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Referendum Vote Haunts Thousand Oaks Council Incumbents

Times Staff Writer

About six months ago, the Thousand Oaks City Council made a decision that has come back to haunt two incumbents running in the Nov. 8 election.

The council, including Mayor Lee Laxdal and City Councilman Frank Schillo, who are running for reelection, voted against holding a referendum on the city’s planned $70-million Jungleland development despite a petition signed by residents seeking to put the issue on the ballot.

The ambitious Jungleland project would be a joint venture between the city’s redevelopment agency and a private developer to build a civic auditorium and office-hotel complex on 20 acres the city bought last year.

The council’s vote came after it was presented with two petitions, one calling for a referendum and the other supporting the project.

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Now three challengers vying for the council seats have resurrected the Jungleland issue, claiming Laxdal and Schillo denied voters their rightful say in how Ventura County’s second-largest city will evolve as it continues to struggle with rapid growth.

Challenging the two incumbents are Joan Gorner, a former Planning Commission member; Norm (Blackie) Jackson, a professional singer; and Elois Zeanah, the president of the League of Conejo Homeowner Assns.

Laxdal and Schillo think the Jungleland project will be crucial to spurring investment in the city’s redevelopment district along Thousand Oaks Boulevard. They say residents will have ample opportunity to comment on it during a series of public hearings in coming months.

Jungleland, now vacant property on Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Conejo School Road, once contained a small, privately operated zoo and animal-training facility until it closed in 1968. When the city bought the land last year, it approved preliminary plans to build a public park and an 1,800-seat civic auditorium with about $40 million in redevelopment funds, and lease about 8 acres to a private developer for offices and a hotel.

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City officials are negotiating with Lowe Development Corp. of Brentwood on a $30-million proposal to build a 225-suite hotel, a conference center and offices.

Other issues addressed by the candidates include growth control and traffic management.

The city’s growth-control ordinance, adopted in 1980, will expire in 1990. It limits new housing construction to 500 units per year, parceled out to developers whose plans to ease the impact on traffic, schools and sewers are rated on a point system.

Laxdal and Schillo advocate continuing but amending the growth-control measure, while Gorner and Zeanah oppose the measure in any form. Jackson said he would poll voters before taking a position on the issue.

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Although traffic in Thousand Oaks has worsened in recent years, it is nowhere near gridlock, city planners say. Only 10 of the city’s 69 major intersections are either congested or at capacity, said Beth Madnick, a city transportation planner.

But the city is studying how to relieve traffic congestion because the streets, especially those near the Ventura Freeway, have grown more crowded as the city’s population has grown, Madnick said. It has increased by about 33% in the past eight years, from 76,000 people in 1980 to about 101,000 in 1988, according to Kevin Lopiccolo, a city planner. The population is projected to increase to 110,000 people in the next two years, he said.

A recent $50,000 traffic study commissioned by the City Council has become an issue in the campaign because its results were determined by city officials to be incomplete.

The City Council has since paid for another $40,000 traffic study that promises to be more reliable, but Gorner and Zeanah contend the council members wasted taxpayers’ money by paying for two studies.

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Here is a rundown of the candidates, beginning with the incumbents:

* Laxdal, 54, who is seeking his third council term, said that if reelected, he would strengthen the growth-control ordinance in 1990 so developers would have to mitigate traffic impact or face penalties. He acknowledged that the city “bought a clunker” when it commissioned the first traffic study, but he described traffic problems as requiring long-term, regional solutions agreed to by neighboring communities.

Laxdal calls the growth-control ordinance “a dream come true” because it allowed the city to control the pace of development, offered incentives for developers to build affordable housing and resulted in builders donating open space.

He defended his vote to reject a Jungleland referendum because he thinks it would have delayed the project by at least six months, scared off potential developers and wasted money while the city continued to pay taxes on the land. He said the project will become a thriving development that draws residents into the city’s downtown at night.

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* Schillo, 54, is a financial consultant who has been on the City Council since 1984. He takes credit for establishing a city Youth Commission, a quarterly citizens’ town hall meeting and the city’s Haul-a-Junker program, which has towed 270 abandoned cars since 1987.

Schillo supports continuation of the growth-control initiative, although he would strengthen the incentives offered to developers to build affordable housing. He opposes putting any private development matter on the ballot, including Jungleland.

* Gorner, 50, an ex-planning commissioner for Thousand Oaks and a local junior high school teacher, was a leader of the citizens’ committee that circulated the petition for a referendum on Jungleland. She is concerned about the size of the civic auditorium and the traffic impact of the development. She promised to come up with a viable citywide traffic management plan.

Although she backed the growth-control measure in 1980, Gorner does not support its continuation. All growth control did was “lull people into a false sense of security,” Gorner said. “Now that our growing days are essentially over, we need to address problems facing the infrastructure, such as traffic.”

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As former president of the Unified Assn. of Conejo Teachers, she said she would work to improve relations between the school and city. She ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1984.

* Jackson, 33, a singer at charity benefits and in nightclubs, says he is running for office because he was wronged by the Ventura County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted him in 1986 for failing to pay child support for his four children. Jackson pleaded guilty in the case but later claimed he had been coerced into making the plea. He advocates a city-level district attorney and consumer fraud unit.

Jackson, who hands out cassette tapes of his recorded songs to interviewers and frequently quotes the Bible, vows to spend “all my time finding out what the citizens want. After all, I am a public servant, and the people are smarter than me and other politicians.”

Jackson supports finding out how voters stand on each issue and basing his agenda on public opinion. He said he would use polls and ballot initiatives to gauge public sentiment on various issues, including the Jungleland project.

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* Zeanah, 46, the president of the Conejo homeowner group, describes herself as a “full-time civic volunteer and community leader” able to devote all her time to the City Council.

Zeanah said, if elected, she would hire an urban planner to update the city’s long-range land-use plans, encourage employers to form van pools for their workers and create a traffic and transportation commission that would evaluate the city’s traffic problems. The city’s Citizens Traffic Committee is not sufficient, she said.

Zeanah said that although she believes residents support a cultural center, she would delay the Jungleland development until voters had a chance to decide what is done with the property.

Zeanah said she opposes continuation of the growth-control initiative because, she said, development plans for most of the city’s large parcels have already been approved.

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