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Chris Ball: The transcendence of City Manager Ken Pulskamp

SCV Voices

Posted: September 11, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 11, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

Does anybody remember Charlie Von der Ahe and his “Field of Dreams” near Circle J Ranch? He acquired some “restricted use” property from a land developer that was used as a sedimentation basin and crisscrossed with buried utilities.

Charlie was a Pony League coach, and it was tough back then to reserve practice fields. The adjoining parcel that Charlie bought was not zoned as “open space.” The recorded parcel map clearly showed “low density residential,” and buildings were prohibited. But baseball was not prohibited by map or zoning.

Poor Charlie thought it might be legal to play baseball on his own property with his own kids. Ken Pulskamp disagreed.

Looking beyond their backyard fences, Charlie’s neighbors enjoyed the dead weeds and rabbits. They certainly didn’t want to see kids playing baseball on green grass. Neighbors complained to the city: “What if a ball rolls into our yard? Is some kid going to be coming after it?” They were also Ken Pulskamp’s neighbors.

At the time, there was an assistant city attorney who worked behind the scenes as a code enforcement junkyard dog. While city PR said, “You’ve got a friend at City Hall,” those friendly city employees would quickly refer disputed code-compliance matters to this attorney, an independent contractor. That attorney would threaten fines and jail to anybody who balked at city requirements. Vicious zoning enforcements were frequent and seldom made the papers.

Charlie was my friend. He coached my boys. Our wives were friends.

I read the court filings in the Von der Ahe matter, and I reviewed the zoning maps. To this day, I don’t believe the assistant city attorney was entirely forthcoming to the court about the zoning.

The judge pre-judged the evidence. Pretending himself a Potter Stewart, he said something like “I may not be able to define ‘open space,’ but I know it when I see it.” Of course, he never even looked at the evidence.

Charlie gave up, sold his property and moved to Texas. Ken Pulskamp won. The judge retired, and the junkyard dog no longer works in Santa Clarita.

I wondered at the time why Ken Pulskamp needed that victory. The city acted ruthlessly, viciously in my opinion. Why?

I started to pay attention to other issues happening around town. Small property owners were seeking permits and being denied for no good reason. Why would the city take such extreme measures to defeat the dreams of its own citizens when it would cost nothing for the city to say “yes”?

I watched other city zoning enforcement activities. I wondered, “why?”

I concluded that a city manager who wants to win all battles, big and small, would gain power as a winner, and maybe people would then fear to cross him.

Everybody talked about how “great” a city manager Ken Pulskamp was. He was certainly praised highly by his bosses on the City Council. But I thought to myself, that man will never be a great city manager until he decides to lose some minor battles: battles that would cost the city nothing, but a victory for the other side would help some citizens realize their dreams.

I watched and waited, and then after a few years, it started to happen. City resources started to be used here and there, beneficially for little things. Those things cost the city little but meant a great deal to some. Some family that was burned out in a fire received donated landscaping from a city contractor. The city helped other things happen that I can’t talk about here that benefited hundreds of people. It was Ken Pulskamp pulling the strings. A more benevolent leader.

I’d like to think Ken had some sort of epiphany. Maybe he ate some bad food, and God came to him in a dream. Maybe his path wasn’t all that unusual. Maybe powerful managers are all basically good people, but have to build their power ruthlessly before they can consolidate and use it beneficially.

I’m sorry, but I can’t avoid looking at any government without a great deal of cynicism. That cynicism casts a shadow over everything in my life, as my friends well know.

Ken, on your way out, if you could just give Alan Ferdman your blessing, that would really be remarkable. Thanks, Ken.

Chris Ball is a Canyon Country resident.

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