Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Last Tattler Post of 2013

(Mod: I was trying to come up with exactly the right post to finish 2013. As you are certainly aware it hasn't been a particularly good year for this town. The costs of sustaining our self-obsessed city government went through the roof, with the result being a wholesale increase in taxes, fees and rates. The Mayor declared herself the hero of our downtown businesses, so naturally more than a few of them closed their doors forever. That plus our water company ran out of water and the chemically adulterated stuff they brought in to replace it somehow turned a daffodil yellow. The city's solution? A 61% water rate increase, of course. All fairly unfortunate things in my opinion. But there are signs that we are never alone in our afflictions. And for that we can turn to the news.)

California Pot Legalization May Mean 'Hundreds Of Millions' For State: AG (Huffington Post link): A California initiative that would legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana may be coming soon to the state ballot after a positive review by the state attorney general. But the real news is how much money legalization could bring to the cash-strapped state government.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week released a summary of the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act, which backers are pushing for a spot in November's election.

Though not an endorsement, Harris' generally positive title and summary of the initiative explained that it would legalize under state law marijuana use, growth, cultivation, possession, transportation, storage and sale. It also would create a regulatory commission, apply sales taxes, allocate revenue and prohibit discrimination against marijuana users and businesses.

The summary says a legislative analyst estimated the initiative would save the state "hundreds of millions of dollars." Merry Christmas, indeed!

Here's what the fiscal analysis had to say:

Reduced costs in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments related to enforcing certain marijuana-related offenses, handling the related criminal cases in the court system, and incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders. Potential net additional tax revenues in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually related to the production and sale of marijuana, a portion of which is required to be spent on education, health care, public safety, drug abuse education and treatment, and the regulation of commercial marijuana activities.

(Mod: So after decades of attempting to convince the public that smoking marijuana is not a good thing, the state is now willing to legalize it, but with the feel good proviso that it will spend some of the tax proceeds on programs designed to educate the public that smoking marijuana is not a good thing. Sure. I bet that'll work just fine.)

Americans are buying less electricity. That’s a big problem for utilities (Washington Post link): Something very unusual has been happening to the U.S. electricity sector over the past three years. The U.S. economy keeps growing. People are buying bigger homes and plugging in ever more electronic gadgets. And yet power companies have been selling less and less electricity since 2011.

Perhaps this is just a random blip. Yet some analysts think we really could be entering a new era in which Americans buy less and less electricity — either because they're becoming more efficient or they're finding ways to generate their own electricity, through solar panels and other means. And if that's true, it's a huge problem for many electric utilities.

Electric utilities make more money by selling more power. They don't usually benefit if people start buying more efficient washing machines or installing solar panels on their roofs. If these trends are accelerating, that's a real problem for power companies.

The doomsday scenario for utilities goes like this: Solar power keeps getting cheaper and more people start installing panels. In the meantime, overall electricity use grows slowly or stagnates. That means utilities are selling less and less electricity. In order to recoup their costs for things like maintaining the grid, they have to hike rates on their remaining customers. That pushes even more people to install solar panels, hurting sales further. Commence the death spiral.

Sound far-fetched? This exact scenario was laid out by an industry trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, in a report back in January. Even though solar power currently provides just 0.2 percent of U.S. electricity, prices are dropping fast, and even a small amount of distributed solar generation could prove disruptive. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, has called these trends "a mortal threat to the existing utility system.”

(Mod: At last, an incentive for going solar that would appeal to the likes of me.)

Iceland halts road scheme because it might have disturbed the Elves (Daily Mail link): In this land of fire and ice, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape in which anything might lurk, stories abound of the 'hidden folk' - thousands of elves, making their homes in Iceland's wilderness.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before 21st-century elves got political representation.

Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the tip of the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer.

They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.

The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental and the cultural impact - including the impact on elves - of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.

And it's not the first time issues about 'Huldufolk', Icelandic for 'hidden folk', have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states in part that 'issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on'.

Scandinavian folklore is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven't taken them seriously since the 19th century, but elves are no joke to many in Iceland, which has a population of 320,000.

A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that some 62 per cent of the 1,000 respondents thought it was at least possible that elves exist.

Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed 'seer', believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy.

'It will be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans,' said Jonsdottir of the road project.

(Mod: I think that Sierra Madre could use some elves right now. Does Iceland offer an exchange program? We'll take a few of their elves, and Iceland can have our Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem.*)

Tech investor tries to rally support for splitting California (Los Angeles Times link): Veteran technology investor Tim Draper wants to reboot California. He held a news conference on Monday to talk up his proposal to split California into six states, including one called Silicon Valley.

"Something is not working in our state, and I'm convinced it’s with our existing system. It's untenable and ungovernable," Draper said.

The idea of redrawing the map of California has been met with plenty of scorn and skepticism. No one other than Draper has come out in favor of it. And Draper is 1 million signatures away from getting it on the ballot.

But Draper, whose father and grandfather were also venture capitalists, said California is ready for a fresh start.

"The status quo is dying and sucking the life out of us," Draper said. "Californians are still the greatest, most innovative people on the planet, and I ask them to innovate their government back to health and prosperity."

Draper’s proposal skimps on nitty gritty details (such as how wealth will be shared or water rights and high-speed rail negotiated), he says change will improve just about everything including income inequality.

Here’s how it would work. California would be split up into six states. Jefferson would be to the north, with North California below it. Central California would be in the middle east of the state, while Silicon Valley would be to the West. West California, including Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, would be in the south, with South California at the very bottom of the state.

Secessionism is a popular notion in Silicon Valley, something Draper acknowledged, taking the opportunity to complain about overreaching regulations. It’s clearly a bid to get the tech industry the kind of government it wants: by Silicon Valley for Silicon Valley.

“Here in Silicon Valley, people feel the state is out of touch,” Draper said.

(Mod: Is there anywhere in California where people don't feel the state is out of touch? Personally I am OK with Draper's idea, but only if we are not a part of whatever state includes Los Angeles County. I think we'd be much better off joining South California.)

Everybody have a Happy New Year. We'll be back in 2014. Or tomorrow, depending on how you look at these things. We'll see you at the Rose Parade if you're there. Go Sierra Madre!)


Monday, December 30, 2013

An L.A. County Superior Court Judge Calls SCAG's Population Increase Estimates “Entirely Discredited”

A Superior Court judge thinks this man is a fool
One of the big challenges cities in the so-called "SCAG Region" face is the demand being made by this Regional Planning Organization that each and every one of them make plans to introduce a lot of new housing within their borders. And what this onerous demand is predominantly based upon are SCAG's projections that claim we are on the verge of being inundated with massive new population growth. And after all, or so the story goes, if we do not build all of this new housing, where are all these new people going to live?

In an April 4, 2012 press release proudly titled "Nation's Largest Planning Agency Approves Plan in Preparation of 4 Million New Residents by 2035"(link), SCAG laid out the wonder of it all.

The Regional Council of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) convened the 47th Annual Regional Conference and General Assembly and, without objection, adopted the 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) and certified the Program Environmental Impact Report.

The 25 year plan is an investment plan for our region's economic viability that provides people with transportation and housing options that meet their professional and life style choices while supporting the business community's need to compete nationally and internationally. "Today's approval of the 2012-2035 RTP/SCS was a historic decision made by Southern California elected officials on SCAG's Regional Council. This action establishes a roadmap to welcome four million new residents and 1.7 million new jobs into our region by 2035," commented Paul O'Connor, SCAG President.

So how do you accommodate this supposed vast sea of projected new humanity yearning to experience their "professional and lifestyle choices" here in Southern California? In the de-evolutionary Golden State you have a government-run Regional Planning Organization such as SCAG cook up population and housing growth numbers and coerce each and every city within their jurisdictional borders into accommodating them in their General Plans. All backed up with the muscle of Washington and Sacramento, of course. Armed with draconian central planning mandates such as SB 375.

According to SCAG's "Final Regional Housing Need Allocation Plan" (link), that number of new wickiups comes to just under 700,000 "units" for the region. Which, at the time this little item was cobbled together, called for 139 new housing units here in little Sierra Madre. In a town that is virtually built out like ours, this would require that currently standing buildings be razed and replaced with high density condo complexes, thus radically changing the character of our community.

Oh, and just so you know. In SCAG-think, condos are more "sustainable" than single family homes. Especially when they are near a bus stop.

"This year's theme is 'Towards a Sustainable Future in Southern California.' Sustainable has many meanings; providing for a future where the population will grow but we can expect a reduction in per capita emissions, supporting the construction of new homes and businesses but with a plan to connect the dwellings with multiple transportation options, preserving the natural beauty of the California landscape for today's recreation and our future generations enjoyment, and ensuring that businesses remain in the Golden State and prosper," said Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG Executive Director.

I suppose this all sounds hunky dory if you are the guy who will get to build much of this largely unneeded nonsense. And I guess the news that "emissions" will become less of a factor when electric cars become more prevalent in a few years has yet to cross Mr. Ikhrata's mind. Perhaps he has fallen behind in his reading.

But what if SCAG's population increase estimates are all wrong? Predicting the future can be a dicey proposition, you know. And, to be quite honest, I am not sure that SCAG's Executive Director, Hasan Ikhrata, a man who first learned his central planning chops plying this trade in the now collapsed Soviet Union (link) could necessarily win any soothsaying contests with, say, a street corner palm reader.

And it seems that I am not alone in my skepticism. Apparently the L.A. Superior Court agrees with me. This from the always estimable Joel Kotkin in the December 27 edition of the Orange County Register (link):

Joel Kotkin: Build it, even though they won't come The recent decision by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Allan J. Goodman to reject as “fatally flawed” the densification plans for downtown Hollywood could shake the foundations of California's “smart growth” planning clerisy. By dismissing Los Angeles' Hollywood plan, the judge also assaulted the logic behind plans throughout the region to construct substantial high-rise development in “transit-oriented developments” adjacent to rail stations.

In particular, the judge excoriated the buoyant population-growth projections used to justify the plan, a rationalization for major densification elsewhere in the state. The mythology is that people are still flocking to Los Angeles, and particularly, to dense urban areas, creating a demand for high-end, high-rise housing.

The Hollywood plan rested on city estimates provided by the Southern California Association of Governments, which estimated that Hollywood's population was 200,000 in 2000 and 224,000 in 2005, and would thus rise to 250,000 by 2030. All this despite the fact that, according to the census, Hollywood's population over the past decade has actually declined, from 213,000 in 1990 to 198,000 today. 

Not one to mince words, Judge Goodman described SCAG's estimates as “entirely discredited.” This discrepancy is not just a problem in the case of Hollywood; SCAG has been producing fanciful figures for years. In 1993, SCAG projected that the city of Los Angeles would reach a population of 4.3 million by 2010. SCAG's predicted increase of more than 800,000 residents materialized as a little more than 300,000. For the entire region, the 2008 estimates were off by an astounding 1.4 million people.

Here in timorous Sierra Madre we would never even think of daring to question SCAG's population increase projections, and year after year we have meekly accepted this now discredited regional planning organization's demands that we accommodate ever higher amounts of high density stack and pack development through their so-called "RHNA Process." Sort of like the "bungalows" that currently sit unsold at the corner of Sierra Place and Sierra Madre Boulevard

Fortunately the good citizens of Hollywood did have what it takes to dare call out SCAG on their voodoo population increase projections, and there is now a legal decision that for all intents and purposes laughed the ridiculous Hasan Ikhrata and his gang of SCAG bunco artists straight out of court.

Hopefully once the voters of Sierra Madre laugh Nancy Walsh and Josh Moran out of office next April we will finally get a City Council that has the guts to tell SCAG to get lost as well. 

After all, there is now a legal precedent for it.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Steven Greenhut: Does the Bell Toll for Excessive Public Pay?

Steven Greenhut
Mod: This is a follow up to Friday's post (link) regarding City Hall's disturbing lack of candor about what it did with a couple million dollars in taxpayer money. Telling residents that costs associated with employee salaries had been cut when they were actually increased and then bundled into pension and benefit accounts was not a very good thing to do. That this claim was likely made to help con voters into extending Sierra Madre's state leading combined utility tax rates makes it even worse. If we had a real City Council heads would be rolling, but today we do not. The sad fact is the majority of our elected officials work far harder for city employees and their demands than they do the taxpayers whose money funds everything ... The following was written by columnist Steven Greenhut and deals with some of the problems that we are now starting to see here in Sierra Madre. If you want to know the real reason why we pay double-digit utility tax rates, this is it. Trust me, it's not about the Library. What it is about is city employee pensions and benefits.

Does the Bell Toll for Excessive Public Pay? (Reason.com link) - “The art of government is to make two-thirds of the nation pay all it possibly can pay for the benefit of the other third,” mused Voltaire. Even that cynical French Enlightenment writer couldn’t imagine what would transpire one day in California, where a portion of the mere 15.3 percent of the public that works for government has gotten the rest of the public to pay for an eye-popping level of compensation.

The latest data — revealed in a December update to the controller’s “Government Compensation in California” Web site — provides fodder for outrage. There’s a fire battalion chief in a small Bay Area suburb receiving a one-year total compensation package that costs $494,000 and city managers in modest-sized burbs (Temecula, Menifee, Carlsbad, Buena Park, Fountain Valley) receiving pay-and-benefit packages of nearly a half-million bucks and more in 2012.

We see a list of employees in fiscally troubled cities — Stockton, San Bernardino, Vallejo — with total earnings in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. The data shows public “servants” taking $230,000-plus cash-outs of leave, CEO-level salaries for employees in impoverished backwaters, and many employees receiving six-figure benefits in addition to their wages. Average pay levels for California public employees often soar above average earnings in their respective communities.

Coincidentally, the controller’s update was released just as Angela Spaccia, former administrator in the scandal-plagued Los Angeles County city of Bell, was found guilty on 11 corruption charges that included the misappropriation of public funds. She was accused of creating a secret pension fund for herself and then-city manager Robert Rizzo, who at one point “earned” a salary of $800,000 a year plus benefits.

Rizzo — the rotund racehorse-owning poster child for municipal greed — previously pled “no contest” to corruption charges. Five other Bell officials were convicted, also. The scandal, which erupted in 2010, sparked a widespread debate about public pay levels and oversight. Trial evidence included an email string where officials joked about getting “fat together” and “taking all of Bell’s money.”

In fact, Controller John Chiang created this statewide compensation Website, based on data provided by cities and agencies, in direct response to Bell. The database has been widely praised as thorough and easy to navigate. But as scary as the information it provides may be, it may even understate the problem.

Its municipality pay averages “are in orders of magnitude too low,” argued Steve Frates, director of research at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute. That’s because it includes part-time and occasional workers in the average. Furthermore, the database doesn’t include other benefits public employees receive. It only calculates the direct costs of pensions and medical-care benefits — not the tens of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities.

Chiang says that public disclosure of compensation information is the first step toward reform. Critics complain, however, about a lack of follow-up steps from other state officials. “The illegality, the excesses of Bell, are an aberration of the real problem,” said Richard Rider, president of San Diego Tax Fighters. “The most powerful force in local politics are the public-sector unions. They elect people who are most compliant. The result is what you would expect.”

The public has seen only modest reform. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders were concerned last year that their tax-increasing ballot measure (Proposition 30) was in trouble because the public didn’t trust that they would spend new dollars wisely. So they cobbled together a tepid pension-reform measure that mostly pares back excesses for new employees. That was it from the state.

Some localities, including San Diego and San Jose, passed pension reform measures last year. Bankruptcy forced Stockton to pull its far-above-average compensation levels down to the state average. But nothing fundamental has changed in California.

Now that the Legislative Analyst’s Office is predicting years of budget surpluses (provided the economy recovers and legislators control their spending), any hope of compensation reform from the Capitol is dim. Reform efforts have thrived only when it seemed as if the state was running out of cash.

On the hopeful front, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, is championing a 2014 statewide initiative that would allow cities to cut future benefits for current employees. Union activists are portraying that as an attempt to “eliminate” pensions, which clearly isn’t the case. But that measure could spark the next public-employee compensation battle. Reed recently argued that union-driven overpayment for police leads to higher crime because cities don’t have money left to hire additional officers.

Supporters of Reed’s effort are bolstered by a new Field Poll that reveals plummeting public support for labor unions, as a plurality (45 percent) of Californians say they do more harm than good. And despite the “no reform” approach in Sacramento, more troubling numbers trickle out — even from unlikely sources.

Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a union ally, told a small group in Thousand Oaks this month that the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) is in “crisis mode” and that “there will be a ratcheting down of retirement promises and commitments.” He did, however, defend the condition of the larger California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS).

Sound or not, the list of those who receive pensions of $100,000 or more from CalPERS now tops 12,000 and is growing by about 40 percent each year. There’s plenty of accessible information, from the controller and elsewhere, suggesting that the public-employee compensation system is unsustainable and unfair. Union Watch reports that in struggling Desert Hot Springs the average city worker actually receives an all-included package of $144,000 a year and the average police and fire employee receives $164,000.

Increasingly, the public may be seeing that the problem isn’t a handful of officials who illegally gamed the system, but a system that — as Voltaire understood — allows a powerful minority to legally game the majority.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sierra Madre Weekly: Citizen of the Year Nominations Due – We cast our ballot for Neil the Pig

The most famous Sierra Madrean of all
(Mod: It is that time of year when Citizen of the Year nominations are being solicited and, as is usually the case, I can't think of anyone to nominate. Or at least anyone who might actually win. As a matter of fact, I am not really all that sure what a Citizen of the Year is anymore. Our current Mayor, Nancy "Take You Out" Walsh, seems to be at war with the entire concept of traditional volunteerism in this town, so it does look like the rules have radically changed. All that said, however, there is an instance where somebody did fight the power at City Hall, and won. He fought for his life, actually. Making this individual a most fitting hero for what are truly difficult times. For this story, and perhaps 2013's best possible COTY nomination in what has been a most idiosyncratic year, we happily turn to Terry Miller of the Sierra Madre Weekly.) 

Citizen of the Year Nominations Due – We cast our ballot for Neil the Pig (Sierra Madre Weekly link) - Not all animals are created equal…or are they?

How often do you read that a person you may have never met, let alone seen in town become  ‘citizen of the year?'  Well, not to put a ‘hitch in their giddy-up,’ the fine folks at the Chamber of Commerce and other select committee members who decide such an honor on whom to bestow, often choose from community input. That being, your nominations.

While we agree that most of these individuals selected as COTY have served the community well in years past, this year we need some humor injected into a what can really only be classified as a truly difficult year.

This year we humbly nominate Neil the Pig for both Citizen of the Year and July 4 Grand Marshal.

It’s not so much as what Neil has done but what he represents to so many in Sierra Madre  –  a bright future without an absurd bureaucracy dictating his domicile and other aspects of his life.

For those of you who didn’t manage to read about Neil, we’ll re-cap the juicy details for you:

Neil has lived in Sierra Madre for 17 years without a single citation, complaint or traffic infraction. In fact Neil doesn’t even drive. No, Neil is an upstanding citizen Sierra Madre of the porcine family. He has a residence on Montecito thanks to the kindness of his family.

Some likened it to Charlotte’s Web but a Sierra Madre porcine’s predicament went far and away beyond anything E.B.White could have written or imagined.

The whole episode actually started out as a simple request from resident Dr. Katherine Emerson about a rather noisy rooster in a neighbor’s yard that had been disturbing the peace for some time and waking people up at all hours apparently.

According to Emerson, she had contacted the city several times and got no results two months ago when she complained about the rooster’s existence…which was in violation of city ordinance.

Within 2 hours of that phone conversation, the Pasadena Humane Society was as Emerson’s door complete with a citation to have her pet pot-belly pig Neil, removed from the city of Sierra Madre limits due to a “code violation.” Emerson told Beacon Media, ” that would have killed Neil…a modern day Charlotte’s Web indeed…”

Emerson said this wasn’t a mere coincidence. “The city had never before contacted me about Neil…or any code violation,” she said. Emerson also stated she feels city manager Elaine Aguilar is “not doing her job …” and believes the decision to target Neil was politically motivated due to upcoming elections. “Even the Mayor (Nancy Walsh) was not on Neil’s side,” Emerson said.

Ludicrous yes, but nonetheless the letter of the law…well, almost.

News spread fast…very fast indeed thanks to a handful of Neil’s real friends and his “Facebook friends” who immediately launched a campaign that attracted the attention not only of local media but national news organizations and Facebook friends worldwide.

This wasn’t just any old swine story … this was about justice for a long-time resident of the tiny foothill city.

After considerable review of the code and fearing a public relations nightmare just in time for Halloween, Sierra Madre officials granted Neil a reprieve and allowed his to remain within city limits as he’s a pot-belly pig and not a “hog” as the ordinance dictates.

Sierra Madre Chief of Police Larry Giannone gave Emerson the good news personally, and also attended a special celebration in Memorial Park with 30 others who had supported Neil’s cause.

Neil has been living in a front yard behind a white picket fence greeting kids for 17 years. He was adopted by Diane Emerson in 1996 from Pet’s Delight pet store in Monrovia. Her daughter Dr. Katherine Emerson inherited Neil after Diane passed away about six years ago.

Neil was apparently in violation of Municipal Code 08.030, entitled simply “Hogs”. The code prohibits hogs from residing within the city limits. However Neil is actually a pot belly pig, not listed in the code, anywhere. Dr. Emerson said she was warned if Neil is not removed from the city limits they will proceed with legal action to have him destroyed.

A social media campaign began to save Neil on both Facebook and Twitter traveled like an epidemic of swine flu. Neil’s supporters garnered a huge following which led to the delightfully happy ending and Sierra Madre Police Chief Larry Giannone said that they will NOT pursue any action against Neil. He is free to stay in his home with the Chief’s full support. Pride , Integrity and Guts.

Emerson said she was glad it’s all over for now but hasn’t ruled out a career in politics for Neil. Emerson added that whatever Neil and she could do to support the local police and fire departments in Sierra Madre, they will.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 made a huge resurgence this year with the  classic books rising to the top ten best sellers list – decades after they were written.

The reason:  Simple, and deeply complex at the same time. But I’d like to think Neil had his nose in this. Fear of Big Brother interfering with our lives ( NSA – Nudge Nudge,  wink wink); lack of transparency in government;  the list goes on. Thanks Neil. Perhaps, just perhaps, pigs will fly in 2014.

(Mod: Nominations for COTY are due to the Chamber of Commerce by January 6. Time is short, so do not delay. To place Neil's name into nomination for this quintessentially Sierra Madre honor, click here for everything needed to do the right thing.)


Friday, December 27, 2013

California State Controller John Chiang's Figures Don't Quite Match What We've Been Hearing From City Hall

Sierra Madre 2010
What we have to offer you today are two screen shots from California State Controller John Chiang's website. Click on each to enlarge. This particular site is dedicated to the cause of tracking the amounts of money cities such as ours pay their employees. And if you have been following some of the arguments being put out by City Hall to justify extending our combined state leading utility tax rates into the distant year of 2022, then you will notice something here that seems a bit out of sync with much of what we have all been hearing for a while.

The first screen shot is from the year 2010, which you can also link to directly by clicking here. What this shows is that the City of Sierra Madre employed 276 people that year, and paid all of them combined a total of $5,410,910.00. An additional $992,452.00 was tagged for retirement and health costs. Or a $3,596.00 average in benefit costs per employee.

Sierra Madre 2012
However, between 2010 and 2012, the City of Sierra Madre had to make some drastic cutbacks. Or so we have been told, and on more than one occasion. The loss of Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds to Sacramento took a significant chunk of cash out of the City's wherewithal, a serious problem that needed to be dealt with. The overall tax take also took a big hit, mostly due to effects from the Great Recession. Positions were eliminated and hours reduced, with the total employed here declining from an equivalent of 276 employees to 230. This represented a notable drop in the headcount, one that we were told resulted in significant savings.

We have often heard that the City had been forced to cut to the bone, and did. And once having made such sacrifices, due to both bad economic conditions and the raking off of CRA funds by the State, everything that possibly could be done was done. There is just nothing left to cut without doing significant damage to our community.

So then how do you explain Sierra Madre's salary and benefits picture posted on the State Comptroller's website for 2012 (link)? While it is true that total salaries here dropped by $585,358.00 to $4,824,552.00, benefit and retirement costs soared from $992,452.00 to $2,045,825.00. A huge increase to $8,895.00 per employee, or way more than double that of 2010.

Which means that total yearly employee costs, rather than having been significantly cut, instead actually increased during this period, going from $6,403,662.00 to $6,870,377.00. And rather than a million plus dollars in savings during the two year period as some have claimed, it appears that this money was instead plowed into increased employee benefit and retirement costs.

So what it all means, at least based on what you can see on the State Controller's site, is that this City's often stated demand that our combined utility taxes must remain at the very highest levels in California really is being driven by the need to fund vastly more expensive retirement and benefit costs.

This, rather than the implied dark threats to public safety and the library that we have been hearing so much about from certain hostage taking City Councilmembers, is what is really driving the demand to maintain our high utility taxes.

It could also be having an effect on the water rate increases as well. After all, the less General Fund money that potentially would have to be used to fund Water Department needs (in particular bond debt service), the more is freed up to fund the kinds of retirement and benefit increases described above.

So, go figure.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sierra Madre's UUT Might Not Be the Only Do-Over Tax Vote We Will See In 2014

As you must certainly be aware by now, Sierra Madre's utility taxes, the highest in the State of California, must be extended by a vote of the people in April of 2014 or they will begin to sunset back to the 6% they were in 2008. An attempt to accomplish this was on the ballot in 2012, but was rejected by the citizens of Sierra Madre by over 60% of the vote.

Now you might think that by having already voted and rejected an extension of our double digit UUT we had seen the end of it. The voters had spoken and given their verdict. Meaning that the government, having been told what it must do by the ultimate authority, were left with no choice but to obey. After all, isn't the will of the people the final word in a democracy?

Apparently this isn't the case. Not at all happy about the prospect of losing a million or so dollars in pension and benefit enhancing utility tax revenue, the City of Sierra Madre decided to ignore the verdict of the voters and instead place another initiative on the ballot, one that asks pretty much the same question as last time. That being, should Sierra Madre's utility taxes stay at the very highest levels in California.

In other words, City Hall has called for a do-over vote, and it will take place in just a few short months.

And now there is word that this might not be our only do-over tax vote of 2014. The County of Los Angeles, still smarting over the defeat of Measure J in 2012, is also looking to hold a do-over vote of their own, and possibly as early as this coming November. Done in hopes of extending a half cent increase in county sales taxes into near perpetuity so that Metro can continue producing such widely reviled boondoggles as the 710 Tunnel. Among some other things.

Here is how the Los Angeles Times describes it (link):

L.A. County transit officials plan to put sales tax measure on ballot Transportation officials in Los Angeles County plan to offer a ballot measure next fall or in 2016 that would raise the county's sales tax by half a cent or extend the life of Measure R, the levy voters approved in 2008.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and multiple advocacy groups say more transportation money would help expand the region's fledgling rail network, improve complementary service on bus lines, and speed construction and repairs on rail lines and highways.

"We need to have a system that works for us," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "We need to maintain it, to bring it up to par, to expand it." 

Metro staff officials say the ballot measure would either create a new tax that would raise the overall rate in Los Angeles County to 9.5% or extend Measure R's half-cent levy beyond its 2039 expiration date.

Similar proposals have found success in the past: Taxes approved in 1980 and 1990 paid for many of the county's carpool lanes and the first three modern rail lines. Measure R will partially fund a dozen rail projects, doubling the number of Metro train stations.

Last year, a proposal to extend Measure R failed by about 2 percentage points, in part because coastal Los Angeles County cities did not support it, a Times analysis showed. Some elected officials from those areas had complained that the city of Los Angeles received the lion's share of Measure R projects

It would seem that in our part of the world voter rejections of tax initiatives have to be done over and over again since no local government really feels the need to heed the decisions of the people. Instead they just keep putting the same tax measures on the ballot until they get a result that they like. No matter how many times they have to do it.

All of which adds a certain level of sad irony to the claim of former Soviet central planner (link) and now SCAG leading suit Hasan Ikhrata that "we need to have a system that works for us."

We do have a system that works for us, and it is called democracy.

Unfortunately, we also have local government officials who refuse to recognize that, and have come to believe they can just ignore voter decisions they don't agree with. Especially when it comes to squeezing all of the money they want out the taxpayers.

Sadly, this category includes 80% of Sierra Madre's current City Council.

The New York Times declares Patch dead

Judging by the striking lack of reader involvement, it appears that our very own Sierra Madre Patch is not being read very much these days. Not surprising when you consider that all they seem capable of posting lately is the ubiquitous Police Blotter, advice on things like how to cook things like rhubarb, and the Top 10 most popular names for cats.

All of which should be moot shortly because, after squandering something like $300 million dollars on their ill-conceived "hyperlocal news" scheme, AOL is about to finally face up to reality and pull the plug on Patch.

This from the New York Times (link):

AOL Chief’s White Whale Finally Slips His Grasp Tim Armstrong, the chief executive of AOL, is finally winding down Patch, a network of local news sites that he helped invent and that AOL bought after he took over.

At a conference in Manhattan last week, Mr. Armstrong suggested that Patch’s future could include forming partnerships with other companies, an acknowledgment that AOL could not continue to go it alone in what has been a futile attempt to guide Patch to profitability. He called it, somewhat hilariously, “an asset with optionality.” There may be a few options for Patch, but none come close to the original vision for the site.

The hunt to own the lucrative local advertising market, Mr. Armstrong’s white whale, is over. But Patch did not go quietly — hundreds of people lost their jobs over the last six months — and neither will Mr. Armstrong.

“Patch has more digital traffic than a lot of traditional players have,” he said in a phone call on Friday, still defending his pet project. “The long-term vision was clear: If you get the consumer, can you get the revenue? And we have a whole bunch of Patches where the answer is yes. But we rolled it out on a national basis and we’ve had to adjust based on the investor commitments that we have made.”

Mr. Armstrong came close to betting the company and his future on Patch, but in the end, his survival instincts and shareholder pressure compelled him to let the white whale swim away.

Goodbye, Patch.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Dr. Reese Halter: Merry Christmas Bob Barker - Animal Kingdom's Superhero

Come on down!
Sir Winston Churchill once said "We make a living from what we get, but we make a life from what we give." It's an honor and privilege this Christmas to 'tip my hat' to an exemplary friend of nature -- the legendary Bob Barker.

A 50-year career on television with the longest running daytime game show 'The Price is Right' is certainly remarkable. But there's another side to Bob Barker beyond his successful daytime job that is astonishing and brought an ear-to-ear grin across my face.

He truly loves animals, "I am one of millions of people who was just born with a deep love of animals. I have been devoted to animals since I can remember. As a kid I picked up strays and tried in my clumsy ways to help injured animals. I've done it all my life, and now I'm doing it on a much larger scale," says a spritely Barker.

Barker who hails from Washington the Apple state has a nimble mind and sharp focus as one might expect from a man who holds a black belt in karate and trained rigorously with Chuck Norris. He also possesses an exquisite sense of humor and Bob Barker is a benevolent gentleman.

Perhaps the fact that he's 1/8th Sioux gave him an advantage of being that much more 'hardwired' and sensitive to the Earth and its animals. Though he credits his dear late wife Dorothy Jo for turning him into an animal advocate.

And make no mistake Bob Barker is global in his love, determination and splendid achievements in standing tall and protecting the Animal Kingdom.

Barker has testified before the U.S. Congress to ban elephant traveling shows. His tireless advocacy on behalf of the Animal Kingdom in South America helped pass a bill against using animals in circuses in Bolivia. And he footed the bill to send 84 lions from circuses from Bolivia to the U.S. after the bill passed.

"I went to Denver to welcome the lions and they're in a sanctuary there now. I felt just as joyous at the slight of those beautiful lions as I did when I saw those elephants," said a jubilant Barker.

This year (2013) Barker footed yet another $1M bill of moving three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California. In fact, one of his all-time favorite memories is, "When I stood and watched those three elephants from the Toronto Zoo come off the bus and arrive at the PAWS sanctuary."

He graciously donated $2.5M to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals for their stunning Los Angeles office on Sunset Drive. On yet another occasion, Texas-based Wildlife Reserve & Rehabilitation reached out and asked Barker for $5,000 for an avian ventilator, but instead they received a gift 50 times larger.

Lynn Curry, the founder of the center remembers it like this: "Mr Barker placed a personal phone call to me and said he was sending $250,000 to support the purchase of the ventilator as well as many other things we need for all the animals we rescue." The center receives over 5,000 animals a year at their 187-acre facility.

Barker is a strong believer in education and knows that the only way to assure a better future for the Animal Kingdom is through excellence in the field of law. So he gave $1M to Georgetown University to support the study of animal rights. At his alma mater, Drury University, he created an animal ethics program with a donation of $1M. Then, a couple buildings away, he established a professorship in animal rights with another million-dollar donation.

Post 9-11, Bob Barker's philanthropy also generously touched our Armed Service men and women. He donated $2M to Semper Fi Fund and personally helped 1,000 wounded and critically ill Marines, sailors, soldiers and their families.

Barker became a vegetarian a long time ago. "I became a vegetarian out of concern for the animals and I was a vegetarian for a very long time before I realized that many people do it out of concern for their health. Furthermore, the answer to enjoying life is nutrition. I recommend that you become a vegetarian and exercise if you want to enjoy the golden years," says a fit and active 90-year-old Barker.

The story that moved me the most was his stalwart efforts to protect our ailing oceans from despicable poachers. Barker is a long-time supporter of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain Paul Watson. "I'm delighted to be able to help Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in its mission to end the destruction of habitat and slaughtering of wildlife in the worlds oceans. There's a lot of talk about preserving our ecosystems and species, but this is one organization that puts their words into action," asserts Barker.

"When Captain Paul Watson told him for $5M he could end the Japanese illegal whaling," Barker responded, "I think you do have the skills to do that and I have the $5M, so let's get it on." Barker also procured the helicopter for the Bob Barker boat naming it 'The Nancy Burney' after the President of the United Activists for Animal Rights, another organization he supports.

By the way, SSS Bob Barker, SSS Sam Simon and SSS Steve Irwin have just left Australian ports and begun the 10th year consecutively of protecting the Great Southern Ocean whales in an international sanctuary in 'Operation Relentless' from bloodthirsty Japanese whale-poachers, who are in violation of an Australian high court ruling.

For 35 years of 'The Price is Right' Barker closed his shows with "Help control the pet population, have your pet spayed or neutered." The 'guru of spay neuter' is certainly doing it his way. His plan as he so delightfully revealed is to die broke.

On behalf of all the Animal Kingdom and Armed Service men and women around the globe, we wish you a very Merry Christmas -- Bob Barker!

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and co-author of Life, The Wonder of It All.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sierra Madre Becomes Part of a Five City Alliance to Fight the 710 Tunnel

Now here is an expenditure everyone can get behind. Sierra Madre, along with South Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge, Glendale and Pasadena, have joined in a "5-Cities Alliance" to fight the 710 Tunnel. Which is a very good thing.

Should this tunnel ever actually happen, it would be environmentally devastating to our portion of the San Gabriel Valley. If built countless diesel trucks and other unwanted traffic out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will be funneled up the 710 Corridor (one of the most ecologically devastated in the U.S.), and straight out onto the already distressed 210, befouling our air with cancer and asthma causing pollutants while also causing traffic here to grind to a halt.

All so that the producers of cheap goods imported from low wage overseas labor markets can save a little money and get their goods inland to Wal*Mart more quickly.

Paradoxically, Congresswoman Judy Chu, Assemblyman Chris "Cheap Houses" Holden and L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich all support this tunnel (link). Which I have to assume means that the prospect of lining the pockets of their corrupt lobbyist patrons with plenteous amounts of overseas vigorish means more to them than the health and welfare of their own constituents.

But how many in government actually work for the people anymore? Certainly not that unhappy trio. Each of that bunch sold us out in a heartbeat.

Enough gratuitous vitriol. Here is how the Pasadena Star News describes the Five City Alliance:

South Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge join forces against 710 Freeway extension (link): The City Council strengthened its and other cities’ ability to fight off the proposed SR-710 freeway extension.

In a 5-0 vote, members elected to join the “5-Cities Alliance,” comprising South Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge, Glendale, Pasadena and Sierra Madre. All five cities oppose extending the 710 Freeway, which has been debated for decades.

Newly appointed Mayor Marina Khubesrian called the compact historic.

“Financially, you know people are willing to put up money, and that really makes us really confident,” she said. “And I think it sends a strong message to Metro and the politicians on the board looking at this issue. We are serious and basically we are going to put our money where our words are.”

Together they have $250,000 to spend on studies that they hope will support their stance against connecting the SR-710 freeway.

The California Department of Transportation and Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority are working together to publish a draft environmental impact report by spring 2014. The five options are “no build,” traffic management solutions, light rail, bus rapid transit and freeway tunnel.

The Alliance would allow participating cities to save money and share information related to SR-710 North studies. It is meant to eliminate expensive, patchwork consultant work.

Every city that agrees to the Memoradum of Understanding (MOU) will contribute $50,000. South Pasadena will be responsible for the safekeeping and management of the quarter million dollars.

Each city will issue a request for qualification for study consultants: South Pasadena, transportation; Sierra Madre, air quality; Pasadena, legal and California Environmental Quality Act; La Canada Flintridge, soils geology and seismologist; Glendale, safety and security.

Once the proposals come back, the Alliance members will evaluate the contenders and decide to whom to award the contract.

Councilwoman Diana Mahmud called the agreement “a tremendous step forward for our city and for the effort to fight Metro on its proposed construction of the tunnel.”

I think this is great news. If we can't get our so-called representatives in Sacramento and Washington DC to work on our behalf, then we'll just have to do it ourselves. Get behind this.

I Need A Christmas Present From You Guys

The people from the United Against 710 group have worked hard and long to help protect our little slice of paradise against what Metro, Caltrans and the likes of Cheap Houses Holden have planned for us. Which is basically mainlining environmental devastation right through the heart of the San Gabriel Valley.

And what are the UA710 people asking in exchange for the hundreds of hours of hard work they have put into fighting a government that believes it no longer has to answer to the likes of us? Your name on a petition. It is the best deal you will ever get.

So sign the petition. Here is how you do it:

Current signature count for NO710 Tunnel Petition: 1,681 --- Goal: 5,000

Recruit friends, family and neighbors to sign the petition!!
1.  Go to www.NO710.com (click here)

2. Click on the words "Sign the Petition" that appear in the yellow oval. This will take you to a page that shows all the officials who will be contacted each time the petition is signed.

3. Click on the words "Sign the Petition" in the yellow box on this page and you will taken to the petition at Change.org.

4. Fill in the information at the right to sign the petition, and if you wish, leave your comments on why this is important to you.  You can also uncheck the box under your information to opt out of receiving more petitions from Change.org.

5. Finally, click on the red box that says "Sign".

Sign it. Right now. Before you get busy with something else. Otherwise Santa is going to be very angry with you.



Monday, December 23, 2013

What's Up With the Pink Cow in the Nativity Scene?

This will be a story told in 4 photographs. An alert and not particularly happy resident of our fine community stopped by my house Saturday morning with some pictures related to the creche (or nativity scene if you prefer) currently set up in the park at Kersting Court. The complaint being the inclusion of a bright pink cow.

Picture 1: This was taken in 2008, before the deed was done. If you look to the lower right, you will see the cow in question, seated placidly behind the long nose of one of the camels. It is a very traditional look for this kind of statuary, and how our cow had appeared for quite sometime.

Picture 2: We now flash forward to Sierra Madre's 2012 4th of July Parade. This was the part of that event belonging to the Friends of the Arts. You can see what appears to be our cow from the 2008 creche, but looking decidedly different. She has been painted shocking pink, with her horns now a shining gold. To me this depiction is reminiscent of the Biblical tale of Moses and the Golden Calf.

Picture 3: Situated behind the cow from our community creche were signs that asked us to "think pink cow." I do not know what was actually meant by this. Maybe it's an absurdist art statement? Having gone to a state university, I kind of get that. Certainly it does have a derivative Ubu Roi sort of feel. 

Picture 4: This photo was taken just last Friday. It shows our pink cow back in the creche and awaiting the arrival of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, it is still painted prison holding cell pink, and now wears false oversized eyelashes as well. Making her look like a bit of a tramp. 

So here are my observations. I hope that this was not intended to be some sort of misguided mockery of Sierra Madre's traditional Christmas Nativity Scene. The manger scene has deep religious significance for many in our town. Last evening the Candlelight Walk took place, and many of this community's most devout Christians solemnly marched down Baldwin Avenue and to this very site.

I am not certain that having a tarted up pink painted version of our once traditional creche cow in this year's Nativity Scene is quite what those who participated in the walk would have hoped to see when they arrived. 

Perhaps there is an intended message in this somewhere. If so, I am sure that in its proper place this could be discussed and perhaps even appreciated. I understand that. But I don't think Sierra Madre's Christmas Creche in Kersting Court is that place. 

It also makes me wonder what has become of this town. We seem to be careening out of control lately.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dr. Reese Halter: Fresh Water is King, Don’t Poison It With Chloramines

In the early 1990s I cut my teeth in tree root physiology at The University of Melbourne, Australia, with one of the top tree physiology laboratories on the globe headed by Professor Emeritus Roger Sands (link).

Fresh water is indeed the lifeblood of planet Earth and thrifty trees provide tremendous insight to a perfect water-use model for humans to adopt especially in a warming, drier world.

Since my article on September 3, 2013 (link) Sierra Madre tapped into disinfectants from San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District full of chloramines. The color and smell have the community in an uproar. But what about the safety issues at hand?

According to Pennsylvania’s Chloramine Information Center chloramines are highly toxic to marine animals and fish. They ask a very pertinent question: If fish cannot live with chloramine then why should we?

That question begets the next one: Why are chloramines used? It turns out that chloramines, a chemical compound of chlorine and ammonia (the solvent you clean your floor with), are less effective as a disinfectant than chlorine but lasts longer in the water system (about 4 days).

According to Joseph Mercola MD (link) the toxic disinfection byproduct (DBPs) from chloramines will react with natural organic matter (like decaying tree leaves) becoming genotoxic by attacking human DNA.

DBPs are in fact 10,000 times more toxic than chlorine and out of all the known contaminants present in municipal water including fluorine and residual pharmaceutical drugs, DBPs are thought to be the worst assailants on human health.

For instance, trihalomethanes (THMs) are one of the most common DBPs and they are recognized for causing cancer in laboratory animals. In addition, THMs have been linked in both people and animals, causing spontaneous abortions, stillbirths and congenital malformations (even at low levels).

Moreover, at low exposure to DBPs they adversely impact the human body by weakening the autoimmune system – the body’s primary defense mechanism against infection.

DBPs damage the cardiovascular system – our heart and blood vessels. Are you aware that if your blood vessels were stretched out that they would encircle Earth four times or measure 99,604 miles?

DBPs also impair human kidneys. And for those children in Sierra Madre that suffer from asthma, chloramines make breathing even more difficult. (By the way, the latest research shows that having a dog could prevent both asthma and allergies in kids!).

An alternative water treatment process to chloramines is ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. This system could easily be powered in its entirety by solar energy since we are blessed to live in a solar-rich zone.

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and co-author of Life, the Wonder of It All.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tattler Weekend News for the 1990s

(Mod: I didn't have anything in particular that I wanted to talk about for this week's edition of our occasionally popular weekly news review. I think we are fairly well caught up with what is going on in our little slice of the creation for the time being. Though, given the volatile nature of things in town at this right now, the situation could change at any moment. That said, I thought perhaps we should look elsewhere for our daily slice of the local, and where better to find it than in the 1990s? Certainly there was no finer a decade than that one. We did have things like water back then, but we didn't have utility taxes. Despite that we were still able to enjoy our services. And just in case you might have thought things were different, I thought I'd share with you a little slice of the life back then. Despite what you might have heard, apparently we've always been like this. And we like it.)

Sierra Madre Council Votes to Ban Sale of Saturday Night Specials (Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1996): With the unanimous support of the City Council, Sierra Madre has become the first city in the San Gabriel Valley to ban the sale of inexpensive, cheaply made handguns known as Saturday night specials.

Following on the heels of its decision to ban drive-through businesses to preserve the small-town atmosphere, the council Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a ban on the sale of the cheap firearms.

City officials describe the measure as preventive because the tiny bastion of Americana with 10,767 residents does not have any firearms dealers. But officials said they decided that they needed to be part of the effort to cut off the supply of such guns.

The council's action was spurred by a resolution calling for a ban on the sale of such weapons unanimous approved last week by the board of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, the region's 30-member city association, said Councilman James Hester, the author of the ban.

"It's not a ban on handguns, it's not a ban on the sale of handguns. It's specifically a ban on Saturday night specials--the weapon of choice for most gang violence," said Hester, Sierra Madre's representative on the council of governments. "It's a dangerous weapon not only to the victim, but the user because of high incidence of misfires and it is not designed to protect anyone."

Hester said the ordinance he introduced is similar to ones on the books in Los Angeles, West Hollywood and two dozen other cities statewide.

No members of the public opposed the gun law at the meeting.

(Mod: Tiny bastion of Americana indeed. This probably explains why today we do not have any shoot outs downtown. Something that apparently was quite prevalent in the past.)

City Backs Down on Cheap Handgun Ban (Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1996): After unanimously agreeing to ban Saturday night specials last month, the Sierra Madre City Council backtracked Tuesday night, voting down an ordinance to bar the local sale of the small, cheaply made handguns.

Sierra Madre has no gun stores, but agreed to consider the law after the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments urged the 30 cities in the valley to pass bans modeled on ordinances adopted by the cities of Los Angeles and West Hollywood. The proposal sailed through on first reading last month but ran into trouble two weeks later, when two lawyers warned that gun groups could sue the city.

For the ordinance to become law, it had to pass a second reading Tuesday night. It failed on a 3-2 vote.

Councilman Doug Hayes, who was the decisive vote against the proposal, said there were better paths to gun control. Instead of banning Saturday night specials, he proposed that the city alter its zoning laws to require a conditional use permit for gun stores. Now, a gun store need not go through any zoning process to open up in Sierra Madre's business district.

Councilman James Hester, who proposed the Saturday night special ban, said such a law would be stronger than banning the cheap handguns.

The effort to ban the handguns in Sierra Madre was slowed last month when Chuck Michel, a lawyer for the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., and local attorney William Garr warned the council that the city could incur legal costs for passing a purely symbolic law.

(Mod: Well, OK, maybe not. So where do we put the gun store?)

No Taking This Order: Sierra Madre Bans Drive-Through Restaurants as a Threat to Its Homey, Pedestrian-Friendly Feeling (Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1996): Nestled below Mt. Wilson sits Sierra Madre, a bastion of small-town Americana locked in a self-imposed time warp.

This 10,767-strong community with a single police detective and volunteer firefighters is without a modern supermarket, a multiplex theater or a drive-through burger joint. And the City Council is planning to keep it that way.

To the apparent delight of its citizens, Sierra Madre on Tuesday night became one of the few cities in the nation to ban drive-through restaurants. With at least one other municipality saying Wednesday that it may want to follow suit, Sierra Madre positioned itself at the leading edge of what some urban planning experts say is a small but growing backlash against what critics call the McDonaldsization of America.

"I think it would be absolutely horrible to have drive-throughs," said Susan Merletti, a 38-year-old jeweler who reclined on a bench Wednesday in Sierra Madre's pedestrian-friendly downtown. "The big corporations are predatory. . . . We eat in the local restaurants because they're run by our neighbors."

William Fulton, publisher of the California Planning and Development report, said some cities, "especially those communities that perceive themselves as having something of an alternative," are eschewing chain stores and strip malls for pedestrian-oriented shopping districts.

Sierra Madre certainly believes it has an alternative. Its two-block downtown is the sort of strip where a restaurant can be named "The Only Place in Town" and somewhat deserve that name. Despite a Domino's Pizza and a Starbucks--boycotted by some locals residents--much of the city is architecturally the same as when it was founded around the turn of the century.

(Mod: It looks like the Domino's boycott worked. Can't say the same about Starbucks.)

SIERRA MADRE: Council Seeks to Prohibit Day Laborer Solicitations (Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1992): Six months after city officials began trying to get day laborers out of Memorial Park, the City Council has unanimously approved prohibiting job solicitations anywhere in the city.

The council instructed its staff to come up with an ordinance enacting the prohibition before its Sept. 8 meeting.

Residents have complained about the men, most of whom come to Sierra Madre by bus to meet with contractors and residents for temporary employment. Complaints include dirty restrooms in Memorial Park, trampled vegetation, harassment of women and residents' fears of using the park when the men are present.

"I'm frustrated," Councilman Clem Bartolai said Tuesday. "We've looked at so many angles to deal with this and there isn't a lot a city can do."

(Mod: Has anybody considered hiring day laborers to move the ping pong tables at the Hart Park House?)

Squabble Over Tree Trimming Rekindled (Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1997): In the latest chapter of a battle over tree trimming, an attorney has charged that the City Council violated the state's open-meetings law when it disbanded a controversial Tree Preservation Commission.

Attorney Steven A. Broiles charges in a letter to the city Tuesday that it failed to list the ordinance on the agenda for its Oct. 28 meeting and that the council failed to explain why the item was added at the last minute for an emergency vote. Instead, the agenda said the ordinance and the commission would be up for "review." Under the Ralph M. Brown Act, an agenda must state whether an item will be voted on.

Broiles is demanding another council vote on the issue.

City Manager John Davidson said the city does not believe there was a Brown Act violation, but officials will examine the issue and if there is a violation of the law, the matter will be scheduled for a future meeting.

The council vote capped months of internal squabbling and allegations of conflict of interest against some Tree Preservation Commission members, including some who are tree trimmers. The allegations have prompted a state investigation and unleashed a political feud in recent months.

(Mod: And to think that it all recently came an end with the EENER Commission.)

The remaining articles we're posting today cover a story that was discussed at this week's Planning Commission meeting by Judy Webb-Martin. It is an interesting series of events.

The Home Front - Neighborhoods: Residents in Sierra Madre fight ordinance giving more power to Historic Preservation Commission (Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1996): It was just a shingle. A charcoal gray piece of roofing. But in the ongoing fight between homeowners and Sierra Madre's Historic Preservation Commission, the seemingly simple material has become something of a mascot.

Sitting in the shade of Donna and Douglas Sutcliffe's once-disputed shingled porch roof, community activist Kathleen Roach discussed a grass-roots initiative to unite homeowners and abolish the preservation commission.

Roach's pronouncements come not only from an appropriate place, but also at an appropriate time: As she and the Sutcliffes debated the proposed ballot initiative, commission Chairwoman Barbara Hester was finishing the presentation she plans to make Tuesday, when the City Council is expected to review a proposed ordinance to increase the commission's clout.

Proponents of the ordinance say the commission would better serve the community if it had a more structured and defined role, something not provided for in the 1985 ordinance that established it. But many residents said they already take steps to preserve their homes.

Built in 1906 by Sierra Madre's first mayor, C.W. Jones, the Sutcliffe's Craftsman home is a historic landmark--a distinction that meant very little to the couple until they tried to re-shingle their roof.

Before they could get a city permit to work on their home, the Sutcliffes had to bring a shingle sample to the commission for approval. For three weeks, the commission ruminated and offered unsolicited suggestions before it finally granting the Sutcliffes permission to make the minor repair.

"I couldn't believe it," Donna Sutcliffe said. "It's like they want to save our property from us."

Not exactly, Hester said.

The new ordinance would not cause the same kind of confusion that could keep a shingle on the shelf for nearly a month. It would not interfere with minor-change requests such as painting or roofing, either. But the ordinance would strengthen the commission's ability to prevent owners from demolishing historic homes and making anachronistic changes.

The stronger language in the proposed ordinance also makes the city eligible for Certified Local Government status, a state-imposed distinction that could mean more grant money and staff for the preservation commission.

"Part of this little city's makeup is the historic home," Hester said. But property owners decry the ordinance as limiting.

"The commission wants to freeze the whole city in an architectural time warp," said Roach.

Under the proposed ordinance, a landmark district would be "any area containing a concentration of historic resources which have a special character, historical interest or aesthetic value."

Through that definition, much of Sierra Madre can be classified as an historic district, many residents said.

"We're the hands-on preservationists," Sutcliffe said. "They think they are the preservationists, but we're really the preservationists here."

Homeowners Fight Landmark Status - Sierra Madre: Some say historic register infringes on rights; preservationists say rules are needed (Los Angeles Times, January 02, 1998): When Douglas and Donna Sutcliffe tried to put new shingles on their Craftsman home in Sierra Madre two years ago, history shackled their progress.

The repair was delayed several weeks because their bungalow is listed on the city's register of historic landmarks--a designation made under an old city law that did not require the Sutcliffes' consent.

Now, the Sutcliffes and more than 20 other property owners are rebelling against such "landmark" designations, saying the system infringes on their property rights and has turned home improvements into a major bureaucratic hassle.

To the dismay of local homeowners, once a home is declared a landmark, work such as replacing windows or installing a new front door requires approval from the town's Cultural Heritage Commission, which is supposed to ensure that the change does not ruin the historical integrity of the building.

"This is not really an issue between preservationists and non-preservationists," said Donna Sutcliffe. "It's between property owners and a Cultural Heritage Commission that doesn't consult with anyone who would be affected by it."

The conflict has reached such a pitch that the Sierra Madre City Council is going to let voters settle the issue with an April 14 ballot measure that will determine whether the 29 properties in question will keep their designation.

"The problem in Sierra Madre is that people went around and said anything 100 years old is historic," said Councilman Bart Doyle. "[But] old is not the same thing as historic."

Barbara Hester, chairwoman of the Cultural Heritage Commission, said, "The idea of preservation of properties is to keep them from being destroyed." She fears that the old-style dwellings will be replaced by multiunit buildings if protections are not in place.

But in one case, a property owner is fighting to remove a plant from the register.

Nel Solt, who has lived in Sierra Madre for 25 years, wants her popular 104-year-old wisteria vine off the list. The sprawling vine, which is rooted in her yard and extends onto the property next door, is a local tourist attraction, bringing 5,000 people every spring to see the huge plant in bloom.

"We don't belong on the list, because we're not a building," she said. But because the vine is a landmark, Solt can't even trim away dead or diseased sections of the sprawling wisteria without a nod from the Cultural Heritage Commission.

"We answer to Mother Nature," Solt said. "We don't have power like we do over a building."

Members of the Sierra Madre commission and the Los Angeles Conservancy worry that if voters decide to drop the designations, Sierra Madre's quaint, old-town character and rustic charm will be threatened. Known as the "Village of the Foothills," the city of 10,900 boasts of its lack of traffic signals and drive-through restaurants.

(Mod: Somebody recently told me that the Wistaria Vine is actually several plants that grew together. Is that true?)

Foes of Measure Say City Mailing Violated Law (Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1998): Activists alleged Thursday that a city mailing about a measure on the April ballot that proposes to drop historic designation for 29 properties was sent in violation of state election laws.

Linda Thornton, a local attorney, said the mailing was hurriedly sent out Tuesday to the city's 7,500 registered voters after she informed the city in a letter that she would seek a restraining order to prevent its distribution. "No mass mailing can be sent at public expense," she said.

The mailing contained a letter from the city manager, a city attorney's analysis of the ballot and arguments for and against the measure.

Thornton and her husband, Steve Broiles, said they are considering suing the city over the mailing, which they called a violation of state election laws because it contains the names of council members and candidates as proponents of the measure.

City Manager John Davidson said the $7,000 mailing was designed to inform voters and draw their attention to the fact that since the ballot measure was written, the City Council had approved an ordinance clarifying problems in the ballot language that could have been misunderstood as lifting all restrictions on these properties.

Group Challenges Removal of Landmark Status (Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1998): A citizens group has sued the city, challenging the validity of a local ballot measure passed in April to remove the historic status from 29 properties.

Friends of Sierra Madre are seeking an order to reinstate the landmark status, arguing that the measure approved by a 2-to-1 margin violates state environmental law.

An attorney for the group argued in court papers that property can be removed from the register only if an environmental study concludes that there would be little impact to the area if the building were altered or destroyed.

"We sued because we are concerned about the potential loss of our city's village character and culture," said Margaret Buckner, who is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The suit alleges that the city sought to circumvent the environmental study process to save the $2,500 per property it costs to conduct such studies. City officials say they believe the measure complied with state law.

The owners of the properties say they never chose to have their homes given such designation and the system infringes on their property rights by restricting alterations. Protests by those owners last year led to the council placing the measure on the ballot.

(Mod: We'll end this here.)