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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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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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