‘Sad day for Ridgecrest’

O’Neil expresses disappointment in city, urges partnership with community

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

‘Sad day for Ridgecrest’The latest in a continuing dispute between city officials and those pushing for more transparent processes for building and development came from IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil, who said at Wednesday’s meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council that he was disappointed that the city was focusing its resources on building a defense for itself rather than acknowledging, and correcting, the problems.

For the last several weeks, concerns from numerous quarters have been raised about the city’s lack of process. City Manager Ron Strand presented, during a special meeting last week, a lengthy item criticizing Ridgecrest Regional Hospital’s claims that conflicting directives from city staff had caused its $30-million emergency department expansion to flounder.

“Yesterday I took time to watch the video of the special council session you held last Wednesday. In my view, it was a sad day for Ridgecrest. Let me explain,” said O’Neil.

“First of all, you should not chastise the press for doing its job in serving the public. It seems you feel that the recent newspaper article on the hospital’s emergency room and heliport improvements were unfair, and that resulted in a special council session to, I guess, clear the air or maybe to ameliorate the shame. I don’t know your intentions, but I will tell you how it makes me think and feel.”

He said that he believes the local reporting on the subject has been fair. “Yes, the message portrayed by the newspaper stories and in my comments is a hard one — but it is accurate. Our city’s building and planning processes need work. So don’t blame the press … own the truth.”

He said that the session itself demonstrated the problems at the city. “The staff took time to carefully defend itself citing chapter and verse about how they thought the hospital failed,” he said. “Do you really think the problem resides wholly with the hospital? Do you think the city demonstrated a spirit of collaboration and partnership or a culture friendly to development? Wouldn’t it have been nice if those hours used to build their case were spent actually trying to help the hospital?”

O’Neil said he wished the city had spent the time assisting the hospital in determining how to build out its project, rather than point out the failures. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if the staff, at the beginning of its dealing with the hospital, had thought…’Wow! This is a great improvement for our community and for the wellbeing of our citizens — what does the city need do to help get this going?’

“Yes, we do have a problem and, unfortunately like any problem, it cannot be resolved unless first there is acknowledgement that a problem exists.”

He said he agrees with Assistant City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen that the city needs to ensure that proper processes are followed. “Unfortunately, he misses a few key points — to be successfully followed, first these processes need to be defined.”

Those processes are also adhered to by the city and prospective developers. “It’s bilateral. To put all the onus, or blame, on the developer is not right. It surely is not in the spirit of cooperation or partnership, nor does it engender a culture of being friendly to new development,” said O’Neil.

“I have asked the city to take immediate actions to define, repair and document their Planning and Building Department processes. Developers want to follow the processes to satisfy your requirements, they just need to know what they are and how to resolve unforeseen disagreements.”

He said there seems to be a gap in trust between the city and its citizens — illustrated by the 80-percent protest votes on the recent Parks Assessment. “I heard universally that our citizens would like to improve our park and recreation facilities but there was little trust that the solution offered by the city was going to rectify the situation.”

O’Neil also questioned whether the city’s closed-session item to discuss “public employee performance evaluation” was really a way to have a private discussion about the stories questioning the city’s practices.

“The stated purpose, the timing, the follow-on behavior and perceptions, all can easily point to a different motive,” he said. “The meeting did not serve to build trust. Ridgecrest, I think we have a problem.”

He implored the city to reflect on his comments. “I am not saying anyone is a bad, or dishonest or not wanting the best for our community. We must set aside the emotion, clearly state and face our problems and set a course of resolution … The first step is to set aside our pride and acknowledge our problems.

“My biggest fear is one year from now we are in the same place.”

His comments were not addressed by councilmembers or staff. However, Councilmember Lindsey Stephens said later in the meeting that the Economic Development Committee would be presenting a proposed guide to planning and development practices at the Wednesday, 5 p.m., meeting at City Hall.

Pictured: The IWV Economic Development Corporation’s Executive Director Scott O’Neil at Wednesday’s Council meeting — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-05-03