May 16, 2013
Tiobe Barron, OVN correspondent
Ojai City Council used its regular meeting Tuesday to reaffirm its goals and priorities, consider a new procedure for appealing staff planning decisions and to gear up for the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget.
In response to some contentious decisions on specific planning and building applications, Mayor Paul Blatz suggested establishing a process by which applicants could have the staff decision reviewed administratively by the mayor and mayor pro tem.
“The city of Ojai receives a large number of applications for planning approvals and building approvals — about 600 per year,” explained city manager Rob Clark. “In receiving those applications, we have to make administrative-level determinations … Out of 600 applications, we maybe get about a dozen per year where there is a disagreement, where the applicant feels that, administratively, we have been too black and white. I think that we would admit that in some cases we have been.”
Clark went on to say that in recent weeks, staff has “made a concerted effort to not only take into consideration the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law.”
Clark pointed out that currently, if there is a dispute between an applicant and staff, the protocol is for the appeal to be taken before the Ojai Planning Commission, which can be costly and time consuming.
Creating an appeal process involving two members of the City Council, as Blatz suggested, would create a “standing committee” under the Brown Act, creating further procedures to follow and requiring more staff time. In lieu of this, Clark recommended either a free appeal process to the city manager or reducing the cost of a Planning Commission appeal by about half. Additionally, he suggested, should the review find in favor of the applicant the fees could be refunded to the applicant.
“I’m comfortable with all three of these procedures being implemented,” stated Blatz.
The matter was a discussion item, so no formal action was taken, but after hearing approval from council members, Clark said he would proceed structuring the new review process.
As far as determining the next fiscal year’s budget, Clark said the process is inextricably tied with assessing the council’s goals and priorities.
“These goals and priorities drive the budget process,” said Clark. “One of the most important goals of the City Council consistently, over the whole time we’ve been doing this, is to address our infrastructure.”
Clark pointed out that a recent increase in the so-called “hotel tax” has allowed the city to actively pursue its capital improvement plans. Blatz credited the new Tourism Bureau Improvement District and the Ojai Visitors Bureau with the recent increase in tourism in the Ojai Valley.
Councilman Severo Lara asked whether the Planning Commission would examine its fee schedule as part of the 2013-2014 budget.
“I just want their input,” said Lara. “I don’t want us to lose too much money, but I want us to be fair.”
In keeping with that ideal, Councilwoman Betsy Clapp proposed they enlist a member of the public to join the Budget Committee.
“I made the suggestion because I felt that it was really important to have, for transparency and public education, somebody from the public participate in the Budget Committee meetings. It would be really valuable to have somebody there,” explained Clapp.
“Right now, the committee consists of two Council members, the treasurer, the city manager and the finance director,” Clark said. “This would just provide another set of eyes to look at our numbers and ensure transparency.”
Councilwoman Carol Smith countered she would be concerned if that individual were to have a personal agenda, and influence budget decision to their own end. Blatz and Lara emphasized the need for transparency, and directed staff to follow up on the matter.
Council is expected to finalize a budget for the next fiscal year by the end of June. Visit www.ci.ojai.ca.us for more information.