By Kevin Harris
The Thousand Oaks City Council approved the final phase of a program to “under ground” utility wires, and agreed to beef up the police and sheriff’s automated license plate reading capabilities during Tuesday night’s meeting.
Item 8B) Public Hearing
A resolution establishing Underground Utility District No. 13 – Janss Road, between Moorpark Road and Windsor Drive
Presented by Emergency Services Manager Graham Watts, who began by explaining that in 1993, the Thousand Oaks City Council approved a citywide Undergrounding Master Plan, which identified priority areas for the potential under grounding of utility lines. Over the past 20 years, the Public Works Department has completed undergrounding work in 9 areas around the city.
In June, 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission announced that they are ending the Rule 20A program, the one which provides for the undergrounding of utility wiring, at the end of 2021. SCE has $1.9 million in final funding for the city. Thousand Oaks must use those funds by December 31, or risk losing those funds entirely.
“Staff has identified Janss Road, between Moorpark Road and Windsor, as the best remaining candidate with above ground utilities to underground, using the $1.9 million in SCE credit funding available to Thousand Oaks,” Watts said. He added that the project would be completed at no cost to property owners.
The project would remove up to 12 power and telephone poles, “including many that are right in the middle of the sidewalk on Janss Road,” according to Watts. “The completion of this project will result in a more resilient electrical and communications network, improved pedestrian and bike access and better overall neighborhood aesthetics,” he added.
Aproximately 40 property owners reside inside of the affected area, and Watts said they’ve all been notified about this evening’s public hearing. Additionally, staff has created a project website, available at www.toaks.org/janss.
If approved by the city council, actual construction of the project would begin sometime in 2023 or 2024.
City Council Comments/Questions
Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Pena: “Why can we not start sooner? (construction). Why is it taking until 2024?”
Public Works Deputy Director Nader Heydari said that all of the design elements have to be aligned right in order for construction to go smoothly once it begins.
Council Member Kevin McNamee: Asked staff about plans to underground more utility lines in the city, beyond the scope of Rule 20A. “What’s the strategy at this point on getting funding to move forward with such an activity?”
Heydari said the city has its own account for undergrounding of utility lines but it is not substantial. “We have noticed that PG&E in the Bay Area has announced that they’re going to be undergrounding 2000 miles of lines, and we’re hoping that Southern California Edison may follow suit on,” he added.
The council voted to approve the resolution unanimously, with Mayor Pro Tem Ed Jones absent from the meeting.
For more on this topic, please see Citizens Journal’s recently published article, also by Kevin Harris, on the same topic, based on Simi Valley City Council’s handling of their final undergrounding push. That can be viewed at https://www.citizensjournal.us/underground-utility-lines-rv-parking-water-pollution-simi-city-council/?fbclid=IwAR3_oIDLK_oZNkvDYNUDGmyfDJn6pWEu1Lj3GswmD_mw7dBD0Aw01lf35sw.
Item 10) Department Reports
Automatic License Plate Reading Equipment Purchase
The city council was asked to approve the purchase of Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) equipment and software from Vigilant Solutions LLC (automated license plate readers). This equipment would allow local PD and Sheriff personnel to capture and store the license plate images of vehicles en masse, and to retrieve and view those images if and when it becomes necessary as part of a criminal investigation.
Thousand Oaks Police Chief Jeremy Paris gave the initial fast-flowing presentation, where he touched on the history of ALPRs in the city before discussing the newly proposed, expanded program. License plate readers were first purchased in Thousand Oaks back in 2017, and were only vehicle-mounted then. The following year the city added some trailer mounted and fixed systems. According to Paris, those ALPRs helped solve many crime case, including theft and even attempted kidnapping.
Some of the proposed enhancements include three additional patrol car reader systems; two additional message board trailers; the purchasing of 4 additional fixed plate reader cameras, and working with local businesses to encourage them to incorporate ALPR systems.
According to Chief Paris, citizen privacy and data protection is of the utmost importance. All license plate data collected is discarded after 5 years, though proposed legislation exists to shorten that length of time considerably. Additionally, there are many safety protocols related to who can access the data and under what circumstances they may do so, much of which was flushed out during the following Q&A with the city council.
City Council Questions/Comments
McNamee: Spoke in support of the program, and asked the police chief about “right to know/need to know” as it relates to the data collected by the automatic plate readers.
Chief Paris: “Every access point of this system is controlled by a unique log-in by the person using that. You only get a log-in if you’re trained,” Paris said. He also explained that when someone does log in, the system tracks where they logged in from, the time they logged in, and what data they viewed, among other key data points that will allow each viewing to be audited later on.
During his questioning of Police Chief Paris, McNamee said that he has met with local mall and shopping center owners “to interest them in also adding license plate readers to the ingress and egress of their facilities create a welcoming shopping experience.” He asked the police chief what the local response has been to him about the license plate readers.
“The ones I’ve spoken to are all in favor of it,” Paris said.
Mayor de la Pena: Mentioned problems with similar plate reader systems by the same company in other states causing some people to be wrongfully arrested. Paris responded by saying that the article the mayor was quoting from described a police stop in Oakland, CA of a rental car that was reported as stolen, and as such it was treated as a “high risk stop,” with guns drawn. It turned out the car was not stolen, but the rental company made the mistake, not the police department of the license plate reader company.
Mayor de la Pena also asked about the budget for the cost to the city for the project, which she said was quoted to be $129 thousand. Paris conformed that figure and said the remaining costs are paid for from previous budget items.
Adam: Asked what the devices take pictures of, specifically. Paris said the front or the back of the car – the license plates. “You can tell usually what make and model the car is, and you can read the license plate,” Paris said. He added that in the two years he has been using the system, he has never seen it pick up the person driving the car, but that it has been known to happen incidentally.
Bob Engler: Asked the police chief to elaborate more on how the data is privacy protected.
“Any use of (a plate viewing) has to be tied to a criminal case… There’s nobody that can go through there and go through the data and just fish for things. It’s always attached to an investigation,” Paris said. Engler then asked about the sharing of stored data.
Paris then read part of the formal published policy on data sharing, with the gist being that yes, the department will share the data with other departments, “prosecutors and others” that agree to adhere to the same privacy standards. However, “the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office does not share ALPR data with commercial or private entities.”
Sean Maranian: President, Thousand Oaks Boulevard Association. Very much in favor of the program, and pledged to donate $25 thousand on behalf of the association to it should the council vote in favor.
Matthew Hefschnit: 40+ year Thousand Oaks resident. In favor of the program. Said the safety here has kept him in the area. “Yes, there is a privacy concern, but we are in the digital age… You already have these LPRs. They’re already on the (police) cruisers. They’re already in the city, around the state. They’re already there,” he said. He added that this program is just expanding it to keep the city safe.
During the final council comment period, Council Member Kevin McNamee gave a lengthy, impassioned speech showing his support for, and how and why he helped bring the license plate reader program to Thousand Oaks. While talking about the corner of Janss and Moorpark Road being used for frequent drug sales, McNamee said, “I do not and will not tolerate drug sales in my city. I take this very personally. License plate readers go a long way to stop drug dealing,” he said.
“Because drugs steal the hearts and minds of the individual, no longer do they have purpose in life. But now they’re addicted to the drug, and that’s what’s dictating their behavior, not why God put them here on this Earth,” he added.
McNamee said he looks for license plate readers to provide a balance between privacy and the public safety benefit. He also has reached out to the mayors and council members of Agoura, Westlake Village and Moorpark to interest them in adding license plate readers in those cities, “so we as a Ventura County community, can keep the criminals out.”
The vote was unanimous in favor of purchase the license plate readers, with Mayor Pro Tem Ed Jones absent from the meeting.
The next Thousand Oaks City Council meeting will be on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at 6:00 PM. The URL to watch the meetings back and to download a meeting agenda is https://toaks.primegov.com/public/portal.
Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists, and having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also an author and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks.