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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on October 17th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 32 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 32

Eight is enough

A diverse field of candidates contends for three city council seats in Lompoc

BY JEREMY THOMAS AND AMY ASMAN

Lompoc is a city at a crossroads. In an attempt to break free from the economic doldrums, city leaders and residents are taking steps to revitalize an aging downtown and to boost tourism in the area. The City Council election on Nov. 6, which will decide three seats, is a pivotal one in determining the course for Lompoc over the next four years.

Two candidates are facing off for mayor: the incumbent, business owner John Linn; and challenger Ann Ruhge, a Lompoc planning commissioner and former City Council member. Six others are vying to fill two seats—one currently held by incumbent Bob Lingl, the other vacated by Cecilia Martner, who chose not to seek re-election. Candidates include Lingl, real estate broker David Grill, political activist Robert Cuthbert, real estate investor Ronald Barrows, land-use consultant and radio host DeWayne Holmdahl, and web developer/community organizer Jedidjah De Vries. Small business owner Nick Gonzales dropped out of the race earlier this month.

The Sun sent a list of questions to each of the eight remaining council hopefuls to learn more about the issues on their minds. Here are their responses:

What do you feel best qualifies you to hold a council seat?

Ronald Barrows: I have worked for the federal government, and I have more than 29 years of experience in leadership roles. I know how to make good decisions based on facts presented to me. For the past 10 years, 48 Saturdays every year, I have been going out and knocking on doors and talking to the citizens in Lompoc. I care about the people in Lompoc.

Robert Cuthbert: I spent my early adulthood working in construction and factories. For much of that time, I was self-employed. At 45, I went to Allan Hancock College, earning a degree in Spanish. Then, I transferred to Cal Poly SLO and received a degree in social science, magna cum laude. Many of the decisions facing cities demand practical experience and a well-rounded education. On City Council, I will do more than vote in my turn. I will continue my commitment to the broad community and set meaningful priorities, while creating a sustainable and practical economic development plan as a team player. With my background and life experience, I will be a valuable and responsible councilman. We must maintain the benefits of living in our community with an eye to the future.

Jedidjah De Vries: I have the vision and experience needed to make Lompoc thrive. I came to Lompoc after completing my master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where I studied social theory and public affairs. Before that I earned an undergraduate degree at UCSB in ethics and public policy. ... Before earning my master’s degree, I worked at a community organization in Livermore. There, I brought together diverse constituencies to confront thorny issues that often spanned across [multiple] jurisdictions. The key to my work was being able to listen and remain open to multiple perspectives, while sticking to the facts and finding pragmatic compromises, and always fighting for what I thought was best for the community.

David Grill: In my first career as [an] engineering program manager, I supervised hundreds of people, spending millions of dollars to build new radars on schedule, on budget, on performance. Failure was rewarded with a pink slip.

DeWayne Holmdahl:

Lompoc valley resident for more than 50 years.

• Proven leadership at local, county, and state levels.

Bob Lingl: My qualifications start with my past four years on the Lompoc City Council, and prior to that [I served] two years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. My fellow council members have appointed me to serve on several local and state commissions, including the Senior Citizens Commission on Aging, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, the Northern California Power Agency, and the Transmission Agency of Northern California. I have a bachelor’s degree in management from Pepperdine University and an MBA in business administration. I am a California licensed clinical scientist and the director of laboratory services at Lompoc Valley Medical Center. I have a working business background, having been a co-owner and vice president of a very successful multi-million-dollar company. I have served on several nonprofit boards and committees.

John Linn: I believe that I should be judged on my numerous successes in my first two years. I am most proud of the citywide graffiti wall-painting program, the charter of excellence created by the city administrator to deliver excellent customer service, eliminating gophers from our parks and sports fields, leading the council in creating decisions that we pass unanimously 90 percent of the time, and especially our economic development program that will bring 900 jobs to Lompoc and has filled every large retail and industrial building except one.

Ann Ruhge: I am very well qualified for this position having served for six years on the city’s Planning Commission and four years on City Council. I also assumed the duties of mayor for four months in 2009. There is no other candidate that has this much experience. I am familiar with city government and all the rules and regulations. I have been active in the community for the past 18 years, serving on many boards of local organizations. I am now a member of the board of directors for Good Samaritan Shelters and am president of the board of trustees for the Lompoc library system, which includes the Vandenberg Village and Buellton libraries.

Lompoc still faces an unemployment rate of more than 13 percent, but with the recent luring of several large businesses to town, the local economy appears headed in the right direction. What do you think are the best ways to continue or boost Lompoc’s economic rebound and revitalize the downtown area?

Barrows: Working with and providing tourism information to the motels, hotels, and inns for people visiting Lompoc. Putting out Lompoc’s information on most of the social media websites leading back to the city website. ... Give the businesses in Lompoc more points when it comes to bidding on contracts. Lompoc money should stay in Lompoc if at all possible before going out of town.

Cuthbert: A sustainable economy is more than the latest catchphrase; it is the most practical path for more living-wage jobs, better consumer value, a deeper tax base, and better living standards. The city has neglected economic development for decades, meandering without a plan. We must understand and collect the hard data, and learn our community’s assets and labor market. Then we must target potential employers that are a real fit for our unique community. Some time ago, we had consultants from the California Association for Economic Development lay out a blueprint for our city. That plan charts a course that we have only started. We are in a position to take advantage of the steadily improving economy. This opportunity cannot be neglected. I will work to move faster on this plan that brings together the community, local government, and business to drive economic development. We must take away the roadblocks that government has put in place. We need to lay out a clear path for businesses interested in locating in Lompoc. Collectively, small businesses are the major employer, nationally, and they deserve our support here. While supporting the existing businesses, we need to recruit small corporations to the valley that do not directly compete.

De Vries: First, DenMat did not bring new jobs to Lompoc, but commuters from Santa Maria. ... It’s misleading to claim that as a coup for Lompoc. Furthermore, large businesses are not brought here by any one person or by the City Council, but chose to come here because they think it’s a good business move. When it comes to the economy, we need to think beyond tweaking zoning ordinances and hoping large, fanciful projects get off the ground. We want business and jobs that strengthen and grow our community. That means supporting small local business. That means Lompoc residents starting new businesses. ... Our Old Town has suffered for too long. Revitalizing Old Town is important both because of the economic engine it could be and because it should be the center of our community, where we come together to hang out, see old friends, and make new ones. There are a number of cheap to low-cost steps we could take right away: We could use the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to offer free Wi-Fi downtown; and we could work in partnership with our wonderful art community and local business owners to beautify empty storefronts by turning them into temporary art galleries. Of course, there is a lot of work still to be done. That’s why I have been working with a group of people who are starting a nonprofit to fix-up the old theater—left languishing by [the Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation]—and turn it back into the cultural and performance center it once was.

Grill: The incumbents caused nothing good: DenMat and Marshall’s came independently; tourism is unchanged; jobs are scarce; downtown is worse than ever. Educating our children to earn jobs at Lompoc hospital and at [Vandenberg Air Force Base] is a must. Creating regional sport competition weekends will attract tourists to Lompoc. Our farms need protection from development.

Holmdahl: [I will] help bring new businesses and jobs to Lompoc such as: Allan Hancock College police/fire academies; Space X; future expansion of DenMat; wine industry expansion downtown. I will promote Lompoc as a great place to visit, live, and do business.

Lingl: Our city is heading in the right direction. We have brought new businesses to town and created new jobs. We have new construction projects currently being built and more are in the planning stages. It is important that we keep this momentum moving forward, and the best way to do that is to continue the plan we have set in place. That plan involves working with our economic development director, the Economic Development Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, and the citizens of Lompoc.

Linn: The proof of our rebound is that the sales tax in Lompoc has increased for the last four consecutive quarters with an 18.9 percent increase in the first quarter of 2012. The businesses listed in the question and others have come to Lompoc because the staff and I met with them and helped them to open quickly. We will continue our successful approach to prospective businesses and have now expanded that approach to help property owners build new industrial buildings to house new jobs. To date we have three new industrial buildings in our fast permitting process, and we are talking with two other property owners. ... Regarding downtown, I am currently communicating with a number of potential tenants. Additionally, the city is working with the oversight board of the closed City Redevelopment Agency and the state to expedite the renovation of the historic Lompoc Theater.

Ruhge: The present economic development efforts are a good beginning, but we still need to concentrate on our existing businesses and help them keep their doors open. I propose a series of workshops to give our present business owners information on how to market their wares and to deliver good customer service. We also need to work with the property owners in our downtown area to help them upgrade their properties and also market what we have available in Lompoc.

Has the city adequately addressed the problems stemming from Lompoc Housing and Community Development Corporation (LHCDC)?

Barrows: Some entities may need some start-up help from the city if they can show good cause, and others may need a little help as they try to move forward with their business. What is paid out must show a return of equal value in one way or another to the city. Sometimes it helps the city move forward in achieving goals.

Cuthbert: I worked for LHCDC 10 years ago. I left because of apparent inconsistencies with funding and the treatment of clients. Myself, and others, went to elected officials and were ignored. The only way to address poor oversight is to change the political culture at City Hall. We need open government—that means transparency. We deserve answers and have a right to understand the decision-making process. The perception that City Hall ignores the public must be changed. Elected leaders need to respond to the issues. The city has yet to develop an adequate policy of oversight. The grand jury’s recommendations are a start, but real reform does not seem to be on the horizon. When using city money, it is critical to audit in a timely manner, oversee regularly how monies are used, and assess the organization’s viability routinely.

De Vries: No. I don’t know who is guilty for LHCDC’s collapse, but I do know the folks running LHCDC—its board of directors, city staff, and our City Council—are all responsible. ... The current City Council has said they will put together a policy to deal with these types of situations in the future. But, with the next budget cycle rolling around, they haven’t actually begun to discuss it. ... I started LHCDCinfo.com, to collect all the available information about what happened and help the public understand the issue. I signed a petition asking the district attorney to open an investigation. I have reached out to former residents of LHCDC, sat down and talked with them to hear how this crisis has affected them and what could be done to help. And ... I’ve started a petition to the City Council demanding that they take responsibility for the consequences of LHCDC’s mess by reaching out to, and finding ways to assist, the residents of LHCDC housing.

Grill: LHCDC is a disaster beyond measure. Linn, Lingl, and Gonzales were supervising the funds and failed. They were asleep on guard duty. An independent forensic audit is required. Linn, Lingl, and Gonzalez can’t be trusted on the council. Let the district attorney investigate the embezzlement.

Holmdahl: The city of Lompoc is addressing the LHCDC [issue]; it is still in process and [the city] will be working with the DA’s office. There is a process in process.

Lingl: The issue involving [LHCDC] has not yet been adequately addressed, but it is moving in the right direction. It took many years for this problem to develop, long before any of the current council members were elected. In the past four years, much progress has been made; funding has stopped, foreclosures have taken place, and the corporation is in the process of being dissolved. The grand jury has investigated and made its report; the city and county have responded to the grand jury report; and the district attorney’s office is looking into the possibility of criminal activities. A change to the way money is doled out to nonprofits in the future is a must. As a matter of fact, it has already begun. Any nonprofit that receives more than $50,000 from the city is now required to submit an annual audit for funding to continue and for the nonprofit to be eligible for future funding.

Linn: Here are the steps that the city has taken: First the council received multiple briefings from staff about LHCDC. Next the city attorney was assigned to work with LHCDC on various issues. Next the council received a substantial number of LHCDC city contract documents to review. After that the council approved hiring a consultant to review all 6,000-plus pages of the LHCDC and city documents for compliance. That review, which was to take a couple months, has stretched out to seven months with no report yet received. It appears the consultant substantially underestimated the time the review would take. Shortly after the consultant’s review began, the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury also requested city documents and later made a report titled “A Failure of Oversight” covering both the city of Lompoc and county of Santa Barbara oversight of various low-income housing project loans. The city has responded to the grand jury and made policy changes based on the grand jury recommendations. Recently the district attorney has begun an investigation also. As part of that investigation, LHCDC has provided the county auditor with its financial records. The county auditor is now conducting a forensic audit. The auditor has been quoted as saying that audit will take a year. This is the first default the city has had on federal dollars provided to a nonprofit. ... The city did repossess one vacant lot from LHCDC for which the city must repay the federal government. After considering the resale value of the lot, the city will have lost about $50,000 if the property were sold today. LHCDC was a low-income housing provider with 190 units, a developer of the College Park low-income housing project, the operator of two homeless shelters, and the developer of a major downtown project, including the theater. Because LHCDC is very different from any other entity that the city of Lompoc or Santa Barbara County provides pass-through funding to, the lessons learned in LHCDC’s collapse are not all applicable to other nonprofit agencies that the city serves.

Ruhge: The city is working very hard to straighten out the mess that LHCDC has made. The property issues need to be settled and the council has to put policies in place, which will provide for stringent oversight on any organization that requests funds from the city.

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at jthomas@santamariasun.com.