Sunday, June 29, 2014

Burying Money in the Medians

Costa Mesa’s recently adopted budget includes $444,000 to redo the medians on Mesa Verde Drive.  Yes, these medians, the ones redone so recently many of the trees are still staked.  

Does this really need to be replaced?
Note stakes on small trees in both pics.
The money to do this and still have a balanced budget, at least on paper, was taken from funds set aside for future use for a new library.  Other unfunded needs include repairs to the fifty-year-old Royal Palm Fire Station and generators for the Police Department.  City Manager Tom Hatch stated that the City needed to start setting aside money for such major expenditures as replacement of the fire station and building a new library (video at about 3:01:50).  Council Member Mensinger, who urged that the City spend money on the medians, suggested the City fund major improvements using mechanism similar to what was done for the police station (video at about 3:03:40).

What he didn’t mention is exactly what that meant.  Did the City get a grant?  Did we use narcotics forfeiture funds?  How was the police station expansion and rehab financed?  Debt

When did Costa Mesa voters approve the debt financing?  

We didn’t.  

Article 16 of the California State Constitution, prohibits cities from incurring any debt without two thirds approval of the voters, but the City used a mechanism called Certificates of Participation, or COPS.  The bond buyer, oops, the COPs buyer “participates” in revenue generated by the activity funded by the borrowed money.

If you’re wondering what revenue stream is allocated to pay the debt,  it’s the lease payment for use of the police station.  And who, you may ask,  is leasing the police station?  We are.  The City is essentially leasing the police station to itself, then using the lease payments to pay off the bond. 

The bonds for the police station were not issued by the City but by the Costa Mesa Public Financing Authority.  The Financing Authority is a joint powers authority made up of the City of Costa Mesa and, er, well just the City of Costa Mesa acting jointly with itself.  The board of the CMPFA consists of the Costa Mesa City Council.

In December 2006 the Costa Mesa City Council, acting as CMPFA , voted to borrow up to $30 million to be paid back through the revenue stream received from leasing the police station to the City of Costa Mesa .  By putting on another hat, the city acquired nearly $30 million in debt which it will repay by leasing the police station to itself.  At the end of the lease period, the City will once again own the police station free and clear.  In the unlikely event of default, the holders of the COPs can take title to the police station.

And it’s all legal!  Lots of cities do it.  Both Santa Ana and Newport Beach financed city hall improvements with COPs.  Stockton did it for all sorts of things. 

But somehow, frittering money on “improving” recently improved medians that already look pretty good while in nearly the same breath suggesting we go into debt for necessities just doesn’t sit well with me.  Sort of like taking the family on a Caribbean cruise while getting a second mortgage to pay for replacing your leaky roof.

It’s especially troubling when the debt is incurred using an end run around the voters of the City of Costa Mesa.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

There's Still Crime in the City

The data on attrition from the Costa Mesa Police Department are pretty dismaying.  ( )  One might think the report will be the wakeup call we need to develop a more cooperative relationship between the whole City Council and our officers.  Maybe we can move forward to rebuild the PD in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.  Wouldn’t that be great? 

Unfortunately, I’m not real hopeful.  This is partly due to council members’ past attacks on our police in the press and a continuing atmosphere of recrimination.  I’m also pessimistic because of some council members peculiar understanding of the police function as stated by Jim Righeimer at the City Council meeting of January 21 , 2014  (Video at 2:11:27)

“We have to have a police department in place.  We have a fire department in place.  They cost so much to have the fire department there, to have the trucks, to have the equipment there.  It costs us every single day, whether there’s one fire or no fires.  We still pay for it. 
“For a police department you pay for it every day to have that police department there.  If they’re driving around and doing patrol checks, they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re there.  They’re ready to do something.  Call it “on call” time.  It’s the time that it takes just to be there. 
“We don’t say there’s an activity, call up somebody, have them put on a uniform and come on down.  We put them in place. 
“That’s your cost of doing business.  Any company, whether you have a repair business, that you go repair something.  You don’t say, “What does it cost for that person to come down to fix the refrigerator?  Well his time is $21 an hour.  We’re gonna charge, you know, the $21”.  There’s the cost of the truck, the equipment, all that, and even time when that person may not have a call.  We’re still paying for that person’s salary.  It’s no different in the police department.

What?!?  “It’s no different in the police department.”??? 

An officer on patrol is just “ready to do something” and “on-call”?  Like a plumber waiting for someone to call about a leak?

The above explanation of the police function is both stunning and illuminating.  If time between calls were truly down time, then it would make sense to slash the number of officers, as was done adopted in 2011 (Police Bear Brunt of Budget Axe) .  After all,  they're just on standby, aren't they? 

Golly, if patrol time were really “on-call” time for officers “ready to do something” why even have the officers driving around in patrol cars?  Why not just have the officers “in place” at doughnut shops around town and have them wait “on-call” there, like Andy and Barney hanging out at Floyd’s Barber Shop or the Bluebird Diner.  Think of the fuel and wear and tear on police cars we could save.  Reduced greenhouse gases, too!

This viewpoint fails to acknowledge the role of police in crime prevention and education.  It fails to acknowledge the effect of police patrol, in particular, on crime prevention and deterrence.  Numerous studies have shown that directed patrols result in a reduction in crime.  It makes sense that potential miscreants will be less likely to commit crimes if they see police heading their way, or even if they think there’s a good chance police will be heading their way. 

And how many of us have slowed down on the highway after spotting a patrol car in the next lane?  Studies have in areas from Ohio to Texas shown the value of increased patrols in reducing traffic accidents and traffic fatalities.  Meanwhile, in shorthanded Costa Mesa, we had seven traffic fatalities in Costa Mesa in 2013 after having none in 2012 and four in each of the preceding three years.  It's not just a matter of responding to crime, it's maintaining public safety.

The reactive policing model neglects the value of community policing in establishing relationships and police legitimacy.  Not only will people be more likely to call the police and cooperate as witnesses if they know and respect the police, they will be more likely to obey the law in the first place.  As stated by Lawrence W. Sherman in Policing for Crime Prevention  “a growing body of research suggests that police legitimacy prevents crime.” 

A factor in establishing a sense of legitimacy would be positive encounters with local officers.  Officers rushing from call to call might appear brusque and disengaged, when they are actually just under time pressure.

One might wonder how repeated comments denigrating our officers on the radio and in the press might affect perceived legitimacy of the police as well.

After the January 21 Council meeting, I got in my car pondering the vast gulf between our viewpoints regarding the role and function of police.  Neil Young’s Freedom was in my CD player.   There's Still Crime in the City  started to play.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Material Weaknesses" in Accounting?

As many have focused on the financial reports for Costa Mesa’s 60th Anniversary kickoff celebration, the City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report has been released.  It can be viewed here .

The good news is that total revenues of $121,363,178 exceeded expenditures of $111,012,567 by $10,350,611.  Unfortunately, the City also took an unusual loss of over $10 million, mostly due to writing off the long term debt owed the city by the Costa Mesa Redevelopment Agency which, due to State legislation, no longer exists.  The debt has been deemed unrecoverable.

The Single Audit Report is also available and may be viewed here.   

The auditors, White Nelson Diehl Evans LLP, found no evidence of any wrong doing but had this to say in their cover letter dated December 26, 2013:

…as described in the accompanying schedule of findings and questioned costs, we identified certain deficiencies in internal control that we considered to be material weaknesses.
A deficiency in internal control exists when the design or operation of a control does not allow management or employees, in the normal course of performing their assigned functions, to prevent, or detect and correct, misstatements on a timely basis. A material weakness is a deficiency, or a combination of deficiencies, in internal control, such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the City’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis [emphasis added].  A significant deficiency is a deficiency, or a combination of deficiencies, in internal control that is less severe than a material weakness, yet important enough to merit attention by those charged with governance. We consider the deficiencies described in the accompanying schedule of findings and questioned costs as Finding Numbers 2013-01 and 2013-02 to be material weaknesses.

In another letter, also dated December 26, 2013, the auditors urged that the City adopt an ethics policy, stating that:

"a structured ethics policy establishes organizational standards for ethics, morals, and an overall 'regard for the rules' … within an entity."

I will definitely be looking into this further, and encourage local residents to continue to monitor City spending.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

This morning, at the California Air National Guard facility on Newport Boulevard, members of the Costa Mesa community met to commemorate the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In addition to the formal program, attendees were offered the opportunity to sign banners offering personnel thanks to public safety personnel in New York and to our armed forces. If you couldn’t make it this morning, you still have a chance to sign at the Target store, where the banners will be available for signing later today.

Speakers included local dignitaries Tom Hatch, Dana Rohrabacher, Jim Righeimer, but for me most meaningful were the words of those in the trenches, most memorably Interim Fire Chief Kirk Dominic, who was also activated as a Reserve officer subsequent to the events of 9/11.

The ceremony concluded with the Pledge of Allegiance and the striking of the colors accompanied by the hymns and anthems for the various military corps. It was touching to see former Marines, now middle-aged suburban dads, rise to their feet in pride as the Marine hymn was played.

The event brought home the sacrifice of those who serve us so ably, at great personnel risk to themselves. If you get a chance, go over to Target and sign the banners. If you are unable to get over there, be sure to thank a soldier, a sailor or marine of your acquaintance, and next time you see them on duty, please thank our own first responders, the Costa Mesa Police, Firefighters and Paramedics.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Lot On the City's Plate Tonight

The Costa Mesa City Council will be resuming their normal meeting schedule at 6:00 pm at City Hall (77 Fair Drive). They have a pretty full agenda. I encourage people to attend. It may seem overwhelming or pointless, but it can make a difference.

Just a few weeks ago, the Planning Commission seemed poised to approve a variance for a sixty-foot-tall building on Golf Course Drive where the man-made lake currently exists. Before the public hearing, Commissioners’ comments all seemed geared to justifying approval. Then the public spoke in unanimous opposition, and the Commission changed their tune (video at about 1:14). Yeah, it may be that Colin McArthy is planning on running for City Council and saw which way the wind was blowing. Doesn’t matter to me why they rejected the thing, though, just that they rejected it.

Some highlights on tonight’s agenda:

• Update on the status of outsourcing and requests for proposals.

• Hiring not just one, but two, additional attorney firms to help them with the outsourcing (consent calendar, Nos. 12 and 13). So now we will have THREE attorney firms contracted to deal with this, PLUS consultants helping with the requests for proposals and evaluations. Did anyone count the cost before they embarked on this course of action? Golly, if they save any more with this outsourcing scheme we’ll go broke.

• Proposed restructuring to re-arrange the chain of command for certain divisions, create a whole division for PR, instead of just the one consultant spinmeister. The public affairs office will also address legislative affairs. Do any of these guys have experience in legislative analysis? They also want to hire an executive secretary whose only duty will be to serve city council members full time.

• Presentation on the current employee pension system status and funding

• Proposed transparency ordinance regarding “ex parte” communications, which would require that council members reveal by whom they had been lobbied before voting on an issue.

• Creation of a successor agency to take the place of the old redevelopment agency, which will soon be dissolved under State law.

• More dipping into the contingency fund, i.e. slush fund, for non-essentials, in this case a grant to radio station KOCI, 101.5 FM, to install an emergency alert system like the ones already operated by existing commercial radio stations—which might not be a bad idea if you are in a part of town where you can consistently get the signal clearly.

• Posting signs on City property warning of the dangers of amalgam dental fillings—requested by a council member who makes a good chunk of his income selling more-than-just-medicinal booze and who refused to support posting warning signs in City parks and playgrounds when pesticides were being used.

• Proposed helicopter landing pad at 3132 Airway Avenue considered by some to be an expansion of the JWA/Orange County Airport footprint which will likely be continued to another meeting.

The City Council cancelled the August 16 meeting claiming there just wasn’t much they needed to do, but it seems as if just maybe they could have covered some of this stuff a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

No Home Run Here

Tonight, August 10 at 6:00 pm, the Parks and Recreation Commission will be addressing the following item:

Review of Statement of Qualifications (SOQ) for the Upgrade,
Operation and Maintenance of the Tewinkle Park Sports Complex

Based on the staff report, it appears the City is considering operating the Tewinkle Park Sports Complex as a private concession. The City was approached about a similar concept by a private firm, Municipal Sportspark Management, in late 2009. MSM made a presentation at an October 2009 study session , but the minutes for that meeting reveal no direction by Council, and we haven’t noticed anything agendized for public discussion since.

Had the Council agendized consideration of a concession operation at the Tewinkle Park Sports Complex, isn’t it likely that baseball and soft ball players and parents would have stepped forward to comment? Wouldn’t adjacent residents have concerns? Has the City consulted any of these groups at all? When?

The staff report indicates that “At the request of Mayor Monahan, staff requested SOQ’s from a few local firms”. Does staff often circulate similar requests at the behest of a single council member?

Doesn’t Council policy require that council members get the approval of the council as a whole before pursuing any project requiring more than four hours of staff time? Wouldn’t preparation, circulation and review of the Request for Qualifications (RFQ), along with preparation of a staff report take at least that long? On just that basis the Council majority recently attempted to stymie Council Member Leece’s effort to bring forth a transparency ordinance which she had already fully prepared without staff assistance.

But why worry about blowing off adopted Council policy when you’re blowing off a court order? Costa Mesa has been ordered by the Orange County Superior Court to cease private outsourcing efforts and enjoined from laying off employees for outsourcing purposes. But here we see a City Commission prepared to review SOQs—if at least they have copies—which includes the following question:

"Would your company offer employment to City employees who are laid off as a result of outsourcing the operation of this recreational facility?"

At the August 2 City Council meeting, the Council was scheduled to consider procedures for review of proposals and qualifications for outsourcing, but the item was postponed. Even if moving forward with this item were consistent with Council policy in consuming less than four hours of staff time; even if there were no injunction prohibiting private outsourcing; wouldn’t it at least make sense to wait until the council had adopted procedures?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In Memoriam Jan Vandersloot MD

And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. Galatians 6:9
No one exemplified these words better than Jan Vandersloot, medical doctor, environmentalist, and family man. He was generous with his time and his money, and we are thankful to him as well as to Cheryl, Jon and Tiffany.

I first met Jan about twenty years ago, though I’d seen his numerous and eloquent letters to the editor before that. I was a city planner at Newport Beach and he called about illegal fill of a wetland. Someone in the office said “that Dr. Vandersloot” always had some complaint. Still, I arranged to meet Jan at the site along with a biologist and, lo and behold, a wetland was being illegally filled.

After that, I got many calls from Jan. Sometimes he’d be reporting habitat damage, or illegal dumping. I learned that when “that Dr. Vandersloot” called, it was something I really needed to check out. If he had a complaint it was well-founded and well-researched. Unlike some residents who called regularly, Jan was concerned about all areas of the city and beyond, not just matters within a block or two of his house.

Sometimes he was just looking for information. For Jan, there was no such thing as too much information.

Years later, after I’d left the City and was involved in various causes, many at the prodding of Jan, my house was overrun with environmental impact reports (EIRs) and other studies. Jan stopped by about some project. I was mortified at the boxes of documents spilling into the living room. Jan was delighted.

Jan had a way of pulling people into his causes. Bolsa Chica, Ocean Outfall Group, San Diego Creek, trees on the Peninsula. He put so much into so many causes, how could you not help at least a little? Almost daily there’d be e-mail from Jan with calls to action, research requests, or outlines of potential strategies for ongoing projects.

As he toiled to end the Orange Count Sanitation District’s waiver from federal clean water law, he’d ask not IF you’d attend any meetings to speak against the waiver, but WHICH meetings in which cities you’d attend. Eventually Jan, or in rare cases a surrogate, spoke before every city council and sanitary district in Orange County, usually with a few others in tow, but alone if need be.

Jan didn’t care if he was the only one to stand up and fight for something. If it was the right thing to do, he was there.

It wasn’t all just hearings and meetings. I especially appreciate the work he did at Fairview Park. Jan advocated for the park at hearings and also weeded and planted plants, sometimes with a group, sometimes with just one other person, like Gil Collins, sometimes alone.

Though I’d been involved in Fairview earlier on, soon Jan surpassed me in his knowledge and dedication to improving habitat at the park. I’d be out for a hike and there was Jan, clearing away the anise choking out native species. Seeing his hard work, I’d go back to my car for an extra bag to pick up trash along the way. How could I not?

We distributed flyers at election time. Of course, if you and Jan covered opposite sides of a street, you really had to hustle. With his long legs he’d finish the distance long before you.

Jan really loved to celebrate the big wins. And he hated to lose. After a setback, he’d be seeking other strategies. Was there a way to appeal? Another agency involved? Should we litigate? Any other options?

Jan just did not give up. If we’d finally run out of options, he’d be planning how we could handle a similar situation “next time”. Unfortunately, now there is no “next time” with Jan.

Today, we are able to reap what Jan so diligently sowed and tended: Open space at Bolsa Chica, cleaner beaches, wetlands, trees, and habitat in various areas. What a tremendous legacy!

Perhaps an even greater legacy is the army of activist that Jan has encouraged and mentored over the years. Now we must continue in well-doing, that we and others may reap in the years to come. How could we not?