About Lee Barnathan

  • Member Since: February 11, 2016


Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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Knight’s old Office Now Up For Grabs

| News | January 10, 2019

The owners of the building that housed former Congressman Steve Knight’s district office have changed their minds and invited Rep. Katie Hill to use the location. However, it doesn’t appear that Hill’s people are aware the space is again available.

Kiza and Richard Hilton said they believe that the disruptions and demonstrations that previously occurred at the Carl Boyer Drive location would not repeat since a Democrat is now the representative. Those activities included a 2017 “die-in” to protest Knight’s voting against the Affordable Care Act, one of several demonstrations that year. Also, a bb or pellet gun caused a small hole in a window in April.

“It was just a hassle,” Richard Hilton said.

“That behavior was driven by extreme liberals, and that, probably, extreme conservatives would probably approach the whole situation differently,” Kiza Hilton said. “I reached out to Katie, letting her know I’d love if she’d be a tenant in the building. I was a big supporter of hers.”

Additionally, Kiza Hilton said, the architect who originally wanted the space has not signed any lease.

Hill had said she wanted to keep all of Knight’s district offices in the name of continuity, and she said in a statement that the Simi Valley and Palmdale locations, needing only phone and internet connections, would open Monday.

Spokesperson Kassie King didn’t sound like she knew of Kiza Hilton’s invitation.

“When we initially reached out, we were given a response that that location wasn’t interested in hosting the next congressperson,” King said. “If that has changed, our district director is currently looking into many different options in Santa Clarita, so we will reach back out to that building and we will include them on our list of properties we’re surveying and making sure that that property is still one that will fit the needs of our constituents.”

King added that Hill wants the district staff evenly distributed around the three offices. Kiza Hilton said congressional offices must be properly vetted; since this one has been, that step is saved.

Richard Hilton, saying this is more of a business decision, said his wife took the lead on this.

“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “It’s a great office. Beautiful building, beautiful office.”

Katie Hill on Border Wall, Impeachment

| News | January 10, 2019

When the Gazette queried then-Rep. Steve Knight about Donald Trump, Knight’s responses often were carefully thought out and measured. He didn’t want to offend the president – or the Republican Party – but he also sometimes disagreed with the president, such as when Knight asserted his belief that Russia had interfered with the 2016 election.
Katie Hill might also carefully think out her answers, but she left no doubt that she disagrees with Trump.

“Our President is lying to the American people and I am not okay with that,” Hill said in emailed comments.

The Gazette posed questions to Hill (D-Agua Dulce) about Trump, his policies, the border wall, impeachment and comments two of her fellow freshman congresswomen made on the matter.

She didn’t answer every question, such as her opinions on Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) call to “impeach the mother—-r” or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) calling out the Republican hypocrisy over Tlaib’s comments (the Gazette asked these questions because Hill is a freshman-class liaison to House leadership). Nor did she directly answer whether she’s against Trump the man, Trump’s policies or both.

But she made it clear that her responses would, unsurprisingly, be directly opposite her predecessor’s.

Border wall
Trump has long wanted a wall along the southern border, even taking to the public airwaves Tuesday to call for it. While polls have shown most Americans oppose it, there are some news reports that show border agents think it’s necessary; other reports say agents believe the real solution lies in improved technology.

Hill says she’s more than willing to “work across the aisle on border security to ensure that our communities are kept safe and that those seeking asylum are given the opportunity of safe haven, while at the same time keeping drugs, sex trafficking, and gang violence out of this country.”

But she seems against the wall, and against the government shutdown, for which she blames Trump.

“We need to increase funding for border security — we severely lack the number of Border Patrol agents and asylum caseworkers we need. Investments in our security include increased personnel and modernized technology,” she said. “That being said, the President holding the paychecks of American workers hostage when he doesn’t get his way, is not a way to lead and it’s hurting our community, right here at home. … I look forward to working across the aisle on long-term immigration and border security solutions as soon as we reopen the government and give American workers the respect and pay that they’re due.”

The Constitution grants the House the power to impeach a president on only three grounds: treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) has tried introducing articles of impeachment; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has resisted, saying she wants to wait until the Mueller report comes out.

Hill said making sure Mueller can do his job is more important right now.

“Impeachment is the wrong conversation to be having right now — we need to fully protect the Mueller investigation so it is allowed to proceed and then act based on what we learn from its outcome,” she said.

Why Hart District Teachers Don’t Strike

| News | January 10, 2019

Although it has been delayed until at least Monday, there remains a chance that the Los Angeles teachers union will strike against its school district. This would be the second strike but the first since a nine-day stoppage in 1989.

As Jayme Allsman, president of the Hart District Teachers Association, watches from a distance, she said she feels bad for what United Teachers Los Angeles must do in its fight with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

At the same time, she’s happy it isn’t happening here.

“I’m grateful for the district I work in,” she said.

And both sides, HDTA and the William S. Hart Union High School District, work hard to ensure it never does.

“We’ve all worked cohesively to maintain the quality of education,” board member Steve Sturgeon said, “and if that’s the focus on both sides, that’s where it’s going.”

In talking to Allsman as well as two district board members, it is evident that there is better communication and mutual respect here that doesn’t exist farther south.

“We work hard to maintain open lines of communication,” she said.

Allsman says district recognizes the value of the teachers. Sturgeon says that’s why the district works so hard on teacher retention. Nobody disputes the budget numbers or salary concerns.

The current standoff between UTLA and LAUSD centers on money and class size, but various news accounts make it clear the sides don’t trust each other.

Meanwhile, HDTA and the Hart district agreed last year to a 2 percent one-time pay increase and an ongoing 1 percent raise, Allsman said.

“They sit down at the table, the (budget) numbers are transparent, and we work together. It’s a win-win,” Sturgeon said.

Why does it work so well here? Why the mutual respect and desire to work together?

“We have teachers that give a crap, that care about the kids,” board member Joe Messina said. “It’s not always about the money. Do the teachers care? Do they do their jobs? It makes it easier for the board to give raises if you do your job.”

And it’s easier to do your job if you are a product of the school district in which you teach or if you live locally. Like Allsman, who graduated from Hart, many of HDTA’s teachers attended district schools, and she estimates that between 75 and 80 percent of members live in the city, “so we have a long-time relationship with the district.”

Allsman and Messina also think there’s an advantage to being smaller. Hart has 12 schools, a budget of $247.7 million and a teachers union of about 1,100 members. LAUSD is the second largest district in the nation with 1,147 schools and a $13.7 billion budget; its teachers union comprises some 33,000-35,000 instructors, librarians, nurses and counselors.

“That thing is so big,” Messina said of LAUSD. “East L.A., as opposed to the west San Fernando Valley, it’s a whole different animal.”

The only time Allsman can recall any demonstration was in 1975, when she was a child. Teachers held placards and signs before school, then went into class and taught when the bell rang.

Meanwhile, LAUSD strikes.

“LAUSD: They’re so out of control, this is just hilarious,” Messina said.

Bridge to Home to Expand Operations

| News | January 3, 2019

Having an in-city, full-time, permanent homeless shelter became closer to reality last month when the nonprofit Bridge to Home took possession of deeds to two properties, BTH’s executive director said.

Mike Foley said his organization now owns two acres comprising the lot at 23031 Drayton Street, where BTH currently operates a shelter, and the lot behind it, meaning there’s enough space to move the services currently offered on Newhall Avenue onto the property. Foley said nothing could happen until BTH received title, so now the next move is to get the city’s water and sewer services connected.

“We secured money to bring a sewer and water in,” Foley said. “We’re working very close with the city to expedite that as soon as possible.”

Foley said BTH has $700,000 to build a 20-bed family shelter on the property. Plans that include building around the current shelter and building a new service center are in the process of being drawn up.

“We want to do that as soon as it’s feasible,” Foley said. “We’re working hard to finish our architectural work and to have our plan done. We’re very, very close. We’ve got very good drawings about where things are going to go. We know how many people we believe we can serve on that property, and we can build spaces for people to live in.”

BTH also received good news from County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who pledged $200,000 in gap funding that would keep the shelter operating from April 1-July 31.

“It’s impossible to express how wonderful it is that the supervisor is using this fund that she has available to fund this project,” Foley said. “Come March 31, we don’t have to put 60 people back out on the streets, and for that we are insanely grateful.”

This became necessary after the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) ended a request-for-proposal grant process in which BTH was trying to secure nearly $1 million, leaving the shelter with insufficient monies to stay open past March 31. Foley said he heard that LAHSA ended the RFP because it had earmarked the money elsewhere. Barger, caught on the outside of this relatively new bureaucracy, responded by demanding more accountability and transparency in how LAHSA details what funds are available and how they are to be distributed.

“LAHSA is an independent agency, L.A. County, L.A. City,” Barger spokesman Tony Bell explained. “There are many different processes and funding apparatuses, I’m not familiar with all of them. Should everyone in the county be familiar with all of the funding allocations and mechanisms? Of course. … We absolutely should, and we do our very best to make sure that we do that, and if something is changed, overlooked, which happens often in county bureaucracy. It’s a big bureaucracy. And that’s what we did.

Barger’s pledge and demands are not official until the Jan. 8 county-supervisor meeting, nor is it guaranteed that BTH will receive the $958,000 it requested the next time. Foley said LAHSA told him the last proposal was “very strong,” so he will attend the necessary workshops this month to get all questions answered so BTH can submit a winning application in February.

But regardless of the outcome, fundraising must continue. Foley said government does not fund 100 percent, meaning private donations must cover the rest, including for administration, accounting and case managers. As of Monday, BTH had raised $53,000 of a current $150,000 goal.

“We’re in desperate need of ongoing donations and funding from people,” he said.

Marsha McLean – In Her Own Words

| City Council, News | January 3, 2019

Marsha McLean is serving as mayor for the fourth time, having previously served in 2007, 2011 and 2015. Her selection this time was most acrimonious, as Bob Kellar nominated Cameron Smyth before McLean nominated herself and received the necessary three votes, though not before outgoing mayor Laurene Weste seconded Smyth’s nomination, then cast the deciding vote for McLean, much to Smyth’s annoyance.

But that’s past, and McLean has much she wants to do in her year as mayor. She spoke to the Gazette by phone for 33 minutes last week, with her comments edited only for clarity and relevance to the questions asked. (Editorial comments are included in parentheses.)

Do you have any final comments you want to make about the selection process?

The incident was unfortunate, but I am the mayor and I intend to move on and represent all of our residents as they deserve to be represented.

What goals do you have for this year?

The most common comments I get when I’m out and people come up to me and they say, “We’re a growing city but we want to let you know that we really appreciate the emphasis on families, that we are a clean, safe city and a wonderful place to live, and we still have that hometown feel.” So, one of my goals is to make sure it stays that way. As a city grows, sometimes our residents can get lost in the shuffle, but I want residents to feel like they’re a part of the process and know where to go to get information that they need, and to make sure that it’s factual information, that it’s correct information. So, I’m going to be meeting with Ken Striplin, the city manager, to see how we can accomplish more public output and more knowledge about how to access the city council.

You mean beyond the time for public comment at city council meetings?

Absolutely. Yes. Everyday, because a lot of people, if they read something on Facebook that may be true or may not be true, and people go, “Oh my gosh.” And then they start being concerned when the actual information on it is quite different than from what they might be thinking it is. So, I want to try to help with that.

The state makes it really difficult for local governments by putting restrictions on how city councilmembers can publish and communicate information to our residents. The state, they can send out newsletters, individual Assemblymen or state Senators or even federal elected officials can send out newsletters. We can’t do that because the state has put restrictions on it. The city’s not allowed to mail anything out with our picture on it or from us. It has to come from the city manager. A lot of times, we’re kind of in the background, and people don’t realize we’re accessible and available to them.

(Reporter’s note: According to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, a councilmember could send an email to any or all constituents who request information, and a city can email a newsletter that includes councilmember photos because emails are not considered “tangible” items and, therefore, are not subject to the state’s mass-mailing prohibitions.)

What specific outreach ideas do you have?

I’m going to brainstorm with Ken and Carrie (city spokesperson Lujan) and see what we can do this time in order to bring people in and just let them get information that they may need to contact city council members, and how to get information. We have a great website but, unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t aware that they can go on that website and pretty much get any type of information they need. So, that’s one thing that needs to be better implemented. I don’t know exactly yet, but it’s going to be something, and it’s going to be hopefully be a fun thing and an informative thing.

How about publishing your phone numbers?

I’ve got a listed phone number. It’s my home office number. It’s on every single piece of literature that I have ever sent out. During my campaign, it’s always accessible.

I’m really always busy anyway. It doesn’t matter if I’m a councilmember, mayor pro-tem or mayor. I’m always busy because I think it’s really important to be involved in local organizations and not just go to events but actually work on the committees and work nonprofit events. I think it’s important to be involved that way. I also think it’s extremely important for our city to be involved in regional organizations. I’m very well known at Southern California Association of Governments. I sit on their policy committee and their regional council. I’m involved with the League of California Cities; and on all of these things that keep happening where our taxes keep getting raised, I am there at the beginning on stakeholder committees trying to help our residents. For instance, on this Measure W thing that just passed, I’m not sure that it was overwhelmingly passed (Reporter’s note: It passed with 69.45 percent of the vote; it needed two-thirds), but I’m not sure that residents and businesses know how much it’s going to cost them come July 1. Our city already pays a stormwater fee, and I’ve been in there from the beginning attempting to have them understand that we need to get a credit for what we already pay. There’s still more work to be done on that. I belong to an elected official stakeholder committee, and I was a charter member of that. I’m still going to be working on that and trying to understand exactly what that’s going to do.

So, you want to continue to work behind the scenes?

Exactly. That’s extremely important. On transportation, I’m a director on the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments. I’m vice chair of the North County Transportation Coalition. I’m also founder of North Los Angeles County Communities Protection Coalition that opposes any high-speed rail route that adversely affects any community, from Burbank to San Fernando, Sunland, Tujunga, Acton, Agua Dulce and such. Personally, I feel the money being spent would be much better served fixing our current infrastructure.

What adverse effects of high-speed rail to you want to avoid?

Fortunately, since they were going to be coming through Santa Clarita, most of it was going to be above ground, and it was going to be going through Sand Canyon and destroying churches and schools and residents. They changed that. They moved it farther east, and they put most of it underground (Reporter’s note: Current plans are for a 4,000-foot tunnel about 400 to 500 feet below the surface along the 14 Freeway from Sand Canyon to the Vulcan mine site close to Lang Station Road). When you do that, there could be vibrations. When they go in and out of the tunnel, there’s all kinds of noise. There’s safety issues, and also they’re planning to split some open space farther north in half that we worked very hard to gain, near the Cemex mine. (Reporter’s note: McLean has expressed concern that the Vista Canyon project could be affected.) There’s just all kinds of things they’re going to be discussing when they come out with their environmental impact report, and you need to get in there early to make sure that they address the issues that are needed to be addressed. I continuously attend all of the meetings and comment, so we’re going to be very involved in that.

What will your role be once the Bureau of Land Management releases its final report on the Cemex mine?

We’re just going to have to see. We’re really hopeful that it’s going to come out and be positive for us, and it will be done. We don’t know. … In my opinion, it’s been going on way too long.

Right now, there’s nothing we can do but wait and hope that the decision comes down that has a positive outcome. There’s lots of things that can be done once the decision comes out if it doesn’t go our way. That’s hypothetical.

In 2008, the city challenged the validity of the mining contracts and ended up paying Cemex $524,476.60 in attorney fees. Would the city consider suing again?

I cannot tell you what the city will or will not do at this point. I will say that it’s going to be a difficult road if they try to get their permits and stuff. Anything that is said right now is hypothetical because we don’t know yet. I can tell you that we’re not going to let it go through easily.

Santa Clarita has new state and federal representation from Democratic women who are from Santa Clarita. How as mayor do you plan on leveraging that?

It’s really important to be able to work on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I have always come across as, the position of a councilperson is non-partisan, and I have always been able to work on both sides. I have friends on both sides. I respect other people’s opinions and I think it’s important, especially now, to communicate that. I plan to carry that forward as mayor and have a relationship with both Katie Hill and Christy Smith to make sure that we continue to achieve the monies we need and the attention that we need.

Could Santa Clarita benefit because Hill is from the area and Steve Knight was from Palmdale?

Steve Knight may have been from the Antelope Valley. He was always here and always available and always accessible. He worked very hard for Santa Clarita.

Has anyone communicated with Hill that Santa Clarita expects the same treatment?

We have reached out. Actually, the chamber of commerce had a get-together, and Katie Hill and Christy Smith were both there. I was very impressed with both of them and how they plan to make sure that our citizens are represented well. I’m looking forward to working with both of them very closely and making sure that we have great relationships.

What if some person or persons comes forward and sues the city over California Voting Rights Act violations, as was done before?

Let’s just wait and see what happens on that. My only comment would be I don’t understand why anyone – our city forefathers put together our city government, and it has worked for over 30 years. I don’t know why anyone would want to try and put another expense to take something that works and to change it.

Probably because they think it doesn’t work anymore and needs to be changed.

Well, that’s going to be up for debate. I can’t speak to hypotheticals. I just hope that people will think long and hard before they bring that to our city.

In light of the selection process, is it your goal to mend fences or bridge gaps with other councilmembers?

This year, we’re going to be overseeing the opening of the new sheriff’s station, the new senior center, the new Canyon Country Community Center, the new library community and arts center in Saugus, working with Supervisor (Kathryn) Barger for hopefully a new cultural arts center, continue the progress in Old Town Newhall, providing upgrades to infrastructure in older, established communities; the cleanup of Whittaker-Bermite, new roads through there once it’s clean: Magic Mountain Parkway, Santa Clarita Parkway, Via Princessa; traffic improvements; Antelope Valley Metrolink improvements, for instance late-night trains to L.A., the list goes on and on. As mayor, I’m going to be making sure that all of those things happen. I take being mayor extremely and very seriously, and I will be busier this year, but it is an honor and it is also fun. We have a lot of things we need to accomplish.

Do you expect all of those things to be completed and open this year?

It is in our 2020 plan, so some will be open this year, some are in the process of being built, but it still needs to be seen through the process.

You didn’t mention the Laemmle Theatre and permanent homeless shelter. Did you want to include those?

Yes. Those are two things that are extremely important. I serve on the city’s homeless ad hoc committee and will be continuing to have meetings on that. We need to make sure Bridge to Home gets the funding they need from the county. We pay an awful lot of taxes since that sales-tax measure (Measure H) passed, and I’m not real happy with the fact that money that could have come to Bridge To Home went somewhere else because they said they didn’t have enough. We cannot continue to be put on the back burner with that county money that has come in with that Measure H money.

Are you referring to the nearly $1 million in grant funds that Bridge To Home thought it was getting?

I am referring to any grant that Bridge To Home applied for that they had expected to get but did not because the money was spent elsewhere.

Is it a goal to have the homeless shelter built?

It’s been our goal and it continues to be our goal.

Repeating the question: Are you interested in smoothing over the edges with the other councilmembers?

As mayor, I plan to move on and represent all of our residents as they deserve to be represented. I am always willing and able to work cohesively to make sure our residents are well represented.

Regardless of who’s on the council?

Of course. I have always worked within our council to make sure that we are able to come to a consensus. We can’t always come to a consensus, but I can’t imagine anyone on our city council is looking forward to not working together.

A Reporter Looks Back on 2018

| News | December 27, 2018

I used to be a sportswriter, first at The Signal from 1990-1995 and then the Daily News from 1995-2002. One constant was that the major seasons – football, basketball and baseball in particular – were year-round. There was always something happening, or someone worth writing about.

I mention this because 2018 was an election year, and even though that didn’t happen until November, there was always something happening, or someone worth writing about.

I spent much of this year covering the city council and 25th congressional district races, and I found the experiences exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating and satisfying.

It started early, with Katie Hill among the many women gracing the cover of Time magazine in a story about the number of first-time female candidates (full disclosure: I forgot what she looked like and incorrectly identified where she was on the cover).

I found Hill earnest, determined, driven, down to earth, frank and accessible. I had no trouble getting comments from her, even when she refused to sign the so-called “People’s Pledge” to keep outside spending out of the race, or when the HBO series “Vice News Tonight,” in a segment highlighting the importance of raising money, caught Hill joking that a staffer was calling her previous sexual partners looking for money for the campaign.

I was impressed at how well she raised the millions of dollars she needed to unseat Steve Knight, and I liked how she navigated the attacks Bryan Caforio threw at her when he realized she was a legitimate threat, and I’m equally impressed that she hasn’t taken the normal approach of keeping her head down, keeping a low profile and just learning about the way Congress works as many freshmen lawmakers do. Instead, she’s front and center, taking leadership roles. I hope her constituents appreciate it.

I got to know the other major players, too. I found Knight to be thoughtful and reasoned in his approach (and pretty accessible, too, until he lost the election). But I think he put party politics over his constituents too many times, and it cost him.

Caforio turned me off. I grew tired of his answering my every question with an attack on Knight, even when the question didn’t warrant it. Then he denied he was changing his tactics and going after Hill when it was clear Hill was a threat, resulting in his being censured by a Democratic club that endorsed him (but didn’t rescind the endorsement).

I found him too much like other politicians. I had heard claims that he moved into the district to run, claims that seemed to be proven when he put his Valencia house on the market in August.

I have hope for Jess Phoenix. She was a breath of fresh air with a unique outlook and background. I hope she seeks elective office again. I wish she had been more accessible. Whereas I could call Caforio and Hill directly, I needed to go through Phoenix’s people to get to her, and she often responded via emailed statement. I’m sure how she dealt with the press was not a factor in her finish, but I would have liked to cover her better.

I had plenty to cover when it came to the city council, and not just the election. While the members sometimes did things right, such as when it fought to remove the Canyon View Estates solar panels, it is clear to me that this quintet is more interested in holding onto power than doing what is best for the people.

Look no further than resisting the move to district voting and selecting a mayor as proof.

Instead of putting the matter to the people, this quintet would prefer to risk another California Voter Rights Act lawsuit – and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to attorneys (the first cost taxpayers $600,000) – than see if the majority of its citizenry really wants it.

The reasons for opposing – don’t fix what isn’t broken, it would cause provincialism, district representatives could team up and block funding to other districts – range from laughable to valid, but it doesn’t change the fact that his quintet refuses to even let the very people they say they represent have a say.

If the person or persons Brett Haddock and Logan Smith know actually sue the city next year, I’ll be waiting to see if any of the quintet take responsibility for bringing this about. If not, the people should use the recall process and remove them.

The people also don’t have a say in how the mayor is selected, and that problem was blown open earlier this month when this quintet squabbled like children, leading one watcher to remark, “After tonight’s utter debacle, it is clear to anyone who watched or attended the City Council meeting we are on our way to becoming a dysfunctional Council.”

Laurene Weste said she was “uncomfortable” with the way it played out and said she wants everyone to get along, yet she seconded a nomination for Cameron Smyth and then voted for Marsha McLean, causing Smyth to bitterly and sarcastically thank her before attacking Bill Miranda for saying the council should require four votes for mayor but being OK that the vote was 3-2. This all made Smyth look extremely petulant.

McLean sounded overly sensitive and entitled in nominating herself for mayor. Yet when the opportunity presented itself for her to jump in and nominate Miranda for mayor pro-tem, she didn’t, making her apology to Miranda seem hollow.

Miranda tried to make peace but only showed he doesn’t have enough respect from the others to be nominated for mayor pro-tem. Does the name TimBen Boydston ring a bell?

Bob Kellar had the right to nominate whomever he saw fit, but he should have told McLean to her face that he was nominating someone else instead of leaving a message on her home voicemail.

(McLean texted me on Christmas Day, “He did not indicate he was nominating anyone.” Kellar responded Wednesday by saying his message explained why he wasn’t going to support her, and he did not recall saying he was going to nominate anyone.)

Here’s the kicker: According to Robert’s Rules of Order, the nominations are voted on in the order they were placed. Since Kellar nominated Smyth before McLean nominated herself, the council should have voted on Smyth’s nomination first – except that according to Smyth, who called me back late Dec. 24, the city doesn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order. He said he has placed on the next council agenda a discussion to use Robert’s Rules in the future.

It’s never a dull moment with these people. Neither was it during the months leading up to the election, when I interviewed 11 of the 15 city council candidates.

I usually attempt to interview everybody; this time, I decided that I would only interview those who paid the money for a ballot statement because that told me they were serious candidates (imagine my surprise when Ken Dean, who didn’t pay for a statement, came in fifth out of 15).

I made one exception: Sean Weber. I thought it was more important for the voters to know about the legal wrangling between Weber and Haddock, so I included him.

My goal with these stories always has been to educate the voters about each candidate, and I feel I was successful in doing so – except for Weste, who refused to answer my questions and hung up on me twice when I tried subsequently.

Twice, the Gazette tried to pin her down: at a candidate’s forum at College of the Canyons and at a Canyon Country Advisory Committee meeting. In the former, she smiled and told me, “You have no questions.” In the latter, she responded to Editor Sarah Farnell (who asked her three questions I originally posed) with answers that didn’t address the questions.

I met a lot of great people this year. Chris Varner did some great work coaching the West Ranch football team. Ben Budhu did everything he could to make cornhole popular. The same held for Weston Monroe and Glen Terry and their love of underwater hockey.




Eric Early


Eric Early made a quixotic quest to unseat Xavier Becerra at state attorney general, first on the ballot and then in the courtroom. Jennifer Van Laar went public with her accusations of sexual harassment against Dante Acosta, and Scott Wilk’s attempts to punish her (both denied their roles). Pat Hines talked about her adventures rowing 2,400 miles from Monterey to Honolulu. Jeff Armendariz visited the USS Iowa to escape the stresses of his law practice.

I also met Todd Hall, who claimed the owner of Southern Smoke BBQ & Brewhouse in Newhall never paid him $25,000 for work done. And I truly felt bad for Chris and Krissy Ball, who alleged their bookkeeper stole almost $1.6 million over 12 years.

A final note: I have been told that the Gazette is the only local paper unafraid to look at controversial topics and hold officials accountable. I don’t know how true that is, but I know I couldn’t do it without the help of the many people willing to talk to me. Thank you for letting me tell the stories that need to be told, and I look forward to continuing in 2019.

Katie Hill Seeks New Digs

| News | December 21, 2018

Rep.-elect Katie Hill has said she wants to keep all of the 25th congressional district offices the same in the name of continuity. She’s going to have to find a new location in Santa Clarita.

According to two Hill spokespeople and the owner of the building on Carl Boyer Drive where Rep. Steve Knight’s office currently is housed, the congressional office will not be there anymore.

Kiza Hilton, who co-owns the building with her husband, told the Gazette she had promised the space to the building’s architect, “and to be quite honest, it was very disruptive to the other tenants (in the) building, with constant protests and the window shot out of the building and all the issues that cropped up, so it was very relieving to know that the architect wanted that space as soon as it became available.”

The office has not exactly been a quiet place all the time. In April, a BB or pellet gun caused a small hole in a window.

Protests over Knight’s voting on repealing the Affordable Care Act happened several times in 2017. In February, hundreds showed up pleading that Knight not vote to repeal. In May, Planned Parenthood demonstrated. In July, Knight got into a shouting match with protestors.

Hill spokesperson Lindsay Bubar said it’s her understanding that the Simi Valley and Palmdale district offices will remain once Hill becomes the congresswoman Jan. 7.

As for Santa Clarita, spokeswoman Hannah Nayowith said in an email, “We’re actually in the process of looking for a new SCV space. We don’t know yet exactly where it will be – we’ll keep you posted when we know!”

Controversy Over Attempted Acosta Appointment

| News | December 20, 2018

It’s a really small piece of the greater water picture. It’s an area in Castaic and Val Verde that serves between 900 and 1,000 customers. It’s a board position that’s going to go away no later than 2023.

And for one moment, it was the center of controversy.
On Tuesday night, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board of directors deferred approving former City Councilmember and Assemblyman Dante Acosta to sit on the water board as Los Angeles County’s representative.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger had nominated Acosta

during the Dec. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting to replace county employee Dean Efstathiou, who represented County Waterworks District 36, which covers Castaic and Val Verde. Efstathiou, who didn’t return calls for comment, had been appointed by former supervisor Mike Antonovich and served for more than 20 years.

The appointed position, served as a 4-year term, will no longer exist as of Jan. 1, 2023, the result of Senate Bill 634, which created the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency. The law requires the number of directors to be cut from its current 14 to nine all-elected positions.

But board president Bill Cooper and member Lynne Plambeck said they don’t want to wait to reduce. They would like the seat eliminated now, either by the county merging the seat into the SCVWA or by having the county operate District 36 without a board seat. If that happens, Cooper said, the agency stands to save $25,000 a year in benefits, stipends and convention costs.

“The discussion of merging District 36 might be more viable now,” Plambeck said Wednesday morning.

Barger spokesman Tony Bell made it sound like the county isn’t considering that. “The agency will not consider he nomination when it meets again on Jan.
7,” Bell texted.

Either way, it’s becoming more and more likely that if Acosta serves on the board, he would have to be elected. He didn’t return calls for comment.

The controversy stems from two issues: the perceived politics behind the appointment and those who believe Acosta lacks the experience with water.

At least one person wondered if Acosta wanted to use the appointment to get back into elective office. Scott Lay, who writes “The Nooner” blog as part of the website aroundthecapitol.com, thinks Acosta will challenge Christy Smith, who defeated him last month, for the Assembly seat in 2020, “and with the appointment gains a strong ballot designation.”

One reason the board declined to approve Acosta’s nomination was that it objected to the process by which Barger nominated him.

Board Vice President Maria Gutzeit said she asked Barger’s office for information on how the position was publicized and about Acosta’s relevant experience, but received nothing back.

“There’s no backup, no resume, no information, no comments about the process or how this person was selected,” Gutzeit said. “It doesn’t have to be a political person. It can be just a staff member to represent the agency’s interests if they want. It’s quite broad, who they could appoint. I don’t think this was publicized at all by Barger’s office, at least not what I’ve seen. The water agency is taking the heat for it and Barger’s office’s decision should be done transparently, and I’m not happy it wasn’t done transparently. It’s quite irritating to me.”

Stacy Fortner, calling herself a “concerned citizen,” accused the board of committing a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act because Acosta’s name was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, and sent the allegation to the water agency and the county district attorney’s Division of Public Integrity.

Head Deputy District Attorney Alan Yochelson, one of the two lawyers Fortner sent the complaint to, referred the Gazette’s inquiry to the Media Relations Division. Spokesperson Shiara Davila-Morales emailed to confirm the division had received and was reviewing the complaint.

The Brown Act, among other aspects, guarantees that certain legislative meetings must be open to the public and proscribes when and how those agendas are prepared and circulated. Nowhere does the Act specify that the name of a nominated person must be in the agenda, and water agency attorney Thomas Bunn III sent Fortner a reply referring to Sec. 54954.2 of the Government Code that says the Act requires “a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting.”

“Our agenda satisfied that requirement,” Bunn wrote. “It is therefore my opinion that there was no violation of the Brown Act.”

Plambeck agreed with the notion of a Brown Act violation, saying, “It’s an intent issue. They knew who it was going to be and they didn’t put that on. Now, that isn’t right. That’s an intent to not fully inform the people of what’s going to be on the agenda.”

She also said that the issue is moot because the matter will be fully placed on the Jan. 7 agenda.

Kiza Hilton, who represented the Castaic Lake Water Agency as a consultant from 1996-2000, was one vocal critic of Acosta’s appointment. She said Cooper wanted Efstathiou replaced because he opposed Cooper’s elevation to board president.

“I would question if that played into his being replaced,” she said.

Cooper said he could not recall if Efstathiou voted against him in January – Plambeck said she recalled Efstathiou voted against Cooper the first round but wasn’t sure of the second round – and he did not speak to anyone in Barger’s office. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Not a soul.”

Hilton questioned why the board would appoint someone who doesn’t live in the area he represents. Acosta lives in Canyon Country; Efstathiou’s phone numbers indicate he lives in Sierra Madre.

“What most concerns me is why they would choose an individual that does not have education or experience in water policy,” Hilton said.

To that, Bell said, everyone has some background in water somewhere.

“I would argue that water, that management, leadership, values, character, logic – all of those aspects, as important management skills, are as important as experience in water,” Bell said. “Water is a really important commodity as well as a resource. He is familiar with resources. He’s familiar with how resources ought to be managed, and we think his abilities will pan out in his position.”

According to the website votesmart.org, Acosta spent time in the financial world and as a general sales manager for a San Fernando Valley Chevrolet dealership before getting into elective office, first on the Santa Clarita City Council and then the Assembly.

While in the Assembly for his single term, he served on 11 different committees, including arts, aging and long-term care, legislative audit, aerospace, and small business and entrepreneurship.

Cooper and former Acosta chief of staff David Creager pointed to Acosta’s time on the Natural Resources Committee as relevant experience, and they credited Acosta with helping move Senate Bill 634 through the Assembly.

The Natural Resources Committee’s website says its jurisdiction includes: “air quality, climate change, energy efficiency, renewable energy, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), coastal protection, forestry, land conservation, oil spills, solid waste and recycling.”

It does not mention water, nor does SB 634’s legislative history show it went through that committee. Nor do any of the hundreds of bills Acosta sponsored or co-sponsored relate to water, according to billtrack50.com.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Cooper called Acosta “a very nice person, very capable, and I’m sure that the board will take all of his qualifications under consideration. I don’t see any reason why they would reject Dante.”

On Wednesday, he said the meeting was “very interesting, and it’s good to see the community turn out. People have opinions and we like to hear those.”

Residents Lit Over Lights

| News | December 13, 2018

Gina Nelmar was one of 33,664 property owners who received a letter from the city informing her of a proposed increase to her streetlight-maintenance assessment.

It would be a 560-percent increase, from $12.38 per year to $81.71.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Nelmar wrote on Facebook. “Way to go Santa Clarita. Do we really have a choice unless we want to live in the dark?”

Actually, the answer is yes. Nelmar, like everyone else affected, received a ballot asking her to vote to approve such an increase. Voting no would maintain the status quo and force the city to figure out a different way to comply with state law, according to Special Districts Manager Kevin Tonoian.

The state law in question is Proposition 218, passed in 1996. It’s a very complicated piece of legislation, but the pertinent yet contradictory parts are these: It doesn’t allow the rate to be incrementally adjusted because when the voters approved it, there was no provision to allow the city to adjust rates each year; yet the taxpayers must vote to approve any increase.

Currently, the city has been making up the approximately $2.8 million difference through a general property tax called ad valorem. Tonoian and the city’s engineer’s report for the Santa Clarita Landscaping and Lighting District Fiscal Year 2018-19 said the city wouldn’t use the ad valorem money for this purpose if this increase passes.

City Communications Manager Carrie Lujan said 25,000 property owners currently are paying the required rate; this vote is for just the 33,664 that aren’t.

This also isn’t the first increase of its kind. Lujan and Tonoian said that the city has put similar ballots before affected property owners 98 times since Proposition 218 went into effect, and all 98 times resulted in approved increases.

The engineer’s report also shows that the city next year would pay Southern California Edison $8.95 million of the $15.9 million total cost to take ownership of all the lighting and purchase light-emitting diodes (LED).

Further confusing matters is that some property owners received ballots asking them to vote on not only the lighting-district increase, but also on a landscaping-district assessment. Tonoian told the city council at Tuesday’s meeting that some people are being asked to vote for an increase in landscaping and lighting; others are voting on decreasing landscaping and increasing lighting (Councilmember Bill Miranda said he was part of this group).

“This voting methodology stinks to high heaven and is very unethical,” James Farley told the council. “This is not transparency in government. It is lie by obfuscation by government.”

These votes cannot currently be separated, but Tonoian, responding to a question from Councilmember Bob Kellar, said the votes on the two assessments could be separated and still comply with state law. “The challenge with doing that is it does create confusion amongst residents … because, again, street lighting and landscape maintenance are part of the same district,” he said.

“I can appreciate what people are saying,” Kellar responded, referring to the confusion. Cameron Smyth and Marsha McLean had expressed minutes before.

Councilmember Laurene Weste, who received a letter and ballot, said she was “shocked” and “not impressed.”

“I don’t agree with it at all,” she said, calling for additional information. “What I’m seeing is hopelessly confusing.”

Property owners have until Jan. 22 to submit ballots, either by mail in the enclosed postage-paid envelope or in person at City Hall. However, public comment is scheduled for that night during the city council meeting.

Developers whose projects are not yet developed but are within the affected areas appear to get as many votes as units they’ll build. But once those units are developed, the people who buy the property and become property owners would pay the full rate, Lujan said.

Anyone who doesn’t submit a ballot won’t be counted. A majority of ballots returned must be marked yes for the increase to take effect.

Tonoian said that typically 25 to 30 percent of ballots get returned. “In this instance, I would expect to see a higher return.”

Reaction on Facebook was mixed. Greg Tilston called it “fraud.” Carole Paterson-Thompson wrote, “It’s a bunch of B.S.! Like our property tax money isn’t high enough?”

On the other side, Rena Davenport and Christian Lanz calculated that had the city increased from $12.38 to $81.71 over 20 years, it would amount to $3.47 a year. “If they had raised it $3.40 per year over the same 20-year time span, would anyone have even noticed?” Lanz wrote.

Lawsuit Considered Among Tactics to Enact District Voting

| City Council, News | December 13, 2018


Expect some activity regarding city council district voting early next year.

Two former city council candidates, Brett Haddock and Logan Smith, have told the Gazette they are aware of people who are interested in suing the city to force a move to district voting. Haddock added that he is also searching for the right attorney to bring the suit and expects action in late January or early February.

Neither divulged names of the interested parties, although Smith acknowledged he knows “Latino residents” are involved. It’s also not known if Haddock and Smith are talking to the same parties.

A third candidate, Diane Trautman, originally thought she had someone in mind but told the Gazette that she was no longer sure her contact would go anywhere.

“Diane, Logan and I and Mark White and Ken Dean have discussed it at length, but we haven’t talked about it in the last couple of weeks,” Haddock said.

Dean said he is not involved at this point. Trautman said she isn’t in a position to get involved but would welcome the change. White texted that he will continue to advocate for district voting.

Haddock said he has been approached and is determining a plan of attack. The idea, he said, is to avoid a lawsuit to save the city from paying a large settlement to attorneys.

“I’m hoping we can convince the council to do something on its own,” Haddock said. “I’m an eternal optimist, but with their track record, my hope is curtailed somewhat.”

In fact, the city, as part of its 2019 legislative platform, opposes “legislation that seeks to impose district-based voting in municipal elections or otherwise mandates specific actions for municipalities to implement when challenged regarding compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.”

Santa Clarita is one of the largest cities that has not moved to district voting, even though attempts have been made. Most famous was the lawsuit the city settled in 2014 after two Latino plaintiffs claimed they and their fellow Latinos’ votes were diluted under the CVRA. The CVRA, which expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been widely used to compel cities, school districts, water boards and the like to move to district voting. But the city didn’t, instead moving the election to November from April and going to cumulative voting, which a judge threw out.

“They’re not interested in taking a new approach,” Trautman said of the current councilmembers.

Among the members, Bill Miranda said a few months ago he would be OK with discussing the matter provided a large enough public sample voices a desire.

“Our citizens need to let their voices be heard,” Miranda said in a text.

Cameron Smyth also said he is willing to discuss it, but “policy by way of legal threat is not a great way to develop public policy.”

Marsha McLean, when first contacted Tuesday, called the notion “ridiculous” and said a lawsuit or threat of one is “just people trying to change something that works.”

On Wednesday, she read the following statement to the Gazette: “Through my involvement with the League of California Cities, I’ve seen it again and again where districts bring more politics to the table and unintended consequences. For instance, any three council members when fighting over which district gets funding for a project, can form a political bloc and the other two districts can be continuously left out. The residents in those districts would have no power or recourse because they can only vote in their own district, which can create a perpetual deficit of projects for them.”

Bob Kellar said he doesn’t want a lawsuit and always tries to ask, “What is the most responsible thing we can do for our citizens? If I saw a circumstance where I thought the city of Santa Clarita was not being properly governed, I would support this.”

COC’s $21 Million Parking Structure to Open in the Spring

| News | December 6, 2018

Two of the three levels of the College of the Canyons parking structure are scheduled to be open when the spring semester begins Feb. 4, Vice President of Public Information Eric Harnish said. That’s 1,106 of the 1,659 planned spaces.

Harnish said the structure, funded through Measure E at a cost of $21 million, will add a net 1,000 spaces.

While the structure was being built, the school closed about 700 spaces in Lot 7, turned the about 160-space staff Lot 2, located off College Circle at Rockwell Canyon Road, into a student and visitor lot, moved the staff onto the upper athletic field behind the east wing of the University Center – which worked until recent rains closed it – offered $5 discounts using Uber or Lyft, turned Lot 4 into a carpool-only lot, created an off-site parking lot on Magic Mountain Parkway near Tournament Road.

College board Vice President Michael Berger said the additional parking would benefit students and faculty alike. He said that student and COC Foundation surveys regularly placed parking problems as the top concern, and a majority of students he hears from have expressed excitement at having additional parking.

About the only complaint he’s heard is how many current students are graduating and won’t be around to enjoy it.

Not everybody’s pleased that the college is spending what it is. Local activist Steve Petzold said he has spoken to faculty members who question why the school is prioritizing this and not on things that would help in the classroom.

And Berger said this last month on SCV TV: “We only have a problem the first two weeks of school. … Once we have that (parking structure), it’ll probably eliminate the problems we have during the most difficult time, the first two weeks of the semester.”

Berger and Harnish admitted the first two weeks are the most crowded. Harnish said that’s because students are making additional trips to campus, perhaps to buys books, take care of financial aid or add classes. “People haven’t settled into a predictable rhythm,” he said.

Furthermore, Measure E also currently funds a 55,000 square-foot science center on the Canyon Country campus, and Harnish said the state doesn’t fund parking at community colleges because it’s not considered a student service.

“It seems like a basic student service,” Harnish said. “If they can’t park, they can’t get to class.”

Berger said the growth reports he has seen clearly justify the expense. While he acknowledged the structure will not be full during off-peak hours (generally 1-6 p.m.), it will be during the 8 a.m.-noon and 7-10 p.m. peak times.

“We’ve solved it for now,” Berger said of the parking problem. “The demand is certainly there. The need is definitely there.”

Katie Hill Making Progress

| News | December 6, 2018

With about a month before she’s sworn in as the 25th Congressional District representative, Katie Hill has led a movement to ensure Nancy Pelosi is re-elected Speaker of the House, been elected co-freshman representative to the Democratic House leadership, became the first congresswoman-elect to deliver the party’s weekly address, and co-signed a letter to President Trump asking for more federal aid for California fire relief.
This is on top of the usual transitional matters: training and orientation, reviewing ethics rules, learning how to use the computers, assembling staffs and offices in Washington and the district, preparing a legislative agenda, caucuses with various Democrats and flying between there and here several times. This week, she’s in Boston for more orientation with all new members of Congress.

“It’s been a busy few weeks,” she said.

Not that she’s complaining. This is what she feels she was sent to Washington for: to get things done, which starts by getting out there and meeting the right people.

“It’s critical to build relationships that will help in the long term,” she said.

That begins with Pelosi. Hill said the 16 Democrats who have pledged not to vote for Pelosi are just making a political point, “and I thought it was dumb. She accomplished so much, and we don’t have an alternative.” In fact, no one has stepped forward to challenge Pelosi.

“She’s going to be Speaker,” Hill said. “It’s just a matter of how messy that’s going to be.”

Another early relationship she established was with Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), her co-freshman representative to leadership. Previously, the post had always been held by a single person, but Hill said Neguse asked her to join him because the incoming freshman class – 60 Democrats – is so large and diverse, it felt natural to have more than one representative “to ensure we can fight for the issues most important to the communities we represent,” Hill said in a statement.

Hill, Mike Levin, Harley Rouda and Katie Porter were four California freshmen who circulated a letter seeking support for Pelosi. These same four were among the seven who wrote a letter to Trump thanking him for the disaster declarations in Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties; and requesting additional Federal Emergency Management Agency support for debris removal and emergency protective measures.

“As new members of Congress, we will come to Washington next year committed to working across the aisle to ensure that federal resources are available to all Americans when they need them the most. Now is that time,” the letter said.

In the party address, Hill spoke about the need “to repair the trust between people and our government” and called for passing House Resolution 1, which focuses on reducing money’s influence in politics, expanding conflict-of-interest laws, banning members from serving on for-profit boards of directors, renewing the Voting Rights Act to fight voter suppression, ending gerrymandering and promoting an automatic national voter registration.

“Now, more than ever, this caucus is committed to delivering for real people across this country. We’re changing the game, and we’re doing it by prioritizing legislation like HR1,” she said in the three-and-a-half-minute address. “People want change, and they want it now. We don’t have time for party infighting, and we owe our communities reform so they can trust in their government to deliver when they need it most.”
Hill also has assembled some staff and has an office in the Longworth Building in DC, but she’s finding it difficult because she has only $1.7 million to pay for offices and staff in Washington and in the district (this doesn’t include her $174,000 salary).

She added that she plans on keeping predecessor Steve Knight’s district offices to make it easier for constituents to find, and she plans to spend weekends in the district as Knight did.

She also has not been assigned to any committees yet, but said her first choice would be armed services because of its importance to the district (Knight also served on it). She also wants transportation and infrastructure, but since members are often picked geographically and there already are nine Californians – including seven Democrats – she’s not pushing it.

Other committees she wouldn’t mind are oversight; space, science and technology; and education and the workforce.

“No matter what committees I’m on, I’m going to find a way to make it meaningful for the district,” she said.

Her legislative agenda includes passing HR1, fixing aspects of the Affordable Care Act, making prescription medication more affordable, passing the DREAM Act to benefit children of people who entered the country illegally, and passing legislation requiring universal background checks for gun buyers.

One area she’s steering clear of, for now at least, is the investigations House leaders have planned for Trump: possible collusion with Russia and his tax returns chief among them. Even though Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) are expected to take over the intelligence, oversight and judiciary committees, Hill said these are not her areas of expertise.

At the same time, she said, the Congress has a constitutional duty to check the president, so she welcomes the investigations but would only get involved if placed on one of those committees.

“That’s why America put in some checks and balances,” she said. “This is not a witch hunt.”

At last one supporter applauded Hill’s actions thus far.

“I love that she’s going out there and taking charge,” said Stacy Fortner, member of the Democratic Part of the San Fernando Valley. “I like that she’s becoming a leader of the class. I like that she’s gaining the respect of her peers. I have high hopes.”

Katie Hill’s Head Start

| News | November 30, 2018

Katie Hill won’t officially become a member of Congress until Jan. 3, but she isn’t waiting to get involved.

She and fellow California Member-elect Mike Levin, from the 49th congressional district in San Diego, circulated a letter two weeks ago declaring support for Nancy Pelosi to be re-elected Speaker of the House.

Now, 18 other freshman members from 15 states have signed on.

“I ran for office so that I could start to deliver for our community as quickly as possible,” Hill said in a statement. “I believe, and many members of the incoming class believe, that the best way to deliver is under tested leadership committed to bipartisan work that doesn’t compromise our values. Nancy Pelosi brings that leadership to the table, and I wanted to do everything I could to ensure we are able to start getting to work on day one.”

Hill and Levin’s original letter, addressed to “Members of the 116th Congress and fellow Freshman Class,” said that Pelosi (D-San Francisco) would be best able to help them tackle the issues their constituents want, including better health care, a better tax plan, reducing the role of money in politics, increasing transparency and accountability, and getting things done in Congress.

A shorter but substantially similar letter signed by the other members was released Tuesday.

“The incoming class of first-term members is younger and more diverse than ever before. A proven leader like Leader Pelosi will be a valuable resource as we, ourselves, step up to lead, and as we work to make life better for the people we represent,” the new letter said.

Pelosi previously served as the 52nd Speaker of the House from 2007-11. The Speaker is third in the line of succession for the presidency.

Christy Smith Assembles

| News | November 29, 2018

Although she never declared victory, her opponent conceded, so 38th Assembly District candidate Christy Smith has begun the process of becoming Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita).

She’s been in Sacramento since Tuesday and will be there through at least the Dec. 3 swearing-in. But between now and the Jan. 7 start of the legislative session, she has much to do.
This includes finding office space, assembling a staff, attending orientation and training sessions, and taking meetings with various local business and governmental leaders.

She’s getting a late start because it took some time after the election for it to be clear that she had defeated Dante Acosta (the latest total, according to the Secretary of State’s website, has her ahead by 5,164 votes, or 2.8 percentage points; the final totals won’t be certified until early next month).

“I’m in sort of this limbo transition stage at this point until I’m official-official,” she said Monday. “Because my race ended later because we didn’t know the final result, some of the newer members have already gone up for training, so my situation is a little bit unusual.”

That “training” includes how to find office space, which is no easy matter, she’s discovering. She can’t automatically assume Acosta’s former office because it depends on the lease, she said. There also are budgetary concerns, human-resources issues and staffing to figure out, but she’s learning that the Assembly’s Committee on Rules governs various operational and logistical aspects.

She’s also learning about the legislative process, which includes writing legislation. She said she did some of that as a Newhall School District board member.

She just started assembling a staff (one person’s helping her, she said) but won’t have anything finalized until her training is complete.

Smith said Acosta has been “very generous in offering his support. At some point, I’ll have the opportunity to do a transition meeting with his staff.”

She also plans numerous meetings with various city councils, economic development corporations and chambers of commerce to hear their concerns and desires; some of those have already been scheduled, she said.

Regardless of these meetings’ outcomes, Smith said the legislative issues she’s ready to tackle immediately are: stopping CEMEX, mitigating any environmental impacts of the high-speed rail project, and ensuring there can’t be another gas leak like in Aliso Canyon in 2015.

She said she chose the Santa Clarita designation because “It’s the city where I live. There are so many different named communities in the district, I hate to leave anybody out. Santa Clarita’s my hometown, so that’s what I’m going with.”

Santa Clarita Lacks Wildfire Prevention Plan

| News | November 29, 2018

The Woolsey fire killed three people, burned almost 97,000 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures and caused some 295,000 people to evacuate. Can a similar fire devastate Sana Clarita in the future?

It’s something community activist Alan Ferdman wonders, especially after reading City Manager Ken Striplin’s article in Sunday’s Signal describing what people can do to prepare for such disasters.

“Well, what are you going to do to prevent it from happening?” Ferdman, the chair of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, asked. “They purchased a lot of open space around the city, especially here on the east side, and it just creates a bunch of fuel for brush fires. What is the city planning to do to help keep our side of the city safe?”

The city has more than 4,000 acres of open space surrounding it. As Ferdman pointed out, “If you have open space and you don’t develop it out here, all it does is it creates a large amount of brush that grows in the winter and becomes dead in the summer, and a spark sets it off.”

Two years ago, the Sand fire killed one person, burned two buildings and ran through more than 41,000 acres. One thing that and the Woolsey fire had in common was the abundance of dry brush, specifically chaparral.

In September 1970, winds pushed several fires into a solid 20-mile-long wall from Newhall to Malibu. Ten people died, 403 homes were lost and more than 435,000 acres were burned. The Los Angeles Times called this fire “Southern California’s worst ever.”

Members of the city council seemed at a loss to explain what the plans are.

“It’s a good question,” Mayor Pro-Tem Marsha McLean said. “Obviously, it’s extremely important to have plans in place.”

McLean mentioned that no homes can be built in the open space, which she said would help curtail loss of property. But she also acknowledged that fires don’t limit themselves to just undeveloped areas, and winds can send sparks into residential areas.

Councilmember Bob Kellar said he knows of no plans to clear the brush. “We have thousands of acres now of open space in total. I will tell you it’s not likely we’re going to put Rain Birds out there,” he said. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature, largely, when it comes to that circumstance. I don’t see anything different in that regard other than trying to be as prepared as we can.”

Mayor Laurene Weste is a big proponent of open space, as her bio on the city’s website says she would like to see additional open space acquired. Yet when this reporter called to ask about the city’s plans for fire prevention, she said she was on another call and abruptly hung up.

According to city spokesperson Carrie Lujan, the city manages vegetation around all roads, access points and trailheads, reseeds fire breaks with fire-resistant foliage, and trims and removes brush and grasses in open-space areas that abut neighborhoods. Additionally, the Los Angeles County Fire Department routinely assesses defensible spaces around neighborhoods to ensure proper brush clearance and, if necessary, recommends other methods of vegetation management, she said.

“Fire crews also have plans in place to fight fires in hard to access open space locations. This includes the best access routes, which roads the water tenders should take, where they can fill up, as well as local helispots for helicopters to pick up water,” Lujan said in an email. “As the City continues to acquire land, we continue to review management of our Open Space.”

As far as Ferdman is concerned, the plan doesn’t say anything.

“Are they going to cut fire trails? Are they going to put in piping for water in case the Forestry Service needs it?” he asked. “What’s their plan?”

Ferdman said he planned to discuss it at Wednesday’s Canyon Country Advisory Committee meeting, and query the city council at its next meeting.

Family Promise Asks for Community Support

| News | November 21, 2018

Roché Vermaak believes people are good. As executive director of Family Promise of the Santa Clarita Valley, he sees people doing good all the time, and he derives tremendous satisfaction in contributing to the good.

He will see all the good on display Dec. 15 at the Valencia United Methodist Church when his organization, dedicated to helping homeless families, will put on its second annual holiday shopping event. More than 400 homeless people, up from 174 last year, are expected to come to this event and shop for free for needed items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies, diapers, soap, shampoo, canned food and clothing as well as gifts, toys and gift cards.

But for this event to be as successful as last year’s, the community has to come together and help so everybody can have a joyous holiday.

The holidays are a time for family, for giving and a time for gratitude, and Vermaak wants community members to recognize how good they have it – and how some aren’t as fortunate. Homelessness is never easy, especially for families, many of which are fronted by single mothers who simply don’t make enough, have what Vermaak said is “all the stress in the world on them” and can’t provide a traditional Christmas or holiday celebration.

He said now is the time to help.

“I believe that with Thanksgiving and the holiday season and Christmas and New Year’s, people feel like, ‘I’m blessed, my life is good, I’ve got a family to go to,’ and they want to serve and make a difference in the lives of people that don’t have that, who don’t have a family to go to over Christmas or Thanksgiving, who don’t have a meal,” Vermaak said. “And they just want to say, ‘I’m a human being just like you.’ We hear about all the shootings. We hear about all the fires. We hear about all the hatred in our country. Let’s do something that binds people together across the lines of ethnicity and the lines of income. You don’t often get that.”

According to the 2017 Homeless Point-In-Time Count, conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority, it is estimated that approximately 331 residents experience homelessness on any given night in Santa Clarita. The city said on its website it is committed to addressing this growing concern, but organizations such as Family Promise are on the front lines, partnering with religious congregations, youth groups, PTAs and other school groups, auxiliaries and secular groups such as Elks, Rotary and Boys and Girls Club to help make the holidays a little bit better for homeless and low-income families.

Vermaak said he started work on this event in October, a month earlier than last year. As of last week, more than 30 people have signed up to volunteer for 157 out of 327 available slots (48 percent).

According to the online signup list, a Girl Scout troop and families from Skyblue Mesa and Highlands Elementary are manning the donation location on Valley Street in Newhall. People have signed up to sort gifts, wrap gifts, transport supplies, decorate, assist families with shopping, set up tables, serve food and beverage, and clean up.

Last year, a company donated 3,000 half-used toilet-paper rolls. A then-8-year-old, Cayden Tyler, and his grandmother collected clothing. During the actual shopping, mothers helped mothers. Four-year-olds helped other 4-year-olds.

People donate gift cards from such places as Target or Shell. Dining establishments such as Bagel Boyz and Little Caesars Pizza donate food. Vermaak said his phone and email are regularly ringing and buzzing with requests from people wanting to help.

“This is a community event,” Vermaak said. “We love that so many individuals and organizations and churches and schools are saying, ‘You know what? Being poor and being homeless over this holiday season is not acceptable.’ It’s a small thing we do, but you know what? Sometimes, it’s the only thing a child needs, just someone that shows (that) I care for you in the season … you play with your toys, your parents are able to give you a good plate of food, and there’s some clothing, and somebody cares for you.”

“It’s not Family Promise. It’s the community.”

How can you help? Donate!

Gifts: Toys for all age groups 0-18. Smaller gifts preferred since we allow families to shop for about 3-4 gifts per child. Gifts for adults (smaller size). Puzzles and games

Gift cards: Gas, food, restaurants, Walmart, Target, 99c store, Dollar Tree, grocery stores, prepaid phone cards. $25 per family under four persons, $50 per family over 4 persons.

Supplies: Diaper (especially size 4-6), baby wipes, diaper cream, feminine hygiene products, cleaning supplies, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, soap, bodywash, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, toothpaste, toothbrushes, make-up and beauty products, body wash, bath towels, queen and twin bedsheets, pillow cases standard & king, disposable razors, shaving cream, zip lock bags, trash bags, plastic cutlery, paper towels, paper plates, paper bowls, napkins, school supplies.

Clothing: Underwear for boys, girls. Socks for all ages and genders. Shirts, pants, shorts for children.

Volunteer opportunities: Sign-up here to donate or volunteer

The Family Promise Story

In 1982, Karen Olson was a marketing executive who developed promotional campaigns for consumer products. One morning, on her way to a meeting, she saw a homeless woman, someone she’d seen over and over again on her way to work.

She decided to buy a sandwich for the woman. The stranger accepted the sandwich but asked for something else—a moment to be heard, to be comforted, and to be considered as more than a mere statistic on a cold street corner.

Soon, Karen and her two young sons began frequent trips to New York to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. As she came to know some of the city’s homeless people, she began to understand the profound loss and disconnection that homelessness causes. That understanding turned into an enduring commitment.

The First Interfaith Hospitality Network
Olson learned that there were hundreds of homeless people, including families, in her home community of Union County, New Jersey.

She turned to the religious community for help, convinced that there were many who shared her concern and that together they could do what they couldn’t do alone. Within ten months, eleven area congregations came forward to provide hospitality space within their buildings. The local YMCA agreed to provide showers and a day center for families. A car dealer discounted a van.

On October 27, 1986, the first Interfaith Hospitality Network opened its doors.

As word spread, ten more congregations formed a second Network. Programs for transitional housing, childcare, and family mentoring followed—outgrowths of increased awareness and involvement.

The Network Goes National
The success of the first Networks led other congregations to seek help in developing similar programs. In 1988, National Interfaith Hospitality Network was formed to bring the program to other areas where neighbors could work together to help homeless families.

To date, Family Promise has established 149 affiliates in 39 states, using the services of more than 125,000 volunteers and 5,000 congregations.

The IHNs provide shelter, meals, and housing and job placement support to more than 45,000 homeless family members annually, 60 percent of them children.

Witnessing firsthand the obstacles that low-income families face, Family Promise leaders and volunteers have been motivated to do more. Affiliates have seized the initiative to create additional community programs, such as housing renovation, job training, and healthcare programs.

As a way of helping at-risk families avoid homelessness, Family Promise began training volunteers to advise and mentor families, helping them achieve and maintain self-sufficiency.

To foster a greater understanding of the root causes of homelessness, Family Promise launched the Just Neighbors educational curriculum.

In 2003, the organization changed its name to Family Promise to reflect a broader range of programs and reaffirm its core commitment to helping families realize their own potential.

And although 40 states and 125,000 volunteers now define the breadth and depth of the organization, Karen’s mandate remains in place … if you can strengthen one family, you can strengthen a nation.

Top Rated
As a national organization, Family Promise has been awarded a 4-star Charity Navigator designation for the fifth year in a row. Only 9 percent of nonprofits achieve this, and it reflects our commitment to transparency, good governance, fiscal prudence, and strategic growth.

Locally you can find more at http://www.familypromisescv.org/family-promise-of-scv/, (661) 251-2868

Agua Dulce Measure CK Fails

| News | November 15, 2018

Having been on the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District board for a decade, including three terms as board president, Ed Porter knows the difficulty of getting a bond measure approved. Voters have defeated five of the last six bond measures that came before them.

Porter was not the least bit surprised when Measure CK went down to defeat last week. It needed 55 percent of the vote but only got 40 percent.

Not that he was disappointed with the result. In fact, he said he voted against it.

“I’m not saying I told you so,” he said. “The vote speaks for itself.”

While the vast majority of school bonds pass – the online California Local Government Finance Almanac said voters approved 89 of 112 (79.4 percent) this election cycle – Acton Agua Dulce found itself in the minority.

And Porter thinks the answer begins in 2008, when the voters narrowly approved (by .76 percent) Measure CF, which let the district sell $13 million to primarily replace portable classrooms with permanent ones.

“(In) the community out here, and I don’t necessarily disagree with them, the saying goes, ‘Look, we were reluctant about the previous bond. We knew once we passed that, you’re gonna ask for more bonds,’ so this became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy,” Porter said.

Secondly, he said, the voters loathe paying more property taxes, and they know that, although bond funds are repaid through the state’s General Fund, property taxes go into the General Fund. Also, very few renters live in the district, he said, and renters are more likely to vote for bonds that they don’t have to pay for.

Then there are people he called “pragmatic people that actually study this and say, ‘Look, you’re not supposed to be paying for paint and grass and carpet with bonds.’ ” These are the same individuals who were skeptical that the district would be able to secure another $3.4 million in Proposition 39 matching funds if the bond passed.

“Having been one of four districts out of 1,100 districts to get the match for our high school bond, we’re unlikely to get the second match,” Porter said of Measure CF.

Porter also objected to the district sending out notices on district letterhead asking for yes votes, a violation of state law. But his objections to the bond go way back and were well documented on Facebook.

In his long post from Oct. 29, Porter said he and late board member Larry Layton preferred a $1.5 million bond that would complete the renovation of Acton School and resolve some overcrowding issues.

Porter wrote that he and Superintendent Larry King figured the additional property tax would be $2.79 per $100,000 of assessed value, meaning the average homeowner would pay an additional $12.58 per year, below the self-imposed maximum of $15.

So, what happened? “Suddenly all caution was thrown to the wind and the pragmatic approach to passing a bond that would specifically tailor it to the community’s tolerance was forgotten!” Porter wrote. “A feeding frenzy – for a lack of a better term – was initiated on the part of staff, special interest groups and our bond writers in order to first include various projects that are NOT customarily paid for by bonds, at least not by AADUSD historically.”

This included paint, grass and tennis courts, and the $1.5 million suddenly became what Porter said Layton called “a dream bond” that ballooned to $5.5 million, then $7.5 million, the number needed to qualify for Proposition 39 matching funds.

“Sadly, this is how bureaucracy and unchecked public education funding works when bonds are seen as an easy method of funding project as opposed to finding prioritized solutions and practicing responsible stewardship of public money,” Porter wrote. “I also believe that while many good intentioned folks are pushing for this bond, there are groups and individuals that are involved in its development and promotion that pose a conflict of interest, if not legally, certainly morally, in my opinion and in that of many others and the credibility of the bond suffered a great deal as a result of this.”

Layton died in May. At a school board meeting subsequent to this death, the matter of school bonds arose. Porter made a motion to place the $1.5 million bond before the voters but did not get a second.

“I felt that my fellow board members had already made up their minds due to various reasons, to include pressure from the louder voices in the community and from our own staff,” Porter wrote. “Mind you, they didn’t have to vote for the smaller bond, but I feel that they should have at least allowed my case to be presented publicly for the community’s sake. I was simply baffled at the lack of critical thinking in determining what was best suited to be included in a prioritized approach, the lack of concern for the community’s tolerance of the bond amount and the casual approach of allowing and approving various items on the long list, many of which should never be paid for by a bond.”

Another board member made a motion to place the $7.5 million measure on the ballot. Had Porter voted no, he would have prevented it from appearing on the ballot. Instead, he voted to let the voters decide.

As a result of the failure, King said, some projects at Vazquez High will be put on hold. These include improving outdoor tennis and basketball courts and lighting standards. However, he said, there is enough money from other sources to complete the work on the softball field, the track and the concession stand/restrooms near the football stadium.

“Without the bond in place, we will just have to go to those funding sources and address the most crucial needs and be prepared for the unforeseen as much as we can,” King said. By “unforeseen,” he meant leaky roofs, asphalt falling apart and unsafe fields.

Throughout the 18-minute interview, Porter never gloated and always sounded sad at the outcome. But his resolve also never wavered.

“They didn’t understand the complexities of getting a bond passed here,” he said.

Bookkeeper Under Investigation

| News | November 15, 2018

Chris Ball hired Neilla Cenci as his bookkeeper in 2005. She was responsible for, among other things, all matters related to accounting, accounts receivable and financial record keeping for Ball Construction Management, Inc.

Cenci was one of only a handful of employees for the small Canyon Country business. Working in close quarters, Cenci was like every other worker: She smiled every day, always said, “Good morning,” was cordial and friendly, did her job and was, so Ball thought, loyal.

Thirteen years later, the Internal Revenue Service randomly audited Ball’s company seeking documentation for $37,755.48 in payments to a Discover credit card for tax year 2015. After receiving the 20 checks from the bank, Ball and his wife, Krissy, were shocked to see that Krissy’s signature had been forged. Krissy said she recognized Cenci’s handwriting.

“One safeguard we had was that only my wife and I could sign checks,” Chris Ball said. “The only way to get money from us is to commit a crime. I didn’t think my employees would commit a crime.”

Further investigation led the Balls to believe that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and they have filed a lawsuit against Cenci alleging she misappropriated, embezzled, converted and/or diverted $1,586,732.06 going back to 2006. They seek that amount, plus whatever punitive and exemplary damages and court costs the court would grant.

“She stole more than her net worth while she worked for us,” Chris Ball said. “She stole checks and forged our signatures.”

Cenci, 70, did not return phone calls seeking comment, but she was arrested Sept. 6 in connection with the $37,755.48 the IRS audit revealed. An arrest report from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Department showed she was granted $20,000 bail. No charges stemming from that arrest have been filed, and Krissy Ball said friends have told her that Cenci has told people the Balls dropped the charges because it was a big misunderstanding.

The Balls have not forgotten.
“It’s been a range of emotions: shock, anger, embarrassment, frustration,” Krissy Ball said. “Knowing her and having been her friend, like a sister to me. It hurts.”

Chris Ball started his business, which supports attorneys who assist homeowners in suing builders for construction defects, 25 years ago. At its high point, Ball employed 20 people, but after the 2008 recession it shrunk to two inspectors and four office employees plus his wife.

According to Ball’s personal declaration, which he said he wrote to assist law enforcement, insurance companies and his attorneys, he hired Cenci Feb. 28, 2005, and she worked for Ball until her arrest. Typically, it was Cenci who collected and opened the mail, wrote checks, made bookkeeping entries, reviewed bank statements and reconciled the accounts using QuickBooks accounting software (Cenci was the only one who knew how to use QuickBooks).

Ball alleges Cenci embezzled money by presenting him with an invoice and company check to sign, then repeating the process with his wife. One check was mailed to the Ball’s Visa account or another merchant such as Home Depot, the other to a different account.

Ball also alleges that the way Cenci covered her tracks was to write checks printed from QuickBooks, usually with the last four digits of a payee’s account number in the memo field. After printing the checks, she would delete the last four digits in the memo field in QuickBooks. But the last four digits remained on the canceled check. The money would be deposited into various Cenci accounts. Ball alleges Cenci used between 31 and 40 different personal accounts.

To hide expenses, Ball alleges Cenci made bookkeeping entries for false expenses in multiple accounts so the entries would be small and precise, and the theft would be virtually undetectable in profit-and-loss statements.

“I would carefully review quarterly P&L and Balance Sheets, but I foolishly did not review bank statements or the check registers,” Ball wrote in his personal declaration.

It wasn’t until the IRS audit that Chris Ball suspected anything. He said he thought the money was in the bank.

“The money she stole basically represents the savings of 25 years of running my business,” he said. “We were betrayed.”

At first, Discover was of no help, but thanks to examining the 20 canceled company checks from Union Bank, coupled with the sheriff’s station pressuring Discover Financial Services to cooperate (Ball said he could never get Discover on the phone), the Balls learned that Cenci had deposited the $37,000-plus into her accounts.

In Chris Ball’s personal declaration, there is an example of a forged signature and Krissy Ball’s real signature. She said when she saw it, it was “like a punch to the gut.”

The same day Krissy confirmed to deputies that her signature had been forged, Cenci was arrested at work.

“I had to pretend nothing was going on,” Krissy Ball said. “She’s crazy. … She knows we know the full extent now. There’s no way around it.”

In the first 30 days following Cenci’s arrest, the Balls obtained online access to their accounts and discovered payments to Wells Fargo, Macy’s, Barclay’s, Best Buy and other accounts unknown to them. All told, they found 805 checks totaling almost $1.2 million. Most of that went into accounts at five banks or credit-card companies: Visa, Discover, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America.

In the next 30 days, they found another 200 checks totaling more than $300,000.

Since Cenci’s arrest, Krissy Ball has been documenting everything she could. These include bank statements, emails, attachments and computer junk files, and the Balls have hired a CPA to download everything from the computer Cenci used.

“It’s maddening. It’s been my obsession, and it’s killing me,” she said, “and it shouldn’t. I’m a grown woman. … My son is mad at me. This is all I do. I’ve got piles and piles of documents I want to go through. What other ways did she swindle us?”

Ball said Cenci has appeared in her dreams. In one, she’s helping Ball work on spreadsheets. In another, she blames Ball’s sister for the missing money (Chris Ball’s personal declaration said his sister-in-law has been helping with the documentation).

Also among the documentation are social media posts from the various vacations Cenci, her daughter and grandchildren have taken: Hawaii, Florida (twice), Las Vegas, Texas, Georgia and four cruises. Krissy Ball also has seen posts about the gifts the grandchildren have received. She’s convinced it’s the Ball’s money that is paying for all of this.

Although the Balls have not seen Cenci since her arrest, Krissy said she has friends who keep a lookout. Friends saw Cenci at a yard sale Nov. 3 and reported to her that “she looked awful, drugged on meds,” Krissy said. “She has her ailments.”

The next day, friends went to an open house at Cenci’s condo in Valencia (Krissy Ball also believes stolen money paid for the upgrades) and learned that not only was she trying to sell the home, she wanted to move out of state. That caused the Balls to quickly file a Notice of Pendency of Action on the property to stop the sale, meaning any prospective buyer must be notified that there is pending litigation against the property. Chris Ball said he did that “to maintain the status quo until a court can decide.” In the meantime, the home is off the market.

Chris Ball said he does not believe Cenci will ever be able to repay the $1.5 million. Her final salary was just shy of $63,000.

He declined to say what final outcome he seeks. His wife made it clear what she wants.

“I want to see her in prison,” she said. “I want to see her mug shot. I want that satisfaction.”

An Open Letter to Katie Hill

| Opinion | November 8, 2018

Dear Rep.-Elect Katie Hill:

You have made history by becoming the first Democrat elected to the House from this area, having defeated Steve Knight in what I’m sure you’ll agree was the longest and most challenging and expensive campaign you have ever endured. Let me be the next to say congratulations. It was a true marathon, you having declared back in March 2017, and you are to be commended for this incredible accomplishment.

Of course, you won’t be seated as part of the 116th United States Congress until January, giving you time to reflect on what has happened and what you plan to do in this upcoming term. As I’ve covered this race from the start, I have some definite ideas of what I think you should consider, think about and do for the next two years.

The most important thing is to put the interests of your constituents first. In other words, vote district over party. From day one you should demonstrate that you are looking out for their welfare. Do not give your constituents the perception that you do little to nothing until six months before the election and then start trumpeting your accomplishments.

I saw many Facebook posts that said, in effect, you would vote with Nancy Pelosi over and over again. Granted, “Nancy Pelosi” is a Republican buzzword, but you need to be independent and not cast your vote with the Democrats as much as Knight did with the Republicans (the website FiveThirtyEight pegged it at 98.9 percent). You would be wise to remember the support Knight has given the veterans and the aerospace industry.

You also need to read up on CEMEX and become intimately familiar with it. While taxes, the economy, jobs and healthcare are important to everyone in the district, mining in Soledad Canyon is a Santa Clarita-specific concern. Saying you hadn’t heard of it until relatively recently cost you any chance of winning The Signal’s endorsement and showed true ignorance (in fact, the Gazette quoted you in an article about CEMEX back in March). If you truly want to represent everybody like you say, you must understand this issue.

Knight alienated a wide swath of voters by objecting to his voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and many in the district are convinced the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will be detrimental, and he infamously said about Social Security, “I absolutely think it was a bad idea.” Granted, you won’t have a problem with these issues, but something unforeseen will arise, and you had better be ready to discuss and explain yourself better than Knight did.

My second suggestion concerns accessibility. A candidate often grants better access than an incumbent, and you would be wise to remember how accessible you have been. That means meeting with all constituents, not just those in Santa Clarita. Don’t let there be stories of locking doors and refusing to meet people. When you return to the district, why not randomly drive around and show up somewhere unannounced? You can take the pulse of your constituents that way.

Finally, for heaven’s sake, avoid the perception of hypocrisy and disingenuousness. People believe that you chased the money – witness your refusal to sign the so-called “People’s Pledge” to keep outside money out of the race and the fact that you raised more than $7 million this cycle. And only mentioning you’re bisexual, a gun owner and a survivor of sexual assault when the issue arises makes you look opportunistic and cheapens these tenets of your identity. You should be proud of who you are and where you’ve come from.

I’m not saying, “Do these things and you’re guaranteed to be successful.” You’ll never please everybody, it’s tough to get much done as a freshman congresswoman, and surely there will be serious Republican challengers the next time around. But true representative government means listening to those you represent. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders and representatives such as Brad Sherman and Adam Schiff are not your constituents. Don’t do what they want if that will harm the people in the 25th.

Once again, congratulations. Good luck, and we’ll be watching.

Katie Hill Makes History

| News | November 8, 2018

Fox News declared the Democrats were on their way to retaking the House of Representatives before the polls closed in California. Within the first hour after the polls closed, it had become official.

Several hundred people gathered at the Canyon Santa Clarita on Tuesday night to see if Katie Hill would join the numerous Democrats (many of whom were first-time candidates and women) in turning at least the lower chamber blue.

Although the totals aren’t official until the Secretary of State certifies the election next month, Hill led Rep. Steve Knight by 4,117 votes (51.3 percent to 48.7 percent), and Knight conceded via voicemail around 10:30 a.m., a press release from Hill’s people said.

Santa Clarita has voted Republican since it first could cast votes. That changed.

“We’re at a moment of history,” Hill told her hundreds of supporters Tuesday night when the race was still too close to call. “We really, truly are at a moment where … Americans are standing up, where young people are standing up, where women are standing up. And where regular people who say it is not OK for us to have a political system that only represents the wealthiest people in our country and big corporations and special interests and partisan politics, and it leaves the rest of us behind.”

The next day, it still felt surreal to her.

“I still feel like a regular person,” she said. “It’s just bizarre, but I guess that’s what it’s supposed to be, right? You want to have people there (in Washington) who aren’t politicians but are there to represent the people, and I know I can do that.”

What mattered to those assembled was that they finally have a representative that city council candidate and county Democratic Party delegate Logan Smith said “will represent the best interests of the district.”

“We want representation of our values,” said Stacy Fortner, member of the Democratic Part of the San Fernando Valley. “We don’t want Trump’s agenda shoved down our throats.”

That means get ready for investigations into various Trump-related activities and issues, from collusion with Russia and protecting the Robert Mueller investigation to subpoenaing his income tax forms. But since the Republicans kept their Senate majority, a split Congress means more gridlock.

That didn’t matter to Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who made an appearance at the Hill party.

“It doesn’t matter if we have an 11-seat majority, a 16-seat majority or a 20-seat majority,” Sherman said. “I need an ally to work with on local issues. We have got to compel the federal government to issue natural gas storage regulations.”

But on Tuesday, everything seemed secondary to Hill. She told the crowd that this campaign let people who didn’t feel like they had a voice be heard.

“We’ve let people know that their vote matters, and that we’re counting on them, and the only way we can make change happen is if we are the change,” she said to wild applause. “What we do know is no matter what the outcome is, this is only the beginning of the fight. We have to continue this. This is a moment where we have to win for the people, people that have been sitting silent on the sidelines because they don’t think their voice is going to be heard no matter what.”

For many of those people, it felt good to be rid of Knight, who they felt didn’t represent them.

“I don’t think he has a sense of direction,” city council candidate Diane Trautman said. “I think he just follows. I think Katie will stand up for things. Steve Knight is a go-along-to-get-along kind of guy.”

Volunteer Elise Levine, who doesn’t live in the district (she splits time between Brentwood and Chatsworth), said Knight is “unavailable to his constituents, playing hide and seek like other Republicans, and this district doesn’t deserve another term of that.”

On Tuesday, before it was official, Hill made it clear that she wanted to win as part of a big national Democratic Party victory.

“The biggest thing is that if we go in with a mandate, if we go in with a big victory, it shows that the United States people are ready for a serious change, and that change is the way we’re able to approach things, so I really hope to go in with a strong victory … and that means we’ll be able to get to work,” she said.

On Wednesday, she sounded very similar.

“What this is all showing is it is a changing of the dynamics and the makeup of Congress, and that’s what’s going to allow us to start making changes,” she said. “I’m proud to be part of the first wave of something that is truly making a major shift that is going to last for generations.”

Do Election Endorsements Matter?

| News | November 1, 2018

On candidate websites, endorsements get their own page. In the 25th congressional district, incumbent Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) lists 19 individuals and 11 organizations that approve of him. Challenger Katie Hill lists 75 individuals and 32 organizations that favor her.

It’s all very nice, and it generates some positive buzz and momentum as Election Day grows closer. But does it really matter? How much difference does it really make that people or organizations – some of whom don’t live in the district and can’t vote for either – come out and say, in effect, “Vote for this candidate?”

“I don’t think it does that much,” Hill said.

Matt Rexroad, Knight’s campaign consultant, concurred.

“I don’t know if it guarantees any votes,” he said.

Endorsements, acts of giving one’s approval or support to someone or something, can matter. According to University of Arizona Department of Communication and School of Government and Public Policy Professor Kate Kenski, endorsements can act as what she calls “a cognitive shortcut for voters, so voters who are trying to decide between many different candidates in many different races oftentimes … need some kind of shortcut to make a determination about who they should vote for.”

However, as Kenski told Arizona Public Media, that can backfire. “If someone is not trusted, if someone has burned bridges in certain ways, them offering their support can be a signal to people who don’t like that person that whoever they are supporting, is someone they don’t want to support.”

There was a time when endorsements mattered. Wichita, Kan., television station KAKE ran a piece that said endorsements meant a certain number of votes as recently as the 1970s; now, voters don’t want to rely on the word of somebody they’ve never met.
“Endorsements like this are a big deal historically, but they’re not a big deal electorally,” Russell Arben Fox, Wichita State professor of political science, told KAKE.

Rexroad, co-founder of the Sacramento-based strategic consulting firm Meridian Pacific and veteran of more than 100 campaigns, said endorsements are really effective when a candidate isn’t well known, but since Knight and Hill have “near 100-percent name recognition,” the value of any endorsement is less.

Rexroad identified various types of endorsements: political, media, individual, celebrity, organization and political party. Of these, the political party’s backing is what he considers most important, because a party can put its infrastructure and financial resources behind a candidate. For example, if a mass mailing would cost a candidate $30,000, the party might be able to do it for $20,000 because it’s a nonprofit and can command lower rates, Rexroad said.

The flip side to that, Hill said, is people too often go down the ballot and mark a name based on party affiliation.

“I’ve had Democrats say they don’t know what party I’m with, and they’re not going to vote for me because they didn’t know I’m a Democrat,” she said.

Hill said organizational endorsements help if the voter favors a particular issue and is looking for what a particular group says. But the drawback to that is that groups typically skew toward either Democrat or Republican, and she would like more people to vote not based on politics but on ideas.

“So many vote whether you’re a D or an R. I’d like to see that change during the course of time,” she said. “It’s hard to make that happen.”

Rexroad is confident that the district is filled with enough voters who are taking the time to read about the various people and issues on the ballot and will make educated choices.

“The 25th district will make decisions based on what you know,” he said.

Endorsements be damned.

Casting Controversy Over Voter Roll Credibility

| News | November 1, 2018

When Jim Lentini didn’t receive his elections material, he called the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder.

“You’re not going to like this,” a woman on the line told him. “You guys are not in the system.”

Lentini and his wife, Susan, are longtime voters, regularly walking to nearby Sulphur Springs Elementary School to cast their ballots, although Susan suffered a stroke and did not vote in the primary. Now, he was being told that he would have to travel to a Sylmar library to re-register her.

The problem was that the deadline to register to vote Nov. 6 was Oct. 22.

Public Information Officer Mike Sanchez said both are registered and are able to vote next week, but since they are listed as “vote by mail,” they must bring their ballot to the polling place and surrender it in exchange for an in-person ballot. No trip to Sylmar is necessary.

It is these kinds of mysteries that make Mark Meuser incensed. Meuser, running for Secretary of State, said he has found numerous examples of problems with voter rolls. These include people listing businesses or post office boxes as their residences, non-existent resident addresses and people failing to list dates of birth on voter registration forms that are accepted by county registrars.

“It’s been so lax, we don’t seem to care that we don’t have accurate state registration roll,” Meuser said by phone from Anaheim earlier this week.

And he blames current Secretary of State Alex Padilla for failing to maintain the rolls. One of the office’s primary duties is to act as the state’s chief election officer.

When people think of “voter fraud,” they probably mean “voter impersonation,” in which a person not eligible to vote votes under the name of someone who is eligible, votes more than once or pretends to be another eligible voter.
It was for this kind of fraud that Donald Trump, soon after taking office, went on Twitter and called for “a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered in two states, those who are illegal and even those registered to vote who are dead.” He claimed that this fraud was the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

In fact, this kind of fraud is extremely rare and has never been proven to affect an election’s outcome. But there are other worries surrounding elections, such as the reliability of accurate voter rolls.

Mark Meuser. Photo by: submitted.

According to Meuser, the problems have little to do with whether a person can prove their identity. Rather, he said, the state needs to do a better job at verifying citizenship (only American citizens can vote), residences, and that the address listed is actually a residence.

An area he said should be examined is jury-service summons. He said he found some 449,000 people returning jury summonses saying they’re not American citizens and, therefore, aren’t eligible to serve on juries. They’re also not eligible to vote, but Meuser wonders how many of these people ended up voting.

In fact, Padilla’s office announced this month that between April and September, 1,500 people who signed up for driver licenses at Department of Motor Vehicles offices accidentally were registered to vote because of DMV employee errors. Some of those people are non-citizens. The Los Angeles Times reported that Padilla canceled those registrations upon discovery, but he couldn’t say if any had voted in the June primary.

Meuser also found from looking at statewide databases (access the Gazette does not have and, therefore, cannot verify), 23,108 people with a birthdate older than the recognized oldest person in the state (birthdate: July 24, 1906) were registered to vote, and 16,780 voted in the 2016 election.

“There are two explanations: Somebody has fraud going on or the county registrar is failing to uphold the law,” Meuser said, adding that state law requires registration forms to include a date of birth; forms are to be returned if it’s missing.

Meuser also found that 75 people listed a fictitious address in Malibu when they registered to vote; 15 of those people actually voted. “OK, where do they really reside?” Meuser said. “What’s going on? We don’t know.”

Furthermore, he said, 10 people listed a jewelry store in San Diego as their residence; six voted. Twelve listed a miniature golf course, 31 listed a check-cashing store in Gardena, and 16 listed a non-existent Long Beach hotel.

“They are diluting the vote of the people who live in that district,” Meuser said.

None of these numbers are very large, and many might argue that such infinitesimal numbers wouldn’t affect and election. Meuser acknowledges that a major race such as president or governor might not be affected, but down-the-ballot races could.

“Bernie Sanders won his first race (mayor of Burlington, Vt.) by 10 votes,” Meuser said. “Seventy-five people in a precinct could flip a mayoral race, a city council race, a supervisor race.”

The solution, Meuser said, is to have the Secretary of State do a better job comparing registration rolls with Social Security rolls, DMV records, property tax assessments and information credit card companies use. “When you see problems, you need to flag them for investigation,” he said.

The other thing people can do is vote. Meuser said the more people who vote, the less special interests can turn an election.

“The best way anybody can guarantee representative government is to get out and vote,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a progressive Democrat or a Tea Party Republican. Massive voter turnout beats a well-planned fraud every single time.”

Evan Patlian: Bringing School Board to Surface

| News | October 25, 2018

Evan Patlian knows that school boards in general are not highly valued. The trustees are not as well known as other people running for other elected offices up the ballot. He seeks to change that as a candidate for the District 1 seat on the Saugus Union School District board.

“School-board members are valued and respected members of the community because they are actively working for the right reasons, which is the betterment of our children and for the one common goal of excellence in education,” Patlian said recently over lunch at Scorpion Internet Marketing, where he’s an internet marketing manager. “I think perception comes off as negative when an individual or group of individuals allow for outside factors to start to play in the business of education, whether that be political party lines, business advancement, money.”

According to a 2015 Education Week article, school boards risk dysfunction because of the need to compromise and collaborate – and failing to do so. “While a board member independently calls the shots in the campaign, the job itself demands collaboration, a willing exchange of ideas, and acceptance of the school system’s framework for advocating change,” the article said. “When these practices of good governance are not upheld early on, relationships within the board and with administrators become strained.”

This is what Patlian seeks to avoid as he vies with David Barlavi and Jesus Henao for the seat Paul De La Cerda chose not to seek because he’s getting his doctorate in education at USC. He has De La Cerda’s backing as well as the endorsements of current board member Dave Powell, Newhall district board President Phil Ellis, the Saugus Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association.

But he’s not resting on that. Instead, he’s calling for better communication between board members and among the board, the schools, teachers and students.

“It’s been seen and talked about quite a bit that maybe the communication is not where it needs to be between the five members of the board,” he said. “I hope to change that, and the only way you can effectively change something is to model it yourself. I am going to openly communicate and listen and be willing to hear everyone’s point of view as well as give my own, and hopefully we can come to an accord.”

Too often, he said, the board tends to communicate in ways that puts the members in the best possible light. “We need to be more honest and open about what’s going on. Solutions are going to be bred from that,” he said. “You can’t always just promote the good. You have to be honest about everything.”

He also wants to model behaviors a different way: “Why not have the five school-board members go to a school site and participate in a physical event with the students? If we’re asking teachers and parents and students to do something, we should be able and we should be willing to do it ourselves. I’m a big fan of if I want something done, I’ve got to do it myself and show it as an example.”

There are two people he especially wants to be an example for: his two children, one of whom already attends a district school, one who will when old enough. To Patlian, it makes perfect sense to serve in a community in which he lives. If he’s going to do right by them, then he’ll do right by the other approximately 9,900 district students.
“I can relate with the parents that send their kids to our classrooms every single day,” he said. “The decisions that the board makes are not just going to affect the Saugus school district. They’re going to affect my home.”

To do right by them, he believes, the district has to address five student needs: educational, physical, mental, emotional and psychological development.

Educationally, he would like to see fewer acronyms. He ticked off several: LCAP (Local Community Accountability Plan), ESL (English as a Second Language, which he initially incorrectly called ELS), ECFF (Education and Community Funding Formula), 504 (a special-education plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).

“When there’s too many acronyms, they all start to blend together,” he said. “If you tell someone English as a Second Language, that’s not hard to remember, but you put ESL along with LCAP and all these other ones, they all start to sound the same – even for someone who’s trying to get on the school board and should know all this by heart.”
He said he would like to see a database on the district website that explains all the acronyms as well as any relevant sections of the state Education Code. Written in layman’s terms so the average parent could understand, too.

But Patlian also emphasized the need to help a child’s inner self. While suicide is not prevalent in elementary schools, depression is on the rise, whether from bullying or neglect.

“We’ve got to do a better job of fulfilling a core value in children, which is – and they already know this – genuine kindness,” he said. “We need to be better as adults, as stakeholders in their lives, be better at seeking opportunities to show we care for people, that we’re kind to others. That impact on our kids is going to be tremendous, and they’re going to start to model that behavior to their classmates and to other adults.”

De La Cerda said Patlian’s ideas, passion and the fact his kids are or will be in the district are reasons he endorsed him.

“It’s important to have parental voices,” De La Cerda said. “Evan has longevity ahead of him. His ideas are innovative.”

Laurene Weste on Dockweiler, Decision-Making, Age

| Meet the Candidates | October 25, 2018

While every city council candidate who filed a ballot statement willingly consented to be interviewed, Laurene Weste didn’t. The Gazette emailed her questions back in July, per her request, yet she didn’t respond, and even hung up on a reporter who called seeking responses.

Privately, many believe Weste behaves this way because she doesn’t think the Gazette’s questions are worth her time. When she wants something, the belief goes, she can be as sweet as anyone. But when she has no use for someone, she ignores or acts arrogantly and demeaning. As Diane Trautman said, “Laurene tends to talk to people like children.”

At the recent candidate’s form at College of the Canyons, a reporter asked Weste if she was ready to answer the questions. She smiled and said, “You have no questions.”

But the Gazette had 11 questions, so when Weste appeared at last week’s Canyon Country Advisory Committee City Council Meet & Greet, Gazette editor Sarah Farnell posed three of them to Weste.

You have repeatedly denied you stand to gain nothing from the Lyons-Dockweiler extension, yet the perception persists. What definitive, tangible proof can you offer to put those naysayers to rest?

I think that’s a really good question. I’m glad you asked that. It gets it right off the table. When I got my place, I moved on a ranch and I wanted to be there because I had horses. I still have six … So, next to me is a city-owned road right-of-way, and they’ve had it from the county and it was apparently taken in the 1960s and the city inherited it, and they have it, and they’ll use it when they’re ready to use it. Like a lot of road easements in this valley, sit there for decades. I don’t get anything for it, and why would the city pay me for something they already own?

There is a perception that the councilmembers have their minds made up on an issue before they go into chambers and listen to public comment. We’ve heard this regarding the Laemmle Theater project, the Lyons-Dockweiler extension, the cannabis dispensary ban, the homeless action plan and the sanctuary city question. Is it true? On average, how much time do you spend reading staff reports? Do you do independent interviews and reviews of issues?

Oh my God, that’s a good question. I got a headache right now. I’m reading constantly because we get this much every week (turns to her left and spreads her hands out vertically) and then we get all the things from you. No, the council does not make up their mind ahead of time. There’s a lot of discussion and quite often the council will totally hold something over, or they ask questions. We have a good constituency. They bring things up and we try to work thought it, and if we can’t get you where you want to be where it’s comfortable, we continue until we do.

The council’s average age is 68, but take away Cameron Smyth and it’s 73.75. You will be 70 on Election Day.

Yeah! I’m good.

I quote Bob Kellar: “Are we supposed to stay on the city council until we’re 90 years old?” What do you say to those who believe it’s time for a new generation?

Well, it is time, and we will. Bob’s going off. I’m still roller skating, riding my horses and I water ski, so I’m having a heck of a good time. I think you should go off if you are not well, and I don’t care what that age is. I think you should not be there if you can’t do the workload. I personally think in America, you don’t start judging people by their age, but I’m very proud to be my age, which is 69 (her birthday is Oct. 26). I am thrilled that I can do actually more, probably, than I used to because I’m not sedentary. I’m proud to be the age I am, and I’m proud to work with people that have knowledge and compassion and have learned a lot through having life experiences, and I love working with Cameron, and I am sure we will get some other great young people.

A fourth question was not directly asked, but some of Weste’s opening statement could be interpreted as an answer.

You so often say how great Santa Clarita is. What is the best thing about it? What are the largest things that need addressing/improving/fixing? Why? How do you propose to solve these?

We’re improving traffic and we’re to expanding our road network. That’s critical. It’s important because we all are frustrated with traffic, including my family. We’re going to be building Via Princessa. That is the major connection from Canyon Country all the way across to the I-5, connecting up with Wiley (Canyon Road). We’re working to improve our transportation options. … Just this month, $47 million was approved to enhance and make the I-5 safer and open up that blockade where all that traffic is congested. We’ve got a new truck lane coming that will protect us driving along the 5 from the big rigs, and we’ll also have an HOV lane.

The remaining six questions have not been answered despite subsequent attempts to reach Weste.

What will you do differently than in any of your previous terms?

Brett Haddock is calling for term limits: a maximum of four. What do you say?

I quote Diane Trautman: “Laurene tends to talk to people like children.” What is your response?

I quote Trautman again: If a person comes before the council and is either critical or offers an opposing viewpoint, “It’s not treated as a matter of disagreement. It’s treated as an insult to the councilmembers. So, there’s not a welcoming of different ideas, and that’s not helpful to anybody. … It seemed to be that everyone has to agree, and that’s a dangerous thing to do, and it leads to groupthink.” Do you think her comments have merit? Why or why not?

Diane Trautman believes the city council should set policy and the city manager carries out the council’s plan, but here it’s backwards. Is she right? Do you believe the council should take the lead, or should it rely on Ken Striplin to set the agenda?

If elected, this would be your sixth term. You have said this will be your final term. Is there anything that could make you run for a seventh?

As always, the Gazette hopes Weste will reconsider and respond to these questions before Election Day. If she does, they will be printed.

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