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Jim Holt: Civic lessons straight from the Capitol

Posted: March 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 23, 2011 1:55 a.m.

SACRAMENTO — I’ve been here before.

I was here in Sacramento years ago with my daughter’s fourth-grade class as it learned how state government works.

I made a return trek up the coast Monday with more than 70 of Santa Clarita Valley’s leading civic players. Here I am again — picking up where that same lesson left off.

The state building is still the same. The governor is different, but I haven’t seen him.

Our teacher this time was Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, who invited a half-dozen of his fellow elected officials to talk.

His lesson: pressing public issues facing Santa Clarita Valley.

Local civic leaders, attending as part of the sixth annual Sacramento Road Trip, were eager to hear about specific issues — funding for schools, the fate of enterprise zones, chloride in water and budget cuts to mental health. And they all had a chance to raise their hands and directly ask legislators the questions they wanted answered.


I wanted to know about salty chloride in water — having spent most of my summer last year knee-deep in the issue.

Facing state mandates, Santa Clarita Valley residents are being asked to foot the bill for two reverse-osmosis plants — to the tune of $210 million — to remove chloride from discharged water. That’s because downstream, there are farmers wanting to use that water, and some studies indicate salty water is bad for the strawberry and avocado crops they tend.

So the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board set serious standards restricting the amount of chloride allowed in water that Santa Clarita Valley discharges.

Given my lengthy coverage of this complicated issue, I had my own personal agenda in Sacramento.

But the first item on that agenda is the same as it always is: coffee.

So before the special Sacramento class was underway, I went exploring the state’s capital in search of a coffee shop.

I walked by the Crest Theater and a pizza place fronting a huge copper oven displaying flames eager to start cooking.

Then I saw them — legislators in starched dark suits and women sporting light-colored versions of the same — sitting down, sipping coffee.

Large coffee in hand, walking back to Sacramento class, I bumped into a man I recognized.

It was Smyth, our teacher. Lawmakers are everywhere here.

I had to ask him.

“What’s the status of the legislation you were drafting?”

Last fall, after having read my series on water-fine enforcement, Smyth sent out an email newsletter saying he wants the regional water boards that issue “devastating fines” against small towns to be more accountable to the public, calling on an oversight body to see that it happens.

I was flattered. It was like a fourth-grade teacher distributing my class project to the rest of the class.

Pausing in his dash to a committee meeting, he said his proposed bill is ongoing and on track.

That’s government talk for “it’s ongoing and still on track.”

Back in the “classroom,” Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean was asking about her own piece of legislation. McLean drafted the legislation, in part, in response to the same articles. The League of California Cities endorsed the legislation last fall.

The league has called for the state to provide cities with adequate funding to pay for special regulatory fees, such as water-quality fines.

Another gold star on my forehead (that would be in reference to my own fourth-grade experience, not my daughter’s).

Having made the trek from the Santa Clarita Valley, McLean was able to ask about her resolution face-to-face with the man in charge.

Dan Carrigg, the league’s legislative director, told her that he knows the league representative who is personally working on her resolution. Carrigg reassured McLean that the legislation was “ongoing and on track.”

That’s government talk for — well, we’ve had that lesson.

McLean told me outside class that she was satisfied with the answer and buoyed by the news that it’s moving down the track.

That’s government talk for “the future looks hopeful” — at least, on one front.



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