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062419 Lompoc budget 01 (copy)

In this June 24, 2019, file photo, Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, center, talks as Councilman Dirk Starbuck, left, and Councilwoman Gilda Cordova listen at City Hall. On Tuesday, the council voted to have city staff explore the formation of a nonprofit organization, and to also remove anonymity from some code-enforcement complaints.

The Lompoc City Council agreed Tuesday to have staff explore the formation of a nonprofit organization to help fund city projects, and the governing body also approved a change to the city’s code-enforcement complaint process that will strip away anonymity for certain complainants.

The council voted unanimously on both moves after lengthy discussions. With Tuesday’s vote, city staff now has approval to gather more information on potentially forming a nonprofit that would allow the city to seek nongovernmental grants. The vote on the code-enforcement complaint policy was more definitive, as the city will no longer consider all code-enforcement complaints to be anonymous.

Mayor Jenelle Osborne was particularly supportive of the creation of a nonprofit that could benefit the city. While some residents and council members raised concerns that such an organization could hinder other local nonprofits that may seek out the same grants, Osborne said she envisions a citywide nonprofit complementing those other organizations rather than competing with them.

“If we have a city nonprofit that can apply for competitive grants to address equipment, infrastructure, parks, youth programs [and] gang violence, we become a participant,” said Osborne, who pointed to a similar organization that is being utilized by the city of Santa Maria. “We can partner with those existing nonprofits and be multiple partners on an application and improve our chance of winning those [grants].”

A report prepared by city staff noted that the formation of a nonprofit would not be an overly complex process. City Manager Jim Throop said it would cost about $1,300 to create the nonprofit. That expense would cover filing fees and two hours of the city attorney’s time to review the initial paperwork, which would be prepared in-house without a third-party consultant.

Given that the City Council voted to transform the city’s public information officer position into a grant-writing position when it approved the 2019-21 biennial budget on June 24, Throop noted that a separate nonprofit would give that grant writer a wider pool from which to seek out grants.

“This allows us to enter another area that we have never been able to get into before because we can only go after the state- and federal-type government [grants],” Throop said.

Tuesday’s vote will only allow the city to gather more information about forming a nonprofit; it did not directly approve its formation. That was a sticking point for some members of the council, including Councilman Victor Vega, who said he’d like to see if other Central Coast cities have made such a move and how that move has worked out for them.

“It might be a waste of time if we don’t have that information,” he said.

Councilman Jim Mosby said he wanted a fuller look at the potential costs beyond the startup fees before he would feel comfortable throwing his support behind the idea.

“Maybe we should walk a little bit before we run,” he said, referring to the information-gathering stage.

Among the specific topics of information requested by the council was a look at what the structure of the nonprofit's board of directors may look like, estimates of annual costs, frequency of board meetings and the success rate of other agencies.

Throop noted that some administrative costs could be offset by the grant awards, but that did not sit well with some, including Councilwoman Gilda Cordova.

“If it’s coming out of the grant funds, then I feel it really defeats the purpose of going out there and getting funds,” Cordova said.

The council’s decision to change the code-enforcement complaint process marked a significant change from the established policy, which grants anonymity to anyone who files a complaint.

Some public speakers and council members said they felt that the blanket anonymity was allowing some people to abuse the process by filing petty complaints or using the complaints to further vendettas or to settle scores with neighbors or businesses they didn't like.

Under the new policy, the city will separate complaints into two categories: Those that pose a “serious and immediate threat to public safety” and those that don’t. The higher-level complaints that fall into the former category will continue to carry anonymity for the complainant, while people who make lower-level complaints will be subject to having their names disclosed publicly.

Lower-level violations would include things like weeds and landscaping, accumulation of junk or debris, fence violations, inoperable vehicles and noise violations. Higher-level violations would include things like unsafe buildings, fire hazards, dangerous housing conditions, illegal discharge into a sewer or waterway, and obstructions of streets or highways.

The city manager will have the final say on which complaints fall into which category.

Vega said he was hopeful that the new policy would lead to neighbors working with each other before taking matters to the city.

“I think we’re trying to make sure that everyone knows that we don’t want frivolous complaints,” he said. “We don’t want the city to have a waste of time and have code enforcement have to go and enforce frivolous claims just because someone's unhappy about something.”

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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