Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Making Public Policy At 2:15 A.M.

Okay, so it's not easy to sit up there for 7 or 8 hours.

Last night was one of those nights -- we get them around once a year or so.

We convened at 6 pm in closed session to discuss how negotiations are going on a couple of real estate transactions.

Then we convened at 7 pm in the Council chamber. It was "First Monday" -- when we invite anybody who wants to to address the City Council at the beginning of the meeting on whatever we want. We were inundated by parents and teachers who asked us to restore the School Resource Officers (either through a re-run of P6 or some other means). [ See the Star's account at http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/county_news/article/0,1375,VCS_226_5348444,00.html.]

Then we blew through the consent calendar (items that we don't plan to discuss individually) and dealt with Councilmember Brennan's request that we support legislation that would make it more difficult for mobile home park owners to subdivide their parks into condos, which has the effect of eliminating rent control protections. (Agenda items for the meeting can be found at http://www.cityofventura.net/newsmanager/templates/?a=1732&z=43 ... and by the way, today the Board of Supervisors failed to get the requisite four-fifths vote for a more aggressive measure placing a moratorium on mobile home condo converssions [http://www1.venturacountystar.com/vcs/news/article/0,1375,VCS_121_5349321,00.html].

By this time it was well after 9. And we still had two long items left. The first was a neighbor's appeal of a proposed lot split on the cul-de-sac at the end of Mound Avenue -- not a huge issue citywide, but very important to this street. By a unanimous vote, we overturned the Planning Commission and upheld the appeal, turning down the lot split. (In 2005, at a meeting where I was absent, we had turned down a split from one to three lots; this time, we turned down a split from one to two.)

Now we were ready to take on what was clearly the most important item of the evening -- the appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the so-called "Hertel-Cabrillo" project east of Wells Road just north of Highway 126.

This is a complicated project with a long history. After several failed attempts, it had obtained allocations under the old RGMP process in 2005. A combined effort of Hertel Development and Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the project calls for about 180 units -- 60 single-family, 60 affordable townhomes for sale, and 60 low-cost apartments for low-income families (including 18 for farmworker families). The debate below, especially at the Planning Commission, had been a confusing blur of different proposals and site plans. People were confused and some were not happy. We had close to 40 speakers lined up. And because it was an appeal, both the developer and the appellant (a group of neighbors represented by the articulate Bryce Johnson) had 10 minutes at the beginning and a 5 minute rebuttal.

Many neighbors came forward to express concern about traffic and overcrowding. When it got to be about 10 after 1 in the morning, I asked Mayor Morehouse how many speakers we had left. The answer? 14 to go.

I suggested we continue the whole thing till Thursday night. Others, especially Councilmember Andrews, expressed the strong view that we should sit tight and, at least, hear public comment. I agreed -- though I was not sure I would absorb any of it. Mayor Morehouse asked the remaining speakers -- all supporters of the project -- to limit their remarks to one minute. Some did and some didn't but anyway they were all done by about 1:35 a.m. At that point I moved that we continue the item to Thursday. The city attorney understandably said we should hear the rebuttals and close the public hearing. We heard the rebuttals -- Bryce Johnson jokingly yielded his time to developer Ron Hertel in an effort to go home sooner -- and then we voted on my motion. I lost 4-3. We then voted on the project. It passed 7-0. with absolutely no discussion. (See the Star article at http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/news/article/0,1375,VCS_121_5349027,00.html and especially read the comments from readers -- many of them derogatory to farmworkers but one accusing us of deliberately stacking the agenda so this came up late at night.)

But we weren't done. We still had to act on a request by Cabrillo to have the city provide $3 million in low-interest loans for the project. This was a no-brainer for me -- $50,000 a unit subsidy for low-income units, a very small number. However, it was a Redevelopment Agency item, which meant that speakers technically had five additional minutes of comment. We had several speakers, including Chamber of Commerce chair Stephanie Becerra and all-around good guy activist Jim White. We also heard from perennial candidate Brian Lee Rencher for the full five minutes, lambasting us for tying up so much of our affordable housing funds on one project in the far East End. (Who knew campaign season had already started?) At about quarter after two we voted on the financing package -- also 7-0 with no discussion. Brian Lee Rencher took advantage of his last few seconds of public comment by lambasting us again, and understandably given the hour he and Mayor Morehouse exchanged a few cross words.

Jim Monahan, who is always adjourning the meeting in memory of some beloved Venturan who has recently died, jokingly suggested that we adjourn the meeting in my memory because clearly I was dying up there.

Why do City Council meetings last until the bars close? Because Council agendas are put together in a kind of mysterious and decentralized way -- the city manager, the city attorney, and each of us all have the power to put things on the agenda. And because we aren't always the best judges of how things are going to go down. In retrospect, it was obvious that this meeting was destined to go to 2 a.m. It was "First Monday" -- and we rarely get to the meat of the agenda before 9 p.m. because so many citizens want to come and talk to us. And each of the two major items -- the lot split and Hertel-Cabrillo -- were sure to take at least 2 hours. (Actually, they each took about 2 1/2 hours.) We probably should have spaced things out over more meetings. But sometimes the crush of work is just so great we want to get through it, even if it takes all night, so we can move on to another crisis the following week, when we hope we can get out of there by midnight. At the end, even the neighbors who didn't like the project just wanted us to vote on it and get out of there. They too wanted to move on.

Actually, by the time Jim Monahan made his joke, I had a second wind. But the question really wasn't whether I had enough stamina to make it through the meeting. (I cancelled my morning appointments and slept till 10 today.) The question was whether we do a disservice to the public by voting without comment on a major and somewhat controversial project at 2 a.m.

I think we do. Dozens of people waited 4, 5, 6 hours to be able to give us their opinion on the Hertel-Cabrillo project. My colleagues believed that we had an obligation to hear them then and there, rather than make them come back, and I see that point. And it's true that there was never a whole lot of doubt as to whether we were going to approve the project. We green-lighted the idea two years ago.

Nevertheless, I think we had an obligation to all those people -- to tell them what we thought about what we said, why we disagreed with them, and why we voted in favor of the project. At a time when we could articulate our thoughts coherently, and at a time when they could hear them coherently. Rather than approve the project without comment at 2:15 a.m.

So I'll try to take the time to do that myself -- probably Thursday at around 7 p.m., which is when I think we should have, so to speak, put this thing to bed.

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