Monday, April 23 , 2018, 12:16 pm | Mostly Cloudy 60º


Ron Fink: Lengthy Lompoc Council Meeting Produces Huge Utility Rate Increase

Lompoc City Council meetings have been notorious over the last four years for going well past the 11 p.m. deadline that council members agreed to when they amended their Council Handbook.

Mayor John Linn likes to hear himself talk. Take a look at the video of the council meetings — any council meeting — and you’ll see the mayor overselling his point of view at almost every meeting. Instead of trying to move the agenda along, allowing for staff reports and council members’ comments, he dominates every council meeting. Since he controls the flow of the meeting, no one can shut him up.

He has been timed at taking an average of 20 minutes every time he offers his sage advice on how matters should be handled. Routine matters that had previously taken only a few minutes to discuss now take well over an hour — most of the time being consumed by the mayor.

Frequently some very important items are moved to the end of the meeting as the mayor changes the order of the agenda to accommodate his favorite topics. So members of the public who may want to participate get fatigued after sitting for several hours in the uncomfortable audience seats only to find out that the item they wanted to address won’t be heard until well past the 11 p.m. cutoff time.

This is what happened on May 6, when the council approved an item referred to as “Financial Reserve Policies and Follow-up to Midyear Review.” This sounds a lot like a very wonky policy that may make the average person cringe at the thought of having to read it.

But in true Linn style, he moved a controversial item to discuss annexing a piece of property ahead of the reserve policy. Normally, annexation requests are made by the property owners who submit a development plan and pay for all the costs associated with the annexation. These documents include a cost-benefit analysis to see if the city will generate enough revenue from the proposed project to provide needed services.

In this case, the property owner had not requested annexation and had not submitted any development plans, and that’s why this was controversial.

Linn had requested that the planning staff commit a significant amount of time to preparing a staff report even though they had told him this wasn’t the way any other annexation had ever been handled.

There were numerous technical issues associated with the mayor’s request. First was that some parcels would be divided by the proposed annexation and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) would reject the request out-of-hand. Not to mention that the property was in both the airport approach zone and the flood plain, and this would severely limit future development.

Then there was the cost to the General Fund, estimated at $177,000, which the staff pointed out didn’t include the cost of preparing the financial analysis that was required by the General Plan.

After a lengthy discussion of Linn’s proposal, the council wisely decided that this was a bad idea and directed that no further action should be taken.

Then after midnight to an empty council chamber came the discussion of the “Financial Reserve Policies and Follow-up to Midyear Review.” Local print media had an extensive report concerning this item.

During a presentation three months earlier, there had been a 47-page chart flip, but at this late hour maybe council members forgot that a substantial water and wastewater rate increase was on page 31 of this highly technical presentation.

During the May 6 meeting, the finance guru began by saying he wouldn't go over the resolutions they were about to adopt because they were essentially unchanged from March 25. This turned out to be an error because the rate increase appeared in a newly minted council resolution.

But apparently not all council members even read what they were approving, specifically Mayor Linn, who admitted during a recent forum that he hadn’t bothered to read them.

One council member abstained from voting on the matter saying that this was simply too much technical information for her to digest after an 18-hour day, which included this meeting — now lasting a staggering six hours.

Council members had previously said that when rate increases were the specific topic that they wanted to discuss it in detail. One of the things they wanted was an in-depth analysis and full justification for the rate increase — something that was missing from the initial action they took.

Once ratepayers started getting their new bills — mine went up $24 for the same amount of water over last year and my sewer rates went up $12 — they started calling their council members!

In this case, the mismanagement of the council meeting and wasting staff time to accommodate a personal agenda led to a significant rate increase — which translated to more money out of our pockets.

Increasing utility rate discussions should be scheduled when the public is still awake — and not after midnight!

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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