Claremont Insider: January 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Closed Session Speculation

Apparently our City Council can't get through a week without a closed session. The public meetings are so light on substantive discussion that one gets the idea that--somehow--the council already got all the information it needed someplace else. For most of this week it had appeared that there would be no closed session but--WAIT!--a peek at the City website this morning shows an extraordinary closed session scheduled for tomorrow, Friday morning, at 8 a.m.


Could this have something to do with the apparent failure of the City's Baseline affordable housing project to qualify for City of Industry Funds administered by the County? (See yesterday's post here)

Maybe, maybe not. Possibly it's just getting Enhanced Affordable Development's proposal tuned up prior to Monday's February 4th "proposer's conference" at the County agency.

Still, it's curious that there will have been three noticed closed sessions to discuss "price and terms" or "terms and conditions" with the developer. And the Insider may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but the language in the Agency NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) is pretty hard to interpret any other way than, "No Joy for the Baseline Project".

(The document is a little hard to link to. It's behind a registration wall at the agency website. We reproduce the relevant text below)

Click to Enlarge, and Read On Below
You affordable housing junkies might want to get up early to attend the public components of the closed session. Council should take public comment before retiring to secrecy, and is required to come out afterward and announce any reportable actions taken. We assume the meeting will start and end in council chambers, but the news item above doesn't make that clear and as this is written, the official agenda is not posted on the web. Call 399-5460 to confirm place.

Village Expansion Opinions

David Allen's blog has some responses to his Daily Bulletin column last week concerning Claremont's impending $887,000 trolley proposal.

One of Allen's readers wrote in to say that he thought the Claremont trolley was a bad idea and that the city ought to go back to Mayor Peter Yao's original idea of building a pedestrian bridge across Indian Hill Blvd. to connect the two sides, new and old, of the Claremont Village.

Allen's reader proposed a glass bridge like one he saw in Tacoma at the Museum of Glass there. One of Allen's blog readers had a comment:

Ja! Let us build glass bridge in country of earthquake! We need to give skateboard hoodlums more places to be daredevils and vandals. Gud ideas! I vote you guys for Imperial Court of Claremont! --Vlad

Allen pointed out one obvious problem with the glass bridge idea. The one in Tacoma is 500 feet long, according to Allen. There isn't that much space to work with in downtown Claremont. Which leads us to believe the problem with some of these ideas - trolleys, bridges, roundabouts, maybe the Village Expansion itself - is one of scale. There just might not be enough of a demand to support any of these things in a city of 35,000 facing competition from large-scale shopping centers in Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga.

RIGHT: The Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, WA, connecting Tacoma's downtown with the city's waterfront area. The bridge was designed by Tacoma artist Dale Chihuly and architect Arthur Andersson.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chihuly.com.


The city and the local Chamber of Commerce have talked up Claremont's changes quite a bit, but the evidence of any success with the Village Expansion seems to be lacking. A reader wrote in earlier this week to say that they'd seen a real estate ad in the LA Times for the Maui Wowie coffee and smoothie franchise:

Hello:

There was a real estate ad in the Sunday L.A. Times offering the Maui Wowie franchise including equipment for $240K. I bought coffee there many times, but could tell they weren't going to be successful.


Not a good sign for the expansion if this is the first of other business closures to come.

Publius over at the FC Blog recently visited our Village Expansion and thought the city and the developer had built a pretty good project. Publius' post drew a number of comments.


ABOVE: Replica trolley in Altoon, PA. Part of Altoona Metro Transit's bus line. AMTRAN's bus system consists of 35 buses, has 40 drivers and carries 14,000 passengers per week. Claremont's system will consist of one bus, running in a 6-square block loop 3 days a week, 12.5 hours a day and will be considered a success if they carry 562 passengers in a week. PHOTO: Courtesy of AMTRANS.com.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Nail in the Coffin or a Stake through the Heart?

Baseline Project, Not Kids, On Life Support


There has been quite a buzz the last day or two among the In The Know here in Claremont. We began to hear rumors of it yesterday, or was it the day before? We are sure those inveterate Meeting-Goers and Agency-Watchers have been aware of it for awhile. We are always the last to find out.

Seems that someone heard from a friend who was at a meeting sitting next to a guy who had talked to someone whose aunt's step-daughter dates a guy who is on staff at either the Community Development Commission of the County of Los Angeles or the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles.

One of these agencies, or both, have just released guidelines on how to apply to receive the mystical City of Industry Money (see link here) as part of the financing for your friendly, neighborhood affordable housing package: up to $3,000,000 loaned at 3% simple interest for a 55 year term. Sweet deal if you can get it.

Those of us who go way back in the Baseline affordable housing discussion--say, two or three years--recall that the financing for the project was to be put together from a variety of sources. In January 24, 2006 staff report, Tony Witt and Brian Desatnik said,
Affordable rental developments are typically built by non-profit development companies that specialize in affordable rental housing. They are skilled at compiling very complex financing packages, and have management divisions with experience in regulatory compliance for the various funding programs...

The funding programs for this type of housing development area a mixture of federal, state, and local redevelopment. Due to the complexity of the financing...
The magical mystical City of Industry Money was supposed to be a piece of this funding package--maybe a quarter or so. Two, three million dollars; something like that.

Here's the problem, and the reason for the aforementioned buzz: The guidelines from the county agencies (also aforementioned) state the following on page 6: Funds may NOT be used for the following activities [skipping now to the point]: Projects located within 500 feet of a freeway or a major urban roads.

Thus, the League of Women Voters' close-to-heart Baseline site for the affordable housing projects is also a little too close-to-the-freeway. Doesn't qualify for the County Scratch.

Maybe this explains the two closed session meetings of the City Council since the holidays with Marc Gelman of Enhanced Affordable Development. We know from the January 8 meeting, that he was looking for some "considerations". That is Mayor Yao's way of referring obliquely to money, kale, lettuce, moohlah, scratch, greenbacks, or baksheesh.

More later, but unless the Federal Reserve can drop the interest rate back down to near-zero, this project may not pencil out. Look for more turmoil here.

Parking Permits Considered

The City of Claremont is considering instituting a parking-by-permit only program for six neighborhoods in town, according to the Daily Bulletin:

The program would establish residential areas where public street parking is prohibited or time-limited and where residents would be issued permits by the city to allow them to park, said Craig Bradshaw, city engineer.

The city is considering the permit program for six residential areas:

College Avenue in residential areas near the Claremont Colleges.

Baughman Avenue, south of Foothill Boulevard.

San Jose Avenue, north of BC Cafe Restaurant.

Oberlin and Cornell avenues, near the Village Expansion.

Via Santa Catarina, the northern-most street in Claraboya at the entrance to Johnson's Pasture.

Streets adjacent to Claremont High School.
The city continues to struggle with parking problems - problems that should be non-existent if you read all the traffic studies done for projects like the Village Expansion or the Base Line affordable housing project.

But, as we've written before, those studies aren't worth the paper they're written on and in the past have tended to be documents done by people hired to help get projects approved rather than impartial analyses of potential traffic impacts.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Base Line Project Notes


Saturday's Courier had a letter from former Claremont League of Women Voters president Katie Gerecke, who along with her husband, Claremont Democratic Club president Bob Gerecke, are pushing hard for the Base Line Rd. affordable housing project.

The same letter also appeared today in the Daily Bulletin.

Katie Gerecke's letter argued that the health concerns regarding the project are negligible. The letter was notable for what it did not address: The section of the project's environmental impact report (EIR) that mentioned the USC Keck School of Medicine study that found that children who live within 500 yards of major highways have an significantly increased chance of lung impairment.

Gerecke, rattling off the main talking points of the project proponents (mainly the League of Women Voters), did not discuss the USC study at all. Instead, she focused on the cancer risk at the Base Line site. You're seeing the Ol' Misdirection again. Gerecke did this because she is intentionally trying to confuse the two issues, to blur the distinction, because she cannot credibly attack the USC work, which looked at 11,000 subjects over a 10-year period. The study is also unassailable by Gerecke because it was peer-reviewed and published in the British medical journal The Lancet last year.

Rather than dealing with the area that raised the most health concerns, Gerecke ignored the USC study and just beat on the cancer risk drum, claiming that "a variety of mitigations" would take care of the problem. She concluded by presenting her unstudied opinions as fact:

I believe that the physical health of all children living near freeways (not only those in the Baseline Road development) can be protected through a variety of mitigations and that the participation of these children within our city not only benefits them but enriches the city. I believe that there are overriding benefits in intellectual, emotional and social health to children living in Claremont. By locating the affordable housing throughout the city, (including the BAHD) rather than just in the south area, the new children will be more influenced by the community and will have fewer problems than if they are all in one area.

Don't be surprised if you see the language of Gerecke's letter adopted by the city's staff and City Attorney Sonia Carvaho in the form of a proposed statement of overiding concerns that would supersede the EIR's findings.

Gerecke's last sentence reveals another yet false statement. The project proponents have been arguing for fairer geographic distribution of affordable housing. They have also claimed that it would take too much time to build the project on an alternate site.

Yet, word comes to us from several readers that The Olson Company, the developer of the 67-unit condo project proposed for the old Courier building on College Ave. may be open to putting an affordable housing project there. This alternative would solve all of the opposition's concerns and would end up creating more units than the Base Line site.

The condo project at College Ave. is on hold because of the deteriorating housing market, and one can easily see why Olson would be open to something that might get construction going rather than having the site just sit there until the market rebounds.

So why not build the affordable housing project on that site, where the air quality concerns would be none existent and where an EIR might not be needed?

Gerecke and the League won't consider that more reasonable approach because they do not really want the affordable housing project in the Village. They really don't want to provide a responsible project that would be close to public transit and shopping, and which would really provide an opportunity to integrate the project residents into the community.

Gerecke's and the League's posturing about housing inclusivity is a lie when you come right down to it. Their approach is to have the Base Line project or no project at all. What they seem really to want is to segregate the project and its inhabitants as far as possible from the center of town.

If they were really as concerned about equity and inclusivity as they claim, the League and Gerecke would be joining with the people who've opposed the Base Line Rd. project and would be sitting down with them to meet with the College Ave. developer to get the project done there.

Instead, you will continue to see them make false and insupportable arguments that cherry pick what information supports their shaky conclusions.

Here's a hint for dealing with Gerecke's and the like's arguments: Ignore the patter and just keep your eye on the peanut.


* * *


The Base Line project is supposed to come back to the Claremont City Council for approval on February 12th. We're still waiting to hear what all the closed session meetings with the Base Line developer, Mark Gelman, have been about. Is the city going to sign on for a bigger monetary commitment?

Crime Watch

Saturday's Claremont Courier had an interesting "Police Blotter" bit about a robbery that took place on Friday, January 18th:

Armed robbers made off with approximately $650,000 worth of jewelry and personal goods from a Hong Kong man and his wife who were in town visiting a friend. The incident occurred outside of a residence on the 300 block of Miramar Avenue at approximately 10 p.m.

When the victim and his wife arrived at their friend’s home, 4 men wearing ski masks and dark clothing approached their vehicle. The suspects were all carrying handguns.
According to the Courier, the robbers stole about 700 pieces of jewelry. Police apparently believe the robbers had followed the victims, who were here for some sort of business trip. Cash, a laptop and other items were also taken.

$650,000. Wow! You sort of get the impression that there must be more to the story. The Daily Bulletin's Wes Wood fleshed out some of the details in an article today:

When asked if the Jan. 18 incident was related to reported incidents of South American crime rings who target traveling jewelry sellers in Los Angeles, police said they didn't know.

"If I was going to give a guess, it would be pure speculation on my part," [CPD Lt. Paul] Davenport said.

In June, a group of eight to 10 Asian males armed with handguns robbed a 25-year-old Claremont woman and a 31-year-old Corona man, according to a Claremont police news release.

The man and woman were jewelers who had just returned from a Las Vegas trade show, but were not carrying jewelry during the robbery. The pair had their luggage taken and their vehicle vandalized and ransacked, according to the news release.

Davenport said there was no connection he knew of between the cases, which are both unsolved.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Local Blog News

There are a couple new blogs on the block worth noting.

The Pomona Public Library's Children's Department has started a blog. Thanks to Goddess of Pomona for listing that.


* * *


Also, there's a new real estate blog called the "Route 66 Neighborhoods and Real Estate Blog." The blog, published by Jennifer Castillo, had an interesting post back on January 21st about the absorption rate for the Claremont Unified School District's area:

ABSORPTION RATE is the mathematical representation of the relationship between supply and demand. The total amount of available product is divided by the total amount of product sold in the previous month. The resulting number represents the number of months it would take, at that same pace, to sell the entire inventory of product.

“Normal Market” conditions exist when the Absorption Rate is between 5 and 6 months.
“Sellers Market” conditions exist when the Absorption Rate is lower. (1-4 months)
“Buyers Market” conditions exist when the Absorption Rate is higher. (7+ months)
—Thanks to Rich Schiffer from Active Rain for the above information.

The current absorption rate for the Claremont Unified School District area as of today:

124 “listings” homes, townhomes, condos for sale (information taken from the IMRMLS) 10 homes, townhomes, and condos have sold/closed escrow in the past month 12/21/07 - 01/21/08

What this means is there is 53.91 weeks or 12.4 months of inventory. At this rate, it will take a little over a year to sell the 124 homes we currently have.

All of this might make the CUSD Board of Education rethink its projections for the district's growth, or shrinkage, as the case may be. With four new condo projects (two on Base Line Rd., the one at the old Courier building on College Ave., and Harry Wu's Griswold - Old School House condo project) all on hold, the lack of turnover in housing could also signal flat or shrinking student enrollment figures for the district, whose demographics indicate a graying population.

A new U.S. Census will be coming out in a few years, and we suspect the growth will be slower than Claremont city and school district officials have told us it would be, just as was the case with the 2000 Census. Even if total population rises, if the average household size falls from the 2.56 it was in 2000, that might be further evidence that there are fewer children in town.

All of which should give us pause about how both the Claremont city government and the CUSD Board look to allocate their resources in coming years.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nonagenarian Shindig

The Bulletin's "Buzz" section (no relation to the Insider) had a blurb about the City of Claremont holding a party for residents over 90 years old.

The party will be on February 11th from 2pm to 4pm at the Hughes Community Center. No charge for anyone over 90. Everyone else is $2.00. Reservations and prepayment required.


Alexander Hughes Community Center
1700 Danbury Rd.
Information: (909) 399-5488

College News

The Daily Bulletin reports that Claremont Graduate University has received a $1 million gift to fund a fellowship for female MBA student. The article, by Will Bigham, says:

Starting in the fall 2008 semester, five students selected as Doris Drucker Fellows will receive partial scholarships to the university's Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management.

The gift will also establish an endowment to fund the fellowship in the future, said Ira Jackson, dean of the Drucker School.

"The gift will allow us to create a new program the Drucker School for outstanding women managers who we will be able to bring to the school with scholarship assistance," Jackson said.

The namesake of the fellowship, Doris Drucker, is the wife of late management thinker Peter F. Drucker, a longtime friend and associate of Ito's.
The Bulletin said that the program will fund up to 40% of a student's tuition.

______________________


The Pomona College Board of Trustees announced last month that they will to eliminate student loans as a component of financial aid packages.

As with every other college, costs at Pomona are rising every year. A Bulletin article from December 27th said:

Since the 2003-04 academic year, costs for tuition as well as room and board at the college have risen from $36,870 to $45,380.

From the previous school year to the current, the cost increased 6.9 percent. That was the highest year-to-year increase in the past five years.
The change in aid covers only the school's portion of student costs. Students and their families will likely continue to take out loans to pay the family portion of the costs, but the Bulletin article quoted a Pomona official who said that the family portion of costs doesn't rise as fast as the amount the school pays.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Legal Briefs


The Daily Bulletin had a couple articles mentioning public agencies that use the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger (BB&K), the same firm that supplies Claremont with its city attorney, Sonia Carvalho.


WANTED (MAYBE): NEW ATTORNEY FOR SEWER DISTRICT

The first Bulletin article concerned the Jurupa Community Services District (JCSD), which supplies water and sewer utilities to unincorporated areas in western Riverside County.

Apparently, the JCSD, which has used BB&K for 30 years, may seek another firm for legal counsel. According to the Bulletin article:

There has been some discord between [Board President R. M. "Cook"] Barela and the counsel. Last month, the firm sent a four-page confidential letter to everyone on the board except Barela regarding the firm's qualifications as legal counsel for the district.

The letter was in response to a comment that Barela allegedly made at a Dec. 10 meeting regarding Best, Best and Krieger's services.

"Director Barela stated that the district has not been receiving good legal advice and service from our firm and told Mr. Horst that he wanted him to solicit proposals for general counsel legal services," the letter stated.

It went on to state, "Jurupa Community Services District has been a valued client of our firm for more than 30 years, and we hope the relationship will continue for a long time in the future."

The Riverside Press-Enterprise explored the matter in more detail in a January 14th article:

Barela's suggestion that the community services district look at proposals from other legal firms prompted a letter from Best Best & Krieger attorney Richard Anderson touting his firm's accomplishments on behalf of the district since 1976.

Anderson, who served as the district's legal counsel until May 2007, called the land sale to the Calvert partnership "an unfortunate mistake" but stressed that he was never consulted before the property was sold.

Anderson said he was not at the meeting at which the sale was approved and did not learn of the transaction until after it was completed.

Anderson's letter also was openly critical of Barela. It was sent to [JCSD Board Directors] Jane Anderson, Betty Anderson, [Kathryn] Bogart and Kenneth McLaughlin, but not Barela. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Jane and Betty Anderson are not related to Richard Anderson or to each other.]

Noting that he had not received a copy, Barela called the letter an attempt to divide the board.

Barela said last week that his Dec. 10 comments were not meant to disparage the work of Best Best & Krieger and that the law firm would be able to submit a proposal.

JURUPA SCHOOL DISTRICT CENSURE

Another BB&K client in the news is the Jurupa Unfied School District, where boardmember Michael Rodriguez was censured in January, 2007.

BB&K has some prior experience with the censure process in the Inland Empire.

In January, 2003, the city of Ontario, which also used BB&K, censured Councilperson Debbie Acker. According to a Bulletin article published on 8/17/2004:

Acker was officially reprimanded by her colleagues through a censure resolution in January 2003.

A five-month independent investigation found that her conduct with city employees violated laws or city policies and could result in claims against the city.

As a result, she was required to make all her inquiries to a handful of staff members through a special phone line - a number she has never used - and was barred from nonpublic places in City Hall without prior appointment.

Acker insists that her dealings with employees were within her rights as a council member.


And in 2005, then-Claremont City Manager Glenn Southard accused Claremont Councilperson Jackie McHenry of creating a hostile work environment. Other city staffers, former city councilmembers like Paul Held and Sandy Baldonado, and many Claremont 400 members jumped on the censure bandwagon with the zeal and bloodlust of a mob at a Salem witchhunt.

As in the Acker case, Claremont proposed having an independent investigation conducted. In the Claremont case, there certainly did not seem to be broad public support for censure, and a number of citizens spoke out against it. The city council voted against an investigation, and Southard, possibly sensing that he risked making McHenry into a martyr, backed off.

The matter was dropped, though it quickly segued into the Preserve Claremont campaign against McHenry and current councilmember Corey Calaycay. Many of the same people who railed against McHenry, including some city staffers, became involved in Preserve Claremont's unsuccessful and discredited smear campaign for the March, 2005, city election.


* * *

In the Jurupa Unified School District matter, JUSD Board Member Michael Rodriguez was censured on January, 2007, after complaints of sexual and verbal harassment by some district employees against Rodriguez.

The Daily Bulletin reported today that Rodriguez has filed a lawsuit against JUSD Superintendent Elliot Duchon and Board President Carl Harris, alleging they and the district violated Rodriguez's civil rights and his right to due process. The article also said that the JUSD Board has voted against distributing Rodriguez's lawsuit to residents.

Fortunately, if you're so inclined, the Riverside County Courts have a great website with civil case information, including many scanned documents. The complaint for Rodriguez's suit can be seen here (click on the little camera icon on the line that says "complaint").

No answer to the complaint has been filed yet, but a January 9th Press-Enterprise article indicated the community was divided over the lawsuit. One of the people quoted in the article as being sympathetic to the Jurupa school board was former school board representative R. M. "Cook" Barela, the same person who is president of the Jurupa Community Services District.

The article indicates that Rodriguez feels his censure was done as retribution for his dissent on the board. Rodriguez now faces a recall campaign to remove him from office.


ULTIMATE COSTS

We can't speak to the truth behind the allegations in these cases, but we can say that in the one in Claremont in 2005, there did seem to be the witchhunt aspect that we mentioned earlier in this post. To be fair, we do recall in that instance the city attorney appearing to be counseling the city towards moderation, and the McHenry censure was averted, though by the time of the council vote on whether or not to go forward with an investigation, it was pretty clear that the public wasn't biting on the censure idea.

When you consider the expense that an elected official threatened with censure has to endure to provide a competent defense against a public agency's considerable resources, even the mere threat of censure could potentially have a chilling effect on dissent. So you could have non-elected officials acting as a de facto Praetorian guard, making and unmaking empires.

We would be extremely concerned if censure started becoming a common practice and if it were ever used to silence an elected official unfairly. We'd also be interested in any academic studies of censure in local politics - studies perhaps examining the frequency, the cost to defend and the public cost to carry out a censure, the actual charges presented (harassment and hostile work environment seem pretty common), the underlying political environment.

We could easily see a hypothetical situation where a city staff member, perhaps seeking to conceal some activity, could make false accusations of harrassment or false claims of a hostile work environment in order to initiate a censure proceeding against an elected official seeking to look into that staffer's activities. In such a case, censure could be improperly used to cut off a legitimate inquiry, much to the public's detriment.

We wonder, has anyone ever really studied what are the ultimate effects on local democracy when public agencies seek to censure, and is that process ever abused?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Claremont on Our Mind

Two news items this afternoon put us in mind of Claremont. First was a dramatic fire. When we saw the picture, it seemed as if at long last the behemoth along the south side of First Street between Indian Hill and College was meeting its fate. We don't wish anyone ill, of course, but the architecture is so Not Claremont. We even thought we saw the name of our city disappearing into the smoke and char at the top of the building,

We were wrong, certainly. It is actually a fire in a hotel in Las Vegas, and reports now have it put out.

And then there was a report of new technology on the medical marijuana front. We hope this link stays up, but for now see the video report on CBS News here. (there is a 15-second commercial preceding the video; wait it out.)

The report describes a vending machine for medical pot. Call us old-fashioned here at the Insider, but we more or less prefer our pharmacists to be dressed in something other than a tie-dyed T-shirt, hoodie, and a doo-rag.

Maybe pro-doper city council members Ellen Taylor, Linda Elderkin, and Sam Pedroza will be installing this machine in City Hall, to complement the new crack-house door in the City Hall lobby.

Or, in keeping with Elderkin's desire to have a respected non-profit run the Claremont operation, maybe Pilgrim Place will bid on it. To hear Pedroza talk, its the old retired missionaries who are clamoring to torch up a doobie. We also hear the Associated Students of Pomona College are interested in the franchise for the Smith Campus Center.

At the December 11, 2007 City Council meeting, medical marijuana advocates Darlene and David Matteson managed to stage a picture of themselves with the members of the city council. This is probably a picture you WON'T be seeing on the official City website. From left to right, Mayor pro tem Ellen Taylor, Councilmember Sam Pedroza, Mayor Peter Yao, David Matteson, Darlene Matteson, Councilmember Linda Elderkin, back of head of official photographer. This picture has NOT been modified (we are not above that sort of thing, but in this case we didn't do it). Councilmember Corey Calaycay (not pictured) had the innate good political sense to make sure the photographer's head was between him and the video camera.

Claremont City Council Pictured with Marijuana Advocates


Transportation News


Lot's of train news in today's Daily Bulletin:


GOLD LINE ON HOLD

Leading things off, it looks like the Gold Line is on hold. According to a Bulletin article, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board left the Gold Line project off a list of critical projects.

The Gold Line did make a list of secondary projects, but without being on the A-list, the project cannot qualify for matching federal funds. So, the project is effectively on hold, the article said:

The 13-member Metropolitan Transportation Authority board effectively delayed construction of the $1.4 billion project until at least the end of 2009, subject to final approval of the regional funding list by mid-year.

Supporters of the extension had hoped to break ground before year's end, with initial service to Azusa and Glendora late in 2009, said authority CEO Habib Balian.

"But all this will add time to the project, causing a six-month to a year delay," said Balian. "We won't be able to get started when we wanted to."

TROLLEY PROJECT ROLLS FORWARD

The Bulletin also had a couple articles on the Claremont Off Track Trolley, for which the Claremont City Council Tuesday approved going forward with a bid process.

Will Bigham had a short article on the issue.

And David Allen had a column covering the council meeting Tuesday night. The most interesting bit from Allen's piece was the fact that he was able to attend two city council meetings that night, visiting Montclair as well as Claremont.

Allen wrote that the Montclair council meeting, which started at 7pm, lasted only 16 minutes, giving him plenty of time to make the trolley discussion in Claremont, an amazing stat given that for Claremont's council, Tuesday's ceremonial matters alone at the start of meeting must have taken over 16 minutes.

Besides mentioning the cost (originally pegged at $886,878 over three years, now up to $1,290,596), Allen brought up an objection we've heard from readers: Do we really need a trolley to cover a six-square block area?

Claremont Mayor Peter Yao and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Taylor both talked about the replica trolley in Portland, OR, which they claimed was great and partly responsible for Portland's downtown renaissance. Of course, the comparison is a false one.

Claremont's trolley is really a small bus and will run 12.5 hours a day, three days a week on a 1.5 mile, 15-minute loop and carry a projected 15 passengers per hour. Portland's trolley runs on a light-rail line and is part of a large, urban transit system integrated with several light-rail lines and a bus system linking the downtown area to the airport and to suburbs, carrying thousands of people a day.

Allen seemed to find some of the same false notes in the comparison:
Mayor Peter Yao and Vice Mayor Ellen Taylor were the most enthusiastic. Yao touted Portland, Ore., with its popular trolley [pictured right] and rising property values along the line as a comparison.

That's a stretch, and I say that as someone tempted to pack up and move to Portland after a single visit. That is, if its famously overcast skies didn't promise 10 months a year of seasonal affective disorder.

Portland's a big city, and its trolley system is wide-ranging - 7.2 miles - and runs on real tracks.

One of our readers also wrote in with an opinion on the trolley business:

This sounds like another ill-fated idea like the roundabout. It is also indicative of the "there is nothing too good for Claremont, we're #5 and we deserve the best no matter what the cost" mentality that has re-surfaced in an even more virulent form with this council. It would be a riot to see a graphic that has a trolley, perhaps with some of the Claremont 400 sticking out of it, going around a roundabout. Rather like a dog chasing its tale to mix a metaphor. If this is such a great idea, why aren't some of the businesses ponying up some funds for it? Well, because they have suckered the city to do it for them and take all the risk.

In the meantime, we need a police station, infrastructure maintenance, and a host of other things that cities are obligated to provide for their citizens, not flights of fancy and questionable expenditures on the taxpayers dime. When this city should be tightening its belt it is indulging in the excessive spending that has led many a city into financial ruin.

I hope some people go to the budget hearings and express this view.

If Taylor and Yao (Tweedledee and Tweedledummer) are inured to the warnings perhaps Elderkin and Pedroza are still open to behaving like the proverbial ants instead of the grasshopper.


One last bit concerning the trolley. It occurred to us that the city may be on questionable grounds using state and county transit funds for the trolley project. The trolley, after all, isn't really a transit project. As presented by Claremont Community Services Director Scott Carroll and the Off Track Trolley Citizen's Committee (Claremonster Judy Wright) the trolley is supposed to benefit businesses, not drivers, commuters, bikers, or pedestrians.

By the city's own admission, the trolley is an economic development project, designed to encourage shopping in Claremont. The primary target of the trolley, according to the staff report, are people who would be likely to spend more in town. That's why the colleges are not included in the pilot project. Students don't spend as much money - Carroll said as much on the video from the Tuesday meeting.

In case we've forgotten, Claremont got into hot water with the U.S. Department of Transportation a couple years ago for using DOT grant money for the Village Expansion parking structure. Former City Manager Glenn Southard and his assistant Jim Lewis had falsely pitched the structure as transit center parking when in fact it was for Village Expansion shoppers.

Those who forget history, etc....

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Taylordum & Peterdee

On Tuesday night, the Claremont City Council approved putting the Off Track Trolley idea out to bid, no doubt pleasing Judy Wright ....er, the citizen's committee... that came up with the idea.

An old Claremontster favorite, Sonja Stump, Claremont Chamber of Commerce president, devoted Claremont 400 member, and official city council photographer (her photo of then-Councilmember Jackie McHenry ended up in a Preserve Claremont attack ad in 2005), was at Tuesday night's meeting stumping for the trolley.

The trolley, which is basically a 25-foot bus made up to look like an old-fashioned street car, will run a 1.5 mile loop with four stops from the Metrolink station and the Metrolink parking lot, to a spot near Walter's restaurant, and then over to Oberlin and the Village Expansion.

The trolley line will run three-year pilot program three days a week (Fridays through Sundays or Thursdays through Saturdays) from 11:00am to 11:30pm. The projected total cost is about $887,000. It will cost over $10 per passenger to operate, according to the city's figures.

There will be no fare to ride the trolley, and no plans at the present for advertisements.

City staff claims the cost will be paid for entirely through money from county and state funds, so it won't cost the city anything. However, if the state's budget problems get bad enough, the state may take that part of that money away, and the county money comes from sales tax revenues, which could be down significantly given the current economic downturn, especially in Claremont, where 57 percent of the sales tax is generated from auto sales. All of which could end up leaving Claremont stuck with a good chunk of the trolley bill.

Of course, the city, led by Mayor Peter Yao and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Taylor are jumping right onto to what could end up being TrolleyGate.

The two, Yao and Taylor, seem of one mind on this and other issues, including the Base Line Rd. affordable housing project, on which neither will budge an inch.

Councilmembers Sam Pedroza and Linda Elderkin also voted in favor of the trolley. Corey Calaycay voted against it, saying he wanted to wait until the May state budget revision to see what was going to happen with that state money.

The discussion on the trolley and other topics, including the lighting of the second baseball field at College Park, was noteworthy, and we'll be up with video of some of that shortly.

We managed to capture the entire meeting from the city's live video stream, and we've been storing it and hours of other meetings, along with all future City Council meetings on the servers at the Insider's new DataCenter in a secret chamber at 207 Harvard Ave. in Claremont.

We plan on putting the video to good use and are going to hold the council (and future councils) true to their words.

Climb under the dais in the council chamber, use the secret code on the hidden panel, and you too can be an Insider:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Keck Institute Student Found

Keck Graduate Institute student Nate Freund was found yesterday after becoming lost on a hike near Mount Baldy.

Daily Bulletin reporter Lori Consalvo covered the story. According to the article, once Freund realized he was lost, he sent a text message to his sister and also used a personal locator beacon to give out his exact location using GPS.

Freund hunkered down in a tent and a sleeping bag, and rescuers found him yesterday afternoon. Bad weather hampered the search for a time. Consalvo's article says:

On Tuesday morning, a relief team set out for Freund's exact coordinates about 9 a.m. and had a visual on him about five hours later.

"This was sweet," said Susan McCreary, a member of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team. "He had the GPS and the PLB, and we could just go find him."

She said the technology that Freund had with him is fairly recent, with less than 1 percent of day hikers owning them.

Once they found him, the 14 to 16 search-and-rescue volunteers walked with Freund - who was cold and hungry but healthy - down the mountain, where he was greeted by his smiling mother and father.

According to the article, the PLB was a recent Christmas gift to Freund from his parents. The Bulletin also has video of the rescue.

Belated Mailbag

Our apologies to you if your email doesn't make it into the Insider in a timely manner, or if it doesn't make it in at all. As you can imagine, we get swamped with e-notes of all sorts. Why, just this week we've won the Irish Lottery at least a dozen times, and never mind the requests to help out numerous Nigerian bank executives.

So, you can imagine it's hard to wade through all our email. This note came into to us after the big rain the first weekend of this month:

Saw in your last blog, reference of a weather station no longer at the Thompson Creek Dam. The dam is line of sight from my home in Padua Hills.

I notice that there is no water stored in the basin after these recent heavy rains. The L.A. County DPW had three trucks with crews working there mid-day on Sunday, at the outlet gated valve assembly. They appeared to be shoveling mud out. There were also several trucks there on Thursday or Friday, and lots of activity there all summer and autumn.

Last winter there was water in the basin for several weeks, even though there wasn't much rainfall.

I'm not privy to "the water authority's" policy on rain run-off retention for replenishing the groundwater table, but it seems that they should be trying to retain some of this water, and allowing it to percolate into the
underground water table.


We haven't heard why the county public works trucks were out at the dam. Perhaps clearing debris in preparation for the big rain?

We're also not sure what the groundwater storage policy is. We had heard that lower lying areas of Claremont can have problems if there is too much groundwater. College Park has an old artesian well fenced off with a historical marker, and Pilgrim Place use to have problems with groundwater coming up.

We've also been told that that's one reason why water retention at the San Antonio Dam spreading grounds is capped at a certain level.

We don't know how any of this affects the League of Women Voters' proposal to create a wetlands preserve on vacant land near the Thompson Creek trail or if the league has even looked into potential groundwater problems their project might create.

There may be a reason why nature didn't put a wetlands there in the first place.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Busy Council Meeting Tonight

The agenda for tonight's Claremont City Council meeting is certainly loaded with interesting items:


CLOSED SESSION


The public portion of the meeting begins at 6:30pm, but the there's also a closed session at 5:15. On the closed session agenda are negotiations with Mark Gelman and Enhanced Affordable Development. The topics under negotiation are "price and terms," so you can bet Gelman is trying to get more money out of the city at a time when Claremont is preparing to take a hit on auto sales tax and other revenue as well as having to come to terms with the loss of a $1 million state grant to pay for the Johnson's Pasture purchase.

Litigation, specifically the city's lawsuit against medical marijuana proponent Darrell Kruse (case #KC498836, filed in Pomona Superior Court), is also on the closed session agenda.


COLLEGE PARK FIELD LIGHTS

Claremont Little League has reached an agreement with neighbors opposed to lighting the second of three fields at College Park, just south of the Metrolink tracks and east of College Ave.

Little League will pay half of the $90,000 cost of the lights, and, yes, Claremont Human Services Director Jeff Porter is still shilling for Musco Lighting, the company the city will almost certainly contract with to install the lights.

Porter stated in his 9/5/2007 agenda report to the Human Services Commission that "The league continues to grow each year and the need for more lit fields increases due to this growth."

Yet, according to readers who were at a neighborhood meeting last October at Oakmont School over the College Park lighting issue, Porter's claims are untrue. At that meeting, when a Little League official and Human Services staffer Bill Pallatto tried to claim that 15 percent yearly growth was driving the need for another lit field, Human Services Commissioner Marcus Dowd got up an corrected them.

Dowd said that the 15 percent league growth claim was not true and participation rates were flat. Claremont Little League is NOT growing. Our readers report that during the Oakmont meeting Dowd said that the need for the additional lit field at College Park was in fact driven by Title IX and by the fact that some non-College park fields were now unavailable to the league because of girls softball.

Apparently Porter didn't get the memo. Or he is okay with this false information being allowed to be entered into the record at tonight's council meeting. Or he is a liar.

You really have to feel for the residents who've agreed to allow the lights in. They've been given some vague and unenforceable promises by Little League to not light the remaining field at the park and to work with the neighborhood in the future. The sports leagues have been notoriously bad and selfish neighbors, not just at College Park, but at Larkin Park and at La Puerta Park as well.

Of course, with 15 percent growth every year, it won't be long before the league and the city are ready to light that third field. Never make treaties with folks who speak with forked tongues.

The council will approve going forward with the College Park lighting plan now that the primary opponents have signed off on it. See the agenda materials for this item for more misinformation from Director Porter.



MORE TROLLEY FOLLY


The council is also being asked by staff to approve the so-called citizen's committee recommendations for a pilot trolley system in the Claremont Village. (See page 4 of the agenda for tonight's meeting.)

You can also read the agenda report here.

The citizen's committee recommendation is to spend $886,869. It would pay for one trolley to run a 1.5-mile loop with four stops:

  • First Street at the Metrolink Depot
  • The Metrolink parking lot
  • Bonita Ave. and Yale Ave. near Walter's Restaurant
  • Oberlin Ave. near the Claremont Village Expansion

As we've noted previously, the "citizen's committee" for the Off Track Trolley was comprised mostly of city commissioners and city staff, including Bill Pallatto, the genius who gave the false information about Little League growth.

And one of the three people listed as a "Claremont Citizen" was former Mayor Judy Wright, who counts for 35,000 people in her own head, and for 100 in the minds of city staff.

Consider it $886,869 well-spent, or as we broke it down last month, quite a bargain ticket at over $10 per rider.


TRI-CITY MENTAL HEALTH

And the city council will be asked to appoint Chuck Leeb as Claremont's representative to the Tri-City Mental Health board.

Recall that Tri-City, a joint powers operation providing mental health services, is funded by the cities of Claremont, Pomona, and Upland. Tri-City emerged from bankruptcy last year after expanding too fast and being unable to keep up with its costs. The state of California has recommended that Tri-City be abolished because Los Angeles County already provides the same sorts of services.

According to the agenda packet materials for this item, Mayor Peter Yao allowed Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Taylor to be to sole person recommending the appointment. Taylor is Claremont's current representative to the Tri-City board.

While we don't question Leeb's qualifications, we do question the fact that he seems to be the Claremont 400-type, seeing that the three people recommending him are Sandra Baldonado, Linda Elderkin, and Queen Ellen - one former and two current councilmembers.

Do we really need more inbreeding?

Auto Sales Down

More bad news facing Claremont's coffers. Car sales in the Southern California region were down eight percent in 2007, according to an article by Dan Abendschein in the Whittier Daily News.

Abendschein's article talked about Ford Co. closing dealerships nationwide, including Claremont Ford and five others in Los Angeles County.

With 57 percent of Claremont's sales tax revenue coming from the Auto Center, this downturn is certain to affect city budget discussions. Sales tax revenues in turn accounted for 24.9 percent of all Claremont city revenues in the 2004-2006 budget cycle.

Remember, the city will be holding the following citizen budget workshops:

  • Thursday, January 24th, 7pm
    Alexander Hughes Community Center - Padua Room
    1700 Danbury Rd.

  • Thursday, January 31st, 7pm
    Blaisdell Community Center
    440 S. College Ave.
Call (909) 399-5460 for more information.

Exhibit Opening Next Sunday


The Claremont Museum of Art's next exhibit opens this coming weekend. The exhibit, "First Generation: Art in Claremont 1907 - 1957," will run from January 27th to April 27th.

The museum's website has this description of the exhibit:

Since the late 19th century, prominent artists have been among those attracted to the foothills of Mt. Baldy and its neighboring peaks – and the city of Claremont, in particular. Whether it was the allure of the "great bald mountain" and its surrounding chaparral that first attracted painters and photographers to Claremont, or the opportunities provided by the birth of the schools and colleges founded to serve a rapidly growing population, a large number of distinguished visual artists settled here, greatly enriching the culture of the region and establishing early-on its prominence as an artistic haven.

The Claremont Museum of Art's next exhibition, First Generation: Art in Claremont, 1907-1957 (January 27 - April 27, 2008), focuses on art in Claremont in the first 50 years after the city's incorporation in 1907, tracing the art history of the region from the work of such artists as Hannah Tempest Jenkins, Emil Kosa, Jr., and William Manker to that of Millard Sheets and his circle in the 1930s. Sheets's influence as artist and teacher extended as well to bringing artists such as Henry Lee McFee, Phil Dike, and Jean Ames to Scripps College, thereby enhancing the existing art community and assuring its lasting influence.

If you missed the Sheets show at last year's LA County Fair, make sure to get out to see "First Generation."

You can read all about the exhibit here. The museum's planning some excellent programming to go along with the exhibit, so make sure to check it out.

There will be a public opening reception Sunday, January 27th, from 3-5pm. Sunday's opening will also feature a family artmaking project as part of the museum's Family Sundays program, so bring the kids.

The musueum will also have an informal exhibition tour with guest curator Steve Comba on Saturday, February 2nd, beginning at 3pm.


The Claremont Museum of Art
536 West First Street
Claremont, CA 91711
(909) 621-3200

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sierra Madre Blogger Passes Away

Centinel at the FC Blog noted the passing of Jim Snider, the publisher of the Sierra Madre Cumquat.

Snider's blog is no longer working, so we're pulling it from our local blog list.

Adieu, Jim, sorry to see you go.

Budget and Other News

While the LA Times has its various crises to deal with, our local paper, the Claremont Courier chugs along nicely and had a couple interesting stories this past Saturday.

One story concerned the City Council-City Commissions budget workshop last Thursday. With the state facing a $14 billion shortfall and city sales tax revenues possibly declining in the coming year. As we commented previously, Claremont may have some belt tightening to do.

It was at least encouraging to read in Tony Krickl's Courier's article Saturday that City Manager Jeff Parker is at least taking the situation seriously and that the city is working on contingency plans:

“That’s my biggest worry,” Mr. Parker said. “If the economy gets real bad, people just stop buying and the sales tax goes down. That could be a problem with auto sales and the success of the Village Expansion.”

The housing market is also a big concern for Claremont. Several major housing developments are on hold until developers feel comfortable that demand will once again increase for the type of housing they are offering. Until the projects move forward again, income from property sales tax can not be relied upon in the current budget cycle.

Another factor was the loss of a $1 million state grant for the purchase of Johnson’s Pasture, which forced the city to tap into the general reserve fund. That money could have been used to fund other activities in the city, such as the construction of Padua Park.

“That’s where the impact came in,” Mr. Parker said. “Not getting the extra million probably impacted us in our ability to have a dialogue on other projects.”

....

“We are going to have to look at the overall picture, do some prioritizing and have some contingencies in case we do have some problems,” councilmember Corey Calaycay said.

With some potential big ticket projects on the horizon - a $25 million-plus police station, a $100 million-plus water company take over, a $12 million-plus sports park, and an affordable housing project that will not be able to qualify for county, state, or federal grants - the timing of the economic downturn and housing market decline could not be worse.


* * *


Saturday's Courier also had an after-action report on the recent joint City and Chamber of Commerce print and cable TV advertising campaign, which has drawn mixed reviews from town merchants.

The article isn't online yet, but it featured quotes from Chamber of Commerce CEO Maureen Aldridge, adman Chas Seward, and a variety of business people. Here at the Insider we talked about the print ads, which were the things that bothered some local merchants and residents the most.

Courier editor Rebecca JamesCourie also had a "My Side of the Line" commentary on the ads, which she seemed to like overall. JamesCourie's opinion piece included these hopeful comments:

We need to take the blinders off and look at Claremont with new eyes – from the point of view that a visitors and convention bureau would have. Now with such fine amenities as the DoubleTree Hotel, Casa 425 and others, folks can make Claremont their destination for business trips. Folks can fly into the Ontario Airport, shuttle over to Claremont, take the Metrolink to Los Angeles (for their business meeting) and leave their spouse and kids to enjoy the Gardens, the museums, the Village and the Village Expansion. Then, have a nice evening having dinner, catching a show or going to the movies. If they have an extended stay, there are plenty of specialty markets that can fill their refrigerators with epicurean delights.

I encourage folks to step up to the plate and be a part of this campaign to collectively market Claremont as a destination location. We all play an integral role in making Claremont successful and your voice is important. As a cohesive unit, Claremont can continue to ride the waves of success brought on by Huell Howser, the San Francisco Chronicle and being No. 5 on the “Best Place to Live” list. Now is the time to act. Be a player.

The Huell Howser pieces and the Chronicle travel article on Claremont were part of a public relations campaign, as we discovered last week.

Don't Let the Door Hit You

The dawn of the Sam Zell era at the Los Angeles Times hasn't slowed the revolving door in the editorial offices, as Times pressman Ed Padgett noted yesterday. Times editor Jim O'Shea was dismissed yesterday after refusing to go along with $4 million in expense budget cuts ordered by his bosses.

With an election year and the Olympics looming, O'Shea apparently did not think there was any expense fat to cut and still get a decent product out.

2007 was a rough year for the Times, and its parent company the Tribune Co., which was purchased for $8.2 billion by Chicago real estate tycoon Zell. Kevin Roderick at LAist chronicled the comings, goings, and other general wackiness at the Times last year.

O'Shea is the third Times editor to leave since July, 2005. His predecessors, Dean Banquet and John Carroll, left over similar disagreements over budget concerns.

LAist's Roderick also had some choice commentary on O'Shea's resignation.

Ed Padgett, by the way, had what seemed like a friendly email exchange with his new boss last month, an exchange which he posted on his blog.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Mailbag

A reader wrote in with some tips on how motorists ticketed by the Claremont Police Department for honking in support of anti-war protesters should deal with the citations. Like us, the reader didn't think using the First Amendment as a defense would get very far when it comes to Claremont:

Traffic court judges rubber-stamp everything that makes it into the courtroom -- traffic court is principally a revenue-production factory, and anyone walking in with constitutional arguments about freedom of speech is going to be cut off about three seconds into their comments. But I beat an illegal Claremont speeding ticket by paying $350 to a lawyer to file a demurrer -- it makes victory much more likely, and pays for itself in stable insurance premiums. A demurrer is a claim that even if you did what the police say you did, it wasn't illegal, so the matter shouldn't be before the court. The judge takes it up outside the regular traffic court session, and the city has to respond in writing and send a lawyer if they want to prevail. I went to Antonio Bestard, across the street from the courthouse. My bet is that these folks will lose without a lawyer, and win with a lawyer. FWIW.

Oh, and trying to get the city to agree to dismiss an unlawful citation? No. I still have a letter from what's-his-name, the last police chief (whose name I tended to forget even when he was still on the job), acknowledging that the citation I had received had been issued contrary to the provisions of the Vehicle Code. He suggested that I tell it to the judge. They don't give fine revenue back out of the kindness of their hearts. Hire a lawyer.


* * *


And Planning Commissioner Tom Lamb wrote in with his take on some housing developments in Claremont, including the Base Line Rd. affordable project. Lamb says he wouldn't have voted to approve two condo developments on Base Line if the information from the affordable housing Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the USC School of Medicine study about the effects of freeway pollution on children living within 500 feet of housing had been available.

Lamb went on say that our interpretation of how policy decisions are made in Claremont didn't include the significant changes that have taken place since former Claremont City Manager Glenn Southard left town for the city of Indio.

Lamb says the commissions he has worked on (Planning and Traffic & Transportation) have been much more open to independence than that in the Southard days. We think that's a fair assessment, but would like to point out that some city commissions, most notably Human Services, continue to function as a political arm of the Claremont 400. Witness the full-page ad in support of the Base Line Rd. affordable housing project taken out in the Claremont Courier by the Human Services Commission and the Claremont League of Women Voters.

Also, Planning Commissioner Bob Tener was one of the Claremont 400 throwing his weight in along with Human Services Commissioner Andy Winnick in favor of the Base Line Rd. project.

Lamb also has an interesting proposal for the Padua Ave. Park site. Here is Lamb's letter (the name is used with his permission):

As a Planning Commissioner, I voted to approve the two recently permitted condominium complexes along Baseline Road. I did so partly because the initial study submitted by staff indicated no major environmental concerns. I do not fault staff for this, the Affordable Housing EIR and the USC study were not available to us at this time. Had the EIR been available, I know that I would have demanded an EIR for the other projects and I feel that the Commission as a whole would have as well.

In passing, each of these projects also include an Affordable Housing component in accordance with the City Code. 15% OF THE UNITS ARE DESIGNATED AS AFFORDABLE.

With regard to the Baseline Affordable Housing Project now under consideration, I am opposed to it principally because of the stigma placed on families who would reside there--it would be a "Project" rather than an integrated residential development. The other, and from my perspective, the most compelling argument against the development is the fact that the site is not a good one from a planning perspective.

Logically, the best site would be the Padua Park area. Perhaps dividing the 20+ acre site in two with half retained as a neighborhood park and the the other ten acres developed into an integrated residential development.

And, lastly, not all commissioners, in fact, I suspect less than you might believe are blindly following the party line. Since the departure of Glenn Southard I have seen a collective effort on the part of Commissioners, at least in the two Commissions of which I have been a part, to question the staff and to challenge their assumptions and recommendations in an effort to achieve the best for the City, rather than to accept everything as a fait accompli.

Tom Lamb

Saturday, January 19, 2008

David Allen on Art and Vanished Places

David Allen had a profile of Claremont artist Karl Benjamin in his Daily Bulletin column:

A Chicago native who went to college in Redlands after his World War II service, Benjamin became an artist by accident while teaching sixth grade in Bloomington in 1949.

The principal told him that besides math, English and the like, he had to teach art for 45 minutes a day. Benjamin had no clue what to do.

"So I passed out paper and crayons and told them to do art," Benjamin recalled. "They drew the usual stuff, cars and mountains and trees. It was really boring. So I told them to just do colors."

Inspired by the results, Benjamin went to the library and got art books. Modern art really grabbed him. He bought paints and began imitating artists he liked: Miro, Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock.

"Which is a pretty good way to learn," he remarked. "You choose your teacher."

He had early success, culminating with a 1959 show, "Four Abstract Classicists," in which he was one of four artists. It began at the L.A. County Museum of Art and traveled to San Francisco, New York and London.

Allen also blogged about bygone places in the area in a post called "Things That Aren't Here Anymore:"

Bill Ruh wrote me a nostalgic e-mail which became the main topic of today's column. He recalled past department stores and restaurants of his Inland Valley youth, places like W.T. Grant's, Berger's and the Rockette.

The discussion thread had over 75 comments, and you'll find a lot of people chiming in with their own memories of the past. If you're interested in all the changes going on in Claremont these days, you might want to take a look at Allen's post.