Friday, December 25, 2009

Chief Miller's Last Shift

At about 9 o’clock this morning, a big Ventura Police Department SUV pulled up in front of my house on Anacapa Street in Midtown. I hope it didn’t scare my neighbors into thinking something had gone awry on Christmas morning. In fact, it was just Police Chief Pat Miller picking me up. Today was Pat’s last day on the job, and – along with a reporter and a photographer from the Star – I decided to ride along with him on his last shift.

The fact that Pat was working the beat on Christmas Day on the last day of his career is a testament to Pat and to the humane approach he has instilled in the Police Department. By longstanding tradition, the senior brass at Ventura PD work shifts on Christmas Day so that the younger officers can celebrate Christmas with their families. Today, Pat was working half a shift – 6 a.m to noon. – before heading home to be with his family. (Ventura PD officers work 12-hour shifts, 6 am to 6 pm or vice versa.)

It was mostly a quiet morning, interrupted only by a few typical domestic disputes. (“They don’t see each other all year long,” Pat joked, “and then they wake up on Christmas morning and realize they don’t like each other.”) Pat was assigned to the citywide beat, which meant he roamed all the way from Ventura Avenue to Victoria Avenue. It was clear that almost every street, almost every block, held some memory for him – good ones and bad ones.

Like every cop on every shift, he drove down Olive Street on the Avenue to figuratively tip his cap to the heroic Dee Dowell, who was killed there in 1978 -- the first Ventura police officer ever to be killed in the line of duty. And driving past De Anza Middle School reminded him of the time he spent all day with a distraught 13-year-old who finally revealed that she’d been molested by a relative; 15 years later, the girl – now a woman – called up Pat Miller to thank him, because he had been the person who helped her face her demons and turn her life around.

Pat was clearly born to be a cop. His family moved to Ventura when he was in high school, and at the age of 21 he went to work as a police officer in San Fernando, where his father was also a cop. In 1981, he switched over to the Ventura Police Department and he’s been here ever since.

The low-key older guy driving around in the police SUV talks calmly but with authority about his life and his career and his police work. Much of what he says is sobering. There was his first day on the job in San Fernando, when a fellow officer was killed and he worked the crime scene all day. There was the time when he knocked on a door and, for no particular reason, stepped a few inches to one side. The guy inside had a gun and shot right through the door; if Pat hadn’t moved, he’d have been hit and maybe killed. There was his recollection that the guy who sat in front of him and the guy who sat behind him in the police academy both were killed in the line of duty. And then there was his former partner Mark Riddering, who battled Lou Gehrig’s Disease for 13 years before finally passing away.

All these stories are told in a very matter-of-fact tone as the SUV tools around Ventura, interspersed with the occasional moment when his street antenna went on the alert – like the moment near my office at Main and the Avenue, when two guys scrambled out of a beat-up old car and left quickly because they apparently didn’t want to be seen by a cop.

Like all cops, Pat is always on the beat and loves chasing bad guys best. I can recall a time three or four years ago when I was waiting to meet him and he never showed up. It turned out that he had chased a bad guy all the way to Oxnard, then ran after him – Pat in his street clothes – only to be bitten by Oxnard PD’s K-9 dog. But that’s Pat. He always wants to be in the middle of the action.

And like a lot of cops, Pat has a great dark sense of humor. Always blunt, he is never funnier than when he is “telling it like it is,” even when that’s not the most politic thing to do. A few months ago, at a City Council meeting, after we had spent many hours hashing out consecutive items about regulating massage parlors, dealing with medical marijuana dispensaries, and considering whether to let homeless people catch some winks in their automobiles under highly supervised conditions, Pat broke the council chamber up – at midnight or so – by saying into the microphone, “Sure, come to Ventura – get a massage, smoke a joint, and sleep in your car!” So far our tourist bureau hasn’t picked up on Pat’s slogan.

To me, however, there’s far more to Pat than the passionate beat cop and the police officer with the dry sense of humor. After all, here’s a guy who’s a member of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council; he teaches homeland security courses at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Beyond that, of course, there are three other things about Pat which – combined with the beat cop’s passion – make Chief Miller one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.

The first is his passion for preventing crimes as well as solving them. Nobody has been more forceful in arguing for crime prevention programs that Pat has. Gang prevention programs, police officers in the schools, after-school programs – Pat has advocated for all of these ideas and more, often when it meant taking resources away from his men on the beat. That’s because he has always believed in “community policing”. Our cops are not an occupying force that drives by in armored vehicles. They are people you know, people you trust, people who help you and your neighbors and your kids. It’s a lot better for everybody – including the police -- if the teenager at risk stays out of trouble in the first place. Pat knows that you have to be both a cop and a social worker to keep Ventura safe.

The second is the way his leadership style focuses on results. Pat always says that if you can’t say what you’re after in 20 words or less, you’ve failed. He usually succeeds, and this no-nonsense style has helped him set clear goals and motivate his officers to achieve them. In doing this, he focuses – as police departments so often do these days – on tangible and measurable results. His proudest accomplishment is simply that crime has gone down while he’s been chief. But it takes meeting many other statistical targest to meet that larger goal.

For example, under Pat’s leadership, the Ventura PD set a goal of responding to major calls within 5 minutes 90% of the time. When he set the goal, the department hit the 5-minute response time 50% of the time. Now, with no appreciable increase in resources, it’s 80%. Pat may be a beat cop at heart, but he understands how to use information and numbers and goals to get the job done, and I admire that.

The last thing is just his sheer determination. There’s no brick wall this guy won’t walk through when he’s determined to do something. (When I asked him whether seeing a fellow officer killed his first day on the job made him angry, he answered: “No, just more determined.”) Pat played a major role in our attempt to pass a tax increase in 2006 to fund public safety because he had more passion and more determination than anybody else. With our Fire Chief, Mike Lavery, Pat made more than 300 presentations about the sales tax. And he knew how to boil it down to 20 words or less: A nickel on every $20 purchase to stay safe. We didn’t win – but we got 62% of the vote and I think people are much more attuned to public safety in Ventura than ever before.

About 10:45, we responded to an accident at Five Points. Not exactly a fender-bender, either; an SUV slammed into a sedan, the damage on the right side of the sedan is pretty nasty, and ambulances are required for both the driver of the SUV, who can’t turn his head, and the passenger in the sedan, who looks like she hurt her shoulder. Almost first on the scene, Pat goes to both injured folks, puts his arm on them, makes sure their injuries are not extremely serious. Once the paramedics arrive, he backs off and lets other do their job. There he is, the chief of police, one hour away from retirement, standing on Main Street directing traffic as the ambulances pull away.

Back at the police station on Dowell Drive (yes, named for Dee Dowell), Pat greets his daughter Nicole, a veteran dispatcher who’s going on duty at noon. (She had to wait for him to retire to be rehired, since a department head can’t hire relatives.) At just before noon, Nicole puts on her headset, and Pat heads out to the SUV with Ken Corney, his longtime assistant chief, who will take over as chief as soon as Pat steps down.

Pat sits down in the driver’s seat of the SUV, picks up the microphone and says, “151 – 10-C – 10-7.” 151 is his badge number. 10-C means he’s the chief. 10-7 means he’s checked out.

He stands up and Ken Corney grabs the mike. “199 – 10-C – 10-8.” 199 is Ken’s bad number. 10-8 means he’s ready to go. And 10-C means that Ken, not Pat, is now the chief.

Which seems fine with Pat. He shakes everybody’s hand, thanks them all, cracks a joke, and drives away, ready for some new challenge in life.

Thanks, Pat. It’s been a privilege to ride with you – not just today, but for the last 5 years.

You can download Pat's "final 10-7" here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Prosperity and Sustainability

Last night, our new City Council was seated. Congratulations to Mike Tracy, who was seated as a new councilmember and selected as Deputy Mayor. Thanks to Christy Weir, who stepped down as mayor, and Ed Summers, who stepped off the council after four years of excellent service!

The council selected me as mayor for the next two years. I am very grateful for their support. Here's what I said at the meeting:

It’s long-standing custom to make this moment about the new mayor, who spends a lot of time thanking people and talk all about themselves. Don’t worry. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But I just want to take a second to step back to acknowledge what this moment is really about. What we have just witnessed is something that, in most parts of the world, would be considered nothing less than a miracle. The people seated up here will be responsible for governing this city for the next two years, and they were selected by you, the voters. And the Deputy Mayor and I are sitting in these chairs because, as our city charter calls for, the seven members of the city council have selected us.

In most parts of the world, you don’t elect the people who govern your community -- and even if there is an election, there’s no guarantee that the people elected will survive to serve.

I know it may be kind of silly to point all this out. After all, we're at zero risk for a coup d'etat. But it really is kind of a miracle. So the first thing we should be thankful for is that … in our nation and in our community … the democratic process and the rule of law prevail.

As voters, you may not always agree with what we do. But at least you know how we got here. You know where to find us. And you know that we are ultimately accountable to you.

The first thing I’d like to do is thank my six fellow councilmembers for selecting me as mayor for the next two years.

Being the mayor in Ventura is a tricky job. You have to be simultaneously a leader and a servant of the council; and, of course, a leader and a servant of the community as well. This is a job that has to be approached with a lot of humility. We’re a bunch of independent thinkers. But in these tough times, we will all have to pull together. I will do my best to herd the cats and still be responsive to the cats as well.

I’d especially like to thank Mayor Weir for her leadership over the lastwo years. Christy, I don’t think you knew what you were getting into when you took this gavel in December of 2007. You have had to deal with far more difficulty and financial hardship than anyone would have expected. And you’ve managed to face with two remarkable traits that don’t usually go together: You’ve stayed upbeat and positive about the future of our community; and at the same time you’ve been steadfast and held your ground when you needed to. Anybody sitting in this chair would do well to emulate your approach to this job.

There are so many people I would like to thank, including those who are here tonight and those who are elsewhere, but I will single out only a few.

I miss my mother, Fran, every day. Many of you remember her. Although she lived to see me first elected in 2003, I still wish she were here today to both inspire me and pester me. I miss my father too. Dad’s been gone for many years, but he was my mentor on political and civic affairs almost from the time we could hold a conversation. I know he’d be proud. He was a stubborn guy – back in our hometown, he ran as a renegade school board candidate in 1947 and almost won, but redeemed himself in 1948 by running again and getting creamed.

I’d especially like to thank my daughter Sara, who came down from college in Northern California to be here today. Sara kind of grew up here at city Hall during her middle and high school years and everybody around this building misses her. Sara inspires me every day. Just by the way she lives her life, she reminds me that the most important thing you can do every single day is wake up determined to make a difference in the world. Sara, I hope my service as mayor helps make your world a better place decades from now.

There are so many other people who have inspired and helped me here, but in the interest of getting on with it I think I will have to thank them individually.

Over the next few weeks the council will work out our agenda for the next two years. This won’t be an easy task. As a community, Ventura has taken a lot of blows in the last year or two. And I hate saying it, but I expect we’ll take a few more before the hard times are done. It is not a time to nurture resentment and assign blame. It is a time to pull together for the good of our community.

I can’t predict what direction the council will likely take, or how we will decide to get there. But I do know two things. First, we’re going to have to reinvent the way we do a lot of things – both here at City Hall and in the community at large. And second, we’re going to have to work together as a community more aggressively than we ever have before.

Ventura is a terrific place to live – so much so that sometimes we become a little complacent and often take it for granted that somehow or other things will work out fine in the end. But in this time of financial crisis, we can’t take anything for granted. We must devote ourselves to reshaping the way we do things in order to lay the foundation for a future that is both prosperous and sustainable.

We must be prosperous as a community , because without prosperity we cannot achieve anything else we want. But our prosperity must be enduring, based on achieving long-term economic goals, not short-term profits. Ventura has reinvented its economy many times on the past, and we are well-positioned to reinvent our economy again in order to ensure generations of prosperity.

We must be financially sustainable as a city government, because unless we are financial sustainable we will not be able to provide our constituents with the things they want and need. This will require not just increasing revenues, but reinventing how we do things, sharing community resources and helping each other, so that we will never again be faced with the difficult choices we are confronting right now.

And finally we must also be an ecologically sustainable community as well. As the Copenhagen conference begins today, climate change to most people in the world is an abstraction. To us it is not. The sea level will rise. It will rise in this city. It will rise in this neighborhood. And it will rise in our lifetimes. You can’t prosper when you are drowning.

If we make progress on all these things – enduring prosperity, a financially sustainable city government, and an ecologically sustainable community – then we will go a long way toward achieving our most important goal, which is to maintain and improve the quality of life of the people who live in Ventura, both today and in the future.

These are big challenges. But I look forward to working with the council and the community to lay the foundation for a better future. For the next two years I will do my best to be a leader and a servant to my colleagues on the council and the community at large.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wright's Final Hours

Back in 1997, when my book The Reluctant Metropolis was published, I arranged to do a book reading and signing at the Ventura Bookstore on Main Street downtown. We did the book reading upstairs in the Odd Fellows Hall and then sold the books downstairs in the cozy confines of the bookstore itself. I loved that bookstore. It had been around for decades, and for most of that time it was about the only place you could go in Ventura to purchase a brand-new, just-published book. The shelves and aisles were crowded, and the selection of books was somehow simultaneously quirky and very solid, just like the owner, Ed Elrod – a local guy who knew everybody in town.

The Ventura Bookstore is long gone now. (The space is now occupied by Heart’s Delight Clothiers.) It closed down soon after Barnes & Noble opened up out on Telephone Road. Ed Elrod joined other independent booksellers around the country in suing Barnes & Noble and Borders for driving small bookstores like Ventura Bookstore out of business – a lawsuit they predictably elost. Few people remember the Ventura Bookstore today, but I do. I still miss it. Barnes & Noble is great – it has way more books and a much better atmosphere, which in a way is better for Ventura, and it is teeming with people 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. But somehow it doesn’t replace the Ventura Bookstore or the wonderful feeling of having a great bookstore right on Main Street downtown.

I got to thinking about the Ventura Bookstore tonight when I joined a group of about 40 or so people at Wright Library to grieve over the library’s closing. It was a very sad moment, because Wright is justly recognized as a great neighborhood institution for the people who live near Ventura College and all the students who go to school near there. (Half of the students in Ventura Unified go to school within a mile of Wright.) No matter what libraries evolve into in the future in Ventura, nothing will ever fill Wright’s place.

For the last hour or two before the 8 p.m. closing, folks milled around, talking and checking out books. Some were library advocates who have come to accept the loss of Wright; others were angry patrons who wanted to participate in a night-long vigil. After closing time, Library Director Jackie Griffin said the staff had to go home and asked people to leave. Many of the lights were turned off. Some people left, and a group of perhaps 20 remained. They began to chant, “Keep Wright Open,” and continued to do so for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Then Debbie Giles, one of our most wonderful longtime community activists, asked the folks if they would like to speak their thoughts or ask questions.

For the next two hours, Jackie Griffin and I talked with these folks, answering questions and engaging in a dialogue with them. Little by little the crowd thinned out, but 10 or 15 people stayed till well past 10 o’clock to talk. Sometimes people yelled at me; once or twice I lost my cool and yelled back. Many people made it extremely clear that they don’t trust the City Council and a few clearly believe that somehow or other money has been mismanaged or Wright has been cheated by the county system. I don’t believe these things but I understand they are part of grieving a loss.

As time went on, however, we talked more and more about different ways that we might be able to raise enough money to maintain our current level of library service; or other ideas dealing with Wright or and our library system in town. Over time, this became, for me, a truly remarkable experience. It’s exactly the kind of conversation we on the City Council should have with our constituents every day – close up, emotional, intense, one-on-one. It was exhausting, but wonderful. It’s the kind of “town hall” discussion I believe we on the council must engage in more often.

The bottom line, of course, was that everybody in the room wanted me to tell them I would find a way to keep the library open. And, of course, I was unable to make them happy. During the course of the evening, three ideas emerged.

First, to use some of the $500,000 or so in funds set aside for a new library to operate Wright in the next year or two.

Second, to alternate days at Wright and Foster indefinitely.

Third, to “mothball” Wright rather than dismantle it and put a parcel tax exclusively for libraries on the ballot in June.

The first two ideas are clearly the most serious ideas to consider if the goal is to keep Wright open at any cost. As to the first one, the council’s policy throughout this financial crisis has been not to use “one-time” money for operating purposes. I believe that’s simply trading tomorrow for today, and it doesn’t solve the problem of not having a financially sustainable library program in the city (No one – not even the two council members who voted against my motion last week – proposed this solution publicly at our meeting.) As to the second, I never liked the idea and I believe that Jackie is right when she says that it may be okay temporarily but it’s not operationally sustainable in the long run.

As to mothballing Wright and running a parcel tax, I’m certainly open to the idea. But it would require a lot of work on the part of a lot of people and I don’t think it would pass. Nevertheless, I look forward to talking with library advocates and patrons about the idea in the weeks ahead.

But I think there is far, far more to the future of libraries in this town than wrestling with the Wright question. Last week at the City Council, the motion I made – and passed by the council – contained several pieces to it. All are important to bear in mind as we move forward. They include the following:

-- To accelerate our existing process of long-term strategic planning for library service in the city. Our library strategic planning task force faces one major decision that has an enormous ripple effect: Should we focus on one large central library, as Camarillo has, or many small libraries serving individual neighborhoods? I believe that if we choose the latter, we will probably – for cost reasons – have to consolidate our libraries with other neighborhood-level services (parks, rec programs, senior and youth programs), which means we’ll have to reinvent the libraries themselves so they can be smaller and still effective.

-- Explore with the library agency unconventional ways to bring library service to East Ventura. This may mean a bookmobile, but it may also mean promoting online alternatives and very localized library systems – for example, ordering a book online through the library agency and then “checking it out” at a kiosk in your neighborhood. Technologically, we’re totally capable of this now.

-- Work with Ventura College on providing library services through the college as well. This could mean things like, publicizing those services the college library does provide that are of value to the community (for example, certain research materials and computers) and seeing whether any services that were provided at Wright (for example, large-print books for senior citizens) could be provided at the college library.

-- Negotiating with the college for ongoing use of the building. Even if the college does take over the Wright Library building, I think it might be possible for the community to still use it for certain things – meetings and events, for example, or maybe even a homework center after school for all the high school kids who go to school nearby. Or perhaps we could provide a pick up and dropoff spot for books ordered by library patrons on line.

These are just a few ideas. As we work through this transition, there will be many others. Just as an example: I am concerned that the Vivian Distin Garden, named for Johnny Cash’s first wife and Roseann Cash’s mother, a longtime Ventura resident, may not survive on the Wright property. But that’s a community asset too.

Over the next few weeks and months, all of us will grieve in our own way. Since it first became apparent that Wright is likely to close, I have visited the library many times – often at night or on Sundays, when it is closed, so I can contemplate what it means to me. I remember all the times my mother volunteered there – and even the July 4th when the librarians let Mom and me join them in their own special area on the Wright property to watch the fireworks. I remember taking my daughter, now 19, to the children’s area when she was two or three – and meeting her after school at Wright when she was in high school. And I remember all the times I spent there reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Someday, different libraries – or even different types of libraries – will be available to all of us. But, as with the Ventura Bookstore, nothing will ever take Wright’s place.