Alex Nguyen (pronounced new-en) could be considered one of the more down-to-earth executives in city management in a long time. In an hour-long conversation with Nguyen, he seems about as personable as a favorite uncle or brother. He is dedicated to serving the public, having started his professional career in social work and then becoming the chief of staff for an Oakland City Councilmember over 20 years ago. He took the position as Oxnard City Manager in July 2018, leaving his assistant city manager position in Riverside after three years, and has had time to sort through the city’s many issues.
Nguyen is on the precipice of change, dedicated to bringing in better management and leadership as well as improving internal operations for a better Oxnard. He sat down with the VCReporter to discuss the city’s most pressing issues.
What do you think of people who are skeptical of all forms of government, of bloat and especially with Oxnard’s history? How do you approach it?
You approach it analytically, you approach it systematically and you have to approach it with patience. People are skeptical of government, there are different levels of skepticism and different reasons but in the big picture, I would challenge those people to offer me a better system. And it’s something that Americans definitely take for granted that we’ve all heard this saying, our democracy is bad, but is the best of what is on the planet. So how would anyone truly imagine how we should organize society absent government? With regard to bloat, I only see and agree with some of the critiques. I can guarantee you in Oxnard there is no bloat. We are so lean that we are down to the bone.
The accounting system was a really big issue during the investigation in 2010. What is the difference between what you heard and what you are experiencing?
A lot of what I heard and read about had a lot of information with regard to the mechanics of this system, the software, the tools. And that is significant and it is important and we are working to update the software that we have. What I didn’t hear and read a lot about was the management and leadership side and that’s also something I am addressing. So it’s a combination of both.
The new software program has not been implemented yet?
Well, not yet. We are working on it. We are working on acquiring an up-to-date program. We are getting close.
What’s the hang up?
First of all, it’s a major purchase, it’s multimillions of dollars over multiple years to implement.
How far along are you in that process?
We are getting really close to finalizing a contract and bringing it to the City Council, within months. … When you make those transitions you always have hiccups no matter how good the software is, no matter how good the training is. Part of it is feeding into it old forms of data.
Is there better management of it now?
Yes there is, but the crux of it is that the system is antiquated in terms of the version we have and I know there are naysayers out there who think it is perfectly fine. There are two things. One is, it is so labor intensive in terms of doing things manually that it costs more time and affords more possibilities for human error. Two, on the back end we can’t use it to crunch data. I am not used to not being able to get a simple analysis within an hour. It takes days or weeks. Another great example: I can’t believe that I have to do time sheets, time cards by hand. What large organization is still functioning like that? It is an utter waste of time and paper. And again, more opportunities for error.
By the way, having the leadership team that we have there now, the new CFO and assistant CFO, they are like the dynamic duo. Phenomenal. They give me a lot of comfort, Kevin Riper and Donna Ventura. They are sort of understanding how overwhelming the challenge is but their approach is incredibly professional and patient. So that’s what it takes.
Seems like patience is key to management here.
And not to panic. It would be very easy survey the volume of problems we have here and then to panic.
What is your opinion on the homeless population here? What do you feel is lacking and what do you feel needs to be improved?
So big picture-wise, there is nothing that we are experiencing that most communities aren’t experiencing, especially in California and throughout the West Coast. We have about a quarter of the nation’s homeless population in California alone, but the bulk of it is definitely on the West Coast. And it’s a result of accumulation of decades of bad policies, bad practices, people just not wanting any more housing to be built and that partly has a direct impact on the cost of housing, and is ultimately the cause of this homeless population — it’s been an explosion in the last five years. It’s housing. It’s not crime. It’s not drugs. It’s not mental health. All those things contribute, but the sheer fact of finding yourself homeless is because there is no housing available.
And there is nothing, no moral values to be attributed there — and that’s part of the problem we have; how the public in general views the homeless community adds to our problem. So there’s a list of primary causes, lack of actual available and affordable housing, some legislation and voter initiatives that, I will say that, rightly or wrongly, resulted in pouring people out of prison without any support plans, any safety networks, any direction. The lack of mental health facilities in California, the sheer lack of mental health beds in this county, the lack of proper drug addiction services. So all that, it’s like a perfect storm.
I think people really want to look at the homeless as, one, they are lazy, it’s their fault they didn’t keep it going; and two, they were drug addicts or alcoholics before they got to the street; and three, I think there is also some underlying animosity for being able to survive without having to work.
Yeah. I mean, the irony is that there are plenty of homeless that have a full-time job.
And there are plenty of people who are housed who have no jobs at all.
Right, that’s true. And then the other thing that is fascinating about the social dynamics, we only get complaints about the people who are unsheltered, we don’t get any complaints about people who are, technically, legally homeless who are surfing on couches and living in garages, and some of them still manage to get their kids to school and to get their kids to do their homework. It’s tremendous. The policies, the actual practices, if you put it in on a report card, you would get an F for effectiveness in ending homelessness, in solving homelessness. You might get a passing grade for managing the problem.
I’ve always wondered about how people in government measure efficacy. More often than not, in my opinion, is they say that the problem would be that much worse if they weren’t doing this or that, but the problem is worse. I thought the measure would be more mathematical.
It ought to be and it can be, and in this town it will be because I am going lead a drastic change of direction. So most cities probably all have taken the wrong approach. We have taken the policing/criminalizing approach, and while in certain individual circumstances policing is necessary, it is not at all the solution for homelessness. So much of what we do is a. react to the complaints, b. move the problem from place to place, and c. spend a lot of money we hadn’t budgeted for to do these things. And the outcome is that all the people we are chasing around, a year later, two years later, three years later, chances are they are still homeless. I am going to turn this city’s trajectory toward Housing First. Housing First is a model that is proven and the way we view it in local government, you can spend money reacting to the problem, which is the bulk of what everyone is doing. You can spend money providing services to address the problem, which is what a lot of cities are doing now, which is the shelter program, but what people aren’t realizing is that that also does not end homelessness. It’s still a better form of managing the problem but it doesn’t do anything to end the problem. You can invest in ending the problem, which means you have to invest in housing people. That’s where I am going to take this city and it’s going to take 10 years. This problem actually didn’t happen overnight, even though some people like to think these people came out of nowhere. We are certainly not going to resolve it overnight and the challenge is, the ability for the public (generally speaking, not everyone but generally speaking) is to continue see homeless people as human beings. Another challenge is NIMBYism.
Until the homeless are in their backyard camping out.
The real solution is housing but then nobody wants formerly homeless people housed near them and I always say, “well, wait a minute, but they are there, and they are in the public space and they are causing problems and you’d rather them to continue being outdoors?” That’s ironic.
To add to the homeless, another aspect of the homeless situation that is a challenge is when the wrong people want to help or when good people want to help in the wrong way. And there is a book titled When Helping Hurts and it talks a lot about this. There are oftentimes organization or other groups that will do things that will actually only prolong someone’s homelessness. So that is also a challenge. And you have all this in the mix who would like to see us have some sort of Nazi policy and get rid of everyone and people who really want to help but not truly helping. There are a lot of layers to this. My job is to lead us onto a path and we can actually resolve individual homelessness and get our numbers down, our count this year is 548, which is up significantly but not too far up from the year before.
Let’s talk about the gang injunction. How do you feel about the approach now? It had been deemed unconstitutional.
I want to be fair to Oxnard and specifically Oxnard PD because when I have reviewed what they have done and since I have come here, what we are doing going forward, we have one of the best gang injunctions in the state. And if you compare what they have done here compared to what they have done in these other cities, where you have actually had (to be fair) to overreach, so part of the problem we are lumped in with everyone else. I think what we have here is very good. Now, with the history in this town, I think it’s a necessary tool. And the trick is how to use the tool without violating people’s constitutional rights. But I think it is also important that we are all serious and realistic about what it means if people get into, or fall into, gang life and the ripple effects of the potential for violence there. And many of the people who live in the neighborhoods where we have the injunctions, they support it. They aren’t going to come out and publicly support it but they tell the chief all the time and occasionally I have people tell me that. We have cases where we come to the aid of a shooting victim [who] refuses to cooperate so that we can investigate who shot you.
How do you present better opportunities in a neighborhood where the best opportunity is to join a gang?
That’s a whole other conversation and I am not entirely convinced that the primary force there is the local government. The other things that exist are schools, there exists families …
Obviously the injunction, schools and families aren’t serving as a deterrent to gang involvement.
That’s the thing though, this is the interesting part: It goes back to your early question, when people don’t like government. It’s like, they always ask us, what are you going to do to stop this? As we all know, we have thousands of laws, we are ultimately a nation of laws. I still would argue it is one of the best on the planet in terms of how you organize society. So we can’t legislate completely behavior and morality and all that, so there’s this idea that we have to provide the answers for all that and we can’t. But unfortunately, policing is something we must do.
What other things are top priorities for you?
Wow. There are plenty. One of them that is really important is establishing stability. I looked into this while listening to folks complaining, I have kind of distilled in terms of hearing the frustration and the anger, one of the key problems of this organization is the extraordinary turnover at the executive level. For any organization, stability is crucial. So I looked into and get this, in the last 10 years of 10 executive positions, you’ve had 46 people, which means in 10 years, 36 executives leave their positions. So you have 3.6 executives leaving each year. That’s the average. You can’t run an organization effectively that way.
Did you talk to the prior executives about why they left? Is there any underlying issue?
Poor leadership at both my chair and among the electeds. Lots of lack of accountability. And frustration with some members of the community in terms of how the public discourse had become uncivil. And the thing about having an organization that is constantly in transition and constantly in turmoil is that kind of organization tends to reward low performers. It tends to frustrate high performers and chases out your high performers because people who care about their professional career are not going to stick around.
I think there is an idea that management or being in that position is about money. People are losing sight of their goals.
Exactly. That’s been a part of the problem. Another challenge is, the part of the community that is active in general, I get the sense that people are angry and frustrated and they keep yelling at the past. And what I have said to people, it’s important for me as the new city manager to understand the past and we learn our lessons, but if everyone keeps their focus in the rearview mirror, who knows where we are headed?
How do we get people to move forward?
My objective is to demonstrate that we can do things better, we can do things more responsibly, and we can get things done. Another challenge is our planning, building and permitting department. That is the one area where I get more complaints than the homeless problem. We are neck deep in analyzing the problem so we can actually fix it. And then we have a structural deficit, not enough money to run the city. So we have to resize the organization to match our budget. We have to restructure the organization to improve performance. And very soon we have to figure out, and this is the hard one, we gotta have more revenue in order to run the organization the way it needs to be run and provide the services the community deserves.
What did you think about the wastewater issue?
I think it was just mishandled. But the reality is, it’s a genuine issue and increasing their rates was and is necessary. You cannot expect a facility that is that important to your community, that is that old and has accumulated that much differed maintenance, you can’t expect that there wouldn’t be a cost to upgrade and fix it. I wish I had been there for that, because I would have handled it completely differently and would have been much more communicative explaining things on the front end.
Do you ever feel like it’s getting beyond where you can fix it?
In some ways, and in some instances, it probably is. But we are the local government, we have to fix these things and we have to overcome these problems and challenges. But we have to be disciplined about planning and executing. The majority of cities don’t have a replacement fund, they don’t have a proper maintenance fund, and then when things fall apart, they become an emergency. But again, people always come to city hall, saying, “we want more parks, we want better parks, we want bigger parks, we want more libraries, more library staff.” You want all the good things at the expense of all the important things — not that those good things aren’t important, but no one says, “save money because the sewers are going to be replaced in 20 years. Those old pipes are going to burst.”