Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Message From Last Tuesday

We have to try harder to live within our means. We know it will be painful. We’re trusting you – very cautiously trusting you – to make this work. And we’ll be watching you very closely.

As one of your elected representatives, that’s what I’m taking away from last Tuesday’s election results. I’m committed to taking this message from the voters seriously. All of us on the City Council must work hard to earn the trust of the voters every day. This is always true, but it’s even more urgent now. So over the next few months I hope to be out there in the community more than ever – at neighborhood meetings, service club luncheons, church services, and so forth – to listen to what you have to say.

Measure A, the sales tax measure, was soundly defeated – about 56%-44%. Although three of the four incumbents were re-elected, in general incumbent vote totals were down substantially from last time. Even the big winner of the night – former police chief Mike Tracy, who finished first – was not a runaway victor. Clearly, the voters have decided to put us on a short leash. (The county has yet to count several thousand votes, but I don’t see the outcome changing as a result.)

It would be easy for us, your elected representatives on the City Council, to chalk a lot of these things up to some factor beyond our control, and in so doing escape blame. The economy is in terrible shape. People are in a “Vote No” mood. There was a huge field of candidates. Turnout was very low, as it often is in these off-year city elections.

All of these statements are true, and each one of them played a role in how the election turned out. But we on the City Council cannot wish away the most important message from this election: We will have to work hard to re-establish as strong and trusting relationship with the voters who turned out last Tuesday.

The short-term will be painful. There is no magic bullet here.

We have already made a lot of cuts – eliminating 40 positions, cutting 10% of the payroll, reducing the budget by $11 million – but there will be lots more cuts to come. In the campaign for Measure A, the sales tax measure, we tried to be up-front about the fact that if the measure did not pass, we would be forced to close Wright Library immediately, eliminate our innovative roving fire engine Medic Engine 10, cut back on park maintenance, and possibly reduce our staff in both the police and fire departments. Now we will have little choice but make these cuts – and make them within the next couple of weeks.

Nobody will like this, least of all those of us you have elected to the City Council. But the results of the election suggest to me that there is a community consensus that this is how we should proceed in the short run.

In the longer term, hard times do provide us with an opportunity to rethink what we as a city government do and how we do it. We’re already done a lot of this, but we’re going to have to do a lot. And we on the City Council can’t do all this rethinking. We need your help in figuring out what to do.

Again, there is no magic bullet – no one thing that will solve all the problems, restore prosperity, suddenly free up the money we need to pay for all the things we want. There is, instead, more hard work ahead on everybody’s part – yours and ours. It will take a million little steps to get where we need to go. Obviously, we at City Hall must restrain spending as much as we can – and we must pursue responsible business growth as a way of increasing our tax revenue without increasing our tax rates. I’m committed to both those things, as I stated last summer when I wrote a blog laying out five points contained in what I called “The Ventura Covenant” (just scroll down to find it).

Voters shot down both Measure B (the height restriction) and Measure C (the big-box retail restriction) on Tuesday. A lot of this might have been because of the “Just Vote No” mood. But some of it may have been in response to arguments from the “No” side that we in Ventura need to foster business growth and these restrictions would have made it more difficult to do so. I think it’s important to bear in mind that the defeat of these initiatives will not magically solve our problems either.

We need appropriate infill development, as both sides of the Measure B campaign readily acknowledged, but given the state of the real estate business we’re not going to get much of it anytime soon no matter what we do. We need healthy retail growth as well, but the presence or absence of one Wal-Mart is not going to magically give us the money we need to restore our city’s basic services, nor cut the need for those services in a significant way. (Measure A would have raised about 10-15 times as much sales tax revenue per year as the pending Wal-Mart on Victoria will do.) And the retail economy is undergoing fundamental restructuring anyway. All of us are becoming much more cautious about how we spend our money. We are seeing more retail businesses go under, whether they are big chains or small mom-and-pops. Once again, no magic bullet.

So we’ll all have to work together to figure out how to use whatever emerging opportunities are available to us to restore our prosperity and, with it, our tax revenue. And we’ll have to make some hard long-term choices about what our city government can do. In some cases, we may be able to redesign the way we deliver services to the public so that they are both more cost-effective and more responsive to community needs. I think there’s some potential there, and I’m looking forward to working on it. But in other cases, we may simply decide that the city shouldn’t be in the business of doing certain things. Either others in the community will have to keep them going; or we may decide that will have to do without.

So that’s the challenge. It’s a challenge all of us in Ventura must address together. Obviously, without your trust, we can’t do a good job of operating a city government. But without your help, your ideas, your energy, we can’t successfully rebuild, restore, or redesign anything. The 7 of us on the City Council are your elected representatives, and therefore we are the lightning rods for your attention and, often, your discontent. But it will take more than 7 people to move Ventura forward. It will take 108,000 people. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with all of you as we take on the challenge.

One last thing about the City Council race: As I’m sure you know by now, the voters elected Mike Tracy and chose not to re-elect Ed Summers. I’m really looking forward to working with Mike. He’s a terrific guy who knows our community really well, and I think he’ll bring a lot of common-sense leadership to the council. But I’m very sad to lose Ed from the council.

Most of you know that Ed has been a great community leader for many years, and I believe that during his four years on the Council, we accomplished some important things with Ed’s help and leadership. I have especially valued his leadership and advice on business and economic issues. Many of the steps we took on economic development with Ed’s leadership will have a long-term payoff that will help us maintain both prosperity and a great quality of life. We will be thanking Ed for many years to come, but I wanted to take a moment here to say: Thanks, Ed, for all you have done – and, I hope, all you will continue to do – to make Ventura a great place to live.


  1. Thanks Bill for taking the time to reflect on the overall measure from the voters. I too am sad to see Ed Summers not be re-elected. There were a lot of candidates running this time. Perhaps Ed will be encouraged by messages like yours to run again.

  2. This was an off-season election, my understanding is that only 21% of elgible voters cast ballots. Traditionally, these voters are more conservative, anti-tax, and pro small government. I think the results would have been different if this had been a general election.

  3. Actually, the finl turnout was 36.6% -- quite a bit higher than the typical off-year local election, but still far, far short of 60% or so we see in a presidential or gubernatorial election.


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