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  • Cynthia McDonald

What's Been Happening Down at Costa Mesa City Hall Lately? Here's a Report:

CITY COUNCIL – APRIL 16 MEETINGThis was a packed agenda and the meeting lasted into the wee hours of the next day.  Some of the hearings went as expected, and well, some did not.

STREET VENDORS:  Scott Drapkin, the Assistant Director of Economic and Development Services, presented the status of the City’s enforcement of illegal street vendors. There have been complaints by vendors who have been operating according to both County and City regulations that others have not been operating legally. The illegal vendors are the taco carts that sell meat (such al pastor) cut off vertical rotisseries or meat cooked on a plancha. While the food may sound delicious, the practice of having meat out on the street for longer than a few minutes is frowned upon by the Health Department. The vendors in question did not have Health Department permits (no wonder!) and often ignored the warnings and education efforts by Code Enforcement. That led to the City changing its procedures and timing of its efforts, but the City also brought in County health officials and CMPD to discourage the illegal street vendors, impound equipment and vehicles, and destroy food. These efforts have been successful and will continue to assure the safety of the public. The nonemergency police department hotline to report problems like this is (714) 754-5252.

CONSENT CALENDAR:  This may have been the most interesting part of the meeting as several items were pulled from the consent calendar.

  • MINUTES. We usually don’t see this, but the minutes of the meeting of April 2 were pulled. Councilmember Arlis Reynolds wished to clarify the instruction to Staff to bring back strategies to complete rezoning under Measure K and the updated Housing Element within two years. After discussion, Councilmember Andrea Marr made a motion to send the minutes back to staff for review, which prompted Reynolds to withdraw her motion. By then the other Councilmembers seemed to agree with Marr, and since they would be speaking with Staff about this subject at their Planning Retreat later that week, the minutes were returned to Staff for review and revision. Look to see them again at another meeting.

  • PRICELESS PETS.  Things got more interesting when the contract with Priceless Pets for animal care services was pulled. The start of the hearing on this item was delayed while, after a reminder by the City Attorney, Councilmember Loren Gameros got himself off the dais. He recused himself because his wife is in a management position with Priceless Pets. Local activist Sue Lester pulled the item because she felt the contract was deficient in that it lacked accountability by the vendor in several areas, and the relationship between Gameros and his wife as an employee of Priceless Pets felt a little strange. Becca Walls, the chair of the Animal Services Committee, spoke in favor of the vendor and Mayor John Stephens spoke at length about the vendor and the Committee. The contract was approved by a vote of 5-1, with Councilmember Harper voting No.

  • CANNABIS ROUND ?5? ?6? SORRY, I'VE LOST COUNT.  It got even more interesting with the pulling by members of the public of the second reading of the revised cannabis storefront regulations. By “members of the public” I mean the cannabis vendors who either didn’t understand what happened at the prior meeting where the revisions to the ordinances were approved, or just wanted to complain about the changes. No presentation was made by Staff, but there should have been one. After public comment, Gameros brought up the issue of imposing a requirement on the financial business holders to acquire a business license, and the difficulties that the cannabis operators MIGHT face in selling their businesses in the future. He made a motion that was seconded by Councilmember Manuel Chavez. What is interesting is that Gameros doesn’t have a cannabis storefront in his district, so why is he so concerned about how difficult it may be to sell one?  Oh yeah.  It’s an election year. Maybe he’s looking for campaign contributions? REMEMBER THAT THING CALLED THE BROWN ACT?  What really stuck out was the fact that the City Council was given information regarding the definition of financial business holder under State law, but that information was never given to the public. The Brown Act states any materials provided to members of a legislative body pertaining to items on the agenda must be provided to members of the public. California Government Code Section 54957.5(a) provides that documents distributed to all or a majority of the members of the legislative body of a local agency in connection with a matter subject to discussion or consideration at an open meeting of the legislative body are public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act [California Government Code Sections 6250 et. seq.].  Section 54957.5(a) further provides that those documents must be made available for public inspection upon request without delay. Since public comment had been cut off, there was no way to request a copy be made available to the public. Councilmember Don Harper mentioned it was Section 15004 of State law (see and I was able to pull it up and read it while the meeting progressed, but not all members of the public are going to be able to do that. This sort of Brown Act violation is repeated by this City Council on such a regular basis now. The lack of transparency in the form of a violation of the Brown Act seems intentional at times. IT’S THE (UNDERGROUND) ECONOMY, STUPID. So why the fuss over this regulation of the financial business holders? In the past few years, the federal and state governments have become very concerned about cannabis businesses when it comes to money laundering. Since most of the cannabis businesses operate as cash businesses, it is easier to hide income and run illegal income through this kind of business. In fact, one of the operators on Harbor Boulevard has had a lot of negative publicity on this subject. To me, the state laws seem to mirror much of what is seen in the federal Corporate Transparency Act that went into effect on January 1. If the financial business holders are going to have to comply with all the disclosures required by the Feds and State, what is the issue with giving the same information to the City? While no specific language had been offered in the motion by the inarticulate Gameros, other than “go with the State requirement” and that any sale of a cannabis business would allow the new owner to be granted a new cannabis business permit, City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison proposed an alternative to requiring a business license by each financial business holder but that didn’t seem to take. Reynolds brought up changing the signage provisions of the ordinance and the desire to have some sort of placard showing that the business is City approved. After discussion with the City Manager and the City Attorney about the language she drafted to cover what she believed Gameros’s concerns were, Gameros decided the language did not and requested further changes.  Staff and City Attorney will draft new language, which means there will be another reading of the ordinance. Again. The changes will require five affirmative votes.


  • FIRST, RAISING CANE’S. This was an appeal of a second Costa Mesa location on Newport Boulevard and 16th Street.  There was considerable time spent on this one due to lengthy presentations and comments by the applicant followed by comments by the public. In the end, Councilmember Reynolds didn’t get the support needed to overturn the approval by the Planning Commission.

  • SECOND, PALAZZO EVENT CENTER.  This appeal was brought by a member of the public who seemed to have suffered at the hands of a former owner of the Bear Street property. The Council seemed to think “that was then, and this is now” and turned down the appeal, confirming the Planning Commission’s approval.

BUDGET UPDATE (THE NO FIREWORKS VERSION, BUT ANOTHER BROWN ACT VIOLATION):  At this point, the clock was past midnight, and the Council was fading out (Councilmembers Marr and Harper had left during the prior item). Instead of Staff making its presentation to the public, per a request by Stephens, Staff skipped the presentation, the reason being that the Council had it in their books. Refer to my discussion above about Section 549547.5(a) of the California Government Code. Laws are on the books for a reason and while this presentation may not have been substantive (most of it was probably seen in the prior study session where the Mayor and City Manager exchanged words, but we don’t know that for certain), it wasn’t available to the public prior or at the time of the meeting. It also has NOT shown up on the City’s website. I’ll keep it clean and just say PFFFT!!!

NEW PLANNING COMMISSIONER AND COMMITTEE MEMBERS (EXCEPT FOR THOSE TO BE PICKED BY HARPER WHO WOULDN’T DEFER HIS SELECTIONS TO ANOTHER COUNCILMEMBER (HMM…WHAT’S THAT ABOUT?)).  Councilmember Reynolds appointed David Martinez to the Planning Commission. While young, Martinez is a smart guy and knows a lot about active transportation. He dug into the ordinances about bike regulations while serving on the Active Transportation Committee. He is finishing up his undergraduate degree from USC in public policy. Let’s see how he handles land use and economic policy issues. In terms of committee picks, most of them seem innocuous, but then we’ve still got Harper’s picks to go. Councilmember Jeff Harlan gave an admonition to applicants who didn’t reach out to him and the other Councilmembers to beg, oops strike that, lobby for appointment. Yes, it is a good idea, but I don’t think that should be the only thing that warrants an appointment.

CITY COUNCIL – APRIL 23 BUDGET STUDY SESSION – CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS What are capital improvement projects? Things like roadway repaving, repairs to park equipment, and upgrades to City facilities. Generally, it is anything that gets permanently attached to City property. Because the City budget is a big topic, and probably the most important and informative topic all year, the budget study sessions are broken down into CIP and the Operating Budget.

This was a much shorter meeting since there was only one topic. The meeting started with all the City Council in attendance but at some point, Stephens stepped out and didn’t return, so Harlan took over the reins. While I watched the meeting on Zoom the audio was fine. The Zoom connection announced that it was being recorded, so perhaps the folks at City Hall could figure out how to get that sound because unfortunately, the microphones for some of the Staff were not picked up by the Granicus or YouTube recordings for about half of the meeting. The presentations for the most part covered what was said anyway.

Most of Staff’s presentations focused on street and alley improvements, including active transportation facilities (bike lanes). Many of those projects are paid for by grants or from gas tax funds.

There were questions from both the public and the City Councilmembers about what is going on with parks, especially what the $20 million future bond/financing option was all about. Councilmember Andrea Marr made the statement that if the City is going to require that some percentage of CIP projects be paid by the taxpayers through a bond, then maybe the City had better think about whether the taxpayers are really going to go for that. I would rather see community benefits be paid out of development fees, and with Measure K throwing open the floodgates to developers rushing into Costa Mesa again, we shouldn’t be paying for things like parks, libraries and fire station improvements ourselves. Other cities don’t do that, and Costa Mesa doesn’t need to be an “easy lay” again. The interest rate on bonds isn’t cheap and a 30-year amortized bond can cost us just like a mortgage on a house, and then we have pay one year of debt service upfront and the cost of the underwriters of the bond.

Marr also brought up a good point about using renewable systems versus generators at the Senior Center. Staff hadn’t considered that, and since we have an Energy and Sustainability Services Manager, I’m mystified why not.  Microgrids and battery storage systems aren’t that unusual now. The Senior Center is used as a cooling station and it would be a shame to miss a great opportunity to use new resilient technology there, especially since there are federal and state grants for this type of work.

Everyone has their favorite park. A speaker implied that District 3 has received more funds for parks than other Districts. TeWinkle Park has the largest number of facilities in the City and certainly deserves a lot of the funding for projects that were put off for many years, such as replacing the lighting at the Tennis Center, which is FINALLY underway. The City received grant funds from the State and County towards many of the park projects, including Fairview Park and Lions Park. While all our parks do need some TLC, the facilities, both in and outside of parks, have a lot of deferred maintenance (such as leaky roofs) that is going to need attention before some of the park projects. There are several park improvement projects underway already, namely Shalimar, Ketchum-Libolt, and TeWinkle Skate Parks, along with Brentwood Park later this year.

Chavez brought up our tree canopy. The City plants a lot of trees, but not always the right kind of trees. For example, palm trees, while easy to maintain, don’t provide much shade. A canopy of crepe myrtles is much better, and I have often pleaded with the City to lose the palm trees when it can. He and Reynolds tried to convey that a better tree canopy is needed.

The old police substation by Lions Park came up several times. It is in an “unsafe” condition, but it is a shame to let a City facility sit unused. Look to see some funds going towards improvement of that facility at some point, but it won’t be all that is needed.

Gameros brought up funding of police vehicles. You ask what, if anything, that has to do with capital improvement projects? It doesn’t. Those are Operating Budget items. The fact that he didn’t understand that this meeting was about the CIP shows that he didn’t do his homework. This isn’t the first time that has happened. It was excusable when he was new to the Council, but since he has been sitting on the dais for nearly four years, it is now inexcusable.

He then went on to ask why a traffic signal that he wants at Belfast and Fairview wasn’t on the list.  This is a signal that, in my opinion, is unneeded because there are two signals one block in either direction of Belfast on Fairview that perform the same function. Public Works Director Raja Sethuramen pointed out it is Project 43 on Attachment 3 of the Agenda Report. Again, he didn’t do his homework. Gameros then stated that it is “on the safe pathways to school” because the bus goes down that street. The safe routes to school are for cycling and walking, and have nothing to do with bus routes.

He then turned his questions into a campaign speech about how he’s done a lot for parks, including the removal of a few rocks from Paularino Park. Paularino Park is my neighborhood park. It is tiny, as the schoolyard next door used to be the main park until xenophobia on the part of a few residents and the school principal caused it to be fenced off and locked to the public. The park does not have a restroom, which means the tot lot (the only play equipment) doesn’t get used a lot. That is a shame, and I’d take back the rocks if the restrooms would be restored. It’s no fun running home three blocks so my grandson and I can take care of nature’s business in private. It is the main reason I drive my grandson to other parks instead.

Near the end, Harlan brought up a subject that was apparently discussed at the strategic planning meeting the City Staff and City Council had on April 19 (sorry, no report on that as I was busy elsewhere), which was where is the capacity to get all the projects on the CIP list done. I’ve wondered about that as well because after five years of the Active Transportation Plan being adopted, the City had only done 3 out of 151 miles of projects listed in that plan. Harlan spoke about things coming and going from the CIP, such as the expensive Kaiser field lighting. He wants that back on the list.

Then came the wrap-up by City Manager Harrison, which turned out to have a lot of interesting points. The Westside substation will get a short-term fix, but it needs significant repairs and maintenance that requires a much larger project and will cost a lot more, perhaps requiring a bond. On parks, the $16.5 million in grant money was focused on Westside parks due to comments from Councilmembers. It is related to AAPA money and if the money doesn’t get spent soon, it will have to be returned. The City has its hands full with other parks, but delivery of the $10 million of investments the City promised to Fairview Park, including debris removal and restoration of nine acres required per environmental agreements, has to come first. Right now, the City is overwhelmed with these park improvements. Harrison suggested a parks assessment to determine what the needs are, then the City can come up with a funding plan.

She talked about funding the fire station improvements.  She would rather use a bond to fund those improvements, but the City needs to start with design to know how much the bond should be.

This was an excellent and informative meeting. The budget is probably the most important part of city governance and deserves our attention. On May 8, the Operating Budget will be presented to the Pension and Finance Committee. There will be more meetings with Parks and Community Services Commission, the Planning Commission and the City Council before the budget is adopted in June.  Stay tuned!

Calendar of CIP and Operating Budget Hearings
Budget Schedule

ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION COMMITTEE – APRIL 17 MEETING ABOUT EBIKE REGULATIONS.  Heads up! There is another meeting about this subject this Wednesday, May 1, at 5:00 p.m. at City Hall! I attended the April 17 meeting. While I appreciate the City’s attempt to regulate ebikes, some of the draft regulations presented at that meeting were overreaching. Because we are retrofitting Costa Mesa with bike lanes, there are places where there are no bike lanes, and it isn’t safe for either ebikes or regular bikes to be on the street. The recent changes to the ordinances found in this week’s agenda will allow riding on the sidewalk so long as it is done at a speed that doesn’t jeopardize the safety of pedestrians, motorists or property. The CMPD representatives indicated that the parks commission would separately address the use of ebikes in City parks.

STRATEGIC PLANNING SESSION – April 19.  I did not attend this, but I’d love to hear from you if you did.

STATE OF THE CITY – APRIL 24.  I didn’t attend but apparently there is a YouTube recording.

At the next City Council meeting look for:

  • The Pedestrian Master Plan will get a first reading or a least a hearing. I’ve got a lot of comments on that one!

  • Another cannabis storefront appeal of a Planning Commission approval.  This one is located at 2490 Newport Boulevard.

  • Update on the tenant protection ordinance that the Council adopted back in November.  From the public comments at the April 16 Council meeting, it seems like the tenants aren’t getting the protection they expected.

BEYOND CITY HALL – SB 9 AND THE DREADED BUILDER'S REMEDY.  You may be aware of the ruling by LA Superior Court Judge Curtis Kin last week that declared SB 9 unconstitutional.  The law was adopted in 2021 and allowed single-family zoned lots to be converted to R2 or higher zoning to be considered ministerially, with no need for a review or hearing by local authorities. The desire was to promote small-scale housing development by streamlining the process for the homeowner and to reduce the cost of housing, with the hope the new housing would be “affordable.” The Court found that this was interference by the State in a charter city’s ability to legislate its municipal affairs. It also found that the intent of assuring access to affordable housing was ambiguous.

How does this impact a General Law city like Costa Mesa? That isn’t clear and I’m looking for more information.  I’m also looking to see if the State is going to appeal the ruling or if someone is going to introduce legislation to fix SB 9.

As to legislative fixes, a number of California cities have fallen into the pitfall of having a noncompliant Housing Element, including Costa Mesa. Some are battling builder’s remedy (SB 35) applications for large-scale housing developments, but that archaic legislation has always been vague, so legislation has been introduced to provide more guidance. In addition, there are bills attempting to chisel away at the Coastal Act of 1976 and CEQA.  Here is a list of some bills to keep an eye on:

  • AB 1893 (Wicks D) Housing Accountability Act: housing disapprovals: required local findings. (Supposed to fix SB 35)

  • AB 2560 (Alvarez) Density Bonus Law: California Coastal Act of 1976.

  • SB 960 (Wiener) Transportation: planning: transit priority projects: multimodal.

  • SB 1123 (Caballero) Planning and zoning: subdivisions: ministerial review.

  • SB 1211 (Skinner) Land use: accessory dwelling units: ministerial approval.

  • SB 1227 (Wiener) Housing: San Francisco: downtown revitalization zone: welfare tax and California Environmental Quality Act exemptions.

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