A confrontation between Oxnard’s Mayor Tom Holden and City Manager Edmund Sotelo at a recent City Council meeting has left some people wondering, what’s going on at City Hall?
On July 27, Holden publicly reprimanded Sotelo for spending $150,000 of city money without the council’s approval to redesign the administration building of the city’s innovative Advanced Water Purification Facility. The redesign efforts came as a surprise to Holden, as did Sotelo’s request on the agenda that night for approval of a total of more than $400,000 to complete the redesign, which was supposed to save around $2.2 million in project costs. The item was shot down by the council, 3-1, Councilwoman Irene Pinkard abstaining and Councilman Dean Maulhardt being the sole supporter.
Beyond the fact that the money was spent without the council’s approval, Holden says he remains perplexed as to how Sotelo was able to get the money. Currently, any city project costing more than $100,000 must be approved by the council.
“I am not sure how he did it,” Holden said. “There is discussion ongoing regarding expenditures. Council would have to give direction on recourse action.”
During a time when Oxnard is looking to sharpen its image, the incident has spotlighted a difficulty for directors in city government who try to function adequately beneath the city manager.
In 2007, Human Resources Director Rachel Shaw resigned due to differences with the city manager’s office, from which she said she experienced “treatment that no professional, or person, should encounter.”
Her resignation came shortly after Finance Director Maricela Medina resigned. While Medina could not be reached for comment, former Oxnard Councilman Tim Flynn said she had complained to him about similar issues with the city manager.
And earlier this summer, Ken Ortega resigned as public works director.
“I find that I can no longer tolerate working in a hostile environment . . .. The constant barrage of baseless allegations, rumor mongering, knee-jerk reactions, misrepresentations of fact, calculated character attacks and personal disregard for me as a working professional has finally become more than even I can take,” said Ortega in his letter of resignation.
Mark Norris, who was Ortega’s assistant, became the public works director but retired this month. The interim director is now Rob Roshanian.
Ortega, who was the face of the publicly lauded Advanced Water Treatment Facility, resigned after it was reported in the press that he accepted gifts — dinners, golf games and sporting event tickets — from consultants hired by the city, though he said his resignation was not because of the article.
Still, because of the mounting tension between Ortega and Sotelo, Ortega wasn’t surprised when he was the one singled out for accepting gifts.
“I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one that had failed to report a dinner or golf outing along the way. I wasn’t alone,” said Ortega. “These are the sorts of things that occur pretty regularly. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I’m saying it’s a pretty regular occurrence.”
The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office is now investigating all top city officials and any gifts received that were or were not recorded.
After many years of working together amicably, Ortega said that in 2007, his relationship with Sotelo suddenly soured. Ortega was being cast as a rising star throughout City Hall and it was often rumored that he would become the next city manager.
“When Rachel Shaw had left, a lot of the department heads had pointed to the fact that Ed (Sotelo) was becoming paranoid about things,” said Ortega. “It was emanating from his assistant (Karen Burnham). There was this paranoia that we were all out to get them.”
Ortega said that Sotelo began taking programs and employees from out of his control in the public works department. When Ortega was promoted from water superintendent to the director of the public works department in 2005, the department had nearly 500 employees. A few years later, the parks, streets and facilities programs were stripped from Ortega’s control and his department was reduced to 250 employees.
Despite the downsizing, Ortega was the driving force of the Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF) and the Groundwater Recovery Enhancement and Treatment (GREAT) program located at the Ormond Beach wetland preserve. It is a $250 million, decade-long project, of which $119 million is paid for entirely by future development. The project promises to make the city of Oxnard self-reliant for its water supply by the desalination of groundwater and will produce 6.25 million gallons per day of highly purified recycled water.
In 2004, planning for the AWPF and the GREAT program began and went forward unhampered. The plans and costs were regularly brought before the council and approved at each phase of the development. Throughout the process, Ortega had obtained more than $60 million in federal and state grants.
“This thing was regularly and routinely updated, estimates revised all the way up until weeks before project went to bid,” said Ortega. “Even when it went to bid, it still came in lower than the lowest estimates we came up with.
Nobody said anything over the past 10 years.”
The budget for construction of the AWPF was $69 million, and the bid came in at $62.1 million, which left the project under budget by $6.8 million.
However, when the final plans and specifications were completed in July 2009, Ortega’s plans were suddenly questioned by the city manager as not being cost-effective, Ortega said. The issue was with the second-story observation deck on the administration building, which overlooks the wetlands.
Development on the AWPF was delayed, re-evaluated and, unbeknownst to the City Council, Sotelo was administering a redesign of the AWPF administration building without the council’s approval, and ultimately spending $150,000 in the process.
Fast-forward nearly one year. Ortega had resigned, his name dirtied in the press, and soon after, during the July 27 City Council meeting, the redesign of the AWPF administration building, which eliminated the entire second floor, was presented by city staff as a way to save $2.2 million.
The redesign efforts angered Holden, who said the redesign didn’t make any sense at all.
“The original design was not to just perform functional needs but to be a dual purpose building,” Holden said. “People could get a sense of Ormond Beach and see the wetlands. I was very pleased to finally have something at Ormond Beach. There was a visitor component to the design, and it was expected to draw visitors from all over. So you can imagine my surprise when it was reduced by 40 percent.”
After Ortega had spent nearly a decade in design planning and acquired millions of dollars in grant money for the AWPF, Holden was puzzled by the proposal for such a redesign.
“The savings that were being projected, they were being spoken about like they were absolute savings. They weren’t,” Holden insisted. “We have been very frugal about money. I don’t spend money just to spend, but there was no convincing me at that point that they were going to realize the savings they were speaking about.”
But the savings proposed in the redesign could have ultimately hindered the project, resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in federal grant funding. According to Ortega, Oxnard received a U.S. Bureau Reclamation Title XVI grant for $20 million, after Ortega and his team spent seven years lobbying for the project in Washington, D.C. In order to receive the $20 million, the city was required spend $80 million, per the formula for the grant. By saving $2.2 million, project planners would have to account for that savings and still try to spend the $80 million to get the full $20 million in grant funding.
Ortega, Flynn and others involved in the project says they believe that the redesign was an attempt by the city manager’s office to outshine Ortega.
“Behind-the-scenes government is what this city manager is very good at doing,” said Flynn. “But the irony in this situation is that by trying to embarrass Ortega, they have embarrassed themselves.”
“I felt there was tremendous degree of hypocrisy. He (Sotelo) authorized without council authorization for the expenditures of $150,000 to direct the consultant to do the redesign effort,” said Ortega. “Those are the kinds of things he would often criticize me and other department heads for failing to do — failing to follow procedure.”
Repeated calls to Sotelo were not returned by deadline. Maulhardt, who supported the redesign effort, could not be reached for comment.
Shirley Godwin, an Oxnard resident and leader of the Saviers Road Design Team, worked with Ortega over the years to ensure the safety of the wetlands and said she absolutely adored the project. Neither she nor the Saviors Road Design Team was ever consulted about the redesign.
“It’s really interesting that they didn’t make this public until after Ken Ortega was gone,” said Godwin.
In a time when the city of Oxnard needs tremendous leadership to usher in a new image of the city, Godwin said, there is a lot of speculation about who is making the decisions now in city hall.
“I can’t help but wonder who is in charge,” she said.
Ortega said he believes that what the city needs to establish is trust.
“Things are going to slow down until somebody determines what they want that department (Public Works) to be,” said Ortega. “The city needs to get somebody at the helm that they believe they can trust and allow to do their job.”