CITY OF VENTURA OBSERVED

This week on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywhere, the city observed is Ventura, just to the north of my Malibu, an attractive, still affordable seacoast city, with an authentic straggling main street.

To my transient sensibilities, the city is worth a detour, as it was to me decades ago when commuting most weekends and holidays with the kids to our rustic cabin high in Ventura County, in the Los Padres National Forest, above Ojai, deep in mystic Matilija Canyon. We on occasion ate and shopped in Ventura.

The occasion now for the revisit is the publication of “Talk City,” subtitled “a Chronicle Of Political Life in an All-American Town,’ written by William Fulton, (Solimar), who for eight years served on the Ventura City Council, much of the time as deputy mayor, and mayor.

Of interest to me is that Bill , a friend, is a city planner who apparently brought some design and development sensibilities to the elected positions. He is also a writer of several well received planning texts, and the thoughtful editor and publisher of the informative California Planning & Development Report.This held the promise of something beyond the usual bureaucratic babble and derivative academic dissertations that serve little real planning purpose other to than to pad resumes and pay grade reviews, to collect dust on groaning institute shelves

And as Fulton wrote in a note to me, “bear in mind that some of it is old war stories from Ventura. But a lot of it is what it’s like to be a part-time, overstressed, underpaid elected official in California. That, I think, has some legs beyond Ventura.”

Yes, it does, and perhaps some lessons, too, in particular for my stumbling Malibu, though smaller and more affluent, with some erudite residents, just does not seem to have its governmental act together since becoming a city 26 years ago.To be literal, Fulton does not mention Malibu.

However, in discussing why many small cities in California stumble and stagger presumably including Malibu, he cites the presence of “individuals involved who have taken a high handed approach with taxpayer funds,” and the state’s Byzantine system of local government.

Fulton contends that the progressive strong manager and part time politician approach –originally promoted to thwart corruption – has not worked well. He states this is sadly true when both the managers and politicians are self serving, and when the system “provides the opportunity for public servants to shield their activities from public view. “ That includes their total compensation, trips and gifts.

He adds that the system “also discourages constituents from being watchdogs in that both the governmental and financial system is cumbersome and bafflingly complicated,” and the state’s open meeting law is not much help. So much for transparency.

Among Fulton’s many insights from his years of service is that democracy only works if people pay attention, and sadly oftentimes people aren’t paying attention.

Thank you for the advice Bill, and your service.

 

 

 

MALIBU TRAFFIC; BAD TO WORSE

If there seems to have been more traffic delays in Malibu than usual, it is because there are. Of late there have been several bad accidents, on PCH and also on the two connecting routes over the hill, as I comment this week on public radio 99.1 KBU and select websites everywhere.

And now there is a rush of construction of the ill advised projects of past pro development roosting city councils ,whose bad eggs they laid are being hatched . This includes a traffic light to accommodate the Malibu Beach Inn, and a rash of road widenings in and around the civic center to serve the approved new shopping centers there.

So don’t expect traffic to get any better, despite the usual mouse squeaks of concern coming out of City Hall. To be sure, even with their doors closed, or away on another expense paid governmental boondoggle featuring free meals and advice, the city’s top staff couldn’t ignore the welling anger of the Malibu constituency, especially those who have to use the PCH daily.

So with only a few days notice the city has scheduled a so-called “informational workshop,” for next Wednesday, the 14th, to ostensibly discuss transportation improvement projects funded by the county Measure M.

But hopefully the audience will insist the entire transportation mess plaguing Malibu will be aired, and not let the city get off the hook by blaming it all on Cal Trans. Malibu could assert itself much more, if it only had the moxIe.

However, if these meetings follow past scripts, those attending should beware of protracted presentation by city and county representatives designed not necessarily to details a list of pending projects, but to take forestall public comment and questions. In short, to bury the audience in bureaucratic blather, and deflect the arrows aimed at those responsible.

I wonder how many past council members, and the present lame ducks will be present to explain why and how they turned our seacoast coast village into a suburban-scape.

Probably not present will be the gaggle of high priced traffic, planning and political consultants that have been feeding at the city’s trough, and supposedly addressing these issues. That is in addition to hosting our neophyte municipal leaders who seem to have outsourced every city hall issue except staff payrolls and pensions, and councilperson trips.

There are so many questions to be asked, and so few answers to be expected. It is I feel frankly the sad and sorry state of local government these days

This brings to mind the urban adage, “People get the city they deserve.” Perhaps it is time to take back some of those awards given out to select past council persons when they retired.

 

 

 

MALIBU’S PLANNING PROBLEM

If any local government responsibility is apt to stir up the citizenry, it is planning; the review of zoning and building codes, and, generally, land use in the design of neighborhood character and the preservation of the environment.

It also is the prime source of wealth, for property owners, as well local builders and realtors,, and symbiotic facilitators, lawyers and lobbyists. And so in select cities where size and location marks status, as in Malibu, planning frankly has become a blood sport.

Certainly, all is not well at City Hall these days; as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and select websites. Witness the flurry set off by the admission by planning director Bonnie Blue at a recent council meeting that the department has fallen behind in both its reviews of policy and processing of plans.

This in turn prompted the challenged Blue to hurriedly propose several corrective actions, including the reassigning of staff and the hiring of a new planner to replace recent departures. These moves were doubled down by city manager Reva Feldman, who also announced hiring a deputy city administrator, at a salary of up to $190,000, to principally oversee planning and development.

The new city position has to have made Blue’s tenure tenuous, while cushioning the city manager from criticism for the planning imbroglio. It also no doubt will make for a crowded city manager’s suite and increased payroll and perks.

 

Meanwhile, whether adding and rearranging chairs in City Hall will correct the situation remain very much a question. One is hopeful, of course, but those familiar with the all to common government ailment of the hardening of bureaucratic arteries has to be skeptical.

I am, based on my investigative stints as a journalist with New York Times and New York Post, and oversight experiences in the public sector, including with the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And having witnessed in my dotage Malibu’s 26 year history as a bovine city has made me downright suspicious.

Simply throwing bodies at problems doesn’t always work, and could actually makes the planning mess at City Hall worse, adding another layer to the bureaucracy, heightening the in-and-out basket shuffle, and generating countless do-nothing meetings.

More perhaps can be accomplished by a rededication of staff, letting them do their jobs without the city hall crowd trying to surreptitiously influence decisions.

And the problem actually goes beyond personnel, to the city’s the zoning and building codes, or more precisely, their constant compromise by an appeals process that should be made much tougher. Almost every plan is dibbled with because the city’s lax precedents encourages it, such as the 18 foot height limits forever being stretch to 28 feet.

These appeals frankly also are grist for political favors, friends of friends and lobbyists. City Hall perhaps need fewer back scratching bureaucrats and more rat traps.

Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely wish bolstering city’s planning works. Just think of my comments as a dash of salted skepticism.

 

 

 

MALIBU CITY HALL FOLLIES, CONTINUED

My city observed for this week for pubic radio 99.1 KBU and select websites was written and recorded BEFORE city manager Reva Feldman disclosed some corrective actions in the city’s troubled planning efforts,, and AFTER we requested a copy of the city payroll.

The actions involving several new hires and consultancies sounded hopeful, but from my perspective raises some questions concerning the governance of Malibu, whether indeed it a case of hardening of the city’s bureaucratic arteries.

These question and others I expect to review in time, but for now this week’s commentary stands, and, sadly, focuses in on another dubious deed by a self serving city bureaucracy attempting to feather its nest, and taking advantage of a woeful city council.

To be sure, Malibu is not being blatantly robbed, I hope, but council and staff just do not seem to be putting the interests of the city ahead of their own.

Prompting this latest criticism is the current crisis in the city-planning department falling behind in their varied assignments. This presumably was addressed last week by planning director Bonnie Blue, who announced a host of administrative changes and the intention to hire a new planner in the wake of several departures.

I was going to comment on these managerial maneuvers, while as a reprobate planner suggest the department become more efficient and proactive, consistent with the city’s mission.

In short, be less toady and more proudly professional, and as the long term hard nosed planning commissioner Jeff Jennings commented, not reinvent the wheel but push harder.

Of related interest, the commission is reported had been asked by City Hall last Fall not to call the Planning Staff to ask them questions about items on the Commission agenda.  They were told the staff was too busy to answer their questions.

Then out of left field comes the news that concurrently Feldman is planning to add yet more bodies to her bureaucratic bulwark, in particular a deputy city manger for up to $190,000 a year to help with legislative matters.

I thought that why Lisa Soghor was hired last year, and also for which Feldman just recently received a healthy raise that gives her $220,000 plus generous benefits. That is more than our U.S. senators receive.

As for the city’s bulging payroll, the city contended in an internal memo, “There is no fiscal impact associated with this proposed change in the current fiscal year due to salary savings realized from the vacancies in the Planning Department.” Talk about a shell game.

And this addition to select consultants, such California Strategies, which I have noted in the past has been paid by the city $2million for unsubstantiated services. The figures keep adding up as does the wall around the city manager,

Supposedly overseeing these shenanigans is the council’s administrative and finance sub committee, consisting of local government novices Skylar Peak and Rick Mullen. They meet periodically with Feldman in closed session, and are apparently under her sway. It is all very cozy and questionable.

Obviously needed is some independent oversight.

 

 

THE MUDDLE AT MALIBU CITY HALL

No sooner than I had lamented the sorrowful state of Malibu’s government recently on my return from abroad, that the city council held a muddled meeting, confirming my opinion.

Most of the recent meeting was taken up by the council rambling on how best to legally limit chain stores so as not to create a boondoggle as did the infamous Measure R several years ago.

That cost everyone both for and against the measure, and the city, hundreds of thousands of dollars, while exposing how inept all involved were, as I comment this week on public radio 99.1 KBU and website s everywhere.

What did come out of the quagmire was the election of a so-called reform slate of Skylar Peak, Rick Mullen and Jefferson Wagner. This put them in the majority over hidebound councilpersons Lou La Monte and Laura Rosenthal.

And if you haven’t noticed, the two lame ducks nevertheless continue to cluck and strut beyond the city limits on the city’s nickel, apparently, baldly, using Malibu as a springboard for some sort of political afterlife.

Meanwhile, the hope of the past local election was that the slate would alter the city’s questionable pro development stature and private property prejudices, and spur staff to be more transparent and resident friendly, and do their job.

That was perhaps too hopeful. Peak and Mullen became vainglorious, and the neophyte slate quickly fractured, As for staff, a wily Reva Feldman continues to skillfully mollify all as the city manager.

She even secured raises for herself and associates, and contracts for select consultants. Though as evidenced by a maladroit planning department, day-to-day operations at City Hall are not functioning very well.
The failings of the council and staff were sadly on view at a recent meeting, with Peak and LaMonte literally and figuratively phoning it in, and Jefferson Wagner leaving early.

Skylar actually stated several times by phone to the Council how his family home in Montecito was threatened by the Ventura fire, and later was quoted in a newspaper how another of his homes, in Hawaii, was threatened by incoming missiles.

There was no mention of his mail drop in Malibu that allows him to occasionally serve on Council to questionable effect.

Then there was planning director Bonnie Blue bemoaning the department’s work load, (I’m saving that for another commentary,) This was followed by the council in part by phone struggling with establishing that elusive retail formula for the civic center.

Frankly, I think it is a waste of time; the civic center long ago I feel having surrendered its conceit as Malibu’s nexus to become a fractured mall, serving tourists .

Most Malibu residents I know do their serious shopping “over the hill” in Agoura and Westlake, and their convenience shopping at the Point Dume and Trancas. village markets. The only real local attraction there is the library.

These days of increasing on-line and big box shopping, trying to set a retail formula for a commercial mall can be likened to rearranging chairs on the Titanic. From my view the life boats already are filled with shoppers and are drifting away.

The only hope I feel as an urban planner and, yes, a liberal humanist, is as I have previously suggested reprogramming the land for an infusion of needed affordable housing, in particular for our first responders, teachers and others serving Malibu,

This I’m confident will lend life to the city center, and give Malibu a faint hope for a more equitable future.

 

 

BACK IN MALADROIT MALIBU

I’m back in my catbird seat as the city grouch. It is a disquieting job, but given the fumbling City Hall someone has to do it.

Back after a long sojourn to a few of my favorite cities abroad, notably Berlin and London, observing how they have changed over the last half century I’ve known them, while enjoying their vibrant present.

But those observation are for a more fitting format reviewing world class cities than the Malibu focus of KBU, however its recent expanded signal from 97.5 to 99.1, now heard from Big Rock to the county line, and read on select websites.

Malibu is really not much more than a seacoast village, despite the fumbling of avaricious real estate developers, and realtors, neophyte politicians and an inept city administration.

Yes, I’m back at my post as city crouch in maladroit Malibu.

Of course not all involved in city affairs are consciously pernicious. A few are well-intentioned dedicated public servants, beyond sadly apparent self serving concerns.

That is not to say Malibu is particularly cursed, and that this unfortunate prime preoccupation with pay, perks and pensions do not permeate bureaucracies everywhere, be they national, state or local. They sadly do.

This is according to former colleagues of mine when I was briefly serving penance in public service. Reviewing with them what I thought was some Malibu malfeasance, they commented the city seemed no worse than other “schlock” governments.

Hence the oft quoted formula recited by government ombudsmen and journalist watchdogs, that A people hire A people, and B people hire C people. Malibu appears to be afloat in a crowded sea of Cs.

But for better or worse, mostly better, this is where our family has lived for decades, on Point Dume, enjoying a pastoral roost, ocean views, public access to the beach, and a landscape of succulents I cultivate.

More personally, this is where we have tried to be good neighbors, trimmed our trees, leashed our dogs, and picked up trash in the city’s neglected encroachments.

Perhaps most proudly, this is also where several of our children have excelled in the public schools, and have kept abiding friends, as I like to think so have we.

But from a municipal perspective, Malibu has problems: among others the future of the Civic Center, overdevelopment, Bluffs Park, Trancas Field, PCH and its indulged city staff and consultants. There persists a real need for oversight, as I raised several months ago in a report made at the behest of a city councilman, and was then ignored.

This is perhaps a good provocative note on which to end this returning commentary.

SUPPORT STIRRED FOR MALIBU AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Could it be that Malibu is getting a conscience, and the need for affordable housing for seniors now loving living here, but need to down size? And also for the many others who serve the community, such as teachers and first responders, but can’t afford Malibu and must live elsewhere?

Thank you, for the dozens of positive and encouraging comments reiterating the need for affordable housing, and urging the city to recognize the imperative to move forward, starting at long last with a declaration of need.

\That is my pleased reaction to a recent commentary on public radio 97.5 KBU and local websites, calling once again for an imaginative redevelopment of the now very uncivil civic center as a true seacoast village that features affordable housing.

Yes, I have urged this several times in the past as an alternative to the unwanted pending crass commercial plans catering to tourists that our local realtors seem to love, and was unfortunately approved by past recalcitrant city councils and obsequious city staffs.

But in the past my immodest proposal prompted just a few private “thank yous” and the cowardly personal insults of the ever- present local dotards

By the way, I get a kick out of the term dotard, which is now widely circulated after having been used to describe the despicable and dangerously despotic President Trump. Our locals aren’t really that bad, just it seems that their thinking has been affected by having been wiped out too often by waves.

I’m sure they love Malibu, it is just that apparently don’t realize that some well designed and sensitively sited affordable housing not only is desperately needed, it actually will help the real estate market.
In particular, a local run and well managed senior housing project could give the option to many seniors here of selling their housing that is now too big since the kids have moved on, and still be able to relocate in the Malibu they love.

Our teachers also are a concern, especially those who have to commute for hours, clogging up the PCH before getting to class, hopefully on time and not too tired, then having to fight the traffic getting home. No wonder it is hard to hire the teachers for Malibu, at least the good ones in demand, so say our school administrators and so indicate various past staff surveys.

And I’m sure there are city personnel down on the municipal food chain that would welcome affordable housing. By having a home in Malibu as well as working here, who knows, maybe they would think a little less of their payroll and pensions, and more about making the town they now live in, more livable, for themselves, and us.”

HOUSING COULD MAKE MALIBU’S CIVIC CENTER CIVIL

It was no surprise reading a L.A. Times business story recently that major commercial real estate developers are increasingly considering adding housing to their mix of mall brews.

That malls and mini malls, and shopping centers are struggling is not news for developers, real estate investors, and city planners-in-the know, as I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU andf select websites everywhere.

More and more shoppers are frankly shunning the malls in favor of on-line shopping, where in the comfort of their homes they can view a wealth of products, weigh bargains, and, if are alert to specials, enjoy free home delivery, and easy returns.

As a result, some 25 per cent of America’s malls are expected to close in the next five years., while others struggle to become more appealing. This includes recycling malls in the mode of walkable villages, featuring speciality shops, boutiques, and a range of intimate eateries and entertainment

Now the latest ingredient is housing; and not coincidentally needed more than ever, as California suffers under an acute housing shortage, in particular affordable housing.

Challenging certainly will be the recycling of previously commercial developments, especially the malls anchored by major department stores. It may in some cases prompt bulldozing; after all it is the land and location that is valuable.

Challenging also will be the obvious need for some major rezoning, which depending on the proposed housing, nearby neighborhoods may not like.

This brings me back to my conflicted Malibu, whose efforts at planning at best have been behind the times, and in some cases unfortunately behind the counter.

Malibu I feel is ripe for this recycling in its so-called civic center, which actually is less a center than a scattered collection of suburban mini malls. And no doubt the pending approved shopping centers there catering to tourists will only make it worse, and I suspect the developers also may be having second thoughts, given the shifting shopping trends.

And so once again, as I have strongly suggested in the past, the city consider proposing work force and senior housing in the civic center, specifically for our teachers and first responders. Lets even include a few units for city employees.

In a phrase, housing would make the civic center civil. Indeed, if designed well, it could create the livable, viable sea coast village for which the city has always yearned.

Besides, it actually could reduce traffic on the PCH. Residential uses generate half of what commercial does, especially if they work locally.

It also would more than satisfy Malibu’s affordable housing element required by the State. Certainly it would please the Coastal Commission, and make it look more kindly on the city.

But most of all it is the right thing to do. We owe it to those who serve us.

 

BACK AND WALLOWING IN MALIBU

This week on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites everywhere, some musings after returning from family and friends on the always engaging east coast

There, among others things, I saw my youngest, a proud Malibu High alum, as is his brother, enter into a welcoming post graduate Harvard. Go sharks!

Then it was on to New York, to attend the dedication of a new international think tank, a partnership of my alma mater Cornell University and Israel’s Technion Institute, heralded as the birthplace of what’s next.

This made me feel like the problem solver I once posed as, challenged by a promising intellectual future, albeit now set against the grain of a dysfunctional America floundering under a deranged president. Sad and scary.

Then it was back to mellow Malibu, with the persevering wife, the comforting views and sounds of the ocean, my faithful furry and feathered pets, a demanding landscape, and a certain solitude not found elsewhere.

So, at least this week there will be no philosophizing about, or defining, what constitutes “neighborhood character, “ as some followers had requested, no crafting a magical formula our planning challenged Malibu can apply in reviewing the parade projects coming through its front, and back doors.

After several decades of serving on various committees and commissions, writing letters and articles, in effect volunteering what beyond my Malibu would have been some remunerative consultant assignments, I have to observe that our self aggrandizing city leaders don’t really like listening to anyone with whom they or their friends and advisors might disagree.

There have been exceptions, of course, and they should be congratulated for their efforts. Yes, Malibu is a city of misanthropes, and quite frankly being one myself I tend to embrace the collective eccentricities.

It makes thinking about eventually moving away difficult, if not impossible, despite at times being tempted. But it would be daunting to pay the anticipated capital gains, as well cleaning out the study and the garage, and giving away thousands of books accumulated in a lifetime of reviewing, And what about my exotic plants? Who will nurture them?

More difficult would be leaving friends, relocating pets and saying goodbye to our singular refuge on Point Dume, which my wife had lovingly refurbished, raised several children hosted countless Thanksgivings, and where I have lived longer than anywhere else in my life. And where would we move to?

How does one weigh these considerations in defining neighborhood character? Think about it, perhaps best when walking to the Point Nature Preserve and the beach beyond.

As for Malibu, the Planning Commission already has boldly approved the concept as integral to the city’s vision statement. Next up is a review by the conflicted City Council, which, as its wont, may decline and just request our costly city attorney and ever-avaricious consultants to consider it.

 

 

 

THE IMPERATIVE OF NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER

Back from the East Coast and back on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites with something to think about BEFORE the Malibu City Council once again takes up the issue of neighborhood character:

Yes, ill defined as it might be, confusing to some, simply words to others, “neighborhood character “ I feel is essential to the magic of Malibu. It is what lends value to Malibu, that makes living here so special, not the gratuitous sizes of over designed and over priced houses .

As I have commented previously, neighborhood character for me can defined by applying a Supreme Court decision in 1964 in which Justice Potter Stewart is quoted that he could not describe pornography, “but I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about neighborhood character. There are standards that can be applied.

If you need specific examples, there are already too many in Malibu. Just look past the Pt. Dume shopping center down Dume Drive, on the right, at the still unfinished, humongous, butt ugly house.

There are others that I would describe as McMansions, a term not coincidentally I am cited by Wikipedia as one of the authors in the descriptive phrase.

The hope is that the council, both the so-called reform slate majority and the lame duck minority, recognizes that the issue “neighborhood character” goes to the heart of what Malibu aspires to be, and what I like to believe all the council members feel in their hearts why they live here, and ran for public office.

Indeed, according to the city code, their prime responsibility, against how all issues must be weighed, is preserving Malibu. Or I would add frankly what is left of it, after succeeding past councils and staff let it be compromised by greedy real estate interests and their facilitators, project by project, zoning change by zoning change, or simply by ignorance and neglect.

Certainly that it is why the so-called reform slate was elected last year: To stop the slipshod approvals wrangled by an avaricious few who view Malibu as a monopoly game, their comments taking exception to neighborhood character despicably self-serving. Shame on them.

The city’s Vision and Mission statements say it all., and deserves to be repeated here:

“Malibu is a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics. The people of Malibu are a responsible custodian of the area’s natural resources for present and future generations.”

And according to the Mission Statement, “Malibu is committed to ensure the physical and biological integrity of its environment through the development of land use programs and decisions, to protect the public and private health, safety and general welfare. Malibu will plan to preserve its natural and cultural resources, …as well as other resources that contribute to Malibu’s special natural and rural setting. “

Further, “ Malibu will maintain its rural character by establishing programs and policies that avoid suburbanization and commercialization of its natural and cultural resources.” And that might mean sacrifices.

Perhaps in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of all Malibu City Council meetings there should be a pledge to the Vision Statement.