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SCVNews.com | No LMD Rate Decision Yet; Odd Process at Council | 09-13-2011
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Santa Clarita residents will have to wait another day or two to learn whether they’ve voted to change their property tax rates for municipal landscape maintenance.

The City Council held a hearing Tuesday night to take some final public testimony before the city clerk tabulated ballots – but not before three of the five council members were told they had a potential conflict of interest and would have to leave the room. More on that in a moment.

The city mailed ballots to residents July 27, asking whether they approve of a plan to adjust rates and boundaries within the city’s landscape maintenance district, or “LMD.” The district is responsible for the upkeep of roadway medians, paseos, street trees and other landscape and hardscape in the public rights-of-way.

Voters had until the end of Tuesday night’s public hearing to return the ballots. The city clerk said they couldn’t be counted before the council meeting ended, so her staff will count them Wednesday – and Thursday, if necessary – in room 204 at City Hall. The process is open to the public for observation.

Today, 76 percent of all parcels in the city are in a city-wide LMD. The city proposes to add another 5,957 parcels to the district, for a total of 87 percent.

Under the proposal, LMD tax assessments would go down for almost all residents who are already included in the district. That’s because parcel owners have always paid the same rate within their particular LMD zone, be it for a condominium or the Valencia Town Center mall, which was one parcel, City Treasurer Darren Hernandez said.

He said under Proposition 218, approved by voters in 1996, special district assessments must be apportioned according to the relative amount of benefit they receive – which is what the city now proposes to do.

Rates would not go down for everyone. Some 2,000 parcels in and around Old Town Newhall would be included for the first time, thus paying the assessment for the first time. And some owners within an existing LMD zone would see an increase, as well.

A handful of speakers voiced objections to the plan during the hearing. One Friendly Valley resident who said she lives in an LMD zone where rates would go up asked why her vote should be tabulated in the same election with residents in other zones where rates are going down.

Councilman Bob Kellar sympathized, asking staff whether it was possible to hold separate elections for different residential areas so that the result would be more “reflective of the wishes of our residents.”

Kellar noted that many Friendly Valley residents live on fixed incomes.

“People are dying out here,” he said. “I’m tired of talking to people who are losing their homes,”he said, adding that the government at all levels is constantly asking people for “one more thing, one more thing, one more thing.”

City Attorney Joe Montes said the city could create multiple landscape maintenance districts – rather than the current system of a single, citywide district divided into several zones – but it would be an administrative challenge and require hiring additional personnel and paying for separate technical reports.

Said Kellar: “We need to do everything we can do to save every nickel we can for our citizens.”

The council took no action Tuesday, nor was it scheduled to do so. The outcome of the ballot counting determines what happens next.

If a majority of residents casts votes against the changes, there is no further action. If a majority votes yes (which is expected, because most would see a rate reduction), the council would decide Sept. 27 whether to approve the report that implements the changes.

It was actually a busy night for attorney Montes, who opened the discussion by proclaiming that three members of the five-person council had a potential conflict of interest if they participated in the LMD decision.

Montes said state law bars members of a government agency from participating in a decision if they stand to benefit materially from it. In this case, he said, any member living within 500 feet of an LMD boundary with a proposed rate change had a “potential” conflict of interest.

Mayor Marsha McLean lives within 500 feet of a zone boundary, he said. Mayor Pro Tem Laurie Ender lives within an LMD zone, and Councilwoman Laurene Weste lives within 500 feet of a proposed new zone.

Montes said the three council members weren’t in conflict when they voted to mail the ballots to residents, but if the voters approve the plan, the three couldn’t hear testimony or vote to ratify it.

While it’s not uncommon for one or even two council members to recuse themselves for a potential conflict, excluding three is probably unprecedented in Santa Clarita – and it wouldn’t work because a minority of members present (two of five) can’t legally decide an issue.

Montes said the Fair Political Practices Commission has a process that would “allow the minimum number to participate” – i.e., three members.

Namely, drawing straws.

Or in this case, secret envelopes. McLean, Ender and Weste were handed envelopes, one with “may participate” and two with “may not participate” written inside. McLean and Ender were eliminated.

Now, with neither the mayor nor the mayor pro-tem in the room, nobody was left to conduct the public hearing. By acclamation, the remaining council members picked Weste to lead the meeting.

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