Monday, January 3, 2011

EVG Gas Station Fraud Update from SMPD

Press Release dated January 3, 2011

On Monday, December 27, 2010, the first Sierra Madre victim reported an identity theft to police after using her credit card at EVG Quality Gas, 50 S. Baldwin Ave. As of Monday noon, January 3rd, Sierra Madre police officers have taken over 175 fraud reports linked to EVG. The total loss exceeds $49,000. These numbers do not reflect others who have been victimized, and have not made a formal report to the Police Department.

About 75% of the cases involved a single fraudulent transaction. All of the single transactions were EVG posted and involved less than $200.00. Most of the multiple transaction cases involved ATM and retail transactions. Six cases involved 6 transactions each, and one involved 9 transactions. Sierra Madre residents comprise about 82% of the victims. The highest loss of an individual case was $3,782.00.

The EVG gas station has been closed since Christmas weekend. Detectives have followed leads in this case daily, including serving a search warrant and interviewing many people. The Police Department is working with several law enforcement and regulatory agencies that are providing additional resources. Chief Diaz is asking that anyone who used a credit or debit card at EVG to check their statements back to at least June of 2010. If there has been a fraudulent charge from EVG Inc., victims should report it to the Police Department.
Chief Diaz reminds the public that identity theft and credit card misuse are among the fastest growing crimes in the country. While there are some precautions consumers can take to lessen the chances of becoming a victim, no one is immune from being targeted.

If residents would like to schedule a Neighborhood Watch presentation, officers can also address identity and credit card theft prevention. For information, please call the Sierra Madre Police Department: 626 355-1414.

Rose Float/Flower Sales Moved to Rose Float Barn

Due to predictions of steady rain throughout the day, Sierra Madre's award winning float will not be on display in Kersting Court as it usually is. Head down to the Barn at 587 E. Sierra Madre Blvd. (behind the park, next to Pioneer Cemetery) and you can see the float up close and purchase flowers (a major fundraiser for the organization). Be sure to head down and enjoy the float up close, and pick up some flowers (with a special history) for someone special. Also, please enjoy this congratulatory video we made featuring lots of float pictures (and some video), plus messages from Sierra Madreans that appreciate the job done by SMRFA in bringing home its SIXTH consecutive award!! I now understand the barn will also be open Tuesday, Jan. 4th.

Sierra Madre Rose Float Association Wins Sixth Consecutive Award from Bill Coburn on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sierra Madre Rose Float Association Wins Sixth Consecutive Award

For the second year in a row, SMRFA won the Governor's Trophy for Best Depiction of Life in California, with this year's entry "Suenos de California"!! Congratulations to SMRFA! Please feel free to leave a congratulatory comment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

General Plan Update Committee Hosts First Town Hall Forum

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.
While I really had no idea what to expect, the meeting far exceeded any expectations I might have had. The water rate forums, as outraged as people were, drew very few people. I went to one water forum, and only 6 non-staff people were there. Sunday's meeting drew somewhere in the range of 250-300, or more than the City has said attended ALL the water forums.

The best thing for me was having one of the Commissioners tell me afterwards that one of the big things he got out of the meeting was that there were a lot of things mentioned to him that he would never have thought of. Things he wouldn't have known, unless someone else, affected by the item, had brought it up to him. That was one of my hopes for the meeting, that the Commissioners were aware as they move forward of how much they weren't aware of, and how their actions might negatively impact people if they did not fully consider the effects of those actions.

There was definitely a business contingent there, I saw at least a dozen owners that I know, some Chamber, some not. And I'm sure there were business owners there that I am not familiar with, as well. One of the Commissioners told me that she felt that there was a good representation of business owners.

Other positives: There were a lot of people I've never seen before, in other words, new participants in the process. Also, many of the people putting this thing on, myself included, with whatever small role I played, are polar opposites in many aspects politically, yet every one worked well together, and treated each other with respect. That's something that's been lacking in the Sierra Madre political scene, to a degree.

Melissa Thew did a great job with food. Carol Canterbury did a great job rounding up door prizes. Event co-Chairs Teryl Willis and Leslee Hinton did a great job organizing the event. One resident with whom I spoke told me he was very impressed, and that in particular he liked that everything was very straight forward.

Friends of the Arts was there to work with children while their parents did the busy work, and though there weren't many children there for them to work with, they did at least get to talk with many of the folks to increase awareness of their concern that the Arts are properly considered and included in the General Plan. But there was a youth influence, the YAC kids painted all the banners that hung on the tables that represented the seven elements of a General Plan. Who knows, as 2030 approaches and the Plan is updated again, maybe some of those youth will sit on the committee and recall when they helped with the update "back in 2010".

Staff and City Council were there, listening to what the people had to say. Unfortunately, only one Planning Commissioner was there, Kevin Paschall. Hopefully more will be able to attend future meetings. Three members of the GPUSC were unable to attend, Debbie Sheridan, who was out of town, Colin Braudrick, who is just out of the hospital, and Chairperson Denise Delmar, who was with her daughter who had just had a baby. The other commissioners were there at each of the tables, answering questions, but more importantly, listening to community input.

A survey prepared by the committee was distributed, and the original 150 copies were supplemented by an additional 2 publishings of 50 copies each. A PowerPoint presentation of 25 slides detailing what a general plan is was shown on a projection screen, an endless loop using a laptop and a projector with speakers (voiceover by Chairperson Denise Delmar), though the crowd was large enough that the audio was frequently overpowered.

All in all, I think it went exceedingly well. Congratulations to the GPUSC (and staff) for a great event, and to the Communications team which got the word out and drew the large crowd.

To view pictures from the event, go to

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Attn: City Council - She's Not Always Wrong Just Because She's MaryAnn

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.

Last Tuesday night at City Council, four members of the Council again rebuffed Council Member MaryAnn MacGillivray, and in doing so, they cost the City money, and overlooked what I consider to be a very good idea.
At issue was an increase in the water rate that was being proposed that would have raised the water rate 7.5% for each of the first two years, followed by smaller increases for the next two years. The increase as proposed (over the four years) exceeded slightly the amount that would have been raised in the first four years by the increase that was suspended by the Council in July when more than 1,700 letters of protest were received from Sierra Madre rate payers as part of a Prop. 218 response to the proposed rate increase. Because the amount of the increase exceeded the previously proposed increase, it would have triggered the need to notify rate payers that they again had the right to protest the increase through Prop. 218. The Council was proposing that this new rate increase be modified slightly to reduce the amount so that it was below the cap at which Prop. 218 would be triggered, allowing the increase to move forward without further input from the ratepayers.

Council Member MacGillivray had proposed that the City ease into the 7.5% water rate increase that was being proposed, suggesting that beginning Jan. 1, a 3.5% increase be instituted, with the amount raising to the 7.5% level in July when the new budget begins. She further proposed that the level not be tweaked at all, allowing it to exceed the Prop 218 imposed cap, and that the Council should give rate payers the option of protesting the increase, as she felt that the reduced level (from 15.5% to 7.5% the first year) of the increase would be sufficient to ensure that protestors did not generate enough protests to stop it from being approved. Council Member MacGillivray noted that from what she has observed, people were willing to pay more, but were upset about the process by which the Council and the City administration had attempted to raise the rates the first time.

So here we have a proposal that would have generated a 3.5% increase six months earlier, and that would not have been tweaked to fit within the cap needed to fall within the limits imposed by the first Prop. 218 process. That means more money for the City. The Council shot down MacGillivray's proposal.

Further, the Council had an opportunity to quiet some of the critics (and there are many) that claim the Council/City staff had misled the ratepayers by "hiding" the water bond debt that most of the rate increase is intended to cover. Now I have to kind of disagree with that, because these bonds have been around since 1998 and 2003, and they are addressed in the annual budget. They also were not passed by previous councils without the public being informed. Nothing was hidden. But that's a subject for another editorial. The issue of this editorial is that Council Member MacGillivray proposed an increase that would have raised more money for the City's beleaguered water department, and increased the level of trust that ratepayers of the City have in their current City Council, and that was never given any serious consideration by the other members of the Council.

Now I recognize that there is a possibility that the protesters might have been able to generate enough letters of protest that the increase as proposed by MacGillivray might have failed. However, since a large number of the protesters have tremendous faith in MacGillivray and consider her to be a Council member they can trust when they lack that trust with other members, the fact that it was her proposing it and trying to get it passed would have eliminated many of those protests. Additionally, since the 1700 letters of protest were gathered, the City has embarked on an education outreach program to inform people why it is so critical to the City that the rates be increased. Does the Council lack faith in the outreach program's impact? Between that program, the countless hours of discussion at City Council meetings about the current state of the system and the increases, and Council member MacGillivray's backing, I have no doubt in my mind that the proposed increase would have passed without sufficient protests being received to put it on hold.

I think the problem is that this Council has a tendency to oppose ideas brought forth by Council Member MacGilllivray.

In my April 18th post-election editorial, I wrote the following: "On election night, I heard one of the folks who will be sitting on the Council for the next four years telling someone that the Council’s job now is to bring Mayor MacGillivray back into the fold. In essence, this person said that rather than ostracize or criticize her, the Council needs to be inclusive, because if they can get her working WITH them, the council can only get even more accomplished. Of course, the other side of the coin on that is that if Ms. MacGillivray chooses not to work collaboratively with the other members of the Council when they have attempted to work with her, it will reflect poorly on her."

I think what we have here is a combination of both. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that Council member MacGillivray had never discussed her proposal with the other Council members prior to that evening. Had she suggested this idea to the other members of the Council with enough time for them to consider it for a few days, and discuss it with their supporters, they might have seen the benefits of raising the additional money, as well as had time to consider the fact that there was less likelihood of a Prop. 218 rejection with MacGillivray joining them in backing the proposal. I don't think this is the first time that Council member MacGillivray has come to Council meetings and surprised her fellow Council members with a proposal, rather than trying to work with them to get a consensus for a united front at the meeting. Her suggestion regarding the General Plan Update Committee a couple months back being a case in point.

Here's what I wrote at the time: "Council Member Maryann MacGillivray, in my opinion, came on a little too strong at the beginning by asking her colleagues to repeal what had been approved as a compromise at a previous meeting, the authority to appoint technical advisory committees to assist the General Plan Steering Committee. I think she asked for too much, too soon. But she ultimately offered up an obvious solution, one that would have been an excellent compromise. Her second motion, which died for lack of a second, was to accept the Steering Committee's work plan, ask for a time line, accept the Outreach Program, and leave the Technical Committee appointments on the table. In doing so, the Council could have allowed the Steering Committee to begin its outreach program and show the council just how inclusive it would be, and if the Council felt it was being inclusive enough, they could repeal them at a later date. If they didn't feel it was being inclusive enough, they could just appoint the Technical Committees."

And I think that's partly a political tactic on MacGillivray's part. If she brings up ideas that are shot down by the others, she's seen by her supporters as a hero fighting for the people against overwhelming opposition. Her attempt to repeal the General Plan compromise was doomed to fail, but her fall back position, had she discussed it in advance with her colleagues, might very well have been accepted. By the time she brought it up though, they had their hackles up from her first proposal, and didn't give her second idea the time and consideration it needed. I think she might accomplish more for the people if she stopped the tactics and tried more to work behind the scenes instead of bringing these ideas forward without giving her colleagues some time to consider them. That being said, there are enough differences in ideology that there will be issues that we just won't see agreement on between all five members of the Council. But don't stop trying before you even start.

But I think we also see a lack of willingness on the part of the other Council members to bring MacGillivray "back into the fold". They are not being inclusive, as the Council member I heard back in April said was needed. I suggest that not only should they be trying harder to get her to work with them, they should put a little more effort into trying to work with her..

Thursday, October 28, 2010

City Council Gives Direction to Staff re: Water Rates, Approves Strategic Plan, Creates New UUT Committee

At Tuesday night's Council meeting, City Council gave direction to Staff regarding the Water Dept.'s proposed Water Rate increase. Staff had asked for direction on seven different items. Those items were: 1) Should the City comply with the bond obligation to achieve 120% net revenues ratio, achieved after operations, capital expenditures and debt service, and by when? 2) Should the Water Utility Fund be self-supporting, meaning should the City General Fund subsidize the Water Utility? 3) Over the five year period of the proposed increase, what dollar amount if any should be set-aside or accumulated toward capital projects? 4) What dollar amount of cash reserves should be available to meet contingencies and emergencies? 5) Should the Water Utililty have a tiered consumption rate structure? If yes, what is the preferred differential between the tiers? What is the preferred number of tiers? 6) Should the Water Utility continue to maintain different meter charges, based upon the size of the meter? 7) Should the Water Utility continue to maintain the same rate structure for all customers? Or should rates be based upon types of use, i.e., commercial, single-family, multi-family or agricultural?

Council Member Maryann MacGillivray proposed creation of a ratepayers' oversight committee to solicit input from the ratepayers to determine what rate they are willing to pay. Several members of the community spoke in favor of such a committee. However, the Council decided against the creation of such a committee. Ultimately, it was decided that the City should comply with its bond obligations, the tiered structure should remain as it stands, different meter charges would remain, and the same rate structure would be used for all customers. Council member MacGillivray noted that multi-family dwellings were less likely to conserve based on tiered rate structures since the end user frequently does not pay the bill, and Mayor pro tem Buchanan said that perhaps there might be a need to look at different rates for single family vs. multiple family in the future, but not now. Council member Moran proposed looking at different rates for commercial ratepayers to ensure that desired businesses were not so adversely affected by a rate increase that they could not continue to do business here, but in the future, not now.

It should be noted that changes to the structure such as these, or changes to the tiered system had the potential to re-initiate the Prop. 218 notice requirement, which would have allowed ratepayers to protest the rate increase. In addition, there is a possibility a Citizen oversight committee would return a proposed increase that would have triggered the Prop. 218 protest notification. In July, the Council voted not to continue with its proposed rate hike because 1700+ protest letters had been received. While that was not enough to legally stop the hike, the Council decided it was enough that they needed to revisit the subject. City Attorney Sandra Levin pointed out, however, that because there had not been sufficient protests to overrule the increase, the Council still had the authority to move ahead with an increase so long as it did not exceed what had been proposed. Tuesday, Council member MacGillivray suggested that even though the Council was not legally required to initiate Prop. 218 notification, it would be the right thing to do. Since there was no actual proposal for the Council, though, no decision was made on that issue. Direction was given to staff to bring back three separate proposals that maintained the current level of reserves, but allotted $0, $500,000 and $1,000,000 for capital improvements.

The Council also approved the Strategic Plans, Goals and Objectives that they had developed at their October 14th Strategic Planning Session. City Manager Elaine Aguilar pointed out that the Goals remained the same from the April Planning Session, but the objectives were new and were on the agenda for approval. To view a copy of the objectives, click here.

Also Tuesday evening, the City Council authorized the creation of another UUT Oversight Committee. When Measure U was passed to fund emergency services in April, 2008, it required the creation of a six member committee, with each Council member appointing one member of the public, and the City Treasurer serving as the sixth member. Tuesday night, the following five people were appointed to the Committee to serve with City Treasurer George Enyedi:

Larry David, appointed by Mayor Mosca, Jeff Bohn, appointed by Mayor Pro Tem Buchanan, Anna Laws, appointed by Council member MacGillivray, Tom Denison, appointed by Council member Moran, and Kevin Brennan, appointed by Council member Walsh.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Council Gets One Thing Right, The Other, Not at All

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.

The City Council approved Dr. Sami's appeal of the Planning Commission's rejection of his proposed expansion project. That was the right thing to do. They had no grounds not to. The only real issue was the parking, and since Dr. Sami agreed to use the "In Lieu Parking" provision of the City Code, that issue became a non-issue. The City Council now needs to call a moratorium on "In Lieu Parking" while a parking study is done, and a Parking Master Plan is developed. Hopefully, it will include the "In Lieu Parking" provision, but at a more realistic rate of $10,000 per space.

So they did a good job of getting something right when there was really no other way to get it. But man, did they screw up on the General Plan issue. When it started out, it seemed like only one Council member, Nancy Walsh, was really leaning toward expanding the General Plan Steering Committee, yet somehow it ended up that the Council voted 4 to 1 to do just that.

Council Member Maryann MacGillivray, in my opinion, came on a little too strong at the beginning by asking her colleagues to repeal what had been approved as a compromise at a previous meeting, the authority to appoint technical advisory committees to assist the General Plan Steering Committee. I think she asked for too much, too soon. But she ultimately offered up an obvious solution, one that would have been an excellent compromise. Her second motion, which died for lack of a second, was to accept the Steering Committee's work plan, ask for a time line, accept the Outreach Program, and leave the Technical Committee appointments on the table. In doing so, the Council could have allowed the Steering Committee to begin its outreach program and show the council just how inclusive it would be, and if the Council felt it was being inclusive enough, they could repeal them at a later date. If they didn't feel it was being inclusive enough, they could just appoint the Technical Committees.

Instead, they decided to expand the Committee to nine members. I think that was a monumental error. And they compounded it by then tasking the Committee with a job that they had just made it impossible to do. How can the Committee come up with a timeline, when they have no idea how long it's going to take to find out who is on the Committee?

I hope that Committee Chair Denise Delmar doesn't become so frustrated that she quits. She and the Committee did a great job on the work program and the outreach program, and I think they were off to a good start. If Delmar leaves, the Council (except Maryann MacGillivray) owes an apology to all the residents in this town.

I'm sure there's more that I will think I should have said or that I think I could have said more effectively or in a more cogent manner. But it's late, and I'm tired, so that's all I have to say on the matter. For now. It won't surprise me if I'm still so upset about this an hour from now that I get back up out of bed and amend it. We'll see. Denise - if you are reading this - hang in there. Many of us think you are doing a great job and are a critical piece of this puzzle. I hope this blunder by the Council doesn't overwhelm your desire to finish the job you've started.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Council Gets Some Things Right, But Not All

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated.

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the City Council did the right thing by setting the proposed water rate increase aside. Not only was it the right thing, it was actually an extraordinary thing. To respond to the will of the people of the community in this manner, when the consequences to the City for doing so could be, shall we say, problematic, even when not legally required to do so, was an extraordinary action by this Council, and one that their critics are not giving them enough credit for. Of course, part of the reason they are not being given the credit is because they then turned around and did the wrong thing.

I understand why the Council remained silent on the issue of whether or not they would allow the people to protest the next rate increase proposal. One of the first rules of business is to not close off options unless you absolutely have to. I don’t have any law training, but I’m guessing that rule is one that is pressed even harder in that profession, so with two attorneys on the Council, this was probably not the direction they wanted to go. Kind of like in sales, you should never negotiate against yourself, and never negotiate the price you will receive to a lower amount. But in this case, I think the Council made a mistake in not recognizing that closing off an option (by allowing a Prop. 218 protest on the next proposal) was something they HAD to do. They couldn’t vote on it at the meeting, because it wasn’t on the agenda, but they could have all said "that’s our intent."

As much distrust as their has been of this council, and as much anger as has been stirred up by this increase and the way it was handled, this Council should have stated collectively that they would allow the ratepayers and parcel owners of this town the opportunity to protest the proposal they come back with. It would have gone a long way toward opening up the lines of communication and toward helping to build up some trust. And after all, having already taken the extraordinary action of listening to the protestors even though they weren’t legally required to do so, this would have just been an extension of that action. And if this protest failed, which it legally did, and they trust their outreach program to explain to the people why the next proposed increase is necessary, they should expect that they will be able to get the next proposal passed, too. So on that Agenda item, I think they got one right, one wrong.

On the outreach program item, I think they got it right. Taking the time to talk to the people of this town, and more importantly to listen, is the only way they stand a chance of getting the people to approve a water hike in the future. Well, not the only way, they can send it through by using the option I think they should have given up. They can, legally, send an increase through without the approval of the people, as long as it is lower than the plan they just decided to scuttle, but they shouldn’t.

Unlike former Mayor Kurt Zimmerman, I don’t think that the outreach program is predicated on the idea that the Council thinks the residents are stupid, I think it’s predicated on the idea that the Council thinks the residents are uninformed. And they are, although nowhere nearly as uninformed as they were two months ago. I’ve heard some criticism that the issue of the bonds was brought up late, though I don’t know for sure when it was first cited as one of the reasons for the hike. If, as the City Attorney implied at the July 13th meeting, the bond company has the right to accelerate payment of the debt to pay it immediately, it may not be in the best interests of the City to send up flares saying hey, we’re not conforming to the terms of our contract. Maybe, that’s why they didn’t talk about it in the beginning. Whatever the reason, it is being perceived by some as sneakiness and conspiracy. There’s no conspiracy folks, just a bunch of people trying to do their job. But it will be easier for them to do their jobs if, as Council member MacGillivray suggested, we are told what projects need to be done, where they stand in urgency, how much they will cost, and how much the people will benefit from the projects. Projects that we end up paying only a portion of because we are able to get funding from others might be worth it in the long run. But I think the residents of this town want to learn a little bit more about what’s being proposed before giving it their blessing.

The other thing the Council got right was the General Plan item. I haven’t been following that too much, but it now has my attention. Kudos to City Attorney Levin for providing the City with a solution they didn’t really ask for, by suggesting that a list of volunteers be created to implement an outreach program created by the Steering Committee, rather than creating a Brown Act committee. Bringing in a bunch of volunteers that are not restricted by the Brown Act to work on this plan could jump start this process, and the Council will still have the option, if I understood it correctly, of having more say in the creation of the advisory committees down the road. The General Plan should have as much resident participation as possible, and this seems like a good way to go about it.