Public comment yields potential Measure L solution

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Although Wednesday’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council saw impassioned discussion on both sides of the dais regarding the recent Measure L debate, a recommendation from public comment — which was embraced by some members of both the public and the council — could facilitate a solution that would diffuse the current tension surrounding city expenditures of the recently passed general tax.

The solution proposed by former councilmember Jerry Taylor was to create a budget without Measure L, then an overlay that showed what the tax revenue would be funding.

The main contention seems to focus on lack of public trust for city actions.

In June the city put forward Measure L, which as a general-fund tax requires a much lower voter approval threshold than a special tax. To ensure the council’s pledge to spend the tax revenue on the areas identified by a majority of residents as the highest priorities — street repairs and public safety —a provision was included in the Measure L ordinance for a citizen’s oversight board.

A week after the measure passed, but prior to council appointment of oversight board members, public opposition reared when a portion of L revenue was proposed for parks and recreation staff salaries. The council later changed those line items to a non-L funding source.

Shortly after the board was appointed, Oversight Committee Member Phil Salvatore (a cost analyst for the Navy) worked with city staff to research historic spending in those areas to develop a baseline for police and street spending. When he presented his findings to the committee, his analysis showed diminished general fund support to those departments since Measure L was passed.

Critics maintain that by using Measure L to substitute, rather than supplement, general-fund support to police and streets, the council is not remaining true to its pledge to augment spending in those areas.

City officials did not deny the reduction in general-fund support, but they called out committee members for operating outside the scope of their duties and objected to the cost of staff support in helping generate these documents.

Meanwhile public ire has been further stoked by comments made by Mayor Dan Clark, who noted that committee members needed to be redirected in the efforts or face being replaced, and former Mayor Ron Carter, who criticized “certain segments” of the population for questioning the council.

“What I see are some of the same people that kept firing up and dividing the community over trash are now working on this issue,” Carter was quoted in the Daily Independent. “And this group of people did not care about trash and they do not care about this issue. They care about harassing, bullying and stopping city government. I hope that the city manager and council will nip this in the bud right now.”

Clark announced at the beginning of the meeting that the council had pulled the discussion item for “consideration and discussion of Measure L Committee re-visioning.” But some 15 of the members of the public still took the opportunity to express concern about the mayor’s position. Many also objected to Carter’s comments regarding those who have voiced their disapproval for the “re-visioning.”

“I’m not one who usually comes out to the council meetings. I read what’s going on in the paper and try to keep up on things, but those of you who know me know that I’m a very mellow person,” said Sharon Paxton.

“After reading some of the articles in the newspaper I got really upset. After reading about retooling of Measure L … there are people who are upset by this.” She said she voted for the measure because the city needs the revenue, but she expected the council to remain faithful to serving public safety and street improvements as promised.

“I hope you will be ethical in your decisions that you make going forward with this. A lot of work has been put in by the committee, which includes some very intelligent people from all walks of life who add something very beneficial to the city. I would hate to see this group dismantled.”

Jim Fallgatter praised the council for pulling the re-visioning item. “It’s time to put this behind us. The re-visioning concept was misguided and sent a wrong message to our city. I don’t know who started it, but it caused irreparable damage. Let’s start the healing process right now, tonight.”

He also commended the committee for its work, stating that, in providing the community with that kind of insight into city revenues and expenditures, it had done a service to the city.

Fallgatter closed by reminding Clark, as well as Councilmember Lori Acton, that they campaigned on a platform of transparency and trust. “I hope I never hear about re-visioning of this committee again.”

Christina Witt was among those who objected to Carter’s comments, adding, “I hope this mayor and this council do not hold the same disdain for their constituents.”

When Taylor presented his recommendation to the council, he pled with the council to consider its credibility with the public since the city would need to pass a similar measure when L expires. He said that an informal poll of those who supported the measure showed that 90 percent of them would not vote for it again today.

He recommended that publishing a budget showing no Measure L funding will force cuts to all departments — not just police and streets — and facilitate public transparency. Essentially, the city would just be fulfilling the role that the committee has been criticized for performing. “I don’t envy you. I have been where you are and I know it’s hard, but please — it’s the right thing to do.”

Former Councilman Tom Wiknich was among those endorsing Taylor’s budget idea from the public microphone. He also asked why the item was removed from the agenda. City Attorney Keith Lemieux said that he wanted to have an open discussion with the committee before the dispute escalated further. When asked if that meeting would be public, Lemieux said that his intent was to meet privately with certain members.

His comment evoked objections from the audience. “I think you can hear that,” said Wiknich. “I don’t even have to say anything. What we want is transparency.”

Barbara Auld, who also promoted support for Measure L, said that she read the ordinance and that she did not agree with Lemieux’s interpretation. She encouraged the public to read the ordinance as well.

Nadine Steichen also spoke out in public comment, urging the council not to further reduce parks and recreation opportunities for the public. Salvatore followed her comments by saying that although he was immediately concerned with the street maintenance, if the council managed to show good stewardship of Measure L, it could potentially gain public support for a parks and recreation district to support those services.

Jack Noyer read a heading from an Oct. 12 Daily Independent editorial lauding Dan Clark as a positive leader who would set a positive tone as our mayor. “What I’ve heard tonight is so far from this editorial, I’m appalled.”

During the council comment portion of the meeting, Councilmember Jim Sanders said he wanted to state for the record his opposition to Lemieux meeting privately with Measure L Committee members. “I think we’re moving in the wrong direction to try and revision. The way I read this is that the committee is doing what we intended.” He said that the concern with staff time investment was moot since the work to establish the baseline is now completed.

Holloway said that although he believed Clark’s motives for the re-visioning discussion were well-intended, he did not think that was an appropriate topic for council discussion and would only serve to further blow the issue out of proportion. “For whatever reason, both sides overreacted. Is this outside of the committee’s scope? Probably. But is this work valuable to the city? Absolutely.”

He commended Salvatore for his report and said that the city needed that kind of documentation. “I don’t see any reason the committee and council can’t move forward in a positive direction.”

Patin agreed the committee had produced valuable information, but he said many of the criticisms he was hearing from the public were unfounded. “I don’t know where this stuff came from. At least give us the courtesy and respect to ask us.”

He did, however, support the concept of separate budgets to delineate Measure L funding.

“I was too angry to speak earlier, and I still am,” said Acton. “I’m only quiet when I’m really, really, really angry. And I’m frustrated.” She said that no one on the council ever threatened Measure L funding or questioned the committee’s role. Her statements sparked argument from the audience.

Acton also observed that those who spoke out in public comment did not stay long enough to hear the council’s response. A Measure L Committee member called out from the audience that the public left because the discussion item was pulled, and the council members were giving themselves the last word without giving the public a chance to rebut.

That sparked a lively interchange between the council and public, and finally prompted Clark to call for order. “I don’t like having to reprimand people for interrupting,” he said. “I heard a lot of distrust today. I don’t know where that’s coming from.

“I take full responsibility for the re-visioning. I believed it was necessary. The outcome will be a wonderful thing for the community because we’re going to be on the same page.”

The meeting can be viewed at: http://ridgecrest-ca.gov/Video/CC_Video.php?idCouncil=138

Story First Published: 2013-01-31