Priorities, transparency of local government addressed by City Council candidates
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula News
Published: October 17, 2012
Santa Paula City Council candidates were asked to list some priorities and weigh in on how transparent the council and city are with the public at the recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Chamber of Commerce.
On November 6 voters will decide between Duane Ashby, Martin Hernandez, Fred Robinson and Jim Tovias. Ashby is a corporate trainer and financial analyst who ran unsuccessfully for council two years ago; Hernandez is a first time candidate and chief of staff to Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long; Robinson, the director of a non profit and Tovias, an insurance agent, are incumbents running as a slate seeking their second council terms.
Members of the audience wrote questions that were sorted before being given to Moderator David Maron, who started the Q & A session after the candidates completed their self-introductions. Maron asked the candidates to list their top three priorities, and how they would encourage civic engagement and ensure transparency while dealing with issues being faced by the community.
Hernandez said his campaign platform is strong on “fiscal accountability and transparency” of local government, the latter a matter of much comment from the public. With public comment at council meetings now slashed from five minutes to three minutes and shrinking agendas, Hernandez said, “Many residents say they feel they no longer have a voice anymore” in city government. “That makes me sad.”
Hernandez said he believes “professional management and organizational integrity,” as well as communication between city administration and the council, must be improved, especially as information shared is “not always accurate.” He added that strengthening public safety is also a priority to ensure responders are well trained and well equipped to deal with emergencies.
“Civic engagement and transparency” of same topped Robinson’s list, and “I think we’ve been very transparent over the last four years.” His “first priority would be fiscal responsibility.” With “many cities” in the state struggling with fiscal woes, Robinson said the council “turned around a $1.8 million deficit and now we have a surplus.”
Public safety has always been a priority, and “We’re proud to say for the first time in the history of the Santa Paula we have a fully staffed fire department.” After the election Robinson said the council will “turn our attention” to “fully staffing” the police department and explore the possibility of having a school resource officer.
Robinson said he supports transparency in government, being available to the public, and to “let them speak and listen to their concerns.”
Tovias said the first priority of the council was to “stay financially solvent.... We privatized trash, not popular at the time,” but it was a decision that reflected complying with costly government regulations and the council’s “fiscal responsibility” to the public while not cutting public safety.
For the short term Tovias said he will propose improvements to the finance department: “We have an antiquated accounting system, it is unbelievable,” that performs so poorly an upgrade must be done as soon as possible. Once an upgrade is accomplished and “East Area 1 comes, more and more money will be flowing through the city,” and Tovias said financial information will be posted so “the people will know how it is being spent.”
Ashby said, “At the risk of sounding like a parrot,” he is also hearing the concerns of many citizens who believe local government now has a closed-door policy. “Transparency means not having something suddenly pop up on the agenda that people never heard about and they never got a chance to offer input on.”
Ashby said if elected, “I would focus on bringing City Hall back to the people” by sharing communication and ensuring transparency of city business. Public safety must also be enhanced, and Ashby added that economic vitality must be aggressively pursued.
Sale of city assets, privatization and outsourcing of city services was also a question, and Robinson spoke of the city’s solid waste division that was sold last year to a private company, which lowered the rate for customers and made the service more customer friendly. “I am not interested in privatizing any other services... and absolutely not” interested when it comes to “the rumor” that the council was considering privatizing the water enterprise. Robinson said he would also oppose outsourcing police or fire services.
Tovias was asked about the sale of city assets: “I don’t believe we should sell anything that doesn’t make business sense,” as government can’t be run as in the past with the state withholding millions of dollars in funding formerly provided to cities and counties. He does believe selling the 10-acre parcel that formerly held the city’s wastewater plant makes sense, as, Tovias said, “It’s a liability... as we move forward that piece of property does make sense.”
Money should also not be spent on public works personnel that Tovias said should be hired as consultants when needed and not be on the payroll throughout the year. “When it makes sense to privatize I’ll support it,” said Tovias; “when it doesn’t I won’t.”
Ashby said he wanted to “focus on some key points... last night at another forum an incumbent said the sale” of the former wastewater treatment plant property “would include a per tonnage fee; that’s the first I’ve heard about it.” He noted the council has not discussed the possibility of the site becoming a major recycling center where trash from other areas would be brought, and “I haven’t found any record of same” in reports given to the council.
Ashby said the incumbent said Crown Disposal would also purchase the property “as is... that’s great, but he also stated Crown is the only one that wanted to buy it,” but the property was not offered to others such as E. J. Harrison & Sons and Waste Management. “He said Crown was the only one that wanted to buy it” and, Ashby asked, “Where is the transparency in that?”
Hernandez said privatizing services and selling assets “should never be done... the city should instead start by setting goals and priorities” to “look into the future and not be so reactionary.” The proposed deal with Crown must be carefully examined to ensure the city has the advantage of any future income and control, instead of what Hernandez said was the original plan that the city would lease back a portion of the property for their own use.
He also disputed the remarks of the incumbents that state recycling law had anything to do with the selling of the city’s trash enterprise. Hernandez said the city was already exceeding minimum state recycling requirements, and the stated sale of the enterprise “was to make up for this alleged budget deficit” of $1.8 million that “no one has been able to uncover to this day.”