Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Give Me Plastic Bags Or Give Me Death?

Our split decision on Monday night to pursue ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura apparently struck a cord with some folks. The email responses I’ve gotten since then have ranged from “I’m disappointed in you” to “Don’t you have anything better to do?” to “You’re friggin’ nuts” to “Give me plastic bags or give me death!” As the last comment would suggest, many of these comments seem to have come from self-described Tea Party activists. A lot of the comments were very thoughtful and clearly deserve a response.

First, here’s what happened Monday night: After a proposed statewide law on the issue fell apart, Councilmembers Morehouse and Brennan asked us to approve the idea of having the staff prepare a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ventura. I indicated my support (which I will explain below). Councilmembers Andrews and Monahan and Deputy Mayor Tracy indicated their opposition. Councilmember Weir said she would not support a ban, but would support directing the staff to talk to other cities and agencies and return with some options for how we might reduce single-use plastic bags here in Ventura. That motion passed 4-3. So we didn’t ban plastic bags, nor did we – as many emailers seem to think – approve spending money on some kind of study or other. We asked the staff to come back with options.

A lot of emailers have expressed concern about having their personal freedom taken away through a ban on plastic bags – sort of implying that it is the manifestation of an intrusive “nanny state” approach by the City Council and basically just the latest left-wing enviro-nazi fad.

Let me first say that I’m usually pretty skeptical about buying into the latest environmental fad. Remember a few years ago when the entertainment industry was in a tizzy over the supposedly wasteful long CD covers? I thought that was pretty amusing – here are Hollywood musicians, who consume enormous amounts of electricity recording and playing their music and still use lots of plastic to manufacture and shrink-wrap the CDs, thinking that if only they make shorter boxes the environment will be saved. So I’m not easily taken in by this stuff.

Second, I don’t take imposing regulation on our constituents lightly. A lot of emailers have said that we should allow the consumer and the market to prevail. I agree that the market is a great thing – most of the time the market is right, and we should use the market to deal with our problems whenever we can. But sometimes, the market has a hard time recognizing other, non-economic issues. That’s when the government creates regulation – to protect other things that are important to the common good but that the market isn’t good at dealing with. This might be something as simple as a stop sign or a speed limit (both of which are examples of government regulations that take away our personal freedom) or something as complicated as environmental protection.

There’s no question that plastic bags are cheap and useful. But if they are floating around our town – and, especially, landing in our rivers and our oceans – they can be harmful. Just as important, their presence in our rivers and watercourses can expose our community – and our taxpayers – to the possibility of significant financial fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. And that’s the most important reason to think about ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura.

The regional water board oversees the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act. Because Ventura is located in a beautiful but environmentally fragile place – along the beach and between two environmentally sensitive rivers – the board keeps a very close eye on us. This costs us a lot of time and it also costs us a lot of money.

Here’s an example: Our wastewater treatment plant discharges water – very clean water – into the estuary at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, near Ventura Harbor. But discharging treated wastewater into an estuary is not typically something that is permitted under the Clean Water Act. So we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year – money that comes from the water and sewer payments you make every other month – proving to the regional board that the water we discharge is really, really clean. Whenever we do have a minor blip and polluted water is accidentally discharged into the estuary, we pay a big fine – thousands of dollars a day. And now, a group of environmental organizations have sued us in an effort to get us to find some other way to discharge the water rather than putting it in the estuary. This lawsuit will cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and most likely millions to settle.

As I say, this kind of thing is just a fact of life. It’s part of the “cost of doing business” of being Ventura.

Now, the regional water board has instituted a new set of regulations implementing the federal Clean Water Act that seeks to reduce the amount of trash and other pollution in the Ventura River -- to zero. Under the new stormwater permit that affects Ventura and neighboring cities, we are expected to take all reasonable measures necessary to eliminate all trash in the river. If there’s trash in the river, we have to pay fines – with money that will come from our General Fund, meaning we will have less money for police officers and firefighters and park maintenance workers.

And just to give you an example, a couple of weeks ago when volunteers from California Lutheran did the big river-bottom trash cleanout, they came up with more than 12 tons of trash.

In order to cut down on the trash, the City will spend close to $1 million over the next few years putting “trash excluders” on the storm drains – essentially, traps that keep the trash from flowing down the storm drains into the ocean and the river. But trash excluders don’t stop plastic bags from floating around until they land in the river. And plastic bags that get stuck in the trash excluders can interfere with the entire storm drain system by blocking the water from flowing.

In other words, we will face major financial penalties – penalties we would have to pay for with taxpayer funds -- if we don’t eliminate trash in the river. And plastic bags are big part of the problem that are especially difficult to deal with in other ways. That’s why we have to look at ways to reduce their use – including the possibility of banning them.

Now, critics might say that the regional water quality regulators shouldn’t be so hard on us; or shouldn’t focus on trash in the river; or should find other ways to clean up the water. This may be true, but that’s not something we at the city level can do a whole lot about. If we fight or try to ignore these regulations, that’s probably going to cost us far more of your tax money than complying. (This is a lesson the Casitas Municipal Water District has learned the hard way in fighting federal regulators over the installation of a fish ladder farther up the Ventura River to accommodate the now-endangered steelhead trout.)

So, to those who say they are disappointed in me, I say: How disappointed will you be when I come and ask to raise taxes so we can afford to pay all these fines to the Regional Water Quality board? To those who ask if I don’t have anything better to do, I say: I don’t have anything better to do than clean up our environment and conserve our taxpayers’ money in the process. To those who say I’m friggin’ nuts, I say: It would be nuts to pretend that we do not have lots of potential financial liability here.

To those who say, Give me plastic bags or give me death, I say: At least tie your plastic bags up before you throw them into the river so nobody else chokes to death on them. Because if you don’t want regulation, then you’ve got to take individual responsibility for your actions.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Parking Management That Actually Manages Parking

At about 10:30 this morning, I step out of my office at the corner of Poli and Oak and walk down Oak Street to get a cup of coffee at Palermo. Almost immediately, I notice something different.

The parking lot on Oak Street, usually two-thirds empty in the morning, is mostly full. And the on-street parking spaces along Oak and Main Street, which are mostly occupied on a typical morning at this time, are mostly vacant.

It takes me a moment before I realized why: The paid parking portion of our downtown parking management program had gone into effect at 10 a.m., and it was already showing results. People who park all day downtown have moved into the lots and the upper levels of the parking garage. Spaces on the street are now available for shoppers, diners, and others who were running short-term errands. In other words, only 30 minutes after we instituted the parking management program, it is working.

In all the discussions around town this summer about paid parking, the emphasis has always been on the "paid" part. Why is the city charging for parking downtown? Are we just being greedy? Where will the money go? Why would anyone go downtown if they have to pay to park?
These are all fair questions. (And they all have good answers -- for example, all the parking revenue money is going to benefit downtown and not being spent elsewhere in the city.) But the questions have obscured an important goal of the paid parking, which has nothing to do with revenue. The goal is to encourage employees and other long-term parkers downtown in order to free up space on the street for shoppers. And I was stunned at how quickly our "parking management" goal was achieved.

All day, we have a dozen or so police officers, public works officials, police cadets, and police volunteers downtown assisting people. When I go out again at lunchtime, the street spaces are beginning to fill up -- and everywhere I look, somebody from the city is helping a downtown shopper figure out how to use the new machines. But the point is still clear: The on-street spaces are gradually filling up with people who had come downtown to shop.

In the months leading up to the inauguration of paid parking, I kept hearing stories about how downtown employees were hogging the onstreet spaces. I heard that some merchants told their employees to park on the street -- but a block away, so as not to take up parking in front of the store. I heard that some businesses and employees erase the chalk marks that our parking enforcement folks put on their tires. I heard that some business owners give their employees a few minutes off every two hours to move their cars.

Frankly, I wasn't sure if I believed all these stories. After all, why would any merchant park in front of their own store? Why would you deal with all the hassles to park on the street -- erasing chalk, moving cars -- when there's free parking in city lots a half-block away? It seemed ridiculous to me. But the lesson from today is that it's not ridiculous. Obviously, what's been happening is that employees have been parking on the street and now they are parking in the lots.

At about 3 pm, I decide it is time for another cup of coffee at Palermo, partly just to see what was going on. By now most of the onstreet spaces are taken -- but the police volunteers and cadets are still around. A woman wanderes past Palermo and asks me if I know how to use the machines. I start to help her (she seems tickled pink that the mayor is helping her) when a fresh-faced police cadet comes up and does a better job of explaining it.

Anybody's first impulse, I think, is that paying for parking is a bad thing. But upon reflection, a lot of folks -- merchants and shoppers alike -- have come around to the idea that it can be a good thing.

Some shoppers have complained over the past few months that parking at the mall is free, so why should they pay to park downtown? The answer -- provided by Downtown Ventura Organization board chair Dave Armstrong -- is that you're paying for access to a few hundred premium spaces. And he's right. After all, all the mall parking spaces are far away from the stores -- farther than even the most remote free lot downtown. If it was possible to drive right inside the mall and park in front of your favorite store, don't you think the mall would charge for that space? And don't you think some people who think it's worth it would pay the price? Obviously, the answer to both these questions is yes.

Similarly, Main Street merchants have come to see that paid parking can help them too by opening up short-term spaces close to their store. As the owner of Jersey Mike's told me today, her customers used to have to circle the block three times looking for a space or park in a faraway parking lot. Now they can park right in front of her shop for a quarter -- or a dime -- or a nickel -- while they pick up their order. Because even though it's $1 for the first hour, you can buy less time with coins. And there's less traffic on the street because there's less "cruising" for a parking space.

6 pm: I head out to one our local establishments. Now it's very busy downtown -- the younger crowd is beginning to head out to downtown -- and the onstreet spaces are still mostly full. Prime time downtown.

Some people who grumbled about this idea pointed to the experience this summer at Ventura Harbor: Paid parking was instituted in the prime lot near the Village on weekends. But, the complainers pointed out, the Harbor ended the program early because they didn't achieve their revenue goals. True enough, but it was a gloomy summer and tourist business was off generally. And what the complainers tend to overlook is the fact that the Harbor actually did meet the parking management goals. Employees and all-day parkers going to the Channel Islands parked elsewhere, freeing up plenty of space for peope shopping at the Village. In that sense, it was a success.

9:15 pm. I take one final swing through downtown. Parking on the street is fairly light now -- especially on California between Santa Clara and Thompson (near the garage) and on other side streets such as Oak. And it's a fairly quiet Tuesday night -- most places. I peek into Anacapa Brewing to talk to owner Danny Saldana -- and, to my amazement, the place is completely full. Danny is happy with the situation and, like many other downtown business owners, says he is providing one-hour parking coupons to his regular customers for free. It's well worth it, he says, to keep them coming.

I walk back up Oak Street toward the office. The spaces on the street are mostly empty. And the parking lot across from office -- usually almost empty by now -- is completely full. Eleven hours later and it's still working.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Safe Housing in Ventura

Yesterday I attended the Safe Housing Collaborative's open house and workshop at Cabrillo Middle School. Safe housing and code enforcement has been a significant issue here in Ventura over the last year or two -- not surprising considering we are an older city with an older housing stock.

The meeting yesterday was terrific. I would say about 80 people showed up. The Safe Housing Collaborative -- a City Council-appointed group chaired by Jill Martinez -- did a terrific job of pulling things together and organizing the event. At the workshop, the participants were broken down into small tables and they discussed housing and code enforcement issues at length.

I'm looking forward to hearing what the Safe Housing Collaborative took away from the day. There were a lot of comments -- some angry, but most constructive. I tried to move from table to table to get a broad understanding of what people were saying, and here's what I heard most frequently:

1. Our permit fees are too high. (We have been increasing some fees in order to ensure that taxpayers don't subsidize building fees and code enforcement fines.)

2. To bring costs down, we should allow permit applicants or contractors to "self-certify" that the code has been met. (This is one of several options we've been discussing.)

3. We should focus on safety issues and not worry so much about other things that are technically substandard. ("Substandard" is defined in the state code and is pretty expansive.)

4. Our building inspectors and code enforcement officers sometimes have an attitude and/or don't demonstrate evenhandedness. (As I have no personal experience with this, I don't know if this is true or not.)

Anyway, these were the four things I heard pretty consistently.

You can get involved in the Safe Housing Collaborative discussion by joining the Safe Housing Ventura Yahoo group.