Measure L board to show findings

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The Citizens Oversight Board for Measure L will present findings on how the city spent the voter-approved tax-increase to pave streets and support police.

Members of that committee expressed concern at last week’s meeting that the Ridgecrest City Council would not take the report seriously, citing the its historically contentious relationship with the council and the often-conflicting views about what assessment and reporting are owed to the public.

The tax was passed in June 2012. Although the council has no legal restriction for how the funds are spent, since it is listed as a general increase, the tax was sold to the public as a way to augment spending specifically for police and streets.

For more than a decade various councils had tried three times – unsuccessfully — to raise taxes for those purposes. Historically, general taxes (which require a simple majority to pass) were not supported by the public because of the lack of accountability for spending, and special taxes (which require two-thirds support to pass) never crossed the necessary threshold at the ballot box.

Advocates of the tax partnered with community organizations to form a political action committee to raise support for the tax. The city promised that, if the voters approved the general tax, it would be dedicated only to police and streets.

The tax passed, and shortly thereafter the sitting councilmen chose members for the oversight board based on more than a dozen applications from the public.

The first hint of controversy flared at the first council meeting following the successful passage of Measure L, when a proposal for L included an increase to the administration of parks and recreation was included as a line item in the next fiscal year budget. Critics immediately decried that expenditure as a failure to uphold the public promise to commit funds to police and streets.

At the first meeting of the oversight board, councilmembers set up a conference call from a Delano councilman advising the board to meet only once a year to approve city expenditures as a formality. The public — and the board — objected that the council’s interference in the process prevented true oversight.

The board held a series of public meetings, as well as one-on-one meetings with members of staff, to establish a baseline of expenditures for police and streets. Members of the oversight committee noted this was the only way to track whether Measure L funds were being used to augment the services as promised. The council then objected that these attempts were overstepping the intended role of the oversight board.

The mayor served members with a letter that included a directive to curb scrutiny with a reminder that members served at the pleasure of the council.

When that interaction sparked a public fury, the council backed off.

Since then, criticism over Measure L use has continued from members of the committee and the public at large. City officials have defended the spending as falling within ethical guidelines of the initial pledge. But critics point out that two years, and millions of dollars later, the city has yet to pave a street using that fund or hire additional officers.

Some members of the Measure L committee charge that the city has used the tax to buffer losses from redevelopment funding — which disappeared just before Measure L was enacted. Skeptics say that in the absence of results, or even transparency, the loss of confidence from the public will not yield another tax increase. Those members have also expressed concern about how the 19 officers being funded Measure L will be paid for if the measure is not renewed by the public.

At Monday’s meeting, oversight members requested the presentation of their findings be placed as a discussion item in order to accommodate public comment and interplay between council members and committee members.

When the agenda showed the item listed as a presentation — which allows the council the option of prohibiting comment and discussion — several members expressed discouragement.

It is also unclear whether Measure L members will be allowed to speak, since lack of public notice about a formal meeting prohibits more than two members to speak without violating the Brown Act.

“I’m disappointed by the language and the placement of our agenda item as it is currently listed,” said Scott Garver, oversight boardmember.

“We were told by the City Manager that our spot on the agenda would be one of ‘discussion.’ Not only did they not place that word in the agenda item itself, they didn’t place it with the other discussion items, allowing the council to prevent dialogue and public comment if they so choose.

“I hope they prove me to be simply paranoid by inviting a conversation with the committee during the presentation, as well as public comment.”

Story First Published: 2014-05-07