Ventura Published 6:00 a.m. PT June 3, 2017
If you live in Oxnard and are approached over the next few months to sign a petition to recall four City Council members, give it some serious thought before grabbing a pen.
Corrupt government officials should be recalled, but we believe the only thing the Oxnard council members are guilty of is making some tough, unpopular decisions. You can vote them out of office when their terms expire in the coming years, but we believe that kicking them out mid-term over sewage rate hikes would be an extreme overreaction fraught with unforeseen political consequences.
In the city of Bell, four council members were recalled in 2011 after the public learned they were paying themselves nearly $100,000 a year for a part-time job and giving their city manager $800,000 annually. They were committing crimes, and their recall was justified.
Closer to home, however, three Rio School District board members were recalled in a 2006 squabble involving fired superintendents, a powerful teachers union and a meddling county supervisor. A second recall attempt in the district fizzled in 2012. It was pure politics, and north Oxnard children paid the price with years of district divisiveness and dysfunction.
Before that 2006 election, we editorialized that it was “an enormous distraction, not to mention a waste of time, energy and scarce taxpayer dollars.” We can now say the same thing about the current recall effort.
Mayor Tim Flynn and council members Carmen Ramirez, Bert Perello and Oscar Madrigal are the targets of the recall. Their crime? Raising sewage rates to keep an aging sewage treatment plant operating and pay off bond debt obligations.
The plant serves more than 230,000 people — nearly 40,000 households and businesses — in Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Naval Base Ventura County and nearby areas. In 2014, consultants determined it had a significant risk of failure, with nearly 30 percent of the system in poor condition. Most everyone agrees rates need to be raised, but not on how much.
The leading opponent of the council’s large rate hikes, Aaron Starr, put an initiative on the ballot last November, Measure M, to repeal the increases. It overwhelmingly passed with 72 percent of the vote. The city is challenging the measure in court, but in the meantime, the four council members last month approved new rate hikes that make the court battle largely moot. Councilman Bryan MacDonald was the lone dissenter initially, sparing him the wrath of Starr.
We opposed Measure M and believe the city has made a solid case for the rate increases. But even if we didn’t, we would not support a recall.
The fact that Starr is leading the recall gives us pause. He unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in 2014 and again in 2016. Last year he finished only 600 votes behind Madrigal. Starr says he’s “leaning toward” running again if the recall happens.
“I’m not sure what other mechanism there is,” Starr says of the recall. “If we go the initiative route, in all likelihood, they’d ignore that. Sometimes the only thing to do is change the people on the council.”
That is true, but a recall — which would cost Oxnard taxpayers an estimated $220,000 — is not the only way to achieve it. The council terms for Flynn, Ramirez and Perello all expire in November 2018, and the earliest a recall election probably would be held is spring 2018. Is the cost and divisiveness of a recall worth six months? Madrigal’s term isn’t up until November 2020, but opponents could gain control of the council by just winning the other three seats next year. They could put their energy into that.
Yes, the council majority is not following the intent of Measure M, but we believe its sole motivation is in doing what’s best for the city. What else could it be? Council members live in the city and have to pay the rate hikes like everyone else. Do we think they enjoy that?
It’s unfortunate that under California law, local or state officials can be recalled for any reason. In fact, all it takes to begin a recall drive is 10 signatures. But now the real work begins — Starr and other recall proponents have about five months to gather the 12,000 or so signatures of Oxnard registered voters needed to get the recall on the ballot.
We elect our local leaders to consider complicated issues and make tough decisions. If we disagree with them, we can vote for someone else when their terms expire. We believe that is the fair and proper course for Oxnard now and urge you to not sign the recall petitions.