing recall votes at a record pace against politicians they don't like - Once a political rarity, recall elections are surging in local and state governments. The number of mayors who faced recalls doubled in 2010 from the previous year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said.

Joshua Spivak, who studies recalls and blogs about them at recallelections, said there had been only 20 attempted recalls of state legislators in U.S. history. This year, 10 are already on the ballot ... "It is growing and it is something that people are seeing as a valuable tool against elected officials," he said, noting that more states are permitting recalls and that even Australia and England might follow suit. "People want more checks on their elected officials."

Yes, indeed we do. In a country where many politicians do not consider telling the truth or honoring commitments made to the voters to be an important part of both the election and governing processes, they need to be aware that the citizens of a free country do have some meaningful options.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The UUT Oversight Committee To Call For A Tax Hike To 12%

Barbara Leigh Cline gave this town a big gift at last week's City Council meeting. As the only civilian to attend the most recent - and rather momentous - meeting of the UUT Oversight Committee, she was the sole witness to what was an important event. And apparently like everyone else in town, I missed the point of what she was saying about it. At least until I looked again at Barbara's exchange with John Buchanan, and then made some calls to find out what others thought.

And it wasn't until after my second viewing of that meeting that I realized what she meant, and why she received a rather brisk reaction from Mayor Buchanan. Barbara Leigh was spilling the beans about something very important, and Buchanan was doing everything he possibly could to make sure the conversation did not go any farther down that particular road than it already had. If you have that meeting on tape, you might want to take another look at this exchange. Because not only is it quite telling, it reveals even more with that additional viewing.

Here is my rough approximation of how this brief conversation went:

Barbara Leigh: "Good, you've all been saying we're fine. So we can leave the UUT at 10%. I've heard several different scenarios of how the City is doing. So, could you put that it writing?"

John Buchanan: "We have a balanced budget, we have 50% reserves in the General Fund. (Later) It's complicated, Barbara. If this was easy it wouldn't be an accurate reflection of what is actually going on. Some things just are."

The dismissive tone of what the Mayor said here aside, there really was a clash taking place. Barbara Leigh mentioned the "several different scenarios" that she had heard. And she had. She'd attended the UUT Oversight Committee meeting, and witnessed their conclusion that the City's finances are in an increasingly parlous shape, and after poring over the numbers had come to the conclusion that the UUT rate needed to increase to its maximum of 12%. Otherwise the City would find itself in dire financial straits in a relatively short period of time.

But at last Tuesday evening's City Council meeting Barbara Leigh was hearing something very different. Because everyone on the G4 Council was saying that everything was fine, we're putting away money for a rainy day, the budget is balanced, and things are looking better every day.

So which version was right? The sunny G4 version of the City's finances, or the more sombre assessment Barbara Leigh had heard at the UUT Oversight Committee meeting?

Whatever the story, at our next City Council meeting it is likely that we will hear from the UUT Oversight Committee. And what they will recommend is that the City's Utility User Tax rate needs to be increased to its 12% maximum. They studied the City's numbers, questioned staff and heard their answers, saw the trends and this is the conclusion they came to. And it is something quite different from the candy and cake the G4 Council was serving up last Tuesday night.

There is a pattern of previously established behavior for us to consider as well. In the not so distant past, the City Council, particularly when John Buchanan was in charge, has used the committee process to help mosey the taxpayers along to the place they want them to be. That is accepting the conclusions of a committee of their peers about raising taxes. And in this particular case the UUT Oversight Committee could fulfill that role.

And with a UUT Committee dominated by G4 appointees, is it really all that much of a stretch to conclude that perhaps their recommendation regarding an additional 2% in UUT charges was a preordained result? The answer that only required its equation? After all, it would really only take one person, gifted in numbers, to craft such an argument. Here the G4 had selected four individuals celebrated for their accounting mastery.

Of course, in this particular scenario the mindset would be that only an increase would be acceptable, and never a reduction of the expenses that brought us to this point. In a full service city under the stewardship of a good doer there could be no other possible way.

An additional point. There was a segment of this meeting where the City Manager discussed something rather quizzical. Despite the incredible work load City Staff faces on a daily basis, some folks there took the time to calculate how much money the City would have taken in had Measure U failed. That being the old 6% rate limited to the original categories, and then not being used to pay for emergency services.

The City Manager's answer anywhere from zero to $250,000.

The Mayor also lingered over the matter of how much money would be taken in should the final two percentage points ever be added to the total UUT take. It turns out that each percentage point is worth $250,000 to the city, or $500,000 for the pair. Which, when added to the full 4% already being charged since July 1st of 2010, would come to a very neat $1.5 million dollars.

But why were such figures being speculated about when these rates were not, as all of the assembled in the room had apparently been assured, being raised that additional 2%? Was something being teed up here?

Who knows. Maybe it was just one of those different scenarios we've all been hearing.