By Chris Frost
Oxnard-- It's back to court for The City of Oxnard, Aaron Starr, and Alicia Percell as the city council voted, Jan. 15, to sue Aaron Starr and Alicia Percell over three ballot initiatives that were certified by Ventura County.
The council voted to put one ballot initiative, permit simplicity, on the ballot this Nov., but sued Starr over the other three.
Starr, Percell, and their group "Moving Oxnard Forward" engaged in an extensive signature-gathering effort in 2019 and certified five ballot initiatives including:
• Road Repairs – Requires city hall to improve city streets and alleys over time as a condition for continued collection of "Measure O" sales tax.
• Transparency – Makes the elected City Treasurer accountable for the city's financial functions; requires online posting of city expenditures and their supporting documents; requires the finance department to hire a certified public accountant and publish monthly financial statements; and requires the publishing of performance measurements for city departments.
• Open Meetings – Requires city council and other city legislative bodies meet no earlier than 5:00 p.m. (with a few exceptions); requires training on the use of Robert's Rules to enable better-run meetings; requires advance videotaping of staff presentations to allow more time for public comments; and expands the right of the public to comment on agenda items and make use of video presentations.
• Term Limits – The Mayor and the City Council to be limited to two consecutive terms, requiring a two-year break before becoming eligible to serve again.
• Permit Simplicity – Implements a program that will enable the city to issue permits in a single day, making it easier for business owners to bring higher-paying jobs to Oxnard and for homeowners to improve their homes. Similar programs have been successful in other cities.
Term Limits were not examined at the special meeting.
Russ Branson from Russ Branson Consulting presented the 9212 Report to the council, which reveals the impact the ballot initiatives will have on the city if they pass. The council had the right to request the report from an independent third party.
Branson has 16 years of experience and has done consulting for two different firms.
The report examined the governance, organization, and fiscal impact on the city, and each initiative affects these categories in different ways.
Treasurer Expansion Initiative
Branson said this impacts the city's governance primarily and organization, secondly.
The expansion initiative appoints the treasurer, Philip Molina, as the finance director. The current finance director, Kevin Riper, is appointed by City Manager Alex Nguyen.
Nguyen oversees the finance department broadly as the manager for all city departments.
The City Council selects the internal auditor, and that duty would fall to the treasurer if the initiative passed.
The initiative also establishes monthly financial reports, which is the finance director's duty and, ultimately, the city manager's responsibility.
"It will also establish monthly performance reports," he said. "This is a big one. This is a city manager duty."
The city treasurer will submit the city's budget, he said, which currently falls to Nguyen.
"That's one of the most important duties the city manager does each year, is to prepare a budget in line with the council's policies," Branson said.
If this initiative passes, the treasurer will get a raise. The statutory compensation is $5,400 each year.
"The way that Oxnard runs this, the city clerk and treasurer, who are elected positions, function as department heads and get paid accordingly," he said. "Even with that, this would most likely be a jump in compensation for the treasurer."
The finance department oversees the city's general accounting and prepares the budget.
"The budget ultimately comes to you from the city manager," he said. "It has the city manager's approval."
Nguyen prepares the city's budget, and the ballot initiative changes that to the treasurer.
"That's a big deal," Branson said. "The city manager needs to base this on council priorities. What happens if the city manager brings you budgets that don't match your council priorities? You'll get a new city manager, and you have the authority to do that.”
The city manager also manages, hires, and fires department heads, which is important.
"The performance measurement part of this initiative takes that from the city manager to some degree," he said. "It's hard to tell how that plays out. The elected treasurer position would be over a number of people in the city. I'm not clear how that all works out, as well."
Currently, the city manager reports relevant and timely information to the council, he said, so that the council can provide adequate policy direction to the city.
"This is the job of the city manager, and less so the job of the city treasurer, an elected position," Branson said. "This will shift some of those duties from the city manager to the treasurer."
The council would want someone to manage the whistleblower program, plus internal auditor and report back.
"You will want someone independent and will report back to you, and this takes that away from you and shifts it to the elected treasurer," Branson said. "If it's not done in accordance with city standards, the council may compel the city manager to make changes or replace the city manager. It goes from the city council, the city manager, and all departments in the city under the current umbrella. This changes that umbrella to having the council over part of if, the treasurer over another part, and the middle will be muddled."
Branson surmised that the initiative reduces the council's authority and splits key policy oversight.
"It creates a schism in governance for the City of Oxnard," he said.
Looming over the initiative, he said, are the qualifications an elected person has over treasury duties, plus run the finance committee, create the budget and hire internal auditors.
"This is the odd part about all this," he said. "The requirement to be elected is that you are registered to vote, you’re 18, you're a U.S. citizen, you live in Oxnard, and you are not currently in state or federal prison or on parole for a felony or found mentally incompetent."
The current process has everything controlled by the city council through the city manager, even though the city treasurer and clerk have departmental duties.
"Those can be reassigned and the council can change ordinances around those things," he said. "If this gets adopted and approved by the voters, the city council will not be able to change that portion of the ordinance that was approved by the voters. It would have to go back to the voters for approval."
If approved, the city manager no longer gets to assign anything to the finance director, and the council loses direct policy oversight of the budget and its development.
"Even though there is some reference to the council that it advises, there is no requirement, and if it doesn't come back with your policy there is no recourse, except to hope the elected treasurer doesn't get elected at the end of the four-year term," he said. "It consolidates electoral and administrative oversight to a single elected official and eliminates the city manager's oversight of the finance manager's function. It moves critical oversight of the city’s finances to a single elected official without a professional qualifications requirement."
When the city hires a finance director, Branson said the applicant needs experience and qualifications and goes through the selection process.
"This eliminates all that," he said. "It's unclear how this affects normal hiring, firing, and discipline of the employees, which comes under the per view of the city manager," he said. "How does that work with a department led by statute, led by an elected person?"
The initiative requires the city manager and attorney to work in good faith with the treasurer and be responsive to the treasurer's request for information.
"That should be a given that people working in the city should cooperate and work in good faith," Branson said. "This anticipates resistance in the reallocation of these governance responsibilities. It doesn't define what good faith means, nor does it require good faith on behalf of the treasurer. It's vague what that means."
Branson said the initiative discusses the treasurer's duties and his extent to report to the council and city attorney. They report to the council directly and have supported or hindered the city treasurers' duties.
"This creates a potential conflict between the council, the treasurer, the city manager, and city attorney based solely on the treasurer's perception," he said. "Have they supported what he wants to do?"
Moving forward, Branson said the budgeting moves to the finance director (the elected treasurer) and reflects a shift in the budget from the city manager to the treasurer.
"It shifts the decision-making power for what is funded from the city manager to the treasurer," he said. "That's a big shift because the treasurer does not report to the council."
The initiative reduces internal controls and flexibility in the future, he said, and there is no broad requirement for a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) to be in the finance department.
"You want to hire the best people," he said. "Not someone who just has a CPA on them."
This story will continue on Jan. 31.