“Oxnard. The city that cares.”
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten announced last week that after a two-year investigation, which cost taxpayers $1 million, he wouldn’t be filing criminal charges against any Oxnard official because of insufficient evidence, mostly due to poor bookkeeping and, in a couple of instances, the statute of limitations having expired. (For example, City Manager Ed Sotelo was in clear violation of the law when he took a personal loan of $10,000 from city coffers but it happened so many years ago, the district attorney’s hands were tied.) But a 99-page report released with the announcement was littered with details from the investigation of activities unbecoming of public elected and appointed officials. While no one will be criminally charged, the overarching problems, from lack of transparency to conflict-of-interest relationships with developers and an almost literal spending spree for “city”-related events, were a serious blow to a trusting public. It goes beyond betrayal. It’s a slap in the face.
Unfortunately, abuse of power isn’t new. When the scandal broke in 2010 over public officials’ bloated salaries in the city of Bell, it came as a shock — not so much that it happened, but the degree to which it had happened. It was one of the most blatant abuses of power for personal financial gain at the public level in recent times. Not only were top officials spending taxpayer money on personal trips, City Administrator Robert Rizzo was able to finagle a $1.5 million annual salary to manage services for a population of less than 40,000. In the meantime, two Bell council members saw their part-time annual salaries jump to nearly $100,000 each. Overall, the investigation of Bell led to criminal charges against eight public officials. The real problem, however, is the trust and confidence that the community places in public servants.
In this day and age, people are just too busy to carry out their own personal investigations to make sure public officials are playing by the rules — following both stringent ethical and legal standards. Though certain Oxnard officials didn’t come close to Bell officials in such overt malfeasance, it certainly makes those who are paying attention weary of government and even the electoral process. Regrettably, it seems that those outraged over the clear criminal and ethical violations at Oxnard City Hall are in the minority.
As Oxnard officials who were under investigation wait for a response from the Fair Political Practices Commission, which could lead to fines for violations, those at the helm in Oxnard face the monumental task of repairing the reputation as “The city that cares.” We aren’t certain at what point Oxnard will regain residents’ trust, but we hope that those who are currently serving on the City Council and those who aspire to take on leadership roles in the future fulfill the description as public servants, not opportunists.
For more on the district attorney’s investigation and the mayoral candidates, read “Two Oxnard officials announce run for mayor’s seat” in this week’s NEWS section.