Claremont Insider: City Council Meets Tonight - More Trolley Folly

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

City Council Meets Tonight - More Trolley Folly

The Claremont City Council meets again today for another of their secret, closed session meetings, beginning at 4:30pm at City Hall.

According to the closed session agenda, there are two topics on the Council's plate:

  • A report on labor negotiations from City Manager Jeff Parker, Assistant City Manager Tony Ramos, and City Personnel Manager Shawna Urban.

  • A report on ongoing litigation: L.A. County Civil Court case #BS 117971, Protect Our Neighborhoods v. City of Claremont.

The Council will convene in its regular session at 6:30pm in the Council Chambers at 225 W. 2nd St. The regular session agenda's fairly light, but we did note a few items of interest:
  • The Council will consider doing away with the deferred compensation option for Councilmembers. Councilmembers are currently eligible for city health benefits. If they do not use those benefits, they can take that money ($914 per month) and put it into a deferred compensation account that's pretty much the same as a 401(k). It amounts to $10,968 a year, or nearly $44,000 for a four-year council term.

    The city will keep the health benefits option for Councilmembers who choose to take it. Peter Yao is the only person receiving the city-paid healthcare. The only person among the five councilmembers taking the deferred comp is Mayor Ellen Taylor, who certainly does not need the money.

  • Johnson's Pasture is back in the news. You might recall that extra $1 million the City had to pay out of its General Fund reserve because some incorrect wording in the deed resulted in the state pulling a million-dollar grant. Now, the Council is going to consider floating additional bonds to reimburse itself the reserve money they had to spend.

    The Council has the discretion to issue more bonds if they choose, but we question the wisdom of doing so at this time. The money's already been paid out. Financing that $1 million just adds the expense of interest that will have to be paid out on the bonds, so we'd really just be penalizing future generations for the staff's mistake.

    Also, according to the staff report for this item, the interest the city would have to pay would be 1.06% higher than for the bonds they originally issued. This is because the market for California municipal bonds has declined greatly in the past year.

    All in all, not a good idea. It's a bit like refinancing your home's equity. It's just going to end up costing you more in financing charges in the end. The fact that staff made no recommendation in their report indicates no one on that end thinks this sort of unnecessary refinancing makes for good policy.

    Whose idea was it, anyway?

  • The Council will also be asked to donate the use of the Claremont Trolley for a March 22nd fundraiser for the Claremont Community Foundation.

    One hardly knows where to start here. The trolley, which you can see making its slow, lonely circuit through the Claremont Village Thursdays through Saturdays, was a waste of $1.2 million that nearly anyone with a brain said would be a failure. (That is, everyone except former mayor Judy Wright and friends, who deemed this project essential to the welfare of our downtown businesses.)

    The person making the request for this private use of the publicly-funded trolley is none other than Judy Wright herself, through the Claremont Community Foundation. So, the Council will of course acquiesce to Judy's wishes and will give the trolley over to her for a day. Under Judy's proposal, the Trolley will be used in two two-hour Claremont Heritage-led tours of historic sites throughout the city.

    In a way it makes sense, repackaging the trolley from a transportation conveyance to a sightseeing one. The money raised would go a charity, and it would probably be a lot of fun. However, there's one problem: the trolley is funded by public transportation grants. The city was verging on fraud in the first place by using those funds for what they called an economic development project (the trolley was supposed to help create more foot traffic for downtown businesses).

    Now they're going even further and removing any pretense of a transportation-related mission for the poor trolley. Simply put, the City and Judy are taking public funds from outside agencies and shifting them to a private use. No matter how well-intended the cause, this sort of transfer of public money is wrong ethically because it puts the city in the position of choosing between good causes: you get the use of the resource, you don't. Also, it may wrong before the law as well because certain transporation grants specify that the money must have strictly public uses. That's why you don't see LA County MTA buses being used for things like American Cancer Society fundraisers, even if the buses are surplus ones sitting in a maintenance yard.

    The staff report also notes that the city has no policy for lending out the trolley for such an event. Does this mean that any group - the Girl Scouts, say - could request the use of the trolley on one of its off days? The Insider is planning a group outing to Disneyland. Can we take the trolley for a spin?

    The staff seems to see the lack of a policy as a clear problem. They pretty much say in their recommendation that the Council should approve this use before they set a policy in place for trolley use by outside groups.

    You can easily see why California is in a $41 billion hole. Imagine Claremont's and Judy's follies repeated across the state on every type of grant. Money intended for one use ends up funneled into other, unrelated things. It amounts to the worst sort of fraud. The City really ought to just pull the plug on the trolley and either give the transportation grant money back or use it for what it was intended: fixing potholes and repaving streets.

BELOW: Claremont Community Foundation
Executive Director Nickie Cleaves
asks the
Claremont City Council if her friend Judy can have the keys to the trolley.

(Click to Enlarge)