"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 Laurene Weste. Questions are paraphrased.
Signal: This is your second time serving as mayor; you were mayor in 2001. What's different this time?
Weste: I think that the city has grown a lot in the last few years, and we have a great, cohesive, focused council that it's just a pleasure to work with. We're all very oriented toward getting things accomplished. We have some major tasks, and the city manager is very strongly working with us. There is a lot of vision, and a lot of work (that goes) into keeping this a top-quality city. I'm very excited about that.
Signal: How is that different from 2001?
Weste: I think that the city, as it gets older, is able to be more proactive in doing things that it really wants to make a difference with, for the future. As you know, since we all have worked on it very diligently with the community, we really rolled up our sleeves in the last two years on things that were more proactive like the (Downtown) Newhall Specific Plan, proactive code enforcement, neighborhood preservation, looking toward how to preserve undeveloped land really going after major things that will make a difference in 50 years.
The city is almost 20 years old now. It's becoming different. We used to scramble to try to get projects done that we were so desperately behind (with). We're taking more of a longer look now toward preserving our history even preserving the city's history and setting in motion and implementing things that will really make a tremendous difference in how people live in 25 (to) 50 years.
Signal: We've heard a lot lately about open space, the cross-valley connector and the Bermite property; what's the No. 1 challenge or goal for the year?
Weste: I think all of those are pretty challenging. The cross-valley connector, we will work to open the next phase with Copper Hill (Road) to Interstate 5. We've got $90 million worth of road projects going on. We want to get Bouquet Bridge open this year. That will make a tremendous difference at (Bouquet) Junction for motorists. There's $7 million worth of just of fixing the surfaces of the streets out there, which makes everyone's life just a little nicer.
The Whittaker-Bermite site is a huge challenge for the city of Santa Clarita. You have to think in terms of how many cities in the nation, let alone in California, have 1,000 acres in the heart of their community that are not developed. It's a big issue. We really want to make sure that is done property, that there is a legacy for the future that everyone is proud of, that people have had input on, and that makes us different from communities that didn't really put the effort in the planning end. That's a major goal.
Signal: Growth in general is always a big issue; you were very much involved in the open space initiative that went before property owners in November the idea being to buy land on the outskirts of town to prevent it from being developed. That failed. How now can the city stop some of the growth that's going on?
Weste: I think that the community really wants to preserve open space. I believe that this community values having natural lands. They certainly love their parks, and they certainly are huge trail users, and we're doing more of that. Preservation and protection (to leave) land undeveloped is probably one of the most important goals a city can have especially a city that still has an opportunity to do that. It's a little late if you wait until it's gone and say, "Gee, now I'd like to put those greenbelts into place." We very much believe the community wants that.
Obviously, we timed (the initiative) badly and we didn't answer all of the questions adequately that the community had, and that's an issue that we need to look at. The community will tell us what their values are and what they want. They have sent a message: "We didn't understand it and we weren't happy with the way you did it." And I accept that.
I think that the community is very involved with their City Council, and that's one of the good things about cityhood. We try to hear them, and we try to bring to them what they want. And if it needs to be done differently on any issue, we'll hear it and we will adjust to try to give the community what they want.
Signal: Can we expect to see the folks at City Hall go back to the drawing board and bring some sort of open-space initiative to the voters in 2006?
Weste: The community would have to tell us that. I think it's important that we hear from them. When you talk about, what do we want to be in 50 years? I don't think what we want to be is what some of the other valleys in California look like. It's very important that we roll up our sleeves and figure out how we are going to do this as a community.
The City Council cannot get things done without community support, and the community cannot get things done without a City Council that understands what they want. It is a marriage, and we need to work together on defining where we want to be. We're just as concerned about the future growth and what we look like as anyone else, because we live here, too.
Signal: One thing that definitely will go before the voters this year is the City Council election in April. You've served two 4-year terms; you'll be seeking a third term. Why do you want to stay on the council?
Weste: This job is a lot of work. But it brings tremendous rewards in the sense of accomplishment and being actually able to help your community and make a difference in the way it will look and the way it will be livable. I really enjoy the work and I enjoy the job. The greatest satisfaction is when I look around at projects like the Veterans Historical Plaza, Central Park, the cross-valley trail system, the thousands of acres of open space we've already preserved, and working to make the commuters' life better and trying to ease their time constraints by getting road projects done.
It's a lot of work. We want to be a safe community; we want to be a family-oriented and healthy community. Those are ongoing challenges. It takes a lot of work to keep moving things in a direction that gets the community what it wants. I enjoy it.
Signal: Give us a quick civics lesson. You're one of five elected City Council members, and each year the council picks one of its own to serve as mayor. What extra powers do you have as mayor that you don't have as "just" a City Council member?
Weste: The good news is, none. And I truly believe that is good news, because we as a council are all equally responsible to every single constituent.
I like the fact that this city does not operate the way some other cities do. Everybody's vote is equal. The mayor literally acts as a spokesperson for the policies and the votes that the council has taken together. The mayor does not go out with his or her opinion about what they want; the mayor is representing the City Council in its entirety, and staff, and the policies that have been adopted. And that makes a very healthy community.
Signal: Have you ever had to tout the party line on something you voted against?
Weste: That can happen. I voted no on a few projects out there (where) I was on the losing end; I have voted no on some development that I didn't believe was quite to par. But you support your city because in the overall context, it is a great city. It is a city that has given us all an opportunity to communicate and get things that we didn't have before into place for our children and for our families.
We spend our money locally and we have a balanced budget, and we know what we're doing with our funds because it happens right here. It happens at City Hall. And people have access, and I love that. Because I lived through all the years that we did not have the local access. It's much easier to go down to City Hall and talk to somebody or get information than it is to drive 30 or 40 miles away (to downtown Los Angeles). It's different.
Signal: You can go right down Valencia Boulevard and knock on Mayor Weste's door and complain at her.
Weste: People have done that. Or at the supermarket or at the feed store or the restaurant or the movies.
Signal: Feed store how many horses do you own?
Signal: You live in Placerita Canyon; you're involved in animal rescue.
Weste: I have an animal rescue, and I have the feed bill to prove it. I enjoy working with shelter. I'm on the (Los Angeles County) Animal Care Foundation; we raise a lot of money to help save lives of countless thousands of animals. We do spay-neuter programs and we support the county's animal shelter, which is the city's animal shelter. I do whatever I can to advocate for better lives for our little furry friends.
Signal: How did you get so heavily involved in animal rescue?
Weste: I saw things that weren't good. I saw abuse. I saw animals being destroyed in our community and in other communities. I worked on changing state law on animal abuse in 1988 with (then-state Sen.) Ed Davis, and felony abuse was put in place so that extreme cruelty would be handled. And we have seen that actually effect change. I'm very proud to have worked on that legislation.
I saw animals being destroyed it used to be that at our shelter at Castaic, 80 to 90 percent of the animals were not getting homes and were being euthanized. Today, 90 percent of all placeable animals get homes. It's a tremendous shift over 25 years (to) the mantra: Spay-neuter, and don't proliferate and have animals that nobody wants. I think that the core of our community it's family, it's seniors, it's kids everybody's got a pet. Really it's part of the whole way we live, and they're just as important in many families as the kids.
Signal: You mention seniors and kids. Our population is shifting. Today there are 250,000 people in the valley, including 175,000 inside the city. It used to be, you could go to the grocery store and you knew everybody. Now you walk outside and don't recognize anybody. What do you see as some of the big challenges to our changing population?
Weste: The one thing that's really important as a community we all want a safe community; it's really important to stay involved. It's important for all of us to remain connected.
I've always been a volunteer and involved in advocacy in my community because I like knowing my community and what's going on. I think it's very evident in Santa Clarita that we're very charitable. Almost anybody who hasn't gotten into a volunteer position, somebody will find them and get them, and they'll be volunteering on something.
We want to retain that Santa Clarita Valley connectivity that we have. People are involved with their children through sports; now we have a great, burgeoning artistic talent base in our community with the Repertory (East Playhouse) and the Canyon Theatre guild and the Artists' Association, and there's ballet and the Performing Arts Center. We have people working at all levels to try to bring more arts and entertainment to our community. We have a great Historical Society that's continually preserving Santa Clarita history, and I look to see that take an even bigger (role) in the future, and we're going that way.
Tourism is growing in our valley, filming is growing in our valley; the important thing is to retain the feeling of our valley. If we remain connected and we input and do the right planning, we will have that. I don't want to leave Santa Clarita, so to me, that's very important: that we remain that kind of a community.
Signal: So you don't foresee the Santa Clarita Valley going "San Fernando Valley North."
Weste: You know, I've worked really hard to avoid that. We started with very few parks and now we have quite a few of them. We started with no open space and we have several thousand acres. But we need another 10,000 or 12,000 acres of open space out there. We continue to work on expanding our trails system so that pretty much every neighborhood can access a trail and go from their neighborhood to parks to shopping to theater (and) out into open space areas. We've worked to preserve the Santa Clara River and keep blue-line streams open. We're working at planting not only 1,000 trees a year, but now we're also starting to plant 100 native oaks in our valley every year. We want to reforest areas. We want architecture that really will hold to the test of time and remain lovely and traditional. We want to see our historic sites restored and put back together, and we want our kids to know about those things. This is a community that has some of the richest, wealthiest history of any place in the state, and it's important for us to respect it, keep our connectivity with that, and our roots, and as we grow, to do a really good job of making sure that everything is well done.
I'm very excited that we have an economic development director, Carrie Rogers, and we have a new planning director, Paul Brotzman, who is very excited about things that we're going to be doing in Canyon Country, and this year, implementing the (Downtown) Newhall Specific Plan. That's going to be a very key and important component for our community.
Signal: We've had the Valencia mall now the Westfield Valencia Town Center since 1992. Are we going to see some major shopping amenities come to the east side of town?
Weste: (We're) working on that very seriously, wanting to bring more and better shopping and dining and entertainment opportunities to Canyon Country. We'll be working with many private-sector individuals. We don't have redevelopment in Canyon Country, so we are working with property owners to enhance and help set the vision and do some very specific planning in certain areas. Canyon Country has long said they wanted specific things; we're working on doing that.
The interesting thing about Canyon Country is, we have spent the majority of our park money and trail money on that side of town, and they needed it. Now we're working on undergrounding utilities and bringing some reinvestment in that side of town, and I'm very excited about that. It's a great area and it really deserves our attention, and it's got it. It certainly has mine.
Signal: Some of the retail blocks in Canyon Country have gone through economic turmoil in recent years. Do you see redevelopment as a viable tool in Canyon Country in the near term?
Weste: I think that one of the things that Paul Brotzman brought to the table when he came to Santa Clarita was a global perspective of how communities can be planned and how they'll look many decades after they've been built. He is very concerned about Canyon Country. We are doing some mixed-use overlays on some of the areas in Canyon Country that have kind of large, old shopping centers which, in the future, may want to make some changes, and we want to encourage different businesses to come in, and do the same kinds of things we're doing in Newhall except we do not have the redevelopment tool in Canyon Country.
We're going to have to try to implement that through lots of meetings and lots of support for investors and businesses that are there, that want to make changes and improvements.
Signal: You've seen Newhall go through its own turmoil in the last 30 years; you were instrumental in the development and adoption of the new specific plan for Newhall. Some merchants have expressed fears that under the plan, they're going to be pushed out. What is really going on in Newhall?
Weste: I think that one of the interesting things about human beings is that we always want things, but we're all no matter how good it is, change is scary.
Newhall is just an amazing historic core, and we've worked with everybody who was willing to come to any kind of meeting or get together at any kind of planning session we had. We worked with literally hundreds and hundreds of people, and we spent thousands and thousands of hours and well over $1 million to bring a plan together.
I think that Newhall will gradually become a more exciting place to live. We want to have some more housing opportunities there, so that there is a sustainable base. There is a community there, but there is not enough that would afford the better shopping and the more interesting types of entertainment and things that you would want to bring to really have a higher-end community.
We need a library. We need public spaces. We need theater. We need more restaurants. And the downtown it suffered when other strip malls and the Valencia Town Center were built. But there is no reason to turn our back on the older parts of the community. Those are our historic cores, and they are just as important, and preserving those neighborhoods and helping to re-create some new neighborhoods will give everybody an opportunity to have higher property values, to be able to have great places to live, and to be able to enjoy a safe, clean community. That's what we want for every neighborhood.
Signal: Now we see some of the same phenomena on Lyons Avenue that we saw on San Fernando Road before revitalization. We've lost a major anchor supermarket and we've seen people come to you and complain about the possibility of a Vallarta Supermarket replacing it. How can the situation on Lyons best be addressed?
Weste: We already started addressing Lyons Avenue. In time what happens is there has been a hopscotching thing that has happened throughout L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, where a neighborhood starts to get old and then something new is built and then people go there, and it just keeps moving on down the block.
Anchors left Lyons Avenue and went to other parts of the valley, and then you have disincentives and disinvestment, and the landlords are trying to get any tenant they can.
It's a continual piece of work to constantly encourage areas to remain healthy and upscale economically. It requires the city assisting the planning for that. It's very difficult for property owners on their own to do all of that. I can assure you that (the Westfield Valencia) Town Center is constantly working on their tenant mix, and what is the market out there for shopping.
Signal: Nobody's doing that for other parts of town.
Weste: That's right. Nobody's doing that. Some cities have actually put together foundations and coalitions of groups to assist with that. What we're looking at is, we do not want to see Soledad Canyon Road, Lyons Avenue we do not want to see disinvestment. We do not want to see buildings running down and people not wanting to go there anymore because there is really nothing that they want to go there for.
I think Lyons Avenue is actually not in that bad a condition. I'm there all the time
Signal: You're not talking about subsidizing businesses; you're talking about the city doing something else.
Weste: We don't subsidize businesses. It's free-market enterprise. But we do have resources through economic development to assist in planning. If you get the right tenant mix and you're working with all the information that a city can bring, it's helpful for people who are managing property, or owners of property.
Signal: When did you come to Santa Clarita?
Weste: I love Santa Clarita, but it wasn't Santa Clarita then. It was Newhall, Saugus, and sort of Canyon Country; that was Solemint back in the å60s. And Valencia really hadn't happened yet; that was sort of the new thing. That's why we have "city of Santa Clarita" but we still have Canyon Country, Saugus, Valencia, Newhall; it's kind of like little boroughs. We all live in Santa Clarita but
Signal: Are we talking pre-1970?
Weste: Oh, yeah.
Signal: Why did you come here?
Weste: Well, I was born in Burbank. I wasn't that far away. This was just a great place. I used to come out to Hart Park ... ended up running a grocery store.
Signal: Why did you get out of that?
Weste: Because the state took it. Best explanation I can give you. It got in the way of the state of California's widening of a roadway widening San Fernando Road.
Signal: So you've got some experience when government comes in and takes your property for a road.
Weste: Yeah. Interesting after that, there were some legal changes. (Now) government is very good about being careful how they do those things.
Signal: What are your big goals for the year?
Weste: Implementing the downtown Newhall Specific Plan. Getting another phase of the cross-valley connector done. Want to see the teen memorial open. That's really important. Want to continue to figure out how we can preserve more undeveloped land, and really work with our community on improving every aspect of our life.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.