Newsmaker of the Week

George Pederson
Former Santa Clarita Mayor

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, December 10, 2006
(Television interview conducted November 28, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's Newsmaker is George Pederson, who served on the Santa Clarita City Council from 1992-1996, and served as mayor in 1994. Earlier he commanded the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center.
    Questions are paraphrased; answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Where have you been? We used to see you everywhere.

Pederson: I've been in a lot of places. I was appointed to the L.A. County Regional Planning Commission and spent three years there. I was foreman of the L.A. County Grand Jury in 1997-98. And I worked at NASD, that's the National Association of Securities Dealers; I was a hearing officer for them. Lots of money, but lots of pressure.

Signal: We're used to seeing you on stage as an emcee with Bob Kellar, but we haven't seen much of you lately.

Pederson: I fired Bob Kellar. He was not doing what I wanted him to do and I had to get rid of him some way.

Signal: How's he doing now that he has sort of stepped in your place on the City Council?

Pederson: You know, Bob and I always have had similarities, but differences. I was with L.A. County Sheriff's Department for 31 years; he was with LAPD. We occasionally mixed on which one was the most professional of those organizations.

Signal: Is anybody on the City Council doing a good job these days?

Pederson: I think they're all doing a good job.

Signal: Aw, come on. Even Laurene Weste?

Pederson: Laurene Weste is doing a great job, too. Absolutely. I know what that job entails, and they're doing well.

Signal: Remind me when you went off the council.

Pederson: I believe it was 1996. I think I came in in 1992. The earthquake was 1994.

Signal: That's right, you were the Earthquake Mayor.

Pederson: I was the Earthquake Mayor for 11 months.

Signal: Hard to believe it has been 10 years. What do you think of the direction the city is going? What do you like?

Pederson: I like the fact that this city has got a big heart and that it spends a lot of its resources towards safety concerns of the law enforcement. We get better law enforcement — more law enforcement — more bang for the buck.

Signal: Than in the county, you mean.

Pederson: Than in the county. I like the fact that ... we're starting to make some headway on getting our roads from Canyon Country to Valencia.

Signal: They were working on that cross-valley connector back when you were on the council, weren't they?

Pederson: Absolutely.

Signal: It has taken a little while.

Pederson: It goes back a ways, but I enjoyed even that part of it. But roads and transportation issues — I like the fact that the transportation, regular transportation, Metrolink, is doing a great job, also. And I like the days that the council and the community were eye-to-eye on big issues such as Elsmere, which we won, and now Cemex, which we're fighting. We do great when we get together, when we come together as a group.

Signal: It seems like there's been too much of this togetherness on the City Council. They all get along. It's not like the old days when you were on there and everybody was fighting all the time. What's up with that?

Pederson: I think you're making that up.

Signal: You remember some volatile years in there.

Pederson: There were volatile years. I don't remember. I thought a lot more good years than there were bad years. And yes, there were people on the City Council that didn't agree with the others, but that's what a democracy is all about. We don't want everything one way.
    On the whole, I think that the people that have been on the City Council that I've worked with — same thing with the (county Regional) Planning Commission. I told Mike Antonovich when he appointed me, I said, "I'll stay here until you get a good Planning Commission because I don't like the one that you have now." And within three years, all the others disappeared. And I said to him, "It's time for me to leave and let somebody else take over."

Signal: Well you are in a kind of unique position. You've seen the way the city handles development projects, you've been on the county Planning Commission. What do you think is ever going to happen with this "One Valley, One Vision" thing that we hear on and off again about? Are the city and county ever going to come to terms on how the Santa Clarita Valley should be developed?

Pederson: I hope so, because we do much better when we join and when we work for one common cause. When we're at odds with each other, we don't really look very good. We don't really accomplish the things we should be accomplishing.
    I don't know whether there's going to be an annexation of Stevenson Ranch. That's their business. But if they can run a city better by themselves and they want to do it, that's what democracy is, and it takes the votes and it takes the preparation to do that.
    So, I see progress. I see continued progress here, and I see this is a city with a big heart; just go to any of these fundraisers and you find out how much money the professional people in this community and the individuals in this community support those issues.

Signal: What do you see as the big stumbling blocks though between the city and county? When the city general plan and the county general plan don't dovetail, it's a mess, and we've been talking about getting the city and county together since 1999 or thereabouts.

Pederson: I was on the (county Regional) Planning Commission when that started.

Signal: Is it off the table?

Pederson: I don't think so, but I want to tell you something. When we had that "One Valley, One Vision," we were practicing that before it became an issue. And by that I mean, when I was on the Planning Commission and an issue came out here that dovetailed with the county and the city, I would call Jeff (Lambert), who was the planning director for the city of Santa Clarita and say, "What can we do about this? Is there wiggle room for us to improve this?" There was no hiding around or anything, we were straightforward with each other.
    I think that there are many issues such as water, such as traffic, that affect you whether you're in the city or whether you're in the unincorporated (area). On those issues — because the funding for traffics and so forth comes from city, county, state, and federal — they've got to be coordinated and work together.

Signal: Now that you're sitting on the outside looking in, what do you think of the way the City Council has handled some of the big development projects that have come before it, such the Gate King industrial park south of Newhall, and Newhall Land's Riverpark project or whatever they're calling it these days?

Pederson: Well I sometimes wish we didn't have as many people moving out here. That's obvious. But at the same time, when developers come out here, they abide by all the rules and regulations and laws involving development in this area, and they perform all those functions. Although we don't want them out here at that degree, I think that if they do that, we should make sure that all the i's are dotted, the t's are crossed, and that the developments follow protocol and follow the rules. Then, despite the fact that I don't want more people out here, I'm not going to fight them.

Signal: We sometimes hear from people who moved here five minutes ago and think all growth should stop. We've even heard that from people in Bridgeport, of all places — and Bridgeport didn't even exist when you were on the City Council. It's funny to hear them complain about growth, since they are the growth. If there's anyone with a right to complain about growth, well, you've been around a little while—

Pederson: You want to know how long? I started out in this area in 1954. I worked at the old Sheriff's Station and Honor Ranch, and there were 23 deputies here. There was one juvenile officer. I was that.

Signal: How many stoplights?

Pederson: Probably three. The Saugus Cafe and the drugstore. Life was simple. Life was beautiful. Nobody — nobody — ever suspected that we would grow to this size. But it hit us. Can you prepare for that? Somewhat, but not totally.

Signal: 1954. You were patrolling out here—

Pederson: I was an investigator. I was a juvenile sergeant.

Signal: With the Sheriff's Department.

Pederson: Right.

Signal: What was the town like? What do you remember?

Pederson: Well I remember the station being shot up by a couple of high school kids. We caught them.

Signal: The Sheriff's Station?

Pederson: The Sheriff's Station, right. The old one on Eighth and Market.

Signal: The substation in Newhall.

Pederson: I remember having The Signal next door and I remember the battles we had with The Signal in those days, the battles the CHP had with The Signal in those days.

Signal: What were the issues?

Pederson: Traffic. And a lot of citations.

Signal: A bunch of speeders at 30 or 40 mph?

Pederson: We brought our special enforcement bureau out here because crime was running rampant on Lyons Avenue—

Signal: What, a shoplifter?

Pederson: There wasn't a lot of crime out here.

Signal: What kind of crime was there?

Pederson: The worst incident that I remember ever happening out here was the four CHP officers who were killed...

Signal: In 1970 at Castaic Junction.

Pederson: And I knew all four of them. I knew one of them very well. That was an emotional issue. And it happened because of poor strategy and planning by the Highway Patrol in relation to the availability of their shotguns. And that's a shame that that should ever have happened.

Signal: Why don't you describe the incident for readers who might not be familiar with it?

Pederson: There were two guys, two ex-convicts coming south on (Interstate) 5 toward Newhall. They had committed some robberies and they were shooting out of the window of the car. The CHP guys spotted them coming into one of the cafes on the corner there at Magic Mountain and The Old Road.
    In those days, if they pulled their shotgun — now, they know these guys have got a weapon because they've been told that. But in order to pull their shotguns out and have them ready, they had to write a memo on that, so they decided not to do that. That sealed their death.
    And that's been changed. The CHP changed their policy regarding that. I think that was the worst thing that ever happened in this community.

Signal: The four Highway Patrol officers were gunned down there—

Pederson: They got the first two and they waited for the next two to come and got them.

Signal: — at what today is like the Marie Callender's parking lot.

Pederson: Right.

Signal: The two suspects — one ended up getting smoked out of a house at the top of Lyons—

Pederson: Right.

Signal: —ša ended up in prison. What happened to the other one

Pederson: He got killed.

Signal: Were you around at that time?

Pederson: I had just left the station about a week before and had transferred downtown. So I still knew all the people, but wasn't actually assigned there.

Signal: By this time, they had started to develop Valencia. Where were you living?

Pederson: I was living in Northridge. I lived in Northridge for about 30 years and came out here about 19 years ago to live out here. But I've worked out here since 1954.

Signal: At one time you were the commander at Wayside (now known as Pitchess Detention Center), right?

Pederson: I was the captain assigned to the Wayside Honor Rancho. We use the "commander" as a generic, which covers the person in charge, but in reality, I was a captain, which was not a bad accomplishment.

Signal: Were you the person in charge?

Pederson: I was the person in charge. I was the man.

Signal: Today, Pitchess has all of these high-security facilities; when were you in charge and what was it like?

Pederson: From 1980 to 1984. The two things that changed dramatically since that time were the infusion of gangs, and the preponderance of narcotics being delivered in and out and used there.

Signal: When you were there, those weren't big—

Pederson: They were issues, but they weren't mammoth issues. The riots became mammoth issues later on. The riots were primarily racial. One of the things that I've never been able to figure out — the department could resolve that situation very quickly if they were allowed to (segregate) the different prisoners. Because it's a racial issue. The prisoners hate each other, and they're out in the street fighting each other; stick them in jail, they start fighting each other again. If we can segregate them, we can at least save some lives and a lot of headaches.

Signal: Today, when they come in, they're separated, but then you can't keep them segregated—

Pederson: Classification is the key to running a jail. I'm not going to talk too much about the jail because I've been gone for 20 years, and other people should be doing that. We got a great commander out here now in Don Rodriguez and he should be the guy you should be asking these questions of.

Signal: And we have.

Pederson: And you have. But an answer to your question, the jail, when I came out here, had about 6,000 prisoners. They were not "honor" prisoners. These were the toughest prisoners that you could find. Because they were pre-sentenced, heading for the state penitentiary. So if they were in a county facility to begin with, they wound up being in the state penitentiary.

Signal: And Rodriguez makes that point: You think they're county prisoners out there, but they aren't; most are going through the court process, waiting to go to state prison. Apparently every child molester in Los Angeles County is housed, at least temporarily, at Pitchess.

Pederson: Not everyone, but it would be nice to have everyone (behind bars).

Signal: Two dorms full. These are hardened prisoners, so when there's a jailbreak, there is cause for concern in the community. How many jailbreaks were there when you were in charge?

Pederson: That's a good story. You know about that, don't you? (Then-Signal Editor) Scott Newhall used to get on my case because we had probably around 100 escapes a year. When I was assigned out there, the Sheriff and the Chief told me one thing: "George, knock off those escapes." So I am proud to say that when I was there, the first year, we were down to 25 from 100.
    Scott Newhall, who had challenged me all the time during that period — I said to him, "I will let you know when we go the first month without an escape." Took a few months, but I finally got that month and I couldn't wait to call him. He wrote a complete editorial column on it. In fact, we became good friends after all our bickering and arguing.

Signal: What's keeping you busy these days?

Pederson: Well, I'm a great-grandfather. Watched my kids grow, watched my grandkids grow, and now watch my great-grandkids grow. I play golf. I work on fundraisers for the Senior Center. I play golf.

Signal: Tell us about the Senior Center.

Pederson: Well the Senior Center of course is just one of the finest places we have here in the city that addresses issues that just don't go away.
    Brad Berens, who is the executive director, is doing a remarkable job. These are the most valuable times of their lives, of seniors. Seniors need to have a place where they can get together with others and get the information that they need, talk about the problems that are in that area, and the food distribution — the Meals on Wheels program that we have here — is marvelous. Not only does it furnish them with a good meal during the day, but it gives them a chance to talk to somebody and that's what they do. They put the meal in the refrigerator and they sit down and talk to you.
    So the Senior Center is deserving of the support of the community. They're a big percentage of our population.

Signal: And growing. We hear that our population is aging, and yet we hear that the Senior Center is cutting back nighttime hours and they're cash-strapped. What's going to happen with the Senior Center? Is there a long-term solution in sight?

Pederson: I think they've got some solutions — not solutions, but they've got long-term ideas. They have an excellent board. The board is aware of what's going to happen, and they're aware that they can't use only county funding. We have to put these programs through with additional funding generated from the community and from individual people.
    So the answer to it is money. We need more funds to keep this going, in operation. We even deliver meals to the valley, the city of Los Angeles.

Signal: Oh?

Pederson: Well it's part of the program. They're not going to turn somebody down who's hungry just because they're not here.

Signal: Meals on Wheels goes to L.A.?

Pederson: Yes they do.

Signal: I didn't know that.

Pederson: I'm supposed to learn things here, not you learning things.

Signal: No, I'm the guy with the questions. You're not hosting a show on SCVTV anymore.

Pederson: I surrender. I surrender.

Signal: You handed that over to Bob Kellar.

Pederson: He sat there and complained. He said, "I need more publicity. I need to be known."

Signal: Yeah, nobody knows Bob Kellar.

Pederson: He said, "Nobody knows me." I said, "OK, I'll let you have my program and I'll tell you in a year or two whether you did well."

Signal: And now they've got a whole movie about you — "Curious George."

Pederson: And I've never seen it.

Signal: Hospital. You're interested in the hospital.

Pederson: I am.

Signal: You're interested in the services they provide, if you're involved in the Senior Center.

Pederson: Right.

Signal: What do you think about their expansion plans?

Pederson: I think we need expansion of the hospital, but I think we need reasonable expansion. But I'm not the person who should decide what that is. We have professional people, including the management of the hospital, who know what's needed now and in the future. So I don't oppose any of the fact that we want to expand the ER and the beds for that community.
    What I don't want to have happen is I don't want that hospital to grow so large that it ruins the neighborhood. By ruining the neighborhood, I mean the traffic will increase tremendously, and the area will no longer be what it's like.
    Let me repeat again something I said: We're good at doing things together with the city. We're good at Elsmere, we're good at Cemex. We need to be good at the hospital issue and work together and resolve this program through mutual respect for each other and compromise where needed and to get what we need.

Signal: You live near the hospital, don't you?

Pederson: Sure, I love it. I'm down there all the time.

Signal: So what do you think about the people who dismiss the complaints as coming from a bunch of NIMBYs?

Pederson: Hospitals are one of the most needful things we have out here. I look at this in a broad frame of mind. This is a medical, health issue for this community, not for Valencia, not for Newhall, not for Saugus and not for Canyon Country. It's for all of us. We have to design it that way.
    We take all of the bad injuries from Interstate 5. Not too many hospitals have Interstate 5 running along (it). And in addition to that, the prisoners that get beat up and injured in the jail are brought to Henry Mayo. Not only are they brought to Henry Mayo for further treatment, but two deputies, not one, two deputies must accompany one. That's a lot of money we're spending on some of those things; it's not the hospital's fault.
    The hospital has to be there to respond to the needs of the community. I think they are; I think we're going to reach reasonableness on this issue by working together, the community — not just the area around the hospital, but it'll affect more than just that. So, we need to resolve this problem, and it's good for all of us to work together.

Signal: You know the growth projections for northern Los Angeles County. It will grow from 500,000 today to 1.2 million in the next 20 years. What about at the Highway 14 corridor where much of the growth will happen? Do we need another hospital on that side of town?

Pederson: First, I'm not an expert on how hospital sizes should be determined. There are experts on that. They can have plans, general plans that cover the needs of 25 years from now. This hospital needs to do the same thing, and I think they are, to the best of their ability.
    But I think that what we need to do is we need to have hospitals located near where the people are that need the service. Because right now, if you live in Canyon Country, out in Sand Canyon, and you have to go to the hospital, guess which one is closer — Henry Mayo Newhall or Providence Holy Cross? It's quicker to get to Holy Cross than it is to get to Newhall. And we need to have that.
    We also have helicopter pads. You've got to have helicopters, and I'm not going to criticize their noise; they're lifesavers. I'm not going to criticize the noise of ambulances; they're lifesavers. We need these people. We shouldn't be quibbling over how many landings they make, because that's what's going to save lives, maybe your own life.

Signal: It's hard to picture telling a hospital, "You can have only two landings a night."

Pederson: Exactly. I think this is going to be resolved by clear-thinking, honorable people and cooperation between all of the people of this community.

Signal: What other issues out there are of interest to you?

Pederson: Well, I'm interested in seeing what the political flavor of the next council is like, who they choose to fill out (Cameron Smyth's) term and how they do it. I have some thoughts on that.

Signal: It looks like they're going to make an appointment.

Pederson: And I agree with that. I think that's a good way. We've got very qualified people out here that could easily fill in that year.

Signal: Wouldn't it be more democratic to have an election?

Pederson: Yes, it would be more democratic. But there are some times where democracy isn't always the answer. Sometimes you get things done and save a lot of money and you accomplish the same thing. These people that are running for it are not anti-democracy. So it would be fairer, from their perspective, the people that don't want to see a lot happening here. But from my point (of view), I would say they're going the right way here, and I would even add to it. I'd like to see a mayor and I might even like to see two more council people assigned there if we ever have an additional growth in Stevenson Ranch, Acton and Castaic.

Signal: A seven-member City Council?

Pederson: If we annex many more.

Signal: Then you get into the question of going to districts. Already we hear people saying that if Stevenson Ranch and Castaic are added to the city, they should have their own council member. When you go down that road, you're talking about dividing up the city with one council member for Newhall, one for Canyon Country—

Pederson: It's going to happen automatically, because the people who live in one district are going to vote for the people who live in their district. So you're going to have some form of getting representation in all parts.
    But I believe in the policy right now — it could change later, but right now, I believe in having five people on the City Council, having one of those five being mayor and then take one step at a time, see how that system works.
    In the meantime, I'd like a study being made of this so that we have expert opinion, expert direction on which of those methods to use. Because there are several options involved in this. It's not just a simple mayor or not a mayor.

Signal: I'm confused. Do you think we should have an elected mayor?

Pederson: I think we should have a mayor. Yes, we need an elected mayor because when the people elect you to the City Council now, they expect you will be mayor for one year. They're voting for two issues. They may not say it, but they are. I went through that problem. They weren't going to make me mayor, but I cried and yelled and finally Jo Anne Darcy gave in and said, "I'll wait Ātill another year."

Signal: So you think the voters should directly elect a mayor—

Pederson: Absolutely. But that's not the main reason.

Signal: — to what? A 2-year term? A 4-year term?

Pederson: Two or four, two or four. I don't like two-year terms because all you're doing is spending your time trying to get elected for the next term.

Signal: Should we change the form of government? Right now, we have a city manager form of government where the city manager runs the day-to-day business and the part-time council and mayor set policy.

Pederson: It's still a city manager (form), but in this case here, the mayor would get a little more money because he or she would be going through a lot more issues, and it should be full-time.

Signal: So you want to keep the city manager form of government, even if you have an elected mayor?

Pederson: Absolutely. At this time. I could change in two or three or four years.

Signal: When you run for mayor.

Pederson: No, I'll be too young.

Signal: What's next for George Pederson? More golf?

Pederson: Well I'll always play golf. It's an important part of life.

Signal: How many great-grandkids do you have?

Pederson: One. Nathan. Pride of our family's joy.

Signal: Does he live in town here?

Pederson: Yes, and my whole family lives in town — my daughter, my granddaughter, my grandson and my great-grandson.

Signal: OK, not mayor. Supervisor. When are you going to run for county supervisor?

Pederson: You know, I think we got good people out here, but I'm sure not the right person to run for county supervisor. First place, I'm older than people should be to run for that job. It takes a lot of stamina.
    I don't have the same amount of energy and stamina I had 10 years ago, and to think of it five years from now, I'm scared to death thinking how little stamina I have left. But I would never be a candidate for anything else politically.

Signal: But there will always be a George Pederson, giving his opinion. That I count on.

Pederson: Well, I will do that, and sometimes, I may not say everything I know about an issue, but I'll do my best to be honest and forthright.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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