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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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Ventura Fire Department Wants More Money

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

Einstein comments on Ventura Fire Department

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

Albert Einstein

Ventura Fire Department isn't keeping up with the times

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

How We Got Here

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

Things Have Changed For The Ventura Fire Department

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

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 Ventura Fire is using an outdated business model to address modern challenges.

What Hasn’t Changed For Ventura Fire

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

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

The Flaws In The Study

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

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

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

ESCI’s Assessment Lacks Local Context

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

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

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

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

Ventura Fire Department Looks For More Money

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

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

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

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

Open Debate On The Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ventura Fire Department contributions to candidates

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

Editors Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insist The City Council Seek More Original Solutions

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

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

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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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ventura water

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

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
Councilmembers
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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

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 Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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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.

New construction after Thomas Fire

Ventura Has Opportunity To Improve After The Thomas Fire

Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council waffled on second-story height restrictions for rebuilding victims’ homes. Indecisiveness delayed the rebuilding process for many. Councilmembers exhibited big hearts and small brains settling on the new height ordinance. They attempted to please fire victims wanting to improve their homes. Doing so delayed rebuilding for everyone. It was clear that many of the burned houses would have to come up to existing building codes. Many of the homes were built decades ago when the codes weren’t as strict. Plus, setbacks from the street had also changed. For fire victims to rebuild their houses “as is” would cost more. The new home would have a different footprint on the lot and impede neighbors’ views.

What’s more, some homeowners wanted to change the design of their new home since they were rebuilding. To please those homeowners, the Council created exceptions. They decreed restoring a home could include as much as 10% increase in the size of the structure. While well-meaning, this decision meant every house was a custom-built home. The decision put added pressure on city staff when reviewing and approving plans. And it further delayed homeowners receiving building permits.

There was another consequence of the Council’s lack of urgency. Most homeowners’ insurance provides 18-24 months of living expenses while rebuilding. The Council’s delay will force rebuilding beyond 24 months for many homeowners. As a result, those homeowners will have an added financial burden. They will pay for temporary living expenses when their insurance runs out. Plus, they will also be paying their mortgage on a destroyed home.

Don’t Miss This Chance To Improve After The Thomas Fire

The City Council’s inaction delayed a significant economic stimulus for Ventura. It reinforced the perception that Ventura lacks urgency and is bureaucratic. Now, there is a new City Council. We hope they’ll look at this process with a fresh perspective. If they do, they’ll see the need for change. We want them to force the city staff to streamline and simplify the building and permitting process.