The City of Bell failed because no one was watching the store. Are we watching ours?

Is watching the store the job of the City Council? Consider their reality: At $600 a month, they are essentially unpaid volunteers with full-time lives and or full-time jobs. They have no staff of their own to review the complex issues that come before them. They don’t even have their own offices or assistants at City Hall. They are expected to show up for a myriad of public events and represent the council on a plethora of committees for everything from public transportation to affordable housing. If we cannot pay them a living wage, provide them an office or pay for any staff, then maybe it’s time to volunteer as adjunct staff to help them “watch the store.” It is our money, after all.

Well, you say, “Isn’t watching the city store the job of the city staff?” Consider this: The city store finances the city staff. The staff’s economic survival depends on taxes, fees and penalties. When the good times rolled, the City Council pretty much accepted whatever the staff recommended. Staff comprises outstanding human beings with altruistic natures. They are our friends and neighbors.

Seeing these friends and neighbors being laid off would feel like we were “eating our own.” More fees, penalties and taxes feel the same. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs indicates that survival trumps altruism, so we all become conflicted when our survival is threatened. Without generating more revenue, there may not be enough money to keep all our public employees employed. Many of us have lost our jobs, our retirement savings and we have no pensions. Who can stay objective in such a climate?

The City Council, on behalf of the citizens, questions the recommendations of the staff available to them, and that staff needs more money. The members of staff are our public servants and we owe them much. Where is the line drawn on how much, and who will draw it? I wouldn’t want to be a council person who had to draw that line without considerable public input. So where is the public?

Less than half of our citizens voted in the last council election. What is holding our public back? Citizens say, “We are too busy.” Surely we cannot be busier than our volunteer City Council, which has no support staff of its own. Our city needs us to pitch in as never before.

Another reason we hear for silence: If I question or challenge a policy proposed by staff, I will be characterized and marginalized as self-serving or a gadfly by the city management. Let’s understand that this is natural defensiveness, and “names will never hurt.” It’s not really about you. You can have compassion for staff, acknowledge their position and still question. Questioning and participating in the democratic process is our responsibility as American citizens.

Is it also fear of retaliation? If the city’s management were to retaliate against those who speak up, it is logical that they would begin with me. I have been publicly questioning policies, and many times dissenting, for the past eight years. I may not be their favorite camper by now, and there has not been any retaliation against me. Let that one go.

The council members understand it is all really about policies that need improvements or adapting, not the personalities of the messengers, the staff or even themselves. Questioning and dissent are about principles and policies.

It is our responsibility to question all policies and especially those with any potential for financial takings from the citizens. Lack of due process was an issue in Bell. We don’t want to see anyone hurt or our city sued over the same issue. Some concerns about our code enforcement policies on this issue can be addressed on Jan. 22.

Whether you rent or own in Ventura, codes and enforcement policies have a direct bearing on your quality of life and your finances.

Jan. 22 is the final public meeting of the Ventura Safe Housing Collaborative to take final comments for recommendations. These recommendations will affect every Ventura citizen. Come watch your store on Saturday, Jan. 22, noon to 2 p.m. at the Bell Arts Factory at 432 N. Ventura Ave. The 54 draft recommendations for code enforcement improvements can be reviewed at www.grandfatherventura.com on the Public Records page.    

Camille Harris is a co-founder of Save Our Homes and its subcommittee, PEPP (Preserve, Ensure and Protect Property). PEPP met with the city for five months to establish the membership of the Ventura Safe Housing Collaborative after learning of citizens’ concerns about a change to more aggressive code enforcement policies. The VSHC is drafting recommendations for a grandfathering/amnesty program and the adaptation of enforcement policies to economic changes.