Interview by Leon Worden
“Newsmaker of the Week” is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The 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 Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth. The interview was conducted Dec. 20. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You’ve got a pet project this coming year that has something to do with fitness and childhood obesity.
Smyth: That’s right. The city is moving forward with a program called Healthy Santa Clarita. Studies have shown over the past several decades, there has been an increase in obesity throughout the nation, especially with children. We feel that it’s part of our responsibility as a city — and it’s something that I take great personal interest in — to get out to the schools and work with the school districts to promote programs and to educate the students and the kids about a healthy lifestyle.
Signal: You came up through the ranks in SCV youth sports; you played volleyball, right?
Smyth: And football, yes.
Signal: With all of the things the mayor and City Council have to deal with — traffic, safety, oak trees — what business is it of the city if kids are fat or thin?
Smyth: It’s all about a lifestyle. It’s all about a healthy lifestyle here in Santa Clarita. When we in the city are promoting a quality of life, physical fitness and health and diet and exercise — that’s all part of it. Again, working with the school districts to educate these kids. Way too many kids now are spending their free time in front of their X-Box or Playstation 2. We live in Southern California. Today it’s 75 degrees. … Kids shouldn’t be inside with their X-Box; they should be outside.
Signal: What are your other big goals for 2005?
Smyth: It’s funny. When I served as mayor back in 2003, I had a list of goals, and I looked through them this year, and a lot of them remain the same. First and foremost is to finally bring an end to the Las Lomas project. It looks like we’re moving in that direction, but I would like it to be officially over by the end of this year. Additionally, we still have to keep fighting the Cemex project, and work toward the cleanup of Whittaker-Bermite. Those are some things that have always been on the table. Some new things — maybe not new, but try to really get some of that cross-valley connector funding (into) the city, and close some of those gaps so we can finally get the east-west corridor in place.
Signal: You mentioned being mayor in 2003. City Council members used to take turns serving as mayor; if you still used the rotation process, wouldn’t this have been Councilwoman Marsha McLean’s turn? Will you ever support her as mayor?
Smyth: Because there’s not a rotation, it’s a matter of getting the votes on the council. So there really aren’t “terms,” if you will. Theoretically, the same person could be mayor every year if the rest of the council agreed to (it). So, it’s the way it worked out that I’ve been given the support of the council — including Council Member McLean — to serve as mayor. And, do I believe that she will be mayor at some point? Yes, I do.
Signal: You were the top vote-getter out of three candidates when you were reelected in April — but only 13.7 percent of the voters cast ballots. There was a proposal to consolidate the city election with a bigger election in order to increase the voter turnout, but you and the rest of the council decided against it. Why don’t you want more people to vote?
Smyth: Well, actually, I had supported consolidating the election, actually, with the general (or) primary election … however, you can’t do that. Because in L.A. County, there are too many cities, the ballot is too large, you have to get special dispensation from the county to actually have a municipal election there. You can’t do that.
I don’t personally have a problem with having an election tied with the water board (and) school board as an all-city election, but at this point, the council has not made a decision to move forward with that.
Signal: Are you interested in it enough to bring it back next year?
Smyth: We had a study session on it; the staff has done a lot of research on it with other cities, and the decision, at least at this point, is to leave it as a stand-alone election.
Signal: As mayor, you’re still one of five City Council members. You sit in the middle and preside over the meetings, but are there any real powers that the mayoralty gives you, separate from being “just” another council member?
Smyth: No. I wouldn’t say, in terms of powers, no. You’re exactly right. I’m one of five. My vote counts no more or no less than any other member of the council. So, anything that I want to get accomplished, I need three votes to do that.
[Click for Photo Illustration by Bryan Kneiding]
That, of course, led to the inevitable question — when people ran into me, they’d go, “Do you have brother?” thinking that I had a brother who ran for council and looked a lot like me, or something like that. So, eventually I began calling myself Tim Ben, and someone in the paper, I don’t remember who, put the names together, so I’ve been going by that and there’s no confusion. But there are additional responsibilities (that go) along with (being) mayor. You serve as the face of the city; you serve as the official spokesperson of the city; and for that time, you are the representative of Santa Clarita, for right or wrong. So I wouldn’t say — no, there isn’t much authority difference, but there is some responsibility difference.
Signal: When you say spokesperson for the city, isn’t that Gail Ortiz?
Smyth: Right. Obviously, we have a professional staff member who serves as our public information officer; however, in all official documents, all official correspondence, that comes from the mayor, as opposed to the staff.
Signal: What is the city’s responsibility when it comes to taking care of Santa Clarita’s homeless population?
Smyth: My personal belief is that the city has supported the temporary winter shelter that has been in place for the past several years; I believe it fills the city’s obligation. I have supported that every year that I’ve been on the council and continue to support it. The difficulty is trying to balance the needs of the homeless population as well as a responsibility we have for the residents, and to make sure we site it in an area that (has the) least impact on the businesses and-or residents.
Signal: But this year the City Council isn’t funding a local shelter. The county is. Are you abrogating your responsibility to the county?
Smyth: I think it’s an interesting debate about whether providing homeless services is actually the city’s responsibility.
In the 88 cities in L.A. County, roughly 85 percent of them do nothing in terms of support of their homeless population, whereas the city of Santa Clarita has stepped up, for the last seven or eight years. Again, the reason the shelter was not sited this year was exactly as we talked about — finding the balance between the needs of the homeless population and the residents.
We had told the residents of Vista del Cañon and a few others in Friendly Valley who were the nearest population to the shelter site that had concerns, and they came to the council meetings the last couple of years and opposed it. We stood up and said, “No, we’re going to do the shelter here, but we’re not going to do it past 2004.” And we’ve held up our word to the residents, and unfortunately the (Santa Clarita Community Development Corp.), for one reason or another, was unable to find a suitable location…
The city still has allocated over $36,000 to support the homeless services here, of the residents here in the city. I just want to make sure that is clear.
Signal: You’re coming in as mayor just in time for the annexation issue to heat up. Supervisor Antonovich recently lodged his opposition to the city’s potential annexation of the Valencia Commerce Center and Warner Bros.’ Lyon Canyon Ranch. The city and county seem to be at loggerheads. Do you see any hope for bringing the two sides together?
Smyth: It’s an interesting challenge, to say the least. We speak about the Warner Bros. property; they, as the property owner, have submitted an application to annex into the city of Santa Clarita. We did not approach them. As the property owner, they came to us.
Additionally, at the Valencia Commerce Center, business owners who are in the Commerce Center see a tangible fiscal benefit for them to be part of the city of Santa Clarita. They save 5 percent on the utilities users tax. You know, businesses of that size, you’re talking real dollars. So, they have wanted to explore the annexation.
Supervisor Antonovich has always maintained the position that he will respect the decision of the property owners and the wishes of the property owners. At this point, I see no reason for him to change his position or to go back on his word for that. So, we are honoring the requests of those business owners, those property owners, and processing an annexation application. It’s not done. It’s not a “land grab,” as some have alluded to. But we are looking at those annexation possibilities.
Signal: The Newhall Land and Farming Co. has said it opposes annexation of the Commerce Center; you’re not going to pursue annexation unless you’re fairly confident a majority of the property owners want it, right?
Smyth: (Right.) And again, ultimately, the decision of annexation (rests) with LAFCO (Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission), and if we feel that there is sufficient support for annexation, then we will submit, formally, an application and have a hearing before LAFCO. We’ve done this before; we’ve done it many times. We’ve been successful with annexations. We’ve been unsuccessful with spheres of influence, so we know this process very, very well.
Signal: There’s some bad blood between Stevenson Ranch and the city, going back to when the city was dealing with enrollment in its parks programs, and continuing this year with the message to shop only between the 5 and 14 freeways. Do you see a way to mend fences?
Smyth: I think so. Because these are isolated issues. There are numerous issues where the unincorporated areas and the city fight hand-in-hand. For example, against the Cemex project. We work hand-in-hand with that. (Fighting) Las Lomas, we work together. … With Las Lomas, we’re working very well with the city of Los Angeles, with that project. We had some disagreements with the homeless shelter, but we work together on other projects. I’d like to think they are disagreements on specific issues.
Regarding the Shop Santa Clarita (program), I think we, as the city, should have done a better job in educating the residents of Stevenson Ranch about the benefits of shopping in Santa Clarita. Because the reality is: Tax dollars spent in the city of Santa Clarita provide a better return to the residents in Stevenson Ranch than moneys spent in the Valencia Marketplace. Because tax dollars spent (at) the Valencia Marketplace go down to the county of Los Angeles, so they have to be split up among 10 million people.
Money spent in sales tax revenue generated in the city, stays here in the city of Santa Clarita among the (roughly) 160,000 population of the city. And that money is used for parks, for parks and recreation programs, police, street improvements — all of those infrastructure things that residents in Stevenson Ranch use, almost as much as residents in the city.
Signal: So, if folks from Stevenson Ranch go to the Valencia Town Center mall and spend some money, you’ll let them use your city park programs?
Smyth: Stevenson Ranch people are already allowed. Nobody is banned from using a city park, or city park program.
Signal: Do they pay more? Can they get in?
Smyth: We do have, currently at this time, priority registration on some of our more impacted programs. But aside from that, nobody is denied. As a matter of fact, 39 percent of the people using city parks and rec programs are actually not city residents. So, we already have that relationship with residents outside the city.
Signal: You mentioned Las Lomas. That’s the big Dan Palmer project that would wedge 5,800 homes between the 5 and 14 freeways in the Newhall Pass. You’ve been working to stop it, but it’s not quite dead. What’s going on?
Smyth: That’s correct. The city has worked very closely with the city of Los Angeles — in particular Council Member Grieg Smith and Council President Alex Padilla, because their (Los Angeles City Council) districts are the most affected. And we’re close to reaching and finalizing the language of a deal that would allow for annexation of 75 percent of the Las Lomas property to be part of the city of Santa Clarita, and then the additional 25 percent would remain in unincorporated L.A. County, but part of the city of Los Angeles’ sphere of influence.
Signal: Las Lomas, which you oppose, would remove about 3,000 oak trees. Right next door, you approved the Gate-King Industrial Park, which takes out about 1,400 oaks. How do you reconcile those two things?
Smyth: Simple. One, of the 1,400 oak trees on the property, roughly half of them are diseased or burned or dead, due to fires that have been there, or disease. Additionally … there (are) roughly 12,000 oak trees already on the property, so you’re removing a very small percentage. Third, the property owner, or the developer, has already agreed to a oak tree mitigation program.
And finally, the Gate-King project does something that is desperately needed in the city of Santa Clarita: It provides jobs. And it provides jobs with no additional homes. And that’s how you get the job-housing balance. We’ve got too many people commuting down to the L.A. basin for work. If we can get jobs here without any additional homes, that will improve the quality of life dramatically.
Signal: Some people say we need to stop all the growth, particularly housing, and let the infrastructure catch up. What’s your take on that?
Smyth: We could say that. We could say there’s no more homes to be built, but it doesn’t stop population growth. People have families.
What you’re seeing a lot of is older folks — my parents probably aren’t going to like it that I refer to them as older folks — but people like my parents, who no longer have young children, they’ll be looking to downsize, and they’ll move. And then a family will come into their home with kids, and now you have a net increase in population.
So, the population is going to increase whether we say “no homes to be constructed” or not. I think the city is finally getting to the point where we’re starting to see us turning the corner on infrastructure improvement. Schools are catching up; we’re slowly getting more parks facilities. The cross-valley connector is going to be through, and we’re going to alleviate a lot of traffic. So we’re getting there. But whether you say no more homes or not, you’re still going to see population growth.
Signal: Is the cross-valley connector going to get all the funding it needs in 2005?
Smyth: We hope. I don’t know if we’ll see it all in 2005. We’re working with the MTA, Congressman (Buck) McKeon, the private sector — that all has to come together. There’s a lot of pieces — Larry Rasmussen and Centre Pointe — all of these pieces have to come together. Whether they’ll all come together in 2005 or not is probably a little optimistic, to be perfectly honest.
Signal: “Smart growth” means different things to different people. What’s your definition, and is it something you support?
Smyth: Like you said, there’s a whole myriad of definitions of smart growth. For me, I have always held that I would not support any project that does not have adequate infrastructure, and by that I mean roads, schools, parks, economic opportunities, water availability. If a project meets that, then I deem it to be a smart-growth project and I support it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t.
Signal: Going back to oaks — a pet project of your predecessor as mayor, Councilman Bob Kellar, was to rework the city’s oak tree ordinance to make it more manageable. But then it suddenly changed to allow people to remove, what — five oaks a year? Five oaks every five years? It’s not finished, and apparently it’s changing again?
Smyth: Right. To me, it doesn’t matter if it was five oaks a year or five in five years, because that didn’t represent the intent of the council. We have asked staff to go back and rework that part of the ordinance and bring it back.
Signal: What is your intent? What makes sense to you?
Smyth: For me, it’s certainly giving property owners flexibility to be able to trim their trees, in terms of safety hazards, to remove trees that are dead or diseased or present a hazard to their health or to their home. But I don’t support arbitrarily removing all oaks from your property without some sort of oversight and without some type of guidance.
Signal: You grew up in this valley, and you have a degree in rhetoric from UC Davis?
Smyth: That’s right.
Signal: What does that mean? You were champion of your high school debate team and you decided to make a career of it?
Smyth: Absolutely not, no. I was no debate champion. The truth is, I chose the degree in rhetoric because, as a football player in the NCAA, you have to declare a major by your third year to remain eligible. I had not declared my major. My coach called me and said, “You’re not going to be eligible unless you declare your major.” So I looked around, and the rhetoric and communications degree was broad enough and it allowed me to look at other things and study other courses and also remain eligible.
Signal: It probably helps to be able to speak well in your part-time job as mayor, but in real life, as well — you’re a spokesman for Shell Oil?
Smyth: That’s correct. And I do find the irony in it — that I had no plans, when I declared this major, that I would be in this type of field — but it is kind of ironic that the mayor has a degree in rhetoric. But yes, my “day job” at this point is serving in the community-public relations aspect for Shell.
Signal: Where do you do that?
Smyth: I have an 18-state region. Basically the whole U.S. west, excluding Texas.
Signal: Do you argue before other city councils?
Smyth: I wouldn’t say argue, but I have, yes, appeared throughout the western United States and other regulatory agencies. I will say my job with Shell has made me a much better council member because it does give me that perspective of what it’s like to be standing before a council as a business person.
Signal: And in Santa Clarita, you were the youngest council member when you were first elected five years ago at age 28.
Smyth: That’s correct, yes.
Signal: What have you learned?
Smyth: I’ve learned that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. That’s one thing. I also have learned that no matter what decision you make, you can’t please everybody. I will say that that’s very liberating, because then that allows, it allows me to say, “I’m going to vote on this issue because it’s what I believe in, and if you support it or not, I understand, but I have to go with what I think is right” — instead of trying to please everybody, because you just can’t.
Signal: What have you been most proud of as a council member?
Smyth: For me that’s very easy. It is renegotiating our trash contract.
Signal: That sounds exciting.
Smyth: It’s not the glamorous issue, if you will, but the fact that it’s going to save the residents and businesses of Santa Clarita many, many millions of dollars is well worth it. And I always felt, if I had not been reelected, I would be OK with that, because I did accomplish something that was going to save the city and the residents millions of dollars.
Signal: What’s going to happen in 2006 when Keith Richman is termed out of the Assembly?
Smyth: Well, there will be a vacancy for his seat.
Signal: Will we see Cameron Smyth trying to fill it?
Smyth: There have been no formal decisions or formal announcements, but clearly — because the seat is open and it does represent the Santa Clarita Valley — I’m definitely going to give it consideration, and we’re definitely taking a look at it.
Signal: You’d be able to run in 2006 without giving up your council seat because your current term doesn’t expire until 2008.
Smyth: That’s correct. You have technically a free shot, if you will. So obviously, we’re definitely going to take a look, and if it’s something that we feel that we have a shot at winning, we might take a look.
Signal: What’s this “we” stuff?
Smyth: Well, it’s my family. It’s not just you. You know, politics is not just yourself; there’s a lot of people to consider. And for me, in particular, now that I have a 13-month-old son, that really changes your perspective. … It really forces you to evaluate what you want to do with your life. Because the things you wanted to do before you had a child, aren’t always the same once you have one.
Signal: With a 13-month-old, will you have time to be mayor this year?
Smyth: Well, sure, I’ll have plenty of time, because I don’t sleep that much anymore. I’ll have all these extra hours in the day, and that’s why I do the job that I do. As you know, obviously, my father was a member of the City Council, and he and my mom came to Santa Clarita came to make a better life for my brother and I, and now that I have a child of my own, I want to do the same thing. I want to keep Santa Clarita as great of a city for him as it was for me.
Signal: So the city’s next “milk and cookies” campaign is going to feature your son as the poster boy for stopping childhood obesity?
Smyth: I love it!
Orginally posted here.