Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thank You, Ventura

Saturday was a fabulous day here in Ventura. First of all, it was a gorgeous day, and I had a wonderful run along the beach in the afternoon. Then there was the Holiday Street Fair – a longtime tradition we at the city have successfully turned over to the Downtown Ventura Partnership and other private sponsors. Just after sundown, I joined Santa Claus, Father Tom from the Mission – and a huge throng of people – in lighting up the Mission’s two Christmas trees, which by the way are the tallest Christmas trees in the United States. Then we all adjourned to the intersection of Main and California, where fake snow fell while we all danced and City Hall flashed with revolving, dramatic colors.

In other words, it was a great day to be the Mayor of this town. And all through it I kept thinking to myself something I have thought so many times over the years: This town can do things that other towns just can’t do!

It’s been easy to forget this during our recent hard times, when a lot of people have been focused on what we can’t do or aren’t doing or can’t afford to do. But as I stepped down as Mayor and a member of the City Council on Monday night, I wasn’t thinking about what we can’t do. I was thinking about all the things we can do – and all the things we do successfully on a regular basis.

I guess I could say a lot of the usual things that politicians say when they leave office – thanks for the privilege of serving, I am proud of what we accomplished, I’m humbled by all of this. (Actually, I did say all these things Monday night.) But what I really want to say is this: I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I got to be on the Ventura City Council for eight years and I got to be Mayor of Ventura for two years.

Things have been really tough in the last couple of years, so I think it’s important to understand what the situation was back in 2003, when I first ran for the City Council. We were in the middle of a divisive public debate over what to do about the Serra Cross, located on what was then city property in Grant Park. We had just lived through a divisive election over a very large proposed development project in the hillsides. Indeed, we had just been through three bruising decades of divisive growth battles, which had led to numerous ballot initiatives, wild swings back and forth in our political leadership, and the premature retirement or defeat of any number of councilmembers over the previous decade. Oh, yes, and by the way the City budget had been running in the red for the previous three years.

In those days, City Hall had a reputation for being opaque, not transparent, and not very responsive. In fact, one of the reasons I ran was because at that time it seemed to me that the only way to have true influence over the City’s direction was to be one of the seven members of the City Council. Paradoxically, I wanted to become one of those seven people in order to change that situation.We’ve tackled all those problems pretty successfully. And we’ve done it by staying focused on the fact that, at City Hall, everything we do is related to one of three overarching goals:

-- Enduring prosperity

-- A high quality of life

-- A strong sense of community

It’s been very hard to keep focused on those three things with the economic downturn and the resulting budget difficulties in the last two or three years. But I think that we have accomplished two important things in the last two to four years.

First, we’ve laid the foundation for future prosperity. As I have said many times, to be successful in the long run, all cities must constantly evolve economically. Ventura is no exception. Our traditional reliance on oil, agriculture, government, and a few other sectors will continue to provide a base of employment but will not carry us through to another generation of true prosperity. So we must constantly work at helping our businesses grow and encourage new high-growth businesses to locate in Ventura. We’ve laid a very good foundation for that – not just with out tech effort and our incubator, but by becoming more business-friendly without compromising our quality of life. We have restored positive relations with our Chamber of Commerce. We helped push through the $350 million expansion of Community Memorial Hospital. We’ve cleaned up our permitting processes. And, perhaps most important, we’ve just about eradicated the decades-old idea that Ventura is anti-business. This foundation will help us tremendously in the years ahead.

And second, we’ve learned how to work together as a community to get things done. In the old days, if you wanted to get something done in Ventura, the path to success was simple: You lobbied the City Council until you got four votes committing the City to take the lead on the project and pay for the whole thing. But that’s not a sustainable model for the future – not financially, certainly, but also not in community-building terms. Communities succeed not because the city government takes everything on and pays for it, but because a broad coalition of people, organizations, and institutions work together to get things done in a timely, high-quality, and cost-efficient manner. That’s what’s happening in the partnership between the City and the Ventura Botanical Gardens to improve Grant Park. It’s also what’s happening in the partnership between the City and Ventura Unified to open up school land on the Westside for parks and recreational use. This will have to be the model for getting things done in the future – and we’ve laid the foundation for it in the last two years.

Shortly after he was seated on Monday night, Mayor Tracy said that the city’s highest priority right now is to make sure that the public has confidence in the city’s ability to deliver basic services – police, fire, parks, street maintenance, and so forth. He’s right. We’ve balanced the budget and laid the foundation for the future, but the quality of our services has taken a hit in the process and now it’s time to show the people that we can still deliver the basics in a high-quality way. It’ll be a challenge, but I think Mike’s exactly the right Mayor for this moment, because he knows how to focus on the basics and make sure these things get done well. He’ll do a great job.

I’m comfortable with my decision to step down, because a successful community is not the result of one person’s actions, or even seven people’s actions. It’s the result of thousands of people waking up every day and committing themselves to make a town great – not just politicians and government employees, but volunteers and people who work for nonprofit organizations and PTO presidents and even all the people who go to work in private businesses every, generating the revenue and the profits that give us the prosperity we need to continue to be successful. Indeed, a successful community is a multi-generational effort, as stewardship of the community is handed down over time. As the word "stewardship" implies, no one truly owns a community’s success; we are all merely stewards of that success. We must learn how to create success every day and then hand it down to the next generation of leaders. It is important know how to pass the baton knowledgeably, gracefully – and before you wear out you welcome.

From my new vantage point in our nation’s capital, I will do the best I can – in any way I can -- to help Ventura move forward with enduring prosperity, a high quality of life, and a stronger sense of community. I always loved doing this in my travels around the country before I was elected, and proudly do so in the future. In other words, wherever I am, I will continue to be one of those thousand of people who wakes up every day and works to make Ventura a better place.

And no matter who is Mayor, I still think I’m the luckiest guy in the world because this town and my colleagues on the City Council had enough confidence in me to allow me to serve as Mayor for the last two years. I love this town. Thank you, Ventura.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Next Chapter For Me

Over the next few months, I will transition to spending most of my time serving as Vice President, Policy & Programs, for Smart Growth America in Washington, D.C. Smart Growth America is a national organization that advocates for better urban planning and smarter transportation investments. I'll spend most of my time assisting state and local governments around the country update and improve their policies.

But I will continue to be active here in California. I will continue to serve as a Principal (on a part-time basis), Shareholder, and Board member at The Planning Center | DC&E, working primarily on Transfer of Development Rights programs nationwide and high-profile projects in California, and I'll continue to serve as a Senior Fellow at the Price School of Planning, Policy & Development at USC (which was just endowed thanks to a generous gift of $50 million from the Price family).

I'll be spending most of my time here in Ventura until March or so, and after that I will spend most of my time in Washington, D.C. I expect to be back on a regular basis, probably once or twice a month. This is a hard decision for me, because I love Ventura so much. I have loved it since I first moved here 25 years ago, and I have to say I am enjoying every minute I spend here now. It's where my family was raised, and it is where I have experienced most of the really important moments in my life.

Going forward, I'll do everything I can to help Ventura continue to be a great place to live and work. I plan to retain my property here, and I expect to be in town once or twice a month. I will continue to work as much as possible on many issues important to Ventura -- the 2016 anniversary effort, our effort to build a thriving technology sector here, public transportation, access for the disabled, conserving our land, and building a sustainable future for Ventura in all ways.

In addition, I hope I'll back to playing a role I used to play before I was elected -- advance scout and cheerleader for Ventura. In D.C. and throughout the nation, I will continue to promote what I love about Ventura and look for opportunities to bring expertise, resources, and opportunity to our wonderful community.

I hope to chat with all of you more in the next couple of months as I begin to make this transition. Believe me, every day in Ventura is precious to me -- as it always has been!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks for Our Faith Community -- And Helping Them Prevent Homelessness

Tonight I’m giving thanks for Ventura’s amazing faith community. I just returned home from the annual Thanksgiving Service put on by the Ventura Interfaith Ministerial Association, which I’m proud to say was hosted this year by my congregation, Temple Beth Torah.

Every year, VIMA – a group of ministers from a wide variety of faiths – holds an interfaith service on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving at a different congregation around town. It’s a truly remarkable service – beautiful and heartfelt and caring. In other words, a lot like Ventura.

As each minister and each choir came to our bimah at Temple Beth Torah to present a prayer of gratitude derived from their own faith, I remembered the times I visited so many of their churches and congregations over my two years as mayor. I went everywhere – from Evangelical Christian churches all the way to Hindu and Buddhist temples – and I am amazing at the range of our religious institutions, their commitment to our community, and the progress they have made in working together.

Tonight, in addition to our own Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, the service representatives from Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Bhuddist temples, the Baha’i Community, Methodists, Unitarian Universalists, and Methodists – as well as Captain Bill Finley from the Salvation Army, Rev. Rob Orth from Project Understanding, and Rev. Curtis Hotchkiss from Community Memorial Hospital. We prayed, worshipped and gave thanks in a half-dozen different languages.

In a world where religious observance, all too often, fosters divisiveness and hatred, tonight’s service was remarkable. All the more remarkable, however, is the community work that all these organizations do together, especially in feeding and housing the homeless and helping people in need. One of the most amazing things these organizations do together is help to support and run the Ventura Homeless Prevention Fund – a nationally recognized program that raises money privately to help keep families out of homelessness when they are at risk.

At a time when it’s easy to be cynical about how our charitable and tax dollars are used – and where we are all too accustomed to laying out money for good causes and not getting results – the Homeless Prevention Fund is amazing. Many families of modest means are always a paycheck or two away from homelessness, and often one single event – a broken-down car, a medical problem – can strain a family’s finances so much that they are out on the street. The Homeless Prevention Fund provides money to families at risk to keep them in their homes.

And it’s a great value. Once a family is homeless, getting them housed and back on their feet can cost, quite literally, tens of thousands of dollars. But the average cost of helping them through their emergency so that they can stay in the home is about $750. It’s a great investment in our community.

Tonight’s appeal was to provide funds for the Homeless Prevention Fund. Bill Finley from the Salvation Army – a remarkable, passionate, articulate, and effective leader in our community – made the appeal. I won’t try to repeat what he said here, but he claimed he couldn’t sing and therefore read a lot of song lyrics of his smartphone. The net effect was that he emptied my pocket.

And this Thanksgiving, I’d suggest you should let the Homeless Prevention Fund empty your pocket too. It’s easy – just go to this web site, and follow the directions to donate online. Or you can write a check to the United Way of Ventura County, with a note that you want to support the Ventura Homeless Prevention Fund, and mail it to the United Way at 1317 Del Norte Road, Suite 100, Camarillo, CA 93010.

To me, the most enjoyable thing about tonight’s service was seeing how much fun our diverse interfaith ministers have together. As a Jew and a Scot, I was blown away at the sight of Pastor Jim Ayars of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church playing the bagpipes while standing on our bimah at Temple Beth Torah. I just love this town, and I love the way the people in our community use their faith in a positive way to make Ventura a better place. That’s what I am giving thanks for this week.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Artists, Don't Ever Sell Yourselves Short

Here's an adapted version of the speech I gave at the Mayor's Arts Awards last Thursday night:

It’s been my privilege twice to present these awards to outstanding contributors to the arts here in Ventura. You’d think by now we would be past calling ourselves “California’s New Art City,” though I have to admit I’m a bit hesitant to call ourselves “California’s Old Art City”.

After all these years, we’ve begun to make a real impact in the arts – and the arts have begun to make a real impact on Ventura in more ways than I can count. As I prepare to leave office, my message to the artists and their supporters in this town is pretty simple:

Don’t ever sell yourself short.

I know that’s a funny thing to say, but artists have a tendency to sell themselves short – and then get mad because other people also sell them short. But don’t forget all the different ways that the arts help us.

In the business of running our city, we try to do three things. We try to create prosperity for our community. We try to improve the quality of life for people in Ventura. And we try to improve our sense of community and our sense of place. Everything we do is about one (or more) of these three goals; and the arts are vital in accomplishing all three.

We tend to speak generally about how the arts are good for residents of Ventura because the arts have the power to inspire and fulfill us; and we speak even more sweepingly about how the arts helps the economy because of the number of paintings and tickets so, and the spinoff effect, and so forth. But I want to take a moment to make these things more real.

Everytime somebody comes into contact with the arts, you are touching them – and you are changing and improving our community.

Every time a child creates something in school, and realizes that they can create, and gains confidence as a result, that’s you at work.

Every time somebody is moved and gains new insight into themselves and the world by experiencing art, that’s you at work.

Every time somebody is inspired by a piece of public art to renew their commitment to our community, that’s you at work. It doesn't matter whether commitment is a commitment to the arts -- it can be any renewed commitment to our community.

Every time somebody comes up with an idea for a business or a product, and uses creative thinking skills to figure out how to make that business or product a success, that’s you at work.

Every time somebody decides to move their business to Ventura – or keep it here – or expand it here – because the quality of life and the things Ventura has to offer are important, that’s you at work.

All these are examples of you at working helping us to achieve our three basic goals: prosperity, quality of life, and sense of community. So don’t ever sell yourself short. Don’t ever stop reminding yourselves – and reminding us – that the arts work every day, in every venue, to help us achieve our most basic goals as a community.

Thanks to all of you for what you have done. It has been my privilege to serve this community for the last eight years on the City Council and for the last two as Mayor. I hope I can continue to work with you in enhancing the arts – and leveraging the power of the arts to achieve our other community goals – for many years to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Let's Make Ventura "One Big Accelerator"

In eight years on the City Council, the one phrase I have heard more than any other is “economic development”. This means a different things to different people – jobs, tax revenue, easier permitting for businesses --but to me it has always meant creating a prosperity that can endure and benefit us all.

I spent Friday and Saturday participating in the economic development discussions at the National League of Cities annual conference in Phoenix. I focused on the sessions dealing with growing small businesses and helping entrepreneurs. I talked about Ventura’s experience in trying to nurture high-tech businesses, but I heard a lot from other cities and experts about what’s working and what’s not

There were a lot of people there telling their stories – people from Boston and Scottsdale and New York and all over the country. They mostly told stories about how cities can work with universities and others to foster the expansion of what are sometimes called “high-potential” businesses in their communities using incubators and “accelerators” (business centers designed to accelerate the growth of businesses once they are incubated). And the lessons were pretty clear: know what you’re trying to accomplish; make strong connections with your local universities; build an “ecosystem” of necessary services around the business sector you’re trying to grow; and, perhaps most important, be persistent and patient, because it takes a long time.

In Ventura, we have placed a lot of chips on nurturing tech businesses in the incubator we have created beyond City Hall. We targeted Internet startups for the incubator – companies that build things like online advertising auctions, geographical locators, and the like – because we knew that’s a business sector with very high growth potential that had a presence in neighboring cities, especially Carpinteria and Santa Barbara. We targeted ‘Net-based companies because they can raise large amounts of Ventura capital (many of the companies in the incubator have raised millions) and because each one has the potential to grow very, very fast. So far, we’re successful. There are currently 14 companies in the incubator with about 50 jobs altogether. But if even one of these companies because a big success, that will mean hundreds of jobs and lots of opportunities for vendors and suppliers in Ventura.

So what I learned in Phoenix is that we have a long way to go. Yet I was encouraged by what I learned.

From Boston – where Mayor Ray Mennino is setting up an “innovation district” – I learned that connections not just to science-based colleges but colleges focused on entrepreneurship are important. Babson College, a leading entrepreneurship college based in the suburbs, is setting up an operation in Boston at Mennino’s innovation center. There’s a lesson here. We already have a strong relationship with UCSB, where the engineering school spinsLink off a lot of startups. But we need to strengthen our relationship with Pepperdine, which has a great entrepreneurship program. Hey, Pepperdine, want to set up a branch here in Ventura?

From Arizona – where the City of Scottsdale decided to collaborate with Arizona State on an incubator/accelerator called SkySong ] -- I learned that you have to be patient even in the face of political criticism. SkySong’s been criticized for creating “only” 700-some-odd jobs so far, rather than the 10,000 promised. But as one of Skysong’s leaders said on Saturday, this is a long-term play. It takes 10 or 20 years to pay off – but if you do it right, it pays off for decades. (By the way, there's a really good urban revitalization story with SkySong. It's located on Scottsdale's old "auto row," and after flirting with both a Wal-Mart and an arena, Scottsdale did a deal with ASU.

Everywhere at the conference I learned that social media is important. The entrepreneurs in these growth sectors are mostly young, and they know how to use the Internet. After all, most of the startups in Ventura are Internet-based companies. I’m very proud of the fact that NetProspex recently ranked Ventura as the 4th most social-media-savvy business city in America – behind only New York, San Jose, and San Francisco. This means we ranked ahead of places like Seattle, San Diego and Austin. I can’t exactly explain why this is – my theory is that it has something to do with surf-town folks who seem mellow but are really pretty intensely interconnected – but it shows you that this is one really important part of the strategy that we are really on top of.

So going forward, what do you we need to do? There’s so much, but here are a few things:

Keep strengthening our university partnerships, so that UCSB, Pepperdine, Cal State Channel Islands, Ventura College, and others all play a role in our effort – and recognize that what we’re doing helps them too.

Keep building the ecosystem of services that these entrepreneurs need. That means making sure that angel investors, venture capitalists, intellectual property lawyers, and others know Ventura and want to do business here. It also means connecting these growing companies to local vendors, so that the economic benefits of their expansion stay local; and with local real estate brokers and landlords, so the companies themselves will stay in town.

Make sure these companies have the infrastructure they need. Right now our biggest problem is that our fiberoptic telecommunications network is spotty and doesn’t even reach the incubator. Ironic for an Internet-based economic development strategy! We must keep working with the telecom companies to bring good fiber to the places we need it.

In other words, we need to make all of Ventura into an accelerator.

So often, economic development is about the short-term win – luring in the big plant that will immediately provide jobs, grabbing the big retail store that will immediately throw off sales tax revenue. These short-term wins are important, but having worked in economic development for almost 25 years I have to say they often don’t last. The plant closes, the store moves – all for reasons the community has no control over.

But our high-growth tech effort is different. In Ventura, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an enduring prosperity that will last us many decades. We can nurture locally based businesses that have vast growth potential. We can create hundreds – maybe thousands – of great jobs for people who live here. We can create a huge amount of new activity for local businesses who will serve the tech companies. We will create the consumer demand that will drive retail sales – and sales tax revenuf or our city. We can generate the wealth we need to endow our community and our civic life for many years to come.

We can do all this. But it takes patience, persistence, and focus – day after day, month after month, year after year. But I am convinced that the payoff is worth all the effort required to make this effort work. So let’s make all of Ventura an accelerator for our tech businesses. It’ll help every business, ever household, and every civic institution in town.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Victory For The Practical -- Not The Ideological

Yesterday, Ventura’s voters proved once again that they’re practical, not ideological, and they’re more interested in constructive solutions than angry rants.

The solid winners in yesterday’s election were my longtime council colleagues Christy Weir and Carl Morehouse and newcomer Cheryl Heitmann, whom I was proud to endorse. Ken Cozzens finished a strong fourth.

Sometimes there seemed to be a fair amount of shrill rhetoric in this campaign -- reflecting the polarization nationally. The Tea Party and others on the right tried to paint the incumbents and Cheryl as free-spending liberals who are in the pockets of the unions, whereas some Democrats and others on the left pounded on the idea that electing Carla Bonney and Bill Knox would mean the Tea Party would take over the City Council.

A lot of this was exaggerated. In fact, Christy and Carl have taken a very hard line with the unions in the last two years, and Bill Knox – although he is very fiscally conservative – is not quite a Tea Party guy. But in the end it didn’t matter. Christy, Carl, and Cheryl all ran positive campaigns that resonated with the voters. As VenturaTalk.com pointed out, the VCStar's online comments may be vitriolic, but clearly the commenters are not in the majority.

Though they often disagree with each other, Christy and Carl both presented themselves as experienced folks who know and care about our community but nevertheless have experience making hard-nosed decisions. Cheryl drew upon her community college board experience and her experience as executive director of the Ventura Music Festival to emphasize her skill at bringing people together and creating innovative partnerships.

The next few years will be tough ones for the city and these are the skills we will need on the City Council to face up to the challenges.

One of the big lessons from this election – a lesson that has been proven over and over again here in Ventura – is that if you are on the far right or the far left, you can’t win just with your political base. You have to have crossover appeal to those practical, moderate voters – Republicans, Democrats, and independents – who are not zealously ideological. These are the folks who hold the balance of power here in Ventura.

It’s telling, for example, that Tea Party favorite Carla Bonney and union favorite Danny Carrillo got almost exactly the same number of votes. They each got about 3,500 votes, which means about 23% of the voters who cast ballots voted for them. In other words, each one carried their base – on the political right for Carla and on the political left for Danny – but they couldn’t cross over.

As I say, these are not new lessons. The Bonney campaign discovered – as the Camille Harris campaign learned in 2009 – that there is a difference between standing in front of Lowe’s getting people to sign a petition and getting people to cast their ballot for you. The Carrillo campaign learned – as Jerry Martin’s union-based campaign learned in 2007 and 2009 – that you can’t get elected in this town with union backing alone.

Knox, who finished fifth, also fell into this "no-crossover" trap. Bill is an extreme fiscal conservative – too extreme for me – but he’s also an genuine community-oriented guy. Unfortunately for him, the community-oriented aspect of Bill did not come across in the campaign and he wasn’t really the serious contender that many people thought he would be. Cozzens, on the other hand, is well known in town and had broad appeal -- more from the right than from the left, but still -- and that's why he did well.

The bottom line was that most voters ruled out the extremes on the left or right and were left to choose among the four who had crossover appeal – Heitmann, Morehouse, Weir, and Cozzens. The first three were bunched together at the top, with Cozzens doing well in the fourth spot. Which just goes to show you once again: Here in Ventura, if you leave it up to the voters, they’ll usually make the right decision.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Five Things to Think About When Voting on Tuesday -- and Three Candidates To Support

Tuesday is Election Day in Ventura. Your vote is really important in this election. Because we have off-year elections, turnout is low – about half what it is in other elections. That means your vote counts twice as much. Don't let somebody else decide who will sit on your City Council.

There are 11 candidates running for three seats on the city council. I am endorsing my council colleagues Christy Weir and Carl Morehouse for re-election and Cheryl Heitman for the seat I am vacating. The other 8 candidates are, in alphabetical order, Ed Alamillo, Marty Armstong, Melody Joy Baker, Carla Bonney, Danny Carrillo, Ken Cozzens, Bill Knox, and Brian Lee Rencher. (They appear in a different order on the ballot.) Most of these folks are probably familiar to you by now.

Before I explain why I have endorsed Christy, Carl, and Cheryl, let me talk a little about the things I think all of us as voters should take into account when we fill out our ballots. So here are my five commandments about voting.

First, don’t throw your vote away on somebody who isn’t going to win because you want to register a protest. People often do this because they are mad or because they want to send a message. This impulse is understandable, but what you’re really doing is letting somebody else decide who is going to be on the City Council.

Second, don’t vote for somebody because you know their name or they’re a nice guy or a familiar face. These are qualifications for a good neighbor, but they are not qualifications for a good city Council member. Vote for people you think are capable of understanding the issues and making good decisions.

Third, don’t vote for candidates who have a narrow or extreme agenda. Particularly in Ventura, which is a politically diverse city, good governance involves balancing lots of different interests to create an enduring consensus. Somebody with a narrow or extreme agenda may make a lot of noise, but he or she is likely to be ineffective at best.

Fourth, don’t vote for candidates who tell you that everything will be fine and you don’t have to sacrifice anything. It’s always tempting for politicians to say this, but it’s never true. Especially in this prolonged economic downturn, we have all had to sacrifice something – and these sacrifices will likely have to continue. Better to have councilmembers who understand this than councilmembers who deny it in order to be popular.

And fifth, please vote for candidates who can make tough decisions and stick with them. This economic downturn has lasted far longer and has had a much more lasting impact than any of us could have imagined three or four years ago. No matter what we do, it will be many years before we have as much revenue as we had in 2007 or 2008. This means we have to keep making tough decisions about what public services are most important, how to pay for them, and how to change things around so we can deliver them more cost-effectively. We cannot afford to have politicians looking for the easy way out on our City Council.

I support Christy, Carl, and Cheryl because I believe they are all committed to Ventura; they all understand our community well; and they are willing to make the tough decisions.

I’ve known and worked with all three of them for many years. Christy is tough-minded and community-oriented. Carl is hardworking and conscientious. Cheryl knows our community very well and understands how to bring people together. All are independent thinkers – exactly what we need in Ventura – and all will be able to make the tough decisions that will help us survive in the short term and improve our community in the long run.

Please vote on Tuesday. I hope you vote for Christy, Carl, and Cheryl, as I am doing. Please email me if you want to know more.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Realities of Ventura's Compensation

A couple of weeks ago in a letter to the VC Reporter, Ventura resident Meryl Wamhoff lambasted the City for a variety of supposed fiscal sins, including overcompensating executives, saddling Ventura taxpayers with the cost of Bell's egregious fiscal shenanigans, and not looking at ways to cut compensation in order to balance the budget. Unfortunately, Mr. Wamhoff's letter was incorrect on many counts. Here's the letter I wrote to the VCeporter (published this week) in response:

To The Editor:

Meryl Wamhoff’s letter lambasting reporter Shane Cohn for his perspective on government and taxes (“Just another liberal reporter…,” Letters, Sept. 1) certainly brought a provocative viewpoint to your pages. Unfortunately, Wamhoff was inaccurate in the claims he made about the city of Ventura. (“Tale of two taxes,” News, 8/11)

First, Wamhoff claims the taxpayers in Ventura will be footing part of the bill for the outrageous pensions of two top city of Bell employees, each of whom worked in Ventura early in their careers. This is not true, partly because of a proactive approach by the city of Ventura.

Ventura, along with other cities the pair subsequently worked for, supported a bill in the Legislature — almost certain to be signed by the governor in the next few weeks — that will force Bell, not Ventura or other cities, to foot the bill for their inflated pensions.

As it turns out, CalPERS, the state retirement agency, has already taken action to slash the pensions that were estimated in early press accounts. Instead of getting $411,000 a year, former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams will receive $268,000 — admitted, still a huge number but far less than it otherwise would be. Former Bell Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, who worked for Ventura in the 1980s, had her pension reduced from an estimated $250,000 per year to $43,000 per year.

Secondly, Wamhoff asserts that Ventura “overcompensates its public employees.” In fact, however, Ventura’s pay scales are much lower than surrounding jurisdictions, such as the cities of Oxnard and Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara County. City Manager Rick Cole makes $172,000 a year in base salary, which is about $60,000 less than his counterparts in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, and $100,000 less than the city manager of Oxnard. City Attorney Ariel Calonne makes about $190,000 a year, which his $30,000-$40,000 less than most of his counterparts around the county. Both recently took a 7 percent pay cut to contribute to their pension costs. So Wamhoff is wrong in asserting that we “never once considered that the compensation packages for these bureaucrats are too generous.” It was the first thing we considered and we acted on it.

This same pay difference is true up and down the organization. I really appreciate the loyalty and dedication of our city employees, but we frequently lose them to Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Santa Barbara County, all of which pay 10-20 percent more than Ventura does. Over time, this could cause Ventura to become a “farm team” for these other jurisdictions — something that will surely harm our city government’s ability to get the job done, and something I believe no one in Ventura wants.

Wamhoff is right to be concerned about the compensation and retirement obligations of government agencies these days. It is a major concern to all of us in public life. And I understand that if Wamhoff believes the compensation of all government employees generally is too high, then he’s likely to think that Ventura pays too much no matter what the pay scale is.

It is wrong, however, to single out Ventura as an example of government’s financial problems, when we have worked much harder than other jurisdictions to be both moderate and fair in our approach to compensation and retirement.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

City Council Candidate Forums Coming Up!

Here's information about all the City Council candidate forums:

1.Thursday, September 22: Social Services Task Force, 6:30 pm, Ventura Church of Christ, 5401 Bryn Mawr.

2. Wednesday, September 28: Mobile Homeowners, 2 pm. Marina Mobile Home Park, 1215 Anchors Way Clubhouse

3. Wednesday, September 28: Westside Community Council, 7 pm. EP Foster School, 20 Pleasant Place.

4. Tuesday, October 4: VCCOOL, 6 pm., WAV Gallery, 175 S. Ventura Ave.

5. Wednesday, October 5: San Buenaventura Foundation for the Arts, 6:30 pm., Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St.

6. Tuesday, October 11: League of Women Voters, 7 pm, Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Road

7. Thursday, October 13: Midtown Community Council, 7 pm, Grace Church (Cooper Hall) 65 s. Macmillan Ave.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The New CMH: Key To Our Quality of Life -- And Our Prosperity

A few weeks ago I came into the mayor’s office on a Monday morning and found a huge stack of pretty intimidating documents to sign. They were, of course, the papers authorizing the city to work with Community Memorial Hospital to sell $350 million in bonds – to be paid back by CMH’s revenues, not by the city’s taxpayers -- in order to finance the enormous expansion and upgrade now underway at the hospital’s site in Midtown.

If you’ve ever bought a house or a car, you know that nothing focuses the mind like signing your name to a bunch of documents. But when the bonds went on the market, they were sold in a matter of minutes and – as the mounds of dirt near the hospital attest – construction has begun. Last Wednesday night, I was proud to participate in a moving groundbreaking featuring 14 speakers – patients, doctors, nurses, volunteers, construction workers – whose lives have been changed by their association with CMH. The whole experience has reinforced for me the notion that CMH is a cornerstone of our community – not only our qualify of life but our prosperity as well.

The CMH expansion is probably the biggest construction project we will ever see in Ventura. (By contrast, the Pacific View Mall expansion back in 2000 was about $100 million.) It may also be the most important. Although the expansion was driven by state law requiring hospitals to retrofit their buildings for seismic safety, CMH has gone far beyond that goal. The expansion will actually allow CMH to serve as one of the most important drivers of our community’s prosperity and well-being for decades to come, in three different ways.

  1. High-quality medical care

Between CMH and Ventura County Medical Center, we in Ventura already have extraordinarily high-quality medical care already. These two institutions have strong connections to great medical schools at UCLA and USC, and each specializes in different aspects of medical care. But the new CMH will be a huge leap beyond the status quo – private rooms, a 35-bed emergency room, a serene garden in which to walk and heal, and a state-of-the-art medical facility that will be as good as any of its size in the United States. Thanks to this expansion, all of us in Ventura can be assured of great medical care for the rest of our lives.

2. High-quality jobs

Obviously, CMH currently provides hundreds of good-paying jobs for people who live and work in Ventura – doctors, nurses, technicians of all kinds, and on and on. But the new CMH creates a whole net set of opportunities that hold the potential to create spinoff businesses and great jobs for decades to come. Over the past few years in Ventura, we have put a great deal of effort into pinpointing and focusing on growth sectors of the economy – most of which have an important technology components. For example, our Ventura Ventures Technology Center has focused on emerging web-oriented businesses spilling out of Santa Barbara. Another sector we must focus on is biotechnology, and the new CMH can help us become more competitive. The biotech sector in Ventura County is strong – after all, Amgen is the largest private company in the county and one of the largest biotech companies in the world – and we in Ventura are currently missing out on important spinoff opportunities there. By using part of the old hospital building to create wet lab space and other facilities for startups, CMH can help Ventura kickstart our biotech sector. CMH can also serve as a testbed for clinical trials – thus combining the best of research and clinical work, which are both required to develop and test new products, build companies, and create good jobs. This opportunity is often overlooked in talking about the CMH expansion, but I can’t emphasize how important it is to our community’s long-term prosperity.

  1. Midtown revitalization

CMH has long been an anchor in Midtown’s “Five Points” neighborhood, as the hospital’s employees and visitors have patronized businesses and thus helped the neighborhood economy. In planning for the new hospital, CMH has done an amazing job of collaborating with the city and the neighborhood to create an expansion that is sensitive to the neighborhood (there was no neighborhood opposition) and will strengthen Midtown’s business base. A new parking garage will be created collaboratively by the hospital to serve both CMH and businesses on Main Street. Most important, CMH will now serve not just as the economic anchor. . The new hospital will be oriented toward Main Street with a lovely plaza. CMH will surrender its Brent Street address and replace it with a Main Street address. A plaza and new pedestrian connections will link the hospital to Main Street. CMH has worked hard to help make Five Points in Ventura’s “Second Downtown” – a well-planned and pleasant employment district that will have strong retail businesses benefiting everyone in town.

I have to admit that when I was first elected to the City Council eight years ago, I didn’t think much about the importance of Community Memorial Hospital. Like most people, I thought about the effect it has had on my lives – the many emergency room visits, the times my mother was treated there (and eventually she passed away there), and so forth. But in world where competition for prosperity is tough, every community has to identify its greatest assets and learn how to make the most of them. CMH is one of our greatest assets – and I am very grateful to CEO Gary Wilde and everyone else for all the hard work they have put in. I wouldn’t have missed the groundbreaking for the world. And I hope to be there for the grand opening in a couple of years – so we can see just how much a better CMH means a better Ventura.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Make Sure We Keep Our Young Families in Ventura

A few weeks ago, I went out to Temple Beth Torah to observe a service honoring eight 16-year-olds who were finishing the Temple’s confirmation class. It was an emotional evening for me, because these kids are the last of the cohort I have known at the Temple for many years – the younger brothers and sisters of the kids who grew up with my college-age daughter.

It is also, sadly, the kind of event that doesn’t occur nearly as much as it used here in Ventura. The truth is that, as much as we love Ventura as a family, the number of children – and young people generally – is on the decline. And as a community we are getting older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010:

-- The number of children age 0-9 in Ventura declined by 11%.

-- The number of people between 30 and 50 – typically the parents of school-age children – declined by 10%.

-- The number of people over the age of 50 increased by almost 30%

To a certain extent, these statistics reflect a national and statewide trend toward a “graying” population. It’s also reflective of coastal cities throughout California, where the number of families and children is in decline.

More than anything, however, it might simply suggest a lack of turnover in Ventura’s population. Our kids are growing up and moving away and the rest of us are just getting older and staying here. I’m a good example: In the 2000 Census, I was in the 30-50 age category with a child at home. Now I’m an over-50 empty nester. (At least I was until a few weeks ago, when my Boomerang Daughter returned home … but that’s another story.) We don’t move away when we retire, because we already live in a great place to retire; and since we control new development strictly there aren’t many opportunities for new families to move in.

There was one bright spot in the Census: The number of people age 20-29 in Ventura went up 16%, a much higher figure than we saw statewide. This is a wonderful twist on the longstanding trend of kids from Ventura going away to college and never coming back. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess there are two reasons for this bright spot. The first is that kids who grew up in town are sticking around because they can now go to college locally, especially at Cal State Channel Islands. The second is that young people from elsewhere are drawn to Ventura by the lifestyle and the growing opportunity for interesting jobs in our emerging economic sectors such as high-tech.

Like Ventura, mature communities all over the country are struggling because they can’t keep the people they need to fill important jobs and to give the community a family-oriented vitality. But the rise of the twenty-somethings here in town gives us an opportunity to reverse the trend. If we can hang on to these folks over the next 10 years, then they’ll stay here a long time and raise their families here.

But that’s not just going to happen. In order to keep our young families, we need to nurture the things that young families need – schools, jobs, and housing. We’ve already got the schools. Ventura Unified is an excellent school district with many choices – magnet and charter schools. We also have very good Catholic and Christian schools as well.

As for jobs, we’re working hard on creating a whole new sector of jobs in the “new economy” – high-tech, web development, and related companies that can provide stable, long-term employment. That’s why I’m so encouraged about the fact that our twenty-something population is on the rise. I think they’re coming to town – or staying in town after college – to work in these emerging businesses. We must continue our efforts to grow these private-sector businesses so that young families will have stable jobs.

That leaves housing. It’s true that, for the moment, housing in Ventura seems affordable. But it’s still expensive, especially compared with other places where young families might live. The median home price in Ventura in July was $327,000. That’s down 16% from last year, but it’s still way higher than the state average of $252,000 and more than double the cost of housing in the inland locations where young families typically move these days, like Bakersfield, the Inland Empire, and Las Vegas.

In the long run, we will have to be aggressive in making sure that there is enough housing – and the right kind of housing – for our young families to buy. That probably means building more townhomes and large, high-quality condominiums, because the families won’t be able to afford single-family homes as we did. It also means building more move-down housing for seniors – not just assisted living, but smaller units for older folks in places like downtown, where you don’t have to drive much. Because part of the problem, of course, is that we older folks are sitting on our larger houses even though we don’t have families. More move-down housing will encourage longtime Venturans to move out of their houses and stay in town – and also free up single-family housing for young families to buy so that we don’t have to build more sprawl to keep them in town.

In part, we can’t avoid the fact that we are an aging country, an aging state, and an aging city. We’re lucky that our health is better than our parents and we will be able to enjoy life – and also contribute to our community – far longer than they did. But Ventura remains – as it always has been – a great family town. We all need to work together to make sure that lots of people of all ages enjoy living here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Measure J Was Illegal -- And Too Extreme For Ventura

By now, everyone in town has heard that last Monday Judge Mark Borrell removed the parking initiative from Ventura’s local ballot in November.

The right to vote on public issues is important to us here in Ventura. Our city has a long history of citizen-driven ballot measures, including SOAR in 1995. Sometimes these initiatives have won, as SOAR did, and sometimes they have lost, as did the convoluted “view protection” initiative on the ballot in 2009. So it’s understandable that some people are mad that Measure J will not be on the ballot and will try to make the Judge’s ruling an issue in the City Council campaign this fall. At the same time a lot of people are relieved -- and look forward to a City Council campaign that focuses on more important issues than parking meters.

But before things heat up in the City Council race, I think it’s important to step back and understand two important points.

First, whether you like it or not, the right to vote on local issues is defined by state law. And in this case, Measure J clearly violated state law.

Second, no matter how you feel about the downtown parking meters, Measure J was a very extreme measure. In addition to removing the downtown meters, Measure J would have required 2/3 voter approval for any future attempt to charge for parking on city streets and any city-owned property.


Let’s begin with the first question: Why did Judge Borrell removed Measure J from the ballot?

We in California revere the right to initiative (where citizens place legislation on the ballot) and referendum (where citizens seek to overturn a City Council action via the ballot). Yet the California Constitution doesn’t permit us to vote on everything. For example, we can vote on legislative changes (like changing zoning ordinance to prohibit liquor stores in certain parts of town) but we can’t vote on how a law is applied to individual situations (like whether or not to grant a conditional use permit to a particular liquor store). That’s not me talking. That’s what the California Constitution says and how the courts have interpreted it.

More to the point, Ventura’s voters do not have the right to adopt an ordinance that conflicts with state law, any more than the City Council does.

While it’s very unusual for a ballot initiative to be removed from the ballot before it is voted on, courts have consistently confirmed that if an initiative is obviously unlawful there is no point in holding an election.

Which is what happened with Measure J. Measure J was a ballot initiative that would have removed parking meters and required future on-street and off-street parking decisions to be decided by the voters, not the City Council. That directly contradicts California Vehicle Code Section 22508 which states that parking meter actions are only subject to referendum – the right to veto City Council actions. California law does not allow voters to make parking laws of their own by an initiative, because doing so would make it difficult for a city to respond to traffic problems in a timely fashion. The exclusion of parking meters from the initiative process was tested in court and has been settled law since the Sixties.

In short: Carla Bonney, the local Tea Party leader who has been Measure J’s main proponent, could have gathered signatures to challenge the City Council’s action to install the paking meters at the time the decision was made (via referendum). But she was prohibited by state law from writing her own initiative law to govern local parking regulations.

All this seemed very clear to our City Attorney and to a majority of the City Council, which concluded it had no other option than to test Measure J’s validity in court. The proponents, of course, claimed that the lawsuit was seeking to “thwart the will of the people”. Yet they never really addressed the fatal defect: that their initiative ran afoul of the law.

In her statements before the City Council, Bonney did not seem to know the difference between a referendum and an initiative. In her interpretation, any ballot measure was a referendum until it was placed on the ballot, at which time the measure would become an initiative. She also repeatedly dismissed the long-standing California case law that forbids parking initiatives simply because the cases were old.

In court, the proponents argument was that the Vehicle Code didn’t apply to parking meters since they claimed the parking meters were not intended to control traffic. Instead, she argued that the City was really trying to create a “fee monopoly” with the paid parking system downtown. (I’m not sure how you create a monopoly by charging for 300 spaces when there are 2,000 nearby spaces that are free, but anyway, that was the argument.) It was a convoluted argument and Judge Borrell didn’t buy it. Instead, he followed the clear precedents of long-settled law.

That’s why Measure J was removed from the ballot,


It seems to me that the legal defects in the initiative itself were related to the way the whole anti-meter movement morphed over time. The movement began with concern by some downtown merchants that their business would be hurt by the meters. By the time it reached the ballot, it had changed into an effort driven mostly by members of the local Tea Party who claimed that American freedoms were at risk.

When the paid parking first went in, I attended a couple of meetings of local merchants who were understandably fearful that their business would be hurt. These meetings were attended by about 15 merchants (out of the approximately 160 merchants downtown.) In response, the city made significant changes: removing some of the meters, reducing the hours that the paid parking was in effect, and providing thousands of one-hour-free coupons during the Christmas season. Although we discussed other possible changes, even the concerned merchants could not agree on which to implement.

Meanwhile, the City used the money from the meters to heavily beef up the police presence downtown – with impressive results. Since last fall, downtown crime is down 40%. Retail sales actually increased – by about 3% over the prior year, despite an ailing economy. When downtown merchants had a strong Christmas season, most of them stopped complaining about the meters.

From the beginning, however, members of the local Tea Party championed the parking meters as their political issue. Led by Carla Bonney and Gary Parker, who owned American Flag & Cutlery on Main Street, they claimed the parking meters constituted an illegal tax. As it became clear that downtown had not become “a ghost town” (as some claimed) but in fact was doing well, the entire argument against the meters shifted away from the impact on downtown merchants and toward a Tea Party crusade.

Indeed, when Carla, Gary, and Randall Richman (who's not a Tea Party guy) unveiled their initiative last spring, it went far beyond removal of the meters downtown. It would have required 2/3 voter approval anytime the City wished to charge for parking on any city street or city-owned property. This extreme provision had wide-reaching implications. It would make it nearly impossible for the City to build another parking garage downtown. It would make it very difficult for the City to partner with Community Memorial Hospital in building parking for the expanded hospital. Neighborhoods that hoped to use parking revenue to improve their parks, as at Marina Park, would be out of luck. Even neighborhoods that wanted residential permit parking, as around the hospital, would have to win a 2/3 citywide vote because the City charges $10 per year for the permits.

Carla and her team worked hard and collected over 10,000 signatures. Most of those were undoubtedly local residents concerned about downtown parking meters. But in order to secure the signatures, the signature-gatherers frequently used arguments that were just plain untrue (such as the idea that the City Council wanted to charge astronomical parking fees for everyone in town to park in front of their own house.) But the signature-gatherers rarely mentioned the 2/3 provision to voters.

Tea Party representatives began appearing before the City Council to claim that parking meters were just the beginning of a comprehensive plan to implement the United Nations’ Agenda 21 effort to promote on sustainable development, which they believe is a worldwide plot to undermine private property and threaten other freedoms. (Tea Partiers around the nation have attacked local planning policies by using Agenda 21 as well.)

Once the initiative qualified for the ballot, it became quite clear that the whole effort had turned into e campaign by Tea Party activists to galvanize support for their political agenda.


Much as I admire Carla’s tenaciousness and her impressive signature-gathering effort, I just never believed she and her supporters were really in touch with Ventura’s voters. Sure, people are skeptical of government – and rightfully so. But do folks around town really think that the City Council is planning to charge people astronomical prices to park in front of their own house? Or that we are part of a vast United Nations conspiracy to rob us of our freedoms because we charge for 300 parking spaces Downtown? I think voters are far more concerned about maintaining our vital public services so that Ventura will be safe, clean city that’s a great place to live.

This is a small town, and I can tell you from personal experience that Ventura’s voters – while cautious – are nevertheless practical. They like their elected officials to be local folks in touch with what’s really going on in town, not with some imagined, extreme threat. Venturans may be receptive to the fiscal conservatism of Tea Party folks – and with good reason -- but they don’t usually fall for hyperbole, half-truths, or overheated conspiracy theories.

I’m not running for re-election this fall, but it seems to me that the 11 people who are in the City Council race would do well to remember the lessons of the whole Measure J episode. Instead of focusing on the few issues we disagree on, let’s debate who can best move us forward on the 95% of things that we do agree on. Let’s bear in mind that, while we live in a democracy, we are a nation, and a state, and a city of laws and we must respect those laws even when we don’t particularly like them. And in trying to make our community better, let’s focus on the practical steps that will move us forward – things that will, for example, reduce crime downtown – rather than getting sidetracked by the idea that parking meters in downtown Ventura are part of a United Nations plot to take over our community.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why I've Decided Not To Run Again

Eight years ago, I stood on the steps of City Hall and announced that I was running for the City Council. Today I am writing to let you know that I have decided to step down and not run for a third term this fall. It’s been a great ride – I love being on the City Council, and I especially love being Mayor. I am very grateful that you have given me the opportunity to serve you.

When I made the decision to run eight years ago, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a career politician, either by “moving up the food chain” to higher office or “being somebody” locally by occupying a seat on the City Council forever. I ran because I wanted to work with the community on some very specific changes that I believed were needed to move Ventura in a positive direction – ensuring long-term prosperity, conserving our open space and improving our downtown and our neighborhoods, maintaining and improving public safety, and most of all opening up City Hall so that our city government could be more transparent and accountable to the people it serves.

After two terms in office – including one stint as mayor and another as deputy mayor –I’m proud of the positive changes we have made. The “growth wars” of the ‘90s and early ‘00s are mostly behind us. We have far more stability in our city’s leadership than we used to. City Hall is, indeed, far more open and transparent than it used to be, and we are engaged in many more partnerships with the community at large.

Most important, we’ve dealt responsibly with a major financial crisis – one that nobody anticipated when I first ran back in 2003. Although we have had to cut services more than I would have liked, we took swift, early action to maintain a balanced budget. That’s why we do not face the deep financial problems currently confronting many of our surrounding cities.

I haven’t accomplished everything I set out to do, but I am proud to have done my share to help move things forward in many positive ways over the past eight years; and anyway no elected office-holder ever accomplishes every goal. It’s important to have experience and stability on the council, and during my time we’ve had both – a big change from the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when there was a lot of turnover. But I never intended to serve more than two terms, and I do sometimes worry that I will get stale in office.

I have to admit that personal considerations play an important role in this decision. I had a rich and fulfilling life before politics – professional, civic, personal -- and I am looking forward to focusing more on all of those activities again. In particular, I believe it is necessary for me to focus far more attention on my personal health, especially the ongoing loss of my eyesight.

As I revealed in a blog more than a year ago, I suffer from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, a deterioration of the retina that is gradually diminishing my peripheral vision and night vision. There is no way to know how quickly RP will rob anyone of their eyesight; and there is no treatment or cure. Anybody who has spent time with me in the last couple of years knows that this condition is becoming worse and that I am struggling to adjust to it. But the demands on my time as mayor have prevented me from focusing on how to make the transition to living life as a low-vision person. For my own well-being and the well-being of those I love, it is time for me to focus more fully on making this transition successfully.

In many ways, it is hard to leave office at such a difficult time. Over the past few years, we have had to cut our service levels to a point that most of us on the council are not comfortable with. We have been extremely fiscally responsible – moreso than most of our neighbors – but we must begin the effort to restore and reinvent our services, so that we never again have to face the difficult choices we have had to make in the past few years. As the current chair of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I am working on organizational and service changes for public transit that should benefit the county greatly, and I wish I could see them through. The same is true for libraries. Our libraries have taken a big hit in recent years, and I believe our current library planning process will yield great results. When the real estate market comes back, I believe we will begin to see fabulous new development projects downtown and elsewhere and it would be great to be on the Council when that finally occurs.

But when you’re an incumbent, you can always come up with an excuse to run for office again. It’s much harder to look beyond the office you hold and envision the many other ways you might be able to help your community. In deciding whether to run again, I have thought long and hard about what role I might play once I leave office. Ventura has a long history of community service on the part of retired mayors and councilmembers and I look forward to joining my predecessors in playing that role. Beyond that, I believe that there are now unprecedented opportunities for everyone in the community – former mayor or not – to participate in moving our community forward.

In the old days, a constituency that wanted something – a park, a transportation program, an arts program, a construction project -- simply lobbied the City Council, putting the City on the hook for organizing, planning, funding, and running the whole thing. We as a community can no longer afford to operate this way, and one of the great accomplishments of the last few years has been to partner with others in the community to move things forward. We have, for example, partnered with community nonprofits to keep the downtown senior center open, to plan the future of Grant Park, and to maintain and renew our beloved ArtWalk. The City and the community will be partnering frequently in the future. I hope to work with you in many of these efforts during my five remaining months as mayor -- and in the years ahead after I leave office.

First and foremost is the effort to use our upcoming 150th anniversary in 2016 as a “target” to improve our community. As I suggested in my State of the City address in February, we are now in the process of creating a community-based committee to discuss what our community’s goals over the next five years should be and how we can achieve those goals.

Beyond the 2016 effort, there are many other ongoing issues in our community that I am really interested in and hope to continue working on. These include our business incubator and Ventura’s “new economy”, transportation and public transit, arts and culture, planning and development, and arts, culture and libraries. And I think it’s a safe bet that I will become more active as and advocate for disabled persons – which, in my mind, is really just a way to advocate to eliminate physical barriers to mobility for all people.

As I said above, no office-holder accomplishes everything he or she sets out to do, and any politician can always come up with an excuse to run again. I view my decision to step down not so much as an end to my involvement in Ventura, but simply as a transition into a different role where I can continue to help make our community better. I love Ventura more than ever, and I will continue to do everything I can to pursue the two goals for Ventura that I have always had – enduring prosperity and a high quality of life. Thanks for the opportunity to serve you on the City Council and as Mayor. I look forward to working with you as mayor between now and December – I promise I will put my foot to the floor to get things done – and I look forward to working with you for many more years to come.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Weekend Update: Why Ventura Is Special

In writing about what it’s like to be mayor, it seems like I often come back to one particular theme: Ventura’s remarkable ability to pull together and accomplish things in ways that other cities just can’t.

So often I see this in action on the weekends. During the week, a mayor’s day is filled with meetings, conversations, gatherings that are very focused on specific issues. People come to you to complain about things or ask for things. But on weekends it’s different. That’s when I get to see Ventura at its best.

Last weekend (the weekend of June 4-5) was no exception.

My Saturday began by heading down to the Westside – specifically, the large vacant lot on the corner of Ventura Avenue and Kellogg Street, where our city folks were working with the Westside Community Council, E.J. Harrison, and dozens of volunteers in doing a Westside cleanup day. It was a remarkable effort that brought our Westside community together in so many different ways.

Often when we do a “cleanup day” – as we have recently done at the baech, Downtown and in Midtown – it consists mostly of picking up trash, scraping gum off the sidewalk, and things like that. These efforts not only beautify the community but also help limit the flow of trash into the rivers and the ocean.

The Westside effort was a little different – but with the same intent. With Harrison’s help, Westside volunteers and our folks set up dumpsters and recycling locations on the Kellogg site. Anybody who wanted to bring large items to dump could do so. The response was amazing. When the event started at 9 a.m., there was a line of cars around the block.

Now, at first glance, the sight of a bunch of cars idling in a neighborhood on Saturday morning to dump off mattresses, refrigerators, and other such items might not seem like truly a community event. But it was truly amazing. First, there were dozens of people volunteering to help haul and sort the trash and recycling material. And second, the people who were bringing their stuff were really helping the neighborhood and the community. Not only were they cleaning out their garages (and, in some cases, their yards), but they were also properly disposing of items that might otherwise wind up on the street or in the riverbottom.

In a world with so much “stuff,” it can be a constant battle to keep our city clean and beautiful. Just as important, however, is keeping trash out of the rivers and the ocean. Dumping trash in the riverbottom harms water quality – and also subjects the City and its taxpayers to possible fines from the Regional Water Quality Board of thousands of dollars a day. The Westside Cleanup Day built community pride and teamwork, made our city more attractive, and saved the taxpayers a lot of money.

Then on Sunday morning, I went down to Figueroa Plaza – across from the Mission – to watch and participate in the filming of saxophonist Dave Koz’s new music video for his cover of the Burt Bacharach chesnut, “This Guy’s In Love With You.” It’s a beautiful version of this wonderful old song. The video is designed to support marriage equality, and a lot of people came from all over the state to support that cause. In the process, however, lots of folks participated in a fun community event – as we all walked and swirled around Dave while he walked up Figueroa Plaza and lip-synched the song. Lots of folks said they had never been to Ventura before and would definitely come back; while many locals had a great time. Thanks so much to Dave and videomaker Graham Streeter for picking Ventura! And, oh yeah – thanks to legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert and his wife Lonnie Hall for stopping by to do a cameo!

Then, on Sunday afternoon, it was my privilege to attend the memorial service for Nick Haverland at Arroyo Verde Park. As everyone now knows, Nick was the promising 20-year-old kid – about to go off to Hawaii to study ethnobotany – who was killed by drunk driver on Telegraph Road a few weeks ago. I’ve written before about how Nick’s tragic death has brought so many of us in our community together But Sunday’s memorial service – attended by hundreds of people despite the rain – told this story better than I ever could.

Nick always said that nature was his religion, and so everybody said the rain was fine because Nick would have preferred it. There were several beautiful musical pieces, including a clarinet quartet from Cabrillo Middle School directed by Mario Boccali, who was Nick’s music instructor (and my daughter’s as well); in addition, Kyle McCormick, son of Jackson Brown bassist and producer Kevin McCormick, sang a moving song accompanied by his father. Then there were the eulogies and remembrances, from family friend Steve Svete, his aunts, and especially his friends Dylan Blossom and Henry Geerlings. Henry’s low-key, self-effacing talk was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was the friend riding bikes with Nick when Nick was killed. (There’s a beautiful photo of Henry in front of a stunning image of Nick at Two Trees on the Star web site.

I cannot hope, in these few words, to recreate the emotion and love that Nick’s memory brought to Arroyo Verde Park yesterday. All I can say is that it was the third event I attended over the weekend that reminded me why Ventura is such a special place. I truly believe most communities cannot accomplish the things we do here. As I was driving back from Nick’s memorial, I glanced eastward and saw Two Trees shrouded in a misty fog – a gorgeous sight – and remembered why everything we do is worth it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

All Aboard For East Ventura

The other day, I boarded Metrolink Train 119 to return home from Downtown Los Angeles. The train was bound for a place called “East Ventura”.

Ever since Metrolink first came to Ventura a decade ago, the trains have stopped at a station in the Montalvo neighborhood, off of Victoria Avenue just north of Highway 101. This isn’t necessarily the best location in town for a Metrolink station. though it is an easy drive for 50,000 residents who live east of Victoria. But the truth of the matter is that the Montalvo rail siding was where the trains were stored overnight after they finished their run in Oxnard. So it made sense to take place where they were stored and turn it into a formal station. It’s also the starting point for a possible rail line through Santa Paula and Fillmore all the way to Santa Clarita.

The station has always been called “Montalvo”. Montalvo is a venerated neighborhood in Ventura; some of it is inside the Ventura city limits and some is not. I’ve spent a lot of time in Montalvo over the years. I’ve thrown out the first pitch in the Montalvo Little League two years in a row, and I’ve had lots of friends who live in Ventura and/or teach at Montalvo Elementary School.

So, while Montalvo is a very important neighborhood, the name really doesn’t convey a true sense of where the Ventura County Metrolink line goes. When you’re standing at Union Station in Downtown L.A. looking at the board, you see the names of the bigger cities that define Southern California: Riverside, San Bernardino, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Burbank, Glendale, Santa Clarita, Oxnard. You can take an Amtrak train to Ventura (the stop is at the Fairgrounds) but traditionally there was no way to decipher that if you got on the Montalvo train you were going anywhere near Ventura. Unless you knew where Montalvo was.

A couple of months ago, in my capacity as Chair of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I asked Metrolink to change the name of the station from “Montalvo” to “East Ventura”. That way, riders in Downtown L.A. know that they’re going to Ventura – but they also know they are not going to the “Ventura” stop on Amtrak, which of course is in a different location. Metrolink made this earlier this month. Right now, to avoid confusion, the boards at Union Station say: “East Ventura/Montalvo”.

Things still aren’t perfect, of course. Ventura is still the only City in the entire Metrolink system – 130 stops – where Amtrak and Metrolink stop in different places. I’d love to see Metrolink come downtown to the Fairgrounds, but there are quite a number of logistical difficulties. For one thing, the East Ventura stop is essentially on different rail line, so Metrolink can’t just start at the Fairgrounds, stop at East Ventura, and move on to Oxnard. In addition, the rail line is single track throughout Ventura, meaning Metrolink would have to get to the Fairgrounds and back without running into conflicts with Amtrak or freight trains run by Union Pacific (which owns the tracks).

Still, I’m hopeful. The City is just starting on a new phase of our study looking at the possibility of capping the 101 Freeway at California (the study is being paid for by the Southern California Association of Governments). We’re hopeful that if the freeway were ever capped, we could create double-tracking or a siding that would form the basis for a multi-modal transit center, where trains and buses come together in one location.

For now, I’ll take whatever small victories I can get. And taking the train to East Ventura is definitely a win.

Working Together With Our Neighborhoods

Back in the early ‘90s, a group of citizens in the neighborhood then known simply as “The Avenue” got together and decided that their neighborhood had not gotten enough attention over the years. So they formed a neighborhood organization to advocate for their community. They even gave their neighborhood a new name – the Westside – because they believed “The Avenue” had developed too many negative connotations over the years.

Almost 20 years later, the Westside Community Council is still going strong in advocating for the Westside – and over the years City Hall has responded. Most recently, we have been working on a Community Plan for the Westside area that will – after some 15 years of uncertainly – make the rules clear for new development and also identify the priorities for public investment on the Westside (if and when we have the money to make those investments).

And there are six other community councils in Ventura as well – representing Downtown, Midtown, Pierpont, the Harbor, the College District, and East Ventura. These are truly grassroots organizations.

We have great neighborhoods in Ventura, but they’ve taken a beating as we have had to reduce services in the last few years. The Community Councils help to foster neighborhood pride and engage in grassroots activity to make these neighborhoods better. I’m proud to do whatever I can to support our Community Councils and make our neighborhoods better. I meet every couple of months with the chairs of these Councils, and we are planning Ventura’s first-ever Neighborhood Summit this summer.

With the exception of the Downtown Ventura organization – created with the City’s help – these groups were formed by the people who live and work in their neighborhoods and they have crafted their own role.

For example, the Midtown Ventura Community Council often reviews and comments on pending development projects in Midtown, and it was partly because of the Community Council that Community Memorial Hospital’s large expansion project is so neighborhood-oriented and passed with so much neighborhood support.

The Pierpont Community Council has been at the forefront of the thorny sand removal issues that affect the Pierpont, and the College District Community Council was formed in response to many changes in the neighborhood, including spreading homeless issues and the loss of Wright Library. The College District organization has become an important venue for dialogue between Ventura College and surrounding neighborhoods.

None of these organizations receive a penny from the City. We do try to help them as much as possible. For example, Police Department staff often attends Community Council meetings – a vital information exchange about crime and safety issues in the neighborhoods that helps neighbors know how to stay safe and helps the police learn what problems are occurring. Our transportation engineers, parks staff, and other folks often attend the meetings as well to provide information and also stay on top of neighborhood issues.

And our Community Partnerships staff is working with the Community Councils to find private, philanthropic support for what we are calling a Neighborhood Improvements Matching Grant program. This program would allow for the City's various Community Councils to apply for matching grants to fund improvement projects in their districts. This would be a huge step forward in helping our neighborhoods help themselves to become better – and protect the neighborhoods that everyone in town loves.