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Restoring confidence

Posted: March 30, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 30, 2014 2:00 a.m.

We find ourselves troubled by the entire city-billboard issue resolved at a ridiculously long City Council meeting last week.

It’s not that we feel particularly strongly about either option. Yes, we think the city’s goal of ridding itself of old, ugly billboards is a good one, and has been for decades. Yes, we think 50- or 60-foot-tall electronic billboards greeting drivers entering the Santa Clarita Valley will change the landscape and seems a curious choice for a city nearly obsessed with ensuring its “gateways” make good first impressions.

More important than the apparent choice of inner-versus-outer valley perspective is the manner in which the issue was presented. And more troubling even than that is the apparent failure of certain council members to understand why the manner of presentation was offensive.

While city spokeswoman Gail Morgan points out the choice was presented to the populace back in December, we find it hard to understand why the city’s voter-chosen representatives can’t understand that it was a done deal at this time of its presentation, and that offends voters who didn’t have a say in it. Which is pretty much all the voters.

As some billboard-deal opponents have before us, we take as a case in point the city of Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, which has kicked around the idea of digital billboards since 2009.

But when a proposal for a money-making electronic billboard on a city-owned parcel next to U.S. Highway 101 was put before Palo Alto’s constituency, it was presented as an option, not a done deal. And when the populace said “no,” the city unanimously did so, too.

Santa Clarity City Councilman Frank Ferry states with some authority that the outspoken electronic billboard opponents who attended one or more of three council meetings about the issue represent a minority opinion. And he bases that statement on ... a survey taken by the city? No. He bases it on personal observation that issues widely opposed draw opposition in the form of phone calls and emails, and this one didn’t, according to him.

And since, he says, this issue didn’t get that opposition, the opponents who took their Tuesday nights to attend lengthy and sometimes poorly run council meetings — the last of which consumed nearly seven hours — to get three minutes to voice their objections are just a minority voice.

But did the city ever survey residents about swapping old, static billboards for new, electronic ones? Not to our knowledge.

And this isn’t a single incident. Critics like to point to the city’s takeover of the county libraries in the valley back in 2010. The Signal strongly supported the move, which also seemed a rushed deal, and recognizes a looming deadline may have forced some of that haste.

But that was also a done deal at time of presentation, and it was the turning point that touched off a growing rumble about lack of transparency in Santa Clarita city government.

In the billboard issue, there was no apparent or stated reason for the rush, and the city’s attitude presented to those who turned out for meetings descended to that of condescension. This is uncalled for.

When government treats the public as an impediment to the process, we believe the public will respond with equal disrespect, and that government’s attitude will incite the fringes of the population who agitate, often protesting anything that is government-proposed.

That seems to be the situation in Santa Clarita at the present time.

We want elected officials and local government staff to work more diligently at keeping the people’s confidence that government is sufficiently open to them. We recommend:

- Focus groups and other outreach programs to measure opinions on changes under consideration before policy makers make up their minds;

- Communicating issues before they reach the point of Planning Commission- or City Council-level decision-making;

- Allowing a minimum of three months, depending on the importance and controversy of a subject, for the public to digest information, review specific proposals, and provide feedback;

- Taking community feedback before the city staff and/or planning commissions for review before a vote is called for in Council Chambers.

Without taking constituents’ concerns seriously, City Council members have essentially abdicated their responsibility to represent the very people who elected them.



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