Mayor's Actions Regarding Fee Proposal Are Questioned

Charles Landry, executive director of the Regional Conversation Authority, addresses the Murrieta City Council Tuesday along with City Pla...

Charles Landry, executive director of the Regional Conversation Authority, addresses the Murrieta City Council Tuesday along with City Planner Cynthia Kinser.
Murrieta 24/7 photo: Kristen Spoon

The Murrieta City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a staff recommendation to adopt the fee increase of a county conservation program to which the city is contractually obligated. As a result, a development mitigation fee paid by developers of future projects will increase an estimated $14 more per year per housing unit built, or $48 more per commercial development.

Sound like an item that required little discussion? Not with the current climate of this City Council.

An item that staff originally brought before the council on the consent calendar at the April 21 meeting turned into a 45-minute discussion before unanimous approval Tuesday night -- primarily because of the concerns of Mayor Harry Ramos. It was Ramos who pulled the item from the consent calendar at the April meeting, ultimately leading to the postponement of action on an item other council members considered a no-brainer.

Before it was all said and done, Ramos and council member Rick Gibbs exchanged barbs about the way the whole process was handled, with both referring to a lack of trust among council members.

Basically, the vote means the City agrees to contribute its share of an increase calculated into the fee paid by cities in the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. City officials were informed via a March 17 letter from the Regional Conservation Authority of the annual fee adjustment. According to a staff presentation by City Planner Cynthia Kinser Tuesday night, Murrieta would owe $7,534 as part of its fee adjustment. The figures of of $14 and $48 per unit were calculated based on the number of developments to be built over the next year.

Those fees are used to facilitate the process of approving vacant land for development -- part of which involves the relocation of endangered animal species. According to Charles Landry of the MSHCP, 33 species have been identified as potentially endangered by new developments in Murrieta -- perhaps most notably the kangaroo rat.

Kinser told council members that the MSHCP -- created in 2003 -- is a 25-year plan to streamline compliance with the Federal and State Endangered Species Act. This is the first fee increase since 2009. As structured by the county and agreed to by MSHCP member cities -- including Murrieta -- cities that do not agree to any annual fee increase lose their share of Measure A funding.

In Murrieta's case, that would be a loss of approximately $1.5 million. So as was stated by council members Randon Lane, Jonathan Ingram and Alan Long Tuesday night, there seemed no reason to risk the loss of $1.5 million over a $7,534 fee increase.

An increase of $7,500 seems like a really good investment if my return is $1.5 million," Long said.

Even so, approval of the fee increase was questioned by Ramos (left) -- the same one who was the lone council member to question a previous proposal about charging delinquent fees on trash collection before going along with the majority. And the same council member who converted the MSHCP matter from the rubber-stamp status of an April 21 meeting to a major discussion item when most thought none was needed.

"I think we'll have a lot more than the approximate number of units stated in this report," he said. "And this is not exclusive to developers, right? Couldn't it affect individuals who build?"

At that point, Gibbs voiced his opposition to what he said was inappropriate action by Ramos prior to the meeting. According to Gibbs, Ramos circumvented the process by making calls to county officials on his own rather than consulting other council members about his concerns.

Referring to Ramos as "one of our colleagues", Gibbs (right) criticized the mayor for asking questions of the city attorney about the legalities of the agreement with MSHCP and sharing that response via email with the other council members without prior discussion on the matter. He also expressed concern about calls made privately by Ramos to the RCA concerning the issue.

In Gibbs' eyes, this matter never should have been pulled from the April 21 consent calendar in the first place.

"We all try to play nice up here," Gibbs said. "I haven't said anything so far, but I don't really know why we're hearing this today. On (April 21) we were asked for consensus to postpone this. Yet the reality is that one of our colleagues asked some questions of our city attorney and in a letter that the rest of the council wasn't privy to, received all the answers heard tonight.

"When council was asked for consensus to delay the vote, the presumption was there was some new information. All of this has been covered multiple times.

"We're all supposed to trust one another up here. If there's questions any of my colleagues have about a particular agency, they should either to go to the city manager or the council member who's a part of that agency. That didn't happen. I was notified by the agency about the questions regarding MSHCP and I resent the fact one of my colleagues would see fit to go around me and not ask me the question first."

Ramos quickly responded.

"The letter we got from RCA recommends we apply the increase," Ramos said. "I don't see why I should oblige and go forth with a recommendation (without discussion). I did call (RCA) and merely inquired what gave them the authority to hold Measure A hostage. I also posed that question to the city attorney and forwarded that document so everybody could be in on it.

"I always try to play nice. But I 100 percent reserve my right as the mayor of Murrieta, as a citizen of Murrieta, and as an American that I will call whichever agency I want to get any information I require. I much prefer to use resources I have at my disposal, but if I don't have that kind of relationship or trust, I'm not going to waste my time."

That said, Ramos ultimately went along with the rest of the council and voted to approve the fee increase.

Is there a lack of trust among council members that will have a carryover effect in future actions? Time will tell.

Murrieta 24/7 Editor Doug Spoon contributed to this story.

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