Ventura’s 2021 State-of-the-City Address Lacked Visionary Leadership

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.

Peter Drucker

 

2021 State-of-the-City Address gets an F

Ventura Mayor Sofia Rubalcava presented the 2021 State-of-the-City Address (SOTC) in June. Unfortunately, over time, the City Council has lost sight of the purpose of a State of the City address. The speech should aim to praise accomplishments when deserved but not ignore major problems where improvement is needed.

For Mayor Rubalcava, who has only been in public office for three years, her address avoided the topics of the challenges, did not give a sense of vision for the future, or reset the city’s goals as her recent predecessors attempted to do in their speeches.

To many Venturans, a State of the City is a formality—a feel-good report—to make everyone comfortable and have pride in their ‘fair city.’ To others, it is an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments, reset goals and provide a vision for Ventura’s future. However, what the residents need is a candid assessment of how the city will combat its challenges.

What Was Missing in This Year’s State-of-the-City Address

The mayor’s address didn’t mention the city’s critical issues. For example, Ventura has a precarious financial situation, as ranked in the State Auditor’s Report. Mayor Rubalcava ignored it. In addition, she never communicated any vision for how the city could be doing better with the Thomas Fire rebuild, the burden of pensions on the Ventura, the needed street repairs, the growing homelessness on city streets, or economic development. What a missed opportunity.

What We’ve Heard Before

Mayor Rubalcava began by saying, “The city is re-imagining the delivery of city services.” Regrettably, the only thing she discussed was implementing the Matrix Report, something her predecessor, Mayor LaVere, mentioned in last year’s address. Madam Mayor explained the backlogs and gaps in service but glossed over how much of the Matrix Report the city has implemented. Staff reports indicated that the city staff planned to implement 50% of the Matrix Report by June 30, 2021, but they did not meet that goal.

Main Street Moves Program Was Part of the 2021 State-of-the-City AddressIn 2020, the city implanted a program named Main Street Moves to allow businesses hurt by the pandemic shutdown to serve limited customers outdoors. Forty-seven businesses applied for outside operating permits under the program. Mayor Rubalcava gave an update on business operating permits. By June 2021, the number of companies requesting outside operating permits was 51. Most of the credit for those accomplishments belongs to those implementing them in the prior year.

Mayor Rubalcava lauded The Trade Desk’s multi-million-dollar remodeling of the fourth and fifth floors of 505 Poli—improvements completed in 2020 during Mayor LaVere’s term and mentioned in his 2020 address. Yet, the tenant improvements were not a city accomplishment. The city only leased space to The Trade Desk. The Trade Desk made the needed changes to suit their needs. Mentioning leasing the fourth and fifth floors of 505 Poli attempts to gloss over the Brooks Institute debacle. Leasing the space to the photography school revealed poor management by the Council and the City Manager’s office. A poor decision six years ago cost the community hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The lack of new information is unfortunate because the casual observer believes that the city accomplished very little in 2020-2021.

A Major Undertaking Mentioned in the 2021 State-of-the-City Address

One key point the mayor did make was that the 2021 General Plan update is underway. The updated plan will replace the 2005 General Plan that the city has been using. A 22-member committee is selected and ready to begin work recalibrating the city’s vision for the next 15 years.

Staking Our Vision on a New General Plan

The 2005 General Plan said, “…today in Ventura, as all across America, there is concern about the health of our democracy.

“Over those years, the ability to build consensus about future development has been undermined by sharply polarized divisions, showdowns at the ballot box, and often rancorous public hearings. The complaint often recurs that planning decisions are made without adequate notice or consideration of the views of those affected. Many citizens criticize the City decision-making process as convoluted and counterproductive.”

No one would blame you for thinking our city leaders expressed that vision in 2021, but they didn’t. Yet, the statement was the preamble to Ventura’s 2005 General Plan. The planners faced these conditions in 2005. Not much has changed. In fact, it’s worse.

Sixteen years later, we’re updating the General Plan because the state dictates we do it, yet the same problems persist. What’s more, we have new issues to address, such as recovering from the Thomas Fire and the COVID-19 Pandemic, shaky city finances, repairing our aging infrastructure, water, street repair, economic development and homelessness. Significant challenges, such as these, require visionary leadership.

Unrealistic To Plan 15 Years into the Future

2021 State-of-the-City Address emphasized the long-range General PlanLong-range planning like this is a fool’s errand. Nobody can look in the future to see what Ventura will need, let alone look 10-15 years in the future. It’s harder still for a 22-person committee. What committee could have predicted the Thomas Fire, the pandemic, Anthony Mele’s murder, and the business shut?

Even though long-range planning is nearly impossible, California instructs Ventura to update its General Plan periodically.

One Final Thought on The 2021 State-of-the-City Address: Majoring In Minors

Too much time in the 2021 State-of-the-City Address was spent on Hate CrimesMayor Rubalcava spent a good portion of her address describing Ventura Police and Hate Crimes. Several things about that were troublesome. First and foremost, she spent all that time talking about four instances in 2020. While hate crimes have received a great deal of national publicity, four out of 6,500 crimes locally in 2020 is a minuscule number of cases to be singled out and dramatized.

Second, when one goes to the Ventura Police site, something there is listed as a “Hate Incident.” It’s a non-crime where someone is demeaned or perceives someone demeans them. Dealing with perception appears to be an unenforceable situation for the police. Furthermore, if the police base the Hate Incident on perceived hate, who is the arbiter of that? Where does free speech end and the hate incident begin? Yet, this seems to be a feckless attempt at posturing to make Ventura appear that it’s in line with the national zeitgeist. Unnecessary, and it detracts from policing the other severe crimes in the city.

Who on the City Council or in the police force considered the costs of implementing the new program? It’s hard to imagine the added bureaucracy and reporting will outweigh the benefit of enforcing the hate incidents.

With so much attention focused on a few hate crimes, it diverted City Council attention from other critical issues like water, pensions, Ventura Fire Department, the fissure between management and staff at City Hall and the homeless.

Editors Comments

Where's the leadership in the 2021 State-of-the-City Address?An opportunity exists for the City Council to demonstrate genuine leadership.  The results of the last two elections have delivered an unprecedented turnover of all the Councilmembers quickly.  The voters expressed their desire for new leaders. Can these new members do something different from the past Councils?

Currently, any direction the city has seems to be haphazard. We see examples of a lack of leadership in a variety of places. Whether it’s a “phone-it-in” State-of-the-City Address, an anemic refreshing of the General Plan, or fretting over a negligible number of hate crimes, it shows the city leaders bounce from one topic to another without regard to the city’s long-term well-being. Voters should not accept this anymore.

Mayor Neal Andrews got it right in his 2018 State-of-the-City Address when he said, “We [Ventura] are no longer a quaint little beach town. We’re among the top 10% of the largest cities in California.” He recognized 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.

Tell the Council to Tackle the Real Problems that Need Addressing In the General Plan.

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.

Didn't receive money from the Ventura Fire Department Received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department
Mike Johnson received no money from the Ventura Fire Department Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received no money from the Ventura Fire Department
Jim Friedman received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department Lorrie Brown is a Ventura Fire Department apologist
Joe Schroeder received no money from the Ventura Fire Department

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How to improve the Permit Services Department in Ventura

How The Permit Services Department Can Improve Building Code Enforcement

Thomas Jefferson would have found Permit Services tyrannical

When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

Thomas Jefferson

Permit Services Wraps Property Owners In Red Tape

It’s true what they say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At least, that’s the case within Ventura Permit Services Department.

Nine years after the Ventura Grand Jury ruled that Ventura’s Code Enforcement Division was too aggressive, change has been slow in the Permit Services Department. So much so that during the 2020 City Council elections, three candidates ran on platforms to improve the department’s behavior. Now the City of Ventura believes that things will get better if it follows the consultant’s report titled the Matrix Report. However, those changes don’t go far enough. There needs to be a change in the philosophy within the department to make meaningful changes.

How Residents Interact With The Permit Services Department

One way to get involved in Ventura’s code enforcement is through the building and safety portion of the Permit Services Department. When a property owner applies for a building permit to perform some work to build or make home improvements, plans are required, and once a property owner starts the process, complications and delays begin.

For simple tasks, the owner pays a scheduled fee and the city issues a permit. An example of an easy job is replacing a water heater. After installing the heater, the property owner calls for an inspector.

A second way that owners can enter the system is through the involuntary Code Enforcement branch of Permit Services. In this scenario, someone complains about what the property owner is doing and calls City Hall and a code enforcement officer arrives on the scene to investigate the complaint.

The Process Breaks Down

It was clear to residents that a problem existed in 2012. Camille Harris, a concerned citizen, presented solutions to the city’s unfair code enforcement practices on CAPS TV. The feeling among residents was to avoid the building process as much as possible.

The 2011-2012 Ventura County Grand Jury opened an inquiry into the City of Ventura and its Code Enforcement Department’s practices and fee policies. At the time, many citizens complained of aggressive enforcement actions, verbal threats from code enforcement officers, unauthorized searches, threatening documents, preferential treatment, and an unfair appellate system. The Grand Jury condemned these code enforcement practices.

Changes within Ventura Code Enforcement Since 2012

The consultants made several recommendations in the Matrix Report. Click here for a complete listing of the changes.

Structurally, personnel and the department have changed. The Planning Department is now the Permit Services Department. Jonathan Wood is the Permits and Enforcement manager, and he oversees both permit issuance and code enforcement. Mr. Wood reports to Peter Gilli, the Community Development Director. In turn, Mr. Gilli answers to Akbar Alikhan, the Assistant City Manager. (see the Organization Chart)

Permit Services Organizational Chart

What Hasn’t Changed With Ventura Permit Services

By the end of June, the city will have completed 50% of the recommendations in the Matrix Report. Despite that, several things remain troublesome within Code Enforcement and Permit Services.

  • To residents, Code Enforcement and Permit Services appear to be punitive. For 40 years, department managers have said, “We work with people to make it user-friendly.” However, that statement is no more than ‘lip service.’ In reality, inspectors act as if they were police officers. They flash an official badge and demand entry, or they will get a warrant—the same behavior listed in the Grand Jury report. Several property owners told us disturbing stories. In some instances, one or more code enforcement inspectors arrive on-site uninvited. They videotape the scene and then write the property owners up.
  • Code enforcement employees defend their actions by saying they are looking out for everyone’s safety by enforcing state building codes. They didn’t create the regulations; they enforce them—the Nüremberg Jonathan Wood leads the Permit Services Departmentdefense.

When asked about judgment on the job, Mr. Wood puts it this way. “If there are areas with no life safety concerns that we can refer to the spirit of the law through common sense and judgment, we will.” Yet, we heard stories to the contrary. Property owners told us about inspectors that enter older buildings. They try to apply current building standards to them instead of researching the building standards at the time of construction.

It’s Not Easy To Protest

Protesting an accusation is difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. Once Code Enforcement receives a complaint, they assume the property owner is guilty until proven innocent. This mindset is contrary to the legal system in our country.

Inviting New Problems Into Your Home

Permit Services InspectorPermit Services still uses intimidation as a weapon. For example, the property owner calls for an inspection after installing a water heater replacement. The inspector arrives to make sure the water heater is hooked up correctly, the gas connection is correct, and the heater is strapped for earthquake protection. While there, the inspector looks for other building issues such as electrical, gas, venting, unpermitted structures, and more. If they see something, then off it goes to Code Enforcement. The homeowner soon receives a letter demanding corrections and threatening penalties unless the property owner makes changes within a limited time.

Permit Services Turns Neighbor Against Neighbor

Ventura Permit Services relies on snitchesComplaints drive almost all the code enforcement investigations. Reacting to accusations leaves little time for inspectors to discover infractions on their own.

Code Enforcement now forbids anonymous complainers. Anonymous informants were a source of irritation to property owners in the past. Yet, even if the informant identifies himself, it doesn’t prevent mischievous acts. One individual complained about a downtown business. It turns out the complainer owned a competing company and didn’t want his competitor to get an advantage.

Fear of Retaliation and Horror Stories

We heard many horror stories researching this topic, yet we cannot write about them because the property owners feared retribution or retaliation. Inciting fear seems contrary to creating a cooperative environment to improve the city. One theme was universal among the people we interviewed. No one sees a change in the mentality in Permit Services.

The Building and Planning Process Gets Longer

In the recent past, it took about 90 days to get a construction permit in Ventura. Today, it could take years. One contractor put it this way, “Ventura takes homeowner’s dreams and crushes them.”

Permit Services slows down construction plan approval

More Promises of Change in Permit Services

Changes are happening, but will they be enough? Two examples in 2020 illustrate some possible deficiencies.

First, the Matrix Report recommends that the city digitize its planning and permitting processes.

When COVID-19 hit, the city accelerated the conversion to digital. With change come problems. There was a two-month period when the system misplaced plans. Residents might tolerate hiccups during the conversion under normal circumstances. But this delay affected homeowners rebuilding after the Thomas Fire. The City Council promised the victims a speedy return to their homes. This delay was contrary to the Council’s stated intent.

Second, the city decided to streamline the communication process with Permit Services. The idea was to limit the points of contact to the department. For example, there is now only one telephone number and one email address to reach Permit Services. City managers thought a single point of contact would make communicating more straightforward. Yet, it has had the opposite effect.

Triaging the incoming communication can be slow. Then, when assigning the case to a caseworker, they will have to rank the request based on their workload. To anyone outside the department, the situation is not transparent. The name and contact information for the caseworker isn’t known until that person contacts the property owner. There are also times when a case isn’t assigned immediately, and it sits in limbo. With only one phone number or email, it’s impossible to follow up.

Editors Comments

Nine years ago, the Ventura Grand Jury recommended changes in Ventura’s Permit Services Department. Today, the city is making changes slowly. Unfortunately, stifling regulations, protracted processes and fees provide property owners no compelling reason to improve their properties. Little wonder that property owners are skeptical if any lasting change will happen at all. As a result, development in the city has been slow and difficult. Some victims of the Thomas Fire still are not returned to their rebuilt homes. That is unforgivable.

Permit Services rejoices at completing half the Matrix ReportThe city is implementing the Matrix Report. Yet, according to the timetable, the implementation will be 50% complete at best at the end of June 2021. And nothing in the Matrix report addresses the core problem: the attitude within the department.

The current philosophy in Permit Services is that the employees are there to enforce the rules—like the police force. Enforcement officers and inspectors carry badges and threaten penalties and fines as if they were the police. Nothing in the current process encourages the property owners to want to get permits and to have a qualified inspector look at what they are planning to do. That’s a shame.

If the department changed their attitudes ever so slightly to work with people and make the permitting and building process user-friendly, citizens wouldn’t fear working with Permit Services.

Seriously Consider Another Option

Some residents have suggested a citizen’s board or commission to oversee Permit Services. This idea would only create another bureaucratic and ‘toothless’ political group that the city staff will marginalize.

Any Board or Commission still does not alleviate the fear of retaliation. There must be anonymity.   The city needs an independent body, not controlled by the City Council, but with some ‘enforcement power.’ The details of such a body are not precise, but there is a model of an independent body called the ‘Long-Term-Care Ombudsmen program’ that creators can emulate and modify. Property owners could appeal to a state agency in case of a dispute. A single hearing could rectify abuses and award punitive damages.

Now is the time to act before the city loses focus on making the needed changes to Permit Services.

Demand The City Council Makes Meaningful Changes To The Permit Services Department

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.

Didn't receive money from the Ventura Fire Department Received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department
Mike Johnson received no money from the Ventura Fire Department Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received no money from the Ventura Fire Department
Jim Friedman received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department Lorrie Brown is a Ventura Fire Department apologist
Joe Schroeder received no money from the Ventura Fire Department

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Ventura Fire Department Wants More Money

If Ventura Fire Department Is So Terrible, Why Don’t Statistics Show It?

Einstein comments on Ventura Fire Department

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Ventura Fire Department isn't keeping up with the times

Ventura Fire Department (VFD) is asking the City Council for more money so they can maintain the inertia they’ve had for the past fifty years. The basis for their demands is an operational assessment of Ventura Fire by Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI). Another multi-million decision based on flawed data faces the City Council. And it appears that they’re in a hurry to make it.

How We Got Here

In 2019, Ventura Fire confronted newly installed City Manager Alex McIntyre with a massive overtime bill. This prompted Mr. McIntyre to recommend a thorough evaluation of VFD’s operations. He told the newspaper he proposed a report to determine if Ventura Fire’s activities were “consistent with contemporary fire services practices.” The Council concurred, and they selected ESCI to do the evaluation.

Things Have Changed For The Ventura Fire Department

Fires are only 3% of Ventura Fire Department callsVentura Fire was initially designed to fight fires. Over time, their duties expanded to include safety inspections, and they built their processes to meet those needs. It was a model that had worked. After all, it was a 100-year-old tradition. Firefighters waited in the firehouse to be dispatched to an emergency.

The problem for VFD is that the community’s needs changed. The ESCI Operational Assessment of the Ventura Fire Department shows that only 3% of the calls were for fires. The majority, 73%, were for emergency medical service (EMS). Another 15% were “good intent” calls, or what ordinary people call false alarms. Ventura Fire is using an outdated business model to address modern challenges.

What Hasn’t Changed For Ventura Fire

The response time for VFD to respond to a call is in the 90th percentile compared to other fire departments nationally, according to the ESCI study. That’s good news for Ventura citizens.

Confronted with the changed requirements of what Ventura Fire does, one would expect the fire department to rethink its role. Yet, it still clings to the 100-year-old way of doing business. There is no new thinking within the department and no original ideas in the operational assessment done on the department.

The Flaws In The Study

The Ventura Fire Department seized on the ESCI assessment to lobby the City Council for more money. How much money? They’re asking for between $3.9M and $14.9M in the first year, with more in subsequent years. The study outlines several short-term, mid-term and long-term recommendations. (See attachment B)

Close examination of the ESCI report reveals several flaws. First, the ESCI is the consulting service of the International Fire Chiefs Association. The people interviewed to gather data for the assessment were Ventura firefighters. The report is built on fire chiefs asking firefighters what they need, then comparing that to what other fire departments across the nation have. The potential for inherent bias exists in this report.

For instance, when asked in an online survey (page 219) about how city firefighters feel: 75 percent of City Firefighters say more tax money “would allow us to better support fire prevention in our community.” Unsurprisingly, ESCI concluded that Ventura Fire needs more money.

ESCI’s Assessment Lacks Local Context

Ventura Fire Department Second, the review presents detailed costs associated with each of its recommendations. What it fails to offer are the benefits to citizens that each proposal represents. For instance, the report calls for adding eight more firefighters. What benefit is there to hire eight more firefighters?  VFD is already in the 90th percentile in response time. Page 21 of the report says, “VFD call processing time and turnout response time performance are excellent compared to other agencies studied by ESCI.”  The actual turnout time is one minute and 21 seconds (81 seconds).

To support their recommendation for more firefighters, ESCI compares firefighting personnel per 1,000 population based on the 2016 National Fire Protection Association Study for the Western United States. By that measure, ESCI concludes Ventura Fire Department staffing is 38 percent below the Western US median. There is no support for the formula by any data, and it appears to be irrelevant.

Third, the evaluation fails to recognize the number of firefighters added since Measure O passed. In that time, the Ventura Fire Department added twelve sworn officers, bringing its force up to 75—a 19% increase in the workforce. Compare that to Ventura Police (VPD). They added ten sworn officers, bringing the force up to 137—a 7.8% increase.

Fourth, the ESCI recommendations don’t mention the long-term financial impact of adding new firefighters to Ventura’s pension obligation. One estimate is that the city needs to set aside an additional $42,000 a year per firefighter to grow enough over 30 years to cover the pension benefits.

Ventura Fire Department Looks For More Money

Ventura Fire Department wants more moneyFifth, ESCI recommends on page 195, “Recommendation 1-G: Explore the option of an additional special measure to support (V)FD operations and to obtain a larger share of Measure O to support recommendations to increase staffing.”

Over time, the purposes of Measure O get fuzzy. None of the current City Councilmembers were on the Council when voters passed Measure O. The Measure O literature specifically said the city would not use the money to supplant existing positions. Yet, the Ventura Fire Department is asking for more employees paid for by Measure O. VFD seems to forget that at the time, Ventura Fire received funds from Measure O to keep Fire Station No. 4 operating. They have also received a 19% increase in firefighters since Measure O.

With the city’s other needs—aging infrastructure, pension liability obligations, homelessness, and more—Ventura Fire’s requests seem self-interested.

Sixth, on page 197, ESCI presents, “Recommendation 2-H: Explore the implementation of a fire services subscription program, where residents pay an annual membership fee for the fire department service.” This recommendation seems insensitive. It wasn’t that long ago that the City of Ventura tried to impose a 9-1-1 fee on all emergency calls. That decision was abruptly reversed, but not before the city collected the fee from several residents and never returned it.

Open Debate On The Issues

The ESCI report is 227 pages long. There is much detail to comprehend. Mayor Sofia Rubalcava introduced a motion to create a subcommittee for a more detailed of the fire department’s report and recommendations.

Jim Friedman objected, saying, “We made it clear we’re not interested in kicking the can down the road. Why a whole layer of discussions and subcommittee? That part I don’t understand.”

Councilwoman Lorrie Brown said she wanted the council to take action on the study and was not in favor of a committee taking months to make a recommendation.

Councilman Mike Johnson said he didn’t want to wait and see if a sales tax gets passed.

“There are things we can do,” Johnson said. “I look forward to really getting into the numbers. I’m not looking forward to making the hard choices, but I’m looking forward to having that discussion with my colleagues.”

It bears mentioning who has received campaign money from the Ventura Fire Department.

Ventura Fire Department contributions to candidates

In the end, Mr. Friedman won. There will be no subcommittee to do a thorough evaluation of the recommendations.

Editors Comments

There are too many flaws in the ESCI Operational Assessment of the Ventura Fire Department for the City Council to decide where and how to spend the money. We urge the Council to be extremely skeptical of the data presented. We hope they will see the same flaws and incompleteness in the report that we’ve reported here.

More money won't make Ventura Fire Department betterThe crucial, objective metric on which residents can judge Ventura Fire is response time. And VFD’s response time is in the 90th percentile. It will be hard to improve on that.

The City Council must realize from this study that Ventura no longer has a Fire Department. It has a medical triage team in red trucks. It’s irresponsible to focus on new fire trucks and adding new fire stations when 73% of their work is emergency medical services, not fighting fires.

To ask citizens to pay an additional tax to support the fire department is untenable. Residents will be paying higher water and wastewater bills, and they’re already paying higher electricity bills to support the Clean Power Alliance.

The notion of a subscription fee for fire department services seems absurd. Ventura already tried a similar idea with the 9-1-1 fee, and citizens rejected it.

Suggesting the Council divert money from Measure O to support the Ventura Fire Department violates the spirit—and the stated purposes—of Measure O. If the city does use Measure O money, it will send a clear message to voters, “All political promises are worthless.” The Council will use Measure O for whatever purposes it wants. Councilmember Friedman will appear prescient when he said, “It’s all green and it’s all spendable.” Measure O and the General Fund are really all the same money.

In the end, progress will happen if Ventura Fire rethinks the role of VFD. They can no longer rely on a 100-year-old tradition of firefighting. Trying to extort more money from residents to pay to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done is unconscionable. It gives the appearance that Ventura Fire is more interested in fighting change than fighting fires. Citizens should expect more from our fire department. We should expect thoughtful solutions, not ones that throw more money at existing problems.

Insist The City Council Seek More Original Solutions

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.

Didn't receive money from the Ventura Fire Department Received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department
Mike Johnson received no money from the Ventura Fire Department Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios received no money from the Ventura Fire Department
Jim Friedman received contributions from the Ventura Fire Department Lorrie Brown is a Ventura Fire Department apologist
Joe Schroeder received no money from the Ventura Fire Department

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

 

 

Protest the Ventura water rate increase

The New Ventura Water Rate Increase Will Effectively Cost You 43% More

Strong men fight the Ventura Water Rate Increase

To sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 

Chart of Ventura Water Rate Increase over time

 

Decisions made by past and present City Councils led to Ventura Water increasing water rates by 7% and wastewater rates by 6% for each year over the next four years. Extrapolated out, the water rate increase for the “average” ratepayer will grow 43% during that time.

The current City Council and Ventura Water want to convince you we need the increases. They began the process by including a brochure in your latest water bill explaining why they propose increasing rates.

If You Don’t Protest, You Vote “Yes” Automatically

Actively protest Ventura Water rate increaseVentura is obliged under Proposition 218 to allow ratepayers to protest the rate increases. Yet, Ventura Water doesn’t make it easy to do so. The protest form is intentionally challenging to locate. In the 8-page Ventura Water ‘Proposed Rate Adjustments’ document, Ventura Water buries the protest procedure on the last page. It is not bolded or highlighted to stand out to the reader. The protest format is not user-friendly. There is little explanation on how to complete the form, making it confusing to property owners.

VREG has written before about how unfair filing a protest under Prop 218 is in Ventura.  While Ventura does what is minimally required to be legal, the way objections are structured limits public complaints and makes it nearly impossible for voters to overturn any rate increase. In no way does Ventura’s protest procedure truly measure the public’s intent to tax themselves further.

The notice explains that the city will hold public hearings on April 19, 2021 and April 28, 2021.

If you oppose this increase, Ventura Water’s notice states that the parcel owner, or customer of record on the water bill, must file a written protest with the City Clerk at City Hall.

Where To Get Your Rate Increase Protest Form

Water rate increase protest formsThe City did not enclose a protest form with the rate increase notice. Instead, the brochure directs you to go online. You can find the Water Shortage Rate Protest form here. You can complete the form online, but you must print it for it to count.

Written protests may be submitted by mail to the Ventura City Clerk’s Office at 501 Poli Street (Room 204) Ventura, California 93001, or in person at the drop box near the back entrance of City Hall at 501 Poli Street, Ventura, California 93001 (parking lot behind City Hall). City Hall is currently closed to the public due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. All mailed written protests must be received (not postmarked) by the City Clerk no later than May 17, 2021, at 5:00 pm.

To prevent the rate increase, most property owners (51%) must file a protest. Renters have no right to protest.  Business owners have no right to protest.  Only the 32,000 people that own property with water meters have a right to vote.  The remaining 81,000 people in the City of Ventura are effectively disenfranchised. They have no vote but will have to pay.

Why Is Ventura Raising Rates?

Ventura Water Department justifies the rate increase by saying we must “control our water and wastewater,” and Ventura Water does not “trust” other agencies to help do that.

Water rates go up because Ventura wants a water treatment plantInstead, Ventura Water plans to build a $240 million wastewater treatment plant that will duplicate facilities that already exist near Ventura. The 2019 Corollo Report (commissioned by Ventura Water), titled Ventura Water Supply Projects and Alternatives, states that if Ventura Water utilizes the United Water Conservation and the Oxnard Water Treatment Plant, they would not need to build a separate treatment plant. The cost savings to Ventura ratepayers could be enormous.

Ventura Water neglects to mention that Ventura Water must rely on and co-exist with outside agencies like United Water and Casitas Water already. Also, soon Ventura Water will be working with the management of the State Water project to deliver water to the city.

The ‘lack of control and trust’ Ventura Water purports to be why it’s not cooperating with other water agencies is absurd. It’s already working with several other agencies and depends upon many other outside agencies for water resources.

The Unspoken Motivation Behind The New Plant

This City Council, and past ones, has accepted Ventura Water Department’s recommendations for a new processing plant called VenturaWaterPure without profound skepticism. Ventura Water has a massive conflict of interest (getting a new facility built and employing another 27 employees – Corollo Report 2019). Yet, the City Council seems oblivious. People may deny it, but governments measure their success in part by budget and staff size. Why would anyone think that the Ventura Water Department is any different?

Why Is The City Council Reluctant To Change?

The City Council fears that any redirection from building their facility will delay complying with the Wishtoyo Consent Agreement and result in substantial legal penalties. By extending the Consent Agreement deadline and utilizing the existing facilities at United and Oxnard, Ventura could produce a faster result.

Editors Comments On The Rate Increases

If we continue down this path, Ventura ratepayers will pay more than may be needed. Ventura Water has put the price tag on “control” and “trust.” It’s $200 million.

We’ve said repeatedly, at the very least, the Ventura City Council should:

  • Call for an accurate, independent, cost analysis that could result in potential savings of $200 million
  • Delay any rate increase to Wastewater rates
  • Direct the City attorney to apply for a deadline extension on the Wishtoyo Consent Agreement to provide more time to find the optimal solution while avoiding substantial legal penalties
  • Open negations with United Water and the City of Oxnard to utilize a wastewater treatment process.

Our current path is misguided and needs reevaluation. Whenever a financial decision boils down to “control,” the issue is power and prestige, not what’s best for the public.

Protest Your City Councilmembers’ Water Rate Increase

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Sofia Rubalcava Doug Halter approves water rate increase
Mike Johnson voted for Ventura Water rate increase Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios voted for water rate increase
Jim Friedman Lorrie Brown voted for Ventura Water rate increase
Joe Schroeder

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The rush to find a replacement in District 4

Is The Council’s District 4 Replacement Plan The Best Solution?

On replacement politicians

We are weary of politicians’ politicians. We want ours.”

—Gerald Stanley Lee, American author

Apponting a replacement in District 4 is a kangaroo court

On Saturday, February 20, 2021, the Ventura City Council will have the opportunity to select a new City Councilmember to join them for the next two years. This situation gives four of six City Councilmembers the power to choose a new Councilmember for the 15,000 residents living in District 4. Of course, none of the six remaining Councilmembers lives in District 4.

An Appointment Disenfranchises Voters

Several citizens emailed the Council claiming that appointing a replacement ‘disenfranchises’ the voters in District 4. If six members living outside District 4 appoint someone, District 4 is disenfranchised according to Webster’s definition, whether the Council believes it or not. Residents and Councilmembers should remember that the Ventura City Council can still function with six members and often does because of illnesses and vacations.

How We Got Here

Erik Nasarenko resigned his post as District 4 Councilmember because he was appointed Ventura County District Attorney. Mr. Nasarenko acknowledged his new role would not give him enough time to represent his district. It’s the first time since 1976 that a Ventura City Councilmember has resigned. Handling Mr. Nasarenko’s resignation has become a challenge, but the options are simple.

The Options To Fill The Vacant City Council Seat

On February 1st, the Councilmembers debated the various options open to them:

March and November are the only months the law allows special elections in 2021. Because the law mandates 88 days between calling for an election and voting, a March election was not an option because it was less than the 88 days.

After deliberating, the Council voted 4-2 to try and appoint District 4’s replacement. Councilmembers Jim Friedman and Doug Halter dissented.

The Argument To Not Appoint A Replacment

The resistance to fill the vacant seat with an appointment was mainly over two issues.

  • There are concerns that the appointment will be a rushed process, influenced by political motivations.
  • Any appointee will now have an advantage in the next general election by being anointed as an incumbent.

The Argument To Appoint Someone By February 25th

If the Council cannot appoint someone to replace Erik Nasarenko by February 25, 2021, the law requires the city to hold a special election.

Concern over leaving the District 4 seat vacant for ten months centers upon two other issues.

  • Leaving the seat open may create a split 3-3 vote, causing a motion to fail.
  • There is a concern that not having a representative for District 4 will leave those residences without a voice on the City Council.

Being Fast Versus Being Thorough With A Replacement

The most practical option available to the Council was to appoint a replacement. Four of the Councilmembers didn’t want to wait for a special election in November 2021. Nobody wanted to wait until November 2022 to fill the vacancy because of the concern about not having a seventh vote to break any tie vote.
Deputy Mayor Joe Schroeder summarized his choice this way. “I thought the best solution on the District 4 issue was an immediate special election; however, that wasn’t an option. I did not have issues with the associated expenses of a special election. I do have issues with running a City Council with an even number of seats. I believe it is a bad model of governance.”

If the Council cannot appoint a replacement by February 25, 2021, the law requires the city to hold a special election. The Registrar’s Office estimates a special election would cost $89,000 plus legal publication costs.

The Shortcomings Of Appointing A Replacement

There are three inadequacies of appointing a successor in District 4. Moving to district voting created the first and most significant of these shortcomings. Six Councilmembers—none of whom live in or have campaigned in the district—will decide who represents D4 for the next two years. These Councilmembers will say they understand the city’s needs at large, even though they represent specific districts. Yet, none of them can confidently say they know District 4’s particular issues or understand the wishes of D4 voters.

Second, the appointment will be based upon a 20-minute interview as opposed to a three-month campaign. All serving Councilmembers endured a lengthy campaigning process, which included appearing at Community Councils, candidate forums and campaign fundraisers. The appointee will do none of these things.

Third, the appointee will have the incumbency advantage in 2022 when he or she runs for re-election. Incumbent candidates are almost impossible to defeat in general elections.

The Process To Appoint District 4’s Replacement

One of these people will be District 4's replacement

As long as there will be an attempt to appoint a replacement for Mr. Nasarenko, the city wanted civic involvement in the selection process. Citizens were encouraged to submit questions for the candidates by February 8, 2021. Councilmembers proposed one question each. The final list of questions will include four questions from the public and six questions from the Council. The candidates to replace Erik Nasarenko will receive the questions in advance.

Selecting an appointee will take place on one grueling day. The Council will interview fifteen residents of District 4. Each will answer three questions from the City Council. The meeting day for choosing an appointee will be Saturday, February 20, 2021, beginning at 9 o’clock. The meetings will last twelve to fourteen hours.

The question-and-answer process will be virtual. The applicants will not be at City Hall, yet the interviews will be public. You’ll be able to see the proceedings over WebEx. (click here to watch on the day of the meeting). So will the candidates.

On that day, the first order of business will be for the City Councilmembers to select three questions to ask each candidate from the list of ten. Councilmembers will rank the candidates, deliberate and select the replacement.

Editors Comments

Because of the rush to interview and appoint, the process to find a successor in District 4 is possibly going to be little more than a beauty contest. An entire three-month election process gets reduced to a 20-minute Q&A session with the remaining Councilmembers.

The logistics of the procedure are grueling for both the applicants and the City Council. Interviewing all fifteen candidates in one sitting will be wearisome. It’s hard to imagine that the Councilmember’s attention will be as sharp at the end of the day as it was in the beginning.

Selecting three questions on the day of the interviews leaves little time for the Council to reflect on what “good” answers from the applicants should be. And, since there will be no objective way of grading or evaluating the responses, it will be hard for the Council to debate one candidate’s relative merits over another.

The process to appoint favors the candidates whose interview is later in the day. All candidates will be able to watch the proceedings via WebEx. After the first interviewee, the remaining candidates will know exactly which of the ten questions the Council will ask. They’ll be able to practice their responses. They’ll see the other candidates’ answers and see how the Council reacts to those answers.

Those who are concerned about a 3-3 split vote should keep this in mind. The consensus is that if you can’t convince one more person to support your position, it was probably not a solid idea from the start.

In the end, the selection will come down to whom the Council likes best based on a 20-minute performance, and it may not be who will best serve District 4.

District Voting Complicates Matters

A lawsuit filed against the city forced Ventura to move to District Voting in the name of “fairness.” We’ve been through one complete cycle of district voting, and we have a Council with a different makeup than we had before.

Then came the opening in District 4. The Council has the opportunity to appoint someone to fill the spot—someone to their liking. They say they will, yet it’s unlikely since none of them live there or know the voters. Instead, they’ll appoint someone “like-minded” that lives in District 4. Now, they’re perpetuating a Council in their likeness.

Have all we’ve done is move from one good ol’ boy network to another?

Tell Your City Councilmember Who You Think The Replacement Should Be

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Sofia Rubalcava voted for an appointee replacement in District 4 Doug Halter voted against an appointee replacement in District 4
Mike Johnson voted for an appointee replacement in District 4
Jim Friedman voted against an appointee replacement in District 4 Lorrie Brown voted for an appointee replacement in District 4
Joe Schroeder voted for an appointee replacement in District 4

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step and merit increases were premature

Ventura’s Imperfect Evaluation On Step And Merit Increases

Confucius on Ventura's step and merit increases

The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”

Confucius

Time will tell if Ventura made a good choice with step and merit increases

No one makes a lifetime commitment based on a single moment in time. Yet, the Ventura City Council made just such a commitment. In November 2020, they awarded step and merit increases to city employees based on revised sales tax figures. This decision is disturbing on several levels:

  1. The city staff led the Council to believe financial conditions were improving based on very short-term statistics.
  2. The people benefiting from the salary increases were the ones making the recommendation.
  3. Our elected officials failed to question the rosy picture the staff presented during the pandemic economic shutdown.

How Did We Get Here?

In the city’s fiscal year 2020-2021, the Ventura City Council faced a $12.0 million budget deficit due to California’s coronavirus shutdown. The city staff recommended a dozen possible solutions to the problem. Among them was the option to ‘defer’ $1 million in employee salary increases for step and merit increases until financial conditions improved.

As a provision of the FY2020-21 budget, former-Mayor Matt LaVere, the City Council and all the bargaining units agreed to freeze employee step and merit increases as a down payment on the massive reductions necessary in the year ahead.

Mid-Course Correction

The City Council receives regular updates on sales tax revenue collected. These reports include recent figures and may also include projections based on current trends. The updates are very short-term, especially in the early part of the fiscal year. Predictions made from these limited data may seem overly optimistic. Any upward trend tempts city staff and the Council to overreact. Past City Councils have been guilty of spending money from these projections because they seemed ‘good.’ The tendency is to see these projections through rose-colored glasses.

Step and merit increases were part of a mid-course correction

What Was The New Projection That Justified The Step And Merit Increases?

To everyone’s surprise, the September sales tax report update was higher than anticipated. The city staff projected that General Fund would be $1.657 million higher than forecasted. The City Council seized this as the ‘green light’ to reinstate the employee step and merit increases.

At the November 9, 2020 meeting, the Council rescinded the suspended step and merit salary increases for city employees. The suspension lasted only eight months, from March to November 2020.

Was The Decision To Grant Step And Merit Increases Logical?

Awarding step and merit increases puts Ventura on thin iceThe Council made its November decision based on data presented on September 23, 2020, a month and a half earlier. The Council received no updated data on which to decide. If they had, the decision might have been different.

In a report prepared by Michael Coon, the Director of Finance & Technology, after the Council’s November 9th decision, the $1.657 million surplus became a $483K deficit.

By the January 2021 Budget Workshop presentation to the new Council, the General Fund was positive again by $264,000. Mr. Coon admitted that $264,000 is a slim margin on a $116 million budget (0.2%).

What’s Happening With The General Fund?

The $1.657 million General Fund surplus presented in September 2020 was misleading. Yes, sales tax revenue was higher, but that didn’t account for the excess. Two unique, one-time events inflated the figures.

The General Fund received $2.0 million from the CARES Act funding. The city also received a donation from the Marion Schwab Trust.

Without these two rare revenue infusions, the city would have had $2.4 million less revenue than the city staff led the Council to believe when deciding to award the step and merit increases.

What’s more, on September 24, 2020, the city staff failed to mention the City Council’s risks to the General Fund. Player’s Casino Card Room sales taxes, parking violations, and Parks & Recreation programming were below budget. Mr. Coon’s November 2020 report shows revenue fell more than $5.2 million below budget in those three areas.

The Result Of Their Actions On Raises

In June, Councilmember Jim Friedman warned of an “absolute financial disaster” in the coming years if the city doesn’t continue to cut spending. Yet, the City Council reversed their earlier spending restraint and awarded over $719,000 in pay increases to city employees.

In June 2020, City Manager Alex McIntyre spoke of “shared sacrifice” when announcing the step and merit increases. Today, thousands of Ventura residents are not working. And those private-sector workers that remain employed may experience outright cuts in their pay and hours. Scores of businesses are closed by the pandemic and face bankruptcy. At City Hall, where jobs and salaries are guaranteed, things look very different, however.

What Can We Do?

Every budget cycle, the city goes through the same experience. The budget process begins in January and ends in June for the following year’s budget. Each year, the city staff presents their best estimate of what next year will bring. Often, those Staff recommended step and merit increases and the Council followed like chickens with their heads cut offestimates are optimistic. “We believe we’re conservative not to paint too bleak a picture,” Mr. Coon told the City Council on January 11, 2021. And, our City Council makes long-term decisions based on the short-term data they receive.

Staff isn’t always right. No one has examined the budgeting process for a long time. Periodically, it would be a good idea to have independent, outside consultants provide an unbiased analysis of Ventura’s budgeting. This evaluation should be different from the accountant’s review of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), which is always 18 months in arrears.

Editors Comments

We believe the City Council made the November decision to award the step and merit increases on flawed forecasts from staff. The City Council accepted the General Fund revenue would be $1.657 million higher in the middle of a pandemic. The Council decided based on a September bump in the sales tax revenue for the first four months of the fiscal year 2020-21. And, the data didn’t include the all-important Christmas season sales tax revenue. The Council made long-term decisions based primarily on short-term data.

Step and merit increases were justified by improved sales tax revenueIt seems clear that city staff provided fluid, optimistic data to the Council for their decision. Mr. Coon explained the projections, saying, “We are feeling alright with the additional projection of $1.5 million in Sales Tax for the current fiscal year. It is something that we definitely want to keep an eye on, especially if we start to see more businesses close.

“Currently, we are basically projecting that we will receive the same amount of Sales Tax this fiscal year that we received last fiscal year…the city would have received about $30 million in sales tax for FY 20-21 without the pandemic. So, the projections do factor in about a 10% decline from the activity that was seen in Jul-Dec 2019. This decline isn’t on the higher end because online sales tax collection is doing so well and offsetting the losses of some of the brick and mortar stores that are experiencing losses at the higher end of the spectrum.”

At a higher level, citizens should be concerned about this process. The same people who prepare the reports used to decide salary increases are the same people who get the raises.

Our concern isn’t with the exact budget numbers. We question using numbers provided by the very people who enjoy the increases. We also have reservations about the Council relying on unseasoned numbers over time.

And, we’re disappointed by the elected officials that failed to question staff’s rosy projections when we’re in the middle of a pandemic. There were variations in the General Fund projections from September 2020 to November 2020 to January 2021. Two different City Councils spanned that period. One would have hoped that at least one Councilmember would have remarked on the General Fund’s changes from positive to negative and back to slightly positive over that time. Yet, no one did.

Only four Councilmembers remain from the group that awarded the increases. They are Lorrie Brown, Jim Friedman, Erik Nasarenko and Sofia Rubalcava. At the January 2021 budget workshop, two Councilmembers (Ms. Brown and newcomer Mike Johnson) expressed concern about the COVID-19 impact on the city’s finances. One wonders why the other five didn’t share the same anxiety. We hope that the new Council will be more rigorous in asking questions when preparing next year’s budget.

Write Directly To Your City Councilmember To Insist They Ask More Insightful Questions During Budgeting

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.

Sofia Rubalcava voted for step and merit increases Doug Halter wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases
Mike Johnson wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases Erik Nasarenko voted for step and merit increases
Jim Friedman voted for step and merit increases Lorrie Brown voted for step and merit increases
Joe Schroeder wasn't on the Council when they voted for step and merit increases

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unfunded pension liabilities should force pension reform in Ventura

Latest Facts About Unfunded Pension Liabilities You Need to Know

Norman Vincent Peale on confronting Ventura's unfunded pension liabilities

Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You’ll find they haven’t half the strength you think they have.”

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

Which leader will arise to address unfunded pension liabilities?

Ventura’s unfunded pension liabilities continued to grow in 2019 to $218.6 million. The City of Ventura continues to sink deeper into debt to pay for city employees’ present and future retirement benefits.

Unfortunately, the economic reality of the city’s current public pension liabilities is not receiving the attention it demands. We raised the warning flag about the growing unfunded pension liabilities debt in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, yet the problem continues to grow unabated.

Revised Unfunded Pension Liabilities Figures

The new unfunded pension liabilities figures come from the 2018-2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). Ventura added $3.5 million to its unfunded liabilities. Simultaneously, the market value of Ventura’s assets held by CalPERS dropped to 66.7%, a multi-year low.

A chart of how bad Ventura's Unfunded Pension Liabilities have become

 

A Political Hot Topic

Discussions about pensions get emotional because we’re talking about people’s future and security. Let’s be clear. We respect the work city employees do. There is no denying that fire and police perform a vital job that is both dangerous and requires a high level of training and responsibility.

Our concern is not about their work. We’re uneasy about how the city structures, accumulates and pays retirement benefits.

Neglecting Pension Liabilities Doesn’t Make Them Disappear

Unfunded Pension Liabilities don't calculate well for VenturaFor ten years, Ventura has done little to remedy its unfunded pension liabilities. During that time, there have been four different City Councils. Yet, they made only a modest effort to solve the problem. Then-Mayor Bill Fulton and City Manager Rick Cole claimed in 2011 that the City of Ventura had tilled new ground by requiring the city employees to pay something toward their retirement – 4 ½%.

Yet, closer scrutiny showed employees pay their 4 ½% retirement contribution toward the employers’ portion (i.e., The taxpayers’ portion) of what Ventura sends to the CALPERS retirement plan. This accounting maneuver explicitly increases the employee’s total compensation, meaning the “contribution” counts as the employee’s income to calculate the employee’s retirement benefit when they retire.

What Ventura Can Do About Its Unfunded Pension Liabilities

The City Council made this one attempt to improve the current system but did not address the problem in a meaningful way. Since there are no proposals from the Council, the League of California Cities and Government Finance Officers Association recommended these actions to confront unsustainable pensions.

  1. Reduce the unfunded liability by making annual catch-up payments even more than CalPERS instructs you to pay—if you can afford to pay more.
  2. Raise taxes
  3. Reduce services
  4. Require voter approval of any pension obligation bond or POB. (Click to learn more about POBs)

These are terrible choices for the public.

Suggestions For Addressing Unfunded Pension Liabilities

There are two other choices for our City Council to consider if they have the political will.

  1. City workers' pensions are creating large unfunded pension liabilitiesMake beneficiaries pay more. With the city covering 100 percent of the unfunded liability, the problem will continue to grow. There will be minimal reforms because the actuarial losses fall on the taxpayer. Capping the employer contribution at a fixed percentage of salary would cut pension costs for the city. As pension costs increase over the years, the employees will pay all the growing costs.
  2. Change when retired city employees may begin collecting pensions. This alternative solution applies to new employees only. What if police and fire could vest their generous pensions in full by age 50 or 55, as they do now, but the payments did not start until age 65? Why would that help? The reason is that even if the city makes no further contributions, the fund will have ten more years to grow. At current official pension growth rates, that would more than double the fund’s value over those ten years. Also, the retirement payment period would be ten years shorter, given the same life expectancy. Such a system would still offer retirement security, but it would start at what most of us consider average retirement age.

Public sector employees may resist the changes but this solution makes sense. Private sector employees don’t get their full social security until 65 or even 67, depending their birth year.

Examining How Much City Employees Make

In 2019, 92 of the top 100 salaries on the city payroll are police officers and firefighters. Every one of the Top 100 earns more than $216,762 in pay and benefits. For perspective, the average family in Ventura earns $66,000 per year with two wage earners.

Raw Political Power Behind Unfunded Pension Liabilities

Ventura’s city employee unions negotiate higher and higher salary increases disregarding any concern that the money may not be available to pay their pensions once they retire. Union negotiators believe a virtually ironclad guarantee exists for the workers to whom the city promised the pension benefits. So, many Councilmembers accepted the same thing, although it’s no longer valid. A Federal Bankruptcy Court ruled otherwise in January 2015.

CALPERS argued that the California Constitution guaranteed the union contracts and thereby pension benefits from cuts. And if the court didn’t agree, they pleaded that they enjoyed sovereign immunity and police powers as an arm of the state. And if the court still disagreed, they argued that they have a lien on municipal assets.

The Federal Bankruptcy Court effectively threw them out of court, saying, “It is doubtful that CALPERS even has standing.   In his opinion, Judge Christopher Klein writes “It does not bear the financial risk from reductions by the City in its funding payments because state law requires CALPERS to pass along the reductions to pensioners in the form of reduced pensions.”

Judge Klein further stated, “CALPERS has bullied its way about in this case with an iron fist” and “that their arguments are constitutionally infirm in the face of the exclusive power of Congress to enact uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy…”.

The impact of this decision is that CALPERS cannot stop cities from modifying pensions. Yet, the Ventura City Council appears unaware of the findings.

Editors Comments

Past retirement pension negotiations were based on union bargaining and raw political power, creating a gap between what politicians promised and what cities can really pay. We offer some solutions, but it will take political will to bring the retirement benefits back to reality. Changing the system is the only way these promised benefits can be sustainable and dependable for retirees. It’s also the only way that taxpayers can afford to pay for them.

Write Directly To Your City Councilmember To Insist They Address Ventura’s Unfunded Pension Liabilities

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.

Sofia Rubalcava hasn't addressed unfunded pension liabilities Doug Halter Needs To Address Unfunded Pension Liabilities in Ventura
2021 Ventura City Councilmembers Erik Nasarenko hasn't addressed unfunded pension liabilities
Jim Friedman hasn't addressed unfunded pension liabilities Lorrie Brown hasn't addressed unfunded pension liabilities
Joe Schroeder Needs To Address Unfunded Pension Liabilities in Ventura

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Will governing change with the next City Council?

How Will Governing Be Better With A New City Council?

Tom Daschle on governing.

The election is over. It’s time for the work of governing to begin.

Sen. Tom Daschle

President Reagan on governing.

 

The 2020 City Council election marked a new beginning for governing Ventura. The newly elected Councilmembers campaigned to drive change at City Hall. Now, the emphasis for the newcomers will be to shift from campaigning to governing.

Three New Councilmembers

2020 is the first election for Ventura Districts 2, 3 and 7. The city shifted from citywide to district elections in 2018 when voters elected four City Councilmembers.

Doug Halter defeated incumbent Christy Weir in District 2. Mike Johnson won an open seat in District 3 vacated by Mayor Matt LaVere, who voters selected as a County Supervisor. Voters selected Joe Schroeder in District 7 to replace retiring Councilmember Cheryl Heitmann.

Campaign Spending

This year’s 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, but that has not proven to be the case.

The price to pay for governing Ventura

The candidates raising the most money were Nancy Pedersen, $57,531; Aaron Gaston, $54,195; and Doug Halter, $54,161. Of the three top fundraisers, only Doug Halter won his district. (These numbers will increase. The final campaign finance report is due January 31, 2021)

To put this year’s spending into context, the total amount raised for three districts was 7.9% higher than in 2018 for four districts ($216,684 vs. $200,811).

Voter Turnout

High numbers of voters turned out in each district. All three districts had more people vote than even District 4, with the highest voter in 2018.

The districts were more competitive this year than in 2018. Only one candidate received more than 3,000 votes compared to three out of four winning candidates in 2018.

Platforms For Governing

Each candidate presented his top priorities for the city to the voters. Here’s what each promised.

Doug Halter, District 2

Halter's Priorities for Governing

Mike Johnson, District 3

Johnson's Priorities for Governing

Joe Schroeder, District 7

Schroeder's Priorities for Governing

Priorities In Common

There were some commonalities between the priorities. Yet, the candidates missed the mark on one crucial issue.

All three candidates promised to deliver economic vitality while governing. Improving the economy is the most specious of any City Council candidate’s priorities. Candidates offer this promise during each election cycle. Yet, the Council has little control over Ventura’s economic prospects. Councilmembers can’t control which businesses move to Ventura. Nor can they determine which existing companies should expand. When the Council does meddle in selecting companies, the city has experienced catastrophes. One only needs to remember the Brooks Institute debacle.

There is one area over which the City Council can control the business environment. They can make it easy for businesses to start-up or expand. Easing regulations and reducing approval time can stimulate business. We’ll see if this freshman class of Councilmembers will enact changes in this area. Their predecessors have not.

What All Three Are Missing

All three winners failed to mention one opportunity to reduce regulations and cut bureaucracy. Not one of them prioritized recovering from the Thomas Fire. It’s been three years since the disaster, and the city has not recovered economically. Victims have rebuilt only 190 of the 535 houses destroyed in the fire. That’s 35% of the buildings in three years. The City Council promised quick response and expedited procedures. The city waived some fees and added extra city staff to handle the influx of building plans. Yet, it’s hard to argue that Ventura’s response has been quick.

Another glaring omission is addressing the unfunded pension liability deficit. Retirement pensions are the city’s number one problem. Ventura currently has a $215.1 million obligation. That number continues to grow. CalPERS (the California Public Employees retirement fund) demands rapidly increasing contributions from Ventura. We will have permanent increases of at least $2 million per year for five to six consecutive years.

Issues

Newly-elected Councilmembers now have to shift their focus. The entire campaign focused on convincing district voters their interests came first. Once elected, they must change that focus to represent the whole city.

The top issues facing the City Council continue to be water, homelessness, budget deficits, pensions, economic stability and growth.

Two of the three new Councilmembers list water as a priority, but none of them has a stated water policy. Without alternative thinking, water ratepayers will have no choice but to surrender to Ventura Water’s strategy for VenturaWaterPure. Citizens should balk at this policy for both health & safety reasons and millions in unnecessary cost.

Homelessness is a priority for two new Councilmembers. Homelessness is an intractable problem showing all the signs of a failed paradigm. Ventura continues to spend more money on the homeless, yet the outcomes continue to worsen. What’s more, the COVID-19 recession will make more people unsheltered in the future. Court rulings and voter initiatives have made it increasingly difficult for public safety to help. Ventura needs a collaborated effort and some creative thinking to make any headway against the problem.

The One Issue Plaguing Ventura’s Long-Term Vitality

The incoming City Council will have to sharpen their pencils to impact the budget deficits and pension liabilities. The economic impact of the pandemic makes this challenge even harder. The city will have reduced sale tax revenue from the business shutdowns and diminished disaster support from Sacramento. Together, it will be harder to meet expenses.

The new Councilmembers must acknowledge that growth, jobs and water availability are inseparable. They also need to recognize the opposition to more houses (the NIMBYs) by some in the community. Forward progress on growth means accommodating, integrating and compromise.

Editors Comments

We have been through two election cycles now, and districts have elected all of the City Councilmembers. While it’s still too early to evaluate the impact of moving to district voting entirely, some things are becoming clear.

First, campaign spending is increasing unabatedly. In the last two elections, spending has reached record levels. It used to be that a candidate for City Council had to spend money throughout the city to get voters. Under district voting, candidates spend money to influence their 15,000 potential voters. On the surface, one would think it would take less money to reach a smaller group of people, yet spending is skyrocketing.

Second, some of the campaign spending is money spent by Political Action Committees (PACs) to support candidates they favor. The chief PACs are the fire and police unions and the Chamber of Commerce. This year PACs spent over $104,000 to support Aaron Gaston, Doug Halter and Nancy Pedersen.

Governing Ventura is determined by PAC contributions

 

 

In 2018, PACs spent over $84,000 to support Kevin Clerici, Jim Friedman and Erik Nasarenko. The year-over-year increase in PAC spending is 30.7%.

What We Learned About PAC Spending

The PACs supported six candidates, only three of whom were elected. What does this tell us?

  • Voters don’t always vote for the candidate spending the most money— good news in an era of rising campaign expenditures.
  • The PACs’ record for getting the candidates they want into office is only partially successful. In turn, it may also mean that the PACs’ influence over the City Council may not be as strong as it has in the past.
  • Candidates are willing to spend large sums of money for the chance at governing. Voters should scrutinize from where their preferred candidates receive their funds.
  • Citizens United determined that money spent in political campaigns is free speech. The PACs know this and contribute more to campaigns than any individual contributor. Who will the Councilmembers listen to when there is a crucial decision to make?

Third, if diverse representation is the reason for voting by districts, then the 2020 election contradicts that intent. All three elected Councilmembers are old, white males. Two of the three replaced women on the Council. It’s too early to draw any conclusions from two elections, but it appears that voters are electing candidates that revert to the old norm to govern them.

Fourth, voter turnout was unprecedented for the City Council election. The overall numbers, and the percentage of eligible voters in each district, were the highest recorded. Strong voter turnout is good news. Democracy works best when voters engage.

Finally, it’s up to each individual to hold our elected officials accountable. The commitments they make during the campaign must translate into action while they are governing. Otherwise, they’re just empty promises. It’s up to you to make sure the Councilmembers live up to their commitments.

Here’s How You Can Write Directly To Your City Councilmember

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.

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Campaign Issues 2020

All You Need To Know About Local Campaign Issues 2020

Kennedy on Campaign Issues 2020

The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

—John F. Kennedy

Vote On Campaign Issues 2020 By Mail

We should say from the start that VREG does not endorse candidates. Our goal is to keep you informed and to educate wherever possible, but we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to outline the critical campaign issues facing City Council candidates in 2020.

Vote By District For Campaign Issues 2020

If you live in District 2, 3 or 7, you have an important decision to make in this election. Your choice for City Councilmember will shape Ventura’s future for decades. How the candidates address the current campaign issues should guide your selection.

Meet Your 2020 City Council Candidates

First, familiarize yourself with the candidates. Campaigning has changed in the COVID-19 environment, so you may not be able to meet your candidates in person. Zoom townhall meetings and campaign videos are replacing in-person, door-to-door campaigning.

Ten of the eleven candidates provided qualification statements.  We’ll highlight and summarize each declaration to save you from looking them up.

Here are the City Council candidates with their self-described ballot designations. The candidates are presented in the order as they will appear on the ballot.  The Secretary of State randomly drew names to determine the ballot order on 8/13/2020.

Do These Candidates Know The Campaign Issues 2020?District 2

Do Candidates In District 2 Know The Campaign Issues 2020?

Doug Halter is a local businessman. He a passionate about Ventura and is knowledgeable about how Ventura operates. He is running on changing the status quo. Mr. Halter ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1999 and 2007 under the open election system. 2020 is his first campaign under the district system.

Dougie Michie is a certified financial planner with a degree in law and a doctorate in urban planning. He is running on his wide range of education and experience, which will enable him to guide the city through the challenges Ventura faces.

Christy Weir has been on the City Council since 2003. Historically, she has proven to be open-minded and approachable.

 

District 3Do The Candidates in District 3 Know The Campaign Issues 2020?

Barbara Brown is a business owner and a professor at Laguna College of Art and Design. She serves as a Public Arts Commissioner. Ms. Brown’s family lost their home in the Thomas Fire. Her passions include the Ventura Botanical Gardens, Interface Children Services, and Goodwill Industries.

Aaron Gaston is a realtor and business owner. He graduated from UCSB. For nearly 30 years, Mr. Gaston ran a technology company. He is interested in supporting a healthy business community with affordable housing to be compatible with smart growth.

William Cornell is a small business owner with over 15 years in the construction industry. He is concerned about the city’s ability to sustain itself on its current path. He also wants to improve public safety, community and economic development.

Mike Johnson is a faithful attendee at several city community subcommittee meetings on economic development, housing, water and Measure O. He is thoughtful with his approach to problem-solving. He is ‘ready to lead on day one.’

District 7Do The Candidates In District 7 Know The Campaign Issues 2020?

Heather May Ellinger is a real estate agent. She is interested in the homeless crisis, crumbling roads, housing and affordability and community development. The city budget is a significant concern, and a need to make the city more business-friendly to attract companies with high paying jobs will improve revenues. Her experience as a mortgage field inspector would assist in ‘navigating the complex issues’ in reconstruction.

Nancy Pedersen is a business owner and is chair of the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau Board of Directors. She has professional credentials with 40+ years as a business and legal executive.

Joe Schroeder is a retired CEO of the Ventura County Credit Union. His financial expertise and management experience are what he feels the City Council needs. He has also served on community boards such as Food Share and the Global Women’s Leadership Network. His priorities are supporting public safety, economic growth, natural resources, an updated coastal plan and a short-term rental plan that protects community interest.

Michael James Nolan is a realtor and communications manager, but without a statement of qualifications provided to the City of Ventura and we didn’t find an election website. VREG cannot give any useful information on his candidacy.

Ventura’s Key Campaign Issues In 2020

What campaign issues do you want your candidate to address? Your answer will depend on the district you live in, but there are some citywide issues every candidate must address.

Water Is Among The Top Campaign Issues

Water Tops The Campaign Issues 2020 In VenturaWater will be among the costliest issues the City Council will face in the next four years. Ventura Water is asking the Council for over $300 million, making it as expensive to the city as public safety.

Find out from your candidates where they stand on VenturaWaterPure. Are they content to drink recycled wastewater? Do they know that no standards exist yet for purifying wastewater into potable water? Will Ventura ratepayers willingly accept the increases needed to pay for the $300 million Ventura Water is requesting?

How much do your candidates understand the litigation the city is involved in concerning water? Do they know what alternatives exist to the Wishtoyo Consent Decree of 2012? Do they know the Ventura River cross-complaint Ventura filed against 10,000 property owners along the river?

Homelessness and Vagrancy Are Important Campaign Issues

Ventura’s homeless shelter is operating. It costs the city $712,000 per year to house 55 of the city’s 531 homeless. Shouldn’t the Council and citizens know precisely how much homeless services cost and how they get allocated? What should Ventura do for those not housed in the shelter? Some of the remaining homeless are vagrants. They choose to live the lifestyle and to panhandle. How do candidates plan to combat that so Ventura is more tourist-friendly?

Homelessness In Ventura Among Top Campaign Issues 2020

Future Budget Deficits Rank High Among The Campaign Issues In 2020

Balancing The City's Budget Is Among The Campaign Issues 2020

The current City Council balanced the 2020-2021 budget by reducing costs in 11 key areas. City employee pension costs continue to rise and may rise more quickly because of COVID-19’s impact on CalPERS’ investments. Each increase in pension costs squeezes money out of the General Fund that otherwise could go towards street repair, tree trimming or public safety.

Public Employee Pensions Is The Toughest Campaign Issues

Employee Pensions Ranks First Of Campaign Issues 2020

Ask the candidates running in your district if they will work with the city’s unions to reform public employee pensions. The last time the City Council modified pensions was 2010, and those changes were modest. The city staff believes pensions will level out in six or seven years. Can Ventura last that long amid its other financial burdens? The city still hasn’t recovered fully from the Thomas Fire. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses for months, robbing the city of sales tax revenue, and there is no clear plan to reopen them completely.

Campaign Finances

The first district elections in 2018 were the costliest in history. The top three fundraisers were Jim Friedman, $60,887; Kevin Clerici, $44,862; and Erik Nasarenko, $36,464. Messrs. Friedman and Nasarenko won. On a cost per vote basis, Mr. Friedman spent $19.90 to get a vote. Mr. Nasarenko paid $11.97. Mr. Clerici, who lost, spent $45.52 per vote. Big money doesn’t always win, but the exception proves the rule.

We will monitor the candidates’ campaign finance reports to report this year’s totals.

Growth Is Always Among The Key Campaign Issues

Growth Is One Of The Campaign Issues 2020

Growth means different things to different people. It’s inescapable that Ventura needs to grow.

Ask if your candidates acknowledge that growth, jobs and water availability are inseparable. They also need to recognize the opposition to more houses (the NIMBYs) by some in the community. Forward progress on growth means accommodating, integrating and compromise.

Editor’s Comments

Voting works best when people take the time to learn about campaign issues. We urge you to get involved. Educate yourself on the candidates’ positions on the campaign issues for 2020. We’ve provided a framework to ask pertinent questions. Use ours or develop your own, but find out where the candidates stand.

Don’t succumb to the clichés candidates use to get your vote. Candidates always discuss growth and public safety while campaigning. Look beyond that. These are not the pressing campaign issues in 2020. The most demanding issues are water, labor contracts, long-term planning and reductions in services. These problems with budgets, growth and water have happened over the last fifteen years. Ask yourself, “Do these candidates have the capabilities to solve these problems?”

Once elected, it’s vital to review the new Councilmembers’ performance. Accountability and transparency are glossed over and only get ‘lip service’ during election time. In the past, Councilmembers knew voters would forget over the next four years. It’s up to each of us to make sure that our elected officials do what they promised to do.

We respect anyone who steps up to run for office. It is not easy to subject yourself and your family to public scrutiny and comments. So, regardless of the election outcome, we applaud everyone who threw their hat in the ring.

Postscript

The Fire and Police Unions are supporting Doug Halter in District 2, Aaron Gaston in District 3 and Nancy Pedersen in District 7.

Here’s How You Can Write Directly To Your City Councilmember

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.

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What You Need To Know About The Schools And Communities First Initiative

You'll Pay Through The Nose If The Schools And Communities First Initiative Passes

Some taxpayers close their eyes, some stop their ears, some shut their mouth, but all pay through the nose.”

—F.J. Raymond

vote against the schools and communities first initiative

The pandemic has impacted everyone and everything.  Businesses large and small struggle, and while it has probably not come to your attention, this November, a proposed ballot measure aims to increase the cost of living for everyone.  Under the guise of “helping our children,” the legislature placed The Schools and Communities First (initiative 19-0008) on the ballot.  If approved, this will push prices higher for all residents.

Today’s property tax regulations — Proposition 13

On June 6, 1978, the voters passed Proposition 13 reducing property tax rates on homes and businesses by 57%.  That happened because legislative bodies were raising taxes aggressively, the only limits being a legislator’s imagination on how to devise the next tax increase.  So, Prop 13 rolled back and froze the taxable value to the 1976 level.  Any increases were limited to no more than 2% per year as long as the owner did not sell it.  Once sold, assessors re-valued the property at 1% of the sale price, and the 2% yearly cap applied to future years.

Changing Prop 13 Through The Schools and Communities First Initiative

The Schools and Communities First Initiative seeks to repeal Proposition 13 protections for commercial and industrial property owners. Every business, commercial and industrial property will be reassessed every three years and taxes assessed based upon “the fair market value” or the “income approach “of valuation, whichever is higher.  They project it will raise $12 billion per year in new tax revenue.

Declining enrollment doesn't warrant schools and communities first initiativeWhether owned by a large corporation or a family, the initiative would be a massive tax increase. It will affect office buildings, retail stores, shopping malls, movie theaters, gas stations, supermarkets, factories, warehouses, self-storage facilities, auto dealerships, car washes, restaurants, hotels and every other job-creating business in the state. Even small businesses that lease space in a strip mall would see their operating costs jump sharply due to tax increases passed through from landlord to tenant.

Many public unions support this tax Initiative — the California Teachers Association (CTA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California Tax on Commercial and Industrial Properties for Education, Education and Local Government Funding Initiatives (2020).

What The Proponents Say Is Wrong

Advocates argue that this is only a “split roll,” and it is “for the children.”  Split roll is a shorthand term for proposed changes to Proposition 13 that would allow higher property tax assessments on a commercial property, but would not change for residential property.

Another argument advocates make is that corporations have benefited more than homeowners under Proposition 13. They assert that the business property tax-burden shifts from companies to homeowners; they call a “property tax loophole.” They say passing The Schools and Communities First Initiative closes this loophole.

The suggestion that there has been an “enormous shift” is untrue. Displayed is a chart showing the percentage of tax paid by business versus individuals in 1979-80 and then in 2015-2016. Using data obtained from the California State Board of Equalization and the California Legislative Analysis Office, the following pie charts show business property owners pay more in taxes now than they did 40 years ago:

schools and communities first charts on ownership

Source: California Tax Foundation

How You Will Be Affected If This Passes

All consumer costs will jump. Business property owners will pass the tax increase to consumers in the form of higher prices for everything, for all goods and services.

  • Chain stores will pass on the costs to consumers and survive, maybe. Five hundred companies have filed for Chapter 11 since the pandemic began.
  • Shopping malls like the Pacific View Mall, where a retail tenant typically pays a Triple Net Lease (N-N-N),meaning the tenant pays the taxes.  In this instance, property owners will not pay the higher taxes, as the proponents would lead you to believe. Instead, store owners will pay the tax and pass that expense on to their customers with higher prices. If not, they will fail.
  • If you rent a self-storage unit, pay attention. The self-storage industry is very concerned about the effect on its business. The industry calls the tax disastrous. Who are the most frequent users of self-storage units? Renters!
  • Gas Stations. If you drive, Schools and Communities First Initiative will hurt you. Retail gas stations would see price hikes and closures. A quick review of gas stations for sale shows that the split roll will negatively impact many of them. Gas prices will go up accordingly.

Opponents to the Schools and Communities First Initiative

A list of the opponents to the Schools and Communities First Initiative includes the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, the California Taxpayers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau, the California Business Properties Association and the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association.

schools and communities first image of willie brownWillie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and the longest-serving Speaker of the California Assembly, also opposes this measure and stated: “…that the Schools and Communities First Initiative will harm small businesses, especially minority-owned small businesses.”

David Kline, vice president of communications and research for the California Taxpayers Association in Sacramento, said, “The last thing this state needs is higher taxes, and especially a tax that would increase the cost of everything we buy in California.”

The California Assessors’ Association (CAA) is also in opposition. Larry Stone, Santa Clara County’s assessor, said, “it is impossible to implement as written.”  CAA President Don Gaekle, the assessor for Stanislaus County, wrote in a letter to lawmakers, “Current local budgetary realities will make the implementation of the initiative extremely difficult.”

Editors Comments

The high cost of living in California would be pushed even higher by this massive tax increase. Passing the Schools And Communities First Initiative would hit every business in the state at the same time.

Don’t be fooled when “split roll” advocates say that it just hits businesses. When their costs go up, so do the prices you pay for goods and services.

The “split roll” would make California’s brick-and-mortar businesses increasingly uncompetitive with online companies based in other states where costs are far lower. It would also accelerate business flight out of California.

Advocates of a “split roll” say it merely closes a “loophole.” They maintain that voters never intended Proposition 13 to apply to commercial property, but this isn’t true.

California has had a single or “unified” roll, treating all property the same, since the 1800s! Proposition 13 didn’t change that.

The government employees charged with implementing the Schools And Communities First Initiative say the law is untenable as written. They would need extra appraisers and support staff to do what the law requires, thereby increasing the government’s cost and adding to California’s pension burden.

Taxes are already too high in California, yet the demand for more is unrelenting. Read past the Schools And Communities First name on the ballot. Look beyond the rhetoric to understand the real costs to you.

Learn Where Your City Councilmember Stands On The Schools and Communities First Initiative

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.

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