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Year in Review: Changes, charges, challenges dominate La Cañada news in 2019

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A water truck washes down Oak Grove Drive as dirt hauler exits out with a load of dirt from the Hahamongna Watershed Park L.A. County Public Works Department’s Devil’s Gate Dam Sediment Removal project on July 30.
(File Photo)

As the year 2019 prepares to go into the history books as one of nationwide political discord, a review of the key events that took place within the city of La Cañada Flintridge seem relatively tame by comparison.

There were some long-expected projects that came to fruition, including the beginning of the local iteration of a “Big Dig,” the county effort to remove nearly 3 million tons of debris from behind Devil’s Gate Dam in the Arroyo Seco; the relocation of City Hall and the renovations of La Cañada’s public library. Also, surprising many, the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization at long last approved a petition launched four years ago that sought to transfer the Sagebrush area of the city out of Glendale schools and into the La Cañada Unified School District.

Falling into the column of dispiriting local news, the LCUSD community was rocked by two different allegations of racism at La Cañada High School. “A lot of learning has gone on,” Supt. Wendy Sinnette said in the wake of one set of allegations. “We are appreciative of our community for being so passionate about what the expectations are — we share that responsibility with you.”

In other news, we welcomed a new captain to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station, dealt with a huge dip in the pavement along eastbound Foothill Boulevard directly in front of Lutheran Church in the Foothills and become reacquainted with our umbrellas in a year that brought more rainfall than is typical. We invite readers to take a look with us at some of the highs — and lows — of 2019 as it unfolded in La Cañada Flintridge.

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Massive debris removal project proceeds

La Cañadans can expect to deal with this issue for another few years. Although the Devil’s Gate Sediment Removal Project was in the planning stages for a decade, it wasn’t until early this year that community members began taking serious note of the potential for health issues related to the dust and emissions generated by hundreds of trucks removing more than 2.8 million tons of sediment from behind Devil’s Gate Dam in a four-year county public works project.

A grassroots group of parents with backgrounds in chemistry, public health and environmental science organized as LCF 4 Healthy Air to raise awareness of the hazards and and to keep a watchful eye on the project. LCUSD collected baseline air quality data in advance of the start of the dig, which was expected to commence April 15 but did not get underway until May 22.

In addition to assuring sediment hauler trucks meet 2010 emission standards and placing air quality monitors at La Cañada High School and surrounding Hahamongna Watershed Park, the county pledged to work closely with environmental consultants throughout the project’s four-year timeline.

The sediment removal project was temporarily halted Sept. 5 for issues related to fugitive dust outside the work site. Steve Burger, a county deputy director said the fact the project received three notices of violation from the South Coast Air Quality Municipal District related to dust tracking, resulting in four citations to the project contractor and one subcontractor, had nothing to do with the shutdown. “The shutdown was directed by us, because we saw the dust problem,” Burger said.

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On Nov. 15 the county announced it had finished its hauling for 2019 and would resume the work in the spring.

Charges of racism at LCHS lodged

Some La Cañada High personnel, administrators and even members of the student body found themselves at the center of heated controversies this year alleging racism.

A lawsuit filed Sept. 11 on behalf of four Korean LCHS students alleged a teacher and administrator exhibited racial discrimination following an incident of suspected cheating on an AP exam in October 2018 that led to the students’ expulsion from an Advance Placement European history class. No damages were specified in the suit, the outcome of which is pending, but district leaders have stood firm in their denial that racism was involved in the decision to expel those students from the class.

In a different incident, the publisher of the Outlook newspaper wrote a front-page column following a Feb. 23 CIF Southern Section championship basketball game stating his deep dismay at racial and homophobic slurs he said he heard shouted by LCHS fans in the stands behind him.

LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette told the Valley Sun following the latter incident that an investigation was launched into those allegations and steps were being taken to make sure hurtful comments are reported and any appropriate actions taken. At the next school board meeting Sinnette said, “A lot of learning has gone on. We are appreciative of our community for being so passionate about what the expectations are — we share that responsibility with you.”

Christina Hale-Elliott
LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette, left, with Christina Hale-Elliott, who entered into a $95,000 one-year consultant agreement to work in support of diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the district.
(File Photo)

The school board in June announced a plan to create an independent services contract for someone to assess and develop diversity and inclusion programs across all schools after several families requested more be done to ensure all students feel supported and integrated into the LCUSD culture. In September they welcomed Christina Hale-Elliott to the contract position, for which $95,000 was budgeted.

Sagebrush transfer petition approved

A decision on the potential territory transfer of the 380-acre Sagebrush area of La Cañada Flintridge out of Glendale Unified School District and into LCUSD was pushed off more than once throughout the year by the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization. The formal petition process was initiated by Sagebrush resident Tom Smith, and in recent years the banner has been carried by Unite LCF organizers Nick Karapetian and Nalini Lasiewicz.

On Oct. 2, after months of postponed committee hearings, the petition was approved 6-3. “This is a win for La Cañada families and schools and for the people in Sagebrush, the people truly affected by the decision,” said Lasiewicz.

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Residents and officials from the La Cañada and Glendale Unified School Districts, including LCUSD board member Ellen Multari, convened Oct. 2 at the Los Angeles County Office of Education where the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization meeting was held to decide the fate of the Sagebrush.
(File Photo)

On Oct. 31, GUSD filed an appeal of the committee’s decision and also filed a lawsuit in superior court challenging the results of a mitigated negative declaration conducted during a study tied to the California Environmental Quality Act of the Sagebrush territory.

Even if the Unite LCF efforts ultimately prevail over the challenges, the transfer is at least a couple of years away and would have to be ratified by affected voters.

Parcel tax extension for LCUSD to be on ballot

In June, the La Cañada school board began to consider the feasibility of continuing a $450 parcel tax due to sunset in 2021 by several years. By fall the board approved a $6,500 per month contract with Charles Heath, principal with San Francisco-based TBWB Strategies, to gauge public interest in placing a parcel tax renewal before voters. The current parcel tax was passed by district voters in 2014 and will have raised an estimated $2.6 million for instructional needs within LCUSD by the time it sunsets in June 2021.

Having received a positive report from Heath, this month the board voted to place an indefinite extension of the annual levy on the March 2020 ballot. Measure LC proposes extending the current tax rate with annual inflation adjustments tied to the Consumer Price Index for Metropolitan Los Angeles, not to exceed 3%. It will continue unless and until it is overturned by voters. “Community for La Cañada Schools,” a committee run by residents who support the cause, will campaign for the measure. Josh Epstein and Matt Weber will head the group.

City offices open in new building

On Presidents Day weekend, city officials bade farewell to the longtime City Hall at 1327 Foothill Blvd. and moved to the former Sport Chalet headquarters in the Town Center, nearly two years after closing escrow on their new home. The purchase price for the 27,881-square-foot building was $11.23 million and $6.45 million in renovations to it had been approved by the City Council. The city in 2017 sold the Foothill Boulevard building for $3.3 million to Knight Insurance Services.

Mayor of La Cañada Flintridge Teresa M. Walker cuts the ribbon for the City of La Cañada Flintridge
Terry Walker, then mayor, cuts the ribbon for the new City Hall during a dedication ceremony on March 19.
(File Photo )

One of the city’s tenants at the new location was the LCF Chamber of Commerce, which for decades had worked out of cramped quarters in the Allen Lund building on Angeles Crest Highway. Later in the year it was announced Citizens Business Bank would also become a tenant after inking a deal with the city for a seven-year lease of 2,672 square feet on the building’s first floor.

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An official ribbon cutting for the new City Hall was held on March 19.

A new sheriff’s captain in town

It was announced in late December 2018 that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Chris Blasnek, who headed up the department’s Crescenta Valley station, had received a promotion to commander by Sheriff Alex Villanueva and would be assigned elsewhere.

Blasnek said he had mixed feelings about leaving his stint at the station, which provides law enforcement to the city of La Cañada Flintridge and neighboring areas. “The best word to describe it is ‘bittersweet,’ the captain said. “I’ve really come to love everybody here at the station and in the community — I’m really leaving the best place in the world.”

His replacement was not immediately announced, but on May 26 Lt. Todd Deeds of the East L.A. station was promoted to captain and officially stepped into the role just in time to take part in the city’s annual Fiesta Days Parade.

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Connie Alamdari of La Cañada Flintridge takes a selfie with new Crescenta Valley Sheriff Station Capt. Todd Deeds during “Coffee with the Captain” event at the Starbucks on Aug. 29.
(File Photo)

Deeds first worked at the CV station in 1996 as a patrol deputy working mostly evening and night shifts during a five-year tenure. “It was just a wonderful community,” Deeds said of his first tour of duty in the Foothills. “The community support is what stood out the most to me.”

Rain gear comes out of La Cañada closets

It was an unusually wet year for the Foothills. In one six-day period in January more than 7 inches of the wet stuff drenched La Cañada Flintridge, downing some trees and retaining walls and forcing some temporary road closures.

About two weeks later, another six-day series of storms brought 7.55 inches. And the wet weather continued, even raining on the Memorial Day weekend Fiesta Days festivities. By the time the water year was over (on Sept. 30, 2019) the city had recorded 29.23 inches of rainfall as measured at Descanso Gardens. By comparison, the water year that began Oct. 1, 2017, and ended Sept. 30, 2018, saw a grand total of just 7.4 inches of rain.

Public library given a face-lift

On June 24 the La Cañada Flintridge Library opened its doors after being closed nearly three months for $532,000 in interior work and property upgrades. The library closed to patrons on March 30 to accommodate the deferred maintenance project funded by the Los Angeles County Library system. Patrons arriving to check out the work found a new ceiling, new carpeting, new art and furnishings at the Oakwood Avenue facility, all welcome enhancements to a library that had last been refreshed in 1998.

“The weird thing is it seems bigger and we can’t figure out why,” Library manager Mark Totten told the Valley Sun. “Even customers are saying there’s so much more room in here.”

There were even new speed bumps in the parking lot. But chatter found on local social media pages revealed one complaint about the project: Patrons now had difficulties finding a place to plug in the chargers for their laptops.

For-profit ‘Mansion Pool Party’ raises eyebrows

Concerns about the legality of a for-profit party that attracted hundreds to an unoccupied Gould Avenue house on Saturday, June 15 drew La Cañada city officials and sheriff’s detectives into a complicated tale of ownership, vacancy and tenants’ rights.

On the following Tuesday, neighbors flocked to a meeting of the LCF City Council to share their shock and frustration with a large soiree — advertised on social media as “L.A. Aquaholic Summer mansion pool party” by an organizer selling tickets online — that brought hundreds of scantily clad pool party attendees into La Cañada’s business and residential areas throughout the evening. Party-goers were picked up by a shuttle in the parking lot outside the Foothill Boulevard T.J. Maxx and taken to 4465 Gould Ave. Once there, they swam, danced, drank and made merry, according to videos taken at the event and posted online.

Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station Det. Alan Chu investigates Tuesday a house at 4465 Gould Avenue,
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Det. Alan Chu investigates a house at 4465 Gould Avenue, where squatters were allegedly living without the owner’s permission. A massive for-profit pool party held there June 15 provoked numerous resident concerns and calls for service.
(File Photo)

It was soon learned that the house had been taken over by squatters that the new owner was having difficulty evicting. Once the city and sheriff’s department began turning up the heat, the squatters left and the for-profit party scene was iced.

Section of Foothill rides like a roller coaster

Congregants attending Easter Sunday services at Lutheran Church in the Foothills saw the inner lane of eastbound Foothill split, and water begin to pool after an aging 24-inch pipe underneath the pavement owned and operated by Foothill Municipal Water District broke open. As days went by, and even after some repairs were made, a noticeable depression provided a bumpy ride for motorists heading toward the heart of town.

“It looks like the road might have sunk a little bit,” said Nina Jazmadarian, general manager of FMWD, in an understated comment to the paper in early May. “We need to get together with the city about that.”

After the recent repair of a 24-inch water pipe operated by Foothill Municipal Water district, which
After the recent repair of a 24-inch water pipe operated by Foothill Municipal Water district, which began leaking April 21, an eastbound portion of Foothill Boulevard visibly sagged.
(File Photo)

The city filed a lawsuit against FMWD seeking damages and repairs. An Aug. 20 complaint filed with the Los Angeles County Superior Court by the city alleges it took more than nine hours for FMWD officials to discover the source of the leak and nearly a week to complete temporary pavement repairs.

FMWD, in turn, filed an Aug. 22 claim against the city alleging “insufficient compaction of soils caused District pipe to sag and break, with resulting water loss.” That claim sought compensation for the water retailer’s investigation of the loss and subsequent repair of the pipe and underlying soil as well as temporary repairs made to the roadway. It was denied by the city. In September, FMWD filed a countersuit.

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