August 20, 2009

Betty Wasn't The First

Last Tuesday's City Council meeting was one for the record book.

It was the first time the Poway Council used teleconferencing during a council meeting. Both Betty Rexford and Merrilee Boyack were physically absent but connected via a telephone hookup.

It was also the first time that a council member was asked to resign by the rest of the council. At the end of the regular meeting, the council met in a closed session to discuss a lawsuit against the city by some of Betty Rexford's neighbors who claimed that she inappropriately directed the planning department to make their lives miserable. After the session, Mayor Don Higginson announced a settlement. The city the people of Poway would pay the Rexford's neighbors $360,000 and the entire council asked Mrs. Rexford to resign.

“The recent decision of the court in this case has demonstrated that settlement is necessary to protect the city from greater exposure to damages and significant future legal costs if the case goes to trial,” Higginson read from a statement on behalf of the council.

“Further, it is clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative functions, such as the development projects that were the subject of this case. It is apparent to the City Council that the public trust has been irrevocably damaged, and that even the appearance that the council member acted in her self-interest is unacceptable.

“Therefore, it is with great sadness that we ask council member Rexford to consider stepping down from her position on the Poway City Council.”

While the city settled with the plaintiffs, Rexford and her husband were also personally named in the suit. Apparently, that part of the suit has also been settled.

Daral Mazzarella, the attorney fof the plaintiffs, said his clients settled that part for $40,000. Mazzarella also said that while his clients had sought the resignation of Rexford, he had been under the impression that her fellow councilmembers would not seek it.

“I was surprised to see that,” Mazzarella said of the resignation request, which he termed “appropriate.”

Rexford contends that she did nothing wrong; that she had the right as a private citizen to complain to city staff about her neighbors. And she does. But Rexford also had something the average citizen didn't have. Clout. When she pestered the staff, they listened. And acted. Way more than they would for the average Poway resident. Maybe that is because the poor blokes are "hired and fired at will" and pretty much have to sell their souls to be a Poway planner in the first place. Anyway, the judge in the case ruled that there was plenty enough evidence to go forward with a trial. Once the case was going to trial, the city decided to cut their losses and settle.

On Saturday, a SDUT editorial also called for Rexford to quit. The editorial repeated the words from Mayor Higginson's statement:

it is “clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative functions ... It is apparent to the City Council that the public trust has been irrevocably damaged, and that even the appearance that the council member acted in her self-interest is unacceptable.”

"....clearly inappropriate for any City Council member to interfere in the city's administrative function." They need to print that up and glue it all over the walls in the council members' offices. I mean, in another decision on that very same night that the council issued this statement, the council agreed to give a permit to a guy who built a baseball diamond on his private lot. He had previously been turned down for a permit for a larger project. Afterwards, Mickey Cafagna had supposedly told the homeowner to go ahead and build the smaller project without a permit. I wish I had $10 for every time I heard that Mickey gave someone "permission" to do something the Poway code doesn't allow.

Higginson is no stranger to directing the staff to do stuff for a friend either. In 1993, Bruce Tabb (developer of Old Coach Golf Estates) called up Jim Nessel, a senior Poway planner and "lambasted" him because his property was not identified on SANDAG maps as "disturbed". Somehow, the property had been graded (more times than it had permits for) and SANDAG was unaware of the results. Nessel was so upset with being harangued by Bruce Tabb that he wrote a memo and put it in the city files. In that letter, Nessel notes:

Mr Tabb could not recall exactly what SANDAG map he looked at, and I told him it may have been a historic vegetation map of the region and suggested that all map data layers prepare for the habitat evaluation model be reviewed. During the phone conversation, Mayor Higginson got on the line in Mr. Tabb's office and encouraged me to help Mr. Tabb with his problem. (emphasis added)

Remember Jay Goldby, former city council member (and more recently manager of a nudist enclave)? Goldby owned a print shop in Poway. As a council member, he steered business to his shop. The city used a $90,000 transportation grant to buy a bus, paint it to look cute and route it around town from shopping area to shopping area. The City approved a program whereby the Chamber of Commerce was allowed to solicit advertisers to put signs in the back windows of the bus. The paperwork for the signs directed all customers to have the work done at Jay's sign shop. Nifty, eh?

Jay also got embroiled in a deal involving directional signs for the car dealers. The City agreed (and Jay voted for it) to pay for the posts and the property and the dealers were to pay for their individual slats. The car dealers had already had some of the work done at Jay's shop, before the other council members reprimanded him for "the appearance of impropriety". Goldby then agreed to have some other company make the signs. It should be noted that the Chamber never got anyone to buy any advertising space on the bus, so technically Goldby did not accrue a benefit from having voted for the project. It should also be noted that it was a rare event when the bus had a passenger. And those directional car signs with the dealers names on them? The city had to remove them 'cause they were illegal.

We can go back even further, to the very beginning of our fair city, to find more "appearances of impropriety". In the early 1980s, four landowners in the northern part of Poway attempted to subdivide their property. The city wanted them to build improvements, including paved roads, as a condition of the split. The landowners balked and complained that the improvements to the properties were unnecessary and would benefit council member Bob Emery and City Attorney Jean Harris. Bob owned 6 nearby acres just outside the city limits. Harris owned acreage on Eagle's Crest Rd, which he had subdivided without having to build the same improvements that were required of the landowners.

There were court suits, grand jury investigations and an indictment. Bob skated. Harris had gotten a former city attorney to say it was OK for Bob to vote on the issue. But in a strange turn of events, the county planning department determined that Jean Harris's lot subdivision was illegal. The D.A. also did a criminal investigation. Harris signed a plea agreement and got 3 yrs probation. He might have gotten worse, but the D.A. made some mistake when they raided his office and so the plea agreement was the best they could get. Harris also resigned his city attorney position in Poway. Two years after the plea deal, Harris hadn't made his court-ordered restitution and the judge threatened to revoke his probation. I have no idea where he landed after that. Perhaps he is sunbathing in the buff up on his property.

There are a couple of reasons why Poway council members might be more prone to conflicts of interest. First of all, they do not have any ethics ordinances or an ethics commission like the City of San Diego does. Poway is a general law city and does have to abide by state laws. But state laws do not require council members to keep a calendar or log of who they meet with or what their activities are. What goes on behind closed doors stays behind the closed doors. Most of the decisions in Poway are made behind closed doors.

Another problem is that the council members are the planning commission and redevelopment agency, too. They wear all 3 hats at once. Their is no counter-balancing authority to appeal to. By the time a project goes before the council for approval, and the public finally has an opportunity to see and comment on it, it is too late. Likely, several of the council members have been personally involved with shaping the project. They may have even introduced the developer and project themselves and met with the developers or their representatives several times. The council members have likely discussed things with staff. Or maybe called staff on someone's behalf.

Even workshops and neighborhood meetings are more like infomercials than a forum where the community gets to give real input. Remember the town center meetings? People said they wanted something with a lot of open space and a rural feel. In their report afterwards, the staff as much as said, "We listened to you and we came up with some 4- story retail and residential buildings. But don't worry, we heard you, we're gonna have some vines growing on the 3-story parking garage that will give it a lovely rustic flair." I can hardly blame the staff. They do what they are told. Or they can be fired. So, some council member's buddy comes up with a great development project and the staff has to stuff it down our throats even if they know the community does not want it.

I'm at odds about Betty's resignation. On the one hand, it is clear she crossed an ethical line. It seems as if she doesn't even realize it. That is scary in itself. Betty has been very ineffectual in the last several years, as she has focused on subdividing her own property and getting concessions from developers that could benefit her property. Also, she seems to be increasingly unable to understand the complexity of council issues and relies on one or two individuals to help her make decisions.

On the other hand, I don't want another council appointment. That process sucks. A council appointment is like a gateway drug. Without term limits, incumbency seems to bestow near-lifetime status in Poway. Too many times in this community, a mere handful of people have controlled our fate. If Betty does resign, we should have a say, a vote, for her successor.

August 11, 2009

Birthers, Deathers, and Poway Mobs

I'm proud to be an American. Which is not to say I am proud of all my fellow Americans. Lately, it is getting down right embarrassing to be of the same species as some crazy-talking folks.

First up in the crazy folk category are the birthers. These are the people who claim Obama was born in Kenya. Even though Obama has released his birth certificate and Hawaiian officials have verified that Obama was born in Hawaii, and even though the local newspapers printed birth announcements when Obama was born there, some whackos still insist he was born in Kenya.

G. Gordon Liddy, one of Nixon's White House Plumbers, was on the teevee the other day proclaiming that a "certificate of birth" isn't the same thing as a "birth certificate", thus Obama's "certificate of birth" is not the real thing. Does this criminal not even have a basic understanding of English? Who let him on the teevee?

Liddy also said he had a "deposition" from Obama's step-grandma stating that she saw him born in Kenya. But, it wasn't a deposition, it was a taped phone call. And you'd think that somebody who was a convicted felon would know the difference. The phone call involved several translators and a bit of miscommunication at the beginning. Obama's step-grandma meant she was "here" in Kenya, not "here in Kenya at Obama's birth". A full translation of the entire phone call indicates that Obama's step-grandmother and the translator repeatedly clarified that Obama was born in America, not Kenya. But the crazy birther people just keep carrying on.

I was surprised at the amount of traction this story got. Think about it. Obama's mother was a teenager. She would need a passport, and a plane ticket. Assume for a moment that she managed to get them and hide her plans from her parents, who would've raised holy hell if they found out. Then there is the travel itself; a multi-houred plane ride on one or several planes. Most doctors (except Sarah Palin's) and airlines do not recommend that women travel by plane in the late stages of pregnancy. Sitting in a chair can be uncomfortable in the 9th month; a many-hour plane trip to Kenya would not be fun. It could even be dangerous.

But think a little harder. Why would a teenager leave her parents and friends to give birth in an unfamiliar place, with people she doesn't know, speaking a language she cannot understand, in an unfamiliar and uncertain medical situation? I mean, it wasn't like she was Angelina Jolie.

Next up in the whacky nutjob department are the deathers. These are hysterical mobs disrupting health care forums claiming Obama is gonna kill their granny. Sarah Palin, the queen of the deathers, wrote on her facebook page,

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down's Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

Please Sarah, quit making stuff up. There are no "death panels" in Obama's health care initiative. Did you even read it, Sarah? Nevermind, don't even bother answering that.

Obama's plan does contain a provision for patients to elect to be counseled about end-of-life care. Most people don't actually have an "advance directive", which is a legal document that spells out what medical treatments someone does or doesn't want done at the end of life. We decided to get one after the Terry Shiavo fiasco, where government did intrude on a family making end of life decisions.

There are several do-it-yourself advance directives online. We did ours as part of our estate planning and if anyone wants a recommendation for a great estate lawyer, check out Walter Pinkerton. We are glad we did. He was quite reasonably priced too. I have no problem with this service becoming part of health insurance coverage. It is the best way to make sure everyone gets the end of life care that they really want.

So how did something so reasonable as an advance directive morph into "Obama's death panels"? Who whips these people into a frenzy and why do they let themselves fall for it? I can answer the first question. Just follow the money. Who is going to lose billions of dollars if Americans have reasonably priced insurance and cannot be terminated for having a medical condition? Exactly.

As for why people let themselves turn into a frothing, seething, hysterical mob, some of whom are "packing heat", well, I can't quite figure that one out. Do these people not see that it is to their own advantage to have health insurance, for everyone to have health insurance?

Rustling up a mob to advocate for something that is not in their own interest baffles me. I'm more familiar with the mob mentality to protect an advantage from being taken away. In Poway's current water/sewer rate structure, the advantage is entirely in favor of the large water user. The restructured rates also favor the large water user, but slightly less so than the old rates.

When the new rates were first proposed, the city held several workshops and got input from many residents. On July 21st, dozens of angry residents showed up at the council meeting complaining that the new rates were unfair to large water users. Nevertheless, the council approved the new rates. (Two votes are required- the second council vote will be on August 18th). A week after the first vote, Bruce Tarzy of the Green Valley Civic Association (GVCA) sent a written proposal (Aug 18th staff report) to the city proposing an entirely different rate structure. He suggested that the city charge all single family rate payers a higher price for their water and then give a rebate to users who reduce their consumption based on their 2006 water use. Guess who this would advantage.

Now, I imagine that GVCA sent their proposal to all of their members and asked them to lobby city hall to discard the plans that the city had been working on for months and endorse the GVCA's new rate structure instead. A couple of dozen letters were sent to the city in response to the GVCA proposal.

Here is one of my favorite crazy quotes from someone named Mike Myers:
I strongly support the alternative water rate structure put forward by the GVCA. It creates necessary conservation measures but does not socialize water use.

"Does not socialize water use." Uh, Mike...who do you think owns and operates the water department right now? I will give you a hint. It starts with g, o, v and ends with m, e, n t.

Among the more than 2 dozen letters sent to the city, there are some from reasonable folks who asked the city NOT to switch to the GVCA plan. Those letters came from GVCA members as most of the people in the city who would have been disadvantaged by the GVCA plan never got an opportunity to see it or comment on it. (Disclaimer: I saw it, I commented on it, but I did not write a letter directly to the city and my letter is not included in the packet for August 18, 2009 although I may submit one later.)

Tim Herberer wrote:
The GVCA proposal only rewards people who have wasted water in the past and it penalizes people who have already made changes to reduce water consumption.

Pete Babich:
As to the argument that large water users are subsidizing the low water users, I suspect the reverse is true. Because of the fixed costs associated with the water/sewer bill, low water users actually pay more per unit of water than large water users.

Michael J Smith, Vineland Hills HOA BOD Secretary:
The following is what I sent to the GVCA:
"I'm appalled at your late input into the water rate schedule.
Where were you when the city held the Water Conservation Workshops?
I was in attendance.
If you have a large lot then change its structure.
I have done this for my meager lot and have gone from using 50 units to using 10 units at a fair cost to me.
Why should I further subsidize large lot owners?
Further as a member of the Vinelnd Hills HOA BOD we have gone from using 8000 units in MAY-JUN-2008 to 4000 units MAY-JUN 2009.
We have been anticipating the water shortage for over two years.
Where have you been?"

Yes, yes, where has GVCA been? It isn't as if the water shortage just cropped up last week. But more importantly where are they going next? Are we going to have angry mobs at the council meetings or will reasonable people prevail?

August 3, 2009

Powayopoly, A Nostalgic Look Back

I was cleaning out closets the other day and I came across a board game called "Millionaire". Inside was a monopoly -like game that featured local Poway merchants. The game was a fundraiser for the Poway High School band, the Emerald Brigade. I don't remember what year it was produced, but I think it has been stored away probably for a good 10-20 yrs.

How many of these merchants do you remember? You can click on the picture to make it bigger.
Erb Engineering is in the business park. Travel agents have pretty well been replaced by the internet, but Poway Travel is still there. Sizzler's used to be where Cully's was before they got kicked out to make room for an "upscale" restaurant. Cully's is still in town, but Sizzler and the upscale restaurant are not. Ozzie's is another long time Poway business. We bought a violin there when our son was in 4th grade. Later, he took guitar lessons there.

Whiskey Creek is gone. I never ate there, but I had to drop off a kid from our soccer team there one time. His mom never came to pick him up. So we offered to drive him home, but he said no one was at home and that if we dropped him off at Whiskey Creek, he could find his mom there. Kind of sad. The stationary store hung in there for a while, but I guess it was too hard to compete with big box stores like K-Mart and Wal-Mart.
Remember the iron-on T-shirt craze? I think we bought a couple of them from Shirts-R-U. Rex Trophies is still in Poway. I've got a couple of boxes of trophies they kids left behind. I could change the names on them and open my own shop.

Right now I am enjoying some great air conditioning. We sweltered through the muggy July days for about 20 years and finally gave in and had an A/C unit put it. We chose Carrier because they were around so long. About a month ago my across-the-street neighbor had A/C put in. I saw the Carrier truck in her driveway, so I know that they are still in town. El Comal is still going strong too. The Franciscan Inn is still in town, but they have competition now from a new business hotel. Amway, hmm, do they still have that pyramid selling scheme? I haven't heard about them in years.

Look at the picture of the "downtown" shopping district on the game board. Now, that is nostalgic. Big canopy trees, old-fashioned GAS sign, extra wide sidewalks, and almost no traffic.
I grew up in a Midwestern town that looked like that. Downtown was really pedestrian friendly.

Poway's commercial areas have always been a collection of strip malls. They were designed for vehicular access, not pedestrians. One thing that might force a change is that in the last couple of years, hundreds of affordable apartments have been built in the area. And likely more will be built. A car-centric downtown is incompatible with an area that is becoming increasingly filled with nearby residents. It will be interesting to see what merchants are still standing in another 20 yrs and just what downtown Poway will look like.