Thursday, October 18, 2007

Who's Endorsing Who?

When it comes time to vote, people often look to organization they trust and respect for guidance. So during campaign season, we candidates go around and talk to many organizations here in town asking for their support.

So far, I’ve been lucky. Most of the organizations who do endorse candidates have chosen to endorse me. We have yet to hear from a number of important organizations – especially the Ventura County Star, which is viewed as one of the most important endorsements. The Star did endorse me last time around.

When you try to figure out who has endorsed who, I realize that all those different signs and mailers can get confusing. A number of people have asked me how I have managed to forge alliances with all those different candidates – based on the combination of names they’ve seen on different signs and mailers. I wish! Although I have good relations with just about all the candidates, I have endorsed the other two incumbents, Christy Weir and Carl Morehouse.

All those different combinations you see on signs and in your mailers come from all the different groups who endorse candidates, not from the candidates themslelves. We’ve seen all different combinations. I’ve been paired with Christy Weir and Jerry Martin in one instance; with Jerry and Carl Morehouse in another; and with Carl and Doug Halter in yet another. The only exception here is the sign at Victoria and Telegraph. Carl, Christy, and I put that sign up ourselves.

Here are the groups who have endorsed me (that I know of!)

Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
VCHP was the first group to endorse me – both in 2003 and today. I’m always grateful for their support and I am continuing to work to preserve the hillsides.

Ventura Police Officers Association
Ventura City Fire Fighters Association
Both these organizations endorsed me whole-heartedly. They both do a great job. I was proud to campaign with them last year in favor of Measure P6, the public safety funding measure. P6 didn’t get the two-thirds but it did get 62% -- more than any of us are likely to get in this election!

Service Employees International Union Local 721
SEIU represents most city employees as well as those who work for Ventura County, Gold Coast Transit, and other public agencies. I’m very grateful to SEIU because of the way the union cooperated with the City when I was first elected. We had a couple of tough budget years and SEIU agreed to take no raise in exchange for no layoffs. That got us through the hard times.

Ventura County Coastal Board of Realtors Political Action Committee
The Realtors PAC didn’t endorse me last time, but I’m pleased they decided to support me this time. I told them that I am especially proud of the city’s workforce housing program, which will provide a second mortgage for city employees seeking to buy a house. I’m also proud of the fact that we will be expanding this program beyond city employees, working with other large employers such as Community Memorial Hospital to help their employees as well. I believe this program will help both employees and the real estate market.

Stonewall Democrats
The Stonewall Democrats are active on a variety of social justice issues, but they especially focused on gay and lesbian rights.

So far, who hasn’t endorsed me? Two groups.

Tri-Counties Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO): My interview with Tri-Counties focused mostly on Wal-Mart. I stated my position, which is that I believe we should restrict the size of retail stores on Victoria. I believe Tri-Counties wanted a stronger position against Wal-Mart and has not endorsed me.

Greater Ventura Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee: Not only did the Chamber PAC not endorse me (or the other incumbents), they didn’t even interview us. The Chamber PAC has been critical of the incumbents for supposedly being pro-tax (because of P6) and anti-development (partly because of Wal-Mart).

In other words, one group didn’t endorse me because I’m not tough enough on Wal-Mart and the other group didn’t endorse me because I’m not easy enough on Wal-Mart. That's politics for you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cleaning Up the Planning Process -- I Think!

On Monday night (Tuesday morning, actually), the City Council voted 4-3 to approve an item brought forth by Councilmembers Brennan and Summers designed to improve the development review process. The votes in favor were Brennan, Summers, Monahan, and Weir. The votes against were Andrews, Morehouse, and myself.

I didn’t vote against the item because I opposed everything in it. In fact, I supported five of the six items contained in the items. I voted against it because I couldn’s support the sixth item as written. I found it confusing and I thought it called for shift in direction that I couldn’t support. We had lengthy discussion, and it was clear that most of us agreed on the first five items but we were split on the sixth.

However, Councilmember Monahan moved to approve all six items at once – admittedly it was midnight and we were all anxious to go home – and so therefore I had to vote against the entire package because I had concerns about the one item. Because of Mr. Monahan’s motion, we did not have the option of voting in favor of the five and then “agreeing to disagree” on the sixth.

I think that Councilmembers Summer and Brennan and I agree on the direction we should take, so I am hopeful we can work this out when the item comes back to us for further discussion.

For the record, here’s what their item called for:

Direct staff to review the goals below and present a plan for implementation including strategies, feasibility, potential impact and timeline.
a. Creation of a 30-day maximum initial application review to determine completeness.
b. A plan and organizational structure to reduce overall time in the application approval process by 20%.
c. Adopt a procedure to allow applicants to outsource the creation and drafting of Specific Plans for projects in excess of 20 acres and provide for the ability to allow higher fees in exchange for retaining contract planners to assist with the overall work force.
d. Create a work plan for the implementation of the recommended application workflow including conceptual design review and Commission/public participation process as identified by the Commission Task Force. This should include the involvement of current staff and applicants to review the recommended process in comparison to other similar agencies. [This item refers to changes to the development review process proposed by a task force appointed by the council a couple of years ago.
e. Consider the use of a portion of the increased fee income for development to support the addition of one or two staff positions to assist in the implementation of the objectives.
f. Complete a City-wide coding and zoning ordinance to be used in conjunction with the Housing Approval Program (HAP), downtown and retail stregies. This should be completed as quickly as possible to provide clear direction for development and reduce the urgency for other "Plans."

Although I had some concerns about Item c, I was more than willing to vote in favor of Items a-e. The staff did state – with some justification – that they are doing many of these items already, but I saw no harm in clarifying that it is a council priority to get them done.

Item f was the subject of most discussion. On its face, it seems to me that Item f calls us to do a citywide code, something we have said in the past is unnecessary. Many constituents also feared that Item f also meant that we would lower the priority of Community Plans on the Westside and in Midtown and just do codes instead. Without clarification I couldn’t support that item.

To back up just for a moment, everything we are talking about here has to do with how we implement the 2005 General Plan. That General Plan called for an all-infill approach to development, and it states that most new growth will accommodated in a few focus areas in town, specifically the North Avenue, the Westside, Downtown, Midtown, and Wells-Saticoy.

But our General Plan is very general, and we all recognized that we had to create more specific policies and rewrite zoning codes for each of these areas. Part of the problem was that, especially in Midtown and on the Westside, we had done many different plans, workshops, and charrettes over the years – but we had never adopted any of them as actual city policy.

At first we directed the staff to create a new zoning code citywide, but then we realized that this was unnecessary because the vast majority of the city – mostly existing single-family neighborhoods – was not going to change anytime soon. So we directed the staff to write codes only for the focus areas.

Since then, here’s what’s happened:

1. We approved our revised Downtown Specific Plan. This contains both policies and codes for downtown.

2. We have been simultaneously crafting the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan (which contains policies) and processing four Specific Plans (which contain codes) for the Wells-Saticoy area. Admittedly, this has taken a lot longer than we thought.

3. We are currently drafting an interim code for Midtown, with the idea that a Community Plan would come later.

4. The staff put out a request for proposals for the North Avenue Community Plan but has not started work on that project yet.

5. We have not yet tackled the Westside.

So, out of the five focus areas, we’ve completed both policy and code in one; we’re working on both policy and code in a second; we’ve put code ahead of policy in a third; and we haven’t tackled the other two yet.

Frankly, I couldn’t figure out what Item f was seeking to accomplish that we weren’t already doing, other than encouraging the staff to move faster. I didn’t sense that anybody on the council, even Councilmember Summers and Brennan, wanted to either write a citywide code or ditch the community plan idea.

The good news is that, even though we split 4-3 on the vote, I think we are mostly in agreement about what to do. Both the council and the staff agreed – as we have before – that future community plan efforts do not have to “reinvent the wheel”. Especially in Midtown and on the Westside, there are many previous planning efforts to draw upon and therefore we can create a more community plan process that is both responsive to the community and yet more time-efficient. I have a feeling that when the staff comes back to us in six weeks with suggestions on how to implement this policy, that’s what they are going to suggest. So I think it will all work out in the end.

Remember what they say about legislation – that, like sausage, you never want to see it made?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Paving Midtown's Island Streets

Finally … finally … finally! … Midtown’s “island tract” streets are going to get paved.

Last Monday, our City Council approved a contract for almost $5 million for the most expensive paving project we’ve ever undertaken – repaving most of the streets between Main and the 101 from Cabrillo Middle School all the way to Five Points. This is typically called the “island tract” because so many of the streets are named for islands off the coast of California.

The paving of the island tract streets is a milestone, because it’s the biggest remaining hurdle to completing the total repaving of the city – an effort that our predecessors on the City Council undertook almost a decade ago. There are many other streets left to pave, but the island tract is “the big one”. It’s 3-4 times larger than the typical city paving project.

That’s because many of the streets are concrete, and they haven’t been paved or otherwise rebuilt in probably a half-century. Whereas many streets in town simply need a new coat of paving, the island tract streets – almost without exception – need to be ground down and rebuilt.

It’ll take the better part of six months, and it’ll take place in two phases. Phase 1 will begin November, when our city crews will conduct prep work on all the streets downtown and then pave all the non-concrete streets (mostly those east of Catalina).

In Phase 2, from March to May, the city will pave all the concrete streets. Most of the concrete streets will receive asphalt paving because the concrete is too deteriorated to restore. But a few streets still have good concrete – and those streets will restored to their former concrete glory. The good concrete streets are:

Chrisman south of Thompson
Catalina south of Thompson
San Nicholas from Anacapa to Coronado
San Clemente from Main to San Nicholas
Coronado from Main to San Nicholas

This project will also include adding 235 handicapped ramps at intersections and installing 137 street trees. This is not as many trees as we would like – but the city engineers say that in many cases the planting strips along the street are too narrow to add more trees.

In our City Council discussion, Councilmember Brennan suggested we should have used this opportunity to rethink the entire stormwater runoff system in Midtown. Although we did not hold up the project to do this, we were generally sympathetic to the idea and asked that the landscaping plan for the paving project be brought back to us so that we can see how the stormwater situation can be improved – and whether we can squeeze a few more trees into the project!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Wal-Mart and Victoria Avenue: Let’s Unite Around Shared Goals, Rather Than Divide Over Tactics

One of the things I’ve learned in politics is that there are lots of ways to skin a cat. When you have a goal, you have to focus on getting to the goal itself, rather than getting stuck on any one particular way to get there.

By focusing on the goal rather than the tactics, you won’t get stuck if the tactic you have in mind doesn’t work. (Because there’s always another way to skin that cat.) Just as important, you’re also more likely to create a broad and enduring consensus about what you’re doing, because many different groups will come together to pursue the same goal, instead of fighting each other over which tactic to use. Focusing on tactics rather than goals can be divisive, because it can be harder to discover the things that different elected officials and different constituent groups have in common and how they can work together to get things done.

All this comes to mind because, in recent days, I have received quite a number of emails and phone calls from constituents asking me to immediately introduce a carbon copy of Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance as a way of forestalling a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the Kmart site on Victoria Avenue. After thinking it over, I have decided not to introduce this ordinance immediately. In other words, although I share this goal I have decided pursuing this tactic is not the best way to reach the goal.

Here’s my reasoning: I think it’s better to work a bit more slowly and carefully toward a very broad-based and ensuring community consensus – which is what we’re doing with the Victoria Corridor plan and code right now. This plan and code will encourage the creation of high-quality office space in this area and almost certainly eliminate the possibility of new, extremely large-scale retail stores. To me, there’s not much point in pursuing a particular tactic, especially if it could be divisive in the midst of an election season, when we all have so much invested in a planning process already underway that will likely get us to the goal.

We in Ventura successfully used this approach – creating a broad coalition to achieve a common goal in a way that will endure over time – in passing the Living Wage Ordinance. I think we can do the same on Wal-Mart – if we focus on our shared goal.

Up to now, our local Wal-Mart opponents, such as the group Livable Ventura, have generally been supportive of our planning effort. When they have expressed an opinion about Wal-Mart itself, it has been a general concern – along the lines of, we don’t want Wal-Mart in our town because we don’t like their labor practices, or we fear additional traffic on Victoria Avenue, or we fear the impact of a Wal-Mart on other businesses in town. These are concerns I know many Venturans share and I share them too.

Recently, however, the typical communication from an anti-Wal-Mart constituent has changed. Instead of a generic concern about Wal-Mart, people have been making a very specific request that I introduce Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance immediately. This is at least partly a result of some communications from the Ventura County Work People's Alliance and the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition Action Team, encouraging constituents to contact me and ask me to introduce such an ordinance.

I’ve had a good relationship with labor organizations over the past few years and the City Council has a good record on issues of interest to labor and working families. I was endorsed by the Tri Counties Central Labor Council and the Service Employees International Union in 2003. Since I have been on the Council, we have adopted a Living Wage Ordinance and we have pursued innovative inclusionary and workforce housing programs, which I have described in previous blogs. At both the city and Gold Coast Transit, whose board I sit on, we have re-established trust in negotiations with bargaining units that had long been missing.

This year, however, many labor organizations are intensely focused on Wal-Mart – and especially on Super Centers, which sell groceries. It’s understandable why. Most employees of large supermarket chains are unionized, but Wal-Mart employees aren't. There's a real concern -- a concern I share -- that a Wal-Mart supercenter enters the market, it will undercut existing supermarkets and placed unionized jobs at Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons at risk. In other words, there's a fear that Wal-Mart will drive down the wages of supermarket workers generally. This kind of thing worries me too -- since I have always said that the gap between the high cost of living and relatively low wages is one of the biggest problems in our city.

A whole ago I had a meeting with Jim Alger of the Ventura County Working People's Alliance, an organization affiliated with the Tri-County Labor Federation, at which he asked me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. The Santa Maria ordinance is a typical – and perfectly legal – anti-big-box ordinance, which restricts all large retailers to using no more than 5% of their leasable floor area for the sale of non-taxable merchandise. Since groceries are exempt from taxation, such an ordinance effectively prohibits a Wal-Mart Super Center. These stores – typically 200,000 square feet or more – are a combination of a typical Wal-Mart store and a supermarket.

By the way, the Santa Maria ordinance doesn’t prevent construction of a regular Wal-Mart store (without the Super Center and groceries). In fact, there’s already a Wal-Mart in Santa Maria, which you can see from the freeway.

I told Mr. Alger that I was extremely unlikely to support a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Victoria and that, in the end, I did not think it would pass. But I declined to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance immediately, as he requested.

Over the past two weeks, I have received quite a few phone calls and emails from constituents and others asking me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. Many have been from people I don’t know; others have been from old and dear friends. Many have used exactly the same language that Mr. Alger used – that there is no reason not to introduce this particular ordinance if I really agree with their goal.

I always appreciate hearing from constituents, and I appreciate and respect all these communications. However, I would like to turn the “no reason not to” statement around so that we can focus on the goal rather than the tactic.

There is no reason not to vigorously pursue our broadly shared goal – a development strategy on the Victoria Corridor that prevents the construction of very large retail stores – and pursue it in a way that creates a broad consensus with enduring results, just as we did with the Living Wage Ordinance.

However, there are good reasons not to pursue this one particular tactic – immediately introducing a carbon copy of another city’s anti-big-box ordinance in the middle of a campaign season. Doing so would end-run a planning process that has been underway for two years. It may not get passed by the City Council, either before or after the election. And, in my view, all this will make it harder to achieve the goal of preventing large-scale retail development in Victoria Avenue in the future.

The Victoria planning effort began with a one-year moratorium, which has now been replaced with a special conditional use permit required for all new retail buildings in excess of 50,000 square feet, while we debate what the specifics of this corridor plan and the accompanying zoning code. We have not yet adopted the plan and the code, which is why we have put the interim steps in place.

As I noted above, the Wal-Mart opponents have generally been supportive of this process. But not everybody likes it. Those members of the Chamber PAC who think we should just go ahead and approve Wal-Mart clearly believe that the whole Victoria planning effort has been a huge waste of time and money with no benefit for the community.

There’s no question that the Victoria Corridor effort has taken more time and more money than we thought, and that it’s been pretty frustrating at times. But it has been far from useless. After lengthy debate, the Council has reached general agreement that future development along the Victoria Corridor should be focused mostly on office development, with some mixed-use. Our goal is to attract higher-wage office jobs, especially in the professional services sector, that we currently lose to Oxnard. Existing retail could be retained, but greatly expanded retail operations would be prohibited. Maximum store size would be approximately 90,000 square feet, far too small for a Wal-Mart Super Center.

Our staff is currently working on revisions to the proposed code to reflect this carefully crafted consensus. If I were to introduce this Santa Maria anti-big-box ordinance now, I’d be undercutting a lengthy and careful planning process that I have championed from the beginning and that many of my constituents who are wary of Wal-Mart have supported. I’d probably be accused by my colleagues on the council of “grandstanding” during election season – and rightly so. I’d be sending the message that I stand for thoughtful planning processes and careful consensus building – except when I am pressured by a constituent group during an election year.

And frankly, I don’t think that if I introduced the ordinance, the council would pass it – at least not now. Oddly, neither Mr. Alger nor any of the constituents who have asked me to introduce the ordinance have ever asked me if I think it would pass. But to me it’s an important consideration. I have learned from many political mentors – including Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whom I respect a great deal – that you have to pick your spots when introducing legislation. There’s no point in introducing an ordinance if you can’t get it passed.

As I said before, the council has reached consensus that we should limit the size of new retail stores along the Victoria corridor. But the council is also committed to seeing the Victoria planning process through to the end. And the members of our council – like the voters who elected them – are independent, deliberative, and sometimes stubborn. If my colleagues think I am grandstanding or trying to muscle them into adopting this ordinance, they are not likely to go along with me. And if I introduce such an ordinance now and fail – after championing the Victoria planning process all along – it will harm my ability to work successfully with my colleagues in the future on Wal-Mart and many other important issues. It will create unnecessary divisiveness on a good city council.

Which brings me back to my basic point: Let’s focus on the goal and not the tactic. This is the technique that was used successfully in passing a Living Wage Ordinance. This ordinance took a long time to pass but when it did there as an extraordinary consensus.

If we had rushed the Living Wage Ordinance to a vote, it might have failed or passed on a 4-3 vote, which would have given opponents reason to believe they could bring the ordinance back and defeat it. But because the Living Wage Coalition, which included many of the same people and organizations as the coalition opposing Wal-Mart, worked patiently and effectively with the city – simultaneously keeping the political “heat” on us and seeking allies elsewhere in the community, while also cooperating with us – the result was quite different. The council passed the ordinance unanimously, with the support of the Chamber of Commerce – the first time that had ever happened in the United States.

The lesson of the Living Wage Ordinance is that we should strive to create broad consensus around controversial issues, so that when a decision is made, it is strong and enduring. In the end, I believe we will get there on Wal-Mart. We will pass a Victoria Corridor Plan and code that will focus on office and mixed-use development and prevent the addition of very large retail stores. We will also lay the foundation for a discussion about how best to use the Kmart site, since Kmart is likely to close no matter what Wal-Mart does and we do not want a blighted sight along Victoria.

I am well aware that many constituents who are inclined to support me do not agree with me and would rather see the immediate introduction of a stronger ordinance. However, I believe that by working through the planning process that is already underway, we will be able to reach a broad and enduring consensus that we will all be happy with -- and that won't be easily undone by City Councils in the future. I look forward to working with all of you on this in the months ahead.