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Ask the Expert

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Our View: All things considered, we recommend...

Posted: March 12, 2010 6:39 p.m.
Updated: March 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
Of all the editorials we've published over the past year, none struck a chord as resoundingly as "No one goes back to Sacramento," in which we satirized California's woefully inept Legislature and called on voters to throw the bums out at the next opportunity.

Certainly we live in a day and age of absolute disgust with elected officials. President Obama, who was outrageously popular a year ago, is now registering "strongly disapprove" ratings. Our own state Sen. George Runner informed The Signal's editorial board that he wouldn't be running on his Senate record in his bid for a state Board of Equalization seat in November due to voter dissatisfaction - with everyone in public office.

But as we head into Santa Clarita City Council elections, we suggest voters set aside their general disgruntlement for a while and consider the accomplishments of "the bums" this time before deciding to throw them out.

The challengers would have us believe - as challengers must, after all - that the incumbents are inept, indifferent to their constituents, or both. So let's take a look at their records.

Two council members - Frank Ferry and Laurene Weste - are seeking fourth terms on the council, and one - Marsha McLean - is seeking a third. Here are some of the council's accomplishments during the span of these leaders' terms:

* At a time when other cities are undergoing catastrophic layoffs and trying to dodge bankruptcy, Santa Clarita has 15 percent of its budget - about $11 million - in reserves and is expected to balance its budget for 2010-11, despite draconian state cutbacks.

* The city's bond rating was recently upgraded to AA+, the second-highest-possible rating.

* Santa Clarita has established an Enterprise Zone aimed at aiding businesses and boosting employment.

* With the approval of taxpayers, the city launched an Open Space Preservation District that has set aside nearly 4,000 acres of land for enjoyment of future generations of Santa Clarita residents.

* The city completed phase 4 of the of the Sports Complex, opened the 40,000-square-foot Skatepark at the Sports Complex, built the Newhall Community Center, created Todd Longshore Park in Canyon Country and the Youth Grove in Central Park, completed phase 1 of Discovery Park and is breaking ground this week on a new library in Newhall.

* In partnership with the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, the city helped establish an Economic Development Corporation for the Santa Clarita Valley, a move of great maturity for a city so young. 

* The city has received eight state and national awards for financial reporting and four awards for investment policy.

We ask ourselves, do these sound like public servants who deserve the bum's rush? Would we be better off without them?

There are those who say three and four terms are enough - the city needs new blood. We wonder: Is the middle of a crippling recession, which has devastated municipal and state governments nationwide while ours thrives, a good time to put a new captain at the helm of a smooth-sailing ship?

So if ineptitude is not the complaint, we turn to the argument of indifference. The most common complaints we've heard are that the city has approved rampant development, and that it shuns the public it serves.

Rampant development

The city has approved 1,439 residential units between 2005 and 2009, of which 176 have been built, according to city statistics. We would note that most big developments - such as Skyline Ranch, proposed to add at least 1,000 homes to Canyon Country - are outside city limits where the city has no say about development.

Some critics object to the city's plan for a "valley of villages," saying we must preserve our suburban heritage and avoid dense construction. This may, indeed, be a reason to unseat incumbents, but it should be noted that state legislation is forcing all municipal governments in California to overhaul their development plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - which means more dense development. Challengers who are elected will find themselves hog tied by the same legislation that faces the current City Council.

We found it interesting that one candidate who complained about traffic outside schools cited West Ranch High School and Rancho Pico Junior High, both of which are outside the city limits. Another complained about approval for a large development - but again, the development cited was outside city limits. The City Council has no control, and little say, about such development.

One might think the candidates for City Council would know where the city ends and the county's jurisdiction begins. But we digress.

Small businesses
To be sure, some of the challengers bring up good issues. Several, in fact, say the city doesn't do enough to help small businesses. After a bus tour promoting the "Think Santa Clarita" campaign, we tend to agree. Many businesses that were visited didn't know about the city's 21-point plan to improve the business climate. That's a shame, and a situation that should be remedied.

But as long as the city declines to issue licenses to businesses or to otherwise register businesses, it's going to have a difficult time understanding which way the wind is blowing in the business community. We think the city should reconsider its no-business-license-or-registration policy - not to reap financial rewards from the Santa Clarita business community, but to enable itself better to connect with the businesses within its borders.

Responsiveness to the public
On the issue of responsiveness to the public, we think some of the challengers have compelling arguments. And while this may be in part an issue of perception, rather than substance, we think the city should recognize the importance of perceptual issues.

Tap-danced messages to Sacramento or accidental illegal donations to other candidates - explained away with an aw-shucks-I-should-have-known-better mea culpa - don't heighten the public perception of the council.

When council members moved the public comment period from the beginning to the end of their meetings, they sent a message - intended or not - that business as usual comes before its own citizens.

One explanation offered was that dozens of people might want to address the council on one issue, delaying the down-to-business part of the meeting.

We think council members have a duty to hear their constituents, regardless of the number who show up to talk, without keeping them waiting, and that vast numbers who want to address a particular issue indicate there's a problem needing the council's attention.

We are a big city now, with a population of some 170,000 and a median household income of more than $87,000 in 2008.

We have surpassed Burbank in population and are closing in on Glendale, and we can match either city in reputation, at least in some circles, largely because of the work of our council members.

Elections, like job performance reviews, can serve as a good time to say, "We like what you've done so far, and we think you should retain this position, but you need do less of this and more of that."

With those few reservations, we recommend returning incumbents Ferry, McLean and Weste to the Santa Clarita City Council.

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