Friday, September 30, 2011

Will A New Measure U Have A Sunset Clause?

Through the help of the Maundry Confidential Document Delivery Service we have managed to obtain a copy of the Agenda Report for the City Council Strategic Plan Retreat. Which is different from Bonaparte's Retreat, mostly because traditional music was nonexistent at our particular version of the retreat thing. Or so I've been told. I wouldn't know since, like most Sierra Madreans, I had to go to work that morning.

While the meeting agenda itself is available on the City of Sierra Madre website, the Staff Report is not. Which is hardly surprising.

The section that deals with the topic of today's litany of impertinent observations, Measure U, falls within the "Three Year Goal" section of the handout. Measure U being a familiar old friend as it is the same voter approved initiative that permitted the City to raise our Utility User Taxes up to 12% (a 6% or so increase) a few years back. Mostly to help cover a raise for the Sierra Madre Police Department, though some funds have been used for other things as well. It also permitted the expansion of our PD to its current frisky levels.

This voter approved UUT increase "sunsets" (begins to deflate to its original 6% level) next year, and it is up to we the people to decide whether we wish to renew this Measure U or not.

The portion of the City Council Strategic Plan Retreat we're discussing today deals with what has got to be a most important topic for anyone working at City Hall right now, and that is to Achieve Financial Stability. Which, from my rather callous perspective, means maintaining City Hall at its current (or perhaps even greater) size. I do not think it suggests that the people or buildings of Sierra Madre will become in any way unstable should we not decide to renew an old tax hike. I suspect that on a personal level everyone living here will be just fine. Or at least as good as they are today.

No, by "financial stability" we are talking about maintaining City Hall's operating budget at levels deemed adequate by those working there. Who, of course, would like to see the budget maintained at its current level or, perhaps, even increased. What working person wouldn't want to make certain that the organization they're working for has enough cash to keep them employed? Which in this case, since we're discussing government here, means assuring that the people are taxed enough. At least in their opinion.

Here is how the Strategic Plan Agenda describes this quest:

ACHIEVE FINANCIAL STABILITY - There are also five objectives for this goal. The objectives include, presenting a recommendation to the City Council for consideration of whether to place the renewal of the Measure U portion of the Utility Users' Tax on the April 10, 2011 ballot. Another objective involves the Administrative Services Director introducing additional on-line services, such as business license renewals. Then at the January 10, 2012 meeting the City Manager and Administrative Services Director will present to the City Council, for discussion, an analysis of the City's financial challenges and current and future revenue streams.

In order to place Measure U back on the ballot (there is, I believe, a November 22nd deadline involved), the process (so to speak) to do so would have to kick off in October of 2011. It is at this time the Administrative Services Director and City Manager would perform the following service for the City:

Present a recommendation to the City Council for consideration of whether to place the renewal of the Measure U portion of the utility users' tax on the April 10, 2011 ballot.

But here's the kicker. While it is not included in any of the documents provided to me, I have it on a very good authority that there is absolutely no intention on the part of City Staff to ask that the renewal of Measure U through the vote of the people include a Sunset Clause! Something that was wisely included as part of the original Measure U at the insistence of then City Councilman Kurt Zimmerman. What this means is should the voters decide to renew Measure U next April, the increase will become permanent. With no possibility of voter participation in this matter ever again.

In other words, as in the case of Measure V and the Assisted Living Facility questions, the voters are once again being intentionally squeezed out of the picture.

Which does not strike me as being very democratic. And I personally cannot see voting myself both a renewed high utility tax rate and decreased rights as a voter at the same time. That would be a little too much to stomach.

Will a Measure V vote on the Assisted Living Facility make the ballot?

The fix could very well be in on this one. While City Staff is being frightfully careful about hitting all the due dates for a vote on the renewal of Measure U, no such care is being taken for a Measure V vote on the rather jumbo-sized ALF. If you look at the schedules you can see that the Assisted Living Facility plans (and whatnot) won't even arrive on the desks of the Planning Commission until December. And with November 22nd being the apparent deadline for a Measure to make it onto next April's ballot, it would seem that there would be no public vote on this matter at this time.

I assume that this is meant to serve a two purposes. It denies the people their legally mandated vote on this matter, while at the same time providing scheduling as the excuse for this happening. Thus skirting any legal complications that could arise from ignoring the law.

You can sense that when it comes to the participation of the people in deciding the fate of their City through the ballot, the unfortunate trend downtown these days is to kick us to the curb.

Bonus Coverage

The #1 Most Viewed video on ABC's Eyewitness News website is about John Shear. As part of the buildup to tomorrow's celebration at Santa Anita of John's incredible sacrifice, ABC News in Los Angeles created a pretty striking video of exactly what happened that day. Since hitting their website the video has gone viral, and is their big traffic driver right now.

If you haven't seen this yet, you can view it by clicking here. Once having seen this you will have no doubt as to the incredible courage it took to save a little girl's life. Click here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

FBI Investigating El Monte Transit Village Project - Is A Former Sierra Madre Mayor Involved?

As long time Tattler readers may recall, we discussed the Titan Group's close entanglement in the El Monte Transit Village Scandal quite a lot back in 2009. However, it later seemed that local investigations were going nowhere and our interest flagged. There were other fish to fry. But apparently an FBI investigation into the matter has been quietly ongoing for two years. The FBI, which prefers to operate in secrecy when conducting its investigations, hasn't said much about this to anyone. But in today's sometimes enlightening Pasadena Star News, a few beans are spilled by other parties.

And there is a question that must be asked. Has former Sierra Madre Mayor and persistent regressive redevelopment nuisance Bart Doyle been caught up in any of this excitement? As the former Chief Operating Officer of the Titan Group, the organization that was the moving force behind the El Monte Transit Village, he was definitely a part of the picture during its heyday. And since this defunct company is today the apparent object of some ongoing Fed curiosity, Doyle's possible involvement now in this FBI investigation does seem like a fair topic for inquiry.

However, whether or not that is the case is a source for speculation only at this point. This from the PSN:

FBI, federal authorities investigating El Monte Village project - the FBI and other federal authorities are investigating the former developer of the $1 billion El Monte Transit Village project, according to federal, sheriff's and city officials.

El Monte police turned their investigation into alleged fraud by two executives of the Titan Group, John Leung and Jean Lang, over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. A sheriff's lieutenant said Wednesday the department declined to investigate because the FBI was involved.

"When we were asked by El Monte (police) to investigate the case ... we did a little research and found out the FBI already had a case they were investigating so we weren't going to step on their toes," sheriff's Lt. Sherri Anderson (said). "We did let the FBI know that El Monte asked us to do it, but they were already doing it."

The entire story can be accessed here.

In 2007 things were looking a bit more sunny for the Titan Group and their El Monte Transit Village project. John Leung, the owner of Titan (pictured standing above with our Bart), was quite upfront about all the excitement being created by his transit village redevelopment project, and said so in this Sep. 25, 2007 article ("Mixed Used Development a Possibility in El Monte" - click here), originally published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

"There is tremendous interest, and we are working with at least three different national financial institutions," said Leung, who estimated that the company should complete its financing negotiations within the next two months. "But it is looking very good right now."

He said that because of the project's massive scale, Titan is looking at about 10 different funding sources. "They all look very promising," Leung said.

In this same article Bart Doyle, Titan's Chief Operating Officer, also expresses a strong belief in the coming success of this project. Here is what he had to say:

The company also is negotiating with the city for a purchase price on its existing public works yard, as well as with Caltrans, which owns some of the land around the bus depot. Plans also call for Titan to lease property owned by the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to complete the project, said Bart Doyle, the company's chief operating officer.

Those acquisitions have yet to be made, though Doyle said that they are being "actively pursued." If all that falls into place, construction on the first phase of the project could begin in about a year, Doyle said. "We still need to map the property, get grading and building permits," Doyle said. "That takes time."

It wasn't too much later that John Leung was arrested for fraud, the Titan Group went belly up, and the $1 billion dollar, 65 acre El Monte Transit Village (aka "the Billion Dollar Bus Station") project fell into near ruins.

And now, 2 years later, another puzzle part to this story has fallen into place. It turns out that this investigation remains very much alive, and it is being conducted by the FBI. An organization widely known for its seriousness and sense of purpose.

An interesting development to be sure.

Bonus Coverage - Lead story on The Patch today: "Mosca Mistreated Committee Chair, Members Say." The committee in question is the General Plan Update Steering Committee. Not much meat on the bones of the article itself, but the video of Deb Sheridan and Colin Braudrick is pretty choice. Credit where credit is due.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Measure V: Respect the Vote

"The definitions in Measure V are the definitions that existed in 2006, and the Council cannot change them. To change them it would have to go back to the voters." - Former Sierra Madre City Councilman Lee Cline

Lee Cline nailed it at last night's City Council meeting. What the citizens of Sierra Madre chose as their right in 2007, and did so with their votes, was based on the legal definitions and language contained in our City Codes. And there is still nothing there about suites, or pods, or even chandeliers designating what is or is not a "unit." What voter approved Measure V says is that you cannot have more than 13 units per acre downtown without the public voting on it first. The City Council, or any of the people it pays, cannot arbitrarily change that law just because it doesn't suit their interests, or those they are beholden to. To do so would be little better than legal fraud.

The people of the City of Sierra Madre have the right to vote on any proposed over-sized development in the downtown area. This is not a decision to be made by the City Council, it is the people who decide. And whether 4 members of the City Council find this to be inconvenient is immaterial. People have died in wars to protect the American right to vote. It is hardly fitting for a tiny group of entitled individuals to try and steal that right away with through the use of transparent and legalistic semantics.

Others stood up and spoke out as well. John Capoccia picked up on the idea that it would take a lot more to change a law than just using different words for the same thing. "It's a stretch to think that by calling it a suite it isn't a unit ... I am shocked to think that the City Council would do something like this to circumvent Measure V." Dave Hinton cited the actual sections of the Ordinance that Measure V became once it had been approved. Again discussing the City's use of the word "suite" and why this had nothing to do with this law or how it needs to be applied.

There is something about a governmental body attempting to steal the public's hard won right to vote that just rubs people the wrong way.

Don Watts, who has not been well, conned me into reading his statement for him. Which achieved his purpose of being heard at this meeting without having to step foot into the room where even God doesn't care to go. Here is a portion of what Don wished to hear:

Measure V was crafted to follow the LA County Model Zoning Code, and with the wording of the Sierra Madre Zoning Code's definitions in mind. Nowhere is mentioned a unit being defined as having a kitchen. For Measure V it was determined a unit, or room, or house, or hotel suite or apartment, that was meant to house a private resident was equal to a living unit, with or without a kitchen. Further, there is no adequate definition of what a kitchen is.

Please respect the wording of your zoning code, it is what it says.

To the current City Council: All I can say at this time is beware of what you are doing in relation to that law, it cannot do anything but hurt your reputations. And you will be leaving it to administrators who will have to work in a hostile environment, caused by your disregard of the laws.

To the developer: You are probably swell guys but you will be antagonizing the town by trying to railroad this through. Once the current council majority is gone, you had better have good lawyers. You will be trying to operate a business in a hostile environment. Take it from somebody who has learned this the hard way. You will be looked upon with respect if you push for a referendum, and you will be welcomed here. A lot of people like the proposal, and it will probably pass. With a vote as spelled out in Measure V.

Measure V: Respect the Vote.

Other things happened at this meeting

Joe Mosca was absent without explanation. Or, as Mayor Buchanan put it, he was excused. Which made him sound like he is the principal in Joe's very own personal middle school. All of which was probably a good thing for Joe. Two members of the General Plan Update Steering Committee, Deb Sheridan and Colin Braudrick, stepped up to the podium to call Mosca out on his rude behavior at the last City Council meeting. Incivility that he had directed at the Chair of the GPUSC, Denise Delmar. They expressed their concern and dismay at what they had heard, and wanted the Council to understand just how dedicated and effective a Chairperson Denise has been.

(As an aside: Can it be that this is what has caused Denise to now step down as the spokesperson of the GPUSC? Rather than face similar abusive treatment from this Councilman at any future Council meetings? A job that has now been taken on now on by Colin.)

It is important to remember that it was the same Joe Mosca who proclaimed himself to be the "civility candidate" during our last election. Apparently in the mind of Mr. Mosca civility ends when someone does not share in his opinions on planning policy. That Joe's assumption in this case was based on a complete misunderstanding on his part does little to improve the situation. Perhaps if Joe had actually attended the GPUSC meeting he went off on Denise about he might have seen things more clearly.

Apparently this was not the only GPUSC meeting Joe declined to attend. Despite the fact that he is one of two Council liaisons to this Committee. Shades of a few years back when it was revealed that he had been shining off his responsibilities to the people of Sierra Madre by not attending the SCAG meetings where our hideously unfair RHNA numbers were ginned up.

The matter of the Council and City Staff junket to the League of California Cities shindig in San Francisco came up, thank you very much. With one resident asking the Council how much it cost the taxpayers to foot the bill for three days and two nights in that fabulous city by the Bay. Her question was not answered right away, rather being handled after Public Comment was over by our occasionally slick City Manager. Who in this case seemed to believe all was fine and dandy because the money that was spent to send the 5 (or was it actually 7?) City Councilmembers and Staff to SF had been "previously budgeted."

At a time when City residents are being asked to endure a million dollars in service cuts for things like after school childcare, sending a small herd of people to party in San Francisco on the taxpayer dime is not in the best taste. No matter how special those people may perceive themselves to be. Plus citing past budgeting practices from times when the economy was nowhere as bad as it is now was rather pathetic.

It was also revealed that Joe Mosca's expenses were covered by his employer, The Gas Company. Which does raise the question of who he actually represented there, us or Sempra Energy. Is it possible that he doesn't understand the difference?

One item of keen interest to this blog was revealed during the City Manager's upbeat review of all the excitement at last week's (or was it the week before?) City Council Strategic Planning Retreat. It seems that our old friend Measure U needs to go back on the ballot next April due to a sunset provision wisely attached to it by then City Councilmember Kurt Zimmerman. Measure U being the voter approved initiative that raised our Utility User Taxes from a previous 6% to the 10% they are at today. With the potential to go to 12% should a perceived need arise. This tax covers everything from trash collection to cell phones, with a whole lot of things in between.

This should bring up some very interesting issues, I think. There is a perception in this City that we might be a little over-governed. A Police Department of 35 officers being one instance of possible amok thinking. Also the notion that we require expensive out-of-town professionals to run our affairs, and that we need to pay dearly for such a thing, might be an issue as well. Could it be that the best way of bringing City costs down is by voting ourselves a tax cut? Is our city government model relevant to our needs any longer?

By approving a continuance of the UUT at its current high rate, are we really helping ourselves? What exactly do we get in return?

And then there is the responsibility issue. If things like an all-expense paid junket to San Francisco for 5 (or is that 7?) elected officials and City Staff when only one needed to go are the kinds of things that are "budgeted for," should we really want to give so much of our money to the City?

Here is another one. Why are we paying so much money for our City Attorney? The highly expensive law firm she works for, Colantuono and Levin, is certainly not representing us very well. Apparently that cooked up nonsense about "units" versus "suites" in the Measure V vote confiscation is their handiwork. And if C&L is not going to side with the taxpayers on an issue like our right to vote on downtown development, why should we want to continue sending them the millions of our dollars like we have in the past?

It is very possible that the time has come for the UUT rate to return to where it was before. I'm not really sure we are seeing all that much value for our buck. This is a small town, we're not Pasadena. Maybe it is time we brought back a more traditional Sierra Madre style government. Voting "no" on Measure U next April could be an effective way of making that happen.

One more thing. Anybody notice how quickly last night's City Council meeting went? Everything was wrapped up by around 8 pm. It is amazing how quickly the City's business can get done without Joe Mosca in the house.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Strange Arrogance

"(A) Measure V vote for the Assisted Living Facility - the City Council should invoke guiding principles to increase and broaden community involvement and trust by bringing it to a vote of the people with the Peoples' Initiative Measure V, as one City Councilwoman put it. And when Joe Mosca claimed that he was completely unaware of such a sentiment in the community, I informed him at that there was. So now he is aware." - A comment that was left here yesterday morning by a reader who referred to him or herself as "One Resident who attended the City Council Retreat."

At tonight's City Council meeting residents will be speaking out on some important issues. As they do at every City Council meeting. The issue we have focused on here lately is the right to vote on over-sized downtown development projects. Passed by the voters in 2007, Measure V guarantees that the people of Sierra Madre will get to vote on any out-of-compliance projects slated for construction in the downtown area. The formula used is 2-30-13, which stands for no more than 2 stories, 30 feet in height, and 13 units per acre. It is one of the things that has kept this City small and sustainable.

The Assisted Living Facility is a proposed structure of 58,000 square feet crammed onto a lot of less than 2 acres. And rather than 13 units per acre as prescribed by Measure V, it will contain many more than that. This means that it is a project the voters of Sierra Madre would have to approve through a city-wide vote. Which, given the chance, I suspect they would. As large and out of character with the area as this structure will be, it will likely be approved by a public vote. The community wants the dilapidated Skilled Nursing Facility replaced, and this looks like the best deal we're going to get.

But 4/5s of the City Council does not want this to go to a public vote. Despite the fact that passage is guaranteed, they are doing everything they possibly can to deny Sierra Madre residents their right to vote on this project. Which shows a strange arrogance on their part.

The stratagem they have devised, apparently with the assistance of the City Attorney (which we, for all intents and purposes, pay a ton of money to not represent us), is to arbitrarily proclaim that the "units" contained within the ALF projects are not units at all. Rather they are "suites" because they lack kitchens. In other words, the terminology was somehow switched from units to suites by the City, which then proclaimed that no vote is necessary. An absurd and shoddy ploy based on semantics alone, and something without any legal basis whatsoever in the City of Sierra Madre.

There can only be one purpose for this, and that is to confiscate from the people of Sierra Madre their right to vote on this project. Which the City believes it can do. Not because it is legal, but because it will likely take a resident lawsuit to preserve this right. And the lawyers we'd have to hire start at around $250 an hour.

The 4/5s of the City Council that want to deny us our right to vote have no such legal funding problems. You see, they use our tax money to pay for the lawyer that will take away our legally mandated vote. In other words, our tax money would be used to deny us our rights.

The title of this post is Strange Arrogance. And the above is certainly an example of that. Justifying a de facto violation of a voter approved law through slick terminology manipulation and taxpayer funded legal obfuscation being examples of that arrogance. Doing all of this despite the fact that the ALF is all but guaranteed of voter passage is, well, strange indeed.

Here is another example of strange arrogance. Last week John Buchanan, Josh Moran, Joe Mosca and Nancy Walsh, along with our ethically flexible City Manager, all flew to San Francisco to attend a big League of California Cities conference. While not a Brown Act violation (there is a legal exemption made for affairs such as this one), it was a truly tacky thing to do. As I will explain.

This League schmooze-fest was a three day affair. Which means that those attending would need two nights of hotel accommodations in San Francisco if they were to savor the entire experience. Which any business traveler can tell you is a city that is pure bloody murder on expense accounts.

Normally city governments, especially in times as financially stressful as these, would only send one representative to witness the wonders of a League get together. Who would then report back to his colleagues and the people about what he saw. This would be the ethically, financially and politically prudent thing to do. And when you figure that we are talking (after taxes) $300 round trip airline tickets, plus $300 (after taxes) per night stays at San Francisco hotels, sending 5 people seems excessive.

Using the conservative prices I've listed above, two nights combined travel and lodging would cost the taxpayers of this town approximately $4,500. Throw in registration fees, food, liquor, carfare, parking, Internet service, tips, and the expenses associated with three days of bon vivant activities with equally irksome government officials, and you are talking around $6,000 total. All of which appears to be on us.

Now consider this. Recently a group of parents of teenage kids discovered that their childcare arrangements at the YAC were about to undergo a radical and unwanted change. Due to cutbacks caused by straitened budgets, hours were being chopped and rates were going up. These working parents are dependent upon the YAC to help them keep their kids off the streets and out of trouble during after school hours, so this news was hardly what they wanted to hear. As any working parent with kids can understand.

But, being true Sierra Madreans, these parents got together with the Community Services Commission and worked a few things out. They volunteered to help fill some of the gaps in service caused by budget cuts while also agreeing to pay more. It is small acts of heroism like this that make things right again. The result being that they can continue to go to their day jobs knowing their children will be safe during after school hours.

So how do you explain sending 4 City Councilmembers and 1 City Manager for a two night/three day stay in San Francisco to attend a vanity convention while anxious working parents, due to financially driven City cutbacks, are forced to scramble to keep their childcare intact?

The only explanation I can think of is arrogance. Strange arrogance.

Come to the City Council tonight and speak out. Speak out about defending your right to vote. Speak out on the unfairness of City budget cuts that apply to working parents but not junketeering City Councilmembers and staff. Speak out about truthfulness in government and why it is so necessary. Or just bring any issue you want. There are plenty to go around.

Just speak and be heard. That is what our City so desperately needs right now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The City Council Agenda and Other Concerns

I'm having a little trouble with the new City of Sierra Madre website. Promoted to the residents last summer as being the ultimate in modern municipal internet design and governmental transparency, it has remained since its inception distressingly vacuous and "lite." I know we have all been asked to be patient with those working on this thing because, as we were carefully informed at the time, it is going to take awhile. But then why was the old site taken down if the new one wasn't ready yet? And didn't we shell out $40,000 so that timely information could be uploaded there? Like Staff Reports on the agenda items for tomorrow night's City Council meeting?

One again they just ain't there. Everybody wants them, we were dragooned into paying lots of dough to get them, but these staff reports are still not appearing on the City of Sierra Madre website. Was the money not enough? Is there something more that is required to make this happen?

I would hate to think that we are seeing yet another instance of City Hall "Message Inversion." Also known as the Law of Opposites, message inversion is what happens when communiques are issued, but what they say is not what they actually mean. The stated purpose and reason turning out to be pretty much the opposite of the eventual result. The new City of Sierra Madre website will be a refreshingly transparent and open website was the message. The result turning out to be a strangely random and costly concoction that delivers very little of what was promised.

And at times things can get kind of silly there. On the 21st there was a big announcement on the Sierra Madre eBlast, which was also posted on the City site. What it said was that the Farmers Market had "new hours." Turns out that these hours of operation, which had been from 3 to 8PM, are now going to be 3 to 7PM. Or one hour less. So rather than establishing "new hours," what actually happened is that this event had been cut back 60 minutes. Why it couldn't have simply been explained that way is something of a mystery.

Anyway, here are some observations about tomorrow night's City Council meeting agenda. They are not terribly complex, but then again neither is the topic.

Things open up with Public Comment about the closed session. Though I can't imagine what anyone would have to say since closed sessions are held in secret and very little of what is to be discussed there is shared with the public. Plus this brief moment of open communication is not broadcast on SMTV3, which means that any comment is only minimally public.

Once the City Council emerges from behind its veil of secrecy the evening's rituals will be conducted, this time by Nancy Walsh. While there is no certain proof of what the topic of her meditations might be, the rumor is that she will be praying for chain retail and more public interest in the Farmers Market.

Next Agendas and Minutes will be approved because they always are. The Mayor and Councilmembers will take a few minutes to speak about things they feel gave meaning to their lives over the past couple of weeks, and then the public will comment about things that concern them. This will be followed by a celebratory presentation to the British Home on their 80th Anniversary. Which means they started out in 1931.

The City Council will then begin the evening's business by spending money. Which is also something that is always done. We as citizens have a symbiotic financial relationship with the City, you know. While City Hall never produces any revenue on its own, it is entitled to the money of those who do. Which is good for them because otherwise they wouldn't have anything to spend. This is a relationship that is customary in our town, but it is also one backed up by quite a few laws. Later in the meeting the City Council will discuss new ways to spend our money. Which is also traditional. Besides, what else do they really have to talk about?

The evening's spend will be $613,922, rounded off. Which brings this month's total offerings for those who owe their daily sustenance to our generosity to $2,038,981. Again, rounded off. The majority of this sum goes to the salaries of those having the pleasure of working for us, with much of that work comprised of the many methods used to obtain our money. Taxes, fees and licenses being the bulk of the take. All of which requires a lot of hard administrative work. Which oftentimes they charge us fees for as well.

The next item (which is numbered "2") will be a Public Hearing on solar panel permit fees. Specifically the reduction of plan check fees so that local business entities will not have to suffer any onerous City costs when switching their electricity needs to more environmentally sound solar panels. Yet another instance where people doing business in town have to pay money to get City Hall to do jobs that we pay them taxes to do. Which to me has always seemed like double dipping, solar panels or not.

This kerfuffle was the result of a Sierra Club study, one that listed Sierra Madre (no relation) as one of those cities that charged high fees in this regard, thereby threatening the survival of our species. We should expect a lot of "green" and "sustainable" chatter from the Gang of Four as this presents a fine opportunity for them to show how much they care about meaningful things. Yes, the winds will blow.

The last time they considered cutting a business cost like this it had something to do with spending CRA money on a political supporter's wine tasting room. This being almost as important as that.

Item #3 is in regards to a Sacramento initiative dealing with weight limits on bridges. And since we have bridges here in town, weighty vehicles will come under some City Council scrutiny. It will be agreed that putting too much weight on our bridges is probably a bad thing. Perhaps Councilmember Mosca will inform us that things weighing a lot are heavy?

How this will be enforced is another matter, however. I do not recall seeing any truck scales in town. Maybe there is a state grant that will buy us some. Can we send Joe up north to find out?

Another Public Hearing will then ensue. This one will deal with our compliance (or is that conformance?) with something called the Congestion Management Program. Or CMP for those who prefer Acronymic. This is more Sacramento generated nonsense designed to make us deal with traffic problems that don't exist here, mostly because of our dogged determination to remain a low density town. Ironically, should we become compliant with such Sacramento developer lobbyist payoffs such as SB 375 we will become a City with traffic congestion woes. Which would make us out of compliance with the CMP I guess. Do they send in the National Guard when that happens?

The meeting will wrap up with a discussion about the visionary initiatives and beneficial effects of last week's City Council Strategic Planning Retreat. Which is where the Council discussed things like improving community trust and transparency. I understand that outside of the City Council and those dependent upon them for a living only 1 resident was in attendance for the retreat. Which means, ironically, that this meeting designed to deal with issues like community trust and transparency was held at a time of day when only one outside person could attend.

And now it is the last item on this agenda. Obviously the community will want to stay up late tomorrow night for this one. Or maybe not.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Patch Projected To Lose $130 Million In 2011

No internet media company draws more negative press than AOL. Amongst those who write for online business sites and newspapers there is an almost universally shared antipathy for the once mighty ISP, and its myriad failures are savored with a nearly undisguised glee. Of course, when they decide to really lower the boom, their favorite target is AOL Patch. And why not? The lurid financial story alone provides enough juicy content to fill a column, and then some.

This week Business Insider published an article on their site dealing with AOL and their troubled Patch property. "Here Are The 'Smoke And Mirrors' AOL Is Using To Make 10 Patches Look Profitable By Year's End," (click here) digs deeply into Patch's woeful site traffic numbers and financials. The resulting story is not a very pretty one. Here are some of the tragic details:

1) AOL is sinking $160 million into Patch this year. There are 840 Patches in the U.S., which makes their per site investment an average of $190,476.19. Based on what you have seen on our very own Sierra Madre Patch, would you have spent $190K this year to keep it running?

2) The CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong, recently proclaimed that Patch's overall site traffic has now reached the 10 million per month mark in "unique" visits. Or 11,904 per site per month. Since AOL has spent $160 million this year to keep Patch afloat, or $13,333,333.34 per month, that pencils out to $1.33 per hit. Which is an absurdly high cost. In comparison, The Tattler, which averages around 35,000 hits per month, spends around $40 every 30 days or so, mostly on coffee. Which boils down to .001142 cents per page view. While we cannot claim that each hit is a "unique" one, we know that the people who do visit here are some of the finest you will find anywhere.

3) Patch's ad revenues are commensurate with its traffic figures. Meaning they are very small. Business Insider recently received some inside information from a disgruntled AOL employee that details the painful meagreness of their advertising intake. Looking at a site called (which is available to Patch salespeople, not us), this person intimated that all 840 sites combined produce $2 million in local advertising revenue each month. Or $2,381 per Patch. Which is an average of $28,572 revenue production per site per year. Subtract that from the $190k per site cost figure and you will see an average per site net loss of $71,428. There is also national advertising to factor in, which we will discuss in a minute.

Of course, we are not the only folks capable of figuring this out. Investors have processed this information as well, and the result is AOL's stock price has cratered. According to an Aug 9 CNN Money report (click here) AOL's shares are down a disastrous 47% this year as many investors have fled what they believe is a calamity waiting to meet it's train.

To show just how desperate AOL has become to give its investors some indication of improvement in Patch's shaky financial fortunes, and thereby hopefully alleviating their problem with those panicked folks, the stumbling internet giant has cooked up something of a ruse. Business Insider's secret inside source spills the beans on this rather deceptive strategy thusly:

"To get the top target towns profitable they are assigning one ad manager to each town. That will be their sole territory. They are also pushing ad dollars to run in that town. So if you have a $10k deal you put $2k in the target town and spread the other $8k around 15 surrounding towns."

Or, as Business Insider translates this:

In other words, when AOL sells a $50,000 deal in the Northeast, the source is suggesting that AOL accountants will assign 20% of that sale to a specific Patch in order to make that Patch look profitable.

No indication yet if the Sierra Madre Patch has been chosen as one of the ten sites to benefit from this highly creative bookkeeping. Hopefully they'll let us know.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Forbes: Slow Growth In Cities May Have Minimized Foreclosures

There have always been those who claimed that in order to promote economic growth in Sierra Madre, you have to build. And build large. It was one of the big arguments in support the Downtown Specific Plan in 2006. Build lots of high density mixed use condo projects and Sierra Madre would blossom like a desert after the spring rains.

But despite all these rosy predictions of a Sierra Madre economic renaissance from the Downtown Investors Club and their water carriers, the voters put a stake to the whole project by passing Measure V anyway. And do you know what? It looks like by taking the slow growth perspective and not going with the DSP, the people of this town made the smartest possible economic decision.

Because while our less wise neighboring cities now struggle with their vast acres of unsold condos and empty attached storefronts, along with the waves of foreclosures that accompanied such bad decision making, Sierra Madre has weathered that storm quite well. Property values have continued to rise here despite the perilous economic times, and the overall economic health of the town has remained fairly good.

And it looks like some experts are beginning to appreciate our native smarts on these matters. Because the evidence is now starting to show that as far has economics go, slow growth is the smarter path to take.

Here is what an article in the September 20 edition of Forbes Magazine has to say about it:

Slow Growth In Cities May Have Minimized Foreclosures

Later today, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will arrive in the nation's capita to voice the "collective frustration(s)" of 50 fellow city chiefs. The undercurrent will be this: Regardless of the measures local officials take, the economic fate of cities are toed to the whims of the White House and Congress and the macroeconomic levers they control.

Yet one new research paper suggests that, contrary to convention, local policymakers might have some economic autonomy. And they have flexed it in the face of one of the largest macroeconomic trends to wreak havoc in the nation.

In a forthcoming article for Urban Affairs Review, a trio of researchers took survey data on local policies from nearly 300 California municipalities and ran it against foreclosure figures, a decade later. Cities that implemented slow growth or anti-growth policies in the late 1990s saw significantly fewer foreclosures between 2008 and 2009, the torrential center of the housing crisis.

"A lot of previous studies have assumed that cities are unable to resist larger macroeconomic forces," Garrett Glasgow, one of the study's authors, wrote to me in an email. "But at least in this case, we see evidence that city policies helped mitigate the effects of a national foreclosure crisis."

After controlling for a host of economic and demographic factors, including the variation in housing stock, the researchers found that city council opposition to growth was strongly associated with fewer foreclosures. Cities that moved to annex land were later hit with more housing problems, further solidifying the relationship.

The study's key finding, that opposition to growth kept economic calamity at bay, arrives with a surging interest in the opposite - research arguing that restrictions on urban development depress economic growth, by choking the housing supply and blocking beneficial density.

If you want to check out the rest of this article (plus some interesting attachments) you can do so by clicking here.

Southern California Edison Planning Massive Rate Increases

How many companies get to fund their expansion and facilities renewal by getting the customers to foot the costs? Well, apparently if you are this region's quite vast utility monopoly, that is an option available to you. This from the news site

Possible Electricity Rate Increase for So Cal Residents

Southern California Edison (SCE) recently announced the possibility of a fee increase on electric rates for its customers on Friday, September 16 at a media briefing in Rosemead, Ca. If the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approves the rate increase, Southern California residents could face up to a $3-$11 fee increase effective January 3, 2012.

Every three years, SCE proposes a plan entitled "the general rate case," which outlines the cost associated with serving its customers including how much is needed to charge its customers in electric rates. The general rate case has been in review since 2010. The CPUC will come to a final decision in December 2011.

If approved, the increased funds will be used to replace aging poles, wires and transformers; add smart grid components to generate more renewable energy like solar and wind; create over 60,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2014 to implement the new upgrades to the grid and to provide additional customer service needs; and increase grid security and the security of customer information.

Recently an organization called The Utility Reform Network filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission. The numbers they expose in their complaint are pretty stunning.

On November 23, 2010, Southern California Edison Company (SCE) filed the instant application, seeking to increase its electric distribution and generating base revenue requirements by a startling amount. California reports ongoing statewide unemployment in excess of 12% (and far higher in the inland empire), with continuing economic woes causing nearly every other state business and resident to seek ways to tighten their financial belts. In what can only be described as a stunning display of tone-deafness, SCE seeks a new increase of $866 million in 2012, as compared to currently projected and authorized 20102 revenue requirements, which is a single-year increase of nearly 20% in base revenue amounts. Under SCE's proposal for post-test year ratemaking, there would be further net increases of $246 million in 2013, and $527 million in 2014. Taken together, SCE asks that its ratepayers pay $3.6 billion more over the three-year rate case cycle for electric service than ratepayers would pay if 2012 currently authorized base revenue requirements were to remain unchanged.

A cumulative $3.6 billion dollar increase for electricity being a fairly significant hit to the citizens. Especially in a disastrous economy. But like we said, they want to grow a little, and we are fully expected to fund their expansion.

The rest of The Utility Reform Network piece can be accessed by clicking here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Updates On the Caltrans/SGVCOG Conflict of Interest Controversy

One of the stories we covered on The Tattler recently is a Caltrans audit of some Gold Line work the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments performed. Or maybe did not. The jury is still out on that one, so to speak.

The results have now been made public, and they are rather damning. Caltran's conclusion that "the COG" badly mismanaged public moneys has not only added to this agency's unsavory reputation for shady dealings, but attracted the attention of the L.A. County District Attorney as well. The D.A. being someone no government (or quasi-government) figure should ever want to have dealings with. Not only does the DA's attention lead to a slow and deliberate process that will devour years of your life, it will also cost a ton of dough in legal expenses as well. Which in this case could very come out of the public's hide.

In an article published in the Pasadena Star News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and other similarly owned regional dailies, investigative reporter Daniel Tedford describes it all this way:

Caltrans reduced the breadth of an audit of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments in a finalized version recently that asks for the COG to repay $89,262 of a 2006 Gold Line grant rather than the entire $245,130. While Caltrans did accept some explanation from the COG - including in a more than 400 page response - that lead to the decreased amount, it did not shy away from accusations of conflict of interest against COG Director Nick Conway.

Caltrans continued its claim that Conway and his staff, who are contracted to work for the COG through Conway's company Arroyo Associates, have a conflict of interest because Conway and his company benefit from business obtained by the COG, according to the audit.

A complaint regarding the conflict of interest issue is also under review by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division ...

Nick Conway is quoted in the article as saying that the COG will give back the money, but no one should conclude that this means they are guilty of any wrongdoing. "It is a conceptual contractual matter that needs to be resolved and we thought we resolved it."

The previous president of the SGVCOG, Tom King, has led the charge for a house cleaning at the SGVCOG. His viewpoint is somewhat different than that of Mr. Conway. Here is what he had to say to Daniel Tedford:

"You can't have it both ways, you either have a conflict or not," King said. "The thing that concerns me is there is a conflict of interest and we are rated a high risk. Those things aren't acceptable."

Reminds me somewhat of the reasoning behind the City Council's settlement of the recent water rate law suit here in Sierra Madre. One should never confuse settling something with an admission of guilt. Or so the reasoning goes. This is also interesting:

COG 2nd Vice President Mary Ann Lutz said she understands the differences between Caltrans and the COG. The agency is planning an internal audit to review its management system and operations, she said. Whether or not it will answer Caltrans concerns is still to be determined, she said.

Lutz said the COG hasn't made any determinations on how they may handle the conflict of interest issue and recommendations. The internal audit, including expert opinion, will be considered in any decision, she said.

Lutz, who ironically had to resign from a Gold Line board due to her own conflict of interest situation, should be something of an expert on this sort of thing. The sweetheart land sale deal between the City of Monrovia (where Lutz is Mayor) and the Gold Line has been the source of some embarrassment for her. That it also involves an attempted eminent domain land seizure against a decorated Vietnam war veteran and Monrovia resident has only added to the seamy nature of the situation.

As a note, Tedford's excellent report was on the PSN/SGVT site for less than 48 hours. I would link to it, but this article no longer exists on-line.

On his website,, Mr. King described the COG/Conway situation in a 9/7 post this way:

The audits and investigation section of the California Department of Transportation again found the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (SGVCOG) to be a "High Risk" agency due to again finding a conflict of interest by it's Executive Director, Nick Conway. Conway also owns the management company for the Council of Governments. The final audit report found inadequate procurement processes, grant management, contract management, and financial management systems. This is the second audit which Conway has failed, and his continued contractual agreement with the SGVCOG places all communities who are members of the organization at possible risk. CALTRANS is requesting repayment of $89,262 of unsupported costs submitted by Conway in violation of State and Federal regulations.

Some have asked why it is cities like Sierra Madre continue to do business with an organization as controversial as the SGVCOG. Certainly it would behoove those running the show here to involve us in relationships with only the most high-minded and ethical of organizations, even if they are so-called "regional governments." The reality is that just as long as the SGVCOG keeps shoveling a slice of its state and corporate grant money our way, the city apparently has no problem with it. Which is disheartening, to say the least.

If you wish to read the CALTRANS audit of the SGVCOG in its entirety, you can do so by clicking here.

If you live in the San Fernando Valley and you own a horse, you might be a bad person

The guilt-tripping of people living in single family homes is pretty much standard practice in certain quarters. The notion that we who prefer such things as homes and gardens are responsible for many of the world's woes is a form of religious belief for some. The refusal to abandon the California good life for the cramped quarters of a more politically correct inner-city way of life in stacked small boxes next to the trolley tracks pretty much sealing our fate as agents of humanity's destruction. In this view only the more sustainable Transportation Oriented Development lifestyles stand between us as a species and extinction.

TODs, of course, being vastly more sustainable. Or so the argument goes. And as soon as someone figures out what that means I'll get back to you with all the information.

In its review of Laura R. Barraclough's "Making the San Fernando Valley," the California Planning & Development Report discusses how horse ownership compounds the suburban crime, and claims that it might actually be a form of racism.

Early in her account of the development of the San Fernando Valley, Laura R. Barraclough describes an 1880s-era photo that captures the wholesome spirit of what would become Los Angeles' great bedroom community: "Captioned 'Lankershim's best product,' (it) showed several hundred white children standing in a field, grinning at the camera."

Long before the Valley became a 1980s punch line or even a citrus hotbed, it was first, according to Barraclough, an Aryan sanctuary. Though diversity now reigns in the Valley as it does elsewhere in southern California, Barraclough contends in her new book, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege, that the Valley was, and still may be, "an explicitly and unabashedly white supremacist place."

A professor of sociology at Kalamazoo College (Mich.), Barraclough takes particular issue with one of the great symbols of the frontier - the horse - and with the modern-day persistence of equestrian neighborhoods. Tucked within the Los Angeles' city limits are Sylmar, Lakeview Terrace, and Shadow Hills (where Barraclough herself grew up). These places continue to nurture what residents describe as a "rural" lifestyle not 15 miles from Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and other places where horses appear only on shirt pockets and tailgates. It's an extreme example of urban sorting according to cultural preferences. But it's also, implicitly, about racial preferences.

No word yet on where noted equestrian critic Terry Miller stands on this issue, or if the horses themselves are racially intolerant. And you almost have to wonder if whether or not there were any troublesome pony issues for Barraclough during her Shadow Hills childhood.

The full review of the book can be read by clicking here.

In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, we feel that it is important to note that there are no horses here at the Maundry Compound. Though we do have a guinea pig, and yes, it does live in a large single occupancy cage. While we have attempted to discuss a more sustainable lifestyle with her, she prefers not to listen and eat lettuce instead.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Your Presence Is Required Next Tuesday

The matter of Measure V came up at the City Council Strategic Planning Retreat yesterday. Of course, it didn't get any mention in the official portion of the program. That would not have been in keeping with the kind of message control the Gang of 4's handlers like to practice. In that special world everybody trusts the City Council and thinks they are doing a really fine job. And there is no reason to let any harsh outside light filter into so rarified an environment.

There are people who call such a thing "reality creation." Which is what happens when you are certain you are right because everyone you talk to agrees with you. A viewpoint that is very possible to maintain when you do not talk to anyone who disagrees with you. Or even quite grasp their existence.

And when concern over a Measure V vote for the Assisted Living Facility did come up, 4/5s of the council expressed surprise. Joe Mosca claimed that he was completely unaware of such a sentiment in the community. And as proof he cited the most conclusive proof possible, he had received no e-mails about it at his e-mail account. And as you know, everyone emails Joe with all of their concerns, no matter how small.

Since the special reality faction of the City Council does not welcome anything disagreeable to them, or oftentimes even knows of its existence, it is important that you come to the City Council meeting next Tuesday evening and express concern about the possible confiscation of your right to vote on downtown development. Apparently the Gang isn't aware that people don't like having their rights taken away.

It is also apparent that 80% of the City Council has never heard about you or your concerns on this matter. Or at least that is the impression they're giving. Perhaps it is time that you stopped by and introduced yourself to them.

And while you're there, please be sure to voice your opinion about your right to vote on development in Sierra Madre. It is the law after all, and do you really want to see that confiscated?

If anything we need more democracy in this town, not less. Despite what a few city hall insiders might have to say.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What Measure V Says

There has been a lot of talk on this blog over the past couple of days about Measure V and how it trumps whatever it is City Hall assumes it is doing in regards to the Assisted Living Facility. Which many people believe is an attempt to rush through a quick approval for the project, in the process flaunting the law by obstructing a rightful vote by the people of Sierra Madre. So what we are going to do today is reprint those portions of Measure V that apply to the ALF, in particular those sections dealing with density. It is this part of the law that will trigger a community vote on the Assisted Living Facility. That is, of course, if the current City Council doesn't come to the mistaken conclusion that their wishes, and/or those they are in business with, are above the law. A mistake that some city governments have made from time to time. You can often read about them and the results of their malfeasances in the daily newspapers.

17.35.020 - Findings.

The people of Sierra Madre find and determine as follows:

A. Preserving the small town character of downtown Sierra Madre is a matter of utmost importance, and residents of our city must not be excluded from major decisions affecting our downtown.
B. No city council or city staff can possess the necessary community-wide sensitivity to make decisions to ensure that the small town character of downtown Sierra Madre will be preserved.
C. Only by carefully considering long-standing land use goals as to height and density will the small town character of downtown Sierra Madre be maintained for all members of our community.
D. Downtown development decisions that could deviate from our long-standing goals should be made by the entire city after a public debate and an election, and not by a few city hall insiders.

17.35.040 - Core area density limit.

On or after the effective date of the initiative ordinance codified in this chapter, no new construction shall be permitted or occur with the central core area which exceeds the density limit as specifically defined below in this chapter, and more generally described as no more than thirteen dwelling units per acre of land.

17.35.050 - Definitions.

"Density limit" generally means no greater than thirteen dwelling units per acre of land. This density limit shall be specifically applied as follows: no new construction shall be permitted or constructed for more than one dwelling unit for each three thousand three hundred fifty square feet of area of a lot or parcel where units will be built. The number of dwelling units allowed under this density limit shall be rounded down to whole integers. For example, for half an acre (twenty-one thousand seven hundred eighty square feet) only six dwelling units could be built.

"Dwelling unit" is defined as follows in a manner consistent with its 2006 definition in Sierra Madre Municipal Code Section 17.08.020: "'Dwelling unit' means one or more rooms in a building designed and intended to be used as living quarters by one person or family."

17.35.140 - Amendment.

No provision of this chapter may be amended or repealed except by a majority of the voters of the city of Sierra Madre voting on a ballot measure for that purpose placed before them at a regularly scheduled election.

So that is pretty much it. The City seems to be of the opinion that they can somehow relabel units as "suites," therefore skirting its legal obligation to authorize a vote on the ALF. Which, by the way, calls for packing 75 so-called "suites" into a 1.8 acre area, or 400% of what is permissible under Measure V. A "suite," according to our City Manager, being a unit that doesn't have a kitchen. All of which is a dubious claim that is in no way substantiated anywhere in the Sierra Madre Code of Ordinances. Many people have concluded that she either just made it up, or was confused.

After it was approved by the voters Measure V became known as the Voter's Empowerment Act. Sierra Madre's entire Code of Ordinances on this matter can be accessed by clicking here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

How New of a Proposal is the Assisted Living Facility?

Something rather odd happened yesterday. And completely out of character for the individuals involved. The Mountain Views News, which has always claimed on its masthead that it is delivered on Saturdays, actually made it to the streets on Saturday. Not Sunday, or the following Monday, or not at all, but on the day it is supposed to be delivered. I'm not certain if this has ever happened before. I for one have no recollection of it. And you really do have to wonder what the cause was for this novel and entirely unexpected timeliness. Dozens were astonished.

But apparently this truly is a very special edition. One that could not wait. Because taking up vast swathes of front page space (and ballyhooed as being a "Mountain Views News Exclusive, no less), was an interview with none other than Billy Shields. The fellow tasked with selling this 58,000 square foot downtown behemoth to the people of Sierra Madre.

Of course, it wasn't exactly an evenhanded article. The Publisher of the paper, Harriet Susan Carter Poole Henderson, certainly wasn't there to ask any hard questions. Rather she was on hand to play her part in what appears to be a carefully planned public relations campaign to sell this Assisted Living Facility to a skeptical citizenry. The article was actually a fairly well written affair, so you might question if Susan Harriett (etc.) was its only author. It looks like somebody with professional writing ability might have tweaked the results of Susan's gleanings. You know, like an editor employed by a public relations company. Which I guess would also make it an Assisted Writing Facility.

Now as everyone knows we do need something to replace the current Skilled Nursing Facility. This badly neglected and run down dump has been a political football in town for quite some time. People want it replaced and, if properly done, Billy Shields and the Fountain Square Properties people could be the ones to do it. It would certainly be a solution to a long time downtown problem.

But there is a problem. In Sierra Madre an over-sized project such as this one needs to be put to a public vote. This is something the voters themselves demanded when they passed Measure V in 2007. It is the law in Sierra Madre, and as such it must be followed.

Yet once again it appears that our rogue City Council is working against the interests of the people. Rather than following the law as approved by a direct vote of Sierra Madre's citizens, it looks to be involving itself in a disinformation campaign instead.

With 96 residents and approximately 75 rooms, it seems apparent that the unit count is well beyond the 13 per acre limit allowed by Measure V. However, and as we described in Saturday's post, the misleading word "suite" is being used by the City in place of "unit." Which we are then supposed to take as meaning this building is in compliance with 2-30-13. Yet nothing in our current City Code in any way disqualifies the use of the word "unit" to describe these so-called suites, kitchens or no. Also, any attempt to circumvent a vote through this obvious fabrication could very well add to what appears to be a flagrant violation of Sierra Madre law.

As in any carefully orchestrated PR campaign, there is a message here, one that is being carefully adhered to by its proponents. As we can see in the following passages from the Mountain View News article:

The Sierra Madre project, currently proposed as a 75 single or spouse/ sibling/ friend-shared suites with a private bath and communal meals, social programs and transportation assistance, is under purview in Fountain Square Properties West.

Later in the article this "suites not units" message is reinforced. To its author(s) this is an important point that needs to be hammered home.

The project, although it will house up to 96 residents, will not have individual "units." Since all meals are prepared in one communal kitchen, there are no cooking facilities in any of the suites (though some may have small refrigerators for medications and snacks, plus a sink for aide and visitor use outside the bathroom.) "Basically," chuckled Shields, "we will have a house with 75 bedrooms and one kitchen."

That would be 75 units and one kitchen, at least according to Sierra Madre City Code. With each resident living in the ALF having a personal financial arrangement with the company running the place. Just like the tenant of a unit in any apartment building.

The Assisted Living Facility doesn't need to be sold to the people of Sierra Madre. Its acceptance is likely here. What does need to be sold (in City Hall's estimation) is the notion that the ALF must be approved without any public vote. Which apparently is the actual driving force behind a strategy that was first floated to the public at the September 7th "neighborhood meeting" on this matter.

This rather clumsy attempt at circumventing Measure V is a dangerous and disingenuous move on the part of certain members of our City Council and Staff. Government officials conspiring out of public view in order to avoid a law for the benefit of a developer is not necessarily a wise thing to do in the post-Bell era. And it has to be asked, is it even legal for city officials to work in secret in order to circumvent a law designed to protect the interests of the people? Particularly when this law was approved in a popular vote, one that was strongly opposed by many of these same officials?

A question has also come up regarding who is really behind this Assisted Living Facility. Billy Shields, who has been put forward in the press as being something of an entrepreneur and a partner in this venture, might not be quite that. According to his LLC statement:

Shields Development, Inc in Poway, CA is a private company categorized under Real Estate Developer. Current estimates show this company has an annual revenue of $170,000 and employs a staff of 1.

Certainly a salary of $170,000 a year is a handsome one, and staffing doesn't seem to be much of an expense. But is that what a successful entrepreneur makes? Not really. It is the kind of money paid to someone engaged in the marketing of properties and developments, but not an actual owner or partner. Of course, this is assuming that Billy Shields doesn't have other holdings or business identities.

Anyway, there is another aspect to this story that doesn't quite ring true. It is speculation, but given the track record of developers in this town, these suspicions are justified. And the questions need to be asked.

Is Fountain Square Properties the actual sole developer, or are they partners with a couple of people we have seen around this town before? Or, more to my personal liking, is Fountain Square the developer at all? Can it be they are playing the role of sock puppet for the Skilled Nursing Facility's owner, Fish & Kale?

Here is how one commenter laid it out Sunday morning:

The subject of who owns the property and the relationship to Billy Shields keeps coming up. To clarify, Billy Shields stated that Fish & Kale still own the property and they would lease it from them. So to answer your questions; yes, Fish & Kale have a vested interest in the property.

Emil Fish and Richard Kale, as I am sure you are well aware, still own the Skilled Nursing Facility. This wasn't mentioned in that Mountain Views News article, and you can imagine why. And, until our last real City Council had passed a Blight Ordinance with just them in mind, Fish and Kale were content to let that building sit and rot in plain sight. They are hardly friends of Sierra Madre.

It must also be recalled that Emil Fish and Richard Kale were actually among the original inspirations for Measure V. And that their initial project for the SNF site was a massive facility not unlike the one Billy Shields is pushing today. Very large and heavily unit dense. If you go to their website (click here) you can see that they are developers of senior care facilities just like the one Billy Shields is peddling around town. Places where families of means place their infirm elderly when they can no longer care for them personally. It is an enormously profitable, if somewhat melancholy, business.

The public relations people working to make this project happen want everyone in Sierra Madre to believe that we are seeing a bright and shiny new project from people we haven't ever met before. I for one am not certain that is the case.

You need to carefully look at who actually owns this property. We could be seeing some recycled and quite familiar shenanigans. Deja vu, as it were. And given the actual players, it certainly is understandable why they would put so much effort into circumventing Measure V and denying the people of this town their hard won right to a vote on this densely structured development.

After all, Measure V has set them back 5 years already.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Does City Hall Believe It Has To Lie?

City Hall has established a very disturbing pattern for itself. We now have two very demonstrable instances where it willfully did not tell the truth, and on very important matters. We saw this during the water rate increase with the City claiming it was necessary because of the state of some very old pipes. It was a very plausible argument. The pipes are old, and have been for quite sometime.

The initial response to this claim, while decidedly mixed, did show that a chord was struck. There certainly was something to the idea that work had to be done to fix those old pipes. It resonated with the community. There was concern and people did talk about it.

But when some of the more aware residents of this City looked into the matter, an entirely different story emerged. The actual reason for raising water rates, it turned out, had precious little to do with water infrastructure. Rather the money was needed to help cover some old water bond debt. The City had indebted itself to its bond holders for million of dollars back during the previous decade, and certain covenants within that agreement were in danger of going into default. Imperiling our already shaky bond rating, among other things.

On September 7th the City Manager of Sierra Madre, Elaine Aguilar, stood up in front of a meeting of residents that had gathered to discuss the proposed Assisted Living Facility. And she went on to say the most ridiculous and untrue thing. Elaine proclaimed that there would be no Measure V vote required on this matter because the amount of units within this 58,000 square foot jumbo of a joint would not exceed the legal limit of 13 per acre. And the reason for this claim? The spaces where the 96 residents of this facility would be laying their heads at night were not units, they were suites. The rationale for this being that these "suites" did not have kitchens. And that, according to Elaine, is what our City's Code of Ordinances dictate.

Once again the more aware residents of this town did some research and discovered that our City's Code of Ordinances says no such thing. A unit is a unit no matter if there is a kitchen or not. They are also still units if they have or don't have a church window, a ceiling fan, a fold down Murphy bed, a chandelier, a hot tub, a pickle curing vat, a cabinet for his and hers towels, a baseball card collection, barbells, a piano, a hamper, a nook, a fine assortment of antique vases, or a pigeon coop. The presence or absence of any or all of these accoutrements in no way changes the fact that a unit is a unit. City of Sierra Madre ordinances mention none of these things as being necessary for "unit" status.

The kitchen canard is an absurd and ridiculous fib designed to convince the people of Sierra Madre that they should not exercise their rights to approve or disapprove this facility through a popular vote. Nothing more.

And it is an entirely unnecessary one as well. The people of Sierra Madre are well sick of the Skilled Nursing Facility. This ramshackle remnant of the DSP greed days is an embarrassment to anyone who cares about Sierra Madre. It has to go. It should have been gone a long time ago. A nice and shiny new Assisted Living Facility could be just the ticket. Properly sized and thoughtfully constructed this development could very well end up being a valuable and positive addition to the downtown community.

I don't think there can be much doubt that put to a vote such a thing would pass. Just as long as it is properly planned and fits in with the neighborhood, what problem could anyone have?

All of which makes cooking up some absurdly unbelievable cock and bull story about kitchens and units entirely unnecessary. This isn't just self-defeating, it is also offensive to the very people whose support is needed to make the ALF happen. How can anyone really get behind something when they know that the people who are asking for their support have been so disrespectfully untruthful?

You really do have to wonder what is wrong with these people.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sierra Madre's Code of Ordinances: Definition of a "Dwelling Unit" Says Nothing About Kitchens

The impending demise of the building formerly known as the Skilled Nursing Facility (now to be forever referred to as the Assisted Living Facility - or ALF), has been greeted in town with some relief. The SNF is a decaying wreck of a pile that has long been an eyesore smack in the middle of Sierra Madre's Miracle Mile. Or maybe our Miracle Quarter of a Mile. Its replacement has been a long awaited event for many concerned residents. Far too long in the minds of most.

Our ALF will be new, which means it will look nice. It will contribute tax money to the community (or at least to this community's government, which isn't always the same thing), and people will be able to get jobs at the ALF as well. Meaning that at last pizza delivery will have a rival as one of this town's most employment forward occupations.

But there are a few hurdles that need to be mastered first. In order to pass muster with the planning folks ALF will need to survive the Measure V test. Whether you agree with this ordinance or not, it is the law. And Measure V became just that through the direct vote of the people of Sierra Madre. A rare and in many ways heroic feat.

Measure V demands that a new downtown structure be no more than 2 stories high, 30 feet top to bottom, and house only 13 units per acre. Which for our 58,000 square foot ALF is a bit of a stretch. And if it doesn't adhere to the defined requirements of 2-30-13? Then it must go before the voters for their approval.

The vote on this matter, for all intents and purposes, leaving the City Council sitting unneeded on the sidelines.

On two of those categories ALF seems to be in line with what Measure V demands. From what I've seen of the plans it appears to be 2 stories high. And while they might be off a foot or two, the height is fairly close to 30 feet. But where the problem seems to be is with the 13 units per acre. Be they dwelling units or just units in general. An immense 58,000 square foot building housing upwards of 96 elderly inmates, it just doesn't easily give an impression of having only 13 units per acre.

However, and here is where it gets fun (at least for me because I already know the punch line), the City, along with the developer, has come up with what they claim is the universally accepted definition of what exactly a dwelling unit is. And that would be a place with a door, a bathroom, sleeping quarters and, pay close attention now, a kitchen.

And since the palatial ALF will only have one big communal kitchen, where a fine chef will prepare sumptuous meals for the inmates, all those rooms cannot be considered dwelling units. Rather the developer prefers that they be known as suites. Which, while having doors, locks, sleeping quarters and bathrooms, do not have a kitchen. Rather they share a common communal space which, when combined with all those suites (or pods as some would have it), becomes a unit.

That is where those who believe a Measure V vote will not be necessary to approve the ALF hang their hat. Let's call it the kitchen exemption.

Now you can go to the swank new City of Sierra Madre website and look up the relevant material in our Code of Ordinances. I'd give you a link here, but unfortunately the new site does not allow me to do that. Very retrograde in that way.

Within the Code of Ordinances there is Title 17, which covers zoning. And if you go to Chapter 17.08 you will come upon a lot of specific definitions. These are the recognized definitions for terms incorporated into Sierra Madre's zoning ordinances. This is all legally binding terminology, and therefore the official word on the way things must be done in this town.

Here is how Sierra Madre's Code of Ordinances defines a dwelling unit:

"Dwelling unit" means one or more rooms in a building designed and intended to be used as living quarters by one person or one family.

Now I have looked at this passage about 6 times in the last hour or so, and I can now boldly claim that there is nothing mentioned there about kitchens. All it says is that units such as the ones being snuggled within the bosom of ALF are "living quarters." And yes, a unit can be one single room.

This also appears to be the only definition of a "unit" available within the zoning definitions of our Code of Ordinances.

Compare Sierra Madre's definition of a dwelling unit to that of Pasadena (click here):

Dwelling Unit. One or more rooms with no more than one kitchen, designed for occupancy by one family or single housekeeping unit for living and sleeping purposes, with all rooms (except an attached garage or carport) accessible from the interior of the dwelling unit.

Well, there you go. Ironically the ALF developer's definition of what a unit is could fly in Pasadena. Except what would be the purpose? They don't have a Measure V there. Which is probably why the place has become so terribly overbuilt and, unlike Sierra Madre, property values have tumbled.

Here in Sierra Madre there is no "kitchen exemption" on the definition of a unit because that is not what it says in our Code of Ordinances. Which means that the developer's claim that the ALF will only have 13 units per acre because there is only one common kitchen has absolutely no legal basis here.

Measure V is the law, and it states that any proposed structure being built within our downtown area out of compliance with 2-30-13 must go to a vote of the people. This is the peoples' decision, and the City Council has only one legally sanctioned option in the process. Put ALF on the ballot and butt out.

Of course, they could try to amend our Code of Ordinances, and in the process change the definition of what a dwelling unit is in Sierra Madre. But could you imagine the reaction in town should the City Council try and change our laws on the fly just to accommodate the current needs of one single developer?

I know we would certainly want to cover a story as interesting as that.