Transparency has never really seemed to matter in the city of Oxnard, as it appears the city is big enough for cloaked agenda items to backdoor their way into city business. Developers usually win in this city, while the farmlands, protected areas and taxpayers seem to be at a loss more often than not, akin to fans of this year’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
And like the Dodgers, there is a potential for greatness in this city, but the front office continues to be a source of anger, incomprehension and disappointment for its “fans,” the ones who end up paying for everything, from salaries to the city’s blundering mistakes. (Remember the pointless $150,000 consultant fee, granted by City Manager Ed Sotelo, to secretly redesign the admin building of the city’s advanced water purification facility last year?)
Keeping in mind, those in charge are people like you and me, and people make mistakes, sometimes big enough to damage their reputations. Eventually, Frank McCourt will be removed from his position with the Dodgers, just as Ed Sotelo will eventually be replaced as city manager — through retirement or other means. Unlike the district attorney’s ongoing 14-month investigation into possible Oxnard government foul play, life moves on and has a way of resolving itself.
While the upcoming Ventura City Council election is showing no real signs of change at City Hall, as the makeup of the new City Council will likely mirror the past four years, last year’s election season was, indeed, promising for Oxnard. Recently elected councilmembers Tim Flynn and Carmen Ramirez are casting votes and keeping a lookout in a much different vein than those they replaced. Unfortunately for transparency’s sake, two does not make a majority on the Oxnard council.
During the Sept. 27 Oxnard City Council meeting, an IRS-mandated TEFRA (Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act) hearing took place to determine if a company should be eligible to receive up to $11 million in state multifamily-housing revenue bonds to develop the Colonial House Apartments, a 43-unit multifamily rental housing project.
Though the Idaho-based Pacific West Communities is the developer of the project, we now know that Cambridge Real Estate, an Oregon company, would be managing the property, and Oxnard Pacific Associates was seeking approval for the bond monies. After hearing from the city attorney that a TEFRA hearing is simply a technical matter and absolves the city from any financial risks, the majority of council leaned in favor of approving the deal.
But it was Ramirez, an attorney, who did 11th hour research and pointed out that Oxnard Pacific Associates is not listed with the California secretary of state and is, therefore, not even a lawfully formed entity. But that didn’t stop the council from voting 3-2 in favor of the applicant.
“As a taxpayer of the state of California, I would address that taxpayers are funding this issue,” said community advocate Larry Stein, during the meeting. “They’re playing shell games with different LLCs.”
Stein was correct. Denise Carter, director of housing programs for Pacific West Communities, confirmed that “for tax reasons we form a limited partnership that will ultimately own the project, but Pacific is the developer of it.”
A city staff inquiry following the meeting confirmed that, in fact, Oxnard Pacific Associates was not yet a legal entity and is awaiting the issuance of bonds and credits before registering with the secretary of state.
Karl Lawson, Oxnard’s interim housing rehabilitation program manager, said that in the bonding world, this is standard practice.
The words “standard practice,” conversely, are what we, not only as a community but as a country, ought to be most afraid of. It’s standard practice that put this country upside down (subprime loans, no-money-down mortgages were standard bank practices), and it’s standard practice that will keep it that way.
Ramirez said those words should be red flags. “There have been a lot of issues with transparency and who is involved in financial transactions that our city involves with construction projects and housing projects,” said Ramirez. “It’s our responsibility to find out who these people are that want to do business in our city, see what their track record is and be sure they just didn’t throw this all together to get a deal.”
The city had a chance to stand up to “standard practice” and table the item to learn more about exactly what was happening, but apparently caved instead. The standard practice of 11th hour deals has become business as usual in Oxnard. Complex matters, like the TEFRA hearing, should not be brought to council’s attention just three days before a meeting. It would be neat if a city like Oxnard, teeming with potential, began making headlines with innovative policies and big ideas, instead of imprudent schemes like changing the city’s name. (Oxnard paid $125,000 for a consultant to come up with a branding strategy that included a new city name, “Oxnard Shores.”) The bar needs to be raised to set a new definition of “standard practice” in Oxnard. The city cannot build its way into prosperity, and with for-lease signs decorating the town, it remains suspect just what the big hurry is.
The VCReporter will be featuring the column/op-ed piece Slapshot on a monthly basis on various issues around Ventura County.