More Council Meeting Highlights

One of the first things we saw in the City Council Meeting on Monday night was the presentation by the Farmers Insurance representative regarding their departure from Simi Valley. He read the letter aloud that was addressed to City Council a few days ago and then answered direct questions. Council Member Glen Becerra expressed his concerns:

Eric David Halub, former candidate for Simi Valley Mayor, presented a series of thoughts seemingly strung together on the fly. Among those thoughts was the notion that Council Salary/Benefits have been kept secret from the commuity. Council Member Sojka and candidate for Mayor responded during Council comments:

August 30 Council Meeting

The upcoming City Council Meeting scheduled for August 30th, Monday, at Simi Valley City Hall will be a long, action packed meeting. Among the topics will be a discussion regarding Council Member Steve Sojka’s proposed Cochran Street modifications in response to the Farmers Insurance departure announced a couple of weeks ago. You can read Steve Sojka’s press release on the topic by clicking here.

Also, it’s been rumored that the new Business Advocate will be officially introduced, along with a further explanation of the individual’s role. The Business Advocate has been both well supported and widely disputed as an first step to improving the current processes and communication channels between the city and the business community. Supposedly we’ll get to learn who the Business Advocate is, where they came from and more about what they’ll be doing.

Lastly, E-Verify will be on the agenda. Bob Huber’s team submitted the following press release, urging his supporters to be there to weigh in on the topic:

Huber Urges Simi Valley Residents to Speak Out on E-Verify, at August 30 City Council Meeting

Back on July 17, 2010, Simi Valley Mayoral candidate Bob Huber publicly called for the City of Simi Valley to implement E-verify, the free state-of-the-art, worker verification program, to protect local jobs, administered by the federal government.  On July 30th Mayor Miller publicly refuted the E-Verify program in saying, “Staff has learned that E-Verify is not fail-safe and, in fact, has been highly unreliable.”   He went on to say, “The error rate is no better than a flip of the coin.”  Further, Miller said, “I would be extremely reluctant to direct taxpayer resources or impose a regulation on employers to use such a system.”

Since that time, much debate has ensued with valuable input from the residents of our fine City.  The City has received mountains of emails and phone calls voicing support for this program, in addition to similar letters to the editor and opinions on local blogs. This issue has clearly touched a nerve in Simi Valley and the People are engaged and are sharing their concerns.

On August 6, 2010, Huber said, “The facts do not support City Hall’s assertion on E-Verify!”  and quoted from the official website of The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,  “Westat estimates that overall E-Verify queries result in an accurate response 96% of the time and an inaccurate response 4.1 % of the time ……..since when is 96% a flip of the coin?”  Huber further said, “This whole dispute is about jobs for our residents and I firmly believe that 96% accuracy is sufficient protection to secure jobs for our deserving people of Simi Valley.”

City Manager, Mike Sedell, has announced that at last, E- Verify is being re-considered by the City Council on August 30 as a part of a new worker verification program. Sedell went on to say the City Council will vote on the proposal on August 30.

Huber responded, “This is a step in the right direction and good news for the hard working people of Simi Valley.   We will continue to closely monitor this issue until it is fully adopted.  Presidents from George Bush, 41st to our current President  Barack Obama  have supported E-Verify.  With over 700,000 private businesses using E-Verify and dozens of California cities using the program as well, it’s obviously a program that the people want.  This is a program that is part of the solution, to help insure citizens and legal residents get the available jobs.  I urge all Simi Valley residents to attend the August 30 City Council Meeting and let your voices be heard.

Sojka Acts on Farmers Departure

Sojka to propose Cochran Street Recommendations from Businesses

Councilman interviewed businesses most impacted from Farmers move

Simi Valley City Councilman and Mayoral candidate Steve Sojka today announced his intention to introduce for City Council consideration the Cochran Street Recommendations from Businesses – a package of suggestions by local business leaders in response to the relocation of employees by Farmers Insurance.

In response to the recent announcement by Farmers to relocate their Cochran Street Regional Facility, Councilman Sojka interviewed a majority of owners and managers of businesses within the immediate vicinity of the Farmers building at Cochran Street and Galena Avenue. Sojka sought their input and ideas as to how they felt that the City of Simi Valley could be of assistance until a new tenant is found for the 250,000-square-foot commercial building.

“I have walked the entire area and talked with the majority of business owners and managers within eyesight of the Farmers building, listened to their ideas and suggestions, and now plan to propose those recommendations to the City Council for implementation,” Councilman Sojka said. “I was pleased with their openness, and with their ideas to move forward.”

What the owners along Cochran Street, Galena Avenue and Sycamore Drive adjacent to the Ronald Reagan Freeway (118) suggested, and what Sojka will recommend, include:

  • Temporarily removing certain restrictions of the City Sign Ordinance, including limits on temporary signs, banners, and monument signs. Such restrictions would be removed only until the Farmers building again is occupied.
  • Waiving the Business License Tax for small businesses physically located within one half mile of the Farmers building until the building is occupied.
  • Allowing for sidewalk sales and other similar special promotions, which may otherwise be currently restricted.
  • Expediting the process to declare a new Redevelopment Zone that would encompass Sycamore Plaza, the Target Center, the Mervyn’s Center, and the Do-It Center. This would allow small businesses in those areas to apply for low-interest loans from the City’s Community Development Agency loan program, and would also allow them to participate in expedited renovation projects.

Sojka will ask for City Council concurrence of these recommendations at the next City Council meeting on Aug. 30, and request that the Council direct the City Attorney and City Manager to bring back the recommendations for formal City Council action at the Council’s Sept. 20 meeting.

The recommendations would be on top of actions already undertaken by the City since Farmers’ sudden announcement in mid-August which included:

  • The formation of a Red Team to expedite finding a new tenant for the building. The Red Team will include representatives from Farmers (which continues to hold a lease on the building and has a vested interest in finding a new tenant), the City Council, City administration, and the economic development community.
  • Sending letters to more than 1,200 commercial real estate brokers in Southern California seeking their assistance in the tenant search.

“While Farmers’ announcement caught this community by surprise, we need to recognize that this soon-to-be-available building presents an opportunity to go after industry in growing fields such as health care, energy conservation, or ‘green’ industries,” Sojka said. “It is a highly visible and accessible building that can attract clean industry with high-paying jobs which can create new income for our residents and in turn create profits for our local businesses.”

While there has been some speculation that the City had knowledge of Farmers’ intentions to relocate and could have prevented such a decision, the City has received a letter (attached) from Lonnie Sproat, Farmers’ Vice President – Commercial Operations, confirming that there was nothing the City could have done to prevent the consolidation action. “We want you to know that the decision to relocate our employees and consolidate our offices to Woodland Hills was solely a business decision. We have been very happy with the Simi Valley community and the support from the City Council and the Mayor,” the letter states.

“The Farmers announcement was disappointing, and Simi Valley residents who work at the Farmers facility will now need to commute to Woodland Hills, but we are fortunate that no Simi Valley residents will actually lose their jobs,” Sojka commented. “The bad news is 1,200 employees who used to shop nearby before and after work and during breaks will not be around until that building is filled again. Our community needs to join together at this time for these area businesses and assist them. I believe strongly that our businesses can survive this if we all work together.”

Farmers Insurance to the City

When the news broke about Farmers Insurance leaving Simi Valley, my knee jerk reaction was to point the finger squarely at the City and suggest they dropped the ball. When I’m critical of the City, I’m usually inundated with comments and emails from people who share in my frustration and volunteer information. I usually take a fair amount of comfort in my position because of this.

After taking a step back, I published a more neutral response with an emphasis on a need to react and fill that void. In doing so, commentary persisted against the City with stories about the Farmers Training Center leaving Simi Valley as a result of fallout in the building department. I could never really get any confirmed data on whether or not attempts to expand the Training Center failed due to a problem with the City, or if it was never meant to happen in the first place. Either no one has this data, no one cares to share this data, or the data simply doesn’t exist because it never happened as described. To be perfectly honest, I really don’t know any factual information about any expansion of the Training Center in Simi Valley.

I received a copy of a letter from Farmers Insurance to our City Council. In the letter, the Vice President of Commercial Operations says the following to the City Council:

We have had a long-standing, cooperative working relationship with the Simi Valley City Council and the city staff. We look forward to continuing that relationship as we work together to quickly find the best tenants possible for the Simi Valley facility. We have already offered to your staff our availability to serve on your “Red Team,” which will bring together the right group to aggressively pursue our mutual goal and we have engaged the services of UGL Equis to actively market the property and work with your staff.

The letter indicates the move was a business decision. Admittedly, I was quick to place blame on the City for not being able to maneuver quickly enough in the wake of long standing rumors of this anticipated move. If you take this letter at face value, it suggests that my original position was plain wrong.

Read the letter for yourself and draw your own conclusions. You can view the letter to the City Council by clicking here.

Emotionless Thoughts on Farmers Exit

Now that I’ve had a few moments to think about the news of Farmers Insurance leaving, I have some more rational thoughts to share and I’m hoping to get your feedback.

For years, we’ve been at risk for losing Farmers Insurance. When the Training Center moved out of Simi Valley, it only fragmented the Corporate presence even more. Consolidating by moving employees from Simi Valley into the Woodland Hills building with the other employees made sense from a logistical standpoint. It was bound to happen. 21st Century occupied most of the space in that building, and by vacating they presented Farmers with a simply logistical solution. I get that.

I do know that the Farmers Training Center moved out of Simi due to challenges with the City when they attempted to enlarge their facility. Though I don’t have first hand knowledge or quotes I can provide, this is what I’ve heard. I know the previous owners of a children’s gymnastics center in Simi Valley ran into roadblocks when they tried to expand and the problems they encountered likely weighed in on their decision to sell and move out of state. I also know that businesses face difficulty getting construction plans approved and face significant infrastructure costs that either delay the process, cost unforeseen thousands of dollars or both.

I don’t think the City could have prevented this move and I’m certain that it has been in motion for close to a year or more. But I think our City Officials have to focus on how to attract businesses like Farmers Insurance BACK into Simi Valley, and they definitely need to overhaul how they work with businesses. Perhaps our City Council Members can help facilitate that. Regardless, I think voters will be expecting them to.

Hopefully this comes off as a little more sound and reasonable than my previous post on the topic!

Mass Exodus of Simi Jobs

Approximately 1200 jobs are leaving Simi Valley and going to the recently vacated 21st Century Insurance building in Woodland Hills (vacated by 21st Century when parent company AIG terminated all operations at that facility). The following is a snippet from their press release.

The company announced that it will move approximately 1,200 people, or 20 percent of its Greater Los Angeles workforce, from building space it leases at 3041 Cochran Street in Simi Valley to another leased facility at 6303 Owensmouth in Woodland Hills. The Woodland Hills facility is already home to some Farmers employees and the building currently is branded 21st Century Insurance Company, but the name on the building will be changed to Farmers Insurance. (21st Century Insurance Company was acquired by Farmers Insurance in July 2009).

The move of the 1,200 employees will take place beginning in early 2011. Farmers Insurance has more than 6,000 employees and agents in the Greater Los Angeles area, making Farmers Insurance one of the largest employers in Southern California.

While this may be a good move for Farmers Insurance who will enjoy the benefits of a more modern building, this is terrible for Simi Valley. Not only are 1200 jobs vacating, but surrounding businesses will be impacted as well. This will impact restaurants in the immediate area, the shopping center across the street, not to mention local hotel occupancy.

What happened, and didn’t anyone see this coming? Farmers Insurance has occupied the large building on Cochran Street since 1982. With a move of this magnitude, was there no discussion between Farmers and the City of Simi Valley? This will surely impact our local economy in a number of ways and I hope this becomes a top issue in the upcoming election.

UPDATE: After more careful thought and consideration, I’ve posted a follow-up on this topic. Please click here to read it.