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ventura water

Ventura Water Has A Wonderful Opportunity To Be More Transparent

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

— George Bernard Shaw

 

In Ventura, the city staff uses the Brown Act to do precisely the opposite of what lawmakers created it to do.

The California Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend and take part in meetings of local legislative bodies. Legislators designed it to end “back room” deals and bring local government out into the open. Ventura Water uses it to throttle the flow of information instead.

Oversight By The Water Commission

Ventura established a Water Commission to advise Ventura Water.  The Commission is to review and make recommendations about:

  • Water rates
  • Water resources infrastructure projects
  • The integrated water resources management plan
  • Water supply options
  • The Urban Water Management Plan approval process
  • A water dedication and in-lieu fee requirement
  • Other water resource issues

Before the Commission, Ventura Water operated with little oversight. Even with the Water Commission, it continues to control all meeting agendas and minutes. At best, this restricts the flow of information to the City Council. At worst, information flow is non-existent. The City Council doesn’t receive any meaningful information that may help with their future choices.

Here is how Ventura Water does things today:

  • Ventura Water’s General Manager and the City Attorney make and approve all agendas. The Commission can only discuss agenda items at the meeting. Any deviation may violate the Brown Act.
  • The General Manager controls all minutes for all sessions. Minutes reports only action items, eliminating the record of any discussion.

Circumventing The Water Commission

Ventura Water forces the City Council to get their information from the General Manager. Thus bypassing the entire reason the city established the Water Commission.

Rarely does Ventura Water share the discussion on relevant topics—if ever. Debates over issues are not reviewed or scrutinized. Important issues never enter the public record such as water quality, testing quality results, fees, costs, timelines, water capacity, water usage, what other agencies are proposing, and deposit account balances.

Because minutes show only action items, all discussions of issues are as though they never happened. So, when the City Council looks to the minutes for any records of problems or concerns, the minutes are no help. Nor are they sufficiently transparent to Ventura’s citizens.

Communicating Clean Water Safety Violations

Ventura Water deals with a water system that impacts all Ventura citizens directly. In August 2018, the department violated the Federal Clean Water Safety standards. Ventura Water breached the Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) drinking water standard in August. The U.S. EPA regulates TTHM at a maximum allowable, annual, average level of 80 parts per billion. Any amount above 80 ppb results in harmful health effects over time. Ailments such as cancer and adverse reproductive outcomes can happen. Ventura Water has corrected the problem, but that’s not the issue.

At issue is how the utility communicated the problem and the solution.

Why You May Not Have Heard Of This

You may not have heard about the incident. It’s not because Ventura Water didn’t announce it. They did. Ventura Water fulfilled the letter of the law, but it may have missed the intent behind it. Meeting the legal requirement seems to be the minimum standard.  Yet setting the bar at the lowest level may place everyone’s health at risk in the future.

What wasn’t said is as important as what was said. Bathing in or cooking with the TTHM water was not mentioned, for instance.

Open communication is what builds trust with a public utility during a crisis. The TTHM violation happened in the Pierpont Area. Unless you live in the affected area, Ventura Water would not have contacted you by mail. Ventura Water notified the schools and nursing homes in the area. Schools and nursing homes informed the parents or residents at their discretion.

Ventura Water obeyed the “letter of the law,” but failed to respect the spirit of the law. They reported the incident to residents in the affected area by mail, posted it on their website, and took out an ad in the Ventura County Star.

Not The Only Incident In 2018

In July, Ventura Water withheld information from the Water Commission. A panel of experts examined Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) of treated wastewater. There are no quality standards or guidelines today. The experts found DPR (for drinking purposes) was a threat to public safety. The City Council did not know that. They were only alerted to that fact after private citizens brought it to their attention. The result was, the City Council decided not to use DPR as an alternative for now. Still, the staff soldiers on asking for large sums to build projects for DPR.

There are many laws to protect citizens and keep them informed about what happens in city government. When a government agency does the bare minimum but goes no further than the law requires, regardless of the impact and financial consequences, citizens mistrust it.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water needs to be more transparent. The City Council allows it to operate in secrecy and subterfuge. Stop. Ventura’s citizens deserve and expect open communication. Here’s what the Council should do:

First, make hiring the next General Manager a priority. Insist City Manager Alex McIntyre interview the Water Commissioners. He should do this without Water Department staff present. The goal is to get the knowledge and details of Ventura Water over the past fifteen years. He’ll gain the perspective to understand what lies ahead in the next six years.

Second, have the Water Commission’s Chairman set the meeting agendas, with input from all commissioners.

Third, ensure all Water Commission’s minutes reflect topics and discussions from all meetings.

Fourth, have the Water Commission Chairman provide a written report to the City Council on a quarterly basis.

Fifth, expand the communication channels Ventura Water uses to inform the public. Set the standard higher than the minimum legal standard.

Insist The City Council Makes Ventura Water More Transparent

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.

Councilmembers
Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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What You Missed In The 2018 State-Of-The-City Speech

“We’re no longer a quaint little beach town.” —Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews

Mayor Neal Andrews’s State-of-the-City address was noteworthy more for what he didn’t say. The speech was a summary of last year’s events delivered by each of the major department managers with summary comments by Mr. Andrews.

What this year’s address lacked was a vision for Ventura’s future. Neither Mr. Andrews nor the city’s department heads mentioned job creation, new sources of revenue or business development. Instead, we heard how the city utilized Measure O’s $10.8M sales tax revenue.

The fact remains that Ventura faces significant challenges. The recovery from the devastating Thomas Fire has brought out the best in people but also exposed failures in systems and processes. We acknowledge the heroic efforts of citizens, police, fire and water personnel who fought to prevent further tragedy. But, we must temper those accomplishments with the systemic failures by the local government that contributed to this horror.

2018 Challenges Not Addressed In The State-of-the-City

Rebuilding After The Thomas Fire

Post-fire reconstruction is overwhelming the Building & Safety Department. Community Development Director Jeff Lambert put a brave face on it, but the stress was palpable.

City Manager

There is currently no City Manager. Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick stepped up to lead the city’s recovery efforts. From all indications, he is performing proficiently. Nonetheless, the search goes on for a permanent replacement.

Water Department’s New General Manager

New Ventura Water General Manager, Kevin Brown assumed leadership only weeks before the Thomas Fire. He now faces the double task of improving performance while he defends the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.

Elections By District

The 2019 City Councilmembers will represent specific voting districts. Before 2018, voters elected Councilmembers “at large” to serve the entire city. This change will force Councilmember Mike Tracy and Mayor Neal Andrews to retire from City Council. New faces representing the Ventura Avenue and East Saticoy Districts will occupy their seats on the Council.

The Deafening Silence

In the closest thing to providing a vision of Ventura’s future, Mayor Andrews laid out his commitment to “focus on building prosperity.” He plans to support the business community, but he shared no specific policies or initiatives.

Another of Mayor Andrews’s commitments was to “radically increase the city’s technology.” He plans to do this through an improved broadband strategy. He revealed no further details or costs or how to pay for this plan.

Pragmatically Looking Ahead

What we know is Ventura faces specific, severe financial and budgetary challenges, even with the Measure O revenue. What we don’t know is from where the extra funding will come.

Other issues not commented on were:

  • Ventura will receive less property tax revenue from the 535 houses ravaged by the Thomas Fire.
  • Ventura can expect lower gasoline sales tax revenue because of trends towards less driving.
  • Unfunded pension costs will increase another 10%-20% next year.
  • The recent rains increased road damage on unrepaired streets. Telegraph, Victoria, Wells, and Thompson all show the effect of the storms.
  • Ventura Water needs an extra $500-$600 million over the next decade for water and wastewater infrastructure. Recent rate increases over the past four years will not cover this shortfall. Water rates will increase again.
  • Legal costs to defend the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire will come from the General Fund. The unbudgeted expense could result in higher fees.

Where Is The Vision?

There was one tiny glimmer of vision in Neal Andrews’s address. He said, “We [Ventura] are no longer a quaint little beach town. We’re among the top 10% of the largest cities in California.” Mayor Andrews recognizes a truth many of us have known for years. Ventura has urban issues, and we can’t solve urban problems with provincial solutions. We need fresh thinking.

However, Mayor Andrews and the city staff have not shared a future vision. Some may look to a new City Manager to provide a long-term plan. But experience indicates this is wishful thinking.

Rick Cole nearly ruined Ventura financially.

In 2004, the City Council hired Rick Cole. Mr. Cole had a grand urban development plan for Ventura. He spent millions planning to narrow Victoria and make Ventura a “walking community.” His unrealistic thinking nearly ruined Ventura financially. The economic impact will haunt Ventura for decades to come.

Mark Watkins inherited a mess from Rick Cole.

Following Mr. Cole, the City Council hired Mark Watkins. Mr. Watkins did not have the

grandiose vision of Mr. Cole. The City Council employed him as a caretaker. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to overcome the problems left by his predecessor. He inherited budget deficits. He managed those deficits by not hiring more employees. The remaining city staff he inherited stumbled executing his vision. As an example, Mr. Watkins lack of supervision surfaced when his team fumbled Brooks Institute. That mistake cost Ventura taxpayers over $261,000.

The two new members of the City Council may have a vision, but they are unknown and have no experience.

Editors’ Comments

Ventura is struggling. We’re struggling following the Thomas Fire. We’re struggling financially. We see the struggle in the faces of our neighbors. We see it in the faces of people on the street. We read it social media.

If the city is to move forward, it’s up to us to provide that vision. The government does not create jobs or develop business, nor do we want them to. Government (the City) is the last entity you want to create jobs. The government does better to stay out of the way so businesses may thrive.

What Government can do is create an environment that is favorable for business. They can do so by:

  1. Issuing permits faster
  2. Charging competitive fees (compared to other cities in the county)
  3. Creating acceptable zoning that encourages desirable companies to relocate to Ventura
  4. Identifying desirable industries with high paying jobs
  5. Bringing qualifying business owners to Ventura on a personalized tour of the city

Contact your City Councilmember. We need the revenue to offset our growing needs. Demand a plan to attract more business to the area; preferably ones with better than entry-level jobs. Insist the city assist property owners to fill all vacant commercial property. With jobs, revenues will increase. With jobs, crime will decrease. With jobs, Ventura will prosper.

 

Demand a Plan From City Council To Attract More Businesses with Better Than Entry-Level Jobs to Ventura

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

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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.