By Chris Frost
Oxnard-- The conversation about Measure B continues with Moving Oxnard Forward Co-Founder Aaron Starr saying a limit on gifts makes a lot of sense if it is a properly written ordinance that applies to paid lobbyists.
The League of Women Voters were the host of a spirited debate on Measure B at Oxnard College, Feb. 21, as Alicia Percell and Aaron Starr from Moving Oxnard Forward, made their case for their ballot initiatives.
Measure B Prohibits councilmembers and planning commissioners from accepting gifts from lobbyists and contractors; eliminates the influence of outside special interests by imposing contribution limits to Mayoral and City Council candidates; expands transparency by posting all expensive City contracts and the City's monthly financial reporting on the City website for public review and establishes a three-term limit for the City Council and Mayor, and changing the Mayor's term from two to four years to be consistent with the City Council.
Starr and Percell gathered signatures for their own five ballot initiatives which included:
• 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 the 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 – Which requires the city council and other city legislative bodies meet no earlier than 5 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; 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.
Starr pointed out the ordinance does not apply to city staff for gifts.
"In some areas, Measure B does not go far enough, and in others, it goes way too far and criminalizes things that are not corrupt, at all," he said. "Once again, Mr. Ngueyn, the most powerful man in city hall. Not the city council. It is the city manager who can approve, by himself, up to $200,000 at a time. Measure B's limits don't apply to him."
At the INCO meeting, Starr said Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen implied that the city staff isn't susceptible to corruption.
"He had just read from a district attorney report that mentioned several staff members received and failed to report gifts," he said. "On the other end of the spectrum, it goes way too far and prohibits council members from normal social interaction with other human beings."
Starr said that anyone who speaks at a city council meeting is a lobbyist, and they get ensnared in Measure B's "ridiculous language."
"Tim Flynn can't accept a birthday present from his mother under Measure B, Starr said. "That's not corruption or special influence, but Measure B prohibits it. A cough drop is treated the same as a sports car."
Nguyen called Starr's comments absurd.
"If I'm at a council meeting, and. I am coughing my brains out; please give me a cough drop," Nguyen said. "Nothing here precludes anyone in the city from communicating with your elected officials. What we are talking about and what was demonstrated and proven in the district attorney's investigation. We're not talking about giving someone a cup of coffee as a friendly gesture. We're talking about council members flying over international waters, and God knows what they were discussing on the private jet. They're staying at some wealthy person's home and vacationing and coming back and voting the next day on a multi-million deal that benefits that person. That what we are talking about."
He reiterated that saying Measure B implies that people can't talk, and everyone's a lobbyist is absurd.
"Lobbyists are lobbyists," he said. "Developers are lobbyists; contractors are lobbyists. We know what happens. It's been proven that it happened here."
He acknowledged that the state recently imposed campaign limits, and the reason why they did was that they felt that not enough cities have limits.
"It's often that 40 percent or more of an individuals campaign funds are raised from an individual," he said.
Starr read the language from Measure B and said: "no elected city official or member of the Planning Commission may receive any gift from any person that contracts or is seeking business with the city, or with any person who is during the prior 12 months, knowingly attempted to influence an elected city official or member of the planning commission any legislative or administrative act."
"That's the actual language," he said. "It's not paid, lobbyists. It's ordinary human beings. If you had something that was mentioned, something that dealt with Tim Flynn's expensive Vegas dinner that's on the report, that would be good."
The debated shifted to individual expenditure committees, known as PACs, and moderator David Maron read one question that said Starr had received money from out of state contributions.
Nguyen said Measure B does not include PACs or people loaning themselves a lot of money for their own efforts.
"It puts a limit on the amounts," he said. "We can't preclude where people get their money from. We have seen extraordinary amounts of money come from around the state and the country."
He cited $12,000 from Woodland, $9,900 from Corona, $8,000. from Austin Texas, $6,500 more from Corona, and many more.
"There's a lot of money coming in large sums from way, way outside of Oxnard being used to try and influence city hall," he said. "While we can't level the geography of it and we can't limit it on the expenditures side, we can, at least, make a level playing field in terms of the amounts."
Starr responded to the issue of out of state money and said The New York Times reaches more people than the Ventura County Star.
"Should the Times be forced to reduce their paper circulation," he asked. "Do their big advertisers have too much say at what gets discussed at the water cooler? The first amendment protects us from those who want to shut down our freedom of expression. Those overwhelming campaigns spent on my run for office and measures come from my wife and me. I'm grateful to my donors, and some of them have known me for 40 years. They voluntarily give because they believe in me, and the large dollar figure of donations that the city manager likes to create drama over covers all of my Oxnard campaigns since 2014 combined, including all of our ballot measures."
He compared that amount to the money that Nguyen spends on Measure B and noted the money was not voluntarily donated or his money.
"It's your money," Starr said. "He has already spent over $200,000 on this one ballot measure campaign, which is more than any candidate, including me, ever spend in Oxnard on a single campaign, and he plans to spend more. He's not filing campaign finance reports. Measure B is a naked power grab to shut down the city manager's opposition."
Nguyen apologized to Starr and said it wasn't about him.
"At this point, we haven't spent over $200,000," he said. "At this point, $112,000 of that was to defend a lawsuit that Mr. Starr filed specific to the campaign contribution limits, which, this week, by the way, the federal judge dismissed."
Maron asked why Measure B changes the mayor's term from two to four years, and Starr said it makes it easier to contemplate two terms to come up with eight years.
"It makes it a really complex calculation to determine how many years as mayor, how many years on the council," he said.
Percell added that with a two-year mayor, he is perpetually in campaign mode.
"With a two-year mayor, that's perpetually what you get," she said. "There is never a period-of-time where you can just focus on the job."
She backtracked on Nguyen's comment that the city hasn't spent $200,000 on Measure B but noted that it's contracted to be spent, although it hasn't yet gone out the door.
"Regarding his comment that a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit against Measure B, there is more to that story than he isn't telling you," she said. "It was dismissed without prejudice, which specifically means that the judge gave us permission to refile the case in the event that Measure B passes. We will do that, and we believe it is in violation of the first amendment and at least three U.S. Supreme Court cases."
Nguyen agrees with Percell when it comes to changing the mayor's term from two years to four.
Nguyen also dialed back to the cost of the Measure B election and said it's not about expending taxpayer dollars.
"In recent years, we have to spend $1.1 million on legal fees and other costs in addressing the issues that Mr. Starr has brought forth," Nguyen said. "In regard to the claim that limiting this "very limited" campaign finance measure is unconstitutional, on multiple occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld campaign contribution limits for state and local elections. The U.S. Supreme Court has only overturned campaign contribution limits, if the limits were so low, that it prevents speakers from presenting their message to the public. What we have on the ballot is reasonable. This has nothing to do with Citizen's United about expenditures."
Starr replied and said it was the first time he heard the legal cost figure of $1.1 million.
"I would like to remind Mr. Nguyen that the city sued us," Starr said. "If you're spending $1.1 million, I feel bad for you. We're much better with our attorneys in maintaining costs. If the city engaged in fewer illegal acts, they wouldn't need as many city attorneys to enforce the law."
Maron asked Nguyen why the council adopted the term limit initiative, and after bringing forth Measure B and he said it was to save money and save the expense of putting it on the ballot.
"When an initiative is certified, the option is to put it on the ballot or adopt it," he said.
Starr said it was obvious why the city adopted the term limit initiative.
"They (the city) adopted it so you wouldn't know there was an option," he said. "They wanted to deprive you of that right. As far as the money goes, Measure B costs money to put on the ballot too. Everything that could have been done with Measure B, with the exception of changing the terms of the mayor from two years to four years, could have been adopted by City Hall. They could have done the financial disclosures they say that they want to do, instead of pretending that you have to adopt their measure in order to start doing it. They could have eliminated gifts; they could have done contribution limits. The likelihood that some future city council is going to overturn that. Come on. Think about the town we're in. Can you imagine some future city council doing that?"
Percell added that at the time the city council placed Measure B on the ballot on Oct. 15, 2019, the council could have enacted the changes.
"If you want monthly financials, just put it on there," she said. "The reason why Mr. Nguyen gave at the time was it's better to institutionalize these things. That's the term that he used. When it comes to ours, it's not better to institutionalize it."
Nguyen said you don't need to imagine what can happen because it is all spelled out by the district attorney and the city's auditors.
"You don't have to imagine how things can go very poorly in an organization," he said. "It's happened, and this is an effort to prevent it from happening again. I was brought on board here to make this city better and make City Hall better. This is part of that effort."
This story will conclude on March 2.