City talks about future of Railroad Days

The Portola City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 13, with a light agenda touching on the future of Railroad Days, Portola Concerts in the Park and weed abatement.

The meeting opened with public comment, with one local woman speaking about her disabled daughter living in Portola and the frustration they are experiencing with the snow. “Every day, it’s a chore to dig out and every day we get plowed back in. This has been a problem year after year,” the woman stated firmly.

Josh Hart, a local activist with Plumas Residents for Safer Telecommunications (PRST), also spoke to the room.

Hart noted that PRST is a group made up of concerned citizens of Plumas County, from Chilcoot to Chester, who came together in 2018 to participate in discussions around the development of the County’s first telecommunications ordinance.

PRST advocates for hard-wired copper landlines and fiber optic broadband as the primary robust and reliable communication networks needed on a daily basis, especially in a catastrophe such as the Camp Fire in Paradise.

PRST also raises questions and concern about the effect and impact of microwave radiation emitted by these wireless networks on local wildlife as well as impacts on human health. Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS) is a disabling characteristic recognized by the Federal Access Board.

Hart went on to explain that PRST feels that the Planning Commission meetings had proved to be a disappointment.

“Residents, dozens of residents, are on record testifying and there was an arrogance felt towards the public input. This is an ADA issue; public agencies are required to accommodate EMF exposure in the environment and the effect is has on those with disabilities. Again, during meeting with the Planning Commission, we felt that there wasn’t a dialogue, and people feel unheard,” Hart stated.

Hart then went on explain the PRST was reaching out to the city of Portola in hopes of supporting a countywide initiative that would tackle the topic and create an ordinance with more teeth, emphasizing the need for landlines.

Hart also noted the rapid placement of the newest cell tower in Chilcoot, raising concern over the visual blight and EMS. “There are also plans to install a tower near Nakoma,” Hart added. “We need to introduce a protective ordinance. Verizon and ATT are coming in with 5G towers and we need an ordinance that will give the city the ability to respond to applications properly.”

Following the statement given by Hart, the new CEO at Eastern Plumas Healthcare, Todd Plimpton, stood to introduce himself and stated that EPHC plans to continue to work with the City and deepen relationships, including assisting the city with snow removal.

City Council and staff communications

Councilmember Pat Morton opened with her attendance at the most recent LAFCo meeting, as well as an ad-hoc fire department meeting.

Councilmember Stan Peiler attended a meeting of Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District (EPRFPD) on Feb. 12, stating that relationships have grown between EPRFPD and the Beckwourth Fire Department. Councilmember Bill Powers also attended the LAFCo meeting, and a student mental health policy workshop in Sacramento on Feb. 12, with a focus on youth up to the age of 21. “Lots of exciting stuff at the workshop,” Powers exclaimed. He went on to touch on the cooperation being coordinated between local schools and mental health districts.

Mayor Tom Cooley closed out communications with his update, noting his participation at the most recent ad-hoc fire meeting and LAFCo meeting. “LAFCo is short one regular public member,” Cooley noted. “The city has information for those interested; the deadline for a letter of interest is Friday, March 22.”

Interim City Manager Leslie Chrysler spoke briefly about the fact that after research, the wage offers for the ongoing recruitment effort to find a City Manager have been reduced to a range of $80,000 to $105,000 salary as opposed to a $85,000 to $110,000 annual salary.

Chrysler noted that the process to create an amendment to the Safety Element in housing in the city’s General Plan had begun.

Chrysler acknowledged that the city is having issues with snow removal, but workers are constantly striving to manage the snow load. “It’s like it has been for years,” she stated.

The council then approved the consent calendar and minutes unanimously.

Railroad Days?

Will there be another Portola Railroad Days event after 36 years of festivities each summer?

Patricia Ryan and Rich McLaughlin, the dynamic duo that has been bringing the event together and to the city for the past seven years, attended the meeting.

Ryan said, “Rich and I took over in 2012, after the previous Railroad Days committee had dissolved. The committee essentially went from 18 down to us two. This turned the planning into a full-time job.”

Local Donna Mills said that planning the event is indeed time consuming and added that all of the work is very rewarding at the end, but “it will burn you out!”

Councilmember Powers interjected, “We know what a tremendous burden this event is on the coordinator, but what a fantastic job Pat and Rich have done over the years. Admittedly, the work is not very rewarding until the end result — but there is a lot of joy and happiness through the process.”

The need for a volunteer to step in and take the torch was made clear.

Rich McLaughlin commented that he and Ryan would be happy to coach, advise and give assistance to a new event coordinator, but ultimately, McLaughlin said, “I don’t want to be the guy begging for parade participation — we will gladly help someone.”

Powers raised the idea of turning the one-weekend Railroad Days event into a series of weekend events. “Would that create bigger attendance?” Powers asked the room.

Ryan noted that before final decisions were made, Western Pacific Railroad Museum staff should be included in the conversation as all look toward the future.

For those interested in potentially taking on the challenge of organizing the 2019 Portola Railroad Days event, contact City Hall at 832-6803.

Concert series

Discussion then turned toward the annual Summer Concerts in the Park series, which is slated for $6,000 in the budget for 2019.

Traditionally, the series lasts for six weeks each summer, ending on the weekend of Railroad Days in August. This year, the Lost Sierra Chamber of Commerce in Graeagle is willing to find and schedule the bands and assist with advertisement via banners and flyers.

As of yet, there are no food or alcohol vendors lined up for the series, and planners are asking if the schedule for the concert should be revised.

Some suggestions included reducing the number of concerts from six to four or five, moving the hours of the concert to an earlier start time (from 6 to 9 p.m. rather than 7 to 10 p.m.), and potentially adding a concert to the weekend of the Gravel Grinder bike race.

“We’ve got to book artists soon,” Powers noted. “We need to consider who our audience is — there are many ways to put this together.”

Donna Mills, who is involved with the Lost Sierra Chamber of Commerce, then commented, stating how tough it is to find volunteers these days, and she found great potential in moving from six to four concerts.

One of the biggest hurdles to clear will be prohibitive insurance costs for alcohol, in addition to finding reliable food vendors or service groups such as Rotary or the Lions Club interested in working the event.

Chrysler said a decision needs to be made soon, and that the item will be on the agenda for direction at the Feb. 27 meeting.

Fire Department

The meeting turned to issues related to the fire department, including fire inspections, weed abatement, backyard/outdoor burning and classic fire trucks.

The first item, fire and safety inspections, brought input from Chief Bob Frank of EPRFPD.

Hotels and apartment complexes with four or more units are required to have annual fire inspections, and currently, the city does not have a fee schedule for these inspections. This creates a need for the city to adopt fees to be charged for those inspections.

“A standardized state checklist is used,” Chief Frank said. “The inspection is looking for accessible fire extinguishers, signage, covers — obvious safety issues.”

All council members agreed that there was a need for a fee schedule, and that it was also a good time to open the door to further discussion on potential mandatory fire inspection of public access buildings and businesses, and the fees associated with those inspections to be done by Chief Frank.

Chrysler noted that there were a number of ways to determine the fees and direction was given to staff to research the topic further.

Talks then shifted to weed abatement. Recently, Chief Frank, Captain Elaine Frank, Code Compliance Officer Kevin Sankey and Chrysler traveled to Susanville and met with members of the Susanville Fire Department to review their successful weed abatement program.

The program has an 80 percent compliance rate and is easy to initiate. “In Susanville, property owners receive a 10-day notice after inspection. If the weed abatement is not completed within that timeframe, the city employs contactors to remove weeds with the cost then being assessed on the tax roll,” Chrysler explained.

Oels was very enthusiastic about the proposal, especially from a fire-wise point of view. Chief Frank also noted that he would be taking the idea to the county so as to enforce the potential new program in the outlying areas around the city.

After some discussion, council moved to pursue the program further, and the topic turned to backyard/outdoor burning within Portola City limits.

At this time, city residents are still legally permitted to burn outdoors, but the advent of curbside green waste collection through Intermountain Disposal from April through October has made it possible to discuss implementing a ban on burning in the city.

Julie Ruiz of the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District spoke on the subject, saying, “I am 100 percent behind the ban. We are dealing with these air quality issues, and not seeing improvement in air pollution, despite changing out 285 woodstoves thus far with the wood stove change-out program.”

Local Bob Morton opined, “There was no other way to get rid of the green waste in the past but we have another option now. I don’t see a problem with enforcing a no burn policy.”

Chief Frank also brought up the fact that many that are burning outside currently are abusing their permits and burning items such as construction materials. “You get people out here and they are burning things like construction waste and clothing,” he said.

“I 100 percent support this ban — it would also cut down on the possibility of having a Paradise fire situation.”

Council then moved to look into creating an outdoor/backyard-burning ban, with City Attorney Steve Gross to begin drafting the ordinance.

Finally, talks on the topic of the fire department moved to classic fire trucks.

The city owns two classic fire trucks, which are a part of the history of the city, but are currently sitting in the fire hall and rotting away, in addition to taking up space that could be used for current equipment.

One truck, a 1939 American-LaFrance fire engine, was approved for indefinite retention by the city in a 1982 ordinance, giving the city a now 80-year old piece of history to preserve.

Council members agreed that the antiques should be preserved for posterity and discussed various options for bringing the engines to the public eye and prevent that history from being lost to time.

Cannabis regulations

During the last meeting of the council Alex Lester gave a presentation on his medical cannabis company, and his desire to see the city change its ordinance regarding the allowance of medical cannabis dispensaries.

The previous meeting left staff with a motion to investigate the cost and process associated with moving forward with a consideration of a tax for medical cannabis product sales and an ordinance which would allow for dispensaries in the city limits, conditioned on the passage of a cannabis product tax, along with models from other cities of similar size that have allowed for a tax and cannabis dispensaries.

Chrysler informed council that staff is researching that issue and is requesting that city council consider appointing an ad-hoc committee to work with staff on the project. It was suggested that Mayor Cooley and Councilmember Powers be appointed to the committee due to prior research and legwork on the issue.

After minimal discussion, Mayor Cooley approved the formation of the new ad hoc committee and council moved to the final item on the agenda.

Emergency action on north lift station upgrades

Per a special meeting held Jan. 22, which found that an emergency exists at the Northside Sewer station and that the time has come for competitive bidding for needed upgrades, council reviewed the finding and took the action to re-state the declared emergency. This will be done at every city council meeting until the situation is resolved. With a roll call vote, all approved the finding and adjourned the meeting.

The City Council welcomes interest and participation in all regularly held meeting, which occur on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. For more information, contact City Hall at 832-6803 or visit cityofportola.com.   

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