"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior 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 Gail Ortiz, public information officer for the city of Santa Clarita.
Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: You've recently taken to communicating directly with the motorists of Santa Clarita by spending taxpayer money on some great, big banners in support of Buck McKeon's reelection campaign. What's up with that?
Ortiz: You know how to launch right into it. We at the city of Santa Clarita feel that we are in a battle literally for our lives, and we feel that our quality of life is being threatened by the Cemex corporation, which wants to put a 69-million-ton mega-mine in Soledad Canyon which will add 1,200 big trucks per day; it will worsen our air quality which is a big deal, by the way; in addition to traffic, it will damage our cars with pocked windshields, that sort of thing. We're concerned about housing values; we're concerned about our ability to bring clean business into the city. We feel that this would be devastating, and we have been working for the last six years to prevent the siting of this mega-mining project as it is proposed.
Over the last two years, we have been working with Rep. McKeon's office as well as with Cemex to come up with some kind of compromise. Rep. McKeon has told us that he would like for the city and Cemex to be on the same page in terms of a compromise, and to that end, we have come up with what has resulted in HR 5471, the Soledad Canyon Mine Leases Act, which would make Cemex whole and would prevent the siting of a mega-mine the size that Cemex has proposed. It would limit mining in that area to what we call "historic" levels of 300,000 tons per year, instead of the proposed 5 million tons per year.
Signal: So ... the idea of the "Thank You, Buck" banners isn't to support his re-election campaign?
Ortiz: No, the idea is to encourage folks to know about HR 5471, to return postcards that were coincidentally sent in the mail to them the same week that the banners went up, and return the postcards. There are four postcards in the brochure. One goes to Rep. McKeon, one goes to Sen. Feinstein, another to Sen. Boxer, one comes back to the city to be used in the creation of a database that we will then use for future mailings and e-mailings.
We want people to know about the bill. We want them to support the bill. We want them to know that this project is still alive and well, that it hasn't gone away.
A lot of people have told us they think that it's dead that there's no mine there, therefore there will be no mine and others think that the problem has been solved. Others believe that there's already mining there, and this must be the mining they know about. So there's a lot of confusion.
What we wanted to do was have a lot of impact for a small amount of money, and we think we've done that. We've had over a dozen news stories, references; this is a story with a lot of legs, fortunately, for our cause, and we're doing whatever we can to impact this issue.
Signal: So would you say this ad campaign has been effective?
Ortiz: It has done what we have set out to do, which is to raise the awareness of HR 5471.
Signal: So any reaction is good reaction, even if it's bad reaction.
Ortiz: There's an old saying in advertising: "Just make sure you spell my name right." We're not taking that tactic. What we're trying to do, literally, is to thank Buck for introducing it, and let people know that this is a bill that he has introduced. He's a senior member of Congress. We want to make sure that it goes places.
Signal: When you say, "Thank You, Buck ... No Mega Mining in Soledad Canyon," aren't you worried that people will get the idea, "Well, I guess Buck stopped it"?
Ortiz: That's one of the reactions, but then they get that card in the mail, which is very explanatory, and lets them know that indeed it's not dead. So we feel like we've maybe asked the question on the banners, and then we've answered it with the mailer piece that they receive.
Signal: Who came up with the wording for the banners? Was it city staff, or was the City Council involved in that?
Ortiz: The City Council was not involved in it. What they did is, they allocated funds for community outreach and education, and they then hand over the duties to the staff, which is led by the city manager, Ken Pulskamp, and his staff, of which I am one. So definitely we have a team at City Hall that works on the Cemex issue. We spend anywhere from a quarter to a half or more of our time on this particular project.
There are about five or six of us from different departments in the city, and really it was a team effort. We have people from the manager's office, from planning, environmental services, I guess the attorney's office. It's a team effort.
Signal: Was it the public information officer who came up with the wording?
Ortiz: I'm going to tell you, it's the team that came up with it.
Signal: Have you heard reaction from the City Council?
Ortiz: "Keep up the good work"?
Signal: OK, so it's not creating a stir internally
Ortiz: They understand what we did and why. The banners by the time this piece comes out, they will be coming down at the end of July, and then we'll resume our regular usage of the paseo bridges, which is offering it to the nonprofits for their promotional benefit.
Signal: Are the banners coming down because of the reaction?
Ortiz: No. We had planned to have them up throughout the month of July, which coincides with the mailing. Like I told you, the brochures are mailed out to every household in the Santa Clarita Valley throughout the month of July in a staggered fashion. And that was the plan. So they're going up and staying up as long as we had planned.
Signal: The city of Santa Clarita has been fighting Cemex and before it was Cemex, it was Transit Mixed which would dramatically increase the amount of sand and gravel that's been hauled out of Soledad Canyon. How long has this fight been going on now?
Ortiz: (Since) 1999. The project was approved in 1991, and we didn't find out about it until the late Œ90s.
Signal: Why is that?
Ortiz: (It was) very much undercover, very much under the radar and that was intentional, from what we have since found out. They did not want our involvement and no wonder why: It's a horrible project for our community and does not benefit our community.
I'm sure they saw a community that was very involved, like with the Elsmere Canyon (landfill) fight and other battles prior to that. "Here's an engaged, educated community; they're not going to sit still for this" that's one of the reasons it was under the radar screen.
Signal: Does the city have systems in place now where that kind of thing won't happen you won't "not notice" something for eight years?
Ortiz: Well, not notice first of all, it's out of the city. It's in the unincorporated county area. Our planning department does what we call county monitoring, which is to learn about and work with the county to know where all of their developments are. As I say, this one was pretty much under the radar screen, and we didn't find out about it until Œ99.
Signal: You mentioned that the City Council has allocated funds to fight Cemex, and that figure is over $6 million now?
Ortiz: That is in total. Actually it's nearing $7 million, but that also includes the purchase of the property, the 430 acres where the mining site is. That $7 million dollars is inclusive of that amount, as well. ... It also includes attorney fees we've been in court a lot. A very small amount is for outreach and education.
Signal: Just how much has been allocated to advertising? All the banners and postcards have to add up, right?
Ortiz: This year I'd say probably $50,000, and there have been years where we haven't spent any, and then there have been years where we've spent about that. So I'd say, all told, maybe less than a couple hundred thousand on outreach and education, thus far.
Signal: Is stopping Cemex the city's biggest priority now at least, the biggest thing you're trying to tell people about?
Ortiz: It's one of the biggest priorities, but I don't think that it's "the" biggest in terms of an all-out city effort for communications. It's in my top three, that's for sure.
Signal: What are the other two?
Ortiz: Well, we've actually had a great month here in the city of Santa Clarita. Money magazine named Santa Clarita the best city in which to live in California ... and then we're also (Money's) No. 18 in the country for best city in which to live. And those things don't happen by accident. That's a lot of people working very hard to make sure that Santa Clarita is a great place to live.
What other efforts do we have? We just found out about the Tour of California; we had applied and lobbied vigorously to be one of the 12 cities that was a stop on the Tour of California. And indeed, we are Day 6.
Signal: Tell us what that is.
Ortiz: Oh, we're very excited about that. It's right up with the Tour de France. (It) is an amazing professional bike race that's going to occur here in Santa Clarita in February of 2007. There are 12 cities in which the bikers will stop, and Santa Clarita is Day 6 out of seven days of the race. They will come from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita and we will have a whole lot of festivities and marvelous partner events, and then the bikers will go to Long Beach for the last leg of the journey.
Signal: As public information officer, are you involved in the front end of that sort of thing, trying to promote Santa Clarita to these people so they do stop here?
Ortiz: Absolutely. It is a whole process. You have to apply to the sponsors. This is Amgen's project, Tour of California. Amgen and AEG own a number of sports teams; they also own the Staples Center. It is their program, so cities apply to be a stop. A lot of cities I don't know how many, but I know a lot of cities applied because it's a wonderful tourism venue.
One of the things that the City Council asked us to work on, this particular fiscal year, is what we call "sports tourism." That's (where) folks would come here to enjoy some kind of sporting event such as what we've had at the Aquatic Center with swim meets, Central Park with softball and baseball leagues; they asked us to work on that because it's wonderful. People come here, they spend money, they stay in the hotels, they buy gas, they eat in our restaurants and then they leave. It's the best of all worlds, and it's also prestigious for Santa Clarita.
So yes, indeed, we did lobby. We sent in an application, we followed up with phone calls, we let them know that we would do whatever it took to be a stop on the Tour of California. Well, they told us they loved our enthusiasm, and that was a big determining factor. The biggest determining factor was the course that Santa Clarita is rich with beautiful hills, and they liked the course, and so of course we were added.
Signal: Are you out there promoting Santa Clarita in all sorts of different ways that we don't know about?
Ortiz: Well, I've been doing this particular job here at the city for I came to the city in 1990, so about 16-1/2 years. I've been in this business for about 24 or 25 years, and really, promotion, community education, has really evolved over the last couple of decades with the advent of the Internet. Our ways of communicating are very, very different, and indeed, the Web is a big part of what we do now. We educate, we provide avenues for people to talk with us.
One of the things we have is something called "E-Notify," and we work with our IT department to set up ways for people to let us know about everything from a street light being out, or graffiti on their street, to requesting a meeting with a City Council member or the mayor, and setting that up so it's user-friendly so people feel comfortable about contacting us that way, saving them a trip to City Hall, making sure that the graphics are pleasing and consistent, the information is timely.
That's a lot of what we do now, in terms of outreach and education, is working so that people can talk to us that way. Indeed, our recent surveys tell us that well over 90 percent, probably approaching 95 to 96 percent of the residents here do have Internet access and do use it. So it's a whole work product now: taking those e-mails that we get all the City Council members, the city manager and making sure people get timely responses, which we try very, very hard to do. We make sure that within two to three days, somebody who sends us an e-mail does get a response. Often it's the same day.
Signal: You probably end up being the city's complaint department.
Ortiz: Well, my office number at City Hall is the I don't want to say "complaint department"
Signal: Got a problem? Call 255-4314.
Ortiz: Yeah, thank you. You want to contact City Hall, that is the number in the phone book. And I do get a lot of calls, and I want to. I want to make sure people are getting what they need. I want to make sure they're getting where they need to go.
We've got an awesome staff at the city. We have spent the last couple of decades hiring the best and the brightest, and we have an amazing staff that is customer service-oriented, friendly, outgoing; they really want to please, and I think they do a great job. So that helps a lot.
Signal: Whose job is it at the city to sit down with The Signal every morning, read the letters to the editor, see what people are complaining about, and then do something about it? Is that you?
Ortiz: I'm one of them, but I know the City Council reads The Signal and the city manager reads The Signal; I read The Signal; we all get it delivered on our desk. And yes, we do read it and if there's a letter to the editor or something that needs a response, we're pretty proactive in terms of providing that, hopefully quickly, as you probably know with managing the letters department.
Signal: What are the biggest complaints you're hearing nowadays?
Ortiz: Well, for a while, we were hearing about traffic signal synchronization, but we've done a pretty good job of getting that under wraps. Andrew (Yi) and his crew over in the Traffic Division are finishing up the signal synchronization, and I'll have to have you come over and take a look at our new traffic control center, where we have televised video of all the major intersections so if there's a problem, we can adjust the signal or do what we need to do very quickly. That's been a big help.
We hear about growth, and the growing pains associated with growth. As you know, a lot of the growth that is occurring in the Santa Clarita Valley is occurring outside the city boundaries, which is a challenge for us to deal with the influx of infrastructure needs that comes with that, namely parks and recreation.
I imagine we're going to get a lot of calls and inquiries, come the end of this year, when we implement our non-resident fee for recreation programs. We're going to be giving a reduced rate to folks who live in the city.
Signal: So it hasn't happened yet?
Ortiz: (No.) Right now it's just on a priority basis. Folks in the city get priority registration, and then at the end of the year, it'll be a reduced rate, as well.
Signal: So now, at the end of the year then, people who live in Stevenson Ranch or Castaic will actually be paying more to participate in city parks and recreation programs.
Ortiz: That's correct.
Signal: But not at parks that pre-existed cityhood in 1987, right?
Ortiz: Correct. It's kind of complicated, but for the most part, what you need to know is where we do the main part of our programming, those are city facilities like the Sports Complex, the Aquatic Center, Central Park. Some of those smaller parks, like five-acre parks, we don't do programming there, but at the larger parks we do. If it is a county site, even if they just handed it over to us and we built the park, we can't do the non-resident fee.
The idea (with the fee change) is that we don't charge what it costs us to run a sports program or recreation program; it's subsidized with property tax. If you're a city resident, obviously you're paying that city tax that subsidizes it, so we want to make sure that you have the benefit.
Signal: Are you getting a lot of complaints about graffiti?
Ortiz: We get a lot of calls about graffiti, but we also get a lot of compliments about how quickly we are able to clean it up. Our director of parks and recreation is working with the city manager right now, and they've got a new program in place to make sure that we are getting it done within 24 to 48 hours.
We have seen a 300-percent increase (in graffiti) over the last year. It's just astounding. But we have matched the problem with resources so that we are getting to it. We are taking care of it. We've seen an increase (in calls) to 25-CLEAN, that's the number people call to report graffiti. But we're out there working with the property owners and the business owners, making sure that it gets cleaned up.
Signal: So when you call 25-CLEAN, a city staff member comes out and cleans up the graffiti?
Ortiz: If it's in the public right-of-way or on public property, yes we do. If it's on private property, we work with the property owner to get it done. Sometimes we're helping him, sometimes he's providing the paint and we're providing it; whatever is going to get it done the most expeditiously.
Signal: On private property, the property owner is responsible for cleaning it up.
Ortiz: Yes, they are.
Signal: And you'll fine them if they don't.
Ortiz: We don't like to do that; we like to work with them. They don't want (graffiti) up any more than we do. Some of these people are getting hit more than once and it gets to be very expensive. So when we can, we help them out with paint or the staff to help clean it up.
Signal: It has been awhile since you asked the local hair stylists what they think the city should be doing. That goes back a few years.
Ortiz: Yes, it does.
Signal: You've been at the city since 1990
Ortiz: I was a teenager when I started.
Signal: You've seen some changes. Do you think we're more sophisticated? Or do you see the same kind of complaints, just a different day?
Ortiz: I've got to say, I think we're more sophisticated but I wouldn't be past going to the hairdressers again and asking them. Because if you think about it, they talk to 20 to 100 people a week, and people talk to their hairdressers, and they know that the hairdressers talk to other people so you'll get hairdressers who get questions about, "What's the best community in which to live?" "What are the issues in this neighborhood?" "How are the schools there?" And they've got an answer based on the people they talk to.
I think what I've seen is that residents here are very savvy. They're very educated. They have a higher expectation and they deserve it. They deserve to get their responses returned quickly. They deserve to get the services that they want. People are paying a premium to live in L.A. County, specifically in Santa Clarita. It's not cheap to live here. They want a higher level of service, and they should have it.
Signal: What do you need to know to be able to do your job? Whether it's Ken Pulskamp or the City Council or somebody else coming to you and saying, "Here's what we want to do, now you figure out how to get the message out" what does it take to be Gail Ortiz?
Ortiz: That's pretty much how it goes, actually. Luckily, they respect me enough to ask my opinion about the front part of it and don't just hand me the assignment on the back end, which is good.
I think having an understanding of how the community operates and works and where people get their information, that's really key. I'm reading a book right now called "The Tipping Point." It's really interesting. It's been out for a few years, but (it's a) really great book about how people get information, how they form their opinions, and what causes something to go over the tipping point, be(coming) something that's popular. It's interesting in the world of communication, I think.
But for the most part, you need to know how to communicate with people (and know) what are the best ways to reach the target audiences that you want to reach.
Signal: One thing you've communicated in recent years is the "Shop Local" campaign. There was some adverse reaction to the message of shopping only between the 5 and 14 freeways for instance, what about the guy who lives in Santa Clarita but owns a business in Stevenson Ranch? Who comes up with the idea for that kind of a program, and do you have benchmarks where you gauge its success and decide to do it differently the next time?
Ortiz: With the "Shop Santa Clarita" campaign, we had a great need to communicate the city boundaries. One of the things that the City Council was very concerned about was the fact that folks were going over to the Valencia Marketplace and shopping, and thinking they were shopping in the city and supporting their community. There was a lot of frustration at the council level about that. So they wanted to make sure that whatever we did with our "Shop Local" campaign, we did it in such a way as to communicate the boundaries of the city. Well, the boundaries of the city are the 5 and the 14, and if you're in between the "V" the 5 and 14 you're within the city boundaries.
The difference there is that the city gets 1 cent for every dollar you spend in between the 5 and 14. If you spend it outside of there, the city doesn't get a dime. And 100 percent of the money that we get, we spend right here in the city. In the unincorporated area and this was one of the reasons for cityhood back in 1987 was that the money that was being spent here (by the public) was being spent (by the county government) all over the county. It wasn't staying in this community. So the city promises to spend the money here in the community, in the Santa Clarita Valley. Not just in the city, but to make the valley better and stronger.
Signal: Annexation is a big deal now. Stevenson Ranch and Castaic have town councils that are supposed to gauge the pulse of their communities and send it along to Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Some of their members are opposed to joining the city. What will you be doing to get out the message, "Santa Clarita good?"
Ortiz: I wouldn't presume to tell Stevenson Ranch how to live. What we would want to do is say, "Hey, this is what we have to offer here in the city. You don't pay a 5-percent utility user tax which, with the way utilities are going, it gets to be more and more. You have a higher level of police services and the Sheriff's Department will back that up with more patrols, more teams, that sort of thing. Your trash services are less of a cost to you, and you have a higher level of service. You get to elect, locally, your five city council members. Our meetings are held in the evening hours after work so that you can actually attend them, rather than during the day. And you have a great city staff that's at your disposal to help you with your issues and your problems."
We think that living well is the best example, and we think we do a very good job of living well. The people in the Santa Clarita Valley, whether they're in the city or out of the city, these are intelligent people. These are people who can make up their own mind. If they want to be in the city, the best thing we can do is lay it out and say, "Here is what we have to offer." If they choose to live in the city, great. We welcome them with open arms.
Signal: And come the end of the year, if you live outside the city, you're going to be paying more to participate in city parks and recreation programs.
Signal: It seems a little like I don't want to say "blackmail," but kind of a bribe. "We're going to charge you more if you don't join us."
Ortiz: Unfortunately, it's reality. And residents in the city have told us, "Hey, how come we're subsidizing people outside the city?"
I don't know if you know this, but of the people who participate in our sporting programs, our recreation programs, 60 percent of them come from outside the city, which means they're coming from areas like Val Verde, Stevenson Ranch, Castaic, Agua Dulce; they're coming in to use city programs that are subsidized by city residents. So it's more of a fairness issue than anything, trying to be fair to our residents.
Signal: What's the message you want to get out?
Ortiz: That the city has outstanding public service; that we are here to serve you. We do whatever we can to get our Web addresses, our phone numbers out there. We want people to tell us what they like, what they don't like, what we can do better, what they like that we're doing. That's what we're interested in providing excellent customer service, public service, to our residents.
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.