Pacific Coast Business Times Proudly serving Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties Tue, 03 Mar 2015 04:52:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 IV lawsuit alleges county and landlord were negligent Tue, 03 Mar 2015 04:50:45 +0000 A landlord’s duty to screen roommates and the failed welfare check conducted by Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department are at the heart of a lawsuit filed March 2 by families of victims of Elliot Rodger’s deadly rampage in Isla Vista.

Two law firms representing families of three victims — two roommates and a visitor bludgeoned to death by Rodger at the Capri Apartments on the afternoon of May 23, 2014 — filed their civil suit in a Federal District Court in Los Angeles seeking unspecified damages.

The suit names as defendants the county of Santa Barbara; the Sheriff’s Department; Capri Apartments, where Rodger had lived; and Texas-based apartment management firm Asset Campus Housing.

Becker Law Group and McNicholas & McNicholas allege that Rodger had a history of violence and prejudice against roommates and that the parents of David Wang, James Hong and George Chen should have been warned by Capri and Asset that he represented a risk.

Roommates “Hong and Wang trusted that Capri had conducted a reasonable investigation into Rodger before assigning him as their roommate, and they trusted that he had been vetted as safe and appropriate,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that officers who conducted the welfare check in April 2014 failed to contact the roommates or warn them that Rodger’s parents were concerned about his Web postings. The suit also alleges that the officers failed to check gun ownership records to see if Rodger owned any guns. The suit alleges the county and sheriff’s departments maintained a policy of “deliberate indifference” when conducting welfare checks.

In the case of Rodger, family members requested the welfare check after they viewed disturbing and violent materials Rodger had posted on the Web.

The lawsuit comes just one week after the Sheriff’s Department released its own report on the shootings that provided additional details about the welfare check and grisly murders of Wang, Hong and Chen, a visitor who happened by the apartment and was stabbed to death.

The causes of action include violations of due process and negligence. The attorneys and victim’s families have scheduled a press conference at 10 a.m. on March 3 at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

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Oxnard crossing: an accident waiting to happen Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:01:46 +0000 The site of the crash on the morning of Feb. 24. Investigators say a Ford F-450 was driving on the tracks before colliding with the passenger train. (Photo courtesy of Oxnard Fire Department)

The site of the crash on the morning of Feb. 24. Investigators say a Ford F-450 was driving on the tracks before colliding with the passenger train. (Photo courtesy of Oxnard Fire Department)

The Feb. 24 train crash in Oxnard that injured 28 people has sparked questions about the safety of the railroad crossing that was the site of the accident, while public officials throughout Ventura County continue to scramble for funding for transportation infrastructure improvements.

The crash site at 5th Street and Rice Avenue saw another accident as recently as June of last year, and the Federal Railroad Administration estimates there is a 17.8 percent chance of an accident occurring between a vehicle and train at that particular intersection in any given year. Since 2008, there have been more than five vehicle accidents involving trains there, including one last year that killed two vehicle passengers after the driver failed to stop for a lowered crossing arm at the railroad tracks.

On Feb. 24 a Ford F-450 truck collided with a five-car Metrolink train travelling southbound at 79 miles per hour, causing the train to derail at 5:42 a.m. and injured dozens of passengers, with four in critical condition as of press time. The exact cause of the accident was still under investigation as the Business Times went to press, but officials confirmed at a Feb. 24 press conference that the truck was driving down the railroad tracks just prior to the collision.

“It was not stuck. It was not bottomed out on the track or something like that,” Robert Sumwalt, a board member for the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters. “We’re very concerned about that; we’re very interested in it.”

The intersection where the accident occurred has been the site of 13 accidents involving trains since 1975, according to the FRA. Construction of a freeway overpass was first proposed over 10 years ago, but the $30 million project has since failed to come to fruition and media reports indicate the project is still in the environmental review phase. Meanwhile, Ventura County officials continue to grapple for funding for the project.

“There’s currently no pot of dedicated funding for that,” said Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark city councilmember who is vice chair of the Ventura County Transportation Commission and second vice chair for Metrolink’s board of directors. “We will work with the city of Oxnard and Union Pacific [Railroad, which owns and operates the tracks,] to make those improvements.”

Ventura County is currently the largest county in the state without a transportation tax. Proposals for such a tax were made in 1994 and 2004, when at least 18 counties in the state with 81 percent of the population had such taxes, according to a Los Angeles Times report at the time. Proposition B, proposed in 2004, would have placed a half-cent levy to bring in about $1.5 billion over the following 30 years. According to Millhouse, a sales tax devoted to transportation would be ideal since local residents wouldn’t be the only taxpayers responsible for the levy.

At a Feb. 23 meeting with Congresswoman Julia Brownley in Port Hueneme, more than two dozen public officials and transportation representatives from across the county took turns addressing Brownley and Peter Defazio, an Oregon Democrat who’s currently the ranking member for the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, about the transportation funding woes of nearly every city in the county.

“One of the challenges we face in Ventura County is the lack of a clear funding source to increase mass transit…and fix infrastructure such as railroad crossings,” Millhouse said.

In fact, the county took on a $17 million loan from the city of Thousand Oaks to complete a $40 million freeway project in the Conejo Valley. VCTC Executive Director Darren Kettle told public officials at the Feb. 23 meeting the county had no choice but to take the loan so the traffic-easing proposal could move forward.

“We mortgaged four years of our future just to get it done,” he said. “Without the loan, we wouldn’t have gotten this project out the door.”

The site of the Feb. 24 crash in Oxnard is a combination of a road intersection with a regular traffic light and railroad crossing, with signs warning motorists “Do Not Stop on Tracks” along with flashing red warning lights and crossing gates.

“It does need to be safer, and we’ll have to wait and see what the NTSB determines to be the cause,” Millhouse said, adding that VCTC has strove to pinpoint locations in the county in dire need of roadway renovation. “We’ve tried to identify [unsafe] crossings and developed certain guidelines for improvements.”

However, funding remains the biggest challenge for VCTC, as Millhouse said improving that particular intersection is contingent upon getting the money to do it.

“Something else would have to be cut or delayed to get funding for this particular project,” he said. “The money’s just not there.”

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Santa Barbara election settlement irks chamber leadership Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:46 +0000 With a potentially expensive lawsuit settled, the city of Santa Barbara will have district elections starting this November.

However, the Santa Barbara Regional Chamber is one group that believes the city council’s abrupt decision has pre-empted what might have been a better solution.

“We certainly aren’t happy that we’re being forced into this,” chamber President Ken Oplinger told the Business Times. “From our perspective, of course, we want to see that everyone’s vote counts and that people are represented by those they believe truly speak for them. But time and time again, it’s been seen that district elections lead to a much more parochial attitude in an elected body.”

With district elections, Oplinger said the system doesn’t bode well for the city as a whole and that those elected to represent their districts would kowtow to constituent demands and reelection at the expense of solid overall governance.

“This is being shoved down our throats and we don’t have a choice,” he said, noting that going to trial would have just cost the city more money with the same outcome.

If the city had gone to trial and lost, a likely outcome under the California Voting Rights Act, it would potentially have been left to pay millions in attorney’s fees. The decision to settle probably saved the city a multi-million dollar payout.

The city agreed to pay attorneys’ fees and expert costs in the amount of $599,500. These fees represent a fraction of the potential liability if the case had gone to trial, according to city officials. Fee awards in other cities for similar lawsuits have been as high as $3.5 million.

For lawyer Barry Cappello’s clients and the suit’s supporters, the settlement is a big win against the city’s at-large voting system. The suit, Banales et al. v. City of Santa Barbara, alleged that at-large elections for city council members have led to Latino vote dilution in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. While Latinos comprise 38 percent of the city’s population, they have been vastly underrepresented on the council over the years.   

However, the city council still retains the power to draw the new district electoral boundaries, which could lead to another legal standoff.

Under the settlement, the geographical boundaries of the new electoral districts will be determined by the council, with the assistance of the community, during a public hearing process including workshops and hearings on Feb. 28 and March 18.

The city council will conduct hearings on March 24 and 30 to finalize the district plan map boundaries. The Santa Barbara Superior Court will have to render a final judgment approving the plans.

To expedite the process, the city is creating a districting process website with interactive tools that are meant to facilitate and encourage public participation. The website is expected to be online before the Feb. 28 workshop and hearing.

“The council is pleased that the crucial process of designing electoral districts will be conducted in open and public hearings during February and March,” said Mayor Helene Schneider in a press release. “With a robust website and at least four public hearing opportunities, we believe the settlement respects and protects key democratic principles guaranteeing the whole community’s ability to have a voice in the district mapping process.”

Within the redistricting plan, the intention is to design two “majority-minority” districts in which Latino voters will comprise a voting majority. These districts must be drawn in a manner that complies with state and federal voting rights law.

Going forward, in 2021, the city will appoint an Independent Redistricting Commission, consisting of three retired state or federal judges. The commission will draw a redistricting map which will be in effect through 2031. After that, the council will be responsible for future redistricting.

If the parties don’t come to a consensus on the electoral district map selected by the council, then following the deliberation process, the Santa Barbara Superior Court will be asked to resolve the map selection dispute.

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Editorial: First responders earn praise for Oxnard effort Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:46 +0000 While the final reports are not yet in on the Feb. 24 Metrolink crash in Oxnard, it would appear that, once again, Ventura County’s first responders have turned in a first-rate performance.

Between citizens’ volunteer efforts and those of public safety workers, more than two dozen injured people were pulled from the wrecked cars and treated. Four, including the conductor, remain in critical condition at press time, and we are hopeful for their speedy recovery.

While Ventura County’s spending on critical infrastructure has been woefully lacking in recent years, its spending on emergency services and health care has been up to par. Money spent on upgrades to Ventura County Medical Center’s trauma system as well as those at other hospitals, notably St. John’s Regional Medical Center, have paid off.

County leaders have held to a firm line on pay and pensions, but they have provided the resources necessary to motivate the troops and conduct effective operations.

With nine cities, incredibly diverse geography and a population approaching 900,000, Ventura County throws tremendous challenges at its sheriff’s department and fire fighters. Early in the morning of Feb. 24, they demonstrated once again that they are well up to the task.

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Morro Bay gets down to business Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:40 +0000 The exhaust stacks of the Dynegy Power Plant, stand over Morro Bay. On Feb. 24 the Houston-based company withdrew its offer to sell the site, along with plants in Oakland and Moss Landing. (Courtesy photo)

The exhaust stacks of the Dynegy Power Plant, stand over Morro Bay. On Feb. 24 the Houston-based company withdrew its offer to sell the site, along with plants in Oakland and Moss Landing. (Courtesy photo)

In the quiet and foggy coastal town of Morro Bay, the community and local officials are dialing  up economic development efforts.

With about 10,000 residents, the small commercial fishing and tourism-driven community is charting a new path for growth and more diversified revenue streams.

City councilmember Christine Johnson is just one of many individuals championing a new game plan for the city.

“We really have no revenue sources other than our tourism,” Johnson said. “The [tourism business improvement district] is doing well, but sales tax is flat and there’s only so much property tax we collect. We can’t rely too much on [tourism dollars] alone.”

Johnson said Morro Bay is depending on an old economy and old ways of operating.

“We have a 30-year-old general plan that we have to update,” she said. “Our question is how is this small coastal city going to sustain [itself] for the next 50 years. What’s the right kind of development for us?”

Over the last half-century, the city has relied on just a few industries and $525,000 in annual payments from power plant operators Dynegy, to keep above water. However, those payments stopped after the company decommissioned the natural-gas-burning plant last year. Dynegy had planned to sell the Morro Bay plant along with two other California holdings, but in an earnings release on Feb. 24 the company announced it was canceling the sale process. Bids for the Texas-based company’s portfolio were below expectations, according to a release.

While city officials were eager to work closely with a new owner on a redevelopment project for the massive site, which also claims about 100 acres of oceanfront property, those hopes have been put on hold — for now.

A redevelopment of the site would be a huge boost to the city, as the coastal property holds lucrative  development potential and growth from expansion through annexation isn’t really an option, according to those the Business Times spoke with.

Still, city officials and local business leaders are moving forward with a plan that builds on assets more within Morro Bays’ control.

The city doesn’t have an economic development director who is spearheading new programs and while that isn’t uncommon for cities of Morro Bay’s size, it does create a need for a high level of coordination between stakeholders. To manage that process, the city hired consulting firm Don Maruska & Co. last year.

Since then, company CEO Don Maruska has led the effort to implement Morro Bay’s Local Economic Action Plan, or LEAP. The first phase of establishing the program’s framework is complete. Some goals include leveraging existing environmental assets, revitalizing and linking existing business districts, assessing fiber optic connectivity opportunities and enhancing business attraction efforts. Action groups representing 12 different areas of the plan are currently gathering research and putting together proposals for policies, funding and other resources all set to go before the city council on March 24.

“LEAP is motivated in part by realizing that the city can’t rely on power plant and tourism revenues, and how can we strengthen and diversify the local economy to be sustainable into the future,” Maruska said. “This has been a reality that people have been aware of for a while, and that’s why there is this impetus for action.”

Maruska said a big focus for the city is how to lay the groundwork for more head-of-household jobs, and the fact that no attractive offers were put up for the power plant “really underscores the idea that Morro Bay needs to look at new opportunities to sustain itself.”

One of those opportunities is the Transpacific fiber optic cables that run right through the city’s “back door,” as Maruska put it.

Local fishermen originally fought the billion-dollar business consortiums that wanted to build landing points for as many as 32 cables but lost. The cables, which run along the ocean floor, are communications and Internet links to Australia, New Zealand and Asia and are viewed as an untapped avenue for attracting tech companies, satellite offices of established firms or startups. The city is currently pushing to upgrade it broadband capabilities as well.

“The tourism economy has been doing well so numbers are strong, but that’s clearly not enough anymore,” said Mike Manchak, president and CEO of the San Luis Obispo County Economic Vitality Corp. “I think this is going to be the perfect case study about what a small city should do to refine its focus.”

The opportunity for Morro Bay is perfect right now, Manchak said, but it’s unclear how long that window will stay open.

As for Dynegy and the fate of the power plant property, the city could, after 20 years, buy it back for $1, thanks to a clause in current deed that requires the power plant to sell or produce electricity. Until then, Morro Bay will just have to wait it out, though in a Feb. 24 city council meeting, Councilman John Headding said the city needs to get a plan together and make a proposal to the company as soon as possible. Headding proposed getting nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Land and similar conservation organizations involved because since they hold pipelines to cash.

“Dynegy is fully intending to exit California and at some point the city is the land use authority on that site. We want to be able to help shape that,” said Morro Bay Mayor and former Dynegy power plant employee Jamie Irons. “Now it’s just a matter of who’s going to be the new owners. We’re here to meet and talk and engage in conversation on the opportunity.”

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Camarillo skin care firm is Ventura County’s second B Corp. Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:23 +0000


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Startup investment platform takes root in Westlake Village Fri, 27 Feb 2015 08:00:14 +0000


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