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Aaron Starr (File photo)
Thursday, October 15, 2020

By Chris Frost




Oxnard-- The ballot initiative forum story continues with Manuel Herrera asking what happens if the two finance positions get combined into one.


Herrera asked if that gives too much power to one person.


Moving Oxnard Forward Leader Aaron Starr said the measure provides a check and balance system against Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen.


"Today, the city manager controls everything," he said. "What you want is somebody else who is answerable to the voters. The city manager controls all the information flow. He'll claim the city council can fire him at any time. If they don't get the information to know what is wrong, he'll never be exposed, and he won't get fired."


Additionally, Starr said the people who work for the city won't tell the council what's wrong, because they'll get fired.


"When you've got an independently elected person, like the city treasurer, who is given the authority to have the internal audits, the internal system of controls, and all the safeguards, you have the opportunity to expose corruption," he said. "Today, you won't find corruption at city hall because it won't reach the light of day. You need this because it is going to create an important check and balance."


Herrera responded and said Starr is not creating a check and balance but is changing the power.


"This is a segregation of duties," Starr said. "Right now, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) supervises the finance department, but the city manager hires them. You don't want one person with control over everything. If you have all your eggs in one basket, you're going to have a problem. You need to split up the basket. Right now, the city manager is going to provide whatever information that is going to make him look best to the council. It's human nature. I don't blame the city manager for doing that; it's the way they're going to operate. These are human beings. You need other human beings with similar power to create a check and balance."


Herrera asked if any other cities follow the same model.


"No other government is designed this way," Starr said. "With the exception of Bell, no other city has had such hideous audit findings, as the City of Oxnard has had in recent years. What other cities are doing hasn't worked well for us, so we need to do something different."


Under State law, Starr said the starting premise is that cities elect the treasurer, and the treasurer, not the CFO, is responsible for producing the monthly report.


"This is not an idea we invented," he said. "This is the default under state law. What happened is the city councils up and down the state has wrestled away that power. This is the default. It gives the treasurer more duties so that he can provide more oversight."


Given the city's current financial condition, Herrera said Oxnard would be the guinea pig, and that's scary.


"Some people might see this as a huge gamble at the worst time," he said.


Starr asked if Herrera has seen the finance department for the last six to seven years.


"It's not exactly working out for us," he said. "There is always a first somewhere. The bottom line is what we have works horribly, and it has worked horribly for years. The city manager wants to tell you that we don't have any new findings, but what he doesn't want to tell you is that we still have existing findings. They haven't been cleaned up yet."


Forum host Gabriel Tehran asked a submitted question and asked if there is any proof of a problem at city hall and wanted to know if Measure L is a solution in search of a problem?


"We had a District Attorney's report a while back that said there is lots of corruption at city hall," Starr said.


Tehran interrupted Starr and asked when the District Attorney's report happened.


"I think it was in the 2012 range," Starr said.


Tehran clarified and asked if there is an existing problem now.


"You don't have a mechanism to discover it," Starr said. "You don't design systems where there are no checks and balances. When there are no checks and balances, you'll never discover the corruption. It will be all under the table. You want a system with internal controls that work, where you have checks and balances, and segregation of duties. Otherwise, people being who they are, and people are not angels, you need to credit a system where some people are not honest."


Starr said many people question how well the city gets run.


"There are no published metrics on how well the departments are doing," he said. "We're going to provide a lot of transparency. You can't look at every invoice online today. What is so scary about transparency? We want transparency."


Starr introduced Measure M, the Oxnard Open Meetings Act, and said that's about having meetings at reasonable times with more information being made public in advance, along with expanded opportunities for public comment.


The council used to have nighttime only meetings, but that changed to daytime meetings in Jan. 2019.


"They created a committee system, where on alternate Tuesdays, they have meetings starting at 9 a.m. through the entire day," he said. "Today, we have oral staff meetings that are made, and sometimes they blindside the public with new information. There is information that is not always available in the written reports that are presented when the oral staff presentation is made."


Starr said, sometimes, the staff presentation takes a long time, and some people want to go home, have dinner and take care of their kids.


"It reduces public participation," he said. "The mayor can reduce public comment time down to a minute per person. That's at his discretion. The meetings are poorly run and inefficient. We've seen instances where the mayor prohibited debate among council members. I remember one instance where Bert Perello tried to make a motion and was shouted down. This is not the way to run a meeting."


Starr said meetings should start after 5 p.m. on weekdays and after 9 a.m. on weekends if needed.


"There's going to be exception's Starr said. "If you're an advisory committee, like a CAG, they are not subject to this rule. If there is an emergency meeting of the council, they don't have to meet at 5 p.m. If there is a closed session, meetings conducted outside of Oxnard, or some extenuating set of circumstances where four-fifths of the council says we can't meet at this time, they can do that."


Starr suggested the city pre-record staff presentations and are made available in advance.


"We propose that they are published on the website and available at city hall if they don't have internet access," he said. "The public will be informed sooner, and it gives them more time to research, formulate questions, not just for the public, but the council as well.  It leaves more time for public comment because, at the council meeting, the staff isn't reenacting the presentation. They're there to answer questions."


Starr said this means more meaningful time for council deliberations.


"Measure M expands the opportunity to speak," he said. "Instead of having one minute to speak, you'll have three minutes to speak on each subject on the agenda. It also gives you, as a member of the public, the right to speak on a subject that was considered earlier by a council committee. Right now, under the Brown Act, if a council committee has a hearing on a subject, they are not legally obligated to give you any time to speak about it when it comes to the full council."


The ordinance also allows the public the same access to visual aids the council does.


"That way, you can do a PowerPoint presentation at the meeting or present video or pictures," he said.


The Measure follows Roberts Rules of Order, which was the prescribed rules of order until Nov. 2019.


"I don't know how many decades that was the policy," he said. "They didn't know how to use it, but it has always been our policy. Roberts Rules is the most widely used meeting rules in the United States. It's been around for 144 years. It protects the rights of the minority during a meeting debate. The city mayor will not be able to shout somebody down, and each member of the council has an equal right to speak. When used correctly, this facilitates efficient meetings."


Council members will need to be trained on Robert's Rules by a certified professional.


"This does not dismantle council meetings; it only requires that they be in the evenings," Starr said.


This story will continue on Oct. 23.