'He doesn't tolerate fools gladly.' : Mora No Stranger to Storms

Times Staff Writer

Taped inside the black notebook that Oxnard's city manager totes through City Hall is a comic strip depicting a weary man impaled by arrows like some latter-day St. Sebastian.

"Sometimes I feel that way," lamented David R. Mora, who may enjoy the dubious distinction of being Ventura County's most chronically embattled city official.

After nearly three years on the job, the manager of 1,038 permanent employees and a $100-million budget has yet to receive his annual bonus by anything more resounding than a 3-2 vote.

Residents recently called for his resignation after he pushed for a controversial staff retreat that would have excluded the city clerk. And, every Tuesday, two City Council members and a swarm of gadflies shower him with the same torrent of invectives.

Mora's critics, led by conservative council members Ann Johs and Michael A. Plisky, say he is egotistical, dictatorial and scheming. They claim that his development plans are too ambitious. They say he pursues his own ends over the objections of council members and city staff. Under him, they charge, morale in City Hall has diminished to the point where employees seek the solace of council members late at night.

If the balance of power shifts after the November election, which could be accomplished with the addition of a single conservative council member, Mora may be out of a job.

Plisky says he will press for Mora's ouster "if he doesn't become more responsive to council wishes." And, in the least, clashes could become more frequent if Plisky is elected mayor, observers say.

Yet anyone looking for a monster behind Mora's desk is going to be disappointed. They will find a consummate bureaucrat with an anxious smile, a guarded manner and a reputation for flourishing in volatile cities.

"Dave's always looking for a challenge," said Sacramento executive recruiter Ralph Andersen, who lured Mora to Oxnard. "He wants to use his energy and skills on a regular basis."

Mora cut his teeth on municipal government in Santa Barbara when the community was weighing some of the most stringent growth limits in the United States. He landed his first job as a full-fledged city manager nearly eight years ago in Los Gatos, at a time when the city manager, police chief and city attorney had resigned, two council members were being recalled and angry citizens were mounting a referendum over a low-income housing project.

"We needed someone who could weather political storms," said Thomas J. Ferrito, a longtime council member in the city of 28,000 near San Jose.

3-2 Council Split

And the Oxnard that Mora entered in July, 1985, was no better. Then, as now, the council split on most decisions by a 3-2 vote. The city manager had been ousted and two council members were being recalled over an unpopular utility tax. Citizens were still seething over an ill-fated attempt at computerizing city records.

"David's had a hard time ever since he's been at the city of Oxnard," said county Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard.

But Mora has not always been drawn to the center of the storm. As a teen-ager, he spent four years in a Santa Barbara seminary, toying with the idea of leading the contemplative life of a Franciscan priest. Instead, he went to Cal State Los Angeles, but the taste for privation hadn't left him; he signed on with the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines.

It wasn't until Mora helped administrators in a regional Philippine capital hone their management techniques that he considered government work, and then only abroad. Working for the government at home never struck him as worthwhile until he began tutoring black ghetto children when he was a graduate student in government at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even then, he never believed that Latinos could wield political power until after graduate school, when he began working for Jobs for Progress, a nonprofit organization that found jobs for Latinos. The people who ran the organization were Latinos, and their work appeared to make the kind of difference he had never seen Latinos make as he was growing up, the son of a widowed factory worker, in East Los Angeles.

Old-Style Liberal

The first of his family to go to college, Mora sees himself as an old-style liberal whose mission is to expand government programs and services as well as employment and educational opportunities. In Oxnard, he sees development as the best means toward that end.

"Unless we have economic development, we won't be able to do what we have to do in terms of services," he said.

"We have the lowest ratio of police and firefighters for any city of comparable size in California. We're behind in our street program. We don't have a community park. And we probably have one of the smallest libraries for a city of our size. There are a whole number of programs that aren't being offered to our residents that other cities are offering."

Mora believes that he should play an active role in setting policy, and he faults himself for not having built more consensus among members of the sharply divided council.

"One of my biggest disappointments is that I've failed to foster more cooperation between the council members, and the council members and the staff," he said. "Each of the five represents a very real segment of the city. If you can get them to agree on a direction, then you've got community consensus."

Thoroughly Air Problems

So far, that's been impossible. Plisky even relishes friction, preferring that problems be thoroughly aired rather than quashed in back-room deals.

Still, even for lack of a let's-pull-together spirit on the council, Mora says he feels his accomplishments far outweigh his failures.

"I have no problem sleeping at night," said the man whose stiff shoulders, defensive manner and graying hair make him look older than his 43 years.

Maybe so, but why then does such a persistent tide of criticism crash upon the career manager?

Even his detractors acknowledge that some of the criticism seems petty--but, they contend, one petty slight of a co-worker is all it takes to deepen the sense of gloom that they blame on Mora at City Hall.

Picking Grammatical Nits

Ann Johs, for instance, maintains that Mora demoralizes department heads by picking grammatical nits in their reports to the council and then insisting that the reports be printed on his own letterhead instead of those of the department.

Mora predictably counters that the correspondence should be grammatically correct. The letterhead, he says, only reflects the manager's ultimate responsibility for everything in his city.

"It makes you wonder how substantive their criticisms are," Mora said of his detractors.

Yet Mora also can be petty. When his back is against the wall, he is likely to lash back with a rule book.

He claims that he went ahead with plans for the retreat because he had been on vacation when the council tabled the proposal, and minutes of the meeting, which was widely reported, failed to clearly reflect that action. He says he hasn't pursued several requests by Plisky for a management audit by a professional team because the councilman has not put the request in writing.

'Microcosm of California'

Mora's personality does nothing to help his cause, either. No picture of grace under pressure, he often snaps at council members who question his decisions. At other times, he responds with a just-the-facts-ma'am flatness that discourages further conversation.

He would never do on a talk show. He frames his passions in administrative terms. He recalls that fashioning a "performance budget" was the highlight of his three-year stint in the Philippines. He says he likes Oxnard because "it's a microcosm of California--a majority-minority community with every spectrum of the economic ladder."

One former employee notes that the devoted father of two is "not a social-type guy." Offered another: "Many people don't know what to make of David Mora because they don't know David Mora."

They do, however, know his impatience, a quality noted as often by Mora's supporters as his detractors.

"He doesn't tolerate fools gladly," said Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge, who worked with Mora during his tenure there as community relations director, assistant to the city administrator and deputy city administrator from 1974 to 1981. "You can tell when he thinks someone has come up with a cockamamie idea."

Signs of Trouble

But, as petty as some criticisms appear, more substantial signs of trouble under Mora have surfaced.

Even his supporters acknowledge that morale in City Hall has dwindled. And such instances as last summer's flap over moving polling places from city fire stations point to a lack of communication between Mora and other Oxnard administrators. City Clerk Mabi Plisky said controversy over the proposal could have been avoided had Mora heeded her memo expressing the opposition of county officials to the idea. Instead, the memo wasn't even acknowledged, she says.

"There's no sense of teamwork," said Councilwoman Johs.

The retreat fiasco, meanwhile, gave fodder to those who complain that Mora doesn't respect elected officials.

"How Dare Mora?" blared an editorial in the Oxnard Press-Courier, which accused the city manager of purposely defying the council's wishes.

Paid $88,231 a Year

Yet Mora has no dearth of supporters, chief among them the liberal majority of the Oxnard City Council who say he is well worth his $88,231-a-year salary.

"Of all the four city managers I've worked with," said Mayor Nao Tagasuki, "he's the most professional."

Even Johs, who has joined Plisky in opposing Mora's bonuses, admits that she has to hand it to the man for whom a recent Monday began with a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting and didn't conclude until a strategy session on a school bond measure some 14 hours later.

"He's a bit dictatorial, but he's on top of things," she said. "I don't think the other city managers knew what was going on."

Latino groups, meanwhile, have been impressed by Mora's chairing of a fund-raising committee for El Concilio, said Marcos Vargas, executive director of the Latino advocacy group. Before Mora recently resigned from the committee to devote his energy to the Oxnard School District's bond measure, he helped them apply for grants that ended up boosting foundation support from $10,000 to $75,000.

Gets Involved

"He's shown us that he doesn't just talk about getting involved," Vargas said. "He really does."

Past employers praise Mora as a peacekeeper who was able to settle a difficult police strike in Santa Barbara and bridge differences among members of a fractious City Council in Los Gatos.

"Dave always had the ability to make us focus on the issues despite our philosophical or political differences," Los Gatos Councilman Ferrito said.

Employees speak with fondness of the man who works with the door to his office open wide, lists his home number in the telephone book and occasionally banters with the city's 16 department heads in their weekly meeting.

They say he has high expectations of his employees, but helps them achieve goals and stands by them if they are under fire.

Impatience a Virtue

"He sits down with you and helps you figure out where you're going, and then he expects you to get there," said the city's former director of economic development, Jack Stewart.

And, oddly, people who have worked with Mora say his impatience is one of his strongest virtues.

"He doesn't like to ponder things," said Ventura City Manager John Baker, who dealt directly with Mora when the two cities sued each other over the mammoth Town Center project. "My sense is that's a good thing for Oxnard. They've had a lot of ponderers in the past."

As for the apparent drop in morale among city workers, past and present employees do not blame Mora, but the bickering council members.

"It's difficult to know where to go when you're pointed in 20 different directions from the very top," said a department head who asked not to be named.

'Rough-and-Tumble World'

Most similarly look beyond Mora when they seek to explain his embattled position.

Another Ventura County city manager, for instance, chalks it up to "the rough-and-tumble world of Oxnard politics."

Others blame resistance by some council members to the expanding authority of city managers, who once exclusively concerned themselves with paving streets, patching potholes and disposing of garbage.

"The council made policy and the city manager administrated," said Richard D. Thomas, Santa Barbara's city manager and Mora's former boss. "But those lines are not nearly as clear as they used to be."

Still others say the problem is the deep-seated suspicion of officialdom that has long characterized Oxnard voters, who early on took the unusual step of bypassing the City Council to elect their mayor at large. Their reluctance to grant authority to anyone but themselves didn't stop there; in November, they voted against changing the treasurer's office from an elected post to an appointed one, as it is in most large California cities.

But Ventura City Manager Baker points a finger at the warring camps of Oxnard's elected officials: "It's common for a manager to take the wrath of a divided council."

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