Friday, November 22, 2013

Fun At Parks And Recreation Meeting

The meeting of the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission last night, usually a fairly bland affair, was anything but...

Right of the top several speakers stepped up during the "Oral Communications" segment - when the public can address anything within the purview of the commission but is not on the current agenda - to offer their views on the announced, but not implemented, new reduced hours for the Volcom Skate Park of Costa Mesa.  Among those was Joey Lopez, skater, coach and activist involved with the fledgling interscholastic skate board league that operates primarily out of the Volcom park. 

Each speaker agreed with the need to do something to curtail the rogue skaters that have resulted in unsafe conditions at the park, including - according to Chairman Byron de Arakal - several attacks on members of the Costa Mesa Police Department in recent months. 

After hearing all the speakers de Arakal thanked them sincerely for coming out to address the issue, and told them he'd like them all to participate in finding a solution by meeting with him and members of the city staff and the CMPD over the next couple months.  He said he anticipates a presentation of options at the meeting in January or February.

At these meetings some of the more mundane segments are requests for tree removals around the city.  Normally, it involves one or two city-owned trees on public property that are adversely affecting residents nearby because of raised pavement or root incursion somewhere.  Last night was very different.

Last night there were two items on the agenda that involved requests to remove multiple trees.  The staff report is HERE.  The first was for nine (9) trees along Adams Avenue.  After much discussion the solution was to remove only a few of the most offensive trees - those whose droppings appeared to constitute a "health and safety" problem.  On a 3-2 vote the commissioners agreed to remove those trees at no cost to the homeowner.  My perception of the event was that the staff would return at a future date with a landscaping plan for that stretch of Adams that would permit the replacement of the remaining trees - and others nearby - with a more acceptable and less invasive plant selection.  Some of the remaining trees are right next to the block wall that forms a sound barrier from the speeding traffic along Adams at that area, so this problem needs to be addressed promptly.

The second "group" issue was the request by residents for the removal of twenty-eight (28) Canary Island Pine trees along Yukon Avenue in the area of Prospect and Klondike, near Bear Street and the 73 Freeway, HERE.  This one was really fun because it apparently pitted neighbor against neighbor.  Nine residents stood to speak (some of them twice).  Among them was Gabrielle Oseguera, who  was joined by three other neighbors requesting the removal of the trees because of the litter they dump into their yards and because they block so much sunlight that even weeds won't grow in the shadows they cast.

Opposing them, in very strong terms, were other neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time and like the look of the trees.  After much discussion, some of it heated, the item was continued to a future meeting to provide individual commissioners the opportunity to visit the location and talk with both sides to more fully understand this issue before rendering a decision at the meeting - probably on January 23rd next year.  I suspect what will come out of it is that the parkway trees will remain and at least a few of the trees closer to the property lines will be thinned out or removed entirely... we'll see.  It was fun to watch...

Following a short break to let the crowd flush out of the chambers - only three of us remained - the commission then heard the staff presentation by Parks Project Manager Bart Mejia, HERE,  on the need to update the Open Space Master Plan for Parks and Recreation, HERE - a guiding document for much of what happens throughout the city - that had not been updated for more than a decade.  On a 5-0 vote the commission authorized the staff to request from the City Council the preparation of a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a consultant to guide the city through this process, which might take a year or longer.

Then the commissioners heard the Fairview Park Annual Report by Mejia, HERE, that provided a brief description of the eight improvements within the boundaries of Fairview Park in the past year and the nine (9) goals for 2014.  You can read all that information on the staff report.  Two of the members of the audience stepped up to address the commission about Fairview Park.  Cindy Black was strongly critical of the selection of consultants to work at the park, and of Chairman de Arakal for her perception of his vocation.  Anna Vrska, a name becoming much more familiar on parks issues these days, took some time to get clarification on the timing of field needs assessment numbers and was told that Recreation Manager Bob Knapp had just about completed his comprehensive study and that a consultant would be retained to perform an independent review of them before presentation to the Fairview Park Citizen Advisory Committee, of which Vrska is a member.

In an amusing moment, Vrska apologized to Vice Chair Kim Pederson for assuming he was a woman during her recent presentation to the Fairview Park group.  We all chuckled and Pederson later teased her about it again, and said he "gets that all the time".

Part of this presentation included a recap of anticipated pending expenditures planned for the park this year and next.  Among those items on the list is the controversial - and unnecessary, in the minds of more than a few park lovers around town - $650,000 item for parking lot lights in the park.  Those opposing this expense indicate that such lighting is unnecessary in a "dawn-to-dusk" park.  We were told that the project is being designed now, with attention being given to illumination levels and a sensor system that will increase the light volume when people are present.  Again, this park is closed at dusk every night.  Proponents say the lights are needed for safety, but nobody from the Police Department has signed in to this issue indicating a need.  Cynics think this scheme - a brainstorm by Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger - is simply laying the groundwork for late night use of the parking area as overflow for events - football games - held at adjacent Jim Scott Stadium at Estancia High School.

In any event, we were told that, once the engineering work is complete, the project will be presented to the Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee for review before being channeled through the Parks and Recreation Commission to the City Council for approval BEFORE the installation would begin.  It is anticipated that the engineering work might be complete early next year. 

During his Recreation Managers Report Knapp told us about the new Ambassador program, 10 part-time employees who provide a presence in parks around the city, focusing primarily at Fairview Park, Lions Park and adjacent city facilities, and TeWinkle Park.  He described them as "an extra set of eyes" in a program that will require some fine-tuning in the coming months.

He also discussed the on-going massaging of the lights at Harper School fields, including recent visits by commissioners and city staff to work with contiguous residents and users to find a way to mitigate noise from the generators and spillover light into the back yards.  Progress is being made.

He told us that the Jack Hammett Sports Complex will be the training site of the Number 1 ranked college football team - maybe Alabama? - as they prepare for the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl after the first of the year.  The facility will be used by that team from December 29th through January 5th.  It's my understand that both teams playing in that game will be domiciled in Orange County.

This last meeting of the year for this commission wrapped up just before 9:30.  If you want more information about this meeting you can watch the recorded version via CMTV, either on your television or via stream video replay when it's available. 

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A Half-Century Old Remembrance

Fifty years ago today I was a carefree young man who had recently received his induction notice to report for duty in the United States Army the middle of December.  It was at the early stages of what would become known as the Viet Nam War - a non-declared military action that eventually took more than 58,000 American lives and caused a rift in this country that lasted for a decade.  However, at that time not many people would have anticipated how it ended up.  Life was good for me.

The morning of November 22, 1963 I was cruising toward Santa Monica in my 1957 Chevrolet convertible, top down, on the way to measure a home for carpet for my father's business - a job I'd held off-and-on between semesters in college and, at that time, prior to joining the Army.  It was a typical Southern California day - perfect, except I couldn't find any music on my radio.  Finally I just stopped pushing buttons and twisting the dial and listened to the palaver that was coming from my dashboard.

Then I heard the message - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.  Soon I realized the traffic around me had gradually begun to slow to well-within the legal limits as people heard the news and began to contemplate what it meant.

Eventually I made my way to the tidy neighborhood in Santa Monica and knocked on the door of the home where I was supposed to measure several rooms.  An elderly gentleman - probably about my age now - slowly opened the door.  He, and his wife standing with him, had tears in their eyes and I could hear the television commentator in the living room behind them speculating about the events in Dallas that morning with a strained note of urgency in his voice.

I offered to reschedule our appointment, recognizing just how distraught they were, but they graciously declined and showed me the rooms to be measured.  For the next half-hour or so I went about my job and they sat, holding hands on the couch in the living room, quietly sobbing as the anxious, confused reports continued to spill out of the old black and white television set.

Finally, just before I finished my work, news came that the president had, indeed, died from an assassin's bullet a few minutes earlier.  I wrapped up my duties, wiping tears from my eyes, and offered my condolences to my customers before I left.

I don't recall much about my drive back across the Los Angeles basin to my home.  My other appointments had been canceled for the day, so I just went home.  I do recall wondering what this tragedy meant, for our country and for me, personally.  Was it just the beginning of an attack on our country? There was much prattle on the radio and television about that possibility at the time.

I wondered what this event would mean to my enlistment in the Army a few weeks hence.  I didn't pay much attention to politics then, but I found myself wondering what kind of president Lyndon Johnson would make, and what kind of a Commander-in-Chief he would be.  I later found out.

I suspect memories of that day and subsequent events will creep into my mind from time to time today, just as they have ever since that day fifty years ago.  Most of us who were alive and beyond the age of ten years old at the time still recall it vividly.  Kennedy's murder, and the subsequent assassinations of his brother, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,  left scars on this country that are still visible today.

Remember, this was a time in our country when we were still tense about the Cuban Missle Crisis a year earlier.  Just a few months later three young voting rights activists were murdered in Mississippi and a few days before I was discharged from the Army two years hence, a cross was burned on the lawn of a black sergeant at Fort Rucker, Alabama - my final duty post deep in the armpit of the South.  These were not good times in our country.

John F. Kennedy's assassination was the beginning of events that changed American society forever, with the advent of the drug culture, riots in large cities across the country and that damnable, divisive Viet Nam War.  Four students were killed by skittish National Guardsmen at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration in 1970.  I still contemplate the 10% of the men of my helicopter flight school class who didn't return from Viet Nam.  Many members of my generation carry still-festering wounds from that time in their lives.

Here's a short, grainy not-quite-six-minute video clip of Walter Cronkite, often described as "the most trusted man in television", delivering the news of Kennedy's death.  It was a sad day for this country...

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sanitary District To Consider Recycle Changes

File this under, "Your life got just a little more complicated"...

At 5:30 this evening, at their meeting in the very cozy confines of the Board Room at the district headquarters at 628 W. 19th Street in Costa Mesa, the directors of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District Board will consider a proposal by contract trash hauler CR&R to change the way each of us will be required to handle our trash.  I'm not convinced this is a great idea, but need to hear more.  Unfortunately, public outreach on this issue has been nearly non-existent.  Brad Zint's article the other day in the Daily Pilot, HERE, is the only news I've seen about it.

Presently those of us who are customers of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District just dump ALL our refuse - recyclables, trash and green waste - into one of the cans provided and roll it to the curb on our appointed day.  From there CR&R dumps them, hauls them to a transfer point in Stanton where the recyclables are sorted out and the rest is taken to a landfill.

However, the state has mandated that we MUST do a better job of sorting out stuff and reduce the volume taken to landfills by 2020.  CR&R wants us to make these changes by 2015.  According to Zint's piece, the green waste and other "organics" - food scraps, for example - would be hauled separately to a facility that would process it and produce natural gas - the fuel used for the trash trucks.

This change, which is found on the agenda for the meeting tonight HERE and, specifically, the agenda item HERE, would cost the Sanitary District (us, the ratepayers) $467,417 per year!  We would be required to self-sort the organics into a separate can, which will be picked up by a separate truck.  Read the staff report for the details.

I'm told that, due to an unanticipated complication with the environmental issue of doubling the number of trash trucks on our streets, this item may be shoved out to a future meeting before the Board votes on it.  It WILL be discussed tonight, though, so you'll have the opportunity to express your views to the board during their meeting.  If you plan to attend and hope to have a seat, please arrive early.  The audience seating in the board room is VERY limited.

Since there seems to be no reason to rush into this decision, we hope the Board will plan some public outreach meetings to gather public input BEFORE they make the final decision on this issue.

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Parks and Recreation Meeting Tonight

For all you parks fans out there, tonight the Costa Mesa Parks and Recreation Commission will meet again in City Council Chambers beginning at 6:00 p.m.  You can read the agenda HERE.

Chairman Byron de Arakal will lead the group through some tree removals and two very important other issues.

Item 9c on the agenda is the Open Space Master Plan for Parks and Recreation, HERE, and the staff is looking for direction from the commission.  This document normally is reviewed and updated periodically - usually in 5-7 year intervals.  It's past time for this one to get some lovin' care.

The second one is Item 9d,  the Fairview Park Annual Report, HERE.  I expect more than one or two people will show up to address this issue since the park has been the point of so much controversy in recent months.  One item on the "goals" section, number 6, is "Complete the design of approved parking lot lighting" - that $650,000 expenditure for lights in a dawn-to-dusk park.

So, grab a quick dinner and head on over to City Hall to attend this meeting.  There will be time for public comments on anything related to the Parks and Recreation Commissions scope of responsibility - like more lighted fields, problems with present lighted fields, actual need for more fields, who gets priority on fields, the Joint Use Agreement with the Newport Mesa Unified School District, and on and on and on.  Exercise your right to speak on these issues.  Unlike the mayor, Chairman de Arakal will let you speak your piece...

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CalPERS Actuary Provides Dismal News

As promised, I attended the Pension Oversight Committee meeting at City Hall yesterday to hear CalPERS actuary Kerry Worgan make a presentation and answer questions.  The meeting had been moved ahead to 2:00 in anticipation of a long session.  Good move!  The meeting took just a hair under four hours!  The agenda is HERE.

The entire committee was in attendance except for member Rick Kapko.  Neither council liaison Mayor Jim Righeimer nor his alternate, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger attended the meeting, which I thought was more than a little curious considering the potential wealth of information about to be presented.  They may have been out crawling around under their cars, looking for tracking devices.  A dozen members of the public and city staffers attended at least half of the meeting.  Following the short break at 4:00 it thinned out considerably, with only four of us remaining.

Over the past several months the Pension Oversight Committee met often - very often - trying to get their arms around the true scope of the "pension problem", and specifically the Unfunded Pension Liability problem.  They've worked VERY hard on this issue and should be commended.

Part of that work was the compilation of a 12-page document listing 58 questions for CalPERS (or other) experts that needed answering.  After unsuccessfully attempting to lure Worgan to town for weeks, yesterday was the day and they were ready for him - loaded for bear, as it were.

Kerry Worgan is "our" CalPERS actuary, charged with supporting cities in his territory, including Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange Counties.  He presented his material using a PowerPoint presentation consisting of many slides and handled most of the actuarial questions flawlessly and provided contact information for others - legal questions, for example.

I'm not going to attempt to parrot what Worgan told the committee, nor will I attempt to replicate all the inquiries the members had.  All those numbers make my head spin.  I will, however, give you my impressions of what I thought were some pretty important points.

First, I came away from the meeting discouraged - not with the efforts of the committee, but from the news shared by Worgan.  In a nutshell, and using my words, the City is in a world of hurt.  We sit today in the vortex of what turned out to be a perfect storm of fiscal calamity.

In the simplest terms possible, if we have fewer employees our rates go up.  If wages stay flat when the formulas anticipate a rise, rates go up.  If we increase benefits the rates go up.  If the economy tanks causing investment returns to drop, the rates go up.  Unfortunately, over the past few years ALL of those things happened and our so-called Unfunded Pension Liability has risen from $9 million ten years ago to over $220 million today!

And, if that's not bad enough, it looks like it's going to get worse.  We anticipate an increasing rate of retirements and other departures, further diminishing the pot of pension contributors over the next few months as employees read the Tea Leaves regarding the current labor negotiations and see that the City intends to reduce benefits one way or the other.  Just this week four more people announced they will soon be either retiring or quitting for other jobs - these are non-public safety jobs, too.  The City has at least 40 open positions among the 450 authorized slots - well down from the peak employment of 611 just a few years ago.  Fewer bodies means fewer folks to contribute to the pension costs, which means higher rates for the remaining staffers, even though new hires receive reduced benefits.

Most city employees have not seen pay raises for the past four or five years except for "step raises" within their job categories.  Flat salaries means higher rates.

The economy was in bad shape for several years recently resulting in very sub-par investment returns, which means higher rates since the cost of the pensions must be paid by someone.

Of course, we all recall the ill-advised attempt by our mayor to layoff half the "miscellaneous" employees right after he took office.  Had he been successful, an unintended consequence would have been a dramatic jump in CalPERS rates for the remaining employees.

There was discussion about "sharing the burden", which meant asking every employee AND retiree to consider accepting reduced benefits.  That idea didn't have much traction around the table.

There were discussions of pre-paying the unfunded liability, but the City has only recently begun showing a budget surplus - this year it was $7.1 million.  So far, this council has shown no inclination to pay down the pension obligation.  They didn't even pay the $500,000 budgeted for the pre-pay last year!  In fact, Righeimer has stated publically and in the strongest terms that he's not going to send one extra cent to Sacramento.  That makes us wonder if he has ANY plan to manage the pension issue short of municipal bankruptcy.

Eventually the conversation turned to that very issue - municipal bankruptcy - but it was addressed very quietly and without much vigor.  This committee has had a "Bankruptcy Workshop" within the past few months.  I've said in the past that there are clear signs that the current council majority may be aiming the City in that direction, presuming that could provide a way to wipe clean the labor agreements and allow them to impose their will on the employees.  Righeimer has a history of being strongly anti-labor and his actions while on the council have shown that to be true.  However, a bankruptcy filing is no guarantee that the pension obligations would be tossed out.

Worgan was cautiously optimistic about the future.  Their formulas depend on a 7.5% rate of investment return.  This past fiscal year ended with just over 12% and is at just under 9% year-to-date.  They look at the long haul while we sweat bullets over how to pay the short-term obligations, which will likely be over $20 million next year.

At one point I asked - yes, they permitted the audience to ask questions - what it would cost if the City decided to abandon CalPERS and simply withdraw from their program.  Keep in mind our current unfunded liability is $220 million.  The answer I received was imprecise, but close, as Worgan began tallying up the individual contracts in his head.  The answer - right at $1 BILLION!  Yep, over four times our current unfunded liability!  And that's a check we'd have to write to CalPERS to pull out today.  So, neighbors, we're not going to be doing that any time soon.

Worgan left with a pile of questions to research for us, and the committee will also attempt to get some guidance from CalPERS legal staffers regarding bankruptcy and other legal issues.  Member Gene Hutchins opined that he didn't think the residents of the city would sanction bankruptcy, but there were not many other options presented as they went around the table this afternoon.

In the meantime, I anticipate more employees to leave in the next few months.  I think of it as passengers bailing out of an airplane while there is still altitude enough for their parachutes to open.  Way back when this council took over I mused that their idea of the perfect city government would be all the jobs outsourced and only Tom Hatch and a handful of contract administrators left to manage things.  I thought I was making a joke at the time.... now I'm not so sure.

I'm told this meeting will soon be uploaded to the City website, so just go to the bottom of the homepage to "Costa Mesa TV", click on that link and look for "video on demand".  It's long and the numbers will have your head spinning - and you'll likely end up as I did - very depressed.

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