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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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Property Rental

The City Should Get Out of the Property Rental Business

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

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

City Council Makes The First Step Toward Dealing with Surplus Building

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

Good decision.

Why The City Should Get Out Of The Property Rental Business

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

Property Rental

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

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

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

Why The City’s Bad At Property Rental

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

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

Property rental

Should Ventura be in the property rental business at all?

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

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

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

The City Council needs to address these problems.

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

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

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

Property Rental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editors Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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