The city of Port Hueneme is home to roughly 22,000 residents, making it the third-smallest city in the county, but it seems to be riddled with problems akin to what large cities have to deal with, Oxnard in particular. While it took an investigation by the district attorney and some whistle blowers to expose Oxnard’s issues, Oxnard City Council took the initiative to foster change, starting with its city manager; and in turn, the new city manager brought on new leaders to correct the wrongs of predecessors. It’s still somewhat of a mess, but the city certainly has a better chance for change than it did some years ago. So we have to wonder: What’s holding back Port Hueneme?
From all appearances, Port Hueneme is in over its head. While the city has seen its fair share of turnover, starting in October 2012 with the resignation of then six-year City Manager David Norman, who left rather abruptly after the City Council reviewed his performance evaluation. Two-year Port Hueneme Police Chief Kathleen Sheehan resigned in December 2012 after an investigation into alleged improprieties, including some concerns about issuing concealed weapons permits. The details of the investigation have not been revealed. In the summer of 2013, the hiring of the new city manager, Cynthia Haas, came under scrutiny when the City Council was accused of failing to comply with the Brown Act. Although some said that the decision was made in closed-door sessions and was not revealed to the public, the Ventura County District Attorney later cleared the City Council of any wrongdoing. This was just the harbinger of more difficult things to come for the city.
Shortly after the city hired Haas, the city of Port Hueneme sued the Port of Hueneme, Oxnard Harbor District, for $8 million in back payments. After a two-year battle, the city and the port this month settled their dispute: The city will receive an extra $100,000 for a community development fund to benefit the port and the city should the port exceed $13 million in annual gross revenues, and the port will pay $1.1 million to purchase land it had been leasing from the city. While this seems to be an amicable solution, perhaps such a solution could have come to pass before piling up years of attorneys’ fees. Did the city hold out too long to cash in on the alleged $8 million? A curious thing about this situation that the city’s then-Finance Director Robert Bravo also worked as the port controller who oversaw the contracts that allegedly put the port in arrears. It’s a strange dichotomy to be sure.
In the last couple of years, since Haas has been on board, it has been revealed through an independent audit and then on Oct. 7 through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation that the city’s documentation of the cost allocation of $2.4 million to the Port Hueneme Housing Authority was insufficient. Now the city has to try again to prove it used the funds for the benefit of the Housing Authority/HUD, or it will have to pay the money back. This revelation came after former Housing Authority Director Joseph Gately was fired on Oct. 1 and days before Haas announced her retirement on Oct. 14, effective Dec. 21. Gately, who hired the independent auditor and then sent the findings to HUD, was demoted, put on paid leave and then fired. He has since filed an action against the city for retaliation. But Gately joins several others who have been put on paid leave, fired, resigned or retired, including Bravo (details of his dismissal are unknown); 30-year Community Development Director Greg Brown (retirement effective in December); Port Hueneme Police Chief Robert Gager, who retired roughly two years after taking the position following Sheehan’s resignation; volunteer Port Hueneme police officer Chuck Swankosky, who was fired after complaining to the City Council regarding safety concerns; plus several others.
Along with such rather abrupt changes in leadership in Port Hueneme, we wonder why city officials and the City Council haven’t openly discussed the results of the HUD findings, which could clearly cripple some services needed in Port Hueneme, especially with the current budget deficit of $1.8 million that the City Council is still trying to fix. Further, in March, the union representing city workers wrote a letter to the City Council, asking for a vote of no confidence in Haas and her management team. This letter came six months after the City Council agreed on a 12 percent pay raise for Haas. The city is also dealing with the threat and the filing of lawsuits by former employees, including two lifeguards who filed a suit about unemployment benefits and future opportunities.
We understand that bureaucracy can be a convoluted mess, but something has to give. The City Council needs to hold its top executives accountable, especially the city manager and the city attorney, or face being voted out of office. We can only hope the current elected officials will bring on top-notch leaders (and consultants, if need be,) to get the city back on track. The residents deserve better. Also, the residents need to keep a better eye on their City Council. It falls on their backs too. Those residents upset with the status quo should consider running for office.