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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.