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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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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.

Councilmembers

How To Connect To Your 2019 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 2019 City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2019. We have three new Councilmember sand four incumbents. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Governing By Districts

For the first time in Ventura’s history, our Councilmembers were elected by districts. While each Councilmember was elected by constituents in their district, they serve the entire city. You should feel free to contact any Councilmember regardless of the district in which you live.

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.

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Property Rental

The City Should Get Out of the Property Rental Business

“We need leadership. We don’t need a doubling down on the failed politics of the past.” —Paul Ryan

505 Poli building. Crime lab in the lower right corner.

City Council Makes The First Step Toward Dealing with Surplus Building

To get realistic information for the City Council to decide about 505 Poli, Councilmember Mike Tracy presented a motion to seek advice from a licensed commercial realtor. Councilmember Jim Monahan seconded the motion. The Council unanimously agreed after City Attorney evaluated the right to sell the property, to seek advice from a licensed commercial realtor. The goal is to “determine (the) value of 505 Poli Street including the Crime Lab (appraisal and parking analysis study). Then to decide on disposition (of the property).”

Good decision.

Why The City Should Get Out Of The Property Rental Business

The 505 Poli building adjacent to City Hall exemplifies why the City of Ventura should not be in the property rental business. The city owns several properties. Ventura needs some to house various city departments and needs others for future use. However, the city owns and operates some for the sole purpose of generating income — rental income property.

Property Rental

Citizens have a right to expect the city to manage 505 Poli wisely.

When public money is used to buy rental income property, citizens have a right to expect the city will manage the investment wisely. Acquiring and operating such property requires knowledge and expertise to protect the investment.   In the case of our city, the City Council makes the decisions. They rely on the City Manager and city personnel for sound advice.

Here’s the rub. Ventura city personnel have demonstrated historically—and continue to show, as we will later explain—that they do not have the knowledge or experience needed to assist the City Council in making decisions in such matters.

Why The City’s Bad At Property Rental

There are four major issues with city-owned rental income property:

First, the daily maintenance and management of these properties require constant attention. Buildings cost money to operate with or without a tenant and thus are a continual liability and drain on public resources.   Private owners use qualified property managers to manage their property. If those managers are not able to produce any income to the owner after expenses, the owner fires them.

Property rental

Should Ventura be in the property rental business at all?

Second, the city does not have a structured professional approach to operations and tenant management. It is merely an additional task for someone in some department to look at in and among all of their other daily tasks, which staffers usually place behind the immediate problem of the day. Income property must be monitored and requires constant professional attention. Fail in that task, and the supposed investment will fail. The Brooks Institute rental at 505 Poli was a debacle and is the perfect example of why the City Council should not rely on city staff for help in trying to operate such property. Still, they persist.

Third, properties are acquired and operated long past their usefulness to our city. Once the city uses taxpayer money to pay for the property, the City Council and city staff blot the investment out of their minds. If the property is not producing the expected income or outlived its purpose, it should be placed on the market and sold. To spend taxpayer’s funds without any concept to how much the city has already spent on past failed projects for the same property is wrong.

Finally, the City believes that it is acceptable to compete with private free enterprise and offer free rent or discounted rent for city-owned buildings and property acquired with taxpayer money. Private property owners are encouraged to invest in Ventura, but why would anyone make such an investment when the City is a major competitor? It is unfair competition and constitutes a misuse of taxpayer’s funds.

The City Council needs to address these problems.

505 Poli Confirms That Ventura Is Bad At The Property Rental Business

Appraised for $3.55 million in Sept. 2005, the City of Ventura acquired it in November 2006 for $4.03 million. Our then-City Manager pushed the acquisition. The Council followed his advice. To fund the purchase $1.23 million in General Funds were used together with another $2.8 million from a particular service fund — Workers Compensation Fund. The use of the Workers Comp funds should have been a warning to the City Council. That fund pays for future worker’s compensation claims. The interim City Manager, Johnnie Johnson, exposed that budget manipulation when he advised the City Council in 2012 of a $5 million deficit.

Just why the City Council thought “robbing Peter to pay Paul” was a good idea defies logic.

Property Rental

Questions remain as to how much the city has spent to acquire, improve and maintain 505 Poli.

Then there is the building itself. The City accepted the premise—and the adjacent old County crime laboratory which was part of the deal—knowing that asbestos filled this old Ferro-cement structure. The removal of asbestos and hazardous material remediation in the crime laboratory alone was estimated to cost $500,000-$700,000. The list of deficiencies abounded—seismic conditions, old air conditioning systems, old electrical systems and a 60-year-old elevator that hinders tenant usage.

In 2006, City staff advised the City Council that if they decided to buy the property, the city would get a return from the investment in 6.3 to 8.8 years. There was no return on the investment. The building was repurposed to provide free or low rent to new tech startup companies. City staff reckoned that if the startups succeeded they would do business in Ventura and bring jobs to the community. The City Council allocated another $5 million for that purpose. However, aside from the single success of Trade Desk, the project failed.

Six years later, in February 2012, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce agreed to pay $1,000 cash per month for the first floor. In March & April 2013, the Trade Desk leased the 4th and 5th floors for $6,025 a month at which time the City Council spent another $62,750 in improvements. Trade Desk left and in Feb. 2016, the city then tried to lease the two top floors to Brooks Institute. Demolition proceeded on those two floors, and since Brooks Institute defaulted, those floors have been vacant. They remain empty today.

By this simple accounting, the City of Ventura has spent or is obligated to pay an additional $4.6 to $5.0 million with no net rental income to justify the investment over the last 12 years.

Spending More Money Won’t Fix What’s Bad About Ventura’s Property Rental

The latest proposal put forward by the Public Works Department recommends the city sink more money into the building. On April 16, 2018, the city staff recommended the City Council spend another $2.0 million to build tenant improvements on the 4th and 5th floor of 505 Poli.   That report contained a lot of facts and figures but was notable for the lack of a feasibility study.

City staff suggested in the report were that if the City Council spends the money, 505 Poli would then be considered a Class A property rental property and would rent for $3 a square foot because of its downtown location. There was no rental comparison survey to support the plan. There was no vacancy survey included. The report also ignored the fact that vacancy is running at 25% citywide on commercial property. The entire argument assumes that if “we build it, they will come.” The recommendation also suggests our city would receive a monthly income of $53,413 after the improvements at 100% occupancy. Great promise, but it lacked facts and is unrealistic.

Property RentalThen something happened in the city staff presentation that further demonstrated how they lack the knowledge and experience to guide the City Council on rental properties. The Public Works presenter hinted a possible tenant would take the space and finance the tenant improvements in exchange for significantly reduced rent. Almost immediately, Jeff Lambert, the Community Development Director, corrected that information. The potential new tenant had pulled out earlier that week. There were no interested parties, at this time. It was apparent these two departments were not communicating, and the facts were not straight before asking the City Council to spend $2 million.

Editors Comments

We recommend several things about 505 Poli and city-owned real estate in general.

First, the City Council should follow up on how much taxpayers have spent to acquire, improve and maintain 505 Poli. The total amount may surprise some of them.

Second, the City Council should hold the city staff to a higher level of thoroughness and professionalism before recommending spending taxpayer money.

Third, and most importantly, city government should get out of the property rental income business and find a qualified, reputable real estate company to lease and manage all city-owned rental property.

Insist The City Council Heeds The Input Of Outside Consultants Before Deciding What To Do On 505 Poli

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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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

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

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.