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Council That Transformed City Is Now Under Fire : Port Hueneme: The five panel members have been in office an average of 14 years. Some call their frequent consensus single-minded and unresponsive.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For years, Port Hueneme held an unenviable place on the Ventura County map, known for little more than its Navy base, red-light district and being the point “where the sewer meets the sea.”

Redevelopment efforts directed by Ventura County’s longest-serving city manager and council have transformed the city.

Today, the beach area south of Hueneme Road, once a flood plain and sewage plant site, is a community of 1,250 houses and condominiums abutting a beach park and cultural center. Landscaped medians divide all major streets, and public buildings have been overhauled, replaced or, in the case of the library, added.

“We try as much as possible to do things in a systematic, thoughtful, ahead-of-time way,” said Richard Velthoen, city manager for more than 16 years.

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But for all the suburban renewal miracles that they have worked, critics say, Velthoen and the five councilmen have become a government intolerant of new ideas and single-minded to a fault.

“It’s the old-boy network incarnate,” said one community leader, who requested anonymity. “If you haven’t served your minimum two years on some city committee, they don’t want to hear from you.”

Recently, the leaders have been unable to operate in obscurity.

In July, the council was stung by two hours of criticism from its largest audience in two decades over a plan to impose a special assessment on beach-area homeowners. But, still, the vote for the proposal was 4 to 0, without a single word of discussion among the council members.

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The issue vaulted the small seaside city into the national spotlight and its city manager into media-relations training to handle press inquiries about the so-called view tax.

Critics contend that the council members’ silence that night before 225 people typified the unusual style of Ventura County’s most veteran council--unanimous votes after little or no public discussion on staff-generated proposals.

Sheila Merlino, a 51-year-old caterer who lives in Surfside Village, called the vote a sham. “They listened to all these people and just did what they wanted.”

But critics are few in this city of 20,000. In a poll commissioned by the city, 70% of 400 residents who were surveyed before the vote on the assessment district supported the direction that the council has taken; only 15% indicated that it’s on the wrong track. And 52% of residents felt that the city is a better place to live than it was 10 years ago, compared with 16% who considered it worse.

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“People are very satisfied with life in Port Hueneme itself, and what the city government has done,” said Jan van Lohuizen, a Washington public opinion researcher who conducted the poll. “The satisfaction ratings are very high.”

“If folks weren’t happy with what we’ve been doing, they’d be the first to vote us out,” said Dorill B. Wright, a councilman since 1970 and the city’s mayor from 1974 to 1990.

What distinguishes the Port Hueneme council is its homogeneity--all five members are white men in their 60s and 70s, military veterans active in civic affairs before running for office.

“Port Hueneme has always been a close-knit little city. Most of the people on the council have been president of the Chamber of Commerce or on its board of directors,” said Councilman Ken Hess, who took office in 1982. “We’ve all walked along the same path at one time or another.”

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“The key to getting elected to the council here is you have to win the seniors and the retired military vote,” said Kurt Oberst, 40, a maintenance mechanic and unsuccessful council candidate in 1984.

The councilmen have been in office an average of nearly 14 years. That tenure makes them the most senior council not only in Ventura County, but in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as well, said Roger Campbell, a Fillmore councilman and head of the League of California Cities’ central coast district.

Wright said members have escaped becoming stale through involvement in leadership and committee posts with the League of Cities, which he called the “College of Municipal Knowledge.”

“We’ve continued to get ideas and encounter new methods and concepts in everything from hazardous waste and environmental laws to the problems confronting law enforcement,” Wright said.

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The city’s top administrator, Velthoen, is also the county’s most tenured city manager, having taken the post in January, 1975. Some residents say Velthoen, as architect or overseer of staff proposals, has been as instrumental as the council in the city’s revitalization.

“It hasn’t been knee-jerk,” said Velthoen, 54, who holds master’s degrees in public administration and natural resources. “We’ve followed a focus and a vision of policies that have worked for a lot of years.”

Mayor Orvene Carpenter said there was a time when area banks refused to extend mortgages for homes in the town, a large number of them blighted cottages, some lacking floors. And even after redevelopment efforts began in the mid-1960s, the reputation was hard to shake.

“For many years, we were considered the South Bronx of Oxnard,” said Community Development Director Tom Figg. “We’ve made a real conscious effort to create our own identity.”

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Now single-family houses in the area sell for up to $400,000, real estate agents said.

As the only city in Ventura County surrounded by an incorporated neighbor, Port Hueneme has not had the luxury of annexing developable land to add to its property tax rolls. Instead, such land is at a premium, even within the designated redevelopment area, which makes up one-third of the city.

“We set redevelopment in motion and it has accelerated,” said Walter B. Moranda, 76, Port Hueneme’s city manager from 1955 to 1975. “The council is only trying to do the best they can with what they have. They have no place to go, so they better take care of what they’ve got.”

Disputes often erupted among council members over the conservative direction that Moranda took in the brothel and gambling-room days, but they subsided by the mid-1960s, he said. City politics have been quiet ever since.

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“I’ve always said it didn’t matter really who was on the council. If they all received the same set of facts, and they were factual, they would pretty much to a large degree come up with the same decisions,” Moranda said. “To have the council vote together on a lot of things is to be expected.”

Figg said the absence of new development is probably the reason that the council avoided serious controversy until the beach assessment vote and a plan to build a $2-million oceanfront recreational-vehicle park.

“It’s development that generates the greatest controversy in most cities,” Figg said.

Even critics acknowledge that the city’s redevelopment efforts have been successful. It is the people who live in the redevelopment area who have been most vocal in their opposition to the assessment district.

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Dorothy Blake, among the leaders of the beach homeowners, said the council should use more citizens advisory committees to stay in touch with the needs of the residents. “I’m not asking not to have an assessment district, only that it be fair,” she said after the July hearing.

But Velthoen said the city doesn’t have the staff to deal with a lot of committees. City government is so small that people can just walk in off the street and tell officials what they think, he said.

Fillmore’s Campbell said the Port Hueneme council, in forging a city from a string of impoverished neighborhoods, has developed a reputation for being a group of “solution-oriented people” who have gained invaluable political connections through their extended terms in office.

“The longer you’ve been an elected official at the city level, as close to the people as you can be, you tend to get better known to people at state and federal level,” said Campbell, his own council’s most senior member, in office since 1984. “You can call your elected representatives and get them on the phone the same day you call.”

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“I do not think newness to office necessarily brings fresh ideas,” Campbell added. “People who have committed so much of their lives to a city generally are idea people and problem-solvers.”

David G. Jones, a consultant who led the Port Hueneme council and department heads through teamwork training two years ago, said that long terms in office can produce staleness, “but that was not my experience in Port Hueneme. They tended to stay pretty current.”

“Based on that beach assessment tax, they still have courage,” said Jones, president of Sentient Systems Inc. in the Santa Cruz County city of Aptos.

“They have a very good relationship with their city manager. The staff was basically young and committed, very competent and sharp. They were certainly not yes people to the city manager.”

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Jones also said he found council and staff relations among the most harmonious of the 300 city governments that he’s worked with, and did not see Velthoen as a grand schemer whom the council rubber-stamps.

“The council members work through their objections with the staff before things come to a vote, so when it comes to a vote they’re pretty well agreed,” Jones said. “The danger is that the public sees it as the city manager running the city instead of the council, but I didn’t find that to be true there. That council is very opinionated, and they let the staff know what they want.”

Port Hueneme City Council

Years Councilman Age Elected in Office Orvene Carpenter 66 April, 1964 24 to March 1980 reappointed July, 1983 Dorill B. Wright 70 April, l970 21 Dean Greene 77 April, 1980 11 Ken Hess 61 Nov., 1982 9 James Daniels 65 Nov., 1986 5

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Source: Council members


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