Interview by Leon Worden
“Newsmaker of the Week” is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week’s newsmaker is Cameron Smyth, who is seeking reelection to one of two seats on the Santa Clarita City Council on April 13. Separate “Newsmaker” interviews with the other candidates, Mayor Bob Kellar and challenger Henry Schultz, will appear here in the next few weeks.
The following interview was conducted Feb. 12. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Why do you want a second term on the Santa Clarita City Council?
Smyth: It’s funny, sometimes my family asks the same question. The truth is, although we’ve had a lot of accomplishments over the last four years, there is still more work to be done and I’d like to finish what I’ve started.
Signal: Sounds like the standard answer. Why can’t Santa Clarita live without Cameron Smyth for the next four years?
Smyth: Let’s be honest. Santa Clarita lived without me on the council before, and I’m sure there are probably a few people in the community who would like to see Santa Clarita without me on the City Council. And that’s OK.
Signal: What specifically do you want to accomplish in these next four years?
Smyth: A lot of the issues that we started are still there — issues like the (fight against the) Transit Mixed/Cemex mine. I’d like to see that come to completion. The Whittaker-Bermite site, see if we can finally get some progress on the cleanup. Additionally, we still need to open up more parks and acquire more open space, bring more jobs to the city, build more roads, improve the roads we have. A lot of the infrastructure needs that we had four years ago are still there, and I’d like to continue that effort to get those completed.
Signal: This is the first time since city formation in 1987 that only three people are running for two seats on the City Council — two incumbents, you and Bob Kellar, and a lone challenger, Henry Schultz. Why aren’t more people running?
Smyth: Not only is this the first time there are only three people running; it’s the first time there have ever been (fewer) than 10 people in a City Council campaign. I would like to think that people are pretty happy with the work that I have done, and they see that I have really made an effort to represent the entire city, whether you agreed with me or not, and that they’re happy with that representation and they’d like to see me do a second term.
Signal: How would you convince people to become involved and run for council?
Smyth: I believe that we all have a responsibility. It sounds clichÈ, but we all have a responsibility to give back to — whether it’s our community, our state, our country. For me, this is my way. And I think that for others, you should be involved, because local government has greater control, greater impact, over your lives than the state or the federal government. The day-to-day quality of life issues are dealt with at the City Council level.
Signal: Like what?
Smyth: Potholes. Getting your roads. Driving on well-surfaced roads. Being safe. Police. Fire. Law enforcement. That’s all administered by your local government. Having enough park space. Having enough sports teams for your children to participate in. General quality-of-life issues. To have job opportunities within your home town. Those are all things that are decided on by your local government, not by the state or the federal.
Signal: The five members of the City Council are paid, what? $1,000 a month?
Smyth: It’s technically a part-time job. … That’s correct, you get about $1,000.
Signal: So you must have an outside job. What’s yours?
Smyth: My day job is, I work in the public affairs department for Shell Oil Products. Basically I have the West Coast for media and community relations.
Signal: You’re the spokesperson —
Smyth: Right. For lack of a better term, I am the spokesperson. I do some government relation work as well on regulatory issues impacting the industry.
Signal: You’re on the other side of the dais in other cities?
Smyth: That’s actually true. I have spoken at other municipalities, whether it’s a city council (or) other regulatory agencies. I will say that it has given me a much greater perspective for people who come before the City Council because I have been on both sides — working for a business or, obviously, being a council member.
Signal: So you’re the guy who has to answer for Shell when it’s accused of some nefarious activity.
Smyth: Absolutely. It has made me a much better City Council member, having that job in the private sector.
Signal: You’re 32, the youngest person ever elected to the City Council, the first to have a child while in office. Last year you were mayor, and we saw your picture on bus shelters with a milk mustache. What was that about?
Smyth: It was important to me, part of my plan was, to really do some outreach to the city. The city used to have town hall meetings and they got canceled for lack of participation. I wanted to bring that back. We were looking for something different, a hook to get people to come to some town hall meetings. So with our city staff, we came up with “milk and cookies with the mayor,” and it ended up being very, very successful. I was somewhat skeptical in the beginning, but the turnouts were tremendous.
Signal: So it worked.
Smyth: It really did. We had a series of six meetings, one in each community; we also did a teen meeting as well as a senior meeting. We had probably (about) 800 people showing up, total, which was a real nice turnout.
Signal: Were younger people identifying with you because of your age?
Smyth: What was interesting is that the second-best-attended event was the one for the students. They really took some interest. Maybe because of my age, that had more appeal. I would certainly hope so. But … while to most of the population I may seem young, if you’re a junior high school student I’m not that young anymore.
Signal: Has your youth ever been an impediment?
Smyth: I don’t believe so. I think in the beginning, in my first campaign, I think that there was some skepticism about my age. I was 28 years old when I ran. However, I believe that made me want to work even harder.
Signal: That was the first campaign you won.
Signal: You lost a campaign.
Smyth: I did. Thank you for bringing that up.
Signal: What did you learn? If you were 28 when you won, you were 26 when you lost. How did that loss change you?
Smyth: Honestly, when I went back and looked at the campaign, the first thing, it changed me because I really had to sit back and decide, is this what I wanted to do? Because it was going to be another two years, a difficult campaign again, and you put so much effort into something and then you’re not successful. To want to do that again — I did a lot of searching, a lot of praying, a lot of discussion with my family, to decide, is this what we want to do? And after about a month or so I said yes, I want to do this, and let’s learn — as hard as it was — learn from the mistakes in the previous campaign and make a difference.
Signal: Were there things you learned beyond just campaign tactics? Were there things you learned about the community?
Smyth: Yes. And I think it was how I related to the community, and some mistakes that I had made that I corrected. I think, also, Santa Clarita is a community that wants to make sure you want it. They make you earn it. You look at all of the City Council members who are on there: Aside from Councilman Kellar, each one of us has lost a campaign. The city likes to test you and make sure you want to do it.
Signal: What are the issues this time around?
Smyth: I think you still deal with the same issues that have been in Santa Clarita since incorporation, and that’s the issue of infrastructure, particularly growth, and how do you manage that growth? But it’s important for the public to understand that within the city, there really isn’t much growth left. … Particularly in the last four years, the home construction that we have seen has not been in the city. It’s been Stevenson Ranch, Westridge, Fair Oaks Ranch, Plum Canyon — those are all areas that are actually not in the city. The council did not vote to approve those. We submitted comments; the county listened or didn’t, and the projects were approved.
Signal: What is your position on the growth that is happening inside the city? As a council member, you have approved development projects.
Smyth: I have. And the policy that I have for myself, and that I’ve followed the past four years and will continue, is that I will not support any projects that do not have the adequate infrastructure, meaning roads, parks, schools if necessary, water supplies, job opportunities. It has to have a total package that’s going to benefit the city of Santa Clarita, and if it doesn’t, I won’t support it.
Signal: What is an example of a project you’ve approved that you think will help?
Smyth: I think the Golden Valley Ranch project is going to be a significant improvement to the city. And what’s important about that is, Golden Valley Ranch was originally proposed for 1,600 units. It’s on the east side of the 14 freeway (at) golden valley road … and it had significant environmental impacts. I opposed that. I actually voted against it the first two times it came to the council. Finally, the developer saw that the council wasn’t going to support it. He came back, brought back a project that is now only about 500 homes, 100 of which are senior housing. It (includes) a several-hundred-thousand square-foot commercial facility, so there’s going to be some higher-end retail for Canyon Country. There’s a school site set aside; 900 acres are now in open space; a hospital pad that could be used for a helicopter emergency coming in and out. It’s going to be a real nice benefit to the city.
Signal: When you take campaign donations from developers, what goes through your mind?
Smyth: It’s important to remember that the maximum contribution I or any candidate can receive from any one source is $360. That’s the max we can receive. And I can assure you that those in the environmental community who hold office, for example in the Newhall County Water District or have run for school board — they have received checks in excess of $1,000 from one interest or another. So for anyone to make an assertion that I am going to be bought and paid for by development money, A: I can point to my record on development issues; and B: Again, it’s $360.
Signal: If Joe Developer gives you $360, what expectation can Joe have from you?
Smyth: The same expectation (as) the citizen who gives me nothing — that you call me, I will return your phone call.
Signal: You don’t feel beholden in any way to your campaign donors?
Smyth: I don’t. I feel no more beholden to people who contribute to my campaign than the people who live in the city.
Signal: Let’s discuss Cemex. So far, including $1 million this year, the council has spent about $3 million to stop a big sand and gravel mining project just outside city limits in Soledad Canyon. Do you have a breaking point? How much will you spend?
Smyth: I think the answer to that is probably yes, at some point there has to be a breaking point. However, we haven’t reached it in my mind.
Signal: How would you determine it?
Smyth: It’s hard to give a specific reason or time when I would determine that. Because the reality is, the damage that a mine of that size would have on the city of Santa Clarita for generations to come is so significant that we have to be willing to put our money where our mouth is, if you will, to fight that. I think that in the long term, it would be devastating — devastating to your child, to my child — they would be paying the price for our inaction.
Signal: What’s the problem with the mine?
Smyth: Anyone who drives the 210 Freeway and they see Irwindale, and there’s the big pit off the freeway — this is significantly larger than that. The fact that you will have an 18-wheel semi-truck on the 14 Freeway, I believe it’s every 30 seconds to a minute for the next 30 years. The air quality impacts — Santa Clarita already suffers from the worst air quality in the state. You put all those extra semi-trucks on the road, that’s going to impact it, along with the dust that is generated from the mine operation itself. It is a significant, significant impact — aside from just the aesthetics.
Signal: Gravel has been mined in Soledad Canyon throughout most of the 20th Century.
Smyth: Correct. And that’s an important point: The city has not taken a position of “no mining.” But our position is, maintain the historic levels. We feel that that is a threshold that is acceptable to the community and that we can accept.
Signal: The city has bought the surface rights to the property. How will that help the city? The federal court ruled a few years ago that the former surface owner couldn’t block the mining of the federally owned minerals.
Smyth: Recently, with all the court cases that have been going on, whether it’s the county and the litigation there, or the federal agencies, the city has been to some degree shut out by the courts, to not even be able to intervene in the hearings. We feel that now, having these surface rights of the property will give us a stronger position legally to have our voices heard. I also believe it will give us a stronger position with the Bureau of Land Management in Washington as we’re working though the legislative process with Congressman McKeon and Sen. Boxer.
(Editor’s note: Subsequent to this interview, the city was granted intervenor status in the lawsuit between Cemex and Los Angeles County.)
Signal: Do you hope to bring the property into the city by annexing it?
Smyth: I think we’re going to look at all options that would give us the strongest position.
Signal: Let’s talk trash. Solid waste. You ordered an audit of the waste haulers when the city fell short of its state-mandated recycling requirement. At one point in the negotiations to renew the trash contracts, you were upset with Blue Barrel — not only for bungling waste diversion figures, but also because of some apparent overcharging for trash pickup. In the end, however, you led the council to award the new residential contract to Blue Barrel and the commercial contract to a newcomer, Burrtec.
Signal: How did you arrive at that decision?
Smyth: First of all, I want to put right on the table that the renegotiation of our new trash contract, and the execution of that, is the single most significant event that I believe occurred during my first term on the City Council.
As mentioned, I took the lead on that, on auditing the existing haulers at the time, and then putting the contract out to bid. That has resulted in a $30 million savings to the residents and businesses over the life of the contract for the people of Santa Clarita, about a 10-year span. That being said, (in putting) the deal together, of splitting the contract between Burrtec and Waste Management-Blue Barrel — first of all, a few political things that come into play (are) that you’ve got to put together the three votes. It was my job, I felt, as mayor, to facilitate a package that could be palatable to the entire council. I felt that that was a deal that (the council) was going to be willing to (accept). Additionally, I didn’t want the residents of Santa Clarita to pay the price for something that I may have felt personally. Waste Management came in with a very competitive offer. They had a change in their management, and they were willing to acknowledge their mistakes, and they came in with a very competitive offer along with the “do it now” clause (through) which, starting in January, people saw an immediate reduction in their rates.
Signal: January of 2004.
Smyth: January of 2004. (Customers) saw an immediate reduction, which is significant. And they’re going to see another reduction in 2006. At the end of the day, I felt that they had the best deal for the residents.
It is important to note, too, that this is a smaller piece of the pie than (Blue Barrel) had previously. They had a much larger portion of the contract prior to this. So there was a reduction. I think they did feel some pain. And we have a great company in Burrtec, which I think is going to do some dynamic things with our diversion.
Signal: You mean Blue Barrel now has a smaller portion because it will no longer be hauling commercial trash?
Smyth: Correct. Roughly 85 percent of the (total) contract was with Blue Barrel previously, and now it’s just strictly residential, which is a smaller portion.
Signal: Gay marriage is back in the news. Before working for Shell Oil you worked for Sen. William J. “Pete” Knight, the author of Proposition 22, which defined marriage in California as a union between a man and a woman.
Smyth: One man and one woman.
Signal: OK, one man and one woman — as opposed to what?
Smyth: Believe me, we went through the legal wranglings of putting that together. But yes, one man and one woman.
Signal: You led the council, did you not, to deny domestic partner benefits to gay employees of the city? Why shouldn’t the city’s gay employees get the same benefits as heterosexual couples?
Smyth: As you said, yes, the council, as a whole, did not support domestic partner benefits for gay employees. That decision was made in closed session — I can’t disclose how the other council members voted at the time — but yes, that is correct. I do not support domestic partner benefits for gay employees.
The reason I do (not) primarily is that the domestic partner law is inherently discriminatory. If you’re a gay couple, you can obtain domestic partner benefits if you are 18. If you are a heterosexual couple and you want to obtain domestic partner benefits, you are not eligible until you’re 65. So, to me, that is an inherently discriminatory bill, if you will, that I don’t think is fair. Additionally, I’ll tell you, my company, most private-sector companies do offer domestic partner benefits for gay employees, and mine does as well. I have no problem with what private companies do with their money. But this is also public money that we’re dealing with. And if you do studies, very few municipalities and governing agencies, a small minority of them offer domestic partner (benefits) to their gay employees at this time. Some do, certainly, but still an overwhelming majority do not.
Signal: How will the city be affected by the domestic partner bill that former Gov. Davis signed into law last September?
Smyth: As I understand it, it changes the types of benefits that can be obtained, but it still would be up to the local municipality, whether or not they would offer them to their employees.
Signal: Now Sen. Knight and others are trying to overturn the new domestic partner benefits. Do you want to see those go away?
Smyth: I’ll be perfectly honest: I haven’t been tracking those as well — my focus from a legislative standpoint is really what impacts the city of Santa Clarita. What Sen. Knight is doing with some other members of the Legislature, I’m not totally aware of what they’re trying to do. I know there is an effort, but that’s their decision, not mine.
Signal: You mentioned that most growth in the valley is happening outside city limits. Tell us about the “fifth ring” scenario.
Smyth: Basically the fifth-ring scenario is (an initiative of) SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments, which is a regional body of governments encompassing a five-county area. They set … population projections for the future, and that turns into money allocations from the government. What they had tried to do — and I sit on one of the SCAG boards — was, the fifth-ring scenario was a population scenario that would put an additional 1.7 million people in the north Los Angeles County area.
Signal: How many are here now?
Smyth: Well, the Santa Clarita Valley is about 200,000-plus, and the Antelope Valley is about 500,000, so you’re looking at about another 1 million people that they want to put into the north county area. Their projections would have put the Santa Clarita Valley at over 600,000 people. That was approved. And that is ridiculous.
The irony of that is that the SCAG board was made up of members from Orange County, and what were the SCAG projections for Orange County under that scenario? They actually went down. Less population there; put them up here in the north county.
Signal: You’ve been fighting that.
Smyth: I have fought that, with the support of the council, with the support of the councils from Palmdale and Lancaster, because I am the regional representative. I have fought that very hard at SCAG, and right now, they are off the fifth-ring scenario. It’s not a done deal –
Signal: But there was an environmental impact report for the fifth-ring scenario —
Smyth: Right. It hasn’t been completed, so we’re still very vigilant, but they have started to look at some other scenarios. And that’s very difficult because I’m sitting on a SCAG board with about 40 other members and I’m trying to convince them to put the growth in their areas, their counties. But we have been successful in fighting that so far, because to put those types of population numbers in this valley are just ridiculous.
Signal: Are you going to stick with the council for the next four years if you’re reelected? What if an opportunity like Assembly or Senate or Congress opens up?
Smyth: My focus right now is to get reelected to the City Council. If opportunities arise over those next four years, to be honest, of course I would give them consideration. But the only thing that is a certainty is that my seat is up for reelection on April 13 and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get another term.