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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

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 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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How To Connect To Your 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers

2021 Ventura City Councilmembers

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
—Louis L’Amour

Our federalist system gives us many opportunities to participate in our democracy. Some forms of participation are more common than others. And some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.

Meet Your 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2021. We have three new 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers and four established members. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Governing By Districts

For the first time in Ventura’s history, our Councilmembers were elected by districts. While each Councilmember was elected by constituents in their district, they serve the entire city. You should feel free to contact any of the 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers regardless of the district in which you live.

City Council Elections In 2021

There will be no City Council elections in 2021. The next election will be in 2022 for Districts 1, 4, 5 and 6. You should note that the 2020 City Council elections were the costliest in Ventura’s history. Candidates and PACs spent 7.9% more in 2020 than in 2018. The impact of the campaign spending on local politics remains to be seen. We certainly will see even higher campaign spending in the 2022 election.

Click On A 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers’ Photo To Email

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

Let then know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. No matter what you write, however, share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

2021 Ventura City Councilmembers 2021 Ventura City Councilmembers
2021 Ventura City Councilmembers

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Councilmembers

How To Connect To Your 2020 Ventura City Councilmembers

Councilmembers

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
—Louis L’Amour

Our federalist system gives us many opportunities to participate in our democracy. Some forms of participation are more common than others. And some citizens participate more than others, but almost everyone has a voice in government.

Meet Your 2020 City Councilmembers

We have a new Ventura City Council for 2020. We have three newer Councilmembers and four seasoned members. Each of them has an email account with the city. Not everyone knows how to contact them, though.

Governing By Districts

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

City Council Elections In 2020

This is an election year for Ventura’s City Council. In November, three seats will come up for re-election. These three seats will be voted on by districts. Districts 2, 3 and 7 will vote. Christy Weir will run in District 2. Cheryl Heitmann will run in District 7. Mayor Matt LaVere has announced he is running for higher office, so District 3 will have an open seat and s0meone new will represent them after the election.

Click On A Councilmembers Photo To Email

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

Let then know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. No matter what you write, however, share your opinion. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers

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What You Should Know About Seaward Sushi

“I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Seaward Sushi battled to reopen

Is Ventura Open For Business?

When the city needs money, they go to the old trope, “We’ll attract new business.” After all, Ventura is open for business, according to this Council. Actions speak louder than words, however. The recent incident with Seaward Sushi illustrates the confusion and shortsightedness in City Hall.

In June 2019, social media blew up over closing of 40-year old Seaward Sushi. After owner Rachel Woodward closed her doors June 14th, for the final time, her story spread on the internet. Based on what Rachel posted, it would have easy to jump to conclusions. One could conclude that Ventura’s permitting and code enforcement’s strict policies and slow processing time were the villains in this situation.

After telling her story on social media, it got the attention of several people like Jim Friedman, Stephanie Caldwell at the Chamber and others at City Hall. While we don’t know all the facts, only after this story attracted attention on social media, the City of Ventura hastily arranged a meeting on June 24th.

What the Seaward Sushi Situation Revealed

No City Staff Owned Seaward SushiIn an interview with Rachel Woodward, she revealed that she kept meticulous notes. She has a complete phone and paper trail of all dates and times that someone spoke to her, and a list of appointments and promises broken from representatives from City Hall. Rachel felt she needed to keep these records. She got the impression that everyone at City Hall was “very defensive,” and nobody wanted to be “held responsible” for what had occurred before the June 24th meeting.

The city gave Rachel a temporary permit on June 24th to reopen on June 28th. Without the privilege of knowing what they discussed in that meeting, we do know that Ashley Batista from the city was able to provide a permit to reopen June 28th.

Rachel voluntarily agreed to a hearing on August 6th. At the August 6th hearing, there was zero opposition, and the city granted a permanent permit. She has been in business ever since. Business is still down, but it can only get better.

Nobody took responsibility for Seaward SushiRachel further felt that it was also apparent that few, if anyone, was in the community visiting businesses. And, when someone visited a company, there weren’t clear directions on how to streamline the process.

The story does not end here, in any case. If it took one meeting to find enough support to justify reopening, how did the original staff fail to reach a similar conclusion in the first place?

From this experience, Rachel learned a few things. She felt that before the June 24th meeting, nobody wanted to take ownership of the situation.  It seemed to her that nobody in City Hall knew the specifics, and no one was clear on the process to follow.

Editors Comments

If Ventura is open for business, maybe the city staff involved in the process did not get the memo. The city needs to do a post-mortem on the Seaward Sushi approval process to find ways to improve if they are going to claim to be open for business. We recommend changing the current approval process to one that requires two employees to examine and approve exceptions to ordinances or policies.

Insist The City Council Reduces Overregulation For Businesses

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.

Councilmembers
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Why Breaking Up Committees And Commissions Is Important

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

—Lao Tzu

For the most part, nobody noticed the change. Ventura voters paid little attention to the City Council’s revamped process for committees and commissions. That’s too bad because the new process is the first step towards improving the city.

Voters elected a new City Council in 2018 seeking bold changes in the way Ventura operates. The Council designed initiatives to save city staff time and money. Because of the revamped process, Ventura will become more business-friendly. Moreover, the new procedures will make it easier for residents to improve their homes.

Unlike in the past, the Council recognizes that the development process is cumbersome. There are too many planning and review layers to navigate and not enough certainty. Mayor Matt LaVere called the system sick and in bad need of surgery. The Council is breaking down decades of ineffective planning, permit processing and internal red tape.

Proposed Changes To Committees And Commissions

The Council has proposed some significant changes. They include:

  • Streamlining, improving and simplifying the current design review process.
  • Disbanding the Historical Preservation Committee. Replacing it with staff review and, where needed, outside consultants.
  • Allowing each council member to appoint her or his own Planning Commission member. The commissioner’s term would run concurrently with that of the elected official.
  • Merging the Cultural Affairs, Library Advisory and Public Arts commissions. Three members of each commission stay on to form a nine-member board.

The Most Notable Change

The most significant change is the appointment of Planning Commissioners.

In the past, the City Council Appointments Committee interviewed Planning Commissioners. The Appointments Committee comprised of three Councilmembers. If approved, the committee recommended the prospect to the full City Council. When approved, each appointee was sworn in to serve for four to eight years, or longer.

Under the proposed changes, each City Councilmember will appoint a Planning Commission member. Commissioner terms would run concurrently with that of the elected official. The appointing Councilmember may replace them at any time during their tenure.

Increased Accountability For Committees And Commissions

Every Planning Commissioner would be accountable to the Councilmember who appointed him or her.

Currently, the commissioners are unelected and unanswerable layers in the process. Some viewed their role as gatekeepers or an all-important citizens’ overseers. Rarely, if ever, was an appointed commissioner removed by the City Council. Entrenched commissioners support their boards but do not answer to anyone and suffer no consequence if their agenda is different from that of the City Council.

Under the new structure, each commissioner would be responsible to an individual City Councilmember whom we elected. It is less likely they will obstruct progress.

Increased Efficiency

The proposed system eliminates duplicated efforts. It also saves the city staff time in unproductive meetings.

City staff will assume the responsibility of the Historical Preservation Committee. Combining the Cultural Affairs, Library Advisory and Public Arts Commissions reduces three meetings down to one.

City staff spends time preparing, attending and summarizing the findings for these meetings. They will no longer need to do so under the proposed changes.

Cost Neutral

The new system offers less duplicated effort, fewer meetings and allows the staff to do more work. City staff will spend less time in meetings. They will save the time they’d otherwise spend preparing for, attending and summarizing the meetings.

It costs the city more to have staff acting as the Historical Preservation Committee. The increase in personnel cost is offset by the cost savings from eliminated meetings, in any case.

Feeble Objections

The proposed changes don’t please everyone. The immediate resistance came from some existing committee members and commissioners. There are two main objections.  Some complained about the process. Others believe there will be less transparency and citizen involvement.

Those annoyed by the process claim the city should have notified members in advance about the change. They assert that the staff did not inform the commissions or seek input until after the fact.

Committee members and commissioners serve at the pleasure of the City Council. It’s unimportant if the Council or city staff notified them in advance of proposing any changes.

Others feel the new process will reduce the number of voices participating. The criticism is unfounded. All the committee and commission meetings are open to the public. Any interested citizen can attend and take part. That includes all ex-committee or ex-commission members.

Editors’ Comments

The City Council acknowledged Ventura could improve. They’re taking steps to change that; starting first with the committees and commissions. No one knows what impact these changes will have. What we do know is that doing the same thing and expecting different results will not work.

Supporting these recommendations may move Ventura forward. We applaud the Council’s effort to infuse more responsibility into city government. The new initiatives will improve transparency.

WRITE THE CITY COUNCIL TO SHARE YOUR OPINION ON THE CHANGES TO COMMITTEES AND COMMISSIONS

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.

Councilmembers
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Clean water, not sewage

Are You Really Content To Drink Sewage When You Don’t Have To?

“If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em. It’s an old political trick.”

—Harry S. Truman

 

Before discussing water issues in Ventura, we must first dispel a myth. The City of Ventura has plenty of water. We have almost ten times the water we need annually in reserves. So, the City of Ventura’s insistence to conserve drinking water because we don’t have enough is untrue. There are many good reasons to save, but not having enough drinking water is not one of them.

No need for sewage water

Between Foster and Mound Basins alone, there are 141,600 to 184,600 AF of water. Assuming there is zero replenishing of groundwater—and not counting on our other water resources from Casitas, Santa Paula, Oxnard Basin or State Water (a combined amount of 12,072 AF more per year)—Ventura has almost ten times the water it needs annually in reserves.

Historically, Ventura has used an average of 21,000 acre-feet of drinkable water per year. This figure has been steady over the past 30 years. With conservation and reduced consumption, Venturan’s have managed to reduce our water usage to 15,000 acre-feet per year. So, regardless of doom and gloom declarations issued by the State of California, or what Ventura Water tells us, Ventura has enough water. (See Notes On Water Availability below for additional information).

THE REAL ISSUE

Ventura’s real problem is a legal Consent Decree, agreed to by the Ventura City Council in 2012.  That Consent Decree mandates that Ventura must stop dumping treated sewage* into the Santa Clara River.  The amount of sewage to be diverted will be as high as 90% (about 4,685 AF per year) according to one panel of experts, leaving the remaining 10% to be treated and left in the estuary for fish and wildlife.

*Ventura Water calls sewage wastewater, effluent, or tertiary treated flows among other names.

SO HOW DID WE MAKE THIS ABOUT DRINKING WATER?

To comply with the Consent Decree, Ventura Water conceived that Ventura would inject this treated sewage directly into our water system, thus began VenturaWaterPure.  For six years City leaders led citizens to believe Ventura has no choice but to move full speed ahead and accept the use of sewage using Direct Potable Reuse (DPR), but a primary reason for DPR was “because we need the water.” Few citizens knew about the underlying problem to comply with the 2012 Consent Decree. With that false justification of needing more drinkable water, the City committed to spending over $500,000,000 for DPR to abide by the Consent Decree.

DPR IS NOT APPROVED OR SAFE

Toilet to Tap is Sewage WaerCosting over $500,000,000 is not the only issue.  The more significant issue is that the City Council assumed DPR water was safe to drink.  It is not safe.  An expert panel, appointed by the State Water Resources Control Board, determined that DPR is feasible. Yet, using such water would be harmful to public health and safety with the current technology. They reported that except for two remote areas on the earth (Namibia and a city in northern Texas), which have no other drinking water options; such water is not suitable for human consumption.

There are no regulations in place anywhere in the United States, or the State of California, permitting or governing that use.  Nobody knows if, or even when, the state will publish such regulations.  It is highly improbable that this will occur by the December 31, 2025 Consent Decree deadline.

SO WHERE IS STATE WATER IN THIS PLAN?

Ventura Water has ignored the majority of citizens desire to tie into the State Water Project because it knows the State Water Project does nothing toward complying with the Consent Decree. In June 2018, the City Council directed Ventura Water to make importing State Water the top priority. While that pipeline project is in motion, Ventura Water plans to work on DPR while they work on the State Water pipeline.

WHAT CAN THE CITY DO TO CHANGE THE COMPLIANCE DATE OF THE CONSENT DECREE?

While Ventura must abide by the Consent Decree, the compliance deadline of December 31, 2025, may be unattainable. At this point, the Consent Decree remains the driving force behind all Ventura’s water decisions. With the land acquisition, planning, construction, EIRs and financing required, the 2025 deadline is not feasible.

However, the Consent Decree says the court can extend the time limit in the event of construction constraints, financing problems, or an emergency. It requires Ventura to petition the court requesting an extension, or an agreement with the plaintiff and their lawyers. That has not happened.

The most devastating natural disaster in Ventura’s history occurred in December 2017. The Thomas Fire wiped out over 500 homes and destroyed water systems throughout the city. The Fire further delayed Ventura Water in the planning, design, and construction of projects to meet the requirements of the Consent Decree. It seems clear that Ventura should petition to the US District Court for a 5-year extension. There’s only one thing standing in the way of requesting that extension — our lawyers.

WHY THE DELAY IN SEEKING TO EXTEND THE DEADLINE?

On February 4, 2019, Council Member Jim Friedman asked our City Attorney, Gregory Diaz about extending the deadline.

Mr. Diaz’s advice is that we should not at this time.  He wants to keep this option “in his back pocket.”

  • He said petitioning the Federal Court would be laborious for the lawyers with no guarantees.
  • He wants to maintain good relations with various Environmental Groups.
  • He was concerned an extension would cause the regulatory agencies to divert their attention away from Ventura.
  • We need water.
  • The State Water Resource Control Board and State Regulators may require a different timeline for our current temporary sewage permit than the Federal court if we petition to extend the deadline.

The Water Commission asked the outside attorney representing the City of Ventura about an extension.  She answered that Environmental Groups are very cooperative and would likely be favorable to an extension because of the positive relationship.

Mr. Diaz says that using the Thomas Fire sounds like an “excuse.” He’s concerned it might give the impression Ventura is looking for a reason to not act. If the most significant human disaster in Ventura’s history is not a strong reason, then nothing is.

EDITORS COMMENTS

Our City Attorney is taking a huge risk with our $500 million.  It is clear that he doesn’t intend to pursue an extension with his “keeping it in his back pocket” explanation.  Mr. Diaz continues with the myth that water is a problem for Ventura and that treated sewage is the solution Hopefully the City Council will remember that we must “keep our experts on tap and not on top.”

If he waits 4-5 years from now, the Federal Court may ask, “Where were you 4-5 years ago?” If he plays his “back pocket” card in the 11th hour and the court denies it, what then?  What seems clear, the further away from the Thomas Fire disaster, the less persuasive the argument for an extension. In the meantime, we spend millions that we may not have needed to pay in the next six years.

Would it be more prudent to send a letter proposing the extension?  The worst the Plaintiff or the Court can do is say, “No.”  If that is the case, then Mr. Diaz’s good faith argument disappears. Then, the Court’s ruling becomes ‘exhibit A’ in support of a motion in the Federal Court. The city could then use the argument, “What’s a poor mother to do? We asked. We thought they were nice and cooperative folks, but they proved to be something else.”

NOTES ON WATER AVAILABILITY

The California Groundwater Bulletin 118, published by the Department of Water Resources, reports that the Ventura River- Foster Park Basin has reserves of 31,600 acre-feet (AF) of water. It recharges 3,500 AF of water each year by underflow. In 2018, Ventura Water Department only pumped 2,384 AF from Foster Park.

The California Groundwater Bulletin 118 also reports that the Mound Water Basin, which is on the east side of the city, has 153,000 AF of storage capacity. During dry periods, Mound Basin is likely 72% full, for a total of 110,000 AF.

MAKE THE CITY COUNCIL INSIST ON ACCURATE INFORMATION FROM VENTURA WATER

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Ventura Water Has A Wonderful Opportunity To Be More Transparent

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

— George Bernard Shaw

 

In Ventura, the city staff uses the Brown Act to do precisely the opposite of what lawmakers created it to do.

The California Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend and take part in meetings of local legislative bodies. Legislators designed it to end “back room” deals and bring local government out into the open. Ventura Water uses it to throttle the flow of information instead.

Oversight By The Water Commission

Ventura established a Water Commission to advise Ventura Water.  The Commission is to review and make recommendations about:

  • Water rates
  • Water resources infrastructure projects
  • The integrated water resources management plan
  • Water supply options
  • The Urban Water Management Plan approval process
  • A water dedication and in-lieu fee requirement
  • Other water resource issues

Before the Commission, Ventura Water operated with little oversight. Even with the Water Commission, it continues to control all meeting agendas and minutes. At best, this restricts the flow of information to the City Council. At worst, information flow is non-existent. The City Council doesn’t receive any meaningful information that may help with their future choices.

Here is how Ventura Water does things today:

  • Ventura Water’s General Manager and the City Attorney make and approve all agendas. The Commission can only discuss agenda items at the meeting. Any deviation may violate the Brown Act.
  • The General Manager controls all minutes for all sessions. Minutes reports only action items, eliminating the record of any discussion.

Circumventing The Water Commission

Ventura Water forces the City Council to get their information from the General Manager. Thus bypassing the entire reason the city established the Water Commission.

Rarely does Ventura Water share the discussion on relevant topics—if ever. Debates over issues are not reviewed or scrutinized. Important issues never enter the public record such as water quality, testing quality results, fees, costs, timelines, water capacity, water usage, what other agencies are proposing, and deposit account balances.

Because minutes show only action items, all discussions of issues are as though they never happened. So, when the City Council looks to the minutes for any records of problems or concerns, the minutes are no help. Nor are they sufficiently transparent to Ventura’s citizens.

Communicating Clean Water Safety Violations

Ventura Water deals with a water system that impacts all Ventura citizens directly. In August 2018, the department violated the Federal Clean Water Safety standards. Ventura Water breached the Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) drinking water standard in August. The U.S. EPA regulates TTHM at a maximum allowable, annual, average level of 80 parts per billion. Any amount above 80 ppb results in harmful health effects over time. Ailments such as cancer and adverse reproductive outcomes can happen. Ventura Water has corrected the problem, but that’s not the issue.

At issue is how the utility communicated the problem and the solution.

Why You May Not Have Heard Of This

You may not have heard about the incident. It’s not because Ventura Water didn’t announce it. They did. Ventura Water fulfilled the letter of the law, but it may have missed the intent behind it. Meeting the legal requirement seems to be the minimum standard.  Yet setting the bar at the lowest level may place everyone’s health at risk in the future.

What wasn’t said is as important as what was said. Bathing in or cooking with the TTHM water was not mentioned, for instance.

Open communication is what builds trust with a public utility during a crisis. The TTHM violation happened in the Pierpont Area. Unless you live in the affected area, Ventura Water would not have contacted you by mail. Ventura Water notified the schools and nursing homes in the area. Schools and nursing homes informed the parents or residents at their discretion.

Ventura Water obeyed the “letter of the law,” but failed to respect the spirit of the law. They reported the incident to residents in the affected area by mail, posted it on their website, and took out an ad in the Ventura County Star.

Not The Only Incident In 2018

In July, Ventura Water withheld information from the Water Commission. A panel of experts examined Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) of treated wastewater. There are no quality standards or guidelines today. The experts found DPR (for drinking purposes) was a threat to public safety. The City Council did not know that. They were only alerted to that fact after private citizens brought it to their attention. The result was, the City Council decided not to use DPR as an alternative for now. Still, the staff soldiers on asking for large sums to build projects for DPR.

There are many laws to protect citizens and keep them informed about what happens in city government. When a government agency does the bare minimum but goes no further than the law requires, regardless of the impact and financial consequences, citizens mistrust it.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water needs to be more transparent. The City Council allows it to operate in secrecy and subterfuge. Stop. Ventura’s citizens deserve and expect open communication. Here’s what the Council should do:

First, make hiring the next General Manager a priority. Insist City Manager Alex McIntyre interview the Water Commissioners. He should do this without Water Department staff present. The goal is to get the knowledge and details of Ventura Water over the past fifteen years. He’ll gain the perspective to understand what lies ahead in the next six years.

Second, have the Water Commission’s Chairman set the meeting agendas, with input from all commissioners.

Third, ensure all Water Commission’s minutes reflect topics and discussions from all meetings.

Fourth, have the Water Commission Chairman provide a written report to the City Council on a quarterly basis.

Fifth, expand the communication channels Ventura Water uses to inform the public. Set the standard higher than the minimum legal standard.

Insist The City Council Makes Ventura Water More Transparent

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It Was The Best And Worst Of Times For Ventura In 2018

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”— Winston Churchill

Last year was a most transformational year in Ventura’s history. Every aspect of life in Ventura was affected. The city was in the national spotlight, twice. Leadership changed but at a high price. Old ways of doing business didn’t change, though. Overall, it was a year to remember.

December 2017

To understand 2018, you must appreciate December 2017 and the Thomas Fire. The fire destroyed 535 houses in Ventura. The city was the epicenter of the national news.

Thirteen months later, Ventura had the opportunity for the most significant economic stimulus since the oil boom but failed to capitalize on it. Rebuilding the homes will stimulate the local economy by $350 million. The only thing standing in the way of that economic windfall is the city.

What are the lessons we learned from the Thomas Fire? Good question. Thirteen months later we still don’t know that answer. The city has yet to produce a report on its findings. [Read More]

January 2018

The Montecito mudslides closed off transportation into and out of Santa Barbara along the 101. Many Venturans that work in Santa Barbara were unable to commute.

March 2018

The City Council waffles on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding Thomas Fire victims’ homes, delaying the rebuilding process and adding costs for many. [Read More]

April 2018

Jamal Jackson slays Anthony Mele, Jr. on Ventura’s promenade. Once again, the city was thrust into the national news.

Ventura Police increased patrols along the promenade. The City Council approved funds to continue the patrols. Arrests increased after the incident.

Post-incident, the Police department reviewed its procedures. There have been changes to the security camera monitoring as a result. The review also concluded the call was not improperly prioritized when it came in two and a half hours before the murder.

Since May, the community has returned to business as usual. [Read More]

June 2018

Ventura Police officers sign a new contract with a 5% pay increase. The timing of the announcement was questionable, but the contract was a fair one. [Read More]

July 2018

The City Council instructs Ventura Water to focus on connecting to State Water over Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). DPR takes recycled wastewater and injects it back into the drinking supply.

The City Council approves a $600,000 per year “roving” fire engine and three paramedics over the objections of Interim City Manager Dan Paranick. Ventura Fire hired two of the three paramedics before the Council approved the funding. [Read More]

September 2018

Ventura Water hires eight new positions. The City Council approved the department’s budget that included these positions. Ventura Water based that budget on Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) projects being the city’s top priority. When the Council realigned Ventura Water’s priorities in July, the department didn’t adjust its manpower requirements.

October 2018

Ventura Water begins installing new digital water meters. It is a $9 million project that will take three years to complete. The new meters allow more precise leak protection. The new meters also measure water usage more precisely. You can expect your water bill to be more accurate, too.

November 2018

Ventura held its first City Council elections by voting district. Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money, despite campaigning in districts instead of citywide. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed to win a seat from $2.75 per vote in the last election with an open position to a record-high $26.42. [Read More]

City Council Election

December 2018

Alex McIntyre starts as City Manager. He replaces Mark Watkins who resigned in November 2017. The city had operated with an interim-City Manager since January 2018. McIntyre comes to Ventura from Menlo Park where he was City Manager for six years.

Ventura’s new City Councilmembers are sworn in. The Council has four female members: Lorrie Brown (District 6), Cheryl Heitmann (District 7), Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) and Christy Weir (District 2). Ventura has its first female-majority City Council in history. It’s also the most diverse set of Councilmembers the city has ever had.

Wish The Councilmembers Good Luck In 2019

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City Council Election

Most Money Ever Spent In A City Council Election In 2018

Ventura held its first City Council election by voting district. The new voting process confused some voters. Others felt disenfranchised.

Lorrie Brown (District 6), Jim Friedman (District 5), Erik Nasarenko (District 4) and Sofia Rubalcava (District 1) won. The candidates raised a record amount of money. Campaigning was in districts instead of citywide. One would think the amount of money needed would be less. The cost-per-vote skyrocketed from $2.75 per vote in the last election to a record-high $19.90.

City Council Election

The candidates raising the most money were Jim Friedman, $60,887; Kevin Clerici, $44,862; and Erik Nasarenko, $36,464. A distant fourth highest campaign fund was Marie Lakin at $14,277. Of the three top fundraisers, only Kevin Clerici failed to get elected. (These numbers will increase. The final campaign finance report is due January 31, 2019)

Strong Voter Turnout In City Council Election

Voter turnout was high in each of the districts except District 1. A mere 1,767 votes secured a seat for Sofia Rubalcava. All the other winning candidates had over 3,000 votes.

Newly-elected Councilmembers now have to shift their focus. The entire campaign, they focused on convincing district voters their interests came first. Now they’re elected, they must change that focus to represent the whole city. Only the most skilled among them will be able to bridge the gap to balance their district wants and the city needs. It will not be easy. There will be growing pains as the Councilmembers juggle the competing requirements.

The net effect of district voting achieved its outcome. The new Councilmembers are the most diverse group elected in Ventura’s history. One has to ask if the price to reach the result was worth it.

What Are The Implications?

Campaign cost inflation is the price Ventura politicians pay for City Council diversity. Now, only the fundraisers who spend large sums of money win.

All Councilmembers will balance district interests and citywide interests. None of them have experience with it. We can only hope the city doesn’t suffer while the Councilmembers go through this growing pain.