Monday, July 31, 2017

City Hall Report: Sierra Madre's Employee Pension Obligation Numbers Are Impressively Large

Mod: Back at the beginning of what has been a fairly eventful month of July, City Manager Gabe Engeland released several reports on Sierra Madre's rather at-risk financial condition. These reports dealt with the coming year's budget, the travails of the "water enterprise" and its scary bond laden debt load, and city employee pension obligations. Today we'll deal with pension obligations. What we are supplying here comes from the pension shortfall numbers being supplied by the City of Sierra Madre, and a somewhat copacetic report from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Here is the CoSM report (link):

Mod: What follows now are the numbers supplied to us by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which are no better. This is how they display Sierra Madre's pension woes (link):

We have never claimed to know everything here at The Tattler, but we've also never been afraid to ask questions. It is always better to know. I'll be running these following questions by City Manager Engeland today, who has really been exceptional at getting back with answers.

While the "Actuarial Liability" numbers being supplied by both City Hall and this Stanford based outfit are the same at $10,678,00, there is another number. The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research also talks about something called "Market Pension Debt." At right around $40 million, that figure is approximately four times Sierra Madre's reported actuarial pension debt, or $8,500 per unhappy household.

Sierra Madre's report does not discuss "Market Pension Debt."

The American Enterprise Institute claims that "Market valuation of pension shortfalls more accurately shows the risk" to city budgets and its long suffering taxpayers. You can link to an interesting article the AEI has supplied on this topic by clicking here.

My questions today are why is there such a large numerical difference in these two methods of reporting pension debt, and why has the city been averse to discussing the far more robust market valuation figures?

I will let you know what I find out in the next day or so.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The SMPD's War on the Bagpipes

There had been several allusions to this unhappy occurrence in the comments here on The Tattler, and now a much beloved soul has forwarded to me the above item, which was originally posted on a certain Sierra Madre Facebook page. One which has unkindly blocked me so that I am incapable of finding such shocking news by myself.

Which is fine. Not everyone is born with the capacity to share. Hopefully their personal shortcomings have not made their dyspeptic lives too much to bear.

So what this kerfuffle is all about is a noted local bagpiper by the name of Chelsea has somehow gone and raised the killjoy ire of the Replacement Sierra Madre Police Department. So much so that they have now taken decisive action against any public bagpipe performance in Kersting Court by this artist.

Apparently somebody heard something, said something, and in swooped the forces of a Fife-ish oppression to shut Chelsea down.

But there is now local resistance to such injustice, and wouldn't you know it the epicenter of this rebellion is none other than Mary's Market up there in Sierra Madre's noted, yet pricey, Canyon Zone. I think the free dinner in honor of our brave piper has already been held, but certainly Ms. Clymer-Kelly's brief missive has shown the bold spirit deep inside of all that.

Free Chelsea!

Sierra Madre marijuana growers: Don't quit your day jobs

Mod: Speaking of the bold spirit of The Canyon, apparently the green rush is not going to be as fruitful as some might have hoped. 

California has too much pot, and growers won't be able to export the surplus (Los Angeles Times link): A leader of California’s marijuana industry warned Wednesday that the state’s cannabis growers produce eight times the pot that is consumed in the state so some will face “painful” pressure to reduce crops under new state regulations that will ban exports after Jan. 1.

Some marijuana growers will stay in the black market and continue to illegally send cannabis to other states, which is also not allowed under federal law, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers’ Assn.

“We are producing too much,” Allen said, adding state-licensed growers “are going to have to scale back. We are on a painful downsizing curve.”

He said some marijuana growers may stop, while others just won't apply for state permits.

Allen made his comments to the Sacramento Press Club during a panel discussion that also included Joseph Devlin, chief of Cannabis Policy and Enforcement for City of Sacramento, and  Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation.

Devlin said estimates he has heard put California production at five times the state consumption; one consultant in the audience said the number may be 12 times what is consumed in the state.

Mod: Bummer.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fast And Furious Sierra Madre Residents Will Face Off With City Officials About Farfetched Inflated Water Bills

Mod: This important reporting from Terry Miller comes to us via the Sierra Madre Weekly website. You can link to this article in its original setting by clicking here. This is a Part 1, so stay turned because there will be more.

Fast And Furious Sierra Madre Residents Will Face Off With City Officials About Farfetched And Inflated Water Bills (Sierra Madre Weekly): One thing that is for sure in life is death and taxes, but in Sierra Madre it is the never ending battle of people vs. the water bills, which have been growing with ferocious might ever since the drought began. People are NOT happy.

Here at this newspaper, we’ve been inundated with requests to get to the bottom of why residents’ bills have doubled or tripled in many cases and why the city officials keep blaming the massive increases on “leaks” at residents’ meters.

Rubbish say the residents:  “We can’t all have leaks…”

Residents say the city has made too many excuses why the bills jumped suddenly according to Kim Vollstedt, but offers no real answers or solution.

“They {City of Sierra Madre} have 100 excuses and none really make sense to me.  I’m a single person on a fixed income.  I can’t afford to pay 400.00 every two months for water.  I will have to shut the water OFF to my home if these bills keep up.  And isn’t that a basic human right WATER?  I mean we send money to Africa so people can have fresh clean water…yet at home we are being strangulated by our own city so they can make money to pay for what??  They are slowly fixing our infrastructure and I get we need to pay for that but isn’t that what the 70.00 meter fee is for??  Their billing isn’t fair and they refuse any reset of water allocations.  I was conserving WAY before we were forced to….I have all my water bills to prove it. They are going to average out my neighbors bill for the last 3 cycles and have them pay that…as they said they had a small toilet leak…as I don’t HAVE a leak they will do NOTHING?? How is that fair?”

Another resident said:

“I think we need to get the PUC involved as I still say there is an over charging/guestimates with usage.  I have called City Hall three times now (for three weeks) and still no answers.  Chris was the last person I spoke with and he hasn’t called me back.  My bill is due Monday and I don’t have any answers?? We can’t ALL have leaks.”

One resident on East Highland received a whopping $1,045.66 bill which is due this Monday.

City Manager Gabriel Engeland said excess water use charge was increased last May to help incentivize conservation.

On Facebook, residents are letting off steam but again seems to be falling on deaf ears. Robert K Gjerde  said, “BTW it cost me about $90 to get the $13 of water I used delivered. Something seems out of wack!”

Over the years, our friends over at Sierra Madre Tattler have devoted a huge amount of time and resources into these water woes. See: this post from 2015 (link).

Former Mayor Doug Hayes, often called the ‘voice of reason,’ offered his comprehension on the issue upon Facebook recently:

“Your water bill pays for the water that you use, the water that the City has to buy, the employees on the water department, the cost of maintaining, repairing and upgrading the water lines and the electrical usage of the pumps. Your bill also has to cover the cost of the vehicles, tools, etc. that the water department utilizes, plus the road repair that occurs when streets need to be patched.

No water enterprise can be used as a profit-making market to pay for other City needs. The money you pay for your water bill can only be spent on the needs of the water department and water usage.

The water lines are much older than most of us, therefore these water leaks and main breaks are occurring more frequently and are becoming more of a daily chore for the water department. It’s not going to correct itself. The entire City’s water line system is in rough shape and we are not using our “own” water like we were for our first 100 years. Things have changed dramatically and there’s a cost to bear.

I think we should just be darned happy we have access to another source of water other than our own. Without the access to this purchased water, this would be a big ghost town, none of our properties would be of any value and we’d end up on the cover of “Time” magazine and labeled “The Little City That Died of Thirst”.

Rather than speculate here and toss around the typical cries and rumors of “scandal”, go to the meeting that the City is having soon. Bring your questions and ask and listen. It’s much more complicated that it appears. There are strict rules about how water bills are created and there are restrictions for the use of water bill funds. This isn’t some scheme. It’s real and our city manager will have real answers.”

We contacted the city manager and he promptly returned our email and offered to meet and discuss the issue, which we will do after the Aug 9 meeting.

(End of SM Weekly article.)

I would like to add a little something here

Doug Hayes has an agenda, of course. I mean, besides trying to shut people up on Facebook about their $1,000 water bills. As an elected official back at a time when ridiculous financial mistakes were being made, then Councilman Hayes and those he aligned with politically saddled this city with millions of dollars in unnecessary water bond debt.

Below is a breakdown of that debt. This memorandum was put together by then City Manager Elaine Aguilar at the request of Mayor MaryAnn MacGillivray. It contains some pretty shocking information.

Notice that the City of Sierra Madre has been making interest only payments on its 2003 water bonds, and will continue to do so through 2019. That is 16 years of absolutely no payment on the principal. This financial madness will end up costing the water ratepayers here many millions of dollars, and will continue to do so through the year 2034. It is one of the major reasons why water rates will continue to be so expensive here.

Why did they arrange to pay only the interest on these bonds through 2019? Good question. Hopefully City Manager Engeland will want to answer that question as well. Be sure to ask. Ask twice if you don't get a satisfactory answer.

Doug "Water Bonds" Hayes was termed out of his City Council seat in 2004. As one of the responsible parties for this financial boondoggle, he has no right to tell anyone anything about the cost of water in Sierra Madre. Today's absurdly high water bills are due in part to the water bond debt that Hayes helped to create. Costs that will only get far worse in 2020 when the city finally starts paying down that principal and costs begin to double, then triple.

You are paying dearly for his mistakes, and it will get worse.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Move the Library Originator Ryan Baker Is Leaving Town

Mod: This one originally went up yesterday afternoon as a "breaking news" story, but I have now moved it over here and made it our Friday post. Notable today is that in the midst of what has become a community-wide debate about the fate of Sierra Madre's library, the originator of the plan to move it to the back of the YAC, Ryan Baker, is now leaving town. The reasons for his departure are benign, yet as of this late night typing there has been no announcement from City Hall. All we have seen is the brief item from an upstate newspaper that I reposted here. 

It looks like Ryan Baker is bailing out. That didn't take very long. A year and a month by my count. A short stay, even by Sierra Madre standards. Ryan is apparently heading to the greener Silicon Valley library pastures of Los Gatos. You can only wonder why. This from The Mercury News (link):

Ryan achieved quite a bit of local fame here recently as the big concept guy for the Sierra Madre Library move to out in back of the YAC. Now he's moving himself as well? More news as it hits.

No word from City Hall yet. I've asked the City Manager for a comment.

The City Manager sends a comment

Ryan and his family were living in San Diego, where his wife was completing her PhD. He was commuting to Sierra Madre from San Diego during his time here. Shortly after she completed her PhD program she was offered a job as a professor in the bay area. Ryan applied and accepted the job in Los Gatos to be with his family.

He was easily the most creative Library Director I have ever worked with. His separation was not at all driven by performance. He was a fantastic employee.



Gabriel L. Engeland
City Manager
City of Sierra Madre

They should have announced all of that at this week's City Council meeting. Especially in light of all the interest in the Library right now. They really do need a publicist at City Hall

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sierra Madre's Water Debt

Mod: The following is now available on the City of Sierra Madre website, and it is a pretty good explanation of just exactly how badly the "water enterprise" is hogtied by debt. Just in case you were wondering why infrastructure repairs are so piecemeal and inadequate, no matter how many rate hikes are put into place. It also confirms a lot of what you have been able to read on The Tattler over these past few years. Of course, what it does not explain is how or why the city got into this mess, or who did it. But as a start it's not too bad. Link here to see all of this unhappiness in its original form.

Water Debt

Water Debt Obligations: The water system is suffering from an extreme lack of financial flexibility. Currently the City's water fund has two bond issuances and one loan. The total payments for debt in the Water Fund are nearly $1,000,000 annually and represent 22% of all expenditures this budget year.  In 2019 one of the bond issuances will be retired.  This will reduce the overall annual debt payments to $800,000, but debt payments will still represent 18% of all water expenditures.

Figure 1, below, shows the City’s outstanding debt obligations, a 1998 bond, a 2003 bond, and a 2009 loan.

Figure 2, below, shows the City’s near term bond obligations.  The 1998 bond will be retired in 2019, lowering the debt burden on the water utility.  The City will have little flexibility due to the terms of the 2003 Bond.

The most challenging aspect of water debt is a water bond, issued in 2003, for $6.75 million. The structure of this bond was to be paid over 30 years, at 5%, with “interest only” payments from 2003-2019. This means the principal is not scheduled to receive a payment until 2019. Currently ratepayers have spent $4 million on interest for this bond.  In 2034, when the bond is retired, total interest paid will be approximately $8.2 million.

Figure 3, below, shows the repayment schedule for the 2003 Bond.

At Council’s direction, City staff is working to refinance this bond issuance with the goal of lowering the interest rate, reducing the annual cost, and/or paying down the principal in a shorter number of years. If we are able to find a more favorable structure for our debt, a plan will come to Council for consideration in fall of this year.

Mod: There is a problem with that. The solons who originally slapped the 2003 water bond fiasco together did so at an interest rate of over 5%. A rate that by today's standards is exceedingly high. What has kept the city from refinancing the 2003 water bonds in the past decade is the Moody's rating on them, which is essentially junk. In other words, Sierra Madre owes millions of dollars on junk bonds. With the principle beginning to come due in 2019. Another thing that needs to be explained. You can read all about that junk rating by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Not Atypically Dysfunctional City Council Meeting

Click here to view last night's City Council meeting.

This will be short and sweet because there really isn't all that much to talk about. The meeting kicked off with a husband and his wife complaining about the bizarre water usage fines they have been forced to pay on their bills from the city. They had sought relief from city staff but naturally had been spurned. So now they were taking their complaint to the City Council.

Apparently, and for whatever the reason (assuming there actually is one), they were being fined for their summer water usage based on much lower winter time quotas. The result being hundreds of dollars in unjust penalties. The City Manager said he would look into the matter.

They were followed at the podium by a rather incredulous looking gentleman. His story was that he had been ticketed by Sierra Madre's overly zealous replacement police force for what they claimed was "automotive swerving." The resident took the matter to court and played the judge a cop video that clearly showed him driving safely at the time he was ticketed. The court ruled against the city and threw the ticket out.

Apparently the video proved that the SMPD's charge was without any merit whatsoever.

The Library item on the Consent Calendar followed shortly after. Apparently the city is going to spend $100,000 in money raised at charitable events on various tests and engineering options related to selling the Library property, possibly razing that building, and moving its pulpy contents to some spare space at the YAC.

But, and as all present were assured, this doesn't mean the project has been approved, or that public approval won't be sought at some of the special meetings on the matter being held in the fall. 

So why spend all of that privately raised money on the project before anyone knows if the residents are going to be on board with all of this? You'll just have to trust them on this. 

I mean, based on all that you heard last night, why in the world wouldn't you?

Brush fire burns near Sierra Madre (Pasadena Star News link): A brush fire broke out in a hillside above Sierra Madre and burned 3 acres Tuesday afternoon.

Nathan Judy, fire information officer with the Angeles National Forest, said no one was injured and no structures were damaged. He said there were voluntary evacuations for residents on Mt. Wilson Trail and Skyland Drive.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, according to Judy.

Mod: More fire info at the link.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tonight's City Council decision to sell off library property and tear down the building

I think the above comment, left here on The Tattler last Saturday, is pretty much going to be the City Hall spin tonight. As far as spin goes it is pretty good, but then spin should never be automatically confused with the truth. One is an attempt to convince people of something that might not be in their best interest. The other is, well, the truth.

The agenda item in question is on tonight's Consent Calendar. Something that ordinarily indicates the Mayor, who sets the agenda, wants this to be an automatic approval by the City Council. It is considered to be a request for an official sign off on business that has already been decided. No further debate, explanations or conversation is necessary, though the public will likely be asked to comment.

If you are concerned about any of this, you really ought to be there to comment. The meeting starts at 6:30pm, and this will come up at the very beginning of tonight's deliberations.

Here is the important portion of the agenda report (link):

If the project to sell off the Library property and move the contents of the current building to the YAC had already been approved and by community consensus was going forward, then yes, what is described above would be necessary. However, that decision not been made yet.

In the previous City Council meeting the residents of Sierra Madre were promised a community discussion before anything was to be done. Rather than that discussion, however, we now have a Consent Calendar item that not only makes a quite large $100,000 commitment to the process (so-called), it also effectively begins the project.

With no community discussion or consensus whatsoever. Despite the City Council's rather hastily made promise at the last meeting to allow for just that.

Here is a question

When you attended Friends of the Library events and happily donated to their efforts, did you for one minute ever believe that your money would be spent on something that will likely lead to selling off the property the Library has stood on for decades? And even tearing down the building itself, all in order to make way for building a condominium project?

No matter how much wine you had been drinking?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Anthony Scaramucci to Appear at Pasadena Politicon

Yack yack, blah blah.
Mod: I'm not sure if you are familiar with Pasadena Politicon, but it is an occasional local event where name brand political gasbags go to do their well-worn shtick in exchange for a paycheck. If you are a cable television political news addict you likely know who at least some of these windy people are. 

That said, there is apparently more excitement than usual in Politicon circles because for their event later this week they have landed none other than Donald Trump's irksome replacement for the recently resigned White House Communications Director Sean Spicer, a snappish little fruitcake and hedge fund Wall Street billionaire named Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci

Here is some of their rather breathless press release:

Well yes, I am interested in covering this news in advance of the event. But no, I wouldn't want to go to something like this, even at gunpoint. I cannot begin to tell you how sick and tired I am of some of the people who will be there. Being in the same room with them could result in something mere bath soap will never be able to cure. That being the stench of failure and betrayal.

Apparently this Scaramucci fellow is a bit of a dirtbag. Or at least he is in the eyes of some of the Republicans he has slithered up against in the past. Here is an article that is currently up on The Daily Beast site that details the strong aversion several GOP types feel for him.

GOP Campaigns Recall a Self-Dealing Leaker in Scaramucci (The Daily Beast link): President Donald Trump prizes two qualities above all else: loyalty and discretion—don’t cross the boss, and don’t leak. Whether he’ll find either in his new communications director is an open question.

On Sunday, New York investor and media personality Anthony Scaramucci declared that he will root out White House leakers in his new post. “We’re going to stop the leaks. And if we don’t stop the leaks, I’m going to stop you. It’s just really that simple,” he said on an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union.

But aides to 2016 presidential candidates whom Scaramucci endorsed before coming around to Trump say he was suspected of leaking internal information, and left out of some internal discussions for fear that he would pass along those sorts of details to reporters—or that he already had.

Scaramucci did not respond to questions about this story.

He threw his weight behind the Trump campaign only after his first two preferred candidates, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, dropped out. Between his stints raising money for those campaigns, he was in talks with a third, that of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Former senior aides on all three of those campaigns say Scaramucci gave the impression of a hanger-on trying to methodically get in the good graces of whichever candidate he saw as most likely to prevail. Only when Trump had the nomination all but secured did Scaramucci sign on with his campaign.

“He was trying to pick the winner,” according to a former senior Rubio aide, who said Scaramucci approached that campaign after Walker withdrew from the race in September 2015. Despite intense competition to pick up the support of key fundraisers, the former Rubio aide said, Scaramucci was seen as too self-serving and untrustworthy, and the Rubio campaign declined his support.

Here's another Mooch trashing:

Anthony Scaramucci Loved Hillary, Gave to Obama, and Deleted Anti-Trump Tweets (The Daily Beast link): Anthony Scaramucci deleted tweets in which he previously criticized Donald Trump hours after accepting his new job as White House communications director on Friday.

Scaramucci also previously expressed support for his boss's old rivals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—even donating money to their campaigns.

In December 2011, Scaramucci referred to the "Trump spectacle" in a tweet about Mitt Romney. Two months later, the new White House pick tweeted a National Journal article about Trump endorsing Newt Gingrich in the 2012 race: “Odd guy. So smart with no judgment.”

The deleted tweets were spotted by freelance journalist Josh Billinson, who Scaramucci briefly blocked.

“I'm just shocked he hadn't deleted them earlier,” Billinson told The Daily Beast. “That he could've been in the running for communications director and not even thought to check what he had publicly said about Trump in the past is wild to me.”

In December 2015, Scaramucci attacked Trump's call for a border wall between Mexico and the U.S.

"Walls don't work. Never have never will. The Berlin Wall 1961-1989 don't fall for it," he tweeted, above a picture of the wall.

Mod: My advice? Stay as far away as you possibly can.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

It Has Been A While Since Moody's Rated Sierra Madre's Water Bonds

Here is the most recent Moody's commentary on what they call the "Sierra Madre Water Enterprise." This includes Sierra Madre's 2003 Water Bonds. The report comes to us from 2015. The Ba1 rating is basically junk. The debt level they discuss here is $10,000,000.00, and I am going to assume that does not include interest.

Has any of that changed?

For the entire report click here.

4 Questions

1) Why did the City Council at the time the 2003 Water Bonds were sold commit us to something they must have known this City could not afford to repay without difficulty? Or, if not, where did they think that money would come from? The later voter defeated Downtown Specific Plan perhaps?

2) Why did the City of Sierra Madre decide to pay only the interest on its 2003 Water Bonds, knowing full well that doing so would require Sierra Madre's taxpayers to assume financial responsibility for an additional $9 million dollars in completely useless debt?

3) Why does City Hall refuse to in any way identify the elected officials who originally set us off on this financially ruinous course? Or discuss whatever their reasons were for doing so, even though those actions have today helped push our water enterprise to its current sad state?

4) Why did the City in the past refuse to address the widely held misperception that its proposed water rate increases were to fund water infrastructure upgrades, rather than mainly servicing demands laid out by Moody's that we had to pay more for water in order to repair our junk level bond ratings?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Quickly Spending the Friends of the Library's $100,000?

This also seems a little hasty. I believe after the last City Council get together the impression had been left on many that before going ahead there would be some meaningful public discussion held regarding the sale of the property the at risk Library now sits upon. Something that needed to be done before making any decision to move that building's heart, soul and pulpy contents to the YAC. Many concerned residents had been unhappily taken by surprise at the rushed revelation from two weeks ago that such a thing was even being considered.

So can anyone now explain for us this following equally undiscussed, very speedy, and quite distressingly abrupt, agenda announcement?

I don't want to get too country on you, but where I come from $100,000 is a lot of dough. And once having spent that kind of cash the community would be pretty much committed to going forward with whatever this largesse had been lavished upon.

Particularly if it is money that was raised by well-meaning volunteers with the purpose of helping save and preserve one of this community's most valued and beloved assets.

Not bulldozing it.

It certainly does take a lot of wine tasting to raise $100,000 dollars. Many grapes died to make this happen.

Spending that $100,000 this way, while it wouldn't legally commit the City of Sierra Madre to going through with the project, would certainly help create a certain psychological need to make it happen. Can't you hear all within earshot being told that we've already spent a lot of the Friends of the Library's money on this project, so how can we turn back now?

We have all seen public relations efforts aimed at creating before the fact process justifications. The DSP comes to mind. This would be kind of like that.

The community was told there would be a conversation. Rushing through a $100,000 spend of somebody else's hard earned cash, and as a summer vacation time Consent Calendar item no less (link), is not what was promised. If the City Council votes to send that $100,000 now, they are admitting that they have already made up their minds. In other words, they don't care what their constituents think.

I hate to sound too judgmental, but this all comes off as being more than a little downtown slick, and not transparent at all.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Donald Trump and Russia Investigation: Can the President Pardon Himself?

Mod: The big news in Trumplandia at this special moment is the possibility that Donald Trump might pardon both himself and his family for things he has yet to admit he ever did. Or even acknowledged that they even exist. Here is a breakdown of what this all means from Newsweek Magazine.

Donald Trump and Russia Investigation: Can the President Pardon Himself? (Newsweek link): President Donald Trump’s lawyers are examining his powers to pardon himself, his aides, and family members, prompting questions over the ability of a president to invoke such a power.

On Thursday the Washington Post reported that a source close to Trump said the president asked his aides about the extent of his powers to forgive legal offenses. Another source said his legal team was on it. The report follows damaging revelations last week that Trump’s son agreed to meet with Russians after being told they were part of a Kremlin plot to help his father win the presidency.

While the president does hold powers to pardon aides, legally, he cannot pardon himself according to legal experts and memos written by President Richard Nixon’s Office of Legal Counsel days before Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal in 1974.

The memos stated that “under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the President cannot pardon himself.”

Trump does have a potential out that would involve Vice President Mike Pence stepping in as acting president. Even if Trump did use that, any aides he pardons can still be legally compelled to testify against him without the protection of the Fifth Amendment, experts say.

News of White House efforts to legally insulate itself followed reports that special counsel Robert Mueller and FBI investigators are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings and examining the Trump family finances. Trump warned Mueller against expanding his investigation in this direction during an interview with The New York Times Wednesday.

These probes are part of the Russia investigation looking at Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election and tilt it toward Trump. Investigators are also examining whether the Trump campaign and the president’s associates colluded with Russia in this.

While the president has the power to grant pardons, it is “important to remember that the pardon power is legally—but not politically—absolute,” wrote Steve Vladeck, a national security law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, on Twitter Thursday.

The real question, Vladeck said, “is how congressional Republicans respond” and whether they continue to back the president. Republicans control both the House and Senate, giving them the power to impeach the president—a legal process that could remove Trump from office.

The president’s pardoning power only extends to federal offenses. If Trump pardoned his aides and family members, they could be called to testify without the protection of the Fifth Amendment—this amendment means defendants can avoid giving testimony that incriminates themselves.

In a message to Trump on Twitter posted Friday, Harvard Law School constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe warned the president that “anyone you pardon can be compelled to testify without any grant of immunity, and that testimony could undo you.” This testimony could be used to back up an impeachment case against Trump.

One option remains according to the memo drawn up by Nixon’s legal counsel. Under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, the President could declare “that he was temporarily unable to perform the duties of the office.”

Vice President Mike Pence would then become Acting President “and as such could pardon the President,” the memo reads. “Thereafter the President could either resign or resume the duties of his office.”

It remains an open question whether a Republican-controlled Congress would bring any articles of impeachment against Trump.

Mod: In addition to enlisting murderous foreign dictators in their cause, the American Alt-Right is now celebrating what they see as the positive effects of deadly diseases. 

John McCain Cancer Is ‘Godly Justice’ for Challenging Trump, Alt-Right Claims (Newsweek link): Most Americans met Wednesday night’s news that Arizona Senator John McCain was facing a dire diagnosis of brain cancer with shows of respect for the elder statesman and former prisoner of war. But to some on the extreme right, the longtime Republican is a traitor worthy of scorn, presumably because of his willingness to work with Democrats, as well as his criticism of President Donald Trump.

The attack on McCain--a war hero who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison—is faintly reminiscent of the early days of Trump’s presidential campaign. During a family values summit in Iowa in the summer of 2015, just a month after he’d announced his seemingly quixotic bid for the White House, Trump lashed out at McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

At the time, Trump was angry because McCain had complained that Trump "fired up the crazies" during an anti-immigration rally in Phoenix.

Trump has in no way endorsed or encouraged the alt-right’s attacks on McCain, which have thus far been limited to the fringes of digital discourse. Trump sent a statement of support for McCain on Wednesday. "Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon," that statement said.

The attacks came regardless.

“The last president for McCain will be Trump. There’s some godly justice right there,” wrote one user on the “Politically Incorrect” message board of social media network 4chan, a hothouse of right-wing memes.

“I’m pretty sure that God is punishing him,” wrote another 4chan user. “God made it pretty clear that he supports New Right now.”

Mod: Vladimir Putin's favorite Congressman comes from California. And wouldn't you know it, he is working hard to make sure he keeps his title.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) given explicit instructions by the Kremlin for how to attack sanctions (Raw Story link): A bombshell report claims that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has long been described as “Putins favorite congressman,” was given explicit instructions by the Kremlin for how to attack sanctions against Russia last year.

The Daily Beast reports that “after being given a secret document by officials in Moscow, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sought to alter sanctions legislation and tried to set up a virtual show trial on Capitol Hill” last June, right at around the time that Donald Trump Jr. and key members of the Trump campaign met with Russian nationals who claimed to be representatives of the Russian government’s efforts to undermine the candidacy of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Rohrabacher’s original plan was to have a show trial in Congress of anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder in which he would “confront Browder with a feature-length pro-Kremlin propaganda movie that viciously attacks him—as well as at least two witnesses linked to the Russian authorities, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.”

The purpose of this “show trial,” according to an email reviewed by the Daily Beast, was to undermine a set of sanctions placed on Russia that were named after Sergei Magnitsky, who served as Browder’s tax attorney before being imprisoned after exposing a Russian corruption scandal.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Horrors! ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Remake in the Works at Warner Bros.

Mod: Hollywood just can't seem to leave well enough alone. The movie that put Sierra Madre on the map back in the 1950s is about to remade for what, the fourth time? As if the first version wasn't good enough. Hopefully Warner Bros. will have the respect to return to "Santa Mira" for at least some of the filming. Think of all the pod work you'd get being hired as an extra.

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ Remake in the Works at Warner Bros. (Variety link): Warner Bros. has launched a remake of the classic science-fiction movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and set the project up with producer John Davis. “The Conjuring 2” screenwriter David Leslie Johnson has been tapped to write the script.

The original 1956 movie is based on Jack Finney’s 1954  novel “The Body Snatchers” in which the small California town of Mill Valley is invaded by aliens plant pods, which replicate humans as they sleep. The resulting replicants have no emotion.

The movie, set in the fictional California town of Santa Mira and shot in less than three weeks in black and white in Sierra Madre, Glendale, Chatsworth and Los Felix, ended with the aliens taking over. It was produced by Walter Wanger, directed by Don Siegel and starred Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers” grossed $3 million in its initial release and grew in critical stature to the point that it was selected in 1994 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The film has been remade three times: in 1978 with Donald Sutherland starring and Philip Kaufman directing; in 1993 as “Body Snatchers” with Gabrielle Anwar starring and Abel Ferrara directing; and in 2007 as “The Invasion” with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman starring and Oliver Hirschbiegel directing.

Mod: Will Sierra Madreans be limited to just six pods and only allowed to grow them indoors? There has been no word from the city just yet.

Sierra Madre to ban marijuana sales and shops but may reconsider delivery (Pasadena Star News link): Despite Proposition 64, most marijuana activity will be restricted in Sierra Madre, city leaders have decided. In response to the state’s legalization of marijuana in November’s election, the City Council decided Tuesday to update the city’s policy on marijuana, completely prohibiting commercial marijuana uses, including dispensaries.

In compliance with Prop. 64, Sierra Madre will allow for personal cultivation of marijuana plants for medical and nonmedical uses. Specifically, the measure permits individuals, ages 21 and older, to grow up to six plants for personal medicinal or nonmedicinal purposes, but indoors only.

“Given that this is something that the voters have voted on in our state, I think it’s very prudent of us to make sure that we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that we’re not just being reactive to the state law, but that we are putting things in place that we are driving, as a city,” Mayor Rachelle Arizmendi said.

Some residents said they worry they won’t have access to legal marijuana products without some type of commercial business operating in the city. “It would be important to include a medical part,” resident John Lopez said. “I would recommend thinking about helping out those people who need it in a medical capacity.”

The council members all agreed that they would not like to see any shops in the city but said they will reconsider the issue after January, when the state is expected to layout more details for licensing in the state.

“The question is, do residents need a storefront in the city to access that medicine,” said Councilman John Harabedian. “There’s going to potentially be a lot of delivery services that will be coming into the city. There will be sufficient supply for the residents who need this medically.”

Mod: There was one comment to this article, and more proof that you just can't please everyone. This from someone going by the name of A Freedom Fighter: "Right, Sierra Madre can ban cannabis but that's not going to stop anybody from using it in Sierra Madre and in the end you just stop cannabis revenue from coming to your location. The sick part is this town is full of liquor stores and tobacco shops all far more dangerous than cannabis will ever be. Just more stupid Reefer Madness nonsense Sierra Madre!"

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mountain Views Susan Defends Her Infamous Dead Bear Picture As A "Freedom Of Speech" Issue

Good old Susan Henderson. She is to freedom of speech what the soon to be paroled OJ Simpson is to family therapy. After having banned all of her local political columnists over the years for daring to have opinions that she does not approve of (Sierra Madre classic rock legend Rich Johnson being among the most recently excommunicated), and then replacing them with safe and locally irrelevant fourth-tier nationally syndicated columnists, all of whom being about as scintillating as mud, now she is proclaiming herself the great defender of free speech while valiantly refusing to print all but one of the letters she received complaining about her having published that particularly hideous dead bear picture. It is typical Henderson, and your sadly abused tax dollars at work.

Susan, of course, is free to print pictures of all the dead bears she wants. She is also free to admit that she doesn't always look at what goes into her paper, which Susan did this week. Trust me, nobody would be surprised, and she is hardly the only person who doesn't bother even looking at the thing.

However, people are also free to object to anything in her paper that offends them, and as the local taxpayer supported adjudicated publication of record, The Mountain Views News is obliged to at least acknowledge their opinions. And, should they complain about something she publishes in her paper, they are not practicing censorship as this absurdly self-reverential tax beneficiary accuses them, they are exercising their right to free speech. And as such do not deserve to be demeaned by her in so unhappy a manner.

More Susan nonsense. The reason she fills her op-ed pages with mind-numbing bromides from the likes Michael Reagan and John L. Micek is, as residents of far off places who have probably never even heard of Sierra Madre, they are highly unlikely to offend any of Henderson's local business and government cronies. In other words, she has effectively banned from her paper all local political opinion except hers because she fears it might interfere with her downtown cash hustle.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a bear. Or you are a free thinking local columnist such as Rich Johnson. Or folks writing in to complain about something they found offensive in her paper, as Beacon Media Editor Terry Miller did recently. Then you are at-risk of being labeled an enemy of free speech and censored by its #1 self-interested defender, Susan Henderson.

An irony that should be lost on nobody.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The City Manager Provides More Information On The Library (and Debt)

Mod: If you are not emailing your questions to City Manager Gabe Engeland you really are missing out. Not only will you get a prompt reply, you will also receive a lot of interesting information. Along with a bunch of follow up questions. The guy is both a straight shooter and clearly dedicated to transparency. That is going to take some getting used to. Here is an example of what I mean.

Tattler: Here's a question I meant to ask earlier. Are any Utility Tax moneys being used to make CalPERS payments?

City Manager: The UUT is a general tax, it is used to fund General Fund activities. The General Fund includes CalPERS payments for any employees paid from the General Fund (mostly non-utility employees, including Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, Library, Community Services, etc).  It is fair to say the UUT funds a portion of everything budgeted in the General Fund, including CalPERS payments.

Mod: You might recall that when this question was asked during the run up to the April 2016 election, the answer from the city and the winning candidates wasn't quite that clear. I remember being told by the previous City Manager that it was not possible to track exactly how utility tax money is being spent, therefore we will never know. Very devious, that one. Prompted by yesterday's Tattler post, here is how the rest of this conversation went.

City Manager: When we talk about the future of the library building I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion the building will be demolished.  In fact, I would say preservation of the Library is a likely outcome.  I know people assume the future is condos or apartments, with a demolished library, and a new building on the site, but if I were a betting man—at this point—I would not bet on demolition.

When I was at the joint Library Board and Community Services Commission meeting I asked them to vote as if demolition of the building was the probable outcome.  I did this so they would understand the gravity of their vote, and all potential outcomes, not to imply that was the course which we would pursue. With that said, all outcomes for the Library building remain on the table.

Things change constantly and trying to predict a decision which is likely a few months away would be difficult on my part as we are still so early in the due diligence process.  At this point though, the only conversations we have had among staff internally are preserving the Library building and incentivizing rehabilitation.

The second point you discuss on the UUT is interesting to me. The idea the UUT would “save” the Library is something I had not heard before, at least not in the context you are writing about it. I wasn’t here for the discussion however, so my interpretation is 100% looking back on a historical event. I had always assumed the services the Library provides were the items the UUT would pay for (save), not the building where the services were held. I can actually see how someone’s view of this would be influenced by what side of the UUT discussion they were on.

A “NO” voter on the UUT probably sees a plan to move the Library (which will reduce future costs significantly, while also avoiding immediate costs) as a violation of what was promised in the UUT campaign.  A “YES” voter on the UUT probably sees the plan to move the Library as carrying through on the promise to not cut Library services—which is exactly what they were told by the UUT campaign.

A “YES” vote will save the Library! After reading your article I can see this from both viewpoints.

It seems to me the idea to preserve Library services, while simultaneously reducing operating costs and avoiding substantial one-time costs, would be welcomed by the public. Sierra Madre residents appear to want services retained without increasing taxes.  I’m not sure where else this makes as much sense as with the Library.  I understand people reflexively go to Police service, but the discussion there is on a reduction of costs and a reduction of service, which is a key difference, as the Library is a reduction of costs, but not a reduction of services.

I’m curious on your perspective around the Library.  Do you believe moving the Library is a violation of the UUT campaign?  Also, if moving the Library is able to reduce annual operation costs, and avoid large one-time costs, while keeping the level of service the same, why do you think people are opposed to it?  The sense I get is people fall into three categories:

1. Fine with the move, fine with whatever happens to the Library building.

2. Fine with the move, do not want the Library building demolished, but are okay with a sale.

3. Not fine with the move.

The vast majority of the conversations I have had are with people who fall into category 1 or 2.

I’m sure we each have our own echo chamber, but is this substantially different than what you are hearing? If the Library was moved, but the current building was preserved what would your viewpoint be?

If the community is against new taxes AND reduction of services AND changes to how services are provided we are in quite a pickle!

Thanks for continuing the discussion in the community, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Tattler: If the Library is in deteriorating condition, and cannot be repaired by the city because of the cost, who would then want to take on the big expense of both acquiring that property and also rehabilitating that sadly neglected building? What commercial benefit would they see? Property is gold in Sierra Madre, with the cost being about the same. Unless you know someone who is both exceptionally kind and wealthy, I cannot see that happening.

City Manager: I agree, property is gold in Sierra Madre.  The high cost should actually work to the City’s benefit in a seller’s market.  Keep in mind, we have not had an appraisal of either property completed yet, either as individual properties or together.  In addition to this, I have not talked with anyone or any business about potentially purchasing the building. With all of those caveats, there are a couple of scenarios I can see playing out, but for purposes of this discussion, I’ll focus on the scenarios which lead to the rehabilitation of the current building (all numbers are examples):

Scenario Number 1: The properties are valued at $3.0M together. Private market repairs are expected to be $1.0M.  The Council determines there is value to keeping the structure in the city and incentivizes repairs through the private market. At sale Council agrees to rebate $1.00 for every $1.00 spent on rehab to the new owner up to $1M.  The owner also has the option of selling the attached lot for a single family home (under this scenario the City would restrict the development of the second lot to single family only). The currently vacant lot should receive a good price at market. Now the owner has a building which is fully rehabbed and has a value of more than the $3M, but has spent significantly less through the sale of the second property and the rebating of rehabilitation costs. This is also before State and Federal grants or property tax rebates which the property may be eligible for as a rehabilitation.

Under this scenario the Council has found a way to incentivize the rehab of the Library building, while also moving to a new location which will reduce Library expenditures quite significantly, meaning taxpayers pay less for better service.

Scenario Number 2 would be: It is determined to be too costly to move the Library to the YAC with available funds, even though the sale of the Library property. Instead of selling the parcel the Library sits on, Council instead opts to sell only the lot behind the library. The sale from this lot is used to fund a large portion of the repairs at the current library. The library, because it is too small to host programs, moves these programs to other City locations, likely the Hart Park House, Sierra Madre room, etc. Under this scenario the City avoids large one-time costs and does not need to ask for a tax increase. This option does minimally reduce services as well as annual costs.

I’m sure there will be lots of community discussion on what is best, but at this point I don’t see why rehabbing the current Library building is not a viable alternative.

Tattler: I have no problem with the Library moving. It is a bold and creative move that the happy Library guy has come up with. My gripe is over how the UUT hike in 2016 was sold. Remember, we beat a UUT increase here twice, so the margin of that loss was sobering. The continued survival of the Library, along with the PD, was definitely part of the YES message. Measure UUT passed, and now the Library has been declared too costly to upgrade and in danger of being razed as part of a property sale. That is not going over well with some.

City Manager: I can’t speak much as to how the UUT conversation went, but I would hope it was focused on Library services. Without the UUT passing the Library services we currently offer would certainly be reduced with most eliminated completely. I can see your point of view however, and understand people may feel the UUT was supposed to pay for Library services as well as the building itself.

My bottom-line is we are bringing forward several options to reduce the cost of operations as opposed to asking for more money through taxes. We were very successful using this approach to balance this year’s budget. For me the Library discussion focuses on how to provide the best services we can at the lowest possible cost.

Tattler: One thing that I think needs to be done. A public conversation on the city's debt. It needs to be spelled out and defined. It is the publics' debt. They have to pay it, yet largely folks do not understand the situation. It needs to explained exactly how the city got to this point, and what needs to be done to deal with it. Many cities are dealing with problems just like Sierra Madre's.

City Manager: I agree on the debt. The long-term debt of the city hasn’t been managed very well.  We are currently set to bring our refinancing forward in September. At this meeting I intend to have a formal discussion about current debt and each repayment schedule. It fits in nicely with our discussion on infrastructure maintenance, replacement, and repair.

Mod: A lot to mull over. If I am reading this correctly, the good citizens of Sierra Madre could get their first good hard look at Sierra Madre's massive debt problem ever in September. Something most previous regimes refused to do. I can't imagine some people being very excited about that, though I certainly am.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Selling Sierra Madre's Library and Measure UUT

2016's Measure UUT was once widely believed to be the source for money intended to be used to save Sierra Madre's Library from insolvency. Which is why so many people have been both shocked and surprised by last Tuesday's proposal to sell off the property the Library now sits on to a private developer and move everything to the Youth Activity Center over in Sierra Vista Park. The assumption being that the Library itself would then be razed and replaced by highly profitable condominiums.

Yes, it is always about the money. Please keep your eye on that.

In a troubling article published in this weekend's edition of The Mountain Views News ("Proposed Library Changes Awaken Community") the reaction many have had to the unhappy news is described in this way:

Many issues have been raised by the proposed sale of the property the current version of the Library stands on, but none is potentially more troubling than the growing realization that one of the main justifications pushed by the well-financed campaign in 2016 to raise utility taxes in Sierra Madre, rescuing the Library, has now been exposed as being largely false.

Of course, this disconnect will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog. As we stated often during the run up to the April 2016 election, the real reason driving this city's burning need to pass Measure UUT was not the Library, the Sierra Madre Police Department, or any of the other justifications pushed by the disingenuous "Yes on Measure UUT" campaign. It was 10's of millions of dollars in unnecessary and financially perilous CalPERS and Water Bond debt.

Current Sierra Madre Mayor Rachelle Arizmendi, in a postcard issued during her 2014 run for City Council, admitted just that. Here she states one of her main reasons for running for City Council that year.

Sadly, and even though she obviously knew better, by 2016 Rachelle Arizmendi was lending her credibility to the Yes on Measure UUT campaign, and endorsed just the kind of tax increase she opposed when she originally ran for office. Here is how that one looked.

The individual who ran the "Yes on Measure UUT" campaign through a series of sock puppet organizations and individuals, Pasadena political campaign consultant Martin Truitt, also knew this purported campaign to save the Sierra Madre Library and Police Department through utility tax hikes was not on the level. Back when Martin was still quietly supplying this blog with background information he sent me the following email.

Truitt also managed Rachelle's campaign for City Council in 2014. The rumor is he will not only manage her reelection campaign in 2018, but also the City Council candidacy of Edward Garcia. Garcia is the individual who fronted for Truitt in 2016's Measure UUT campaign. In my opinion Mr. Garcia has a lot to answer for, and hopefully will be forced to do just that when he runs for office here next year.

On March 19 of 2016 many Sierra Madre residents received this postcard:

As we have stated, a large portion of the funds raised by Measure UUT would go on to pay for things like Sierra Madre's many millions of dollars in CalPERS debt. CalPERS is located in Sacramento, not Sierra Madre. The money does not all stay in town as claimed on this less than honest postcard.

This was the elephant in the room that the City Council refused to acknowledge in 2016. Probably because it might cause you to vote "NO" on their tax hike.

The Sierra Madre Library faces the wrecking ball because of funding problems. Despite the passage of Measure UUT. More on this tomorrow.