Tuesday, September 26, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 29
Signup

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 28

Failure to communicate: With the city's financial future in question, the Lompoc City Council struggles to find common ground

By SPENCER COLE

It’s Tuesday night, Sept. 5, and the Lompoc City Council is in session.

After a long and arduous meeting, the city’s 2017-19 budget has finally passed, albeit contentiously, at a 3-2 vote.

The boogie man of a budget—now four months late and the source of countless hours of bickering, bemoaning, and battling for a say in Lompoc’s future—is finally defeated, at least for now.

Its passage came with great controversy: Throughout the half-year process, several city staff positions were threatened with elimination; one draft of the budget cut funding for the history museum and chamber of commerce; another eliminated the city’s crossing guards and fire marshal. All of the proposals were acts of desperation, as councilmembers and city staff grappled with the grim reality of a $70 million California Public Employees’ Retirement System deficit, coupled with annual payments of $7.5 million to $10 million for the foreseeable future.

Even with that 900-pound gorilla-shaped deficit hanging over the council, the night’s work is still cause for celebration, or at least a sigh of relief. All that remains on the evening’s agenda is for the councilmembers to give their final comments and then everyone can put the two-plus hour meeting and six months of fiscal uncertainty comfortably behind them.


DIVIDED COUNCIL
The Lompoc City Council and mayor have been at odds over how to address the looming budget crisis, with accusations and arguments flying across the dais. Top row, from left: Councilmember Dirk Starbuck, Councilmember Jenelle Osborne. Center: Mayor Bob Lingl. Bottom row: Councilmember Jim Mosby, Councilmember Victor Vega.
IMAGES COURTESY OF CITY OF LOMPOC YOUTUBE, ILLUSTRATION BY ALEX ZUNIGA

But Mayor Pro Tem James Mosby has other plans.

“I would ask for an emergency meeting, to come back within 48 hours for possible [disciplinary] action or termination of the city manager,” Mosby says.

Mayor Bob Lingl shoots his colleague a sideways glance and reminds Mosby that he will need two other members of the five-person council to agree with him for an emergency meeting.

Silence.

“I’ll give him a second,” Councilmember Victor Vega says.

Again, silence.

Without a third vote, the motion fails to reach majority.

About two minutes later, Vega makes the same request: a call for a review of the city manager for possible disciplinary action or termination.

“I think it’s just a review,” he adds.

Mosby chimes in immediately.

“I’ll give you a second.”

Vega tells the room it never hurts to have a review, even though City Manager Patrick Wiemiller had already undergone two similar ones in the past six months.

The three remaining councilmembers shift in their seats uncomfortably.

And once again, silence.

Until this moment, seven-year councilmember Dirk Starbuck has stayed silent during both motions calling for a review of Wiemiller.

No more.

“You know, could you make this at the [Sept.] 19 [City Council] meeting? The motion,” he adds, before winking at Vega. 

The silence is deafening, leaving only the gentle hum of halogen lights audible above the muffled breathing picked up off the councilmembers’ and city staffs’ microphones.

The motion fails and the meeting resumes.

The two councilmembers’ desire to hold a third review of their city manager in six months seemed to frustrate Lingl when he spoke to the Sun over the phone the next day.

“Normally, we review our city manager once a year,” he explained. “Why a third in six months? He’s met expectations in the prior two, and I made that comment publically last night.”

Vega’s and Mosby’s calls for a third review of Wiemiller—although unsuccessful—reflect a pattern of conflict in Lompoc’s City Council, marked by a clear divide between its mayor and the two councilmembers. For the moment, Councilmember Jenelle Osborne, elected in 2016, has sided with Lingl, voting with him often on most budget issues in recent months. Meanwhile, Starbuck appears to be the council’s deciding vote.

And while Mosby’s and Vega’s attempts to call for a meeting to review and potentially fire Wiemiller failed on Sept. 5, there is a strong chance that at the next meeting they could get their wish.

Councilmember Starbuck told the Sun that such a meeting may be necessary, even though Wiemiller’s last review was completed only a month ago, where the city manager was found to be fulfilling his contract and meeting expectations.

“I think what it is a lot of times, it gives the council [a chance] as a group of five to sit and talk to him, which otherwise it’s one-on-one with him,” he explained.

When the Sun asked if calling for the city manager’s performance to be reviewed was the best way for councilmembers Mosby and Vega to resolve their concerns with Wiemiller, Starbuck said: “For the five of us to talk to him, it has to be.”

Repeated attempts made by the Sun requesting Vega, Mosby, and Osborne to comment for this story went unanswered. 

‘Power struggle’

At the beginning of that Sept. 5 meeting (before the calls for review), Mosby asked City Attorney Joe Pannone if Wiemiller had been acting insubordinate at the Aug. 22 meeting when the city manager refused to answer a question from Vega.

“That is a very legal conclusionary word to use that has a lot of implications, and I wouldn’t want to try to address something like that in an open session because of the possibility of what that could mean,” Pannone responded.

At the Aug. 22 council meeting, Wiemiller reminded councilmembers they were bound by contracts that outlined that the city manager was responsible for the hiring and firing of city personnel.

The city manager’s words came on the heels of a conversation between Vega and Mosby about Lompoc’s Fire Department absorbing the fire marshal position.

Wiemiller told the two councilmembers that he interpreted city code as stating that “all the employee positions, and how they are assigned, and where they are located, and how it’s structured within the organization, are purview of city manager. And I haven’t released that responsibility to anyone else.

“When we start getting anywhere close to start discussing individual positions and personnel issues and doing that in this setting here,” Wiemiller continued, “it’s simply not going to happen and it can’t happen, and so I’m gonna hold all of us to the contractual responsibilities that the six of us have.”

Vega responded that he understood, but that he heard Pannone say that the councilmembers were within their responsibilities as oversight policy members to discuss such matters.

“As long as we are here, do you recognize the council as the policy makers? As long as we are here, the question needs to be asked, as city manager do you recognize the council as being the policy makers and providing a direction?” Vega asked. “So if we were to place this as a direction, as it’s directed, would you follow it?”


GUSHING DEFICIT
Lompoc’s City Council members were left with difficult decisions to make on the city budget after the California Public Employees’ Retirement System deficit ballooned to $70 million (pictured: Lompoc City Hall).
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

After a moment of silence from Wiemiller, Vega said, “sounds like you’re telling me you wouldn’t.”

Wiemiller said he was not telling Vega anything and that he wasn’t answering the question.

Vega pressed for an answer and again Wiemiller refused.

Wiemiller apologized to the council at the Sept. 5 meeting, just before Mosby asked Pannone if the city manager had been acting insubordinate.

“I want the other councilmembers to note, ‘OK, we’re not here to play games,’” Vega said after the exchange. “It’s not a power struggle.”

Vega said he expected his colleagues to come together and give clear direction.

“You see what we’re dealing with—this is a big budget item,” he added. “It’s a lot of movement. It’s kind of disappointing that we can’t come up with a clear directive, loud and clear.”

An attorney familiar with Lompoc’s city code, who requested anonymity to freely discuss legal matters, told the Sun that typically under the law the City Council only directly supervises the employees it hires.

“For example, the council hires the city manager and the city attorney, but other employees, like a planning tech, answer to the city manager,” the attorney said. “If the council is upset with a particular employee, it doesn’t have the right to fire that employee, but it can put pressure on the city manager.”

Osborne said at the Sept. 5 meeting that she thought there was no reason to fire individuals in order to solve budget issues that are beyond the City Council’s control.

After the calls for Wiemiller’s review, Osborne appeared frustrated with the environment fellow councilmembers had created.

“There’s a level of professionalism we’re expected to bring to this when we are elected, and the current behavior from the council has been abhorrent,” she said. “I’ve been embarrassed numerous times when I have been visiting out of our community representing it. I don’t mind us asking the difficult questions. I don’t mind having hard discussions, but when we impugn individuals, when we attack personalities, when we are disappointed with them because we don’t agree with them, we’re behaving badly and we are the first representation of our community. We are sitting up here being recorded. Do you want to know why industry and businesses and homes might not be built here?

“We are a full-service city,” Osborne continued. “They sit and watch these council meetings and they watch our behavior, so we don’t just represent the community, we represent our behavior and what might be expected of City Hall.

“I’m disappointed in recent behaviors, and I’m disappointed in recent headlines, and I’m disappointed in some of the personalities that have been revealed,” she said.

One such headline read: “Finger gun gesture sets off Lompoc police investigation into alleged death threat.” 

Pointing fingers

The Lompoc City Council’s recent squabbles are well documented, including between its Mayor (Lingl) and Mayor Pro Tem (Mosby), who have butted heads multiple times since both assumed their positions.

In 2014, Mosby was first appointed to Lingl’s vacant City Council seat on a 3-1 confirmation vote after Lingl was elected mayor. Lingl cast the only dissenting vote.

Over the next two years, their public relationship soured further, eventually boiling over in August of this year, when Mosby reported to Police Chief Pat Walsh that Lingl had threatened him at a public event on July 21.

When asked about how to handle the city’s current budget problems, Lingl allegedly made the shape of a gun with his fingers, pointed at Mosby and said: “I’d like to shoot this guy in the head.”

The incident received regional publicity when Mosby’s wife wrote a post on Facebook condemning the action. After a brief inquiry, police found no crime had occurred and closed the case.

Mosby said at the time that the police dropped the investigation after he informed them he wouldn’t press charges.

He said that his refusal to vote on three of the mayor’s proposed budgets had caused tensions to run high among the council.

“My wife was the one who was very offended by [the gesture], and she wants an apology, and she hasn’t gotten it,” he said. “She doesn’t think it was joke.”

On Aug. 9, Mosby told the Sun that Lingl was not a gun owner.

Lingl responded that his only comment was, “I will continue to let Jim Mosby and his wife make fools of themselves.” 

The ‘white elephant in the room’ 

The finger-gun-fueled conflict is one example in a series of events that are symptomatic of the divided council’s interactions, especially as they attempted to tackle the 2017-19 budget.

Even the budget’s passage came with heated contention, with Lingl and Osborne both voting against the current iteration, arguing that it did not address the city’s most pressing concern: a massive deficit for the city’s California Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS).

“This budget does nothing to address our big white elephant in the room of the $70 million PERS obligation we have,” Lingl said. “It takes care of this year, but now next year—and every year after this—we have anywhere from a $7.5 million to $10 million payment to PERS for our retirement fund. This does not even address that.”

According to Lingl, the city’s predicament is only going to worsen with time. It’s a sentiment publicly shared by Councilmember Osborne and City Manager Wiemiller.

“The reason I say ‘worse’ is because we balanced this budget by using some one-time money—usually you balance a budget on revenue that you can expect every single year: taxes, fees, etc.—but we took almost $800,000 that we were going to use for the demolition of our old municipal pool and put it toward this budget,” Lingl said. “That’s one-time money. You’re not going to get that for the budget two years from now.”

The council also moved some $200,000 that was set aside to pay for a proposed ballot measure that would have included either a 1 percent sales tax increase, a utility tax, or a transient occupancy tax.

The money instead went to keep the city’s crossing guards.

Starbuck said he voted in favor of adopting the budget without the tax because he believed Lompoc’s citizens would never approve it.

“The tax ballot—if we were banking on it—we would probably be disappointed,” he added. “So let’s proceed with the thought of not having it or needing it. I just don’t think the momentum is there to get it on a ballot, and I don’t think it would pass—the school board is gonna put a sales tax initiative on the ballot, so this town isn’t gonna vote. This town isn’t going to self-impose a tax on it.”

Lingl expressed exasperation when asked by the Sun about the budget passing without the funds to place a measure on an upcoming ballot.

“I cannot for the life of me understand why these three councilmembers will not let the public decide whether they want to have this 1 percent sales tax to keep the city running,” he said. “They think that they know better than the public—what the public wants.”

Councilmembers had previously narrowed down the proposed taxes to just one option: a sales tax of either a half percent or 1 percent. Lingl said the tax would have kept the city in the clear financially for more than a decade.

“We could’ve gotten by and we could’ve paid [the deficit],” he explained. “We could’ve taken care of our budgets for the next 15 years with the PERS obligation, but now that we’ve used that money, we are not going to have a tax measure—well they didn’t want it anyway—so all this budget does is it puts a Band-Aid on the real problem we have. It does not address our problem.”

Lompoc’s mayor noted that the money set aside for the ballot measure, just like the swimming pool funds, would have to be acquired through loans or accrued by the city over the course of a few years.

“And heaven forbid, two years from now, we are gonna be in a worse position than we are right now trying to balance this budget,” he added.

Wiemiller echoed Lingl’s sentiments regarding the proposed tax.

“I’ve made my recommendation so many times I don’t think there’s anything left for me to do in that regard,” Wiemiller said. “I think it’s an elementary issue of democracy—whether or not I personally would vote for or support a tax measure—I think the way law is structured in California is that we decided those things are best left to the individual voter. So I certainly think if there’s a choice to be made between either having our level of services and having [a tax], or drastically cutting services and not having one, that’s really something that’s critical for the voters to decide.

“It’s an issue of democracy to me, less about [taxes], more about voting rights,” he added.

Starbuck said the proposed taxes and PERS problems would probably not be resolved until after the 2018 election cycle.

“I don’t know [why Osborne and Lingl voted no on the budget],” he added. “Was it because they were adamant about having a tax? Because we used the tax to go ahead and put crossing guards back on the streets?”

Lingl proposed the city consider hiring an “unbiased, nonpartisan outsider” to come in and teach the council how to better work together.

“Right now, we are a dysfunctional government body, and until we learn how to work together on issues, it’s just not going to work,” he said. 

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at scole@santamariasun.com.




Weekly Poll
Who messed with the Sun's opinion poll last week?

Jim Mosby
John Linn
Bob Lingl
The Russians

| Poll Results