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2019 State-of-the-City

What You Missed In The 2019 State-Of-The-City Speech

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

—John F. Kennedy

2019 State-of-the-City Address

Mayor Matt LaVere filled his 2019 State-of-the-City address with images of a utopian Ventura. Unfortunately, it lacked specifics on addressing Ventura’s most pressing issues.

The mayor laid out his seven goals for 2019-2020. His vision included several goals that his predecessors didn’t achieve. Six of the seven were unmeasurable. What’s more, many goals are mere rhetoric and very little substance.

VENTURA’S HOMELESS CENTER

2019 State-of-the-City AddressTopping the mayor’s list of priorities was opening a permanent, full-service homeless shelter by December 31, 2019. The date gives this goal specificity. Opening the center doesn’t begin to solve the problem, though. Mayor LaVere and the City Council equate opening a homeless center with improving Ventura’s homeless situation. They are not the same thing.

Homelessness has risen the past three years to 555 persons from 300 in 2016. In that time, the city has increased spending on the homeless. The problem continues to grow despite spending more tax money to solve it.

The Council and city government are hoping the new homeless shelter will stem the tide. A closer look at the facts, though, shows their hope is not well-founded. There will be 55 beds, and it will cost Ventura $712,000 per year. Filling every bed will still leave 500 homeless persons on the street. The shelter will serve only10% of the homeless population.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressWhat’s more, the City Council conflates opening the center with helping the homeless. The goal shouldn’t be to have beds available. That’s an intermediary step. The goal should be to get the homeless off the street and return them to a healthy way of life.

The real solutions to homelessness—a very complex problem—was missing from Mayor LaVere’s vision. There are examples of successful programs in other cities. Looking at successful programs, like the one in Providence, Rhode Island, would be a step in the right direction.

UPDATE THE GENERAL PLAN

The second goal was to reinitiate the General Plan update. Ventura city government will conduct public outreach throughout 2019. Other than holding several long-overdue citizen input meetings, the outcome will be unmeasurable.

The city must try new, innovative ways to reach citizens. Otherwise, it will miss valuable input. Young people are most likely to be underrepresented. Our younger citizens are generally absent from public meetings. Yet they will live with the consequences of the General Plan.

The mayor and City Council are relying upon the voters to be content that the city was doing the outreach.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

2019 State-of-the-City Address

The third goal is to create a comprehensive economic development strategy. The strategy would include several key focus areas, including:

  1. Auto Center and Focus Area 1
  2. The Johnson Drive corridor. Mayor LaVere cited the North Bank Apartment project as an example.
  3. Front Street. The mayor wants to turn it into Ventura’s version of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.

Missing from the address is the vital fact that economic development begins with other people’s money. It takes investors willing to put up the capital to improve the business environment. How will the City of Ventura invite and welcome investors who want to start or move their business in Ventura?

Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone succeeds because the city made it easier to rebuild in the area. Developers lament that Ventura’s city government makes it difficult to do business. Stifling regulations, fees and planning delays force investors to look elsewhere. The new economic development plan should have one single goal to stimulate growth. Force the city to review, streamline or remove building codes and regulations wherever possible.

VENTURA BEAUTIFUL

2019 State-of-the-City AddressMayor LaVere’s fourth goal is to beautify the community. He wants to end what he termed “blight.”

Like the economic plan goal in the 2019 State-of-the-City address, this goal relies on “other people’s money.” Homeowners must invest in eliminating the so-called blight. There is no compelling reason for property owners to reinvest in some properties. The same stifling regulations and fees that deter investors hurt homeowners, too.

Following the Thomas Fire, the city reduced the building permits and fees for rebuilding. If the mayor is serious about improving blight, offer similar reductions to anyone enhancing their property. That would be measurable.

COASTAL AREA STRATEGIC PLAN

The fifth 2019 State-of-the-City goal is also unmeasurable and unspecific. Mayor LaVere says we must develop a Coastal Area Strategic Plan. He contends we need this because of climate change. He offered no further details.

The same faults of gaining input for the General Plan apply to the Coastal Area Strategic Plan. Find ways to reach all citizens.

BUILDING COMMUNITY

Mayor LaVere’s sixth goal is for the Ventura community to come together by building parks. Building community was a goal of both Mayor Erik Nasarenko and Mayor Neal Andrews. Three years and three administrations later, this goal remains.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressThe mayor hopes to achieve this goal by building community parks. The Westside Community Park set the model. Mayor LaVere’s first target is Mission Park.

Like the other goals, rebuilding Mission Park lacked specifics, budgets, timelines or measurable results. Moreover, this plan has one fault the others don’t have, public safety.

2019 State-of-the-City AddressMission Park is home to a growing number of Ventura’s homeless population. To prepare the area, the homeless must move elsewhere. The 55-bed homeless shelter isn’t the solution. Also, even if we scatter the homeless, there are safety issues. Someone would have to clean the discarded needles, drug paraphernalia and human waste from the park.

STOPPING THE BLEEDING

2019 State-of-the-City AddressThe need for key personnel is a huge problem. To fulfill any of our mayor’s goals requires adequate staff. The final 2019-2020 goal is to stabilize and strengthen our city government. The city has eight unfilled, critical managerial positions and dozens of vacant jobs. The city will achieve none of the other ambitious goals if there aren’t enough workers at City Hall.

We know this is City Manager Alex McIntyre’s responsibility. In February, he requested six months to fill those positions. Four months remain. He needs time to recruit qualified people and offer competitive compensation. We hope Mr. McIntyre will fill those roles soon, but if he doesn’t, how will the City Council help and support him?

EDITORS’ COMMENTS

This year’s 2019 State-of-the-City speech was platitudes, a utopian vision and fuzzy logic. Those may have worked when we were a quaint beach town, but they don’t work today.

These are challenging times for the city. An understaffed government is trying to do the people’s work, but it’s hard. Issues like homelessness, economic development and community building, are secondary to the daily duties.

Mayor LaVere presented his vision of what Ventura could be. Unfortunately, he may have made promises his administration can’t keep. Worse still, his optimism lacked specifics and failed to address Ventura’s most pressing issues: employee retirement costs, water costs and public safety. Nonetheless, if the commitments are vague enough, no one will be able to measure if we keep them or not.

FORCE THE CITY COUNCIL TO BE MORE REALISTIC WITH ITS 2019 STATE-OF-THE-CITY GOALS

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Clean water, not sewage

Are You Really Content To Drink Sewage When You Don’t Have To?

“If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em. It’s an old political trick.”

—Harry S. Truman

 

Before discussing water issues in Ventura, we must first dispel a myth. The City of Ventura has plenty of water. We have almost ten times the water we need annually in reserves. So, the City of Ventura’s insistence to conserve drinking water because we don’t have enough is untrue. There are many good reasons to save, but not having enough drinking water is not one of them.

No need for sewage water

Between Foster and Mound Basins alone, there are 141,600 to 184,600 AF of water. Assuming there is zero replenishing of groundwater—and not counting on our other water resources from Casitas, Santa Paula, Oxnard Basin or State Water (a combined amount of 12,072 AF more per year)—Ventura has almost ten times the water it needs annually in reserves.

Historically, Ventura has used an average of 21,000 acre-feet of drinkable water per year. This figure has been steady over the past 30 years. With conservation and reduced consumption, Venturan’s have managed to reduce our water usage to 15,000 acre-feet per year. So, regardless of doom and gloom declarations issued by the State of California, or what Ventura Water tells us, Ventura has enough water. (See Notes On Water Availability below for additional information).

THE REAL ISSUE

Ventura’s real problem is a legal Consent Decree, agreed to by the Ventura City Council in 2012.  That Consent Decree mandates that Ventura must stop dumping treated sewage* into the Santa Clara River.  The amount of sewage to be diverted will be as high as 90% (about 4,685 AF per year) according to one panel of experts, leaving the remaining 10% to be treated and left in the estuary for fish and wildlife.

*Ventura Water calls sewage wastewater, effluent, or tertiary treated flows among other names.

SO HOW DID WE MAKE THIS ABOUT DRINKING WATER?

To comply with the Consent Decree, Ventura Water conceived that Ventura would inject this treated sewage directly into our water system, thus began VenturaWaterPure.  For six years City leaders led citizens to believe Ventura has no choice but to move full speed ahead and accept the use of sewage using Direct Potable Reuse (DPR), but a primary reason for DPR was “because we need the water.” Few citizens knew about the underlying problem to comply with the 2012 Consent Decree. With that false justification of needing more drinkable water, the City committed to spending over $500,000,000 for DPR to abide by the Consent Decree.

DPR IS NOT APPROVED OR SAFE

Toilet to Tap is Sewage WaerCosting over $500,000,000 is not the only issue.  The more significant issue is that the City Council assumed DPR water was safe to drink.  It is not safe.  An expert panel, appointed by the State Water Resources Control Board, determined that DPR is feasible. Yet, using such water would be harmful to public health and safety with the current technology. They reported that except for two remote areas on the earth (Namibia and a city in northern Texas), which have no other drinking water options; such water is not suitable for human consumption.

There are no regulations in place anywhere in the United States, or the State of California, permitting or governing that use.  Nobody knows if, or even when, the state will publish such regulations.  It is highly improbable that this will occur by the December 31, 2025 Consent Decree deadline.

SO WHERE IS STATE WATER IN THIS PLAN?

Ventura Water has ignored the majority of citizens desire to tie into the State Water Project because it knows the State Water Project does nothing toward complying with the Consent Decree. In June 2018, the City Council directed Ventura Water to make importing State Water the top priority. While that pipeline project is in motion, Ventura Water plans to work on DPR while they work on the State Water pipeline.

WHAT CAN THE CITY DO TO CHANGE THE COMPLIANCE DATE OF THE CONSENT DECREE?

While Ventura must abide by the Consent Decree, the compliance deadline of December 31, 2025, may be unattainable. At this point, the Consent Decree remains the driving force behind all Ventura’s water decisions. With the land acquisition, planning, construction, EIRs and financing required, the 2025 deadline is not feasible.

However, the Consent Decree says the court can extend the time limit in the event of construction constraints, financing problems, or an emergency. It requires Ventura to petition the court requesting an extension, or an agreement with the plaintiff and their lawyers. That has not happened.

The most devastating natural disaster in Ventura’s history occurred in December 2017. The Thomas Fire wiped out over 500 homes and destroyed water systems throughout the city. The Fire further delayed Ventura Water in the planning, design, and construction of projects to meet the requirements of the Consent Decree. It seems clear that Ventura should petition to the US District Court for a 5-year extension. There’s only one thing standing in the way of requesting that extension — our lawyers.

WHY THE DELAY IN SEEKING TO EXTEND THE DEADLINE?

On February 4, 2019, Council Member Jim Friedman asked our City Attorney, Gregory Diaz about extending the deadline.

Mr. Diaz’s advice is that we should not at this time.  He wants to keep this option “in his back pocket.”

  • He said petitioning the Federal Court would be laborious for the lawyers with no guarantees.
  • He wants to maintain good relations with various Environmental Groups.
  • He was concerned an extension would cause the regulatory agencies to divert their attention away from Ventura.
  • We need water.
  • The State Water Resource Control Board and State Regulators may require a different timeline for our current temporary sewage permit than the Federal court if we petition to extend the deadline.

The Water Commission asked the outside attorney representing the City of Ventura about an extension.  She answered that Environmental Groups are very cooperative and would likely be favorable to an extension because of the positive relationship.

Mr. Diaz says that using the Thomas Fire sounds like an “excuse.” He’s concerned it might give the impression Ventura is looking for a reason to not act. If the most significant human disaster in Ventura’s history is not a strong reason, then nothing is.

EDITORS COMMENTS

Our City Attorney is taking a huge risk with our $500 million.  It is clear that he doesn’t intend to pursue an extension with his “keeping it in his back pocket” explanation.  Mr. Diaz continues with the myth that water is a problem for Ventura and that treated sewage is the solution Hopefully the City Council will remember that we must “keep our experts on tap and not on top.”

If he waits 4-5 years from now, the Federal Court may ask, “Where were you 4-5 years ago?” If he plays his “back pocket” card in the 11th hour and the court denies it, what then?  What seems clear, the further away from the Thomas Fire disaster, the less persuasive the argument for an extension. In the meantime, we spend millions that we may not have needed to pay in the next six years.

Would it be more prudent to send a letter proposing the extension?  The worst the Plaintiff or the Court can do is say, “No.”  If that is the case, then Mr. Diaz’s good faith argument disappears. Then, the Court’s ruling becomes ‘exhibit A’ in support of a motion in the Federal Court. The city could then use the argument, “What’s a poor mother to do? We asked. We thought they were nice and cooperative folks, but they proved to be something else.”

NOTES ON WATER AVAILABILITY

The California Groundwater Bulletin 118, published by the Department of Water Resources, reports that the Ventura River- Foster Park Basin has reserves of 31,600 acre-feet (AF) of water. It recharges 3,500 AF of water each year by underflow. In 2018, Ventura Water Department only pumped 2,384 AF from Foster Park.

The California Groundwater Bulletin 118 also reports that the Mound Water Basin, which is on the east side of the city, has 153,000 AF of storage capacity. During dry periods, Mound Basin is likely 72% full, for a total of 110,000 AF.

MAKE THE CITY COUNCIL INSIST ON ACCURATE INFORMATION FROM VENTURA WATER

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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

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It Was The Best And Worst Of Times For Ventura In 2018

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill

Last year was a most transformational year in Ventura’s history. Every aspect of life in Ventura was affected. The city was in the national spotlight, twice. Leadership changed but at a high price. Old ways of doing business didn’t change, though. Overall, it was a year to remember.

December 2017

To understand 2018, you must appreciate December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. The city was the epicenter of the national news.

Thirteen months later, Ventura had the opportunity for the most significant economic stimulus since the oil boom but failed to capitalize on it. Rebuilding the homes will stimulate the local economy by $350 million. The only thing standing in the way of that economic windfall is the city.

What are the lessons we learned from the Thomas Fire? Good question. Thirteen months later we still don’t know that answer. The city has yet to produce a report on its findings. [Read More]

January 2018

The Montecito mudslides closed off transportation into and out of Santa Barbara along the 101. Many Venturans that work in Santa Barbara were unable to commute.

March 2018

The City Council waffles on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding Thomas Fire victims’ homes, delaying the rebuilding process and adding costs for many. [Read More]

April 2018

Jamal Jackson slays Anthony Mele, Jr. on Ventura’s promenade. Once again, the city was thrust into the national news.

Ventura Police increased patrols along the promenade. The City Council approved funds to continue the patrols. Arrests increased after the incident.

Post-incident, the Police department reviewed its procedures. There have been changes to the security camera monitoring as a result. The review also concluded the call was not improperly prioritized when it came in two and a half hours before the murder.

Since May, the community has returned to business as usual. [Read More]

June 2018

Ventura Police officers sign a new contract with a 5% pay increase. The timing of the announcement was questionable, but the contract was a fair one. [Read More]

July 2018

The City Council instructs Ventura Water to focus on connecting to State Water over Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). DPR takes recycled wastewater and injects it back into the drinking supply.

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics over the objections of Interim City Manager Dan Paranick. Ventura Fire hired two of the three paramedics before the Council approved the funding. [Read More]

September 2018

Ventura Water hires eight new positions. The City Council approved the department’s budget that included these positions. Ventura Water based that budget on Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) projects being the city’s top priority. When the Council realigned Ventura Water’s priorities in July, the department didn’t adjust its manpower requirements.

October 2018

Ventura Water begins installing new digital water meters. It is a $9 million project that will take three years to complete. The new meters allow more precise leak protection. The new meters also measure water usage more precisely. You can expect your water bill to be more accurate, too.

November 2018

Ventura held its first City Council elections by voting district. Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money, despite campaigning in districts instead of citywide. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed to win a seat from $2.75 per vote in the last election with an open position to a record-high $26.42. [Read More]

City Council Election

December 2018

Alex McIntyre starts as City Manager. He replaces Mark Watkins who resigned in November 2017. The city had operated with an interim-City Manager since January 2018. McIntyre comes to Ventura from Menlo Park where he was City Manager for six years.

Ventura’s new City Councilmembers are sworn in. The Council has four female members: Lorrie Brown (District 6), Cheryl Heitmann (District 7), Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) and Christy Weir (District 2). Ventura has its first female-majority City Council in history. It’s also the most diverse set of Councilmembers the city has ever had.

Wish The Councilmembers Good Luck In 2019

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City Council Election

Most Money Ever Spent In A City Council Election In 2018

Ventura held its first City Council election by voting district. The new voting process confused some voters. Others felt disenfranchised.

Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money. Campaigning was in districts instead of citywide. One would think the amount of money needed would be less. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed from $2.75 per vote in the last election to a record-high $19.90.

City Council Election

The candidates raising the most money were Jim Friedman, $60,887; Kevin Clerici, $44,862; and Erik Nasarenko, $36,464. A distant fourth highest campaign fund was Marie Lakin at $14,277. Of the three top fundraisers, only Kevin Clerici failed to get elected. (These numbers will increase. The final campaign finance report is due January 31, 2019)

Strong Voter Turnout In City Council Election

Voter turnout was high in each of the districts except District 1. A mere 1,767 votes secured a seat for Sofia Rubalcava. All the other winning candidates had over 3,000 votes.

Newly-elected Councilmembers now have to shift their focus. The entire campaign, they focused on convincing district voters their interests came first. Now they’re elected, they must change that focus to represent the whole city. Only the most skilled among them will be able to bridge the gap to balance their district wants and the city needs. It will not be easy. There will be growing pains as the Councilmembers juggle the competing requirements.

The net effect of district voting achieved its outcome. The new Councilmembers are the most diverse group elected in Ventura’s history. One has to ask if the price to reach the result was worth it.

What Are The Implications?

Campaign cost inflation is the price Ventura politicians pay for City Council diversity. Now, only the fundraisers who spend large sums of money win.

All Councilmembers will balance district interests and citywide interests. None of them have experience with it. We can only hope the city doesn’t suffer while the Councilmembers go through this growing pain.

What Do You Think Of The Tactics Used By Ventura Fire?

Pensions, Ventura Fire

Ventura Police officers sign a new contract with a 5% pay increase. The timing of the announcement was questionable. It came on the heels of the Anthony Mele, Jr. murder. However, the agreement was a fair one.

Ventura Fire Unhappy With The Proposed Contract

bad city council contract, Ventura Fire

Agreed upon union contracts form the basis for negotiating other city union contracts. In this case, Ventura Firefighters are unhappy. Union Leader Captain Shawn Hughes says the union voted against a similar pay raise. He wrote Councilmembers, “We are demanding change. Working conditions need immediate attention. The citizens of Ventura deserve properly staffed public safety departments.” Captain Hughes earns $216,885 per year in pay and benefits—putting him in the top 5% of wage earners in the country.

In April, Hughes began his campaign for higher pay. He emailed the City Council, Interim City Manager Dan Paranick and Fire Chief Endaya. Hughes contacted individual Councilmembers behind the scenes to negotiate a better deal.

The Fire Union Turns Up The Heat

Ventura Fire

In early May, Hughes ratcheted up his behind the scenes negotiations. He formally requested the City Council stop all public education and outreach immediately. He reasoned that public awareness was “now an unsafe practice. “We need to maximize the number of available resources to maintain public safety that this community demands.”

In short, Hughes was exhorting the Council. He was demanding all public outreach stop until the city hired those firefighters.

The fire union contributed to several Councilmembers’ campaigns. Current Councilmembers Jim Friedman, Cheryl Heitmann, Matt LaVere and Erik Nasarenko received contributions.

On January 14, 2019, the City Council consented to accept VFD’s salary increases. The increases were the same as the Police Union received.

New construction after Thomas Fire

Ventura Has Opportunity To Improve After The Thomas Fire

Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many. Councilmembers exhibited big hearts and small brains settling on the new height ordinance. They attempted to please fire victims wanting to improve their homes. Doing so delayed rebuilding for everyone. It was clear that many of the burned houses would have to come up to existing building codes. Many of the homes were built decades ago when the codes weren’t as strict. Plus, setbacks from the street had also changed. For fire victims to rebuild their houses “as is” would cost more. The new home would have a different footprint on the lot and impede neighbors’ views.

What’s more, some homeowners wanted to change the design of their new home since they were rebuilding. To please those homeowners, the Council created exceptions. They decreed restoring a home could include as much as 10% increase in the size of the structure. While well-meaning, this decision meant every house was a custom-built home. The decision put added pressure on city staff when reviewing and approving plans. And it further delayed homeowners receiving building permits.

There was another consequence of the Council’s lack of urgency. Most homeowners’ insurance provides 18-24 months of living expenses while rebuilding. The Council’s delay will force rebuilding beyond 24 months for many homeowners. As a result, those homeowners will have an added financial burden. They will pay for temporary living expenses when their insurance runs out. Plus, they will also be paying their mortgage on a destroyed home.

Don’t Miss This Chance To Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council’s inaction delayed a significant economic stimulus for Ventura. It reinforced the perception that Ventura lacks urgency and is bureaucratic. Now, there is a new City Council. We hope they’ll look at this process with a fresh perspective. If they do, they’ll see the need for change. We want them to force the city staff to streamline and simplify the building and permitting process.

What Prevents The Thomas Fire Findings From Being Public?

To understand 2018 begins by understanding December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. It scarred the hillside, displaced families, and created unprecedented demands for services. It was Ventura public safety’s finest hour. Police and firefighters performed heroic feats. As a result, no Ventura residents died in the fire.

Thomas Fire Findings Part Of A Mixed Recovery

Thirteen months later, the report card on Ventura city government is not as good. The city did not continue the success public safety exhibited during the fire. Ventura had the opportunity for a significant economic stimulus but failed to capitalize on it. Rebuilding the homes will stimulate the local economy by $350 million. The only thing standing in the way of that economic windfall is the city. In the intervening time, the city issued 165 building permits. The city staff beefed up with contractors to help with the workload for these results. The city staff wasn’t entirely to blame. The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many.

Delayed Thomas Fire Findings

What are the lessons we learned from the Thomas Fire? Good question. Thirteen months later we still don’t know that answer.  The city has yet to produce a report on its findings. City Manager Alex McIntyre says, “We may get something in draft this month [December 2018].” More likely, it could be next year. Understandably the city must be cautious. A critical point under review is the subject of litigation against the city. Homeowners are suing Ventura for lack of water and pressure to fight the fire in its early stages. Still, the failure to produce a report makes Ventura appear plodding and bureaucratic.

Powerful VFD Union Exerts Its Strength On The Council

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics in June 2018. Ventura Fire insisted they needed the engine because response times “were especially high.” He gave no information on what’s driving the increased calls for help. Nor did he offer any cost-effective alternatives to deliver the services.

Uncertainty Over The Fire Engine

Interim City Manager Paranick did not recommend funding the roving engine in 2018. He said, “I haven’t gotten myself to a place where I’ve been comfortable yet, where I could sit here and justify the need based on demand. That’s why I did not recommend it.”

Ventura Fire Chief David Endaya wasn’t sure what targets the roving engine could hit, or by how much response times could fall.

Even so, Councilmembers Cheryl Heitmann, Matt LaVere, Jim Monahan and Erik Nasarenko voted for it. Councilmembers Mike Tracy and Christy Weir voted against it.

The Reason VFD Got Its Fire Engine

What motivated four Councilmembers to override the City Manager’s recommendation? Why did they believe the city needed to spend $600,000 in 2018? Simple. In late May, Union Leader Battalion Chief Doug Miser requested a meeting with each Councilmember. He wrote, “As you are hopefully aware, every single member of the Ventura Fire Management group dedicated a significant amount of time in call banks and walking districts to pass Measure O. We believe we are way past due in staffing another fire station in the city.” Two months later, the Ventura Fire Department had a new engine and three new paramedics.

The Councilmembers heard Miser’s message loud and clear. Ventura Fire contributed during their campaigns. Ventura Fire helped deliver Measure O money to the city’s General Fund. Now, it’s time for quid-pro-quo.

What’s more, Chief Endaya announced a hiring decision. He hired two of the three paramedics before they approved the roving fire engine. He said they’d been “over-hired” in anticipation of adding City Fire positions.

Proposition 218 Is The Fastest Way To Raise Money, But Is It Right?

 

“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you’ve earned, but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Proposition 218

Ventura Water will push the boundaries of the law as it tries to use Proposition 218 to raise money to meet the Wishtoya Foundation Consent Decree.

In the next 12 months, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to increase water rates for 30 wastewater projects and 28 water projects by 2024. These costly projects will benefit some property owners. Other projects will help the community at large.

As of June 30, 2018, Ventura Water accumulated $115,000,000 for projects they planned to build between 2012-2018. Still, they need $449,586,000 more before 2024. How did we commit to spending almost $450 million, and why weren’t you asked to vote on it?

WHAT WILL THIS COST YOU?

These new rate increases will come on top of the increases imposed over the last six years. In 2012, Ventura Water wanted to increase rates to:

  1. Replacing aging pipelines and facilities
  2. Building projects to improve water quality
  3. Constructing new groundwater wells

In 2012 the average homeowner and family of 4, received a bi-monthly bill of $73.27 and sewer charges of $72.45 for a total of $145.72. That same family is paying $105.03 for water in 2018.  Add sewer charges of $104.64 and their total bill is $209.67.  This is a 43% increase over the 2012 rates.

From 2018-2024, expect a similar rate of growth. Your new water bill may look like this:Proposition 218

HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS SITUATION?

Propoosition 218In March 2012, the Ventura City Council signed a Consent Decree that requires Ventura Water to stop putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary by January 2025. The decree stems from a Federal complaint filed by Wishtoya Foundation. Former City Manager, Rick Cole and Ventura Water General Manager, Shana Epstein, signed the consent decree on behalf of the city. The city no longer employs either of them.

Keep in mind that voters had no voice in the City Council consenting to the decree in 2012. Now, Ventura Water wants to deny voters the chance to say how we spend the money to meet the order, too. It plans to use Proposition 218 to get those funds.

HOW AND WHY CAN VENTURA INCREASE MY RATES?

So how can Ventura Water impose such large fees against its citizens without the traditional right to vote on such matters? The answer lies in how Ventura implements Proposition 218. Approved by the voters in 1996, Proposition 218 allows Ventura to raise money in one of three ways:

  1. General taxes. Those taxes used for general governmental purposes. Prop 218 requires the traditional voting procedure, notice, a ballot and an election measure. 51% of the voters must approve it. Ventura’s Measure O sales tax was one such example.
  2. Special Taxes. Any tax imposed for specific purposes and placed in a general fund. A Special Tax requires a 2/3 (66.67%) majority vote. The City sought this type of tax in 2009. It was Measure A on the ballot. It was a 1/2 cent sales tax for public safety and other specific projects. Monies would have been placed in the city’s General Fund. It failed.
  3. Special Assessments, Fees and Charges. Fees or charges means an assessment imposed as an incident of owning property which receives a unique benefit. The city can only impose such fees by affirmative voter approval. The exception being that prior voter approval is not required for “any assessment imposed exclusively to finance capital costs or maintenance and operation expenses for sidewalks, streets, sewers, water…”

VENTURA WATER TURNS A NON-VOTE INTO A YES VOTE

Ventura wants to use option C, Special Assessments, Fees and Charges to impose higher water rates.

Here’s how they’ll do it. Instead of putting it on the ballot, Ventura Water sends a water bill. Somewhere in the body of that bill, it tells you why the rate increase is necessary. You may dispute the rate increase by voting “NO” within 45 days, but the process is cumbersome. To disagree, you must download a protest form, complete and mail it or take it to City Hall by a specific date. Fail to jump over those hurdles and the City doesn’t care what you think or want. If 51% of the ratepayers have not voted ‘NO,’ that is the end of the matter. There are 32,000 ratepayers. Sixteen thousand one must vote NO to defeat an increase.

Proposition 218, now Article XIII C and D of the California Constitution, made the following findings:

         “The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that Proposition 13 was intended to provide effective tax relief and to require voter approval of tax increases.  However, local governments have subjected taxpayers to excessive tax, assessment, fee and charge increases that not only frustrate the purposes of voter approval for tax increases but also threaten the economic security of all Californians…This measure protects taxpayers by limiting the methods by which local governments exact revenue from taxpayers without their consent.”

When the City sought the last rate increase they took the position that they had the right to raise the rates without prior voter approval. They believed the procedures they followed were consistent with Prop 218 language, as interpreted by the California Supreme Court.  They maintain that they “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval” for anything they chose to label a water or wastewater project.

But it doesn’t end with this interpretation alone. A California Supreme Court challenge goes further.

TESTED IN THE COURTS

The California Supreme Court in Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil (2006)39 Cal.4th 205, at page 205, addressed the question of whether voters had the right to put an initiative on the ballot to reduce water rates. The court ruled in favor of the water agency and interpreted Prop 218’s language to mean a city “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval.”  The Court’s decision was specific. It didn’t involve the question of whether imposing fees to deal with a Consent Decree are valid.

Notwithstanding the protective measures of Prop 218, the City of Ventura conveniently interprets Prop 218 to still impose fees and charges beyond the simple costs of service to the homeowner. However, the court never went that far.

The City of Ventura’s interpretation of Proposition 218 is overreaching when it comes to any matter about water, wastewater and related environmental projects.

That decision by the Supreme Court only involved the issue of water delivery through a pipeline and whether voters could use an initiative process to require prior voter approval for the costs of that delivery.   It did not involve a question of whether fees imposed to deal with a $500 million water and wastewater projects together with environmental costs, expert studies, attorneys fees and a plethora of expenses arising out of a ConsentDecree decided by a City Council in 2012, and in which the voters had no voice.

What if the costs are not exclusively operational costs? What if the expenditures benefit the entire community, not just ratepayers? Does Proposition 218 apply in those circumstances? Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil does not answer these questions.

No Precedent For What They Plan To Do

In determining whether to seek prior voter approval, we hope that the new City Council will keep in mind the following the language from the Supreme Court in Bighorn case:

            “…the agency’s governing board may … raise fees or impose other fees and new fees without prior voter approval.  Although this power-sharing arrangement has the potential for conflict, we must presume that both sides will act reasonably and in good faith, and that the political process will eventually lead to compromises that are mutually acceptable and both financially and legally sound.”        (Emphasis added).

THE CITY MAY FACE A SERIOUS LEGAL CHALLENGE

If the City is considering rate increase of this magnitude without prior voter approval they should be mindful of the language in Prop 218. It provides that “in any legal action contesting the validity of an assessment, the burden is on the agency (Ventura Water) to demonstrate that the …properties in question receive a special benefit over the benefits conferred on the public at large…”

Complying with the Consent Decree by not putting wastewater into the Santa Clara River benefits all citizens, not just ratepayers.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water is proposing a mix of costly projects. Some will benefit property owners, and some will help the community at large. Building a pipeline and related infrastructure to import state water at the cost of $50 million benefits all property owners. Ratepayers generally accept this. Spending beyond that to build projects to satisfy a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology of the estuary is a problem.

Proposition 218 may not cover projects to meet a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology. We recommend a vote of the citizens in that instance.

Warn The City Council Of Ventura Water’s Potential Error

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 that Venturans must vote on a water rate increase to pay for the consent decree. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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