Monday, March 19 , 2018, 9:30 pm | Fair 55º


Ron Fink: Should the Public Question its City Council?

Should elected leaders and the public ask questions during public hearings?

Of course they should. That’s the way the public process is supposed to work. 

Council members who are addressing technical issues should be prepared to accept the professional staff’s response to their question.

A recent example of a poorly informed council member reared its ugly head during a recent hearing in the City of Lompoc concerning a sorely needed new fire station.

The staff, with council direction, had spent months and about $150 thousand researching, analyzing and designing a project that would serve the City for at least 50 years. 

They meticulously poured over the finances and design of this project, shaving $2 million off the original estimate, and then presented it to the council for approval.

The staff in this case was highly qualified.

The fire chief was certified at many levels within the public safety community. 

The architect hired by the city had designed and built fire stations in many communities.

The director of management services had many years of public and private experience and had a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is a certified public accountant. 

The city manager has a bachelor's degree in finance and a master’s degree in business administration and has served as chief financial officer in both private corporations and public agencies.

In other words, these folks were very highly qualified to provide competent assessments of the need and financial ability to build this project. 

The council members and public on the other hand had none of these qualifications, so it would seem to me that they weren’t qualified to question the technical merits or financing of the project.

Some in the public, including past and present elected officials, felt that they are much more qualified than the professionals listed above. In this case the lack of credible information seemed to steer the debate.

One council member was particularly aggressive in his questioning. Once again no one objects to well thought-out questions that are based in fact, and I expect elected representatives to ask knowledgeable questions based on current information.

In this case, the council member was relying on a draft study that was prepared for a totally different set of circumstances than the project being discussed, and when the staff pointed this out, he ignored their reply and continued to press the point. 

After he later showed that he had made an error, he was equally adamant that his information was technically correct.

Then there is the matter of fiscal responsibility. Once again I expect elected leaders to be fiscally responsible; however, I expect them to be consistent in the kinds of decisions they make. 

They had previously approved spending $150 thousand for the design effort, and now three council members were willing to toss this money in the dumpster based on concerns that were unsubstantiated.

Compare that to a recent decision to aid a nonprofit group that had committed to building a motorsports park on public land near the airport. 

Both the previous mayor and the councilman in question who relied on faulty information were chairmen of the nonprofit and both had strongly contended that “no city money” would be used for this project. 

The council allowed them to proceed with the caveat that no public money would be used.

The group ran into funding problems and came up several thousand dollars short of the amount needed for their share of the environmental study for the project, so they came before the council and asked for a loan.

The former mayor misrepresented the financial position of the nonprofit and produced unaudited documentation that the needed money was forthcoming from the state; however, on closer scrutiny, his facts were seriously flawed because they hadn’t submitted the needed paper work within the allotted time to get reimbursed. Thus an unsecured loan was provided to them.

Considering this council member's prior involvement as head of the nonprofit, it would seem to some that he should have recused himself from this decision, but he had no problem remaining in his seat for the vote.

He and the other council members, who would later reject a much needed public safety project because of an unsubstantiated concern for financing, didn’t have any problem providing $78,000 of public funds to a nonprofit that had no demonstrated ability to repay the loan or even complete the project.

So, should elected leaders and the public ask questions during public hearings?

You bet they should. Questions are important in the public process. 

Employing a double standard in decision making, relying on stale information that doesn’t apply to a project and ignoring accurate answers to those questions, on the other hand, are not.

— 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]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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