Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas 2011: Birth of a New Tradition

(A couple of days ago we posted an article about why it might be a good idea to do your shopping in Sierra Madre this year. This was done with the Black Friday shopping riots in mind, something that doesn't happen here. But there are other good reasons as well. I received the following email yesterday. It is obviously one of those viral things that gets passed from person to person, but unlike most of them this one offers some pretty good advice. And that is the benefits of keeping Christmas local. Much of what is described here are things that could be purchased right here in Sierra Madre. Things that would not only make great gifts, but also strengthen our community and improve the lives of those living here. Give it some thought.)

As the holidays approach, the giant Asian factories are kicking into high gear to provide Americans with monstrous piles of cheaply produced goods -- merchandise that has been produced at the expense of American labor. This year will be different. This year Americans will give the gift of genuine concern for other Americans. There is no longer an excuse that, at gift giving time, nothing can be found that is produced by American hands.

It is time to think outside the box, people. Who says a gift needs to fit in a shirt box, wrapped in Chinese produced wrapping paper? Everyone -- yes EVERYONE gets their hair cut. How about gift certificates from your local American hair salon or barber?

Gym membership? It's appropriate for all ages who are thinking about some health improvement.

Who wouldn't appreciate getting their car detailed? Small, American owned detail shops and car washes would love to sell you a gift certificate or a book of gift certificates.

Are you one of those extravagant givers who think nothing of plonking down the Benjamins on a made in China flat-screen TV? Perhaps that grateful gift receiver would like his driveway repaved, or lawn mowed for the summer, or games at the local golf course.

There are a bazillion owner-run restaurants -- all offering gift certificates. And, if your intended isn't the fancy eatery sort, what about a half dozen breakfasts at the local breakfast joint. Remember folks, this isn't about big National chains -- this is about supporting your home town Americans with their financial lives on the line to keep their doors open.

How many people couldn't use an oil change for their car, truck or motorcycle, done at a shop run by the American working guy?

Thinking about a heartfelt gift for mom? Mom would LOVE the services of a local cleaning lady for a day.

My computer could use a tune up, and I KNOW I can find some young guy who is struggling to get his repair business up and running.

OK, you were looking for something more personal. Local crafts people spin their own wool and knit them into scarves. They make jewelry, works of art, pottery and beautiful wooden boxes.

Plan your holiday outings at local, owner operated restaurants and leave your server a nice tip. And how about going out to see a play at your hometown theatre?

Musicians need love too, so find a venue showcasing local bands.

Honestly people, do you REALLY need to buy another ten thousand foreign made Xmas lights for the house? When you buy a five-dollar string of lights, about fifty cents stays in the community. If you have those kinds of bucks to burn, leave the mailman, trash guy or babysitter a nice BIG tip.

You see, Christmas is no longer about draining American pockets so that China can build another glittering city. Christmas is now about caring about US, encouraging American small businesses to keep plugging away and following their dreams. And, when we care about other Americans, we care about our communities, and the benefits come back to us in ways we couldn't imagine.

THIS is the new American Christmas tradition.

Forward this to everyone on your mailing list -- post it to discussion groups -- throw up a post on Craigslist in the Rants and Raves section of your city -- send it to the editor of your local paper and radio stations, and TV news departments. This is a revolution of caring about each other, and isn't that what Christmas is all about?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

SCAG Doesn't Have A Clue

One of the things that the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) prides itself on is its ability to peer into the future and tell us all exactly where we are all going to be in a decade or two. And don't think of this as merely a frivolous exercise in soothsaying, predicting the future (or "visioning" as they term it) is a very serious business for SCAG, along with a lot of other people in our part of the world. For many regional planning is prophecy.

Such matters as Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) numbers are often based on SCAG's population trend projections, and the exact amount of state imposed redevelopment required through laws such as SB 375 are often based on their "visioning process."

For a couple of decades now SCAG has been claiming that the population of Southern California will soon go through the roof, and therefore we need to embark on an immediate development binge to accommodate all of these soon to arrive new residents. It is a belief that many have shared, especially those in the development, realty and home loan fields.

One of the big arguments against Measure V was that downtown condo complexes had to be built because SCAG was projecting that millions of new Californians were on the way and would need places to live. With at least some of them coming right here to Sierra Madre. If you had listened hard enough back then you could have almost heard the thunder of all those happy feet as they rumbled down the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and across the deserts in their steady westward flight to our promised land.

And there is no place where SCAG's population prophecy has been taken more seriously than at our City Hall. Here is an example of that faith, which can be found in an interesting document called the City of Sierra Madre 2008-2014 Housing Element Update. Published in a FAQ kind of format, it can be located on the City website by clicking here.

Why Does Sierra Madre Have To Plan For More Housing? California's population has continued to grow by approximately 500,000 each year, translating to an annual need for about 220,000 new units. State housing element law requires each city and county to plan for their "fair share" of the state's housing growth needs. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is the regional agency responsible for defining the fair share allocation among its six counties (Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura), 187 cities Southern California jurisdiction. Based on economic and demographic forecasts, the State has determined that SCAG must accommodate 699,398 housing units between 2006 and 2014 to meet housing demand.

Of course, there is a problem here. The paper population projections that fueled this non-starter of a housing boom were not correct. Which goes to show that just because you are a state sponsored planning bureaucracy does not mean your fortune telling abilities are going to be any more accurate than those of the corner storefront palm reader. As a matter of fact, given the topics these voices of prophecy focus upon, I'd go with the palm reader every time. Love being far more likely to happen than the DSP.

In Sunday's Los Angeles Times there was a very informative article entitled, "California demographic shift: More people leaving than moving in." You can access the whole thing by clicking here. This is what they had to say about today's topic:

Recent census figures show the state is losing more Californians than it is attracting from other parts of the U.S. And the trend toward out-migration is looking less like a blip than a long-term condition.

The proportion of Californians who had moved here from out of state reached a 100-year low of about 20% in 2010, and the decade measured by the most recent census was the first in a century in which the majority of Californians were native-born.

The demographics of California today more closely resemble those of 1900 than of 1950: It is a mostly home-grown population, whose future depends on the children of immigrants and their children, said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"We used to say California here we come," said Frey. "That has now flipped."

Think of just how damaging this has been to Sierra Madre. The fortune in tax dollars spent on consultants like Karen Warner alone to deal with SCAG and their "housing element" issues is a travesty. Especially when you consider that the data this was all based upon was apparently just wishful thinking.

The RHNA question will be coming up again before too much longer, and once again SCAG and its patrons in Sacramento (some legislative, some lobbyist) will be demanding that we here in Sierra Madre plan for the building of ridiculous amounts of new housing.

But given the gross inaccuracy of their work data to date, should we really be taking them seriously? Or should we do the logical thing when presented with the demands of people as hopelessly wrong as they have been.

That is, just ignore them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Retirement Celebration For Chief Marilyn Diaz

If you go to Starbucks and check out the bulletin board over by drink pickup, you will find yourself invited to an opportunity to "come and say goodbye to Chief of Police Marilyn Diaz." This apparently is for the humble amongst us, the everyday people who might wish to bid adieu to Chief Diaz when she leaves at the end of the year. Perhaps you found your life touched by the Chief during her time here, and you wish to thank her. This occasion will be conducted on Thursday, December 29th at the Sierra Madre Room. Time is 5:30 to 7:00 pm.

However, if you are a part of the established order in Sierra Madre, you will have already been invited to something just a little more exclusive. And while I personally do not number amongst that elect, I have been forwarded a copy of the invitation from someone who is, which I have now posted here. As you can see, it is a far grander celebration than the one you can read about while waiting for your double espresso at the coffee bar. Click on this inset and you will be able to read it more easily. And yes, it is taking place in Pasadena.

If you, like myself, were not sent one of these invitations, and therefore were not asked to attend this rather prestigious soiree, consider that slight to have now been corrected thanks to The Tattler. Should you feel it is worth the $55 per person to go to this thing, please feel free to do so. All the instructions are contained on the invitation, which will expand greatly if you do click on it. Print out your invitation and, as it says, be sure to RSVP by January 5th. Tell them Sir Eric sent you.

Now the invitation states that we are celebrating over 37 years in law enforcement. Which is, truth be told, certainly quite a long time. However, only a small portion of those 37 years were spent here in service to the City of Sierra Madre. The previous 30 or so having played out in Pasadena. Marilyn joined our Police Department as Chief in March of 2005, which will make her tenure here several months short of 7 years. But apparently that was enough for her to qualify for an upgraded pension, which we, the grateful citizens of Sierra Madre, will be honoring for quite some time.

As you might or might not know, when Marilyn was chosen to become our Chief of Police back during the heart of the Shenanigan Years, it was to bring order and structure to a department that some believed was not up on its modern police procedures, or run with a rigor that is fitting for our demanding times. Apparently that work has now been completed. Or has it?

In order to commemorate the Chief's time of service here in Sierra Madre (soon to be known throughout the City as "Marilyn's Near 7 Years of Service"), we would like to take a moment and remember three of the rather momentous events that occurred on her watch. Please remember, we are talking about the City of Sierra Madre, where everyone gets a trophy when they finally hang it up. No matter what it is they might have done. So do not consider this to be in any way an attempt to tarnish Marilyn's record of achievement. It will stand no matter what we say here. Nor is this an attempt to assign blame. Because let's face it, when everyone gets that trophy, how can anyone ever be at fault?

1) The EVG Scandal: It seems so long ago. Organized crime figures, sensing that Mayberry might very well be the soft underbelly of Los Angeles County law enforcement, took control of one of our two gas stations here and began ripping off credit and debit card customers. An operation that apparently went on for over a year. Only after this became obvious to residents (unrealistic charges began showing up on their bills and bank statements) and they began complaining to this City's sleepy authorities, did the operators of this Baldwin Avenue situated brick and mortar data theft center pack up their devices and disappear. Nobody at City Hall ever bothered to get the real identities of these guys, even though they were issued a license to do business here. The result was hundreds of Sierra Madreans were ripped off, with the perpetrators were never being caught. An instance where crime did pay, and quite handsomely.

2) The Officer Henry Amos Incident: Officer Amos was returned to duty in 2009, but this affair remains a smudge on the record of Chief Diaz, at least in my opinion. This officer, apparently improperly trained in the use of his weapon, shot a man who was peacefully sleeping one off in the back of a car. Investigations later showed that the bullet entered this unarmed man's body through his back. The victim, Jason Jensen, later went on to sue the City of Sierra Madre, eventually receiving a settlement rumored to be in the 7 figures.

3) The SMPOA Action Against the City of Sierra Madre: Attempting to establish what some were calling a more rigorous police culture in Sierra Madre was not without certain costs here. One of those costs was the burning resentment of the rank and file officers who were forced to endure new administrative methods that they found to be besides the point. The result was the awakening of an issue that had long been dormant in this town, the abysmally low pay Sierra Madre afforded its peace officers. Backed by the extremely aggressive Police Officers Association, the Sierra Madre Police Officers Association began to pressure then Mayor Enid Joffe for a raise. The City capitulated, leading eventually to the voters approving Measure U, which in its most extreme form represents a 100% hike in utility taxes. And this 12% maximum is a level of utility taxation unsurpassed in the State of California. After the raise was in place the SMPOA went on to file numerous lawsuits against the City, mostly complaints regarding Chief Diaz's administrative methods and practices.

There are other things that could also be discussed, I suppose. But right now I would like to focus on item #3 as a possible lead in for why Chief Diaz might have chosen this moment to take leave of this place and retire. Because what is in process today is the planetary alignment of two huge issues involving the Sierra Madre Police Department. One is voter renewal of the Utility Users Tax to its potential 12% maximum level, the other ongoing negotiations for a new contract (or MOU for those who speak that awful language) with the SMPOA.

The common assumption here in town had been that our UUT rates will go to 12% in order to fund what appears to be an inevitable second raise for the Sierra Madre Police Department. As in 2008, Measure U (or whatever they will be calling it this time around) would need to be renewed by the voters in order to give the SMPD an additional raise. This due to a "sunset clause" attached the first time around. And frankly, I believe many people in town were prepared to do that, especially when coupled with the Paramedic issue. But then the situation changed.

The most remarkably revealing things happened at our last City Council meeting. City Staff was asked by Mayor Buchanan to strike language from the proposed new Measure U dealing with Police pay issues. I don't know if you caught this, but it was a very telling moment. Particularly when you take into account that at this very same meeting the City Council decided the UUT rate would not be going to 12% anytime soon, rather it will stay at 10% through 2014. And when you also add in the revelation that Measure U (and whatever its heir will be called) was never entirely wedded to Police pay and public safety issues? But rather is merely a general tax that goes into the General Fund for the co-mingling pleasure of whoever happens to hold the purse strings?

The writing looks like it just might be on the wall.

I think Chief Marilyn Diaz, 37 year veteran of 2 Police Departments, and therefore a long time witness to all sorts of city government shenanigans, sees something going down here that she doesn't want any part of. There isn't going to be any SMPD raise this time around. Or that is what the City Council seems to be telegraphing, intentionally or not.

And if this is the same Police Officers Association we saw in action 4 years ago, there could be some interesting developments beginning right around the time Marilyn Diaz heads for the exits. And in an election year, no less.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Very Good Reasons For Doing Your Christmas Shopping In Sierra Madre This Year

I was out riding my bike with the missus yesterday afternoon and we couldn't help but admire the industry and care that was going into creating the Dickens Village celebration downtown. Sierra Madre's historic creche has been beautifully restored, the work of local artists. You really need to see it. Colorful shopping kiosks and tables were being set up in Kersting Court, stores were all decked out in their Christmas finest, and the spot where kids would soon be hanging out with Santa Claus and getting their wish lists heard was in place and just about ready for business.

Which is why this Yahoo News article (click) I am posting here seems even more unbelievable than it already is. The contrast between the cheerful serene atmosphere of our downtown shopping district and what went on elsewhere over this long 4-day holiday weekend couldn't be more stark or disturbing.

How much crazier can Black Friday get? Pepper-sprayed customers, smash-and-grab looters and bloody scenes in the shopping aisles. How did Black Friday devolve into this?

As reports of shopping-related violence rolled in this week from Los Angeles to New York, experts say a volatile mix of desperate retailers and cutthroat marketing has hyped the traditional post-Thanksgiving sales to increasingly frenzied levels. With stores opening earlier, bargain-obsessed shoppers often are sleep-deprived and short-tempered. Arriving in darkness, they also find themselves vulnerable to savvy parking-lot muggers.

Across the country on Thursday and Friday, there were signs that tensions had ratcheted up a notch or two, with violence resulting in several instances.

A woman turned herself in to police after allegedly pepper-spraying 20 other customers at a Los Angeles-area Walmart on Thursday in what investigators said was an attempt to get at a crate of Xbox video game consoles. In Kinston, N.C., a security guard also pepper-sprayed customers seeking electronics before the start of a midnight sale.

In New York, crowds reportedly looted a clothing store in Soho. At a Walmart near Phoenix a man was bloodied while being subdued by police officers on suspicion of shoplifting a video game. There was a shooting outside a store in San Leandro, Calif., shots were fired at a mall in Fayetteville, N.C., and a stabbing outside a store in Sacramento, N.Y.

If you go over to Youtube and type in the words "Black Friday," dozens of shocking videos showing chaos and mayhem become immediately available for your viewing. As an example, if you click here you can witness what went on at a Walmart not that far away in Porter Ranch.

Later that evening we decided to walk with our kids (and their friends, which our house seems to attract far too many) downtown to Mother Moo Creamery. A place that serves handmade ice cream they now ask for a lot. And because we were there I can tell you that there were no such scenes of mayhem or chaos in Sierra Madre last night. The shopping was orderly, the crowds convivial and happy, the streets brightly lit and cheery, and none of us were either pepper-sprayed or arrested.

The only real danger that I was able to see was the possibility of tipping over on the authentic snow sled run set up on the incline next to the Bank of the West.

Which is why I will be doing my Christmas shopping in Sierra Madre this year. I'm not going to take any chances out there past the Michillinda Curtain. Nobody should. It is far too dangerous if you ask me. I don't know how you see all of this, but I'm staying right here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Judge Rules - Gil Aguirre's Lawsuit Against the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments Can Proceed

"The distractions at the COG are now a thing of the past." - Nancy Walsh, a couple of months ago

Back in June we posted an article (click here) on open government advocate Gil Aguirre and his lawsuit against the San Gabriel Valley Council Of Governments (SGVCOG). According to an article in today's Pasadena Star News, that lawsuit can now proceed. The various legal obstacles thrown up by the SGVCOG's attorney having now been discredited and brushed aside by the presiding Superior Court Judge.

On June 15, 2011, Gil and his Attorney, Kelly A. Aviles, filed a California Public Records Act lawsuit with the Los Angeles Superior Court, with the papers being served on the SGVCOG and its Executive Director Nick Conway the following day. The document in question was a scathing audit issued by CALTRANS over nearly a quarter million dollars in its funds that were allegedly mismanaged (the nicer word for this) by the COG. The audit had been delivered to the Executive Board of the SGVCOG, but had yet to have been made public. This despite having been discussed in COG meetings and alluded to in several newspaper articles published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Pasadena Star News.

Here is how Gil and his Attorney laid out their case in documents filed with the Superior Court:

On May 4, 2011, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, published an article entitled, "Caltrans audit questions management practices of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments." In the article, the reporter describes a CALTRANS audit as finding that the SGVCOG mismanaged $245,130 in grant money and "improperly awarded contracts for consulting work." It alleges that the Audit was completed in April and given to the Executive Director of SGVCOG, Nick Conway, the week prior to the story. The article goes on to quote the Audit as finding, "repeated occurences of poor oversight, which resulted in billing for costs outside of consultant contract periods, duplicate billings for overlapping periods, unsupported costs, costs in excess of contract amounts, and billing for unpaid costs." The article also states that, "Auditor claimed Conway has a conflict of interest because his company, Arroyo Associates, Inc., received a contract as staff for the COG."

This should all be of keen interest to the taxpayers of Sierra Madre as we shell out literally thousands of dollars in yearly dues to the SGVCOG. That this so-called "regional government" has very possibly not been upfront or ethical in its dealings with the public purse is worrisome. I would hope that the G3 City Council would want to give our money only to those organizations with the most sterling of reputations.

Despite Councilmember Nancy Walsh's assurances that such "distractions" (her word for this bloody mess) at the COG are in the past, the Superior Court does not appear to agree. And irregardless of the vast fogbank thrown up by the SGVCOG's Attorney, along with dubious claims that the COG was within its rights to keep the CALTRANS audit a special secret, the Superior Court has now ruled Aguirre's lawsuit can move forward. This from today's Pasadena Star News (click here):

Ruling: Open government advocate's lawsuit against San Gabriel Valley COG may proceed - An open government advcate's lawsuit alleging that the San Gabriel (Valley) Council of Governments has violated state open meeting and public records laws may proceed, a judge has ruled.

Gil Aguirre, a San Dimas resident, has sued the COG over its handling of an audit by the California Department of Transportation.

Aguirre said he requested a copy of the CALTRANS audit, but was denied. According to the COG and CALTRANS, at the time Aguirre made the request, the audit was a confidential draft document until the COG submitted formal response. That response has since been submitted.

Aguirre's lawsuit alleges the COG discussed aspects of the audit in open session and took action - moving to hire a contracts administrator - as a result of the audit, even before they submitted their formal response. Because of that, he says the audit should have been a public record.

The COG had asked that the Superior Court dismiss all or parts of Gil's lawsuit, something that it is now on record as refusing to do. The lawsuit will move forward, with the next hearing scheduled for April.

Let's hope that for the sake of honest and transparent government those results are equally "distracting."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Taking a couple of days off from the joys of blogging to climb some of the foothills out in back of my house. Myself and the boys have been talking about it for a couple of weeks, and now the big day has arrived. Out there with the bears, coyotes and mountain lions. Time to pay them a visit for a change.

I've been thinking about all the things I have to be thankful about. Survived a bike accident, sort of. Also some kind of pancreatic-diabetic thing that could still go south if I don't obey the doctors. Life has become an exercise in keeping track of pill bottles and test results. An appreciation for the temporariness of all this makes you realize that you'd better just do it all now. At this point that later thing no longer applies quite as much. Got to get your butt in gear while you still have one. Speak your mind while you are at it, and even if you are wrong it still annoys all of the right people.

But beyond that I'm not all that worried. Still here, feeling good, taking names, talking trash, and getting it done. It is all I ever really wanted to do, anyway. Thanksgiving indeed.

Back in a few days. In the meantime click on the R. Crumb illustration I've posted today. I don't know why, but I find it to be rather profound. And quite relevant to some of our more pressing concerns here in this retro little town upside the foothills and outside the mainstream.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How Will They Sell The Utility User Tax Increase This Time?

"We're not creating what is going to happen, we're creating what can happen." - noted mystic Josh Moran on forecasting the future

First we need to congratulate everyone on helping to beat back the Gang of Only 3 in their obvious desire to appoint Joe Mosca's replacement. I have no doubt that had there not been all of the conversation in this town about the need for City Councilmembers to be elected by the people, this City Council would have put their interests first and hand picked a like-minded individual to rubber stamp whatever it is they want. Instead they blinked, deciding to send this matter to the voters where it belongs. Once again Sierra Madre rose to the occasion and forced John Buchanan, Josh Moran and Nancy Walsh to recognize that they were up against something far too big for them to merely push around.

There are now three seats up for grabs next April, which means that the two year reign of the worst City Council regime in modern memory could very well be coming to an end.

Sandra Siraganian got the meeting off in proper style by delivering a couple of particularly important points at Public Comment. Her indignation over the appointment of Bart Doyle to a PUSD Committee seat was heard was loud and clear. That someone who was the COO of a redevelopment corporation currently under investigation by both the FBI and HUD, and who is also being sued by the City of El Monte on any number of issues related to that case, could be appointed by this City Council to a school board is beyond the pale. Sandra demanded that the City Council revoke this ill-considered appointment.

And then Ms. Siraganian also spoke about something we have repeatedly discussed on The Tattler. That being City Hall's refusal to make otherwise existing Staff Reports on items up for discussion at City Council meetings available on the town website. $40,000 was budgeted by the City Council to make this happen, yet the simple function of downloading black and white reports onto a very basic website remains beyond the current capabilities of City Hall.

The City Manager's response was the same as always. "Our schedule for doing that is this spring." Presumably by "this spring" Elaine is talking about after the election. Making this yet another case of oddly fortuitous timing.

Heather Allen brought up something rather amazing. Apparently Joe Mosca never signed his resignation papers. Heather asked if this means that Joe is still legally a member of the City Council. The City Attorney, who apparently doesn't believe needs have to answer any of Heather's questions directly, snapped, "It really doesn't matter that it wasn't signed." Heather found this to be an inadequate answer and attempted to press the Mayor for some better information. Buchanan also dodged, and seemingly implied that Heather should stop talking about it. Which struck some as being less than civil, or in any way transparent.

It is rather telling, however, that Joe's former colleagues did not seem to care whether he completed his paperwork or not. In their minds he is gone, and whether he finished this final duty to the people of Sierra Madre or not by properly resigning his office was of no concern to them. The important thing being that he is - in their minds - officially gone.

But this hardly means that we here at The Tattler are not curious about it. Why Joe Mosca wouldn't sign his resignation papers is an intriguing matter. Does this mean that Joe believes that he has legally left open the option of his returning, and that by not signing the resignation papers he never actually quit the Council? And that he can come back in the next year or two and demand to be seated?

The matter of putting the Utility User Tax back on the ballot for another 4 year run was the main round, and you could easily sense that John Buchanan's past has now come back to haunt him. Something that has left him with a major credibility problem when it comes to reselling what is just about highest UUT rate in the State of California. That is, if it stays at 10%. If it ever goes to its 12% maximum, it will set a new state record.

In 2008 the 6% increase in the Utility User Tax (which brought this tax up to a potential, though yet to be used, 12%), was presented to the voters as necessary to help the City provide fire, police and paramedic services. A good example of how this tax hike was marketed to the voters can be found in the ballot language of Measure UA itself. Check this out:

"If Measure U, the increase in the Utility Users' Tax is approved by the voters, should the additional revenue generated by that increase be used to fund public safety services including paramedic programs, police salaries and benefits, and additional safety staffing."

Measure UA was approved by an overwhelming majority, and that vote was driven by the desire to fulfill the monetary requirements of maintaining these services. And because of this the people of Sierra Madre have always believed that the extra money they now pay on a monthly basis for things like cell phone service and garbage collection goes for those emergency services alone.

But that is apparently not quite the case, and much of the language contained in both Measures U and UA is sadly deceptive. Both measures give the distinct impression that the money raised would go to things like paramedics and police salaries exclusively. But that is isn't the real deal here. Because of some very legalistic language contained in Measure U the funds raised through the UUT increase can actually be used for whatever the City prefers to use them on.

The City appeared uncomfortable at that suggestion, but gave no accounting of how that money has actually been used over the last few years at this meeting.

Fay Angus went to the podium and asked some very pointed questions about this situation. "Have the UUT funds been used exclusively for fire, police and paramedics, or has any of it been mingled with the General Fund?" As in Heather's case, Fay received no worthwhile answer to her questions.

Fay also had another good point. Both Josh Moran and Nancy Walsh have said that each City Hall is operating at a bare bones level, which, as Fay put it, "is rhetoric." She then asked, "What positions have been cut? What services have been eliminated? And what downsizing of salaries have been enacted?" The answer to each of these questions is none. The City cut $1 million dollars out of its budget and no demonstrable effects on its operations are apparent.

Which begs this question. If they could cut $1 million out of the budget and no jobs were lost and no services cut, what had they been spending it all on?

The 12% maximum UUT rate versus the 10% that is being charged now came up for considerable discussion. "The rate is 12%, we only collect 10%," being John and Josh's mantra. Something that they repeated over and over again as if it was a kind of magic juju to ward off MaryAnn's suggestion that the new version of the UUT increase be capped at its current 10% level. But they weren't having any of that, instead claiming they were defending the right of City Councils of the future to charge a 12% utility tax should that be their desire. Apparently in the minds of The Mayor and his sidekick The Pro Tem, future City Councils will have forgotten how to raise taxes on their own.

The City's marketing approach may have convinced a lot of people to vote themselves a tax increase here in town in 2008. Their advertising was ubiquitous, and the message of saving our Police Department and Paramedics was an emotional one, at time driven by fear tactics, and it hit home with many voters.

But how will people react to similar Measures next April once they've learned that the original versions were not exclusively about public safety services remains to be seen. Despite what John Buchanan believes the voters might have known last time, the Police and Paramedic issue was front and center all throughout the 2008 UUT election. But once in place that additional money raised went into the General Fund and could very well have been used for all sorts of other purposes as well. There was nothing legally binding in place to assure that this money went for what the vast majority of voters believed they had approved.

Comedic moment. The City Attorney, for whatever reasons, brought up our old friend from the water rate increase debacle, Prop 218. To which Josh hurriedly commented, "I don't necessarily want to get into any of those issues." I'm sure he doesn't.

Josh Moran also had his old nickel and dime windmill in gear. He elaborated, and again not for the first time, about how small the difference between paying 10% and 12% would be to the average UUT paying Sierra Madreano. Which is exactly the same argument he made for increasing water rates, or approving PUSD's failed Measure CC. Nickel and Dime Moran. The guy really does need to get some new material.

John Buchanan had a momentary message lapse that needs to be pointed out as well. Despite the deceptive language contained in the two 2008 UUT rate hike measures, Buchanan declared that "the voters were not confused." He then proclaimed that he was tired of hearing it said that the voters do not know what they want, and cannot see through things like the wording he succeeded in getting into those two April 2008 UUT ballot questions on this matter. But isn't this the same guy who famously declared that people often didn't know what it is they're signing when petitions were being passed around in opposition to the water rate hike, or to get Measure V on the ballot?

Talk about rhetoric. This is one that you just can't have both ways.

You can fool almost anybody once. But this attempt to renew the Utility User Tax increase will be the second go-around, and it might not be quite so easy this time. With the 2008 version now having been exposed for claiming to be something that it was not, how are you going to make this work all over again? The novelty is gone, and the message (to use a retro cliche'), now has more holes than a Swiss cheese factory.

(For more information see Monday's article, "The UUT Was Never Specifically For Public Safety." Click here.)

Without the emotional public safety issues and scare tactics available last time, the result in 2012 could very well be a much closer vote. I don't think people will be quite so moved by the argument that the City needs the money to fund employee pensions, or pay for City Council trips to League of California Cities conventions.

Of course, this isn't to say that some scary stuff won't be cooked up. Isn't that what they usually do?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Hot Rumor Out Of The Most Recent PUSD Districting Task Force Committee Meeting

I've never been a big admirer of Matt Drudge. I've always thought that he trafficked just a little too heavily in rumor, and because of this has been just flat out wrong in his reporting at times. Something that makes you question much of what you read there.

That all said, his writing and choice of topics does have an entertaining and gossipy tabloid kind of flair, and because of this he does attract a huge national readership. Which, while not making him the most accurate news source on the internet, has made him a man of some considerable material success.

Now just so you know, our far more modestly sized Sierra Madre Tattler is not making me a wealthy man. As a matter of fact, it hasn't even allowed me to quit my day job. Something I am often advised by well-meaning friends not to do. Plus it is also a ruthless taskmaster that keeps me up way past my bedtime most evenings. And that lack of sufficient beauty rest has taken its toll.

But one thing I have tried to avoid doing too often is pushing rumors. Mostly because it can prove kind of embarrassing should they turn out to be incorrect. Which they sometimes do. Rather I have relied on the traditional "weblog" style of blogging, which means doing commentary on verifiable and sometimes previously available material. It is much safer, and people really do like accuracy in their news. And in this town there had been quite a shortage of that sort of thing over the last few years.

But today I am throwing all caution to the wind and heading down that long rumor road. I believe that what I am about to share with you is both reasonably accurate and worthwhile. And if I am right, it means that tonight's City Council meeting could be another stunning milestone in bad government here in Sierra Madre.

Just so you know, I was not at the meeting I discuss below. But since so many people like to give me information such as what I am about to reveal to you, and always do so in a forthright manner, I am moving forward on trust. The source is a new one, but there is a certain verisimilitude to this information. So I've decided to go out on a limb today.

First some gossip. At the most recent Pasadena Unified School District Districting Task Force meeting our new representative, Bart "El Monte" Doyle, showed up over an hour late. It was his first meeting in this new role. But it did not prevent him from voting on the matters at hand, even though he had heard absolutely none of the conversations or argued positions leading up to that vote.

Obviously Bart is picking up where his predecessor had left off. Who needs to hear what others have to say when you already know everything? And at least he did show up. Not nearly a given with the previous guy.

Here is the promised rumor. After the meeting was over the Committee members and other assorted individuals stood around gabbing for a bit. Despite what you might have heard this committee is a political one, and these sorts of folks just naturally love to talk trash. And what my source overheard being said by one of the more senior PUSD Districting Committee folks at this function is that 75% of Sierra Madre's City Council has decided to replace Joe Mosca by appointment, and not allow it to go to a vote of the people. This was clearly stated by the individual in question to a group of old boys and gals who would naturally see this as being a good thing. And they did seem glad to hear it.

As you know, until just recently Joe Mosca belonged to this PUSD committee, and could very well have shared privileged information with this individual, a gent whose loose lips may have scuttled a very special ship. And this is conceivable given Joe's almost primal need to impress people in positions of authority with his importance. Which is dangerous for any enterprise that includes both Joe Mosca and the need for discretion.

In the pecking order of local political prestige, nothing says important like privileged information about very important matters. Being in the know is political capital, after all.

It is also conceivable to me that the G4-1 could have decided that the political winds in this town are not blowing in their favor right now. That plus it could be that they do not have any particularly appealing or accomplished candidates to run next April. The bottom of the barrel having already been reached in April of 2010. All of which means that the only truly sure-fire way to keep the majority on the City Council would be to appoint Joe's replacement rather than take any chances at the ballot box.

Something that would leave them with a guaranteed additional 2 years to try and work that high density R3 redevelopment agenda that is so unpopular in this town, but so dear to their bosses.

One other interesting matter. I have obtained the minutes (click here) from the November 1st PUSD District Task Force confab. As you may recall, this was Joe's last meeting as a member of this committee. I'm sure there were speeches and goodbyes, though none of that was recorded in these minutes.

However, it appears that Bart Doyle was there as well, and spoke at public comment "on a matter not on the agenda." Here is the note on this:

Bart Doyle - Sees problems with attendance zones - increasing numbers of new students in East Pasadena and Sierra Madre - racial mix is changing rapidly.

While this note is decidedly ambiguous and could be construed in different ways, that is quite an observation. I wonder, do Bart's sponsors on the City Council also share in this concern?

So that's my story for today. I'm sticking to it. I will be at tonight's City Council meeting to see how this one plays out. You had better be there as well. The shenanigan alert flag is hanging out in front of City Hall, and the color code is red.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The UUT Was Never Specifically For Public Safety

So maybe folks were sold something other than what they thought they were voting for when the Utility User Tax increase to 12% was originally approved.

As I am certain you will recall, the big impetus behind raising our UUT rates in April of 2008 was to help pay for a Police raise while maintaining the Paramedic set up. It was always supposed to be about public safety, which were then often referred to as being "the essential services." And that apparently is what many chose to believe. Even those curmudgeons who voted against raising the UUT. Such as myself.

But apparently that was not actually the case. While it is true that we the people did vote on Measure U and Measure UA, and approved both by substantial margins, there was nothing in either of them that made the funding of such public safety services mandatory.

With Measure UA, which is where the voter's actual guidance on how this money needed to be spent was stated, being only advisory. And therefore has no real legal power to direct anybody on anything. That little bit of power having been quietly in the hands of the City Council all along.

Here is how the analysis of both of these measures reads on (click here):

Sierra Madre Utility Users Tax, Measures U and UA, April 2008

Two Sierra Madre Utility Users Tax ballot propositions, known as Measure U and Measure UA, were on the April 28, 2008 ballot in Los Angeles County, California, for voters in the City of Sierra Madre.

- Measure U was approved. It proposed a temporary increase in Sierra Madre's UUT up to a total of a 12% tax and extending it to cover a broader range of taxable activities.
- Measure UA was approved. It was an advisory question about what to do with any additional funds raised if Measure U passed.

The ballot language for Measure U was:

"Shall an ordinance be adopted increasing the City's existing Utility Users' Tax by up to 6% in order to maintain general City services such as public safety services, including police and paramedic programs, and to reflect technological advances in communications, expand existing exemptions to low and very low income households, and establish a citizen's oversight committee?"

The ballot language for Measure UA was:

"If Measure 'U', the increase in the Utility Users' Tax, is approved by the voters, should the additional revenue generated by that increase be used to fund public safety services including paramedic programs, police salaries and benefits and additional safety staffing?"

As states, Measure UA was strictly advisory, and therefore little more than a beauty contest.

Of course, it does beg the question of why a UUT Citizen's Oversight Committee was formed. Since the UUT has apparently always been a general tax, and therefore goes into the General Fund for the City's use on just about anything, what exactly was there to ever oversee? Could it be this was only for show?

We have already posted information on The Tattler showing that Sierra Madre has amongst the highest, if not the highest, Utility User Tax rates in the State of California. And that is at our less than maximum voter approved rate of 10%. Which is often claimed as being the product of the City Council's supposed restraint.

But should that rate ever go up to 12% Sierra Madre would then be in territory never before reached in the annals of higher Utility Taxation. Anywhere. Which is really saying quite a lot. Certainly the views from so high a peak must be spectacular.

And that does look like where City Hall is going with this. The language quoted below is from a proposed (and as yet unnamed) new ordinance. I've lifted it from the Staff Report for tomorrow night's meeting. This pretty much lays things out in a way that you probably were not supposed to dwell upon too much.

The first "Whereas" is intended to be the scary part. There always has to be a scary part. The second one is the solution that will save us all.

WHEREAS, essential City services remain in jeopardy because safety services within the City are understaffed (sic), the City's revenue has not kept pace with its expenses, police, fire, paramedics and other employees are paid substantially below their counterparts in comparable jurisdictions, infrastructure is deteriorating without the funds to make necessary improvements and repairs;

WHEREAS, the City desires to increase the tax rate incrementally from 10% (established by the City Council in 2010) to 12% in order to continue to fund general city services, including safety services, street maintenance, library services, and park and recreation services, and to extend the sunset provisions which will decrease the UUT rate.

The assumption that this City is understaffed might not fly with everyone. Crumbling infrastructure, wasn't that what the water rate hike was for?

And that when we'd vote on any new UUT measure next April it would come with a tax increase might be problematic for many as well. It would certainly make this something more than just a matter of extending what we have now.

But who knows? People in this town are capable of convincing themselves of anything. Even those who you might have assumed knew better.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Beware Of Holiday Surprises

We're dealing with Worst Case Scenarios today. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. WCS's are generally more interesting than good news, and when thrown open for discussion often attract far more interest than mere happy talk. The more ominous the WCS, the deeper and more sustaining the concern. As it should be.

There are several rather momentous items on the agenda for Tuesday evening's City Council meeting, and all are up for a decision. They involve considerations that will affect the ballot in the April 12, 2012 election, and time for anything else but a final resolutions has pretty much run out. We're going to see some real action two days before a major holiday.

And then there is this. The meeting we are talking about here is one of only two left for this year. It comes just before the long Thanksgiving Day weekend, which for many people will have already begun. I expect there are those reading this post today who already have their bags packed and will be well on their way to a visit with friends and family in a day by Tuesday. And with so little attention being paid to anything as mundane as a City Council meeting, it becomes a prime opportunity for shenanigans of the most unhappy kind.

It will also be the first City Council meeting since April of 2006 that will not be turned into a venue for the prattling inanities of Joe Mosca. Joe, who apparently is still in town (sightings continue to be reported here on the blog), resigned his seat and will no longer be serving as the Councilman who wanted to make a difference. Instead he will soon be heading off to a new life in England. If you didn't know about this shocking fact I invite you to head on over to the Sierra Madre Weekly website where they have two feature articles up announcing this late breaking news.

So with all that in mind, here are the three agenda items that I believe could very well end up as Holiday Surprises. Certainly the potential is there, and we'd be remiss in our duties as the blog that wants to make a difference if we did not put a little red flag on each of them.

2. Discussion - Options to fill a Council Member vacancy: Recommendation that the City Council provide staff with direction regarding the Council's preference for filling a Council Member vacancy.

The way this is worded would lead you to believe that there might be some doubt as to how the City Council will choose to resolve a matter brought on by Joe's sudden career shift. Obviously the correct and democratic choice would be to allow the electorate to vote for a replacement during next April's election. The City Council is the premier governmental body in Sierra Madre, and that kind of authority should not be placed in the hands of someone who was put into one of those big leather seats by his pol pals alone.

But there really is a choice, and I am not sure the rump faction of what was once known as the Gang of 4 will be able to resist going the appointment route. We are dealing with a WCS here, but think of what the worst case scenario might be for the G4-1? There has been a decided political shift in town as many people have pretty much had their fill of the vacuous and vastly underwhelming Josh Moran and Nancy Walsh. And with G-Money Johnny B heading out to pasture in a few months, there is the distinct possibility that by allowing a third City Council seat to go up for a vote they could lose their majority status. And let's face it, without majority power Josh and Nancy would be even more unimpressive than they are now.

Look at it this way. The G$4-1 put Bart Doyle (the former head of a redevelopment outfit currently under investigation by the FBI and HUD, and a man being sued by the City of El Monte for all kinds of unpleasant and potentially related things), on a PUSD committee. Which to me means they are capable of anything. And with G$JB going bye bye, who his going to occupy the Gravitas Seat and tell those bobbleheads how they need to bobble? Maybe Bart himself? Certainly that is a fellow no longer capable of obtaining a City Council seat except by appointment.

3. Discussion - Consideration of Ordinance 1326 amending Section 3.26.180 of Chapter 3.36 of the Municipal Code regarding the Utility Users' Tax (UUT) and a resolution authorizing certain Council Members to submit arguments regarding a measure to amend the existing UUT and a resolution provided for the filing of rebuttal arguments. (This is followed by the usual recommendation that the City Council tell City Staff what to do about it.)

The amending of real consequence here can either be about altering or doing away with the Sunset Clause, or the way this money is to be used. Since Item #4 (see below) deals with the money issue we'll tackle that one in a minute. Which leaves the Sunset Clause. It is no secret that City Staff hates the Sunset Clause. The raising of funds to cover the costs of things like those new retirement packages weighs heavily upon the minds of the salaried City employees toiling in The Palace, and the thought that someday the taxpayers of Sierra Madre might just get sick of their act and pull the plug on the entire mess by voting to knock the UUT back down to a maximum of 6% probably keeps them awake at nights. So they would love it if the Sunset Clause got pulled altogether.

That would be the WCS. G$ Johnny B has stated (at length and on several occasions) that such an option would be politically unfeasible, and could lead to a nasty voter revolt on the matter of how much to tax themselves. Rather his suggestion was that the Sunset Clause be extended by a year. The dubious rationale being that by having the decision moved to a 5 year period it makes doing budgets easier. Which to me is a weak reason for diminishing the rights of the taxpayers here in town. I'd watch out for this one if I were you.

Now here comes the surprise.

4. Discussion - Consideration of adoption of election resolutions calling and giving notice of the April 10, 2012 General Municipal Election and submitting to the voters a measure amending the City's existing Utility Users Tax (UUT) and an ADVISORY MEASURE concerning the use of the revenue generated by the UUT rate and adopting regulations for candidates' statements submitted to voters. (Staff then humbly goes on to ask for clues.)

Now maybe I fell asleep during a key portion of some previous City Council meeting and have only now become aware of this. Or maybe I was reading my iPad or something. But please, and dear reader do let me know, since when did the specific use of tens of thousands of dollars in additional UUT money become an advisory issue? I am writing this at 4 in the morning so I can't call any phoner friends for clues, but hasn't it always been that this money could only be spent on Paramedics and the SMPD? And by strict voter edict?

I vaguely remember sitting on that godawful UUT Oversight Committee poring over lists of City UUT expenditures searching in vain for any instance of where that money was spent on anything but emergency services. And try as I might, I just couldn't find a single violation. Imagine my chagrin.

So by "an advisory measure concerning the use of the revenue generated by the UUT rate," is City Hall now talking about taking this from the hard legal fact category to more of a beauty contest? And while they do want to hear our opinions on the matter, and in a vote no less, once this becomes the law it will still be amended no matter what we say and they can do anything with the money that they please?

That, my friends, is quite a radical change. And yet another instance where the power of the people of Sierra Madre will be diminished. Not only will we then have the highest UUT rates in the state, the resulting revenue will also be eligible for general use. The City will be able to spend it any old way that they choose. Even for development related projects in that brave new world where there will be no CRA.

I certainly cannot see myself voting for anything like that. Ever.

General Plan Update Steering Committee Meeting

The hardest working committee in town will spend Sunday meeting from 9 am to 4 pm at City Hall. The topic will be the General Plan update (naturally), in particular formatting issues and the technical background report. Not sure if the consultant will know whether Kersting Court is an alley or not, but you never know.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Planning Commission Nixes McMansion

The Planning Commission last night turned down Richard Meaglia's application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to build a 5,824 square foot McMansion (with garage) at 756 Auburn. This was the 4th time the matter had been before the Commission, and each time Mr. Meaglia had been warned that City Codes would be the criteria by which this project would be judged. The applicant instead chose to skirt the issue with claims that were besides the point, and changes that were insufficient. The final vote was 4 to 2.

The project had a troubled history from the start. At the initial July 7th meeting Mr. Meaglia had asked for approval of a two-story, 6,994 square foot single family home with an unattached 685 square foot recreation room. The Planning Commission indicated that they could not approve such an out of character and Code deficient project, and told the applicant to come back with something that paid a little more heed to City laws and standards for such projects.

Meaglia's second appearance (September 15) before the Planning Commission saw some marginal changes, but they were not what had been requested. These changes had an almost "in your face" kind of feel, or such was the impression made upon those observing the meeting. The building had to been reduced in size to 5,705 square feet, but a large 3 car garage had been added. Something that brought the overall footprint very close to the original proposal. Once again Meaglia was informed that what he was proposing was inappropriate for the community and City Code, and told to come back with something taking the Commission's "bulk and mass" concerns into account.

On October 6th a decidedly more truculent Mr. Meaglia did return, but with little in the way of revisions. This time he had a different strategy, which involved bringing in a couple of people from the neighborhood and having them express a desire that Meaglia be given his CUP. There are always people who are willing to speak against their own interests, and having a very large house looming over a village of homes half the size didn't seem to bother one gentleman in particular. The average home size in that neighborhood is 2,700 or so square feet.

There was a rather odd gambit as well, this about trees being planted to hide the house. But nobody took the bait. For the third time Mr. Meaglia was invited to return with plans more appropriate to the neighborhood, and take into account City Codes on this matter.

All of which set up last night's final match. For this meeting Meaglia lowered the height of the proposed structure by 18 inches, and this house with garage combination were reduced in size from 6,686 square feet to 5,824. The total reduction was 863 square feet. Mr. Meaglia also proposed to plant 4 trees to help hide the house. Again an odd proposal as trees, like all living things, do have a tendency to disappear from this world of woe in time, and can therefore hardly be considered a permanent solution.

The average size of a house on that stretch of Auburn is 2,707 square feet. This number includes the 6,000+ square foot house that Meaglia had been somehow permitted to build previously. The average house size within 300 square feet of this proposed McMansion is 3,677 square feet. All of which makes what Meaglia hoped to build 54% larger than the average home there.

Richard Meaglia, defending his project, offered what I saw as being an attempt to hype his way through the hearing. This rather than make any actual concessions to what the Planning Commission had requested of him on those three previous occasions. Meaglia claimed that he had made substantial revisions to his plans, that many lots in the city have larger houses on less space that what he wished to build, that if you took the City as a whole his proposal would be in character, and that larger houses next to small houses do not detract from other neighborhoods in the City.

However, the Planning Commission can't base its decisions on applicant opinion, requiring instead that people adhere to whatever city codes apply. The process was finally brought to an end by a 4 to 2 vote to reject. Proving once again that when it comes to defending Sierra Madre's neighborhoods from abusive development, along with defending the laws, the Planning Commission stands tall.

Here are what those 4 Commissioners rejecting Meaglia's application had to say:

Gina Frierman-Hunt said that the Commission must be able to make findings as required by Code. She was very firm that in all relevant matters Code must always be followed. She also noted that the house had only been reduced in size a little, and that it was more than double anything else in that neighborhood.

Bob Spears said that the proposal was out of scale for the neighborhood and that mansions are not a fit for Sierra Madre. The building would have been 54% larger than the other houses in the area. Quote of the evening: "If we are going to allow for an exception, it needs to be worthy of an exception."

Kevin Paschall noted that the largest house on the block is already owned by the applicant.

John Vandevelde said that the design was not helping the project. Things could have been done to break down the scale of the house. Vandevelde later noted that the windows were inconsistent throughout this house, with a roof that offered many awkward transitions. The architect came to the podium at that point and said if they had been informed of this they could have made the necessary changes. A claim that seemed odd to many since over the course of 4 separate meetings on this matter there was very little that wasn't covered.

Kevin Paschall informed the architect that public comment was over.

In an odd moment a member of City Staff informed all who cared to listen that there is a 10 day appeal period. She then repeated that. Then she said it again, and added that the appeal could be taken to the City Council and that all the necessary forms are available at City Hall. It seemed to some as if she was practically begging the applicant to appeal the Planning Commission's resolution to deny.

We will be keeping an eye on this.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Soviet For Southern California

(Today's post is also the second Pasadena Star News guest op-ed from The Tattler. To view it on the PSN website click here. We are now hopefully reaching out to a whole new audience, and will continue to do so. I have a standing offer from the Star News to write for them, which is a very good thing. The Tattler continues to grow.)

It is too easy, and has been for too long. If you really want to become the cliched social critic and blog writer of a certain stripe and take things to their widely anticipated extreme, sit yourself down in front of the MacBook Pro and write heated stuff about the central planning machinations of Sacramento and how they're just like what happened in the Soviet Union.

Social engineering involving the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people to achieve a somewhat dubious end being, in the minds of those who might care to recall, an unpleasant remembrance of times long past. But comparing so apocalyptic a vision to anything currently happening in California? It is not going to take you anywhere good, I'm afraid. And certainly you won't get invited to any of the better parties in town. Even if you wanted to go.

Of course, as with all claims of an imminent doom, of any flavor, there is at least some truth involved. Imminent doom being a dependable constant in life. And yes, Sacramento does have a plan in place designed to encourage people to abandon lives of Earth diminishing excess in single family homes deep inside the suburbs and move to places they feel are more felicitous. Those being what are known in central planner gab as transportation corridors, which are densely packed mass housing projects of a transit oriented design, liberally besprinkled across the beautiful Southern California landscape. And as far as the eye can see.

Anti-suburban sprawl legislation, known amongst the wonk-elite as SB 375, is now the law in California. And it was autographed by recovering Hummer helmsman Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, so there is that science fiction element to it as well. The stated goal being to convince people that they need to migrate back into the urban core and use public transportation once they get there. Something that will save us all from an apocalyptic end by reducing greenhouse gas production and putting the blocks to global warming. Or so the plan goes.

Of course, in the real world where most of us live, the odds of pulling something like that off are slim. And most of the state's efforts are limited to beating up on such helpless parties as private industry and local city governments. Usually with expensive regulations and demands that are about as popular a howling feral toddler on a crowded passenger jet.

And even then image-conscious Sacramento doesn't choose to dirty their hands directly. Rather they often make use of organizations known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs. Our own MPO is often referred to by the attractive acronym SCAG, which is definitely not an opiate of the masses. Instead it stands for Southern California Association of Governments, an organization that serves as local muscle for such things as SB 375. Done with attack pocket protectors intact.

So where does one find a person with the expertise to run something like SCAG? Given that the work involves implementing plans designed by a central state government to house people in densely settled work zones while also seeing to their now mandatory mass transportation needs, you'd probably want to look in a place where such things had existed previously. And SCAG found its leadership in just such a place. This person is Hasan Ikhrata, he's run our MPO since 2009, and yes, he began his career in the Soviet Union. Here is his biography from SCAG's website:

"Hasan also worked abroad for the Government of the USSR, Moscow Metro Corporation, where he conducted subway ridership forecasting, engineering design and analysis of TDM programs for the Moscow Subway system. Hasan holds a bachelor's degree from Moscow University in the former Soviet Union and a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of California ..."

Hopefully Hasan Ikhrata will make the Gold Line run on time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Buxton: The $30,000 Downtown Retail Market Demand Study

"Customer data is like a child's kaleidoscope. It's all a matter of how you look at it." - Tom Buxton

Last night at City Hall a small handful of the faithful gathered to hear exactly how Buxton Marketing, a consultancy hired with a considerable amount of CRA dollars, would redefine our downtown and help remake it into a retail environment that is not only more economically sustainable (so to speak), but also in tune with what the community wants. Something that apparently, and especially in the opinion of those who hired Buxton (or, as one wag put it, Buck$Ton), the usual market forces, local retailer wisdom and consumer demand have not done for us. This being a matter for the experts instead.

A Market Demand Study in such economically parlous times such as these might seem like an odd pursuit to some. With City Hall claiming to have cut budgets and making due with less, it would seem to be an inappropriate time to be spending $30,000 to find out what variety of vichyssoise sells best in this part of the SGV. Particularly when you consider that some of the City Hall service reductions that have been made, such as cuts to after school care at the YAC for the children of working parents, have hurt some people in town.

Of course, this is also the same City Council that thought nothing of sending itself to a 3 day League of California Cities convention in San Francisco on the our dime, so there is that cause for skepticism as well.

But why dwell on any of this? We do have a City to save here (I guess), and trying to figure out from what in particular is hardly going to move any product downtown. Let's get down to business, shall we?

Buxton apparently is not your usual survey and tabulated results kind of market demand consultant. Those attending were not handed a clipboard and asked to check the boxes next to those products that they would most like to buy here in Sierra Madre. Nor do they seem likely to send people out into the streets looking for consumers to discuss shopping preferences with. Instead they do it with information gleaned from the data banks of the more successful businesses in the area. This is a very modern approach we're talking about here. You can understand why our somewhat pokey City Hall might have been impressed.

Below is how they describe what they have to offer on their FAQ site, Buxton FASTFacts (click here). And yes, they do say "best practices."

Best Practices - Turning Customer Data Into Dollars: Many retailers have no shortage of customer data. What do you see as the best uses for customer data to enable (the) retailer to maximize their marketing strategies?

Collecting customer data is the basis of today's marketing plans. Using it to tailer media placement, model prospects for new customer acquisition, and more efficiently circulate ongoing retention efforts is becoming essential to drive marketing ROI. We recommend to our clients multiple best practices around using data. These include:

- Use transaction RFM to target customers who warrant ongoing investment - screen out best customers from those who won't shop, period.
- Use merchandise data to tailor inventory and selection by store and channel for less waste and higher sell through.
- Analyze customers against external data to identify key characteristics. This will help to optimize promotions and drive specific customer behavior.
- Count customers by month / year and channel to determine customer churn.
- Count annual sales by customer frequency and ask yourself - what percentage of customers is driving what percentage of sales?

Well there you go. Just so you are aware, ROI is acronymic for "Return On Investment," and I am fairly certain that RFM denotes "Recency, Frequency, and Money." Consultant-speak meant to describe people who just keep coming back and spending. The kind of folks all retailers would love to get to know better.

But I am a little worried about the whole "screen out best customers from those who won't shop" thing. Sir Eric, who is famous for having alligator arms when it comes to paying for anything, still likes to go into stores and look at stuff. I hope this means they won't be stopping the purchasing challenged from entering downtown.

Anyway, so here's the skinny. What Buxton does is it buys data from various sources in the area, crunches the numbers, and then issues a report. Every credit card purchase, swipe of the debit card, and what is actually bought during the transaction itself, is all recorded and tabulated. Stores collect this kind of stuff because bundling and selling such information is a very lucrative, low overhead business. Companies like Buxton will pay handsomely for this kind of data, which they then repackage and resell to places such as the City of Sierra Madre's Community Redevelopment Agency for tens of thousands of bucks.

Of course, when Buxton resells this stuff to towns like ours, they artfully repackage it to make you feel like you are being let in on something very special. I personally love marketing jargon and hype, I work with it every day in my line of work. And Buxton has a couple of great terms that I just have to share with you.

Psychographic Segmentation Profile: This one is kind of along the lines of "separating the wheat from the chaff." Where do you find the best areas to do business, and how do you identify the needs of the best possible customers (people who buy), rather than catering to the alligator arms set? Sierra Madre apparently has a strong PSP, but is currently not taking advantage of it. And why is that? Our "Leakage Surplus Analysis" shows retention weakness.

Leakage Surplus Analysis: The Buck$Ton lady threw out a figure of $173 million as the "leakage" Sierra Madre suffers on a yearly basis. Which seems like a lot until you divide it by the 6,400 households here in town and come up with the figure of $27,000 per wickiup. Which is basically a year's worth of groceries. What is meant by LSA is a figure that represents all the spending that is done by Sierra Madre as a whole that is not done here. It is leaking out beyond the Michillinda Curtain and going to the unclean.

As any small city Chamber of Commerce can tell you, it is very hard for downtown shops to compete on a range of products carried or prices offered with the likes of Wal*Mart and Target. The rise of this kind of box retailer is what has decimated small downtown shopping areas all across this great land of ours. The mix of restaurants and other food vendors, coupled with nail salons and similar niche style businesses we have here, is typical of what has been left behind by the big box revolution. And we actually do this better than most.

But I really do not believe that Buxton will supply our existing pizza and liquor store based economy with the kinds of data that will turn our downtown into something it is not. Despite what you might have heard. Rather what this information is intended for is to attract big retailers to Sierra Madre. By identifying what the more affluent consumers in this town purchase through data gleaned from area retailers, the City will now have a set of verifiable statistics and analysis to show to some of the retail corporations who might be willing to give downtown Sierra Madre a look.

Which, if I am right, would be yet another instance of our tax money being used to push for things that most people here in town won't be all that crazy about. Unless it is a Whole Foods, of course. But where would that leave the Farmers Market, I ask?

An interesting statistical analysis would be to compare the $30k cost of this study with our current sales tax take of around $180,000 a year. In order for this study to pay for itself we would need to see an increase of around 4% in sales tax generated revenue.

During my ill-fated run in the 2010 City Council election there was a debate where the issue of what is best for Downtown Sierra Madre came up. During this debate I attempted to make the point that we have something very unique and desirable here in town, that being our downtown shopping area and the independently owned businesses there. And what I said is that while there are always things that can be done to make things even better, our downtown is an attractive asset for the community as a whole, and should be nurtured and protected.

While I was walking out of the place I noticed that Nancy Walsh had gathered a small group of little souls about her, and was intently discussing something. What that was, I later found out, was my little spiel about our downtown. What she took my earnest little rap for was proof that "they" are against bringing big retailers into town.

This, in my opinion, is what the Buxton deal is all about.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steven Greenhut Takes Down State Senator Bob Huff

I've become a big Steven Greenhut fan. Not only can the guy flat out write, but he also has little patience for the absurd nonsense that typifies most political debate in California. He is a former Republican who in 2008 left to join Libertarian Party. As such he is apt to challenge anyone from his former GOP home that crosses the line, and anytime he feels the need arises. Which apparently is often. A columnist for the conservative Orange County Register, he also runs one of the best state political blogs around, CalWatchDog.

And the target of Greenhut's ire this time is the failure of Republican members of the State Legislature to help bring about an end to California's Redevelopment Agencies, or RDA's. As anyone who has lived for very long in Sierra Madre will tell you, these agencies have long been a source for the funding of such undesirable and predatory development as the Downtown Specific Plan.

I am going to take the liberty of posting a big chunk of his November 11th column on this lamentable RDA situation. It is a very good read, and should be a pleasure for anyone who has just about had enough of both political parties in this state. Along with redevelopment agencies, dishonest politicians, and the knuckleheads that so blindly support them. If you wish to read all of it, please click here.

We all know that California's Democratic party is running the state into the ground fiscally, given how beholden its legislators and elected officials are to public sector unions and how devoted they are to expanding government and raising taxes. The state needs some political competition, but a major case reminds us why the state Republican Party is a useless vessel that's incapable of broadening its base and changing the state's political trajectory.

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a lawsuit brought by defenders of the state's redevelopment agencies (RDAs) who are seeking to overturn recent laws that essentially shut down those agencies. Gov. Jerry Brown isn't often right, but he was on target when he proposed shutting down these central planning agencies that primarily dispense corporate welfare to big businesses and drive small property owners off their land so that big-box stores can prosper.

Brown's plan wasn't perfect. It allowed the agencies to buy their way back into existence as many of them have since done. The law wasn't passed entirely for the right reasons. Brown and legislative Democrats had typically supported RDAs, but were looking for quick ways to close the state's gaping budget hole. As Bloomberg reported, "The governor and supporters of the law said the redevelopment agencies have become little more than slush funds for private developers, and they want the tax money generated by new developments to be diverted from the agencies to local schools, law enforcement agencies and other services."

When your political enemies give you a gift, you ought to take it.

Instead of taking it, California Republicans actively opposed the governor's plan and shamelessly sided with the people who run roughshod over everything the GOP is supposed to stand for. Forget all the talk about property rights, limited government, free markets and family values.

"Almost like Alice in Wonderland, where up is down, and down is up, this past year Democratic legislators voted to abolish redevelopment and most Republicans fought tooth and nail to protect 425 redevelopment agencies from being abolished," explained Jon Fleischman, California GOP vice chairman and publisher of the GOP-oriented Flashreport. Fleischman noted that over two crucial votes, only six Assembly Republicans voted to abolish RDAs and only one Senate Republican voted to do so. This is indeed shameful.

So who does Steven Greenhut single out as the worst example of all that he believes is wrong about the GOP and its attempts to stop the move on redevelopment agencies? Our very own State Senator Bob Huff.

In fact, one of the GOP's leaders, Sen. Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, received the League of California Cities' Legislator of the Year award for his efforts to save redevelopment agencies. His wife, by the way, works for a developer who is one of the state's biggest redevelopment beneficiaries. This is the type of thing that makes me want to join the unbathed wretches occupying city parks.

In another article Greenhut again wrote about his favorite State Senator (click here), with the bat being applied this way:

Sen. Bob Huff, the Diamond Bar Republican who led the charge to save the state's debt-laden, eminent-domain-abusing urban renewal agencies (redevelopment), was named the League of California Cities' Legislator of the Year. Huff's wife, by the way, is a well-paid consultant for one of the biggest redevelopers in the state, which was something of a scandal as Huff tried to save these big government agencies. The League is one of the state's most influential liberal lobbying groups, an organization that promotes more government spending, higher taxes, reduced restrictions on debt and expanded use of eminent domain and regulatory takings.

We wrote about Bob Huff's close ties to Ed Roski and Majestic Realty back in October of 2009 (click here). This according to an SGV Tribune article we quoted back then:

"Mei Mei Huff is the Senior Vice President at the Pacific Palms Resort, a 650-acre resort which sits on land owned by (the City of) Industry. The property and its facilities are master-leased by Majestic, its CEO Roski ..."

At that time it was widely suspected that Bob Huff voted in favor of waiving any CEQA review of Ed Roski's hoped for NFL stadium in the City of Industry because it would help his wife gain some favor with her boss. That plus the billionaire redeveloper Big Ed is a political fund raiser and cash donor without parallel in his district, support Bob has enjoyed throughout his political career. Click here for an interesting SGV Tribune piece that covers some of Huff's odd explanations for this vote.

I guess in order to become a League of California Cities "Legislator of the Year" you really need to rack up some major conflict of interest points when voting for their agenda.

Otherwise how would they know that you really care?