Saturday, October 18, 2014

Vote Yes on Measures D and E

Ventura is a city of more than 100,000 people and 60,000 registered voters. Yet when I was first elected to the Ventura City Council 11 years ago, I received only 8,000 votes – and I won in a landslide.

In other words, I was the runaway winner in that election, but only about 13% of Ventura’s registered voters cast their votes for me. Every time I went out in the community, most of the people I talked to hadn’t voted for me—or­ against me. Is it any wonder that most Venturans didn’t feel connected to City Hall – no matter what we did?

In a typical Ventura City Council election, only 25% to 35% of registered voters cast ballots at all. But Measure D on the November ballot can change that situation for the better, simply by switching the timing of the election. If Measure D passes, municipal elections will be switched from odd years to even years. They’ll coincide with state and national elections and voter turnout will double – at least. (Measure E would make the same change for Ventura Unified School Board elections.)

That’s why I favor Measure D (and Measure E as well) and I hope you will vote “yes” on both measures in the upcoming election.

I can tell you from personal experience that city government doesn’t work when people don’t vote.

Much more than Congress or the state legislature, the city government is a part of people’s daily lives. In Ventura, your city government provides you with water and sewer service, runs the parks and recreation programs, ensures your safety with police officers and firefighters, paves your street, trims your street trees, and does lots of other things that you can touch and feel on a daily basis. The city government is not an alien force, as the federal government often seems. It is an extension of your life, your home, and your neighborhood in a very intimate way.

In order for the relationship between Ventura’s residents and City Hall to work well, people have to feel invested in their government – that they have helped to shape it and that they are partners with each other and with City Hall in helping to ensure that every resident has what they want and need.

But if people don’t vote, then they’re not invested. They may view themselves as “customers” of the city – “buying” water or recreation programs or tree trimming. As such they won’t be afraid to complain when something goes wrong. But they won’t view themselves as “citizens” participating in the process of creating the municipal government that provides them with the services they need.

I wish it didn’t matter when Ventura’s elections were held. I wish all Ventura’s residents would vote in the municipal elections. But that’s not what happens. Here’s what statistics on the Ventura County Registrar of Voters web site tell us:

-- In the last three even-year elections (2008, 2010, 2012) combined, voter turnout has been 74%.

-- In the last three odd-year elections (2009, 2011, 2013) combined, voter turnout has been 27%.

The main argument against Measure D is that our local issues will get lost in the shuffle of big state and national elections. I think it’s pretty clear that this assertion isn’t true. Every other city in Ventura County holds even-year municipal elections. They’re lively affairs and they get a lot of publicity. They don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Governing a city is a covenant between the voters and the elected officials. If people don’t vote, it’s hard for the elected officials to honor that covenant – or even know what that covenant includes. Please strengthen this covenant between the people of Ventura and their elected officials by voting in favor of Measures D and E this fall.


William Fulton, a former Mayor and City Councilmember in Ventura, is now Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Updating the Infill Strategy in Ventura

On Monday, the Ventura City Council is scheduled to begin discussing possible changes to the city’s long-standing "infill first" growth policies. It’s a good time for this discussion.
Our general plan was adopted eight years ago, conditions have changed significantly, the real estate market is beginning to come back, and the city is getting ready to embark on a process to update that general plan.

The one thing that has not changed is Ventura’s commitment to slow, careful growth in an infill context. Dating back to the Seize The Future Community Vision in the late ’90s, the people of Ventura had made it clear:

They don’t want the city to grow outward. Instead, they want high-quality new development in selected locations, especially in the downtown and along commercial corridors, that strengthens both our economy and our quality of life.

So the City Council should approach revisions to the infill first approach carefully, using a scalpel to make revisions rather than a meat ax that will improve the quality of infill development and make it easier for developers to do the right thing.

Here are some things the city council should consider:

1. Consider a "tiered" approach to allowable project size if a developer offers community benefits.

Some communities permit larger projects in exchange for additional community benefits — affordable housing, open space, neighborhood amenities, and the like. Ventura should consider this approach, though the city should proceed carefully to ensure that the community benefit requirements are clear and consistently applied.

2. Conduct pre-screens on large projects but do so selectively.

Pre-screens — the practice of requiring front-loaded review of development concepts by the Planning Commission and the City Council — are politically tempting but burdensome on both developers and the city’s staff.

Ventura should use the pre-screen approach selectively — for example, when a developer is requesting a general plan change, a zone change, a significant variance or a large project in exchange for community benefits. Pre-screen requirements should be made as simple as possible to reduce the burden on developers and staff while at the same time providing the city with the information necessary to make a good decision.

3. Adopt a single parking standard — indeed, a single set of standards — for multifamily housing projects.

Current development standards assume a difference in quality between ownership condominium projects and rental apartment projects. These standards are outdated, because the whole idea that you can dictate whether housing will be rental or ownership is outdated.

All over Ventura, for example, condominiums and single-family homes approved as ownership units are now being rented out. The city should establish one set of development standards for all multifamily projects, regardless of whether they are expected to be owned or rented.

In particular, a single set of parking standards should be adopted that falls somewhere in between the current standard for rental apartments and the current standard for condominiums.

The standard could be different in different parts of the city depending on how much off-site parking is available. For example, the pool of unused parking in the downtown is very large and therefore standards there could be different.

4. Adopt more fine-grained approach to design of projects adjacent to existing single-family neighborhoods.

The controversy over the Island View project in Montalvo has renewed concerns that Ventura’s current codes do not protect single-family homes from large adjacent projects. 

Rather than simply cutting densities, the city should adopt a fine-grained design approach in these locations to protect view corridors and privacy.

A good model is the Midtown Corridors Code, adopted in 2007, which requires additional setbacks, varying heights and consideration of view corridors and privacy in approving multistory projects along Main Street and Thompson Boulevard. In the future, Ventura will be faced with increasing challenges as it seeks to improve its economy and provide housing for residents even as it runs out of undeveloped land.

The infill first approach is a vital tool in maintaining this balance in a healthy way. By revising the city’s infill first policies with care, Ventura can ensure a healthy and prosperous future as a community.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thanking Rick Cole ... and moving forward

Back in August, as I was sitting on a float waiting for the Ventura County Fair Parade to start, I saw Rick Cole, the Ventura city manager, riding his bike down Main Street, returning home after meeting a friend for breakfast at a local (and locally owned) restaurant. Here, I decided, was a guy who had truly embraced Ventura as his town.

Rick's moving on now to become the parish administrator of Mission San Buenaventura. That's a good thing for Ventura. Like so many of his predecessors, including Ed McCombs and John Baker, Rick cares so much about the town that he wants to stay and help Ventura even though his tenure as city manager is over.  But as the City Council contemplates who should replace him, it's probably a good time to reflect back on his accomplishments -- and consider how Rick's record can inform the council's deliberations in choosing a successor.

Rick came to Ventura as city manager in 2004, right at the height of the real estate boom. He came in with an unusual background -- he had served three terms on the Pasadena City Council and then stepped into the city manager's job in Azusa with no previous experience. In both cities he’d compiled a noteworthy record of leading successful revitalization efforts. It was an unusual time in Ventura and we needed Rick's special skills.

In his first couple of years in Ventura, Rick intervened in the approval process of a few development projects to make them better and he drove the long-delayed General Plan update over the goal line in 2005 -- something nobody had been able to do in the previous four years. Faced with an almost complete turnover of department heads, he did a great job of recruiting top-notch folks -- Pat Miller as police chief, Jay Panzica as chief financial officer, Elena Brokaw as community services director. All this may seem like ancient history now, but it was a pretty significant set of achievements at the time.

When the economy began to weaken, Ventura faced a whole new set of issues that we hadn't contemplated when we recruited Rick. But he handled the situation as well as or better than any other city manager in the county. He foresaw the severity of the economic crisis quickly and pushed us in 2009 to make deep cuts. He resisted the temptation to paper over problems with financial gimmicks or dip into reserves to keep things going. And he collaboratively negotiated the most aggressive union givebacks in the county. As a result, in 2010 and 2011, when other cities were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Ventura had stabilized -- and we even saw our credit rating go up!

Meanwhile, he continued to bring in great department heads such as Jeff Lambert in community development and had the foresight to move our water and sewer utility into a separate department (with another great director, Shana Epstein). He negotiated a franchise renewal with Southern California, Edison, created innovative partnerships with community groups on projects like Grant Park and ArtWalk, got the trestle bridge painted and even squeezed a few more cops out of this year's budget.

And he saved the city a lot of money while accomplishing all these things. Rick made about $170,000 a year as city manager -- a lot for most people, but  at least $50,000 less than most of his peers (and more than $100,000 less than Ed Sotelo in Oxnard). He never took a raise, accepted a 5% pay cut for a while, and volunteered to pay his 7% share of his pension cost. He was making less money when he left this fall than his predecessor made when she left at the end of 2003.

The city got a great deal when Johnny Johnson agreed to serve as interim city manager for free -- kudos to Mayor Mike Tracy for that -- but let's be clear: replacing Rick will cost the city a lot of money. They'll have to hire a recruiter and then pay the new city manager $40,000 to $60,000 a year more than Rick was making.

Not everybody liked Rick's style. He could sometimes seem like a blue-sky guy -- remote and even arrogant -- and a lot of folks would have preferred a more hands-on style. But I always thought it was perfectly appropriate for the city manager to keep the big picture in mind, focus on the important items like painting the trestle bridge, and hire great department heads to get things done on the ground.

And I think that's an important point for the city council to keep in mind in selecting a new city manager. Those of us who have been elected to the council always want the city manager to be detail-oriented. But in a place like Ventura -- with seven strong-minded individuals on the council -- the city manager is always under pressure to make the individual councilmembers happy by focusing on the details that matter to them that day. That doesn't always reflect what the majority of the city council wants -- or what even what most voters want. It's always better -- not to say consistent with the city charter -- for the city manager to focus on doing what the council has voted in public on Monday night to do, rather than what seven councilmembers tell him to do in private meetings every day.

Rick Cole wasn't a perfect city manager. But he was great for Ventura because he knew how to balance the big picture and the little details and he tried hard to stick to what the whole council had voted on, not what individual councilmembers were trying to get him to do. Yes, maybe Ventura needs somebody a little more hands-on these days. But the council would do well to look for somebody who also embodies Rick's sense of balance and his commitment to implementing the policy of the council, not the agendas of individual councilmembers.

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.