“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
— Thomas Jefferson
I’ve oft wished for a time machine, and one place I’d visit would be here, in the Santa Clarita, some 1,000 years ago. Hard to believe, there was no Mighty Signal. The Tataviam lived here, and government consisted of tribal councils. Instead of Republicans and Democrats, our Native American tribes were divided by two castes: Mountain Lion people and Coyote people. The big cats were considered stronger, the dog group smarter. They had many laws. For instance, Mountain Lions couldn’t marry Mountain Lions and ditto with Coyotes “intermarrying.”
It would be interesting to plop a Signal reporter into a time-traveling vessel and have them return with the scoop on the big campfire meeting.
Did the Tataviam vote? Make speeches? Lie? Cheat? Steal? Plan? Obfuscate?
Back in 1945, The Signal printed an ominous warning. A study done by the State Department of Industrial Relations pointed out that there was one government employee for every 6.6 people in California. There were an estimated 455,000 people on government payrolls then — municipal, county, state and federal. Of that figure, about a quarter-million of them drew paychecks from Uncle Sam.
This newspaper has been covering government for a century. I know my vote for Most Entertaining Agency would have to go, no questions asked, to the little arcane bureaucracy with the enormously large name: The Northwest Los Angeles County Resource Conservation District.
Try getting that on a business card.
The Signal’s craziest, wackiest government story that just would not die. Period.
It used to be a humble board of three appointed members. On paper, they were in charge of “managing” soil and water resources in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys, and Catalina Island. A teensy percent of property taxes every year went to their budget.
One year, the Los Angeles County supervisors, in not-so-infinite wisdom, changed the makeup, got rid of three commissioners and turned the NLACRCD into a publicly elected agency, with five board members.
It attracted nuts, imbeciles, rogues, crooks and jackasses, to put it kindly.
You see, the first election, no one in their right mind wants to run for something as tedious as imaginary soil conservation. Except five people of dubious character did a little homework and discovered that the NLACRCD had a massive war chest. All those pennies collected from property taxes added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars — serious cash in the early 1970s.
The agency provided The Signal with a decade of pie-throwing comedy and hijinks. I suppose this was the most fun this newspaper ever had covering a government meeting.
One official was a mental patient. Not hyperbole. He was a registered mental patient in the San Fernando Valley and would have to check himself out to attend meetings. Convicted felon and parolee Marcus Fishman was voted out as chairman, but continued to show up for meetings. Marcus actually served time while on the board. Marcus was 20. Another member was a drunk, who drank, at meetings, out of a whiskey bottle, inside a brown paper bag.
Fistfights — actual, hair-pulling, sock-in-the-puss fistfights — frequently broke out at meetings. Still. They managed to make peace long enough to buy themselves a house, matching convertible Mustangs, matching 10-speed bicycles and used their budget to poshly decorate their new swank offices. They used government funds for trips to Europe, San Francisco and Hong Kong, where they ran up tabs at five-star hotels.
The Signal, in a front-page editorial headline, asked: “Will It Ever Die?”
Not for a while.
The supervisors were aghast when they discovered there was no legal way to disband the brigands. Task forces were formed. There were investigations that dragged on for years. In 1980, as the state was slowly moving on legislation to disband them, this newspaper noted at a meeting the directors voted to take ALL the money in their budget and hire themselves as consultants.
Finally — FINALLY — in 1984, the county voted to disband the NLACRCD and remove the last $50,000 from their war chest.
It was probably just in the nick of time.
One of the members (NOT the mental patient), Steve Fox, claimed he was not long for this world. Fox claimed he was a target of KGB agents and feared assassination.
Don’t we all. Don’t we all.
The ‘tomato?’ that nearly killed a city
Speaking of altercations at public hearings, perhaps the one great story about local government was about a thrown piece of fruit that changed the course of Santa Clarita history.
Last week, we covered how this valley had been trying to form a local government for nearly a century. There was a movement in the 1960s and two failed ballot measures for the SCV to form California’s 59th county — Canyon County.
Not quitting, in the years leading up to 1987, The Mighty Signal tirelessly covered how we banded together to form the city of Santa Clarita.
A little-known bureaucrat seemed to have a personal — and passionate — vendetta against our efforts.
I always wondered about that. Police can often trace, in a murder, if the victim had known their killer by the amount of passion and dedication in the crime.
LAFCO stands for Local Agency Formation Commission. It is a state-mandated agency that had god-like power in deciding if and how any new government branch, from dogcatcher to forming a new city, gets the go-ahead.
Ruth Bennell was chairwoman of LAFCO and she took peevish pleasure thwarting the formation of Santa Clarita. She gerrymandered areas out of this valley that really wanted to be part of the new proposed city. She made up numbers and, when confronted, she snarkily replied: “That’s the way I prepared my report.” In fact, Bennell refused to produce reports, facts and figures — even when they were demanded by the county supervisors and members of the state Senate and Assembly. The Signal noted that California Sen. Ed Davis “… wanted her head on a platter.”
A little trivia?
Back then, Sen. Davis’ aide 32 years ago would become prominent SCV attorney Hunt Braly.
Just a few days before the December 1987 election, Bennell cut the size of the original city of Santa Clarita by more than half, down to its eventual 40-square-mile limit, and told city proponents to “… take the deal or shove it.” A rousing Signal editorial lambasted Benell as “the last of the Romanov empresses” and accused her of “… hiding behind an iron curtain of her own quilting.”
The city, of course, passed at the countywide election. But, instead of being 90 square miles, we were 40.
As was the style of Signal publisher and editorial writer Scott Newhall, The Mighty Signal jumped up and down on Bennell with golf shoes dipped in vinegar.
Why, why, why did she start this holy war?
I found the answer years ago in a small Signal story. It was an “Ah-HAH!” moment.
In 1960, The Signal hosted a meeting at the Hart Auditorium and invited several Southern California politicos to attend. One of those was a young Ruth Bennell, newly elected vice mayor of Pico Rivera. From Bennell’s comments, she didn’t think much of either our community or attempts at self-government. She was booed a few times and, after one ribald remark, a local farmer threw a tomato at her on stage, hitting the politician. She was escorted off stage to a chorus of jeers.
For Ruth Bennell, revenge was a dish best served cold. Some 27 years later, I think Ruth was peevish and did everything to get in the way of the forming of Santa Clarita. For that one bureaucrat’s efforts, Ruth gets my vote as the Most Notorious Person in the History of the SCV.
The all-protecting Signal eagle
The American bald eagle in our daily masthead hasn’t always been with us. The screaming great bird holds a banner promising: “Vigilance Forever.” That motto appeared in January 1964 and for decades, lived up to its promise. A few years back, under some well-meaning but inept ownership, The Signal’s contract with the community was removed. We no longer assured “Vigilance Forever.”
Blessedly, it was brought back.
Actually, even before we adopted that masthead, we’ve been vigilant.
In 1924, we demanded justice for Warren Graft.
Graft, 85, lived alone in a ramshackle shack in Saugus, near the old feed lots. His home caught fire, and neighbors rushed in to pull Graft to safety. Then, Graft ran back into the burning lean-to. Rescuers pulled him out again, and the lady next door sat on the loudly protesting elder so he wouldn’t run in again. Graft escaped, sprinted into the fire and came out quickly with $1,665 in rolled up bills — his entire life’s saving that he stored not UNDER but IN the mattress. When L.A. County heard, they issued a threat that no one who was worth more than $600 could collect a pension. The county commandeered the old man’s savings — PLUS — sued him for $5,000. We went after the county and made sure his life savings, and pension, were safe.
We demanded justice for Ida Edwards in 1971.
An epic, Old Testament goof was dumped on the blind, aging Val Verde grandmother. When she returned home from Oklahoma, she discovered the county had “accidentally” condemned and bulldozed her home. Her photos, memorabilia, furniture, clothes — everything — gone. For a while, Ida lived in a pup tent donated by Boy Scouts. The Signal launched a movement. A group of citizens and Newhall Land passed the hat and built her a brand new house.
And, life can be bitter and unfair.
Ida Edwards died a couple years later. The county returned, seeking back property taxes. They charged her daughter for the cost of boarding up the new home.
The Signal airs some dirty laundry
Alas, The Mighty Signal can be a rascally entity. In the course of any given day, there are tens of thousands of kind actions the people of government perform that don’t get ticker tape parades or even a pat on the back. It’s not news. In a better world, it should be.
Having said that, one of my favorite Signal stories appeared on Jan. 15, 1976.
The county Board of Supervisors formed a commission to study commissions. Supervisor Kenny Hahn wondered if many of Los Angeles government agencies had outlived their usefulness, if they had any usefulness to begin with. After months of study, the supervisors eliminated one of several hundred august bodies: The L.A. County Laundry Practices Committee. It had been formed in 1969, met once in 1970, didn’t do a single thing, then didn’t meet at all into 1976. You guessed it. The LACLPC was formed to study laundry practices. With the LACLPC gone, that left just 102 commissions with 1,173 commissioners.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 40 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.