Ventura County Star – (9-27-2018) It’s been more than 14 months since Ventura officials learned the city’s top executive would be retiring. Mark Watkins, who became city manager in March 2013, gave several months’ notice to ensure a smooth transition, he and others hoped.

The Thomas Fire in December derailed those plans, with his tentative successor pulling out of consideration shortly after the fire. The City Council, which hires the city manager and city attorney, restarted the recruitment process.

Now, policymakers are prepared to make a permanent hire in Alex McIntyre, who has served as Menlo Park’s city manager since 2012. If the council approves his contract on Oct. 8, McIntyre is expected to start in mid-November.

“I believe Alex’s experience, enthusiasm and inclusive leadership style make him an ideal fit to be Ventura’s next city manager,” council member Matt LaVere said in a news release announcing the selection. “I know Alex is eager to begin his work here alongside council, city staff and all of our residents for the betterment of our community.”

Menlo Park is an affluent, diverse community of about 34,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city, in the expensive San Francisco market, was 16 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian and 5 percent black as of 2016. The median household income was $126,000.

It is also home to Facebook’s headquarters, which moved from Palo Alto to Menlo Park just before McIntyre’s arrival.

McIntyre was city manager at Lake Oswego in Oregon between 2008 and 2012. He also served as chief assistant county administrator with the County of Marin from 2006 to 2008, according to the news release. Before that, he was town manager for Tiburon and Portola Valley, both in Northern California.

McIntyre has a master of public administration degree from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California at Irvine, the release states.

Last year, McIntyre received a compensation package of $338,000, according to the state controller’s database on public pay. That included $42,000 toward his pension and $47,000 in employer-paid deferred compensation, according to the state controller’s database on public pay.

In his final year with Ventura, Watkins received a compensation package of $329,141.

The city hasn’t released details of McIntyre’s compensation. City spokesperson Kelly Flanders wrote in an email that the city “does not have any formalized agreement yet.”

The proposed agreement will be posted as part of the backup materials available in advance of the Oct. 8 meeting, she said. Those materials typically are available the Wednesday or Thursday before the meeting.

Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick served as interim city manager until last month, when he left to become the head of the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District in Simi Valley. Longtime public executive Don Penman immediately took over the interim position and he is expected to stay there until McIntyre starts.

Ventura names longtime public official Don Penman to lead city operations temporarily

Ventura County Star – (8-27-2018) Policymakers for Ventura voted to name to the city’s top post a veteran public official who has spent roughly four decades in government. On a 5-0 vote, the City Council appointed Don Penman interim city manager, a position he’ll hold until the council brings someone on permanently.

Mayor Neal Andrews and council member Cheryl Heitmann were absent from Monday night’s meeting. Although there were no concerns over Penman’s credentials, council member Mike Tracy wasn’t pleased with what happened leading up to the hiring. Tracy took issue with a third council member injecting herself in the process that, per council’s direction, had been assigned to two.

Penman retired as Arcadia’s city manager in 2011 after 36 years in the municipal sector but has continued working steadily. He has served as interim city manager in Azusa, Covina, Temple City and San Fernando, city officials said.

According to the approved contract, Penman will earn $111.54 per hour and receive no benefits. He’ll stay on for up to six months or until a permanent city manager is hired.

“Speaking for myself, I’m incredibly excited to have Mr. Penman come on board,” said council member Matt LaVere, who with Erik Nasarenko negotiated the terms of Penman’s hiring and contract. “He’s very experienced. I think he’s going to bring some fresh vision to the city in this gap period that we have. I’m excited to get his take on what we could be doing better.”

Nasarenko said in Penman, they “found someone who was both insightful and experienced, somebody who had a broad knowledge on a number of different municipal topics, among them water, budget, PERS (retirement obligations), and I think he’s going to be a great asset and a significant bridge-builder over the next couple of months.”

Although the council directed LaVere and Nasarenko to handle the negotiations, Heitmann attended the lunch meeting with Penman. That drew the ire of Tracy, who asked why Heitmann participated in the process.

LaVere said Heitmann called and asked to attend the lunch. After the four met, LaVere said he and Nasarenko then negotiated the terms of the contract.

“I just want to make it clear to my colleagues if the council directs that we have a two-person committee for any purpose, or a three-person committee for a purpose, then that’s who should be involved in it,” Tracy said. “There shouldn’t be an expansion of that committee for the purpose of involving more people unless there’s direction from the council.”

Tracy said he was disappointed the other committee members hadn’t ensured the integrity of that process.

Reached by phone after the meeting, Heitmann said she simply wanted to meet the candidate.

“I didn’t want to hire someone I didn’t actually meet. They did the contract negotiations,” she said, referring to LaVere and Nasarenko.

Heitmann said she was impressed with Penman and also would have voted to hire him.

“He seemed very capable and has a great background. He seemed like he would be a great fit,” she said.

Tracy said he wasn’t necessarily questioning her motives, nor did he consider it the “faux pas of the century, but it’s kind of a slippery slope. When council members start to do what they want to do and not what the entire council has directed, that’s something that needs to be called out.”

The council could have made it a three-person committee to start with, he noted, but that’s not the direction it took.

Penman will start his duties with the city immediately. He succeeds Dan Paranick, who resigned Friday to take over as the head of the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. Paranick became interim city manager in December after Mark Watkins’ retirement.

LaVere praised Paranick for the job he did when he was with the city.

“Dan served the city very, very well during some tough times. He’ll be missed but we wish him the best in his new position,” LaVere said.

Penman can work no more than 960 hours in a fiscal year, according to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System rules on working after retirement. He receives a pension of just under $207,000 per year, according to CalPERS. His pay for his Ventura work will be on top of that.

After the regular meeting, the council met in closed session to discuss the ongoing recruitment for a permanent city manager. The council took no action that required public disclosure, according to the city clerk’s office.

Ventura County supervisors urge Casitas to make drought declaration as lake levels fall

Ventura County Star – (8-8-2018) The Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday urged a water district serving more than 60,000 people and hundreds of farms to declare a drought emergency.

Supervisor Steve Bennett said the declaration should be made promptly to warn residents about the seriousness of the situation in the western Ventura County area served by the Casitas Municipal Water District.

“It is critical that those who rely on (the district’s) water realize the dire nature of this drought and have the opportunity to take any steps they possibly can to conserve further and stretch the length of time water is available,” Bennett wrote in a letter to the board.

The board voted Tuesday morning to recommend the declaration. The Ojai City Council considered the matter that evening, voting to recommend that the district communicate with the public on the seriousness of the situation. Council members did not call on the district to make a formal drought declaration.

Both votes are advisory to the board of the district. The public agency supplies water to residents of Ojai, the western side of Ventura to Mills Road, Upper Ojai, the Ventura River Valley area, and the Rincon and beach areas to the ocean and the Santa Barbara County line.

Bennett recommended the step a week after a group established to collaborate on water issues in the Ventura River watershed discussed the matter. They agreed the group should upgrade its response to the water crisis by seeking supervisors’ support for the drought declaration, Bennett said.

The district relies on Lake Casitas, where water levels have fallen during years of drought to the point that it is now only about a third full. Bennett said the water level in the lake is expected to fall beneath 30 percent before the rainy season begins. That would trigger a Stage 4 water crisis, he said.

The district currently is in Stage 3 of five stages, each calling for increasingly more stringent levels of conservation.

Casitas General Manager Steve Wickstrum said the drought declaration could help send the message that the water shortage is serious for people who are unaware of it.

“It reaffirms that water is scarce in this area because we have not been replenished by rainfall, he said.

Wickstrum said it would be up to the board what the drought declaration should say.

Stage 4 could mean a 10 percent further reduction in use for customers, Wickstrum said.

Customers have already cut their consumption by 40 percent, Casitas board member Russ Baggerly said.

Baggerly said he would be reluctant to impose 10 percent more on top of that.

“The board is going to have to make a decision on how to deal with the incredible amount of conservation people have already achieved,” he said.

The declaration could also help qualify the district for state grants, Bennett said.

The next time the Casitas board could consider the supervisors’ recommendation for a drought emergency declaration is Aug. 22.

To pay for increased fire services, Ventura looks to cut overtime

Ventura County Star – (7-23-2018) A proposal to increase Ventura’s fire staffing would be paid for by a combination of property taxes and through reducing overtime in the city department that logs the most: fire.

A roving paramedic fire engine, if approved by the City Council at its Monday meeting, will cost $600,000 to operate for the first year, according to a staff report. Officials are recommending using $462,000 the state is sending from lost property taxes related to the Thomas Fire and diverting $138,000 from the Ventura Fire Department’s overtime budget.

Fire officials said adding staff is critical at a time the department is facing a rapid increase in calls for service. The department received 16,220 calls for service in 2017, compared to 15,027 the previous year. Five years ago, it received 12,679 calls, said Doug Miser, the head of the department’s management union.

Last year, the city’s overtime budget hit $2.9 million, according to The Star’s analysis of data reported by the state controller’s website. In each of the past five years, that amount has ranged from $1.8 million to $2.9 million.

The City Council’s direction to return with information about adding the unit came about in an atypical way. It immediately followed a 6-0 vote to approve the final budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which started July 1. Typically, budgets are prepared over several months with input from department heads, who come with lists of needs and wants, which are then prioritized and considered against available money.

The union was “pretty shocked” to learn the budget didn’t add staff despite repeatedly sharing concerns that the Ventura Fire Department needed more resources, Miser said. He and others had been under the impression the department would be one of the most prioritized departments.
“We need anywhere from 12 to 18 more people,” he said.

Staffing is at four fewer positions than in 2008, putting the agency at 1988 levels with 72 sworn firefighters and leaving it in a position where it can’t adequately protect the city’s residents, Miser said.

Council member Mike Tracy said he had a hard time reconciling the requests for more staffing when the recent closure of a county fire station just outside the city limits generated little concern by fire officials at the time.

“I know that our fire calls for service have increased over the years and yet it was odd to me at the time, even before I knew they were going to ask for more people, that they were so willing to let the fire station close,” he said.

Fire officials said now, as then, there weren’t many calls coming from the station at 12391 Telegraph Road, near the city’s east end. The problem is an explosion of calls citywide, they say.

Monday’s staff recommendation, in addition to authorizing the medic engine, directs Fire Chief David Endaya to work with City Manager Dan Paranick to address “workload demands and related issues.”

Tracy would like to see the fire agency study its entire operations. With at least 80 percent of calls involving medical response, “it seems to me as a layperson we should do a serious evaluation of alternative ways to handle those calls. It may not even be handled by the fire service. Maybe we just send an ambulance.”

Tracy spent roughly three decades with Ventura police, and he saw the department change dramatically over that time. The fire agency is still geographically based, with a model that depends on stations, he said. It would be great to add more stations and people, but “we have limitations on how many of any type of employee we can hire and how much we can expand the services we have.”

When voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 2016, the council specified that some of the money would go toward permanently keeping Fire Station No. 4. The station at 8303 Telephone Road closed in July 2010 because of budget cuts and reopened in January 2012 after the city got a federal grant that covered most of its operating costs for a few years.

Money from the tax paid $1.64 million toward the station’s 2017-18 operating costs, while the other $600,000 came from the general fund, Ventura’s main checkbook for salaries, benefits, parks, planning and other services. The city’s 2018-19 budget dedicated $1.72 million from the tax revenues toward keeping the station open.

Fire union leaders say Measure O shouldn’t be used for Fire Station No. 4 at all — indeed, the rank-and-file and management groups were uncomfortable it was part of the campaign to pass the tax, Miser wrote in a letter sent to each of the City Council members.

“As you are hopefully aware, every single member of the Ventura Fire Management group dedicated a significant amount of personal time in call banks and walking districts in an effort to pass Measure O. … We believe we are way past due in staffing another fire station in the city and reinstating the Assistant Fire Administration Chief position,” Miser wrote in a letter he sent to each member of the City Council.

In late May, Miser reached out to each of them requesting a meeting to discuss the situation, according to emails obtained by The Star.

Council member Erik Nasarenko met with Miser a few days later. He said he heard from many in the department as well as from Endaya about staffing concerns in the months leading up to the budget process.

“It became clear to me that there was a need to restore firefighting levels to pre-recession levels,” said Nasarenko, who voted with the 6-0 majority to return with information about the roving medic engine (Tracy was absent). “The idea was to restore a roving engine of three people that would be nimble and responsive to the entire Ventura community.”

Overtime is built into the Ventura Fire Department because of the way the city staffs and schedules the unit.

Schedules are based on a 56-hour workweek, but because of different rules that govern the schedules of firefighters in the state, three of those hours per week are considered overtime, according to California Public Employees’ Retirement System spokesperson Amy Morgan.

Most of the overtime results from Ventura hiring enough staff for each shift, according to Endaya. That means vacation time and sick days are covered by colleagues working overtime, which translates into thousands of hours annually.

A starting firefighter gets the equivalent of 14, 24-hour vacation shifts per year. Fire personnel who have 14 years of service or more get the equivalent of 23⅓, 24-hour shifts, which works out to more than two months of time off per year.

Fire personnel work on average 10 days per month, excluding overtime shifts.

They also get the equivalent of just over 5½, 24-hour shifts in sick time, according to the current contract.

Last year, the highest earner citywide was a fire battalion chief who brought home roughly $298,000, according to the state controller’s site. Of that, overtime accounted for $131,000. Another 25 fire employees also earned more than $50,000 per year in overtime, The Star’s analysis found.

The Ventura Police Department, which in recent years has had the second-highest amount of overtime, had just under $2.6 million in overtime pay in 2017. But that was for far more employees – around 230 sworn and civilian employees, compared to the fire agency’s 96 sworn and civilian members listed in the public database.

Fire union leaders say the city is reaching a breaking point when it comes to response times, arriving to calls in under five minutes around 59 percent of the time.

On April 24, the head of Ventura’s rank-and-file firefighters’ union emailed the council, Paranick and Endaya. The city is currently operating under a 1978 staffing model, Shawn Hughes wrote.

The union voted against accepting a pay raise of just over 5 percent over two years — the same amount agreed to by the police union — because “we are demanding change. Working conditions need immediate attention and the citizens of Ventura deserve properly staffed public safety departments,” he wrote.

Two weeks later, Hughes wrote again, this time “formally requesting that all public education and outreach be stopped immediately.”

Taking units out for those things was “now an unsafe practice. We need to maximize the number of available resources to maintain public safety that this community demands.”

As the city prepared for the Amgen Tour of California, Endaya and other members of management made plans to ensure a fire truck was at the cycling race’s start near the Ventura Pier. Hughes said fulfilling the request could delay response times for true emergencies.

“There are other departments in the city with large pieces of equipment and PROPER STAFFING that may be better used for a photo opportunity,” he wrote.

The truck ended up being part of the celebration. Endaya said fire employees set it up, then returned to their stations to be available for any emergency calls. After the race, they came back to get the truck.

Endaya said he understands the frustrations of other fire members. The department has three priorities, he said: emergency response, training and public education. Of those, only those that fall in the third category can realistically be reduced, he said.

Everything the union is asking for is what Endaya has requested, he said.

Said Miser: “We as managers are failing at what we do, not due to lack of experience, effort, or passion, but moreover, we cannot simply handle the workload.”

To City Council member Matt LaVere, adding the roving station is an “incredible start and will do wonders.”

Monday’s meeting will start at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 501 Poli St. Read the staff report at https://bit.ly/2O4xICQ.

Crews fight 2nd fire in 2 days near Ventura Harbor

Ventura County Star – (6-30-2018) For the second day in a row, crews on Saturday battled a vegetation blaze near Ventura Harbor even as they fought a separate fire off Highway 101 north of Ventura.

Agencies mounted a massive response to a grass fire reported at 2:34 p.m. at Highway 101 and the State Beaches exit just north of Ventura. Bulldozers, ground crews and helicopter support were initially called out to help fight the blaze. There was sparse to light to heavy grass and the fire was spreading at a moderate speed, crews on the scene reported.

By 3 p.m., the fire seemed to be under control at less than 2 acres and many of the firefighting units were released or canceled.

At least two lanes of northbound Highway 101 were closed during the blaze.

On the heels of that blaze, crews were called to fight a structure fire in the 300 block of Donlin Road in Newbury Park. The two-alarm fire was reported at 3:41 and appeared to be a garage fire in a home and had been knocked down by 4 p.m.

Near Ventura Harbor, crews were called at 1:20 p.m. to fight a blaze in the 1600 block of Spinnaker Drive in an area of the the Santa Clara River bottom adjacent to a site that had burned the day before. Early on, the fire was reported a quarter-acre in size. Crews were on the scene for several hours, and included personnel from the city of Ventura, Oxnard and Ventura County fire departments.

The cause of the fire was unknown. The Ventura Fire Department said personnel had been patrolling the site of the fire the day before with no problems until Saturday’s fire erupted.

Friday’s fire at the location was reported just after 12:50 p.m. near Harbor Boulevard at Olivas Park Drive, approximately 100 yards from the shoreline in the Santa Clara River bottom, officials said. It burned brush around several homeless encampments, officials said.

Authorities said the blaze mapped out at 7 acres and burned in arundo donax — an invasive reed that grows in the river bottom — but crews were able to get control of the flames by 3:40 p.m. when forward progress was stopped.

The suspected cause of the blaze was an escaped flame from a cooking fire in one of the homeless encampments, authorities said.

Portions of Harbor Boulevard were closed at Spinnaker Drive while crews fought the blaze, but the street later reopened. River Haven, a transitional housing site on Olivas Park Drive, was evacuated as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.

Crews with the city of Ventura Fire Department were assisted by county and Oxnard firefighters, the Ventura Harbor Patrol, Ventura police and the California Highway Patrol.

State’s Thomas Fire debris removal completed, reaching 672 properties

Ventura County Star – (6-15-2018) Debris removal at 672 properties in Ventura County with structures destroyed by Thomas Fire was completed last week by crews with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.
That marks completion of the debris-removal process at properties participating in the state-funded program.

CalRecyle officials said Thursday that 263,925 pounds of debris, including ash and contaminated soil, were removed from participating properties where structures were destroyed by the fire that began in December in the hills outside Santa Paula.

The state-funded debris removal began Jan. 19 with the final property cleared of debris June 6.

As of Thursday afternoon, soil sampling had been completed at 670 properties and erosion-control measures had been installed at 663.

Department crews had performed 652 final property inspections, which verify that a property is eligible for a building permit, with the final 20 due to be performed in coming weeks.

Mural celebrates Ventura’s more than 150 years as a city

Ventura County Star – (5-18-2018) There was a lot going on in 2016 when Ventura celebrated 150 years as a city. Historical tours, a concert, a specially brewed IPA beer, a poster contest and “1 million acts of kindness,” an initiative launched by then-Mayor Cheryl Heitmann as a way to brighten lives.

Planning for many of the events began in 2015, and that’s the year longtime elected official Christy Weir thought, in addition to all of that: “We need something lasting.”

She thought of artist Michael O’Kelly, who has lived in Ventura for decades and who has art all around the world. Weir had long thought his work should be featured prominently in Ventura, and she had been frustrated that his art was everywhere but here. The sesquicentennial presented an opportunity to change that.

Weir rang O’Kelly. He was in.

The idea is now a reality, on a wall just outside the San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura. It is 50 feet long, 9½ feet tall and composed of 2,300 tiles.

“The hardest part was leaving anything out,” O’Kelly said. “But it is the history of the town, this architecture, the people, the pioneers who brought something to the town and left their mark, so it’s a legacy.”

The mural was funded entirely through private donations — although it required an easement onto the public sidewalk — and grew significantly in scope as it went along. Originally, it was envisioned as being 12 feet by 8 feet. But what could fit onto that?

There were also delays related to permits, raising money as costs grew and archaeological findings. As crews took down a stucco wall, with plans to replace it with the one for the mural, they hit the edge of what was believed to be a cemetery used by the Chumash from the 1780s.

A few months later, the work resumed, this time on a wall about 2 feet farther out. Because of the timing, the nearly completed mural incorporated two major events that happened between 2016 and 2018.

One is the Thomas Fire, depicted by O’Kelly as a phoenix rising from the flamenco dress worn by his wife, Gisele, who is pictured next to their son Devin.

The fire, which began Dec. 4 just outside of Santa Paula, is the largest officially recorded fire in modern California history, and it hit Ventura hard. More than 500 homes burned and countless people were displaced, some temporarily and others permanently.

The other, more personal, event for O’Kelly and his wife was the loss of Devin, who died in March 2017.

“For a while, it was so debilitating that I thought about giving the whole thing up and just quitting and it was very hard,” O’Kelly said. “But his writing and his art and his friends brought me back to realize I could keep going in a way that would honor him.”

Devin, who was a senior at Santa Clara University, is also in the mural holding a copy of the Ventura County Star newspaper. In another spot, he is a star in the sky. His college named a star for him, O’Kelly said.

“It’s comforting to be able to walk past this mural and see him, I think as it is for other people who’ve come to see it already and they’ve seen their parents or their loved ones in the mural who’ve passed on,” O’Kelly said. “It’s been very emotional and very cathartic for those people, too.”

David Hilty, a retired firefighter and owner of California Oaks Property Management, can relate. His sister died three years ago. She’s in the mural near the Palms on the Avenue, a former hamburger stand on the west side. It’s where she worked in high school in the 1950s.

“She was 16. I remember getting some of my first Cokes and french fries there,” Hilty said. The picture is based on a high school yearbook photograph.

Also in the mural is former Ventura Police Department Sgt. Dee Dowell, who was killed while on duty in 1978. Hilty said there are plans to install a plaque honoring Cal Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, who died near Fillmore while fighting the Thomas Fire.

The mural starts in 1866, the year Ventura became an official city. There are nods to agriculture in the lima beans, apricots and avocados, recognitions of buildings including the first fire station (now the Clocktower Inn), City Hall, Community Memorial Hospital, the mission, the Ventura Pier, Father Junipero Serra and those with last names who probably sound familiar: Poli, Hobson, Bard.

There are also newer names, in Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie; Phil Taggart, current Ventura County poet laureate; ARTLIFE publisher Joe Cardella; young musician Jade Hendrix; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy singer Scotty Morris; longtime resident Helen Yunker; and on and on.

O’Kelly worked closely with historian Cynthia Thompson to make sure the mural included all the major players and buildings and was accurately depicted.

“Art is one thing, but historical accuracy is crucial,” Weir said.

Every time she looks at it, and that’s been a lot over the past three years, Weir said she sees something different. One of her favorite features about the piece? It should last hundreds of years and require little maintenance.

O’Kelly used what is called the cuerda seca method of applying the colored glaze to the ceramic tiles, which involves painting black lines around the shapes and filling them in by hand with a syringe. The tiles were then baked at high heat. The result should be a piece of privately funded public art to last for hundreds of years.

Weir is hopeful its location near Figueroa Plaza, the mission and the Museum of Ventura County will create a triangle that could spur tourism and invigorate it even further.

“My hope is that the families who have gone before us will be able to come here and see their family history,” Weir said. “We have children come to the mission all the time and those children will be able to look at the history of our city here and see what happened before and, hopefully, envision what they might want to see happen in the future with their own part in our history, and be inspired to make a difference in our city and to make it even better.”

The mural was on display for the Amgen Tour of California race on Monday but will be covered for finishing touches until sometime next month, Weir said. Part of that work involves installing the rest of the sponsor plaques; The Star is one of the sponsors.

As Ventura seethes over fatal stabbing, police acknowledge mistake in handling of homeless man

Los Angeles Times – (4-24-2018) On Wednesday evening, the Ventura Police Department received a call about a homeless man “yelling and being disruptive” in the city’s promenade area, a bustling boardwalk flush with restaurants.

Officers in the area were busy, so police decided to monitor the man on a surveillance camera, ultimately deciding he was not a threat.

Hours later, police said, the man entered a nearby steakhouse and plunged a knife into the neck of Anthony Mele Jr., fatally wounding the 35-year-old while his wife and daughter looked on in horror.

Mele’s killing has roiled the city: Some residents are highly critical of police for failing to send officers after the initial complaint. Advocates for the homeless fear the attack could reverse the city’s progress in reaching out to its most vulnerable residents.

The slaying also highlights the difficulty police face in interacting with people who are homeless or mentally ill. In some cities, including Los Angeles, law enforcement has been accused of over-policing the homeless community, leading to encounters that sometimes turn deadly. But in Ventura, many believe the lack of a police response may have led to Mele’s death.

Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney said Monday that officers should have responded to the initial call, adding that an administrative review is underway.

“Our practice is not to handle these calls by security cameras. It is to put boots on the ground,” he told The Times.

But outrage had already spread through the community. Rebecca Mele said she is furious with police in the wake of her son’s killing, and has demanded that city leaders do more to address Ventura’s homeless population.

“To the mayor, I say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” she said. “This is your city, and so are the homeless people. We should have something to provide for them. It’s very hard. I understand there were complaints [about the suspect’s behavior], the police didn’t answer, and now my son is dead.”

Dozens showed up at a City Council meeting Monday evening to vent frustrations over how the city is handling the homeless population.

“We have been devastated by the fires, and we are now being run out by vagrants,” said one speaker, adding that her kids have found men with spoons and needles in their yard. Her comments drew cheers and applause.

In a statement last week, police promised to increase patrols in the promenade area, a move that has drawn concern from social workers and homeless advocates.

Ventura County’s homeless population has decreased annually since 2012, and the number of homeless people in the city of Ventura dropped by more than 50% in the same time frame, according to a countywide study conducted last year. Some advocates fear that a strong police response to the stabbing might scare people away from services they desperately need.

“We are hoping it doesn’t result in a setback for the movement that has been happening in the county and city,” said Susan Brinkmeyer, former director of Lift Your Voice, a program under the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura that provides services to the homeless. “We’re not going to solve anything by rousting people, but rather by dealing with it by creating a solution.”

Brinkmeyer hoped fallout from the stabbing would not lead to generalizations about the city’s homeless community.

“I know at the moment there is a good deal of anger and a sense that the individual who committed the assault is homeless, and that may lead to a backlash against all homeless people,” she said. “As a community, we need to help those that are homeless.”

Corney said the department received a call about a man yelling and being disruptive on the promenade near the Crowne Plaza Hotel at 6:23 p.m. on Wednesday. All patrol units in the area were “tied up on other calls,” according to Corney, who did not disclose the nature of those calls.

A decision was made at the department’s 911 operations center to observe the man on a security camera trained on the pier.

“They didn’t see any behavior that appeared to be concerning or significantly disruptive,” the chief said.

The man, 49-year-old Jamal Jackson, entered the nearby Aloha Steakhouse at 9:09 p.m. and slashed Mele in the neck with a 4- to 5-inch hunting knife while the victim sat at a table, according to Cmdr. Tom Higgins.

“It was so quick, my son turned and was stabbed while he’s holding his daughter,” Rebecca Mele, 57, said.

Jackson has been charged with murder and is being held without bail. He is due in court this week.

Officers should have eventually been dispatched to the area to contact the man once they completed other calls, Corney said. The department is reviewing the way it uses surveillance cameras to monitor calls for service, Higgins said.

The officers in the dispatch center did not know the man they were observing was Jackson, a homeless man with a lengthy criminal record in Ventura and San Bernardino counties who had been arrested by city police a month earlier.

Jackson has prior convictions for burglary and statutory rape in Ventura County, Senior Dist. Atty. Richard Simon said. He has also been arrested several times in San Bernardino County, most recently in 2014, when he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, making criminal threats and false imprisonment, according to court records.

Jackson pleaded guilty to the false imprisonment charge as part of a negotiated plea deal in 2016, records show. Calls and e-mails to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office were not returned Monday. Corney said Jackson was not on parole or probation at the time of the killing.

Jackson was arrested by Ventura Police in a March domestic violence incident, according to Simon.

“It’s a horrible attack,” Simon said. “No one expects to go to a restaurant with their family and be stabbed as they hold their daughter.”

Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews said he was “concerned” by the decision not to approach Jackson.

“While he apparently did not exhibit any behavior warranting immediate intervention, my concern was still the response was canceled instead of followed up later as other calls were managed and handled,” he said.

Violent crime is rare in the community — the stabbing marked the city’s first homicide of the year — and Andrews said anger over the attack has been palpable. He has received e-mails from residents demanding the city outlaw panhandling, or conduct aggressive arrests along the promenade and pier area where homeless people are known to congregate.

“People get angry about situations like this and it’s totally, totally, understandable,” Andrews said. “I’m angry. My colleagues are angry, and yet, we understand that there is a limitation on what might be appropriate action.”

Some policing experts said the situation is indicative of a larger problem in law enforcement. At a time when trust between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect is shaky, officers are less likely to interact with a homeless or mentally ill person because the situation could end in a deadly use of force or community backlash.

“The national tone at this point is he has an illness and enforcement is disfavored. Enforcement can be construed as harassment pretty quickly,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “He’s on the street, he’s not committing a crime, and you’re gonna roust him with a heavy hand?”

Mele said police and city leaders should expect continued outrage over their handling of her son’s death.

“It’s a sick thing,” she said. “My son was a wonderful, loving father. His daughter loved him to death…. He was an all-around good guy and a good son.”

Groundbreaking set for Ventura affordable housing

Ventura County Star — (3-29-2018) Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. will conduct a groundbreaking ceremony for its newest affordable-housing development, Phase II of Snapdragon Place Apartments, on April 5 at 11094 Snapdragon St. in Ventura.
The event will begin at 10 a.m. with a reception in the community room at Snapdragon Place Apartments. The program will include a welcome address from Cabrillo and its project partners. After the program, attendees will walk to the building site for the groundbreaking ceremony and photos.

Cabrillo is developing the project in partnership with the Housing Authority of San Buenaventura, which will provide property management.

Snapdragon Place Apartments is a new construction development at Snapdragon Street and Los Angeles Avenue in east Ventura. Cabrillo completed Phase I of the project, which included 28 units, in 2015. Phase II will provide 22 more homes and will consist of five two-story buildings enclosing a landscaped interior courtyard. The unit mix will include four one-bedroom homes, 10 two-bedroom homes and eight three-bedroom homes.

The project will include 11 special needs units, with four one-bedroom units designated for homeless veterans through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. All units except for manager’s unit will have Section 8 vouchers for families and individuals with incomes between 30 to 60 percent of the area median income.

Thomas Fire homeowners seek economy of scale in mass rebuild

Ventura County Star — (3-8-2018) The news came from a neighbor, of course.

Two hours earlier, it looked like Dylan Chappell’s Ondulando home might survive the Thomas Fire as it pushed its way through Ventura’s hillsides in a random path, preying on a house here but not one just down the hill.

Then the fire jumped. Chappel’s cellphone buzzed. It was Damien Zegers, who lived on the same street, on Colina Vista, and was checking on houses.

“He was like, ‘Oh man, I’m really sorry, your house is totally on fire,’” said Chappell. “I think he said, ‘It’s gone, dude. It’s gone.’”

Zegers started rescuing possessions firefighters dragged out: a wedding picture of Dylan and Danica Chappell signed by family and friends, jewelry, an Elf on the Shelf toy for the couple’s two kids and Danica’s wedding dress.

“He literally had a brand-new car that he filled with our smoke-filled possessions,” Chappell said.

Neighbors have always helped each other here. Chappell thinks the dynamic will carry through a massive rebuild involving many of the 777 homes destroyed by the fire, more than 500 of them in Ventura.

Those numbers will deplete the housing construction workforce, possibly send prices rising and make neighbors compete against each other.

The 38-year-old architect who found a temporary home in Oxnard’s RiverPark thinks there’s a different way.

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, what is it going to cost to rebuild my home’ and compete with five other neighbors … get together with your neighbors and see if you can get one contractor to build all five of your houses,” he said.

The idea is just an idea but it’s spreading. Underinsured homeowners desperate to save money are talking about joining forces to create an economy of scale. Home builders, architects and others are also trying to find ways to work together.

In Chappell’s stretch of Colina Vista, the architect and a neighbor have already shared a land surveyor. Chappell is designing both homes, using variations of the same plan.

They plan to build together, too. They are talking to a handful of neighbors, as well, with the idea of not only sharing general contractors but concrete specialists, electricians and other subcontractors.

No commitments have been made and likely won’t be made until the group starts to see real numbers in construction bids.

“That will be a reality check,” said Chappell, who thinks it may take longer to build. He also thinks it’s at least possible the collaborators could save 10 to 20 percent.

“I don’t know if those numbers are realistic, but I think it’s at least worth going through the exercise of finding out,” he said.

Will it pay off?
The idea gets mixed reviews from contractors. David Atkin, a Ventura builder, said the way money would be saved by people banding together is if they build almost duplicate homes.

He’s not sure that will happen.

“Everyone’s going to want to have their own individual house,” he said, asserting that many of the construction costs are fixed. “You’re talking about costs of material and man-hours. That’s not going to change if you’re building one house or five houses.”

Others note that many of the residences lost to the fire in the hillsides were first built as part of tract communities. They also contend contractors will be willing to accept less on each home to work on more homes.

“If you buy six Yorkshire terriers, wouldn’t you get a better price than if you get one?”

Rick Rose, Rose Masonry and Concrete
“Common sense would tell you would get a better price,” said Rick Rose of Rose Masonry and Concrete in Ventura, who thinks he’ll likely do foundation work in the fire-scarred neighborhoods. “If you buy six Yorkshire terriers, wouldn’t you get a better price than if you get one?”

Most people hedge their bets.

“It’s too early to know,” said Jeff Lambert, community development director for the city of Ventura, noting that the concept of saving money and resources by banding together makes sense. “I don’t think it’s impossible. The city is very open to exploring those kinds of ideas.”

’A healing process’
Homeowners aren’t the only ones talking about unifying. Architects, general contractors, engineers and others have formed a rebuild Ventura coalition.

“We knew this was going to be a huge issue,” said architect and general contractor Laura Kay Dunbar, referring to the number of homes lost in Ventura, the likely workforce shortage and the difficulties of rebuilding on hillsides.

Part of the coalition’s efforts involves holding workshops to help homeowners understand what’s coming. Another part is figuring out how the economy of scale concept can be employed.

Dunbar thinks the key involves homeowners on adjacent lots agreeing to build similar homes. That would allow contractors to buy in quantity and work in one general area.

There are other variations. Architect David Ferrin, also part of the coalition, said that if he designs a home for someone rebuilding, he’ll offer the same plan at a reduced price to other neighbors.

“That would probably be about half my fee,” Ferrin said, noting that the first client would get money back for each other person who used the plan.

An easy decision
Some contractors are aggressively pursuing the economy of scale.

Williams Homes, a Santa Clarita contractor building a development off Ventura’s Telegraph Road called The Farm, is also reaching out to Thomas Fire homeowners. They want to build tract homes.

The more, the merrier.

“The larger scale that we build on, the better pricing we’re able to deliver,” said Daniel Faina, vice president of sales and marketing for Willams Homes, noting that company representatives have met with “dozens” of families.

The idea of homeowners building together makes sense and could bring savings, said Faina. The problem comes in finding the time required to navigate the journey.

He suggested finding a contractor who will guide the entire process.

“We know what’s ahead,” he said.

Apprehension about rebuilding
Bob Holmberg doesn’t know what’s ahead. The unknown intrigues him.

The retired chef who now teaches at Oxnard College’s culinary school lived next to Dylan Chappell on Colina Vista for nearly three years.

Then the Thomas Fire wiped out both of their homes.

Holmberg, 68, wasn’t sure whether to rebuild. He decided to go ahead, in part as a way to use insurance money that can be applied toward the costs of a new home.

“I’m excited about the idea. I like it. It’s a new adventure for me,” he said.

He and Chappell shared resources on renovation projects. Teaming up on design and construction was an easy idea. He realizes neighbors may struggle on whether to join forces.

“There’s a lot of apprehension,” he said, noting people want to build their homes according to their needs and on their own schedule. “People are trying to decide what to do. ‘Where do I throw my hand?’”

Chappell doesn’t know what’s going to happen either. But he thinks the possibilities should be explored.

Even more importantly, he thinks people should talk openly about their plans, understand that what they build affects others and work together when they can.

“You should just be talking to your neighbor,” he said.

Ventura to weigh Thomas Fire rebuilding rules, begin prepping next year’s budget

Ventura County Star — (2/25/18) New measures to help those who lost homes in the Thomas Fire will be considered at Monday’s Ventura City Council meeting. The council will also get a first look at the 2018-19 budget, consider the impact of a county fire station closing just outside city limits and explore joining a regional energy program.

The city staff is recommending allowing fire victims to live in recreational vehicles where their home used to be during reconstruction, amending regulations to allow heights of up to 17 feet and only charging water and sewer connection fees if the new home’s meter must be bigger.

Permit fees to rebuild a typical single-family home will be $6,300 to $7,500, a staff report states.

“These fees however, are only for the building permit review and issuance and do not include fees for debris removal or existing fees associated with possible water meter upgrades required to meet current building requirements,” according to the staff report.

The water meter upgrades range from zero cost to $16,819 if, for example, the sewer and water lines need to be increased in size, the report notes.

The city has an expedited process for people looking to rebuild a structure similar to the one they lost. It has created a separate office and hired outside help to make sure the process moves quickly.

The 2018-19 budget
The meeting will include the first workshop for preparing the 2018-19 spending plan. Had this been a typical year, the city would be looking at revenues coming in $1.4 million higher than expenses, the staff report notes.
But that doesn’t include a number of factors, including the substantial impact from the Thomas Fire; contract negotiations likely to boost employee compensation; money to increase the general fund reserve; economic uncertainty; and retirement costs, the biggest ongoing expense of them all.

This year, the city is expected to pay the California Public Employees’ Retirement System just under $20 million, which includes roughly $4.2 million in employee contributions, according to the city and CalPERS.

Of that, the biggest share is the unfunded accrued liability, or money due workers for hours already logged. That portion is the biggest and is funded entirely by taxpayers. That will be roughly $12.9 million in 2018-19 and is expected to rise to just over $23 million by 2024-25, according to CalPERS actuarial reports.

Put another way, that’s a growth of just over $117 per person per year to $212 — and that doesn’t include ongoing costs for current and future work. That’s just to pay for pension costs already accumulated.

Fire protection
The city of Santa Paula is in the process of disbanding its fire department to instead get coverage from the Ventura County Fire Department. When that happens, the county will close Fire Station No. 26 at 12931 W. Telegraph Road, less than two miles from the city of Ventura. The plan is for the county to operate within Santa Paula’s two existing stations.

Based on historical data, Ventura’s fire department will respond to 45 more calls per year outside city limits, according to the staff report. Residents will also get less support from the county. Fire agencies in the region have mutual-aid agreements, meaning the closest available unit responds to incidents.

Ventura Fire Chief David Endaya is seeking direction from the council on whether to work with the county to mitigate the service impact the closure of the fire station is expected to have on the city, formally protest Santa Paula’s annexation into the county fire district or work with the county on also joining the fire district.

Clean-energy program
Also Monday, the council will discuss joining a clean-energy program initiated by Los Angeles County.

The energy venture, the Los Angeles Community Choice Energy Authority (or Community Choice Energy), is rooted in a state law that says local governments can establish community choice programs to generate and distribute power. Supporters hope to generate more renewable energy through the sun and wind, for example, than private utility companies do, and at lower cost.

To date, 29 cities in Los Angeles County have joined the plan, and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors agreed to be part of it, the staff report states. Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Ojai, Oxnard, Moorpark and Simi Valley have also joined.

It’s not clear what cost this could have on energy users. The city expects costs to go down, but there are variables and risks and lots of questions marks, the staff report notes.

“In addition, the city has not conducted any public outreach regarding joining the LACCE and what the potential impacts may be to residential and commercial electricity customers,” it notes.

Monday’s meeting will start at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 501 Poli St. See the full agenda and staff reports at http://bit.ly/2HDK3e1.

Arroyo Verde Park Reopening Friday, Feb. 16

City of Ventura — 
(2/15/18) The City of Ventura invites community members to visit Arroyo Verde Park when it reopens on Friday, February 16, 2018. The park, located at Foothill and Day Roads, was closed for approximately 10-weeks to ensure safe conditions for park users and repair damage due to the Thomas Fire and January rain event.

“It is important to us that our community has the opportunity to utilize Arroyo Verde Park again, as quickly and as safely as possible. The reopening of the park is a significant milestone in the City’s recovery efforts and we look forward to restoring the remaining portions of the park over time,” said Tom Martin, Parks Manager. “As we reopen Arroyo Verde Park, please remember to adhere to the signage located throughout the park.”

City crews and contractors worked hard to restore and reopen this highly visited park for the community to enjoy. The work included removing burned debris, tree removal, trail repair and installing mitigation measures for rain events.

Volunteers from Ventura Boy Scout Troop 111 and the Ventura Land Trust took action to preserve this treasured park by removing rocks, sticks, and trash from the trails to make them accessible for the public. Visitors need to stay on the trail and off the burned areas. For safety, dogs need to be on a leash while on the trails.

Access to most areas of the park will be open. Certain areas of the park will be limited as City staff continue cleanup efforts in the fenced off sections: Interpretive Center, pump house, playground, and the burned slopes on both sides of the park. Parkgoers, including dogs, need to stay off the slopes and adhere to the signs indicating to “Stay Out.”

There is currently no water or electricity available at the park; restrooms are available. Parks and Public Works crews are working to restore water and electricity and get other amenities reestablished. The park is open daily from daybreak to 5:30pm until further notice; off leash dog park hours are from 6-9 am daily.

Balboa Middle School student arrested, principal placed on leave

Ventura County Star —

(2/12/18) An alleged altercation between Balboa Middle School students last Tuesday has led to the arrest of one student and the principal of the school being placed on administrative leave.

One student was arrested following an alleged incident that took place off campus, Ventura Unified Superintendent David Creswell said Monday. The student was arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace, battery and criminal threats on campus after the incident occurred, according to the Ventura Police Department.

The principal of the Ventura school, Wes Wade, was placed on administrative leave last week following the incident, Creswell said. Wade has been temporarily replaced by a retired administrator.

“Any time students hurt each other or use racial slurs, it is unacceptable and everyone in the district (board, administrators, staff) are saddened and work hard to investigate and educate,” Creswell said in an email to The Star.

Since the alleged incident and subsequent arrest, the school and the district have taken measures to talk about the violence with the students and parents and have increased security on the campus, Creswell said. There was a parent meeting scheduled Monday evening at 6 p.m. and the 1,100 students went to assemblies Friday where the incident was discussed, as was violence and bullying.

“There is no tolerance for violence in this district. There is no tolerance for racist activities in this district,” Creswell said. “The perpetrators of this racially charged violence will be dealt with appropriately. But we will also attempt to educate and restore them. Somewhere we must stop this cycle of violence, and education is one of the best ways to fight prejudice.”

Creswell said the Ventura police are very much involved not only with an investigation but making sure campus is safe.

“VUSD has at our core commitment to maintaining a supportive school culture that cherishes, protects, respects and serves all students,” Creswell said. “We are committed to safe and healthy schools.”

There will be a Ventura Unified school board meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m., the alleged incident is not an item on the agenda but some parents are expected to speak during the public comment period.

Ventura votes to forgive water charges for some households

Ventura County Star —

(1/30/18) Ventura Water customers who received unusually high bills after the Thomas Fire can apply for relief under a new program.

The Ventura City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday to cut bills for customers who live in areas of the city that were under mandatory evacuation during the December wildfire. The city will charge those households equivalent to their average bill during a two-year period.

Mayor Neal Andrews was absent from the special meeting, which was quickly called following resident complaints after they began receiving bills last week.

The city staff had recommended charging for any water used beyond their average at a lower rate, an approach adopted in the city of Santa Rosa. Ventura’s elected officials chose to go further, forgiving all water use beyond their average.

The city uses a tiered system for charging water, with Tier 1 being the cheapest and reflecting the lowest water usage. Because high water usage bumped people into the more expensive higher tiers, the recent bills climbed in some cases by hundreds of dollars.

The council felt households shouldn’t be penalized for helping save their home or the home of their neighbor.

“This water was used for the fire. It is a fire cost,” council member Christy Weir said. If the federal government won’t reimburse the city for that cost, it still doesn’t make sense ratepayers should be on the hook for it, she said.

It’s difficult to say how much the move will cost the city. Ventura Water General Manager Kevin Brown said there wasn’t time to do a statistical analysis of impacted areas. Based on his initial recommendation of simply charging less for the excess water used, he was estimating a cost of between $600,000 and $1.7 million. But the city isn’t charging for it at all.

The money to refund customers can’t come from the water fund, which is paid for by rates. A rate must under state law reflect the cost of service, so another customer can’t subsidize other people’s bills.

“The enterprise fund will have to be reimbursed with something that’s TBD,” Brown said. “We’ll have to come back and figure that out.”

It could come from the city’s general fund — which is primarily funded through sales and property taxes and fees for permits and such — or someplace else. The city may also try to get it reimbursed as part of the federal government’s disaster relief programs or could seek it as part of any fire-related lawsuit it files related to its origin, officials said.

Customers who qualify for the rate forgiveness will see the difference reflected in a future bill. Brown said that could take several weeks or even months, depending on how many people apply.

The city is also not charging the $52 water connection fee on people who lost their homes if they moved someplace else within Ventura’s service area. The staff will down the road look into forgiving water connection or other fees once homeowners rebuild. That will come back to the council at a later date, per policymakers’ direction.

If a home was lost altogether, Ventura stopped billing the day of the loss, providing the customer alerted the city’s water department.

The policy won’t help people who received water bills at or below their average, even if some felt they should have gone down because they were out of the residence for several weeks or still haven’t returned. The program only applies to the bill covering the November to January time period. The city bills on a two-month cycle.

Council member Erik Nasarenko asked for information on how bills were determined. He spent three weeks outside his house — two of those were because of the city’s mandatory evacuation — yet his bill was $250.41 this cycle and the one before that.

“Why would it be the same identical amount?” he asked as several in the crowd applauded.

Resident Rick Ray said his bill was about double what it normally was, but the cost isn’t what drew him to the meeting. What has him most concerned is the failure of the city’s water system during the fire, he said.

The system is ancient and vulnerable, he said. During the fire, Ray and several other neighbors battled the blaze, in the process saving several homes. That is until the water went out completely at 2:20 a.m. on Dec. 5, he said.

“Fix our broken emergency water system and open up about the problem,” Ray said. “The consequences are too dire to do this any other way.”