STNC General Board Meeting Dominated by Whiteman Airport Crash and the Movement to Close

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The Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council held their monthly general board meeting on Wednesday, January 12. The meeting came on the heels of a plane crash near Whiteman Airport days prior. With a motion to oppose the closing of the airport already on the agenda for the meeting, it was clear which topics would dominate the bulk of the evening.

STNC President Lydia Grant opened the proceedings by moving LAPD Foothill Division Captain Johnny Smith to the top of the agenda. Captain Smith introduced Officer Christopher Aboyte to the audience and Officer Aboyte spoke about his experience as the first officer to respond to Sergeant Joseph Cavestany’s radio call regarding a downed plane on the train tracks. Officer Aboyte recounted that he relieved Sgt. Cavestany at the immediate crash site to allow him to handle his other duties as the on-site supervisor. Officer Aboyte said that in addition to the call for assistance, a call had been placed for paramedic response as well as notification to the Metro Rail Operations Center (ROC) to stop all trains along San Fernando Blvd. Officer Aboyte said that the pilot was not initially removed from the wreckage as a precaution because, though he did not exhibit any signs of injury, he could potentially have internal injuries that could have been aggravated during extraction and it was best to wait for paramedics to respond first. After a couple moments the train arms came down, indicating that a train was on its way. Officer Aboyte recalled thinking that it might have been triggered by the ROC to manage traffic around the crash site, but very shortly after an oncoming train could be heard. Officer Aboyte and the other responding officers rushed to pull the pilot out.

Captain Smith provided general updates to the community, including that Foothill Division is trending in the opposite direction of the nation and Los Angeles as a whole in terms of violent crimes and homicides. He then shared an upsetting piece of news. He advised that area Senior Lead Officers (SLO) Cesar Contreras and Gloria Caloca were being reassigned within the division effective immediately. After some questioning by members of the STNC, Captain Smith said that the order from the Chief of Police came as a result of a request from Council District 7 - Monica Rodriguez’s office. This revelation sparked outrage among those vocal enough to respond. Nina Royal asked why the Foothill Community Police Advisory Board (CPAB) was not notified by Councilmember Rodriguez’s office of her request. That sentiment was echoed by the co-chair of CPAB, Phillip Tabbi. Captain Smith did not know an answer to that question, but did express his pride in the work Officer Contreras has done during his 6-plus years working in the Sunland-Tujunga community. Officer Contreras joined the call and expressed his gratitude to the community, and that this decision had left him sorting through many emotions. “I take pride that I never sold the community short,” he went on to say, “I never lied and was always real and honest (with the community).”

At one hour into the meeting, it was becoming evident this was going to be a marathon meeting. Ms. Grant moved on to item 5 on the agenda for updates from elected officials and representatives. First was Deputy City Attorney Mark Ross, who is the neighborhood prosecutor for Foothill Division. He stated he’s aware of some of the more vocal issues in the community, including the transient situation at New Home and Sunland Park and that he is working with LAPD to find a solution. He referenced the transients behind AutoZone who are believed to be stealing electricity from the street lights. They are working on that situation and moving to do more. Mr. Ross stated that he works closely with the SLO’s to handle these situations. During open comments, community stakeholder Aaron Schwartzbart asked how he could help Mr. Ross through his organization that rehabilitates street racers. They agreed to connect separately to discuss this more.

Declan Floyd from Senator Portatino’s office was next and he updated the community on the legislation submitted by the senator regarding public school funding. California is the only state in the nation that does not fund public schools based on enrollment, but rather attendance. Senator Portatino’s legislation will change that and provide additional methods for schools to receive funding.

Jason Maruca from Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office spoke about the increase in COVID positive rates throughout the county. He did state that approximately 50% of all recent COVID related hospitalizations in the county are due to patients going to the hospital for an unrelated reason, and then returning a positive test result. He reminded everyone to mask up and stay safe. Mr. Maruca finished his time speaking about the county redistricting. Sunland-Tujunga stayed in District 5, while some communities were added and removed from the district. The final district map can be found here.

Michelle Vergara, the East Valley Area representative for Mayor Garcetti’s office provided her updates next. She said that all city-operated COVID sites had now been transferred to the county, but the city is working with the county to ensure that testing and vaccines are available to those who need them. A drive-thru testing site will be opening soon at the Sunland Park Recreation Center. Ms. Vergara also noted that LA Metro has resumed their fares for rides, but passes are available at a 50% discount for the next six months.

Kelly Gonez, the Los Angeles Unified School District school board representative for District 6 spoke about the measures LAUSD is taking to battle the Omicron variant. She said that during the recent search for a new superintendent, the board was focused on a community driven search process. The board visited with many parents, teachers and students throughout the district to better understand what qualities the ideal candidate should possess. Ms. Gonez stated that they are excited about the hire of Alberto Carvalho as the new LAUSD superintendent because of his background and history in running a large school district while he was in Miami. She also mentioned the launch of expanded English learning programs as well as the return of the LAUSD art contest.

When the floor was opened for questions, there were plenty of COVID related concerns. Cheryl Schmidt asked Ms. Gonez about parental consent regarding student vaccinations and COVID relief funds potentially being spent on pushing Critical Race Theory. Ms. Gonez reaffirmed that LAUSD firmly stands behind parental consent, and the incident mentioned must have been an outlier. She also said that all COVID funds are being spent for their intended purposes, which can be seen in a breakdown on the LAUSD website, and that CRT is not part of curriculum. There were questions about students being unable to receive antigen tests at school sites, and they were forced to go outside of the area to receive a test to be able to return to school. Both Cindy Cleghorn and Ms. Grant provided examples of this and Ms. Gonez stated that there is a shortage of antigen tests. The allotted tests have all been distributed, but more have been ordered and are expected to arrive soon. Ms. Grant also requested that Ms. Gonez invite Superintendent Carvalho to a principal’s town hall held on February 23.

Ms. Schmidt then presented Matt Walker with a Certificate of Appreciation for his work cleaning Big Tujunga Road and La Tuna Canyon Road. Mr. Walker was appreciative, stating, “I am grateful that I can do something immediate for the community.” Mr. Walker hopes that his efforts will lead to more residents using the LA County 311 service to pick up trash and bulky items as opposed to just dumping it in the canyon or forest. “As less stacks up, hopefully people will see that dumping is unacceptable.”

Eve Sinclair from Ms. Rodriguez's office spoke next and said the testing center at North Valley City Hall, where the STNC would hold in person meetings, will be reopening and appointments can be made through Curative. She also said there will be an at-home test giveaway at Pacoima City Hall. Ms. Sinclair then provided updates on the $4 million earmark grant received for traffic and safety updates in the community. Among the updates, the speed feedback signs are in place, and they’ve shown to get drivers to slow down; and lights were installed at Howard Finn Park, a notoriously dark park located near residential apartments. This lighting will go a long way to solving many issues the park has been facing. During the open question segment, Ms. Sinclair was asked about the reassignment of SLO’s Contreras and Caloca, and she could not speak on it, stating this was the first she heard of the reassignment.

Ms. Grant then returned the meeting to the top of the agenda, to ensure that nothing was passed over. Pati Potter, the chair of the Land Use Committee provided the committee’s stance on the proposed Denny’s lot apartment project. The Committee voted unanimously to oppose the project because it would alter the Foothill Blvd. Corridor Site Specific Plan. She also advised the board that the owner of the property has hired an expediter to speed up the process of getting his project approved by the city. Mark Seigal added that the proposed apartments are in violation of the site plan. Ms. Grant asked for an official letter of the STNC opposing the project be ready for the next board meeting to ensure it is delivered to the city in time.

Vanessa Serrano, the representative to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment spoke next and provided the following updates. There is a funding and events workshop on January 20, from 6-7:00 pm and the department post election report is now live. The department also presented a draft for Neighborhood Council policy updates with action expected to be taken in March. Ms. Serrano then advised that new staff has been hired by the department.

The next item on the agenda were committee and liaison reports. Gerardo provided an update on the Pinewood Elementary School mural and thanked everyone for their help so far. The mural is coming along, and it appears to need a boom truck for the next phase. He is working with the principal of Pinewood to make it happen. Lallah Rowe advised that the youth committee is rescheduling various educational outreach events, and all will be moved to digital platforms. Ms. Cleghorn announced the two vacant board positions and their requirements.

After brief discussion, Ms. Grant announced that they would be postponing the board's official discussion and stance regarding opposing the move to close Whiteman Airport, but would allow public comment on the item. Predictably, this was where things got interesting again. Multiple members of the non-profit organization Pacoima Beautiful spoke out in opposition to the proposed stance of the STNC. All of them asked that the STNC reconsider and provided examples of how the airport negatively impacts the community. They argued the location of the airport is due to the large immigrant community, who are mainly lower income. The speakers who were in favor of keeping Whiteman Airport open spoke to the many opportunities it provides, including aviation programs where two-thirds of the youth participants are minority. As board members were beginning to enter the discussion, it was reminded that this topic was motioned to be tabled. The vote to table was held, and was in favor with 16 yes votes, 2 ineligible, and 1 abstained vote.

The meeting moved quickly after this, but there was one more item on the agenda that ruffled feathers, this time among the board itself. The item was the vote on the new Ad-Hoc Bylaws and Standing Rules Committee. The committee is charged with reviewing and updating the bylaws and standing rules, which have been in place without review since 2008. STNC Secretary Carol Hutchinson asked about a motion to approve each member of the committee individually, a request that was seconded by Jon Van Gunten. The motion passed 13 yes, 5 no, and 1 ineligible. Mark Seigal motioned to be added to the committee vote, and that vote passed unanimously. Mr. Seigal had worked in the original planning committee that adopted the bylaws, and was on the committee for 12 years. The vote on the individual committee members was uneventfully unanimous until community member Evelyn Serrano. Her appointment was rejected by a count of 7 yes, 8 no, and 4 abstain. Every other potential committee member was approved.

The board discussed the vote regarding Ms. Serrano. Clair Gordon stated that, “Actions like this send a message that they don’t matter. By voting her out, you’re effectively silencing a member of the community.” K.T. Travers agreed with that sentiment, saying “It’s a commitment to join a committee. We should have honored her commitment to the community.” It was pointed out by at least two members of the board, that Ms. Serrano could still be an active member of the community during those meetings. She just would not have a seat on the committee. Ms. Grant’s response was poignant and perhaps covered the thoughts of those who voted no. She stated that, “I feel someone on the bylaw committee should have experience serving on a board, currently or in the past. They need to understand how they are run.” With no other comments from the board, the meeting was adjourned. The next STNC general board meeting is expected to be held on Wednesday, February 9.

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