Monday, June 18 , 2018, 11:01 am | Fair 63º


Local News

Lompoc Council Candidates Wrangle Over City Leadership, Utility Rate Hikes

Seven challengers and one incumbent spar over direction of city, spotlighting swap meet, Brown Act and code enforcement

Lompoc voters will be selecting from among eight City Council candidates vying for two four-year terms on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The eight candidates came together Thursday night at City Hall for a two-hour forum sponsored by the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce. About 35 people listened to their views while more watched on Lompoc Community Television.

Councilman Dirk Starbuck is seeking re-election amid a field of six men and one woman. Councilwoman Ashley Costa chose not to run for a second term.

With several barbs lobbed his way, Starbuck and the seven challengers talked about whether Lompoc has a leadership crisis, too many parks and an insufficient — or overeager — code enforcement program.

The current City Council has been criticized for its handling of several matters, including utility rate hikes, compliance with the Ralph M. Brown Act guaranteeing open meetings, the city’s swap meet and more.

Retiree David Grill said the city “very definitely” has a crisis in leadership, and noted council members must make tough decisions.

“It’s not all smiles and pats on the back,” he said, adding the council’s meetings routinely stretching until midnight or later are “odious.”

Instead, he said the council should meet weekly and require a super-majority vote to extend the discussions beyond 9 p.m.

Robert Cuthbert, a writer and retail worker, also was critical of the late-night meetings.

“The people of this community should be part of the decision-making process,” said Cuthbert, who spent 24 years working in factories and construction. “They should feel that government is accessible because it becomes accessible ... Open government — that’s what the city needs.”

Starbuck said Brown Act allegations now being investigated by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office stemmed from one person’s complaint.

“You’ll see when it all comes out, if it ever did come out, there’s nothing,” he said.

Recent utility rate hikes were cited as another example of a lack of leadership.

“This is a ludicrous situation,” Grill said. “The entire current council is surprised as much as anyone else how all of a sudden utility rates just jumped up.

“We have a candidate who says he was duped,” he added, referring to Starbuck.

Starbuck responded that he originally cast the lone opposition vote to the utility rate increases because he wanted to have an efficiency study conducted to determine if the plants could be operated better.

Earlier  this year, water and sewer rate hikes were included in an agenda item on a policy discussion about the city’s reserves funds, with the mention of the increase on the 31st page of the 47-page report handed out the night of the meeting, Starbuck added.

“That’s how it got voted in,” said Starbuck, a small business owner. “That’s where I got duped ... I voted for a reserves policy, not a rate increase. I’d like to really make that clear.”

Frank Campo, a former law enforcement officer and current employment development representative, said part of the city’s leadership vacuum was reversed with the hiring of a new city administrator, adding “the stuff he brings to the city is phenomenal.”

He said he would hold the staff accountable, noting the council sets policy that staff must implement.

The future of the downtown swap meet held on city property on I Street brought differing opinions among the candidates. The council has terminated the swap meet’s contract amid complaints the manager didn’t follow the rules, vendors made too much noise early Saturday mornings and people parked improperly in nearby businesses’ lots.

But swap meet vendors and supporters have fought to save it, to no avail. After granting one extension to allow it to operate another month while searching for a new home, the council declared the final gathering will be Oct. 25.

Darrell Tullis, a government contractor, spoke during council meetings on behalf of the swap meet being allowed to operate somewhere in Lompoc, blaming the protracted problems on the lack of city oversight.

“So if he mismanaged it for 20 years, then it’s the city’s fault for allowing someone to mismanage your property for 20 years,” Tullis said, adding another complaint is that the event is oversized but something the city didn’t handle.

Steve Chudoba, an educator, has lobbied for the swap meet to continue at its current site, offering a committee to provide enhanced management.

“Just because one person doesn’t like something doesn’t mean we should get rid of it,” he said.

Victor Vega, who runs two businesses in Lompoc, said the city acted like any landlord with a tenant improperly using the property.

“Really, they haven’t met their end of the contract so why move forward?” he asked. “Fortunately, I am for the swap meet, but it doesn’t look like that location is proper. Basically, they need to find a spot that’s going to work for everybody.”

Retired teacher Ann Ruhge said other similar events, such as Old Town Market, follow the rules as the swap meet should have been doing.

“The oversight is lacking,” said Ruhge, who previously served on the City Council for one term and recalled the swap meet coming up then with similar complaints.

“We asked that they go back and there be oversight, but there hasn’t been from the city” she said. “There has not been. It’s just gotten worse and worse and worse. I’ve talked to neighbors around there that are very upset about it.”

Grill contended he has opposed the swap meet from the beginning.

“The swap meet takes money out of the brick and mortar retailers,” he said. “It takes business away from them, and the swap meet makes it very easy for thieves to fence their goods so crime gets worse.”

Starbuck noted the issues surrounding the swap meet’s contract and the city’s delay at enforcing the rules to operate are examples of the problems he worked to solve by spending more than two years to craft a now-adopted “contract compliance policy.”

“I just want to say we’re finally getting our hands around how we conduct business as a city, and it’s been a long learning curve the last couple of months,” he added.

Lompoc’s complaint-driven code enforcement program also sparked criticism, with most candidates agreeing the current methods aren’t working but differing about whether efforts need to be stronger or weaker.

“I’m not at all satisfied,” Cuthbert said. “When you look at other communities you don’t see tall weeds. It’s a serious problem. I love this community ... but I don’t love it because of empty parking lots, cracks, private property owners just not taking the very inexpensive step to maintain their property so code enforcement is the answer.”

In addition to a complaint-driven program, the city must be proactive, and deal with those who are delinquent, especially the out-of-town property owners, he added.

Chudoba said the city code enforcement officer is harassing people, allegedly issuing a recent citation to one resident for having a pool table and boxes in a garage.

“The ordinances are not out of date,” he said. “The problem with the ordinances, they’re just ridiculous. If you want to store something, store it.”

Campo said Lompoc’s code enforcement program could do a better job, noting that some ordinances conflict with each other, creating confusion and affecting local businesses.

“Code enforcement in this town is not consistent,” said Vega, one of several candidates opposed to the complaint-driven system.

Instead, Vega said he supports having a set of standards to spell out, for instance, that weeds can’t exceed a certain height, broken windows must be fixed, and abandoned vehicles should be removed.

In the recorded forum, candidates also aired their opinions about Lompoc’s projected budget woes, its high unemployment rate and the lack of industrial land, aging infrastructure, economic development and tourism.

During one tourism-related discussion, Tullis spoke strongly about the negative aspect of the name Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an assortment of wine-tasting rooms in industrial area.

“Every time I hear the term Wine Ghetto my stomach turns ...,” said Tullis, who spent 21 years in the Air Force. “I look up the term ghetto and I see nothing positive about it. ... If I’m a tourist coming from out of town, I don’t want to go to your ghetto. It does not sound like a welcoming place.”

In a separate matter, Lompoc voters also will pick a mayor — choosing between incumbent John Linn and Councilman Bob Lingl. Since Lingl is midway through his term, he will remain on the council even if he loses the mayoral race. The two will face off from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at a forum at City Hall.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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