Full speed ahead
Ventura’s new city manager, Mark Watkins, reveals passion for the job and city he’s loved for 25 years
By Michael Sullivan 08/22/2013
While born in San Mateo, Mark Watkins, Ventura’s new city manager, resembles any other born and raised local. Finding Ventura hard to resist, he has always maintained some connection to the city over the last 25 years. Though his first job was in Bakersfield, he and his wife (and later their three children) had a boat docked in the Ventura Harbor and would visit every weekend. While he did come to work for the city of Ventura in 1987, he eventually landed several different positions for the city of Thousand Oaks — deputy public works director, public works director and assistant city manager — that had him commuting from Ventura. But his home was where his heart was, or vice versa, and when then-City Manager Rick Cole resigned in February, he threw his hat in the ring. And so the City Council voted unanimously to bring him on board and the rest is history. Now that Watkins has had time to get his feet wet as the new head of city business, he sat down with the VCReporter to share some of the inner workings of Ventura.
VCReporter: What prompted you to seek this position from Thousand Oaks? Was this the first city manager job you had considered, as in you were not looking around California?
Yes, this was the first city manager position that I considered. Thousand Oaks is a great city, is very well-run and I truly enjoyed working there. I was not looking to move and was not “in the market” but when Rick Cole decided to retire I definitely became interested! There were five vacant city manager positions in the county at the time but this is the only one that I was interested in and the only one I applied for. It is a rare opportunity to be able to serve as city manager in the city where you have already lived for 25 years. I am not sure who else applied for the position but I know no one else could match my passion and dedication to the city.
What has been one of your biggest hurdles in Ventura city government?
The city of Ventura has struggled for years with aligning its resources (i.e., budget) and community expectations. As a mission city it is one of the oldest cities in the state and consequently many of the city’s assets are in need of maintenance or replacement. We maintain everything from a couple of adobes built in the 1840s (Olivas and Ortega) to a 100-year-old City Hall to the historic Ventura pier. This is the same with city streets, curbs and sidewalks as well as many of the water, sewer and storm drain pipelines. Just like living in a 100-year-old home has the advantage of charm, character and history, it also brings with it the expectation of higher maintenance costs. The rich history and culture of Ventura are felt in our downtown and older neighborhoods but with that comes an increase in maintenance costs. All of these needs compete with the ongoing needs for public safety and other core services. While cities throughout the state are funded similarly through sales and property taxes, the needs for older communities are much greater.
What are some of the biggest concerns for the city of Ventura?
The city went through a painful time a couple of years back with the closing of a fire station due to budget reductions. That fire station was reopened with the help of a state grant but that grant runs out in the fall of 2014. City employees have not had a pay increase in five years and have absorbed benefit cost increases. Phase II of our crime reduction plan to add more police has been put on hold. There is a community desire to add an east-end library, complete the sports park and add Kellogg Park. All of these interests compete for the same limited resources and we, as a community, need to decide how and which we want to fund. On a positive note, businesses want to be here and want to expand here and add jobs here; we need to be able to accommodate them.
What are your top priorities?
My first priority coming to the city was to balance the budget. This was done with the elimination of an additional 10 positions and included paying back some internal funds that had been used to balance previous budgets. My next priority is to restore the public trust in city services. The city organization is full of dedicated city employees that are determined to provide quality services to the businesses and residents of the city. While we recognize that there can be a general mistrust of governmental agencies at all levels, we want the locals to know that their city government is dedicated to providing high quality service at all times.
We know that Ventura is known for its slow moving for businesses and construction. Is that a perception problem or is it real? What is being done to change it?
I think it is a little perception and sometimes real. Ventura has a very engaged population that expects to be involved in major decisions impacting the city. That process of engagement is healthy and leads to good decisions but can also protract the process. Internally we are realigning our staff to streamline our process by centralizing services and having fewer departments involved in the development process.
What are some of the things you personally like most about Ventura?
I can still remember walking out the front door of City Hall after my first day of work. I looked down California Street to the pier on a blue-sky day and was grinning from ear to ear with the simple pleasure of living and working in a beautiful city. We are so blessed to live in a place that many people only get to experience while on vacation.
This is such a dynamic city with so much going on. For example, I came downtown to enjoy the fair parade and then met a group of folks from the Ventura Botanical Gardens for a walk of the trails behind City Hall and a discussion about their plans to create a world-class botanical garden and visitor center. Then we spent the evening dancing at the Music Under the Stars event at the Olivas Adobe. It was a wonderful blend of experiencing a connection with our past through the fair parade, a discussion about our future with the botanical garden and enjoying the present with a concert under the stars. I’m pretty sure that you could not have all of those experiences with the backdrop of the beautiful Pacific anywhere else.
When tourists visit the city, what do you recommend they do here?
Well, we are a beach community so when you visit you need to get on, in or under the water. Island Packers can get you to one of the most beautiful National Parks in the country. You can grab a surfboard or boogie board and play in the waves. After you have had enough sun you can choose from a wide range of restaurants, breweries and wineries to satisfy your needs before walking the downtown and shopping a great mix of stores. Then, when you wake up the next day, you can hop on the free trolley and discover the Harbor, stop on South Seaward, and then take a walk on the pier and promenade. If you need to burn off a few of the calories that you found in the restaurants, then hit the trails behind City Hall for a hike and a view.
How is Ventura utilizing or promoting its New Art City image?
A review of the arts calendar shows a sampling of all of the events from performing arts and music to the visual art and sculpture, www.cityofventura.net/culturalaffairs.
A couple of weeks ago we had the downtown Artwalk that was incredibly well-attended. The buzz downtown during the event was awesome and the new PODS displays were very popular. Every Saturday throughout the summer the city hosts Music Under the Stars at the Olivas Adobe. The WAV, Bell Arts and others host a First Friday event every month.
The city directly supports the arts by commissioning works. As part of the celebration of the City Hall’s 100-year anniversary the city unveiled a new sculpture by local artist Matthew Furmanski called “Spolia,” which utilized pieces of the original terra cotta used to build City Hall. Well over a hundred people attended the dedication.
Tell me about Ventura’s eco-friendly policies.
Wow, this could be (and should be!) an article all by itself. The city has taken a holistic look at everything it does and then implemented programs to make our efforts more environmentally friendly. My first week as city manager, when I sat down with all of the department heads for a meeting I handed out an agenda and there was a collective gasp from the room as the norm for meetings is to go paperless and use the computer monitor in each conference room for agendas and handouts. This city has been a leader in everything from trash reduction to energy reduction to a green fleet and lowering of our carbon footprint. We have received awards from So Cal Edison as a green community, the California Climate Registry as a Climate Action Leader, the Institute for Local Government for their Beacon Award and Fleet Equipment magazine’s Green Fleet Award. From our parks folks utilizing beneficial insects and practicing water conservation to the street folks using LED lighting in all of the traffic signals to the fleet professionals that utilize re-refined motor oil, have eliminated all solvents and use alternative fuel vehicles, to our environmental sustainability division that promotes green practices citywide through our green business program, this city is a proven leader in environmental practices. More details can be found on our website: www.cityofventura.net/environmental; www.cityofventura.net/greenventura.