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October 28, 2000 -- Foothill Leader


Real issue gets lost in confusion

By Anita Susan Brenner



     Spinmeisters, public relations consultants and sleight-of-hand artists employ similar methods.
     It's called "shake the rattle at the baby."
     Like the card sharp who waves a deuce in his right hand to keep us from seeing the ace hidden in his left, political spin shifts our focus away from the real issues.
     Case in point: the Edison ball field negotiations.
     On Sept. 23, I wrote a column noting that La Canada Flintridge City Manager Jerry Fulwood had confirmed that negotiations were underway for a long-term lease of the Southern California Edison right-of-way north of Foothill Boulevard. He told me these negotiations had originated in closed sessions of the City Council.
     Three days later, La Canada Flintridge Mayor Dave Spence sent a letter to residents along the right-of-way pointing out the press coverage -- "You might have read recently ..." -- and asserting that there were no "active" negotiations ("We do not know if this property is available.").
     Not available?
     You'd think that in a town with a 3-2 council split, three newspapers, tons of citizen activists and teams of investigative journalists, someone would have immediately focused on the Aug. 3 letter from Edison to Jerry Fulwood. That letter began, "As per our conversations regarding our Southern California Edison right of way between Indiana and El Vago Street by the city to use as soccer fields ..."
     You'd think that with all the newsprint expended that someone would have asked why the city didn't follow the May 17 advice of County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, as reflected in the city's minutes: "Easement and cost of renovation of property under the Edison power lines -- A meeting is to be scheduled between the city and Supervisor Antonovich's staff regarding this matter. The city was asked to survey the property owners living near the power lines regarding the proposed fields."
     That's a survey. Not a letter.
     The neighbors, who are the people most affected by this, were never consulted.
     They were never surveyed, corresponded to, advised or invited to tea.
     The spin started last week, when the City Council unleashed a "he said, she said" spitting contest over statements made or not made during closed session hearings.
     Deborah Orlik and Jerry Martin had complained that Spence sent the Sept. 26 letter without their knowledge or permission.
     Spence and Anthony Portantino said that blanket permission had been given.
     Meanwhile, Deputy City Atty. Mark Steres contradicted both sides.
     In published comments to the Foothill Leader, Steres disputed Orlik and Martin's contention that the Sept. 26 letter had been sent out unilaterally.
     Steres said the council gave Spence unanimous approval to notify residents of the city's discussions with Southern California Edison about acquiring land for sports fields. But Steres also admitted that the Edison negotiations were discussed in a closed session, thus contradicting the letter that was sent out.
     And so on and so forth.
     So now, the focus has shifted. Or should I say, the focus has been shifted.
     Instead of focusing on the needs (and rights) of the neighbors, who were left out of the loop, everyone is speculating on what happened in the closed session hearings.
     The closed session is the elephant and the community is in the position of the five blind men.
     The only records that the press (and public) have a right to see are the notices issued before the closed session hearing and the minutes issued afterward.
     It's been difficult to reconstruct the Edison closed session because the city posted two notices for the Sept. 5 council meeting.
     One notice was posted in the normal fashion on Aug. 30. The other was posted as a special meeting notice on Sept. 1, the Friday before Labor Day. The meeting was on the Tuesday after.
     Both notices list several closed session matters, but the Edison negotiations are not mentioned in the first notice. They are mentioned in the second notice. The negotiating parties, according to the notice, were the city manager and Southern California Edison. The purposes of the special meeting were "price and terms of payment."
     If the city was not in active negotiations, as the Sept. 26 letter states, what was so urgent about the Edison property so as to require the short notice required for a "special meeting"?
     And if the city was in active negotiations, why not tell the neighbors?
     Two notices. One meeting.
     Shake the rattle at the baby?
     *


copyright September 26, 2000 Anita Susan Brenner