Claremont Insider: Follow the Money

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Follow the Money

We've been puzzling over the city of Claremont's application for a $1.6 million grant for Padua Park, which is supposed to break ground some time in the next few months. The city has committed approximately $2.4 million of its own money to the project, but that leaves it anywhere from $8 million to $10 million short of the money needed to complete all three phases of the project.

As we observed last Friday, the city's Human Services Department has submitted a grant application to the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), a state agency that doles out grant money for projects in the watersheds for the two Southland rivers.

The RMC is supposed to be concerned with protecting the watershed and the native habitats in the foothills and areas drained by our rivers. In our previous post, we noted that a reader familiar with the Padua Park project has been following the Claremont grant and found some inconsistencies between the project, which the reader describes as an active, intensive-use sports park, and the RMC's mission.

Most importantly, the second and third phases of the Padua Park project would end up destroying 8.9 acres of a habitat known as Riversidean Alluvial Fan Sage Scrub (RAFSS). Apparently, there are less than 2,000 acres of the stuff remaining in California, mostly because the RAFSS appears in foothill areas that are highly desireable sites to build housing developments like all of the homes that have been built north of Base Line Rd. in Northeast Claremont.

The RMC's staff is recommending that the conservancy give $800,000 to the city for the project, and they seem willing to give more later. The RMC staff seems to tie the money to rehabilitating the RAFSS and to including a more passive-use aspect for the project. But, there doesn't seem to be anything that bars the city from accepting the money under the false pretense of constructing a passive-use park, then turning around and going ahead with their current plan, which includes 260 parking spaces - more than double the space any park in town (College Park has 100 parking spaces).

As we also noted, the Padua Park Environmental Impact Report (EIR) stated that the when it is fully developed the park will use an average of 31.5 million gallons of water per year, a further wasteful departure from the sorts of things the RMC is supposed to encourage.

So why would the conservancy give money to a project that veers so greatly from it RMC's stated goals?

We think the answer lies in the backroom politics at RMC. For one thing, former Claremont Traffic and Transportation Commissioner Tim Worley is the RMC's director of development. As a commissioner, Worley voted to approve the traffic portion of the Padua Park EIR.

More importantly, Claremont Councilmember Sam Pedroza, who as a Community Services Commissioner was one of the main proponents of the Padua project, sits on the board of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority. Pedroza is the chair of two of the Discovery Center Authority's committees (the only two committees): the Fundraising Committee and the Stakeholders Advisory Committee.

Pedroza, incidentally, received the endorsement of none other than Tim Worley when Pedroza ran for Claremont's City Council in 2005.

The Discovery Center Authority is one of those quasi-public joint powers authorities that has $3 million pledged to it from the RMC. The Discovery Center is supposed to be built in the Whittier Narrows Flood Control Basin. The Discovery Center's website, gives a description of the project:

The Discovery Center will present the story of the San Gabriel River watershed, emphasize the importance of water resources and the natural values of the watershed, and provide educational and outdoor experiences for people of all ages. The Center will also continue the cultural, natural history and ecosystems messages; and outdoor experiences presented by the L. A. County Department of Parks and Recreation at the existing Nature Center.

Sounds like a good thing, though the project, like Padua Park, has apparently created a lot of controversy. From we've heard, the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Nature Area have found fault with the size and scope of the project, saying that it will destroy the area's native wildlife, including a significant amount of RAFSS. Funny how Pedroza, a supposed environmentalist, is at the center both projects. Hypocrisy seems to be Sam's middle name.

One might wonder how such a goof as Pedroza, affable though he is, could come to rise to such a position of destructive prominence. Like any good pol, Pedroza works the machinery of government, mainly by networking with the contacts he's made in San Gabriel Valley Democratic circles. Pedroza's former employer, Congresswoman Hilda Solis, for whom Pedroza worked when she was still in the State Assembly, no doubt had a hand in Pedroza's rise as well.

All of this points up the perils of putting someone who is as weak and insecure as Pedroza in a position of power. Voters thinking that they are protecting nature and open space approve billions of dollars in bonds to generate the funds the RMC uses for its grants, and then the money leaks out in dribs and drabs under false pretenses to the pet projects of Southern California's elected and non-elected officials. And they do it all with stunningly little accountability to the voters.

In his position on the Discovery Centery Authority board, Pedroza is in close contact with the authority's director, Belinda Faustino. Faustino also happens to be the director of the RMC. A July 8th post on the Daily Kos noted this about Faustino:
And the head of the RMC, Belinda Faustino, does not have a forestry, biology, hydrology, agricultural degree but was originally in corrections in Chino. Ms. Faustino worked for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) as the Budget Officer and then became for the SMMC, Chief Deputy Executive Officer of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Corridor Conservation Authority. No one that this writer has found, or has heard from others who know the voting Board for the RMC has an educational background in science. (updated) The one staffer who does have a Ph.D is Tim Worley but he also works for MWD (see at bottom of page). Tim's Ph.D. is in Political science. If you sit in a RMC meeting, you find no one says much to Ms. Faustino and everything is passed without question.

The Daily Kos' post also described the problems with the Discovery Center, which sounds as if it has the makings of a real boondoggle:
Also, why are so many wasteful endeavors couched with serving THE CHILDREN, when in fact they are hollow projects, literally???? The RMC’s new Children’s Museum is supported and funded by the Metropolitan Water District through a surrogate – the newly formed, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter San Gabriel River Campaign. The Metropolitan Water District has its own Children’s Museum, called the Water Museum in Hemet California (26 K. sq. ft.). This project cost $16 or 26 million (depending on what source is used) and costs Southern Californian water rate payers about a dollar per house hold to fund the empty building’s lights and air conditioning.


The Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), transmogrified into another group called, San Gabriel Discovery Center Authority (headed by the same person, Belinda Faustinos) has been planning this Children's Museum since 2000. The RMC spent $136,000.00 on scientific reports that say the sand that fills the Narrows is not stable for river playgrounds, not capable of sustaining man made wetlands, and since the aquifer has dipped below historic and even drinking water standards for most of the surrounding cities, should be carefully managed, instead. One other report suggests, because effluent from the Sanitation Districts, which flow through the Whittier Narrows near the new Children's Center, the authors suggest using algae to test the flowing river water for toxic blooms.

The Daily Kos' blogger, Tardigrade, really gets to the heart of the problem:

Why in the world would a Californian environmental preservation, governmental entity, supported by the likes of the Sierra Club, the Metropolitan Water District, funded by billions of tax dollars, want to destroy the environment? Maybe that is a stupid question. This 'agency' is powered by people without ANY science background or have mis-matched backgrounds for the job. You ask, how much damage can an ‘environmental agency’ with people filled with 'ideals' (perhaps, ambition) but, with no oversight, do?

There are three projects in Southern California of similar focus, supporters, design, two of which have been massive financial failures. Two projects are associated with dams in L.A. All three projects are FOR THE CHILDREN. Two are about water and all were supported by the water agencies and governmental environmental groups. One related project, a colossal reservoir built by one of the agencies, may negatively impact S. California’s water supply in this drought emergency. One project is in the planning and public relations stage where disaster can still be averted. All of the projects are museums, one in Hemet, one in Sunland and one in Whittier Narrows.

The lesson - where there is lots of money and no oversight, things go very badly – like Katrina.

Again we say, it may not be criminal, but it sure ought to be. In the meantime, you'll go on paying for the privilege of funding all the folly.