For the last five years, the city of Oxnard has been under scrutiny. When the Ventura County District Attorney raided Oxnard City Hall in 2010, it left many unnerved, especially those who had faith in local government. But for those who had their suspicions about mismanagement, it gave them confirmation and perhaps a bit of relief. The DA investigation revealed a whole slew of issues, but what really outshined any other issues was major mismanagement that started from the top down; one of the biggest was the organization, or lack thereof, of financial records. And to this day, Oxnard’s finances remain a convoluted mess that the new city manager is trying to figure out, with the realization that Oxnard is in debt by tens of millions of dollars. By all appearances, by all evidence at hand, this sad state of affairs is because the former city manager and the former elected mayor and City Council let accountability fall to the wayside. In the end, however, there are many lessons to be learned. Thankfully, justice prevailed this week for the city of Oxnard.
When City Hall was raided in 2010, the district attorney found some malfeasance by the then-city manager, Ed Sotelo. Besides financial records being in disorder, Sotelo had borrowed city funds for a personal loan of $10,000, an illegal transaction, according to the district attorney. Unfortunately, Sotelo could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run. Further, in the midst of Sotelo’s 15-year tenure, he approved a $300 per month retirement benefit for top management, without approval of the City Council. Once the perk was discovered, not only was that benefit cancelled, but the city attempted to obtain reimbursement from the beneficiaries, apparently to no avail. The total was more than $100,000. Despite Sotelo’s mismanagement, after the City Council in 2012 decided not to renew Sotelo’s contract, they agreed to put him on administrative paid leave for over a year to fulfill his employment contract, paying him his regular annual salary and benefits of $417,373, according to a report by Oxnard Chief Financial Officer James Cameron, plus cashing out his unused reserve and annual leave of more than 1,700 hours, totaling $235,000. Unbelievably, instead of being thrilled at this result, Sotelo sued the city for over $1 million. Sotelo, an “at-will” employee, claimed his contract was not renewed as an act of retaliation and that he endured harassment at work. A federal jury this week, however, didn’t agree and ruled against Sotelo.
Upon reflection, though, placing all the blame on Sotelo is wrong. Sotelo worked for the city of Oxnard for 15 years. He pulled out his personal loan in his early years; he provided benefits for top managers years before the DA investigation. With hundreds of pages to weed through from the investigation, the real ramifications are hard to discern. But what we do know is this, by all appearances, the Mayor and City Council threw caution to the wind by failing to properly supervise their top employee. Fifteen years of who knows what happened at the city is far too long for the City Council to let things slip by.
We hope Mayor Tim Flynn and the City Council have learned a lesson about leaving certain powers unchecked for so long. Fortunately, we have confidence that Oxnard’s new city manager, Greg Nyhoff, has the city’s best interest at heart. While we remain concerned, as all Oxnard residents should be, that there will be years of strain and difficulty in setting the city straight, it is satisfying to know justice prevailed this week by rejecting Sotelo’s claims and that the city of Oxnard may finally be on its way to solvency and stability. With that said, we hold Oxnard’s elected officials accountable when it comes to oversight of Mr. Nyhoff. As the old adage remains, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
We have only one thing left to say, “Mr. Sotelo, goodbye and good riddance.” We look forward to good years ahead and hope the dysfunctional ones are in the past.