Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scary Geology Sunday

There are a number of sites where you can go to find stories of scary natural disasters communicated in a very urgent manner. These guys pore over the various assets available to them (Google Earth being an important one, satellite video feed another), and when they find something disturbing it is put on their sites for other natural disaster junkies to pore over. And with all the currently fashionable doomsday millennialism tied in with the year 2012, the final summation of the Mayan calendar, the hunt for clues to the imminent end of all time only gets more intense.

It's pretty serious stuff, too. Floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, melting icecaps, mass species extinctions, hurricanes, tsunamis, other assorted and equally unpleasant disasters, all usually presented in a "this could be the beginning of the end, folks" kind of way. And located as we are in apocalyptic California, oftentimes we are the focus of much of this attention.

One of these guys goes by the name of Dutchsinse. He too scours the globe in search of events that could point towards a dinosaur-like demise of two legged sentient creatures such as ourselves. Which would probably be a cause for celebration amongst the 4 and 6 legged not so sentient ones. And his current concern is over what he believes is the return of volcanic activity, and not very far from here. All within the last 48 hours, and in places that haven't seen such excitement in eons.

A little bit of background. As you know, California lies within the much discussed Pacific Ring of Fire. Much discussed because it has been exceptionally unsettled lately. Here is how this angry natural phenomenon is defined on Wikipedia:

The Pacific Ring of Fire (or sometimes just the Ring of Fire) is an area where large numbers of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basic of the Pacific Ocean. In a 40,000 km (25,000 mi) horseshoe shape, it is associated with a nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, and volcanic belts and/or plate movements. The Ring of Fire has 452 volcanoes and is home to over 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes. It is sometimes called the circum-Pacific belt or the circum-Pacific seismic belt ... About 90% of the world's earthquakes and 80% of the world's largest earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire.

So what our friend Dutchsinse has done is find proof of what he believes is a rapid return of volcanic activity to Eastern California and Nevada. Something possibly indicating that the tectonic plates we are all seated upon have begun to shift once again, and with that movement created a fiery heat way below the surface. Needless to say, the sight of volcanic plumes in an area that no living being has ever seen them before is not very good news. Because what it could indicate is the very real possibility of major earthquake activity to follow.

Here is his video report. Dutchsinse reads it all in the very matter of fact voice of someone not only comfortable with the materials he uses, but also completely certain about the correctness of his point of view. Click here. And then here.

This first video, posted July 29, has now gone viral. Since the first time I saw it the number of views has gone up exponentially. Official government organizations such as the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey have come up with various explanations for what is shown there. Thunderstorms was the first explanation, followed later by forest fires and the possible effects of missile tests from the military firing ranges that cover so much of that area.

I personally don't quite know what to make of it. Possibly it is all just some scary fiction designed to drive hits to Dutchsinse's YouTube and web sites.

Though I did go to Albertson's and stocked up on bottled water. Perhaps you should, too.

Late Afternoon Update: Somebody doesn't agree. "The Non-Eruption At Pisgah Crater: The Dangers Of Untrained Interpretation Of Real-Time Data." Click here.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Laurie Barlow: Acronym Minefield Provides Cover For Sacramento's Regional Control

As we in Sierra Madre struggle with the implications of SB 375 and what they mean to the future of our town through the General Plan Update process, it is good to know that we're not alone in this struggle. Laurie Barlow, who publishes the groundbreaking Greensward Civitas blog, has written extensively on the topic. When this article first appeared - which deals with the consequences of SB 375 to the General Plan process - it generated considerable interest all across the state. Originally published in 2010 when Pasadena was undergoing its General Plan Update process, we are reposting Laurie's article in its entirety, along with the original reader comments. And while it does deal with Pasadena, the issues are largely the same ones that we are now facing here.

The General Plan community participation process that Pasadena is currently undergoing for revision of the housing element is affected by some new ground rules signed into law in recent years. Legislation passed in Sacramento, AB 32 and SB 375, is based upon the concept that regional coordination of transportation and its related housing densities is necessary to combat the pollution and energy consumption generated by urban sprawl, which has been the primary engine of California development and GDP production since the postwar era. It recognizes that sprawl is unsustainable, particularly since the counties aren't able to maintain the infrastructure in rural and outlying areas. Hence the strategy of this legislation, which is to assign the majority of growth and development to urban areas, using "transportation" as the rationale for higher densities. This "fair share" housing allocation plan will focus new development in Transit Priority Areas and near employment centers within the transportation network, and give regional planning priority over local control.

It shifts the old process of General Plans which cities used to plan for future growth, as the City of Santa Barbara noted in its March 2008 letter of objection to its SCAG Board of Directors (Southern California Association of Governments.) The problem was that the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) created a requirement for housing that was nearly 150% of the city's existing General Plan capacity. That is because the method of calculating the housing requirements has been revised to substantially increase the necessary housing using a growth forecast method developed by the State called the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS). This is outlined on the State's Housing and Community Development website, which develops this number in consultation with SCAG.

The SCS mandates that local governments must complete housing elements within 18 months after receiving their housing allocation and states that local governments have three years to complete rezoning of sites to be consistent with the designations in the housing element. It also determines that a court can compel local governments to complete the rezoning if the statutory deadline is not met; if the rezoning is not completed, there are new restrictions on its power to deny or condition affordable housing projects. It's rather draconian in that respect; a BIA profit-driven strategy, not one that accommodates actual needs in the communities or the infrastructure capacity available, such as power, water and sewer capacities that were previously a critical factor in the city General Plans. In effect, it disconnects these General Plan elements and creates further development issues in that commercial development is generally not capped because of the revenue it creates, yet it generates traffic issues and demands more power, water, and additional housing support. All this without identifying the concurrent balance of local resources required to support this growth.

The inability of local entities to support this growth is deleted from the planning process via SB 375, which provides the development community with the tools at the regional level to build out beyond all resources in order to produce profit as well as create the fiscal assets which can then be sold by Wall Street in its continuing saga of selling toxic assets. Communities are now captive to the Federal mandate created by the large banks to provide more investment product on the global market to keep the U.S. dollar and Federal Deficit funding at target levels.

Let's step back a moment and look at the State's overall picture. California's economy is all about construction, driven by real estate development. There's large investment leverage on about 25% of a $1.85 trillion economy. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, California is responsible for 13% of the United States' gross domestic product (GDP). This means that our ground-zero 2008 implosion of the housing and mortgage markets have left a very large hole that the building industry is seeking to fill with development that is able to attract financing from the government and the private sector due to its legislated existence, backed by whatever credibility is left of Sacramento Fiscal Bond sales, federal funding and debt payment structures. It uses the vehicle of transportation and infrastructure repair and expansion to tie development requirements in order to obtain this funding. Whether the market is actually there (during record unemployment) for this housing is left to the "Field of Dreams."

Since the state's cash flow has been decimated by the Prop 13 loss in property tax revenues, local development revenue and taxes have taken a front seat in City revenue streams. Cities rely more and more on development and developer fees to provide basic services, and so are essentially railroaded into constant development in order to pay the bills. This is why California is in this predicament today. Unfortunately, the State's strategy for more density and development doesn't solve the problem, and reduces the quality of life for its residents, while depleting remaining resources. This disconnect of development versus resource consumption is a far bigger problem than the transit and pollution issues this legislation is supposed to solve. Water conservation is a non-issue, despite legislation authored by Sheila Kuehl in the State Senate (SB 221) signed into law in Oct 2001 to keep the practice of "paper water" over-allocation which has grown to eight times the amount of actual available water supplies.

Cities that have tried to fight these RHNA allocations in court, such as Irvine's lawsuit against SCAG allocations, have not found the courts to be supportive. The Fourth Appellate District recently held that courts have no jurisdiction to review the propriety of a municipality's RHNA allocation. To cite attorney Katherine Hart: The Court of Appeals reasoned that RHNA statutes reflect a clear intent to vest HCD and respective COGs with the authority to set the RHNA allocation for each local government ... The nature and scope of a General Plan's housing element and the length and intricacy of the process created to determine a municipality's RHNA allocation reflects a clear intent on the part of the Legislature to render this process immune from judicial intervention."

So the local communities and cities do not have much recourse with respect to the impact of the RHNA numbers on their General Plans. While in theory there is a process to contest the SCS projections early in the process, which triggers a regional reallocation if a community is successful in rebutting a particular growth projection, it isn't going to happen under SCAG because all the communities would then reject these projections. The only recourse would appear to be to challenge the basis of the growth numbers themselves, which are based upon a thesis prepared by USC's Population Dynamics Research Group. This group has been retained by Sacramento to generate these projections based upon historic data and some interesting assumptions. They deny the Federal Census Bureau's contention that there has been a strong outflow of people from California during the past decade, but the state Department of Finance's demographic unit disputes that position, and the conflict presumably will be resolved by the 2010 census (this from the Sacramento Bee.)

As it stands right now, the impact of this on Pasadena's General Plan remains to be seen, but it is critical during the public participation process that residents insist that the growth impacts be accounted for in the update process for Land Use, Mobility and Open Space/Conservation. It is important that the integrity of all the General Plan elements is maintained; it must be fiscally responsible, and especially, environmentally sound. If the impact of traffic and growth is not in alignment with the stated goals of reducing Pasadena's carbon footprint (and that includes all impacts on the environment), then it is open for renegotiation. That is supposedly the basis of SB 375 and the transit and redevelopment funding that is attached to it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

California Attorney General Kamala Harris: Redevelopment Lawsuit Is 'Meritless'

At last Tuesday evening's City Council meeting a lot of faith was shared with the residents by Mayor John Buchanan regarding the lawsuit filed by various cities and redevelopment agencies in defense of CRAs. And that this suit would somehow prevent their elimination. The Mayor also expressed his hopes that the spending of $676,000 in City funds to keep Sierra Madre's Community Redevelopment Agency from going the way of the Oldsmobile would only be a temporary thing, and that once that lawsuit prevailed the City would get all that money back.

However, not everyone agrees with the Mayor's assessment. And that category apparently now also includes the State of California's top legal officer, Attorney General Kamala Harris. Here is how the Sacramento Bee breaks it down on their Capitol Alert website:

Kamala Harris: Redevelopment lawsuit is 'meritless' - California Attorney General Kamala Harris told the state Supreme Court this week that it should allow the state's elimination of redevelopment agencies to proceed.

In a rare "informal opposition" filed Wednesday on behalf of the Department of Finance, Harris wrote that cities seeking to retain redevelopment agencies have filed a "meritless" claim. She said the state created redevelopment agencies by statute and that nothing in the constitution prohibits the state from revoking them by statute.

On a majority vote, lawmakers voted last month to eliminate redevelopment agencies and offer a path for agencies to reconstitute themselves as long as they send substantial payments to school districts and local governments. Legislative officials believe the plan will save the state $1.7 billion this fiscal year by reducing the state's financial responsibility to schools.

Cities and redevelopment agencies filed a lawsuit last week asking the Supreme Court to immediately block the two-bill redevelopment plan contained in Assembly Bill X1 26 and AB X1 27. They said the plan is unconstitutional in part because voters agreed last year to prohibit the state from compelling payments from redevelopment agencies.

You know what would be a delicious irony here? What if the lawsuit to quash these two Assembly bills designed to end redevelopment as we have know it only partially succeeded? And that the second of these two bills, AB X1 27, is ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because it is the one that actually compels RDAs to send money to the state? Something that could mean Buchanan's $676,000 attempt to purchase a Vanity Redevelopment Agency from the state would be moot. Redevelopment Agencies would still be dead, but now there wouldn't even be the opportunity to buy them back.

I guess we can always dream.

Where this lawsuit does fail miserably is in its assumption that last year's vote by the deluded citizens of this state to prevent Community Redevelopment Agency money from being confiscated by a bankrupt Sacramento somehow prevents their elimination. While it is true the state can no longer loot money from RDAs, that hardly means these agencies can't be eliminated altogether. Nowhere did anyone vote that these outfits must allowed to exist into eternity. All the voters approved was the notion that they can't be looted by anyone except local government.

So what does this mean for us today? Here is an example. While the City Council's decision to offer 100% fee relief to a liquor store that wants to build a wine tasting room will probably stand because it happened previous to the final demise of our CRA, The Buccaneer's desire to receive the same sort of special treatment for its rumored Mermaid Bar may not succeed. Snooze you lose, as they say.

For some it is sad that such important uses of taxpayer money, done for the promotion of vital City interests, will not be available to anymore. And that when the need for a $50,000 City funded consultant study on the History of the Uses for Doorknobs In Sierra Madre arises, the CRA will no longer be there to fund it.

Oh, the loss.

The Tattler Continues to Grow

Sometime today this blog will zoom past the 36,515 hit mark for the month and we will set a new record for traffic. And I suspect that when July ends at Sunday 5 pm (Google's internal 'blogger' clock is set to Greenwich Mean Time), we could be somewhere around 40,000 hits. Which is around 4 "page views" for every man, woman and child in Sierra Madre.

That is a lot of traffic for a small town blog that discusses local government and politics. Topics that ordinarily do not excite people all that much these days.

Why is it The Tattler receives so much attention while the other so-called news venues in this town remain commentless, neglected and largely unread? In my humble opinion it is because this blog is written for adults, and treats it readers as such. People who want real news and information about important topics.

This is a city blessed with a large population of smart and highly aware people who have long found the dumbed down boosterism and regurgitated City Hall press releases that pass for news elsewhere to be an unsatisfying waste of time. And while I would be foolish to claim that this site is perfect in every way (we have on occasion missed the mark), we do make the attempt, and more often than not deliver solid reporting on issues that sadly will not be discussed anywhere else.

This blog might not do fluffy kitty stories, and we won't tell you where to get your nails polished at an amazing price. There are 4 other resources in town where you can read that sort of thing. Instead The Tattler covers hard news, gives real opinions, and doesn't hesitate to name names when necessary. Which in this town is often.

Does this approach work? The numbers tell the story.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

SB 375 Bombs In San Diego

The first region selected to roll out SB 375 was San Diego County and its surrounding areas, the home of SANDAG. Which is like our SCAG. The idea behind choosing that particular region for massive planning change was to start off this world saving enterprise with a big success. And then, building upon that momentum, take the anti-sprawl band wagon all across the state.

Only there is one big problem. When applied to the greater San Diego County area, the effort achieved very few of its goals. Nothing very remarkable actually happened, and those few things that did were so minor they were hardly worth the bother. The law that was trumpeted as the first truly significant attempt at centrally planning California out of its contribution to global warming didn't really get any of that done in San Diego. Lots of meetings were held, and potentially destructive planning done. But greenhouse gases appear to have escaped intact.

And now we're next.

Legal Planet, which describes itself as "The Environmental Law and Policy Blog," is associated with both the Berkeley and UCLA Law Schools. And in an article entitled "So Much for California's Anti-Sprawl Law," author Ethan Elkind lays out the debacle this way:

When California passed SB 375 in 2008, the national media swooned and smart growth advocates issued glossy brochures about the law. SB 375 was intended to curb sprawl, promote more compact and walkable communities served by transit, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all through a regional planning process that would coordinate land use plans with transportation funding.

San Diego is now the first region in the state to have to submit their coordinated land use and transportation plan to state regulators. SANDAG, its regional entity, recently released a draft plan, called a "Sustainable Communities Strategy," or SCS.

So how did San Diego do? In short, the effort is a dud. At the big picture level, it barely even accomplishes the express purpose of the law, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering vehicle miles traveled. In the short term, the plan reduces average weekday per capita greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle miles traveled. However, the reductions appear to be largely the results of getting more people to telecommute and from improved traffic flow such as through better signals and carpool incentives. Hardly the stuff of game-changing anti-sprawl policies. Worse, over the long term, these greenhouse gas reductions dwindle from 14% per capita in 2020 to only 9% by 2050, reaching virtually the same levels of per capita vehicle miles traveled as today ... So much for bending the curve on sprawl over the long term.

So in the next round SCAG, our regional planning apparatus, will be called upon to issue forth its plans for doing all things SB 375. And along with the SGVCOG, the badly compromised corporate sock puppet currently engaged in stamping Southern California Edison's business plans onto individual city planning documents, we will be called upon to commit to massive new high-density development planning along with coercive lifestyle strategies designed to get you the citizen to take the bus. Or even better, walk.

The notion that highly concentrated mixed-use condominium projects, coupled with vastly over-hyped public transportation systems such as the 210 Trolley, will somehow save the world from global warming really is a bit of a stretch. Even the most true believing science fiction fans might find that one to be a little heavy on the fantasy side.

But given the failure of the first round SB 375 process (so-called) in San Diego, should we even bother? If all of this isn't going to have that much - if any - effect in curbing greenhouse gases, why should we have to disrupt our way of life and open the town up to predatory developers whose only goal is to exploit the good name of our town and make a lot of money off of our legacy?

But maybe that was always the real purpose. When you consider that all of this came out of Sacramento, perhaps the most lobby-driven and corrupt of any state capital in the nation, it doesn't take too much imagination to see that SB 375 might actually be just more greenwash designed to guilt-trip the credulous into accepting unwanted city wrecking development. Done to reward the generous lobbyists that care so deeply for the personal needs of our state legislators.

Given those reasons for SB 375's genesis, the fact that this all bombed as badly as it did in its first market test shouldn't be all that much of a surprise.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Joe Mosca Doesn't Even Pretend To Be For Sierra Madre Preservation Anymore

"I saw Elvis at the park." - Josh Moran

Some of us can remember when Joe Mosca claimed to be committed at the very core of his being to preserving the small town character of this community. He ran his entire first campaign on just that issue. Seems so long ago now. Today things are very different, of course. So much so that last night he was all about getting the taxpayers to subsidize fees for such predatory development as One Carter. Joe doesn't even pretend to care about that "preserve Sierra Madre" thing anymore. Apparently being termed out has now freed his inner town wrecker.

But we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves here. There were some other things that happened before Joe gave his big pitch for using taxpayer dollars to give financial breaks to developers.

Nancy Walsh kicked things off by saying she went to the General Plan meeting. Which is good, but mere attendance is often not enough when delivering a report to the City on important matters. You should also share what it is you saw there as well. Then again, she also said that there has been no conflict of interest found in the Nick Conway affair at the SGVCOG. Apparently Nancy, while present at several COG meetings, has yet to pick up on the fact that an investigation hasn't actually gotten underway yet. Mostly because the District Attorney needs to finish up some prior obligations first. Like Court trials already in process. Nancy also said the Farmers Market was going very well, even though it is more like a flea market than anything to do with produce, and potential customers have been staying away in droves.

Joe Mosca claimed that he has been getting e-mail from "a lot of people" saying his Sunday afternoon meeting schedule is inconvenient for them. So much so that he is thinking of changing his hours. Good to see that he is showing some flexibility on this important matter. He also said that the way we are represented in the Pasadena Board of Education might change sometime soon. Currently each of our 7 elected representatives are responsible for the entire district. In the future each representative could be elected from a district of their very own, with the territory of each based considerations such as ethnicity. Which is very L.A. County these days. Something that I believe is also known as Balkanization. But don't quote me on that.

MaryAnn MacGillivray discussed her attendance at a meeting of the Council for Watershed Health. An organization rightfully believing "that biology gets worse as development increases." The good news is that the purity of our water is very good, mostly because our upper watershed is located in the Angeles National Forest. Which is about as undeveloped as things can get. But even in the lower watershed things are pretty good, mostly because Sierra Madre is a low density town. The notion here being that should Sierra Madre become overbuilt, the quality of our water would worsen. We are the guardians of our watershed, and as such have an important responsibility. Good stuff.

MaryAnn also questioned why The COG doesn't show up at SCAG and RHNA Subcommittee meetings. Since we're paying them $8,600 or so dollars a year in dues, you'd think they'd go to a meeting once in a while and represent us. Yet another indication the "The COG" is much more about rubber stamping Sacramento planning mandates than anything like regional advocacy.

Josh Moran saw Elvis at the park, free In & Out burgers somewhere else, a lean mean fighting machine in City Hall, and noted that lots of people showed up at the Hart Park House construction kickoff. Listening to Josh is like reading The Mountain Views News.

John Buchanan saw redistricting maps in our future, August 3rd to be exact. And they were a lot closer when he finally finished speaking about them. Pat Alcorn spoke at Public Comment about redistricting as well, and Joe Mosca, apparently misunderstanding what she was talking about, tartly informed her that the Angeles National Forest is not a desert. Random? Sure. But you can't say that we don't get our money's worth at these meetings.

The first of the main bouts was the discussion of Public Facilities Fees. Currently these fees are at levels established in 2009. Which, according to the appropriate consultant study on the matter, is the correct amount as it covers all City costs in bringing new development on-line with such things as water and sewers. Something that John Buchanan, Nancy Walsh and MaryAnn MacGillivray saw no need to change.

Josh Moran and Joe Mosca saw things differently. Both wanted to roll fees back to 2006 levels, with the taxpayers picking up the difference. Joe claimed that while the current fee study is very good, he also felt that some fee relief was needed because when they are too high it limits what we can do. Which raises the question, gives relief to who? And who exactly does Joe mean by "we?" As far as I have been able to tell, everything taxpayers in this town are obliged to pay for has gone up these last few years.

The following exchange then took place: MaryAnn replied, if the study is OK, and the policy is OK, then should it also follow that the fees are OK as well? Joe countered that the current fee rates may inhibit certain types of development, and how that development might happen. Promoting development being the main point for Joe now. MaryAnn then asked, "The fees are too high for what?" Joe dodged. "A lot of people" are looking to to throw out the study, quoth he. Just like a lot of people are calling him about his Kersting Court meeting times. MaryAnn replied that we should not be subsidizing large development. Joe replied that we would be doing ourselves a lot of good if we rolled it back.

Which again begs the question, do who good? Fee and license charges, along with water rates and UUT rates have all gone up in the last few years. Unless you are a wealthy Sierra Madre developer or liquor store owner, you won't stand to see a dime from Honest Joe's Fee Discount Service.

Here is how John Capoccia answered that rhetorical question: "Below cost recovery needs to be a benefit for us, so why would we give this away? Future costs could very well be much higher. You folks can agree to reduce these fees on a case by case basis. Don't burden the taxpayer to help pay for development."

Which is basically what Joe (and Josh) were pushing for here, taxpayer funded welfare for developers. Joe (and Josh) then went on a long happy walk down Deception Lane by claiming that their concern is really about small homeowners, green houses, and the little guy who wants to put a porch on his humble abode. Which is crap. What this is really all about is (as a best example) the passing of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Public Facilities Fee costs for hooking up still unbuilt McMansions at One Carter to sewers and water mains onto the backs of the taxpayers.

Which, for a guy who back in 2006 ran as someone who would never allow such bad things to happen, is really quite a change. Joe doesn't even pretend that he isn't in the pockets of the developers any more. He is as owned as they come.

The discussion about opting ourselves into the CRA at the cost of $676,000 then followed. MaryAnn MacGillivray, supplying the actual math involved (something City Staff had failed to include to the incurious G4 in the Staff Report for this item), held up a chart that broke it all down. In their barest essence the options are these. If we pay the $676,000 to the state, and $160,000 per year for the remaining 4 year period of our CRA's existence, we would be able to hold onto $4 million dollars in restricted funds. If we opt out, we would receive about half of that, or $1.8 million, but in unrestricted General Fund monies.

The dollar figures alone would indicate that opting in would be the superior option. But that $4 million would be restricted CRA funds. Which means they could only be used in the downtown area, and then only for certain kinds of things. The argument was made that if this money was sent to Sacramento the state would only fritter it away. But when you consider the recent rash of CRA spending here in Sierra Madre, can it be said that the City Council has spent its own money any more wisely? Did we really need $50,000 consultant studies on things like resident consumption habits and parking?

There was an undercurrent of social conservatism versus gay advocacy at this point of the conversation. Much of the CRA claw back would be used by Sacramento to fund education, and with the passing of SB 48 gay history will now be included in the public school curriculum. MaryAnn's belief is that this is a decision that needs to be made by parents, and not government. Joe and Josh both stiffened visibly at this suggestion, with Josh muttering something under his breathe about Glenn Beck.

For the record, I don't do social conservatism. It's just not there for me. Fiscal conservatism? Sure. City Hall would be run out of a back room at Arnold's Hardware if I had my way. Right behind the chicken wire and rakes. With City Council meetings being conducted at a picnic table. Call it my inner Libertarian, but I honestly don't care what people do with their private lives. Live and let live. People should be allowed to succeed or fail in life without people on either side of the social agenda getting involved. But unfortunately this issue is going to be what a lot of people take away from this meeting. The demagogue at The Sierra Madre Weekly will be foaming at the mouth I'm sure.

Three people stood up from the audience and questioned the wisdom of our keeping the CRA. Barbara Leigh stated she was not at all sure that the way the City has spent its CRA money is much to brag about. MaryAnn's math was interesting, but honestly, "have we spent this money any more wisely than Sacramento?" Barbara then asked the City to prove its case by supplying a list of all the CRA spends it has made over the last few years. Which won't happen, of course.

John Capoccia said we should commit the City to paying less money, and getting less property tax money. But what we would receive would be far more useful as it would be unrestricted General Fund monies. We could use this General Fund money anywhere and for anything, rather than just putting it into the CRA. John asked that the City Council to delay the decision for two weeks so that the public could better decide what is really best for Sierra Madre.

The most powerful attack on the CRA buy-in came from Chris Koerber. His point was that how could we trust Sacramento to keep its word on the costs associated with keeping a CRA here in Sierra Madre. By spending that $676,000, and then committing the City to spending $160,000 a year for the time remaining for our doomed CRA, the big assumption being made is that the state won't raise that yearly cost to something much higher later on. You trust Sacramento at your own peril. There is no guarantee whatsoever that this cost will not go way up, and that what looks like a gain for our CRA fund now could easily become an ugly deficit later.

Chris then asked what successes can we credit to our CRA. "How many jobs have been accomplished with our CRA?" he asked. The answer to that question is exactly the same as how much blight it has cured. None. "Time to pull the plug," he concluded.

Our unimpressive new City Attorney then launched into a strictly by-the-book regurgitation of League of California Cities talking points on why the CRA is good. Her talk was far more political advocacy than any kind of legal exposition, and didn't change anyone's opinion either way. More proof of who the law firm of Colantuono and Levin really works for. It certainly isn't us.

In the end an "Urgency Measure" was passed, which put the City on the road to keeping the CRA. The presumably less urgent part will likely be passed at the next meeting. If there is any good news here it is that our CRA only has 5 years left to go. Chances are pretty certain that once its term of existence lapses, we will not qualify for any kind of renewal. But that still means 5 more years of downtown crony payoffs, special people fee discounts, gifts for developers, ill conceived consultant studies, and whatever else the vanity of the G4 Council behooves them to spend our money on. Which is what will inevitably happen when there are millions of dollars in funds designated to fight blight in a City having none. It is a situation ripe for abuse.

The City decided to spend $45,000 (plus $6,000 in licensing fees for years after) for a scanning service that will make thousands of City documents and reports available on the City of Sierra Madre website. There wasn't much argument against this happening, and anything that makes city information more readily available is a good thing. But again, that is a lot of money for something that isn't all that much more complicated than Xeroxing. Two PCC students majoring in computer science could do the same job part time, and at a fraction of the cost.

The bicycle situation was discussed. All agreed that people on bikes running stop signs is a bad thing. The all purpose Sierra Madre solution, giving out tickets, was lauded once again. We do need a bike lane on Sierra Madre Boulevard, there is one in both Arcadia and Pasadena. And the same bikers pass through those towns without incident. But somehow our City Council doesn't get that.

The City Council then went back into private session. Judging by the Mayor's look of exasperation at the beginning of the meeting, it appears that the Sierra Madre Police Officers Association negotiations have entered a new and delicate phase.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Gossip On Tonight's City Council Meeting

The big issue is, of course, the $676,000 CRA buy in. As was discussed yesterday, this huge spend would mean we would still have a Community Redevelopment Agency. Which is kind of like having a tailbone. Doesn't do anything useful, but it does help to remind us that we might really be a monkey's uncle. Or a monkey's aunt. Human tailbones being transgender, you know.

My name is once again at top of the Agenda for tonight's meeting, and I still cannot say anything about it. Not that I don't want to, because I'm fit to bursting with tales to tell. But then my attorney would call and patiently explain to me the impropriety of such a thing. Someday I'll get to tell you all about all this. It'll probably take a couple of posts, but I promise I will air it all out. For a blogger who generally doesn't hold very much back, this has been pure agony.

Another couple of items are also on the secret meeting list, and they are all about labor negotiations. Both with the Police Officer's Association and the Classified Employees Association. Again it appears that city employees are negotiating the financial compensation of other city employees, so you can only wonder why we even have elected officials.

The public portion of the meeting will start with the rituals. Tonight Mayor Buchanan will don the sacred elk's head and speak to the villagers about the perils that lie just to the far side of the ridge line. Chickens will be sacrificed, entrails read, and because of this we will all be permitted to live for another two weeks. Woe to the city that does not take time to care for the needs of the angry gods.

The approvals are next. Minutes, agenda, and for each other. We all crave approval, though some of us are too proud to ask. Nobody really likes a stoic, you know.

I always find the Mayor and Council reports to be poignant, especially those that are given by Councilmembers who believe that this is the time to discuss what they have done in their personal lives for the last two weeks. It is astonishing just how unimaginative and pedestrian their existences are. Honestly, if I were them I would talk about just about anything to avoid revealing to the entire town just how profoundly uninteresting they are. Even discussing City business would be preferable.

There will be a presentation about the exciting new "On-line Utility Bill Payment Service." This will have a profound effect on how business will be conducted at City Hall. Now when you go down to 232 W. Sierra Madre Boulevard with your water bill and checkbook in hand you will be cheerfully informed at the counter that you can now pay on-line. And if you have any questions, well, the answers are on-line, too. The incremental quality decline of our lives here continues.

We will then roar into the Consent Calendar, which is the money changing portion of this evening's festivities. $785,507 (rounded off) will be spent for salaries, random bills, the Library and our zombie CRA. This will be followed by a brief discussion on adjustments to the way city employee retirement funds are being handled. Though it doesn't say on the agenda report (which is always a very vaguely written document), I suspect the employee take is increasing. By how much is unknown to me at this time.

There is also something about the approval of Sierra Madre Personnel Rules. Under these new guidelines spitting, name calling, fighting, pinching, biting, bullying, gum chewing, and dating fellow employees during working hours will now be forbidden. You can only wonder why this took so long.

This next item is irritating to me. It deals with a $25,960 cost for "the preparation of environmental documents" for 225 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. We're talking, of course, about the Skilled Nursing Facility, and the cost is associated with the new assisted living set up that somebody wants to put in there. My question being, if this new facility is being developed as a private business and for the enrichment of private individuals, why is it the taxpayers have to pick up this particular bill? Unless we are going to somehow be paid back in the not too distant future, this appears to be more developer welfare.

That polishes off the Consent Calendar. Item #2 is another Joe Mosca promoted outrage. Done, of course, for the benefit of development. What does Joe do that isn't about giving away the farm to outside economic interests? In this case he is pushing to roll back Public Facilities Fee Rates to 2006 levels. And who would this benefit? The first possible place that comes to mind is One Carter. These fees have always been a check to unwanted development in town, and apparently Joe wants to pull that barrier down.

Remember when this guy used to tell us he was all for "preserving this precious jewel of a town?" Now that he won't have to run for office again in Sierra Madre Mosca doesn't even bother to pretend anymore.

Item #3 is the Vanity Redevelopment Agency "opt-in" that we discussed yesterday. $676,000 so that the G4 will be able to continue their sugar daddy operation. There is one thing that needs to be added here. If you look at the Staff Report on this mess, there is no math. That's right, there are no numbers and no analysis. How can any Councilmember make an informed decision on this matter without first analysing the math? Are we spending ourselves into a hole? Do we come out ahead? Very odd.

Can it be that 4 out of our 5 members on the City Council would just vote yes because they want a Community Redevelopment Agency? Aren't they even remotely curious about seeing how everything pencils out?

Item #4 has to do with spending $45,000 so some company can put things like Staff Reports on the Sierra Madre website. "On-line access to city documents," as it says on the agenda. I suspect you could find a couple of computer whiz kids from Pasadena Community College who would be very happy do this same set up work part time for around $11.50 an hour. Be a considerable saving, I'm sure. But somehow I doubt that this will happen.

All that said, have you ever noticed how City Hall spends for consultants and management firms always have the same kind of large rounded off numbers? $30,000, $45,000, $50,000, the numbers are always so very neat with all of their zeros. Why don't they ever come to, say, $34,199.74? Are they rounding down, or are they rounding up?

Item #5 is the last for this meeting. It is yet another Joe Mosca inspiration, this time dealing with bicycle safety. We covered this highly controversial topic pretty heavily on July 22nd, so if you're interested in The Tattler take on this matter, scroll down a few days and check it out.

One other thing. I watch these meetings on my computer courtesy of KGEM, which allows the viewer to know exactly how many people are watching on-line at any given time. That number usually peaks out at 4. Are you one of the other 3?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Should the City Council Spend $676,000 for a Vanity Redevelopment Agency?

One of the more bizarre outcomes from the voting out of existence of our late (but hardly great) Community Redevelopment Agencies (CRAs in acronymic) by the state legislature is that what Sacramento took away it would also allow cities to buy back. But only at a considerable cost to any wishing to play at that rather pricey level.

I think that when Jerry Brown signed these bills he figured that the price of this so-called "Voluntary Alternative Redevelopment Program" would be so high that only the largest and most wealthy of cities would even consider it. And if it meant that much to them, and Sacramento got all the money it wanted, why should he stand in the way?

But old habits die hard, apparently. Especially here in Sierra Madre. And look at it this way, whatever would the G4 City Council do if it didn't have CRA money to dole out to its favorite special interests? Much of the perceived power and importance of the City Council job comes from its ability to play God with a few million dollars in redevelopment money. Which, as we clearly saw with The Bottle Shop wine tasting room episode, becomes a marvelous way to help pay off political debts. Plus there are always the needs of people such as the Downtown Investors Club, developers, BIA aligned organizations such as the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership, the big utilities, and various Realtor organizations.

All that would be left for them to look after would be Dog Ordinances and Temporary Use Permits. No longer would there be phone calls from powerful developers with interesting proposals. Invitations to lobbyist-run conclaves with serious sounding titles such as "Saving the World: A New Community Planning Paradigm" would cease to arrive in the mail. Losing the Sierra Madre Community Redevelopment Agency would mean a serious loss in status for the Gang of 4.

Which is probably why the following item shows up on the agenda for tomorrow night's City Council meeting:

Discussion - First reading of ordinance No. 1320 and adoption of urgency ordinance No. U-1320: Consideration of Community Redevelopment Agency adoption to opt-in to the tax increment payment on behalf of AB 1X26 and AB 1X 27 - Recommendation that the City Council/Agency Board adopt the Urgency Ordinance U-1320 and pass the first reading of Ordinance 1320, an Ordinance of the City Council determining it will comply with the voluntary alternative Redevelopment Program pursuant to part 1.9 of division 24 of the California Health and Safety Code in order to permit the continued existence and operation of the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Sierra Madre, amending the Redevelopment Plan as originally adopted by Ordinance 918 in 1977; and that the City Council conduct a second hearing in (sic) August 9, 2011.

What is not mentioned at all in this thick wedge of legalistic palaver is that the cost here will be in the range of $676,000, money that was originally intended for such things as improvements to the City's community swimming pool and associated services. Plus this also represents a commitment to making substantial payments to the state in the years to follow.

Other cities are looking at whether they would want to opt in and set up a Vanity Redevelopment Agency (VRA) as well. Locally both Monrovia and Arcadia are involved in such deliberations. But the costs are staggering, and have given some City officials a degree of concern.

Information that was covered in an excellent report published recently in the Pasadena Star News.There the following was revealed:

Arcadia, Monrovia take action to keep redevelopment agencies alive - San Jose and Union City were the cities involved in filing a lawsuit Monday to stop a change that would eliminate redevelopment agencies and halt about $1.7 billion in tax revenue to basic services. The state says that money will go toward schools and special districts. If the lawsuit is not successful, Arcadia officials estimate it will have to pay around $1.48 million in redevelopment monies this year, and around $348,000 next year.

Monrovia officials estimate they would have to pay roughly $1.1 million this year and about $262,000 each year afterward. "With so many (redevelopment) projects underway ... we felt we needed to continue the agency's operation," said Monrovia City Manager Scott Ochoa.

In order to buy into all of this the City of Sierra Madre would have to pay $676,000 the first year, and then $160,000 every year after, and into perpetuity. Much of which would go towards alleviating some of the financial stress our public schools are under.

But after the recent large CRA spending spree on things such as a Farmers Market, playground equipment, costly consultant studies on parking and resident consumption habits, the Kodiak, along with The Bottle Shop's wine tasting room development fees, is this at all worth doing? Do we really need to spend this kind of money to retain a CRA that has squandered so many millions of dollars in our tax money over the years on things far from essential? Or at times even damaging to this community?

A lot of the math is unclear, and Tuesday evening's discussion is a only a first pass. The matter will come up again on August 19th. But here is the best chance we've ever had to get rid of something that has done so much harm in the past. There would never have been a Downtown Specific Plan if there hadn't been a Sierra Madre Community Redevelopment Agency.

Let's hope the onerous expenses involved here will be enough to finally get us out from under what has always been welfare for the most privileged members of this community. There never has been much blight in Sierra Madre, and precious little money from our CRA was ever spent in ridding us of it. No matter what Joe Mosca said on TV.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sierra Madre's General Plan: Connecting the Dots With SGVCOG and So. Cal. Edison

Just how deeply do Southern California Edison's tentacles extend into the policy and planning efforts of Sierra Madre? If the anecdotal evidence is correct, apparently all the way to the update process of our General Plan. Their interest being driven by the massive development agenda set by AB 32/SB 375, the Sacramento and associated lobbies central planning edict that declares we can overcome greenhouse gas production and therefore global warming through a state wide high-density construction boom. Just as long as it is done next to a Metro station so people will leave their cars at home. Or so the tale goes.

Of course, as a leading producer of greenhouse gases through its use of vast coal-fired electricity generating plants throughout the region, Edison, despite all their PR, couldn't care a fig about greenhouse gas production. Their dog in the fight is all that new development SB 375 will bring them. More housing and more people equalling more paying customers.

So what is Edison's role in our General Plan Update process? And why would they even care? Follow along as we connect the three rather telling dots.

Dot #1: In a June 19th 2011 article in the Pasadena Star News entitled SGV Council of Governments board member says removal of executive director might be best for agency, the heavy dependence of "The COG" (SGVCOG) upon Southern California Edison grant money is spelled out clearly. Here is what the PSN said:

"In all, the draft 2011-12 budget estimates $2,813,965 in grant funds, the majority of which comes from a $2,360,000 million Southern California Edison grant."

A couple things to keep in mind. The SGV Council of Governments is basically sustained by grants. The overwhelming majority of which come from Edison these days. The COG (as it is sometimes lovingly referenced) basically couldn't exist without them. And it should be obvious to anyone with an adult understanding of the ways this world works that Edison expects certain work to be done by The COG in exchange for their generosity. In this case enforcing the state mandated goals of AB 32 and SB 375, both of which benefit their interests greatly.

It must also be noted that The COG is housed in offices fully owned by Edison. Which I guess makes them either roommates, landlord and tenant, or parent and dependent.

Dot #2: On June 20, 2011, we posted an article entitled SoCal Edison Dropping Some Big Bank On The COG For AB32/SB375 "Energy Efficiency" Job. Here we discussed the large sums of dough Edison bestowed upon these grubby pirates, and what it might mean in the grand scheme of things. We also had access to one of their internal documents. Entitled San Gabriel Valley Council Of Governments (SGVCOG) Draft FY 2011-12 Work Plan, it details their anticipated shenanigans for the upcoming year.

There are the two passages in this "Draft FY 2011-12 Work Plan" that make this connection a strong one. Here is the first:

Housing, Community Development, and Homelessness: With the passage of AB 32 and SB 375, housing issues are increasingly becoming interrelated to transportation, air quality, and development regulations. In light of this new reality, the Governing Board voted to expand the title and scope of this committee to include economic and community development issues. This change would better facilitate the committee's participation in efforts such as corridor planning, business development, and SB 375, among other issues.

The next one is where The COG describes its role in this process, which is to help promote something known as the "SCE CEESP" (or Southern California Edison / California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan). Which is what that $2,360,000 Edison grant to The COG is really all about.

Energy Efficiency Portion of Climate Action Plans/Energy Action Plans: Participating cities will have the opportunity to complete inventories of energy usage both in for municipal facilities and community-wide. This will help cities save money, and demonstrate their leadership in becoming more energy efficient. Building off of the inventories, cities can then develop and adopt an energy efficiency (EE) chapter of their climate action plan (CAP) or develop a standalone energy action plan. This activity will help cities develop a road map for decreasing energy usage, increasing financial savings, and implementing AB 32 requirements.

As you can plainly see, this year The COG (or SGVCOG) is doing exactly what Edison is paying them to do. The myth about The COG is that it is a coming together of 31 cities so they can, through strength of numbers, get their fair share of the money out there. State of otherwise. The reality is that The COG, as it functions now, is a pay to play planning organization that in no way veers from the agenda of those who give out the grants they need to survive.

Dot #3: The highly compensated consultant in our General Plan Update process supplied the members of the concerned committee with a document detailing some of the things that they, as consultants who are here to help, suggest be taken into account. Here is the passage that concerns us today:

Increasingly, Green House Gas (GHG) Reduction Plans are becoming key tools to address citywide GHG emission reductions. We propose consolidating SGVCOG's GHG reduction measures and the City's GHG reduction measures as part of an integrated General Plan/GHG Reduction Plan to address the City's commitment to reducing GHG emissions in accordance with the GHG reduction goals of AB 32 and SB 375. We will coordinate with City staff, the Green Committee and the representative on behalf of SGVCOG in developing the inventory, setting a GHG reduction target, and identifying GHG reduction strategies than can be integrated into the General Plan.

Now since Southern California Edison has pretty much kept the SGVCOG in business with its $2,360,000 grant for this very purpose, and since the consultant (The Planning Center/DC&E) wants to insert Edison's SB 375 messenger boys into our General Plan Update process, isn't it safe to say that this is an attempt to place Edison's development forward agenda into that most vital Sierra Madre land use and planning document of all? The Sierra Madre General Plan?

Seems pretty obvious to me that this is the case.

Just to be clear. When Edison, through its various bought and paid for mouthpieces such as The COG, talks about reducing greenhouse gas production, they aren't talking about their coal fired generating plants. They are talking about our cars and homes. This is what is at the heart of SB 375, which is also known as the "anti-sprawl bill." The notion being that if you situate high-density housing near transportation corridors (in our case the Gold Line), people will somehow magically give up their cars, move in from the boondocks, reduce their commuting distances, and take L.A. County's lousy public transportation system to work.

And because of this SB 375 process, the Regional Housing Needs Assessment numbers that we will be called upon to meet in a year or so will be astronomically higher than anything we have seen before. And thanks to the SGVCOG and Edison, much of the language necessary to accommodate all of that high-density urban style development in Sierra Madre will already be there in our General Plan.

We need to tell the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, along with all that tainted Edison lobby money, to take a hike. Sierra Madre does not belong to them.