Last week as I walked through the Camarillo Farmers Market in Old Town, I stopped to ask Kevin Kildee’s sister who was there stumping for Kevin’s run for Ventura County Supervisor, why he would run for Supervisor and leave the City Council behind.
Her answer was packed with the usual: his experience as a seasoned City Council member made him extremely qualified and his desire to serve the public in a more prestigious and powerful post for the public benefit are drives for his ambition to run.
Kevin Kildee is not alone in his quest. Mike Morgan is also running for Supervisor and has served even longer in the Camarillo City Council.
At first glance one might say those are good, reasonable and sound reasons to run for any public elected post but are they really?
My impression of any honest elected official is someone who asks the tough economic questions of why, who benefits, and how much will it cost, and is willing to expose waste, fraud, and cronyism, and work to bring as much transparency to government and sound fiscal governance as is possible.
However, after watching Camarillo city government in action since its incorporation and especially since its dramatic economic meltdown in 1986 I have found that experienced council members were actually a major part of the problem.
Prior to 1986 Camarillo had developed and committed to paper a general plan that stressed a neighborhood shopping center concept, slow thoughtful development, public parks that served all ages and fiscal conservative spending involving no public debt. Camarillo, unlike many other cities, would pay cash for infrastructure improvements and not take on long term debt.
After the 1986 financial meltdown of speculative investments the City Council choose to hire a new city manager in 1988 and Bill Little became that manager. From then on the City of Camarillo changed forever. No longer committed to a policy of conservative frugal spending, under Little’s tutelage the city became a revenue machine. Building permits, business permits and license fees increased dramatically, the size of city government increased and the big box stores arrived under the promise that sales tax revenues would fund a new future for all of Camarillo. It was all win, win for the citizens of Camarillo.
The city staff and council sold this new vision of Camarillo as a plus with no negatives.
But the promises did not fund the maintenance and upkeep to the older parks in town, replace failing city streets with new asphalt ones or complete streets without contiguous sidewalks. It did fund the growth of city staff and salaries and a byzantine building code division with fees and permits required for nearly every change any real property could possibly require.
The city also embraced the redevelopment agency where the city became an owner and developer of blighted properties and could funnel property taxes directly into city coffers.
Old Town Camarillo became a development focus, the city became the single largest commercial land owner but Old Town never recovered from the impact of the big box stores and abandonment of small neighborhood shopping centers. At the same time the City accepted from Caltrans that the removal of two bridges in Old Town with the replacement of one was actually a benefit. The new off ramp where the old Fulton Street overpass used to be from the freeway exit to Highway 34 is jokingly called the shortest freeway in California.
Old Town now serves few well. It is difficult to navigate by automobile, dangerous to pedestrians and clearly in violation of the Federal ADA (Americans with Disabilities) act.
Was Old Town really blighted? Was the very rich farmland north of Camarillo Airport now called Springville development blighted? Should the city or any government body be in the business of buying and developing properties that eventually fall into private ownership? Is that not a conflict of financial interests?
Currently the City of Camarillo has claimed to be financially healthy with no fears of underfunding city employee retirement and health benefit programs. This is in spite of the accounting standards (GASB) that hide such costs from public scrutiny and warnings from independent groups such as Res Publica, Ventura County Taxpayers Association, and Transparent California that are exposing the true financial costs facing all cities.
When the City Council began, all of the city staff seating was below the Council; now the City Manager sits on one side of the Council and on the other side sits the City Attorney giving the distinct impression that the Council is led by these two very powerful persons. It isn’t an impression—it’s a fact—that the Council does not lead; it follows.
Our City Council is so experienced that it has embraced the impression of the seating of the council surrounded and led by the city attorney and manager without question, accepted the ethical lapse of declaring farmland blighted, city ownership and development of real estate and then selling or giving that property to private owners as perfectly ethical. ADA requirements can wait, contiguous sidewalks are superfluous, well maintained and equipped parks a nuisance.
Frugal fiscal restraint is an unknown when a government body is addicted to spending and revenue enhancement at all costs without check by elected officials. Perhaps it is time for the voters to change that dynamic and elect persons for limited times that have no experience, will ask the tough questions, provide frugal fiscal oversight, embrace ethical government practices, demand transparency and most of all actually represent the public interests to benefit all its citizens and not just the few.
Paul Githens, Camarillo Resident since 1956.