Leon Worden

Bittersweet birthday for an ill-run city

By Leon Worden
Friday, December 17, 1999

t was a bittersweet birthday as the city of Santa Clarita marked its first dozen years of existence Tuesday. Which actually happened Wednesday.
    On the plus side, we’ve got a really cool Cowboy Poetry Festival to show for those 12 years, and some nice trails and parks (though still not enough), and an ever-low crime rate (though I’m not sure how much credit the City Council can directly take for that).
    It still takes a half-hour to get from one side of town to the other during rush hour, and when City Manager George Caravalho convinced the council in 1992 to say “no” to a crosstown road that Caltrans would have paid for, it was nothing short of criminal.
    Perhaps the best thing cityhood has done is to give local residents a local forum for airing their concerns.
    Or has it?
    I don’t remember how many times in the last 12 years the City Council has been called on the carpet for violating the state’s open-meeting law. The law was designed to keep our representatives from taking secret votes without giving the public a chance to voice an opinion.
    The latest violation hearkens back to the earthquake of 1994 and all the closed sessions when the City Council, at Caravalho’s prodding, pursued a massive, $1.1 billion redevelopment plan that City Attorney Carl Newton knew, or should have known, was illegal. As expected, the City Council had its collective butt kicked in state court, but only at a cost of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
    Today in Sacramento, the words “Santa Clarita” are still used derisively and jokingly whenever a lawmaker proposes a change to the state’s redevelopment law that might be abused by a city.
    While the most recent incident may not prove to be as costly to taxpayers as the redevelopment debacle or as devastating to our valley’s quality of life as the rejection of a paid-for crosstown road, it is, at least on two levels, worse.
    One, it is a breach of the public trust, because the council told the public one thing and did another. Two, it is an illegal expenditure of public funds because the council secretly voted to provide publicly funded documents and staff time to a private party and didn’t tell anyone about it.
    To recap, over the summer the council voted not to sue the Castaic Lake Water Agency, Santa Clarita’s state water wholesaler, over its recent acquisition of the Santa Clarita Water Co., one of the four local water retailers. There may be valid reasons to support or oppose CLWA’s purchase of the water company, and the city might have been within its rights to sue. But it voted not to— and, importantly, it told the public it wouldn’t.
    Then, on Sept. 7, behind closed doors, with Caravalho and Newton calling the shots, the council took a secret vote authorizing Newton to assist Councilwoman Jill Klajic’s attorney in Klajic’s own private lawsuit against CLWA and to “share” an extensive legal analysis that was initially prepared at city taxpayer expense.
    And not only did they keep the vote secret, they even tried to cover it up by lying about it on the public record. Newton reported that “no action was taken” at the Sept. 7 meeting, when in fact an action was taken.
    The city apparently violated the state’s open-meeting law. It reads: “The legislative body of any local agency shall publicly report any action taken in closed session and the vote or abstention of every member present thereon... (if) approval (is) given to its legal counsel to defend... or to enter as an amicus curiae in any form of litigation... (or to) initiate or intervene in (a legal) action.”
    Focus on the word “intervene.” Newton says he “assisted,” “consulted” and “shared.” I’d hate to be in Newton’s shoes if he had to go before a judge and explain the difference.
    As his excuse to take the council behind closed doors in the first place, Newton cited a section of the law that allows a closed-door meeting if the city was already party to a lawsuit, or if the city stood to be sued. Neither was the case.
    Another thing. Newton has repeatedly told council members that it is somehow illegal for them to discuss what goes on in closed session. It’s another lie. The law— which you can read for yourself online at www.the-signal.com/links/brownact.html— says no such thing. There may be instances in which it would be unwise for a council member to discuss a closed meeting, and instances where they aren’t required to, but the law doesn’t say they can’t. In fact, the law says the opposite: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
    It continues, “Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body... where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
    To instruct the council otherwise is just one more way the city’s most senior staff members have consistently intimidated and manipulated their bosses— the members of the City Council.
    Some months ago, George Caravalho’s spokeswoman asked me why I hate my city so much.
    In response, I’m reminded of the citizens of former communist countries who used to say they love their country but hate their government.
    I don’t hate my city. I love my city. I love my city so much that I am willing to fight for it. Leadership that is beyond lies and cover-ups really should not be too much to ask for.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

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