Opinion Editorial: Crying wolf for our souls


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By Laura Rearwin Ward, Ojai Valley News publisher

Shouting “tourist” and “valet parking” in a crowded Ojai Facebook chat room had the expected effect of bringing an irate public to the March 22 City Council meeting. Mayor Betsy Stix and her agents spun  a misleading narrative that successfully riled up the public. Was her aim to score political points by presenting Mayor Stix as “tough on tourists” in an election year?

Mayor Stix either did not understand the permitting process for El Roblar Hotel, did not trust the process to work, or saw the El Roblar application as a political opportunity when she attempted to make an end run around the Ojai Planning Commission process. 

The result was to whip up the public, inject bias into the Planning Commission’s upcoming public hearing, and possibly expose the city to legal action by the applicants for being targeted by the city — all for what appears to be a political stunt.

Understanding and believing in the process of local government is a foundational requirement for any councilmember.

The Backstory

    1. The Oaks, as a hotel site, is two years older than the city itself, and has been closed since 2017. The closure is costing the city upward of a million dollars a year in transient occupancy (hotel) tax.

    2. El Roblar Hotel owners have been working with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and staff for more than two years and will come before the Planning Commission on April 6. The plans are under active review by the Planning Commission.

    3. El Roblar owners have purchased a vacant lot directly behind the hotel for private valet parking. There is no proposal to have the hotel’s valets use public lots or spaces.

    4. No private party can confiscate any public parking in the city — that being on-street parking or parking on city-owned property. The Oaks Hotel never had enough parking spots to accommodate all of its guests.

    5. Any member of the City Council may appeal whatever decision the Planning Commission makes on April 6, and bring the issue to the council for a final decision.

The Setup

The debate was framed via Facebook chat rooms by Mayor Stix and friends as an urgent need. The mayor did not mention El Roblar Hotel, but she had a solution to a problem that does not exist: an ordinance restricting off-site valet parking. 

It was implied that public parking spaces were to be utilized by a hotel via valet. It was implied that the city was considering a policy to allow public valet parking.  A false emergency was created that ginned up the community for an imaginary battle. Her request in the agenda item stated, “We all want Ojai to hold onto its soul.”

The mayor is the only councilmember with the power to place an item on the agenda without a second. It is a power rarely used since three votes are needed to pass any item. But Mayor Stix came proudly armed with 34 letters and public speakers, who presumably would bring enough pressure to bear on the other councilmembers to join her to create an ordinance that makes no sense in the context of reality. The construct put to the rest of council was that you’re either for what I’m proposing, or you're for valet parking.

The Spectacle

The love and passion our dear townspeople have for Ojai was used by our mayor who doesn’t appear to understand the Planning Commission process or El Roblar’s parking application. After her 2020 campaign manager, Tom Francis, took the lectern during public comment, asking if Mayor Stix could reopen the public comment period, (so that she could speak on the issue), the mayor then spoke in general terms from a prepared statement, focusing on Ojai trigger points, such as: “economic expansion,” “another form of gentrification,” “make parking available to everyone,” “it’s a big change,” “allowing business to monopolize parking…” — all flags to fly, rather than statements connected to any problem facing the city. Perhaps she was positioning herself as the superhero of Ojai parking?

The Concern

We need our councilmembers to respect the processes of government. It is highly irregular and inappropriate to usurp the Planning Commission and conflate issues to activate people.

People use “politics” as a dirty word when underhanded methods are used to drive public opinion to suit one’s political desire, to curry favor or virtue-signal.

The polarization techniques being used in social media, and the disrespectful comments during council meetings, while good theater, are divisive and a bad direction for our City Council. The city’s process was working.

The ‘Soul’

Thank you to the people who keep asking detailed questions — refuse to be herded — and to the councilmembers who took the breath of sanity — Suza Francina, Ryan Blatz, Randy Haney and William Weirick.

The benefit of the doubt — trust makes Ojai a wonderful place — will wane as people discover they have been misled and manipulated for political gain.

It is truly this type of political campaign style, and social media manipulation, that strike at the heart of a community and our affection for each other — a real threat to “Ojai’s hold on its soul.”

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