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Brooks Institute Settlement

Is The City Hiding The Truth From You About Brooks Institute?

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. —Buddha

 

The City Cuts And Runs On Brooks Institute Debacle

Citizens Short Changed

The folks at City Hall are trying hard to put on a brave and jubilant face in trying to explain why their decision to accept $71,000 to settle a lawsuit against Brooks Institute is a victory. Readers of this letter know better. The settlement does not even cover the rents and security deposit that Brooks was to have paid in the first 6 months of their lease or the future lost rents and property damages.

By our best estimate, there was $61,000 in lost rent Brooks Institute was to pay under the lease for 6 months in 2016. Also there is the $200,000 it will cost in tenant improvements to return the space to leasable condition. Add to that the undisclosed amount the city spent in legal fees and staff time to reach this point, there is well over $261,000 lost in this settlement.

History of Events

The Brooks Institute example is a case study in ineptitude

On March 1, 2016, after meeting with the then Mayor of Ventura and downtown property owners, Brooks executed an office lease for the 4th and 5th floors at 505 Poli Street, behind City Hall. That lease was for a period of 6 months with provisions of four -1 year options to extend.

The contract expressly provides that concurrent with the signing of the lease with Brooks, prior to their taking take possession, had to first pay a security deposit of $10,181.20, first months rent of $10,181.20 and last months rent of $17,390.65, for a total of $37,753.05.

The money was never paid. Yet the City allowed Brooks and their contractors’ access to enter the premises to tear out the offices in the building and start building out their new space. City personnel knew it. Engineering plans and permits were expedited and the work commenced.

It was never completed. Brooks walked away from the project in August, 2016. No rent was paid for July through December, 2016. An additional loss of $61,087.20.

On December 22, 2016, the City Attorney filed a complaint seeking damages for lost rents and security deposit ($84,936), the cost of repairing and restoring the property destroyed by Brooks in starting to perform tenant improvements (according to proof at trial) attorneys fees and punitive damages.

That lawsuit was against Brooks Holdings, LLC., Green Planet Inc., dba GPHomestay, a Massachusetts Corporation, and Xinwie Lin, the primary stockholder of Green Planet. The only person that signed the leases agreement with the City was Edward M. Clift as President of Brooks Holdings, LLC. This company had been formed, one year before, to acquire a bankrupt Brooks Institute of Technology.    Nobody else signed any agreements, contracts or guarantees.

Brooks Institute paid no money to the City for rent, no money for a security deposit and no money to restore the tenant improvement their contractor destroyed at 505 Poli.

A Lease “Approved As To Form” by City Attorney

To further compound this enormous error, the written lease agreement did not have any provisions for a performance bond and no performance guarantees signed by Green Planet or Ms. Xinwie Lin. They all orally assured our Mayor, the city staff and the City Council that they were financially sound and would bring a thriving school of higher learning to the community for many years. You know, “trust us”, our word is our bond.

City Attorney Gregory Diaz closes the book on Brooks institute

Those promises and assurances proved false and evaporated after 4 months. City leaders were blinded by glittering opportunity, dollar signs and the prospects that all of this wonderful development would come to the downtown. City leaders were so caught up in this “wonderful idea” that economic reality was ignored.

When the City Attorney, the same person who negotiated this settlement, signs a lease as “Approved As To Form”, does he have a responsibility to ask why the lease didn’t have any guarantees or bonds?

We may never get an accurate reporting of what the damages are in fact. Loss of future rents from other potential tenants, costs of repairing the property and legal costs. We were assured however that “the City is conducting a through process review to determine what caused the delay to collect the amount due from Brooks, and that we (they) will also be developing a better administrative process to prevent this from happening in the future. The City takes this issue seriously and we (they) strive to promote transparency at the highest level”. Now, City Attorney Gregory Diaz tells the Ventura County Star, “This matter is now closed.”

To our knowledge, the city never informed the public of the results of that review process. In fact, no one knows if the city actually performed the review.

The only noble gesture in this entire debacle was the public apology of then City Manager, Mark Watkins, who accepted full responsibility. He has since retired. As for a certain member of the City Council, they were not quite so noble, quickly throwing anyone and everyone under the bus in attempt to divert attention from their foolish folly.

Call for Action

Demand accountability from city officials.

Brooks Institute is a case study in ineptitude. Only this time it’s different. We can hold city officials to their promise. City staff committed to investigate the process thoroughly and make changes. Ask to see the results of that investigation. Ask to look at the changes to the review process the city implemented as a result of that investigation.

Click on any one of the pictures of City Councilmembers below. Your email program will open automatically. Write to your elected officials. Demand to learn what changes the city’s made following the Brooks Institute breakdown. It’s your right as a citizen to know the city is working in your best interest. It’s your right to know how they are changing to prevent it from happening again.

Editors’ Comment

In the private sector, when a so-called “good deal” goes bad for lack of common sense and due diligence people are deservedly fired.. In the public sector there are zero consequences, only platitudes and assurances “that this will never happen again” or “we will strive to promote transparency.”

The City Council directly hires two people, the City Manager and the City Attorney. While the City Manager recently retired/resigned, after the Brooks Institute debacle, the City Attorney should be under greater scrutiny.

Demand To Know What Changes Have Been Made To The Real Estate Process As A Result Of Brooks Institute

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

How To Make The Most Powerful Job In Ventura Government More Accountable.

Local Ventura Politics

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
—George Santayana

Here we go again. Ventura is hiring its fourth City Manager since 2000.

You’ve undoubtedly told our children or grandchildren, “Haste makes waste.” It’s sound advice; especially when you want to prevent them from making a mistake. The same advice holds true for Ventura’s City Council when hiring our next City Manager. A hasty decision now leads to adverse consequences in the future.

The City Manager is the most powerful role in Ventura’s city government. He controls millions of dollars and impacts Ventura for years to come. He does this with little oversight by a part-time City Council. And history shows the Council lacks sound financial judgment when overseeing him. Voters know even less about how the City Manager does his job.

A Chance For The Council To Start Fresh

This City Council faces its most important decision—selecting the next City Manager. It’s no easy task. The new manager will be responsible for healing Ventura after the Thomas Fire. No prior City Manager has faced such a daunting task.

The Council should act slowly, boldly and thoughtfully when hiring. They should think creatively and progressively as they make their selection.

Balancing these goals will not be easy. The Council will feel internal and external pressure to act quickly. They’ll want to fill the vacant position right away to provide leadership at City Hall. And, citizens will demand someone to manage the Thomas Fire recovery. The search firm Ventura hired will add to the external pressure, too. Ventura pays the search firm when the new City Manager accepts the job. Typically, the fee is three months of the City Manager’s starting salary. In this case, it’s $60,500. The search firm will want the City Council to act quickly, so it gets paid.

The Council must resist the urge to succumb to the pressure.

We Know Poor Choices Lead To Financial Disaster

 

The tenure of the past three city managers keeps getting shorter.

The City Council does a poor job overseeing the City Manager. Former City Manager Rick Cole moved $7.5 million from the Public Liability Fund, Workers’ Compensation Fund and Information Technology Fund to other areas in the budget to make it appear as if the city’s budget was balanced. Either the Council didn’t catch the manipulation or was unwilling to investigate further.

A city manager could confuse the city council in the past.

Former City Manager Donna Landeros reallocated $9 million earmarked for the proposed Convention Center for various city programs, and nobody knows what happened to the money.

And, most recently, retiring City Manager Mark Watkins acted as the chief cheerleader on Measure O. He touted the money was for city services when the truth is it will eventually go towards employees’ pensions.

Even the City Council’s most recent hiring decision costs taxpayers money. The Council erred in the transition to Mark Watkins from Rick Cole. Cole received total salary and benefits of $189,341 along with a housing allowance to move to the city. When Watkins came in, he didn’t need a housing allowance because he already lived in Ventura. Rather than save that money, the Council chose to increase his salary and bonus to $242,059. The $52,718 increase impacts the city’s future financial condition negatively. At the time, Councilmember Christy Weir claimed hiring Mr. Watkins would save the city more money than the rise in his salary. The figures don’t bear that out over the four years he served in the role.

What’s more, Mr. Watkins is to receive his retirement pension based on his highest salary. At 56 years old, Watkins will receive retirement pension based on his $242,059 salary.

Greater Transparency Is The Key

Past City Managers had a bureaucratic background. Some argue requiring bureaucratic experience makes sense. Bureaucrats are the antithesis of transparent, though. They operate out of sight of the voters. This lack of transparency was disastrous for Ventura. Here’s why.

The city manager would be more accountable with published standards of performance.

A bureaucrat measures success by how large a team he manages. He’s driven to increase budgets to protect that organization. A more massive government usually equates to increased regulation. Rarely is that beneficial to citizens.

Also, a bureaucrat that is friendly towards and advocates for the city staff is not impartial. He will be reluctant to reduce expenses, eliminate unnecessary work, redirect work to private entities or minimize long-term staff costs. Bloated staff costs taxpayers money.

Finally, a bureaucrat negotiates his retirement when negotiating for the staff because he participates in the same plan. Human nature being what it is, the City Manager will likely bargain less vigorously, creating a conflict of interest.

Transparency begins with knowing how the City Manager is performing. The city should use Standards of Performance (SOPs) to measure achievement. Currently, the City Manager doesn’t have SOPs listed on its website. The Council should prepare SOPs, and the city should post them for the public to review. What’s more, the City Manager’s accomplishments should be in the public record. Citizens deserve a yardstick to measure if the city is meeting the City Council’s directives.

How to be more transparent when selecting the next City Manager:

  • Publish the screening criteria the City Council gave to the search firm to select candidates
  • Reevaluate the job qualifications and look outside of municipal government.
  • Post the Standards of Performance. Establish measurable performance levels on a regular review schedule.
  • Establish a Blue-ribbon committee to provide the Council strict salary and bonus guidelines.
  • Verify a candidate’s financial management expertise. The candidate must provide clear and incontrovertible evidence.
  • Insist on community outreach success from the candidates. The job description doesn’t list this as one of the primary duties.

Editors’ Comments

Hiring the next City Manager is paramount, and citizen input is a must.

 

Tell The City Council Not To Act Hastily

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

How To Connect To Your 2018 Ventura City Councilmembers

Louis L'Amour

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
—Louis L’Amour

Our federalist system gives us many opportunities to participate in our democracy. Some forms of participation are more common than others. And some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.

Meet Your 2018 City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2018. We have one new Councilmember and six incumbents. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Click On A Councilmembers Photo To Email

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

Let then know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. No matter what you write, however, share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.

New construction after Thomas Fire

The Council Mustn’t Fail The Victims Of The Thomas Fire

Thomas Fire consumes Ventura homes

The Thomas Fire consumed over 400 residences in Ventura

At the December 11th Ventura City Council meeting, there was total cooperation and support of all City departments, County of Ventura, State of California, Cal Fire and every other state and local agency present and committed to protecting our health and welfare. The heroic efforts are endless and stories of individuals, going above and beyond, will follow for weeks, months and maybe years.

At the meeting, the keywords were:

  • Patience
  • Understanding
  • Closure

Hurdles will be:

  • Things will not happen as quickly we think it should
  • Air quality
  • Toxins
  • Unsafe partial structures

Several stages will take place before the actual rebuilding begins. In the meantime, all city services, police, fire, public works, water, etc., will continue, giving most of us a sense of returning to normalcy.

First-responders fight the Thomas Fire

Firefighters and first-responders performed admirably during the Thomas Fire

We are utterly grateful for the first responders and thoroughly sympathetic to those who have lost so much. This article is about moving forward.

Take Bold Steps Now For the Thomas Fire Victims

Ventura only needs to look at the recent actions in the City of Santa Rosa, to help prepare for the massive undertaking of rebuilding over 500 new homes.

Taken from an interview with the Santa Rosa Mayor:

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey surveys the damage from fires in October 2017

‘In 90 days I expect the rebuilding process to be well underway, with at least some homes under construction. The Santa Rosa City Council has established what essentially is a “second” planning department to deal specifically with rebuilding, which will smooth and shorten the permit process to get construction underway faster, and speed the inspection process to help builders keep their work moving.’

In Santa Rosa, the mayor was asked: How is red tape being cut to expedite rebuilding?

‘In Santa Rosa, we adopted our “Resilient City” ordinance to issue building permits over the counter, without extensive review, to anyone wanting to rebuild within their home’s prior footprint.
Design review will be limited to a staff determination rather than requiring a public hearing. Second units will be allowed on the property so homeowners can live on site while rebuilding their homes.

‘And as noted earlier, a separate “Resilient City” planning department has been created to specifically deal with rebuild projects, ensuring that firestorm recovery doesn’t have to compete with the day-to-day planning needs of city government.’

For decades, Ventura is infamous in its slowness to approve and issue building permits. The Form-Based Code concept became known as “Ventura, Building One Project at a Time.” Attempts to change this system have been mostly unsuccessful. It has not been a priority.

We have Sacramento to thank for more of the regulatory hurdles that add to this cumbersome and wearisome process. The City of Ventura may not be able to change the regulations and fiats issued by the Sacramento political folks, but we can change the time it takes to review and issue permits.

A Tale of Two Cities

As an example of sending a mixed message, Ventura Community Director Jeff Lambert told a town hall meeting of Keller-Williams realtors:

“We are looking at least six months before construction can begin. If you are planning on rebuilding your home and seeking temporary housing, it would be best to secure a place for at least a year if not 18 months to 2 years if possible. There is no definite timeline at this point, and it would be better to seek a longer lease than a shorter one…”

It is true that Ventura is moving into “untested waters,” but in times of a terrible disaster, business, as usual, is not an option for Local Ventura politics.

We have many experienced and licensed builders, plumbers, electricians and engineers in this City who are qualified to assist in this process.

Rebuilding after the Thomas Fire is paramount

EDITORS COMMENT

 We urge the City Council to immediately:
  1. Modifying and reducing the building permit and fee schedule is a positive step. However, Insurance companies will likely pay building and permit fees. After the rebuild, if the prior resident remains in the house for a year or two, reimbursing those costs may be in order but not as up-front fee elimination.
  2. Require all building plans for single-family homes and related structures to review and permits issued within 90 to 120 days of application.
  3. Allow local Ventura engineers and approved professionals in the construction industry to review and certify that the technical requirements of the uniform building codes have been met, and require city staff to accept these certifications in approving or disapproving plans submitted to building and safety.
  4. Outsource the construction process so qualified professionals may review building plans and to conduct building inspections for better cost efficiency. Hiring more city employees causes long-term costs that are difficult to control and reduce once the projects are resolved.
  5. Contact Santa Rosa city officials to learn from their experience.
Times of crisis require significant measures to address that emergency.  The citizens in this community who suffered in this disaster need all the help they can get.

 

Have An Opinion? Share It With A City Councilmember.

Click on the photo of any Councilmember listed below to email them directly.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

For more information like this, subscribe to our newsletter, Res Publica. Click here to enter your name and email address.