Caltrans to shed responsibility for Highway 39

By Steve Scauzillo, Staff Writer

After announcing three months ago it was dropping plans to reopen the long-closed upper portion of Highway 39, Caltrans is now pursuing plans to legally abandon the highway used by millions to access the Angeles National Forest.
Saying the cost of maintaining 27 miles of winding, mountain highway north of Azusa known as State Route 39 was too high, Caltrans has begun shopping it around to other government agencies.

“Now we are looking with our attorneys into how we can abandon this responsibility,” said Ronald Kosinski, deputy district director for environmental planning in District 7, which includes Los Angeles County.

“It is of minimal value to the state of California to keep pouring money into it (Highway 39),” Kosinski said.

The routine cost of maintaining the existing highway is $1.6 million per year, he said.

Kosinski said Caltrans met on Dec. 16 with the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Fish and Game to discuss different options.

“The county says they don’t believe they can operate it. We’ve also talked to the Forest Service,” he said.

Queries sent from this newspaper to these agencies were met with quick responses.

“We’ve received no formal notification of this idea from Caltrans management, so we cannot comment on it,” said John D. Wagner, assistant public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Michael Cano, transportation aide with Supervisor Mike Antonovich,
whose region includes the foothills leading up to the forest and the Antelope Valley, also said neither the supervisor nor anyone at the county had seen or heard any formal request to take over responsibilities for Highway 39.

“There is not a compelling reason for the county to want to assume control of it,” Cano said.

Longtime cabin owner and environmental activist Glen Owens was dumbfounded over what some are calling a Caltrans trial balloon.

“Why would a state agency try to shirk its responsibilities and then think another government agency would take those over?” asked Owens, a Monrovia planning commissioner. “They just can’t pick and choose what to maintain and what not to maintain.”

Access to the forest trails and the wild parts of the San Gabriel River is critical to a plan being considered by the National Park Service to include the forest as a National Recreation Area co-managed by the NPS. That issue may end up in Congress next year.

Some said that Caltrans’ idea to legally abandon responsibility for the highway proves that the NPS needs to step in before things get worse.

“If the state does abandon it, and no one else picks up the maintenance costs, the risk is it (the road) could get shut down,” said John Monsen, environmental consultant and a Tujunga resident.

Kosinski said other parts of Highway 39, in Orange County and through Covina and Azusa, have been or still could be abandoned to those cities. Likewise, cities such as Long Beach, Pico Rivera and Temple City have taken responsibility for State Route 19, also known as Rosemead Boulevard, after the state relinquished responsibilities.

Cities did this for numerous reasons, including adding median projects or for incorporating retail redevelopment. Temple City is planning a new dedicated bikeway for the southern portion of Rosemead Boulevard.

State Route 39 stretches 40 miles from Orange County as Beach Boulevard, through the San Gabriel Valley as Azusa Avenue and into the forest, connecting Southern California residents to thousands of miles of hiking trails, offroad vehicle riding areas and numerous campgrounds. It is also a route for county workers to three key mountain reservoirs.

The road stops at the 40th mile marker at Snow Spring, a steep, rugged region about one mile north of the turnoff to Crystal Lake. Highway 39 once continued to Angeles Crest Highway near Wrightwood, but that has not been the case since 1978, when a major slide wiped out the road. Recently, Azusa businesses, cabin owners and some environmental groups lobbied for repairing the 4.4-mile section. They say having full circulation into Wrightwood and its ski areas, and into the high desert and La Ca ada Flintridge area, will bring more shoppers to the foothill cities of the San Gabriel Valley.

Despite pleas from business owners, cabin owners and at least one member of the state Assembly to reverse itself, Caltrans has dug in its heels and is basically saying it will never complete the 4.4-mile gap project.

“They are backing out of what they said they were going to do,” said Tony Glassman, safety manager at California Amforge Corp. on North Vernon Avenue in Azusa.

Caltrans and the Forest Service completed an Environmental Impact Statement in 2009 for the project. It held public hearings in Azusa. Many thought the money – about $32 million – was in hand.

An article dated October 2008 in a Caltrans in-house newsletter says the project would be started in fall 2010. “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, etc. can keep District 7 from opening up this challenging route,” was the subtitle.

In the article, Caltrans officials said they had plans to rebuild the damaged portion of 39. “`This might seem like a lot of work just to maintain an impassible highway, but it’s an obligation Caltrans must fulfill,”‘ said Damage Restoration Coordinator Bill Varley. “`The district has a long-term commitment to this highway.”‘

But it appears Caltrans had no intention of completing the project. According to the California Transportation Commission, Caltrans never “delivered the project” to the Commission. Meaning, a formal request for the $32 million was never made.

Kosinski said a big portion of Caltrans’ decision not to pursue was based on the possibility the project would hurt or kill the fragile Nelson’s bighorn sheep that live in the area.

The environmental impact statement from 2009 says the sheep are a concern, but not an insurmountable problem.

“Consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is not required as there will be no effect to any species listed as Endangered, Threatened or proposed as Endangered or Threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act with the implementation of the proposed project,” read the report.

However, since the Forest Service considered the sheep a “sensitive species,” the issue was examined in connection with the reopening of the road to Angeles Crest Highway.

The status of the sheep under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) was in question. “After a detailed review of the CESA and the Code, Caltrans understood that the San Gabriel Mountains population of Nelson’s bighorn sheep was not afforded protection under CESA or the Code,” said the Jan. 23, 2009 report signed by Kosinski.

The report stated that Caltrans wanted “concurrence” that the sheep population where the road would be rebuilt met federal exemption criteria “and therefore was not fully protected.”

“The population in the San Gabriel Mountains, a transverse range, is not listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal or California Endangered Species Act,” the environmental report concluded.

The report said there are about 300 sheep in the area of Highway 39, down from a high of 500-600 in the 1980s. At the project site, biologists estimated about 10 sheep existed.

Kosinski last week said the reopening project was scrapped because the state doesn’t have $32 million to $40million to complete it. He also said completing the road to Angeles Crest Highway “would be bad for the environment” and said the sheep must be protected.

While Monsen agreed with the decision not to reopen the highway at Snow Spring, he was not in agreement with Caltrans abandoning the mountain highway entirely and predicted a wave of outrage at such an idea.

“People here are not too happy about the position we are taking,” said Kosinski, saying there were those even within Caltrans who disagreed with both decisions.


626-962-8811, ext. 2237

West Covina may begin to broadcast meetings again

WEST COVINA — Residents may soon be able to stay home and watch city meetings live — something they haven’t been able to do since the televised programming was axed in 2008.

After going three years without broadcasting its meetings to West Covina households, the City Council this week instructed staff to research the cost of potentially implementing video webcasts or live television broadcasts of City Council and Planning Commission meetings.

“We want that transparency and we want to open that window and I’m happy,” said Councilman Fredrick Sykes, a long-time proponent of live broadcasts. “It’s going to be great for the seniors who do not like to drive at night and those who are disabled. There’s thousands of people we represent and it’s for the benefit of the people.”

The program began more than 20 years ago. It cost the city about $180,000 annually when it was broadcast through Charter Communications cable television, officials said.

West Covina began providing audio of City Council meetings in October 2010. And while those meetings are streamed lived, it takes a few days for them to be archived and available on the city website through the Sire Agenda system, which also provides city documents.

Still, West Covina is one of the few cities of its size that does not provide any type of broadcast of meetings to residents, Sykes said.

“It’s like the radio the way they have it right now, and it’s behind the times,” he said. “We represent over 150,000 people and not everyone has Internet due to poverty or what have you. But if we do both the Internet and the cable, now we cover a wider (spectrum) and can cover almost everybody in the city.”

La Puente reinstates employee gift card program

LA PUENTE — Christmas is coming this year to La Puente city employees.

The City Council last week narrowly approved reinstating the city’s annual employee holiday gift card tradition, which was axed two years ago as a cost-savings measure.

The council at its Dec. 13 meeting voted 3-2 to reinstate the gift card program for its 26 full-time and 36 part-time staffers. Full-timers will get a $75 gift card and part-timers will get a $25 gift card.

Though the cost of the program isn’t large — at about $2,800 — it proved divisive, like many things on the council dais.

Councilmen David Argudo, John Solis and Vince House voted in favor of the perk, saying that staffers have taken on double the work since 13 of La Puente’s department heads were laid off earlier this year.

Dissenting were council members Nadia Mendoza and Dan Holloway, who said they preferred that the cash-strapped city find alternative ways to fund a holiday program, including utilizing the council’s budgeted travel fund money.

“Since then we’ve had significant financial problems and significant layoffs, so it concerns me that we’re sending the wrong message,” Holloway said.

La Puente has a $3.7 million budget deficit.

“I thought that because of our financial situation, and we’ve laid off 13 staff members, that it’d be more appropriate to show our appreciation to staff members for their hard work, which they deserve, …for the council to pony up some money from our personal funds rather than the general fund,” Holloway said. “It doesn’t say much to say you’re voting to use public money to thank the staff.”

The annual gift card program started in 1999 as a replacement to a holiday party, which was later brought back. The first year, it cost the city about $1,700 to give employees $50 each. The amounts increased to the current rate in 2005, according to city officials.

Officials in 2008 opted not to cancel the program, which then cost $4,230 to fund, according to staff reports. It was canceled the next year during the employees’ union contract negotiations, officials said.

Argudo and Solis said the staff is underappreciated and their hard work needs to be rewarded.

“We’ve had some layoffs and everybody’s been working double jobs,” Solis said. “We gave our employees Christmas parties up until last year. We keep taking from them, and we need to at some point give back a little bit to them, and I think they would appreciate it. They work hard and it’s just something from us to say thank you.”

West Covina councilman Sykes experiences new role

Newly elected West Covina councilman Fredrick Sykes and his family are still getting used to him sitting on the dais – so much so that Sykes wife, Dana, takes photos of him at the meetings.

Before the official start of Tuesday’s council meeting, the proud wife pulled out her phone and took a photo of Sykes, who was smiling and sitting in his seat.

“I think she was taking a photo to send a (text message) to our daughter,” the laughing Sykes said.

Sykes, 60, went into the November election considering himself the underdog since he had failed to capture a seat in two prior elections. But he ended up beating out former Councilwoman Karin Armbrust with more than 230 votes.

After years of attending council meetings, being a community activist and speaking his mind, Sykes, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, was officially welcomed to the dais on Dec. 6.

Still learning the ropes in his new role as city councilman, Sykes has one thing to say about being elected: “Be careful what you wish for.”

West Covina set to hire retiring city manager under 960 plan

The West Covina City Council at this week’s meeting unanimously voted to hire City Manager Andrew Pasmant – set to retire at the end of the month – under the 960 plan.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System allows retired employees to accept a temporary appointment and work less than 960 hours per fiscal year. It would save the city about $18,000 a month.

Read Staff Writer Martiza Velazquez’s story posted earlier this week:

WEST COVINA – After a decade on the job, City Manager Andrew Pasmant has announced that he will retire this month.

Pasmant’s official date of retirement is Dec. 30, however he may stick around longer to help the city transition to a new city manager, a process city council members said could take awhile.

“As I told the council in a letter, there are a lot of challenges that the city will still face and if they need my help, I will stay a little longer to make the transition as easy as possible,” Pasmant said. “The city has been good to me, so I want to reciprocate.”

Councilmembers are slated to discuss tonight how to begin their search for a new city manager and what to do in the interim.

One of their options is to hire Pasmant temporarily under the “960 plan.”

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System allows retired employees to accept a temporary appointment as a “retired annuitant” as long as the employee in the position works less than 960 hours per fiscal year.

The move could save about $18,000 a month, according to city documents, because the city would not have to pay benefits including retirement payments, health care benefits and accrual of vacation, sick leave and floating holidays.

Pasmant has also offered to stay in his position under the terms of his current contract until an agreed-upon date in 2012.

“I know it’s going to be amicable, whatever the situation is,” Pasmant said. “I know we have a good relationship and I’ll leave it to council what they think is in the best interest of the community.”

Councilman Steve Herfert said the process to find a new city manager won’t be easy or quick.

“What we’re faced with is we won’t probably find anyone as experienced as him. They will probably be newer and we’re going to take our time. We’re not going to do this real quick,” Herfert said.

Herfert said Pasmant has been a major asset to the city. The city has recently been recognized for being energy efficient and business-friendly.

“(City managers) set the tone for how the employees react and how professional the city is and I think we’re a very respected city and I think that has to do with his leadership,” Herfert said.

After retiring, the 56-year-old Pasmant, of Downey, hopes to do more philanthropic work and plans to stay active in local organizations.

“I think I have been very blessed to have worked here,” Pasmant said. “I’m very proud of the accomplishments we’ve had here in the city.”

El Monte considers building brand new civic center

EL MONTE – The city’s El Monte Gateway project is centered on the idea of a transit-friendly village of homes and businesses adjacent to the 10 freeway. And now part of that development might be a brand new city civic center.

The City Council and staff are throwing the idea around, with some saying that it would be a nice amenity for residents, who would be able to shop and access city services all in one area.

The civic center could include other public agencies, such as the fire department, and private agencies like the University of La Verne. Officials are still in talks to see the feasibility of other entities sharing the space.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to continue down this road of exploring this possibility,” Mayor Andre Quintero said. “Obviously the numbers have to make sense. But that’s prime real estate next to the freeway.”

Rosemead City Council angered by utility company

ROSEMEAD – Several City Councilmembers expressed their frustration Tuesday evening that a utility company is tearing up a street that the City had just worked to beautify.

At its City Council meeting, Helen Romero Shah, of the Southern California Gas Company had just presented information on a federally mandated high-pressure pipeline maintenance project that is slated to begin in February 2012.

“We are trying to beautify our city, but we’re being backed up by the utility companies thinking they can come in whenever they want,” Councilwoman Sandra Armenta said.

According to city officials, the city checked with utility companies to see if they were planning on performing projects before they went ahead with improvements at Walnut Grove Avenue over the summer.

“We messed up. You did contact us,” said Shah.

Councilmembers also demanded that the utility company place the blame on themselves when alerting local residents that they would be again tearing up the streets and causing traffic delays in the area.

The gas line project, which is aimed at identifying any imperfections in the line, should be completed within eight weeks, officials said.

Glendora appears on top-ten list of places with poisonous water; city officials not pleased

Note to county officials: If you accuse Glendora of having poisonous metals in its water, expect to receive a scathing letter in return.

Late last month, Glendora appeared on a top-ten list of places in L.A. County with high levels of arsenic in their water. Arsenic is toxic metal used in some pesticides, as a wood preservative and for making transistors.

A county well on Dalton Canyon Road came in sixth place out of the worst offenders. It had nearly twice the recommended level of arsenic for healthy drinking water. Still, its level was only one-fourth of what people in Saugus have to drink.

The list was part of a survey of 195 water wells conducted by the county at the behest of the board of supervisors.

Glendora Patch picked up the story.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilwoman Judy Nelson, apparently concerned about having poisonous water in The Pride of the Foothills, asked City Manager Chris Jeffers what the deal is.

“The way that that has been portrayed is greatly misleading,” said Jeffers.

He assured the council that the city’s water is safe — the result of state regulations requiring the city to perform “22,000 tests per year,” using “sub-atomic level analysis.”

“This water is poked, pricked and otherwise analyzed beyond death,” Jeffers said.

Plus, he said, that county well doesn’t even serve Glendora residents.

Jeffers said the county will soon be hearing back from the city about this matter.

“The water division is writing sort of a letter back to the agriculture people and the board (of supervisors) to express our disappointment and frustration with the way that was a carried out,” Jeffers said.

Playing on a theme at Tuesday’s meeting of alluding to vulgarities, Councilwoman Karen Davis said she’ll “edit that colorful language in the letter for you.”

County officials, you’re officially on notice. You heard it here.

Coalition of Concerned Citizens forms in La Puente

La Puente City Hall has seen its fair share of ups and downs – a lot more downs most recently.

Over the past year, City Hall has lost 13 department heads due to a reorganization and has gained a new city manager, who is still getting the hang of things after years of instability at the top. It is currently addressing several risk management issues brought forward in August by its insurance agency, the Joint Powers Insurance Authority, because of many lawsuits and claims filed against the city. It has until Dec. 31, 2012 to turn things around.

And now, a group of residents and business owners say those issues – and several new city retrofitting policies that they say threaten the livelihood of downtown business owners – have forced them to form the Coalition of Concerned Citizens to keep the City Council and staff members accountable.

“There’s a whole lot of issues of wasting government money on trips and hassling citizens,” founder Frank Sanchez said. “We want to make a statement. We’re tired that our concerns aren’t being heard and we want a transparent government. We’re looking to get answers.”

A group of about 60 residents, business owners and former and current city staff members attended the Coalition’s debut meeting last month and its members have vowed to attend as many city meetings as possible to make their presence known.

Many say they are frustrated by “petty politics” within the City Council and the micromanaging atmosphere perpetuated by some council members – pointing to some ad hoc committees that recently formed, including an organizational committee and a city attorney request for qualifications committee.

City Manager Bret Plumlee, with the help of Councilman David Argudo and Mayor John Solis, hired Ward T. Komers last month to be the city’s Director of Administrative Services and Roxanne Lerma as the new Recreation Manager.

Komers previously worked as the administrative services manager for Riverside County’s building and safety and code enforcement departments. Lerma previously worked for the city of Walnut and Yorba Linda, and was a Parks and Recreation Commissioner for Placentia while she was still in high school.

Despite the progress, La Puente still has a ways to go, coalition members said.

“Our coalition mission is simple,” coalition spokesman Craig French told the council on Nov. 22. “The betterment of La Puente through community involvement and responsible and transparent governance.”

The group will be speaking during oral comment at the City Council meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 15900 E. Main St.

The coalition will hold its own general town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Big Blue Building, 123 S. First St.

Diamond Bar voters reject ZIP code consolidation

While everyone at City Hall thought it would be a slam dunk, they were wrong.

Since the U.S. Postal Service insisted the city send out a survey and that the survey results would be binding, the city would have to await the voice of the people. As it turns out, the no change vote won by 192 votes.

The upshot was, every Diamond Bar resident with a 91789 ZIP code, the ZIP code of Walnut, will continue with that ZIP code/address. There will be no change.

One thing that is interesting is the Postal Service said about two-thirds of the ballots were returned. But that a good number were returned blank. Did some residents think simply returning the ballot meant voting for the ZIP code change (to Diamond Bar’s 91765)?

It is something to think about.