During the Sept. 14 Oxnard City Council meeting, the first meeting since the ongoing FBI/DA investigation of City Hall that began a month earlier, local citizens spoke out about the city government’s conduct and urged more transparency.
Ken Ortega, the former public works director who resigned months earlier because he could “no longer tolerate working in a hostile environment,” said that such transparency in City Hall right now will certainly raise eyebrows.
To date, it’s been six week since the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, along with the FBI, served a search warrant to raid Oxnard’s City Hall. Investigators confiscated cell phones, computer pass codes and travel documents, and obtained additional information from the city’s main computer system.
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten released a statement shortly after the raid, saying that his office was specifically looking into possible misappropriation of public money, possible conflicts of interest and the handling of contracts involving public works and other city projects.
If people were able to see all the contracts made by the city, Ortega said, the most alarming issues would be contract irregularities for a consultant named William Hall hired by the city manager.
Hall, who operates the San Diego-based OAC Consulting, has a “nonstandard” city agreement with Oxnard that reimburses Hall for his flights to Oxnard — Hall has a commercial pilot’s license — and pays him $225/hour to review public works contracts and provide counsel to the city manager. The terms of this contract were agreed to in 2008 and 2009, signed by Hall and Oxnard Purchasing Agent James Cameron.
Additionally, the indemnification clause of the agreement provides that Oxnard shall hold Hall “harmless, from all claims, losses, expenses and damages” for services provided and that the city will pay for any attorney fees in correlation with any litigation resulting from performance of services.
Hall has provided services for numerous city projects in Oxnard, but a public records request for contracts dating back to 2008 produced only contracts for the Advanced Water Purification Facility and the Brackish Water Desalter Plant. In these contracts, Hall was slated to make no more than a combined $65,000 for his consulting work.
City wire transfers and invoices show payment to Hall, paid to OAC Consulting, for additional work, which includes the Gonzales Landscaping Project, the Rice 101 Interchange Project and the AECOM Project. Hall has also said that he assisted in the Groundwater Recovery Enhancement and Treatment program. According to Hall’s contract, he can perform the work through written requests. However, such documents were not available through public records.
“I don’t control city documentation so I don’t have any idea,” said Hall about the lack of additional written requests for his services. “But I have the requests, and approvals to receive the amount.”
The issue about Hall’s participation on these projects is that any outside contract work should go through a request for proposal (RFP) procedure, opening the opportunity up for anyone to bid, according to the City’s Purchasing Procedure manual, which states that “the project manager shall determine potential availability from qualified, competent firms and prepare a list of potential proposers with particular emphasis on qualifying businesses located in Ventura County.”
The work performed by Hall apparently should have gone through the RFP process, but such opportunities were never posted on the City’s website, which would seem to violate RFP procedure.
“In this engagement, there were no RFPs. It was just a unique engagement,” Hall said, in reference to the consulting services he provided for Oxnard.
According to the city’s finance records, OAC Consulting has received roughly $180,000 for consulting on city projects, dating back to 2008.
City of Oxnard Public Information Officer Christina Aerenlund did not respond to repeated inquiries about OAC Consulting’s contract arrangements with the city.
However, just minutes before deadline, the VC Reporter learned that an agreement for consulting services between OAC Consulting and the city manager’s office had surfaced, dating back to Jan. 5, 2010, and was signed by City Manager Ed Sotelo, City Attorney Alan Holmberg and Hall as well as two other city employees. The agreement addresses the $180,000 in question
Yet, a document produced by Sotelo’s office and given to the council in early February listing council contracts made in January, shows no agreement with Hall or OAC. The list shows contracts of between $100,000 and $250,000 for the period of January 1-31, 2010. Monthly updates — found on the city’s website — to the council thereafter on such contracts likewise did not include this item; monthly updates in 2009 from September to December did not include anything about Hall or OAC.
While Sotelo can authorize such contracts, he must bring them before the City Council for final approval within approximately one month, according to city officials. City Council agendas available on the city’s website from October to April were void of any items listing William Hall or OAC Consulting.
Ortega said he believes the city manager hired Hall because “the city manager didn’t trust his city employees or the public works department to follow the process of procedures.”
Whether or not there is a disconnect between the city manager’s office and the public works department, Ortega said that if a consultant needed to be hired, it should have been local.
“Why did this guy from San Diego have to be the guy? There are probably 20 others in the area, if they put out a request,” said Ortega.
Hall said he has not provided services since the FBI/DA investigation, and said he hasn’t been investigated by the DA or the FBI.
But during the last few weeks as a part of the ongoing investigation, the homes of Sotelo, Assistant City Manager Karen Burnham, Mayor Tom Holden, City Councilman Andres Herrera, Ortega and former public works employee Juan Moreno have been searched.
The DA’s office has not released any further information about the investigation, and there is still speculation within City Hall about what exactly is the main target of the investigation.
City employees received subpoenas and testified before the grand jury. One city employee, who works on the fourth floor of City Hall, said it has been like “walking on eggshells” ever since the building was raided Aug. 13.
For nearly a month, top officials in the city were working without business cell phones and documents necessary to run a functional City Hall.
Heavy public scrutiny has fallen upon the city, and Mayor Holden has since hired a spokesman to handle any related inquiries.
As an ex-city official put it, “It has become very curious in wonderland.”