Pro-business candidates have tried to make it into a referendum on the performance of the slow-growth Ventura City Council, while slow-growth forces see it as a battle for their hold on the reins of local political power.
But this year's race for three council seats has turned into something more than a sign-waving, handshaking, speechmaking referendum focused solely on the issue of whether the city of Ventura should grow.
In contrast to a bitter slow-growth versus pro-growth 1989 campaign, heavily financed by Orange County developers on one side and local clothing company Patagonia Inc. on the other, most of the 18 candidates this year have distanced themselves from the single issue of growth.
And, according to campaign activists on both sides of the growth issue, the result has been a kinder and gentler brand of Ventura city politics.
Far fewer candidates are attacking each other's views and experience than those in 1989, said Mel Sheeler, a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce.
"It's not a mudslinging issue, and certainly not a mudslinging campaign on our part," said Sheeler, chairman of the chamber's political action committee.
The political ads are tamer, the letters to the editor are more genteel and voters seem more serious, said Jerry Sortomme, head of the slow-growth Council for a Quality Ventura.
"It's not a carnival this time," Sortomme said. "I think people do think it's a very pivotal and important election, because whatever council materializes, they will be getting all the water information next year and they will have to make a decision."
Patagonia spokesman Kevin Sweeney agreed.
"I'm happy with the way the campaign's gone in one sense, in that there has not been a lot of acrimony. There's a bunch of good people running," he said.
"Eighty-nine was just charged, I think, by both sides, because of the influence of outside money. . . . That gave the perception of this outside involvement, which of course makes people feel vulnerable, if not paranoid."
There has been no shortage of hoopla, however.
Labor attorney Tom Buford, 43, hosted a champagne fund-raiser in the loading bay of Taft Electric Co. to the strains of a Dixieland band.
Greg Carson, 33, who is backed by the Chamber of Commerce, has paraded around town with his pot-bellied pig and hosted a fund-raiser at the Busy Bee Cafe, complete with a rally of vintage Thunderbirds parked outside and free ice cream.
And slow-growth write-in candidate Steve Bennett, 41, has walked the sleepy suburban streets of the Ventura College area giving out packets of flower seeds with his campaign literature.
This year, Patagonia gave only its endorsements, the use of its building, some volunteer precinct walkers and a rooftop billboard at its headquarters for the slow-growth campaigns of Bennett and Deputy Mayor Donald Villeneuve, 60.
And according to the Oct. 19 campaign finance reports, the Orange County developers have stayed away.
However, a coalition called Venturans for Responsible Government has been aggressively backing three pro-business candidates and attacking the City Council with full-page newspaper advertisements and a blizzard of buttons that say "I'm Fed Up!"
While some of the ads attack Villeneuve, others denounce the entire council's performance since 1989, including council decisions to ration water, institute new permit fees for developers and raise water, sewer and trash rates.
"This is the type of real gutter politics that I think people in this community have been turned off by in the past, and I don't think it's going to work for them," Villeneuve said.
"We feel the whole council has to be held accountable," said Carolyn Leavens, spokeswoman for Venturans for Responsible Government. "The whole focus for the city of Ventura has been anti-business."
Ventura Mayor Richard Francis, who chose time with his family over running for reelection, said the group is attacking the wrong target instead of the true cause for Ventura's lagging business atmosphere, the nationwide recession.
The group's misdirected charge is that, "Business is in the dumps and that's the council's fault," Francis said.
Villeneuve agreed. "They're counting on the shock value," he said. "They're attempting to appeal to every source of frustration and dissatisfaction that might exist in the community, regardless of whether it was done by the council."
Francis said he takes the group's attacks personally because, as head of the council, "It is me and I am it."
"That's too bad," Leavens said. "If these are the decisions the City Council makes, they're going to have to be able to take the heat and be accountable for them. When one of their number is up for reelection, we need to call these decisions to account."
The group of ranchers, bankers and merchants is backing the same ticket supported by the Ventura Chamber of Commerce: nursery owner Carson, attorney Buford and personnel consultant Jack Tingstrom, 56.
Along with Villeneuve and Bennett, those three have raised the most campaign contributions, and Venturans for Responsible Government has raised the most money of any political group.
Ventura politicians say that a victory by any combination of pro-business candidates would mean the death of the slow-growth monopoly that has steered city politics and policies since 1989, if the victors ally themselves with pro-business Councilman Jim Monahan.
But Francis predicted the balance of power also could be tipped by the current slow-growth members: Cathy Bean, Todd Collart and Gary Tuttle.
"I think we may have a shift in the perspective of the council, it will not be so much because of personalities, but because the people on the council now are astute politicians," Francis said. "And if the political winds shift, you expect astute politicians to shift too."
On the other hand, victory by any combination of slow-growth candidates and others could reaffirm the mandate of the 1989 election. That year, Ventura voters swept the three slow-growth advocates into office by a 2-1 margin over the leading pro-growth candidates.
But politicians on all sides say that whoever wins on Tuesday must help answer what they consider the most important question facing Ventura: Where should the city get more water?
By June the council will have received two reports on water and begun deciding what to do, Francis said. One is an environmental impact report on a plan to pipe state water to Ventura and surrounding cities through the United and Casitas water districts. The other is a study of Ventura's options, including state water, a seawater desalination plant and other sources.
The new council also must deal with Ventura's growth, which continues despite moratoriums on new water hookups and housing starts the council enacted because of the drought, said departing Councilman John J. McWherter.
With 2.5 Ventura residents being born for every one who dies, "We're growing regardless, and we should be planning for that," McWherter said. "If you don't have water, you can't grow."
But McWherter, who decided not to run for reelection after serving 17 years on the council, said he is confident that the winners of Tuesday's election will be competent.
"The city has always given us good council people," he said. "The voters in my experience have given us very good, intelligent and dedicated people to run our city, and I'm sure they'll do it this time."
Other candidates running for Ventura City Council include Alan Berk, 40, a photographer and sales representative; maintenance machinist Donald R. Boyd, 53; author-publisher Keith Burns, 45, and Louis J. Cunningham, 47, an operations manager for the Ventura Unified School District.
Also running are store clerk Andrew M. Hicks, 29; Kenneth Vernie Jordan, a retired Army sergeant who has been absent at nearly all the candidates' forums, and Marcum Patrick, 30, a mortgage banker and downtown landlord who led opposition to mandatory earthquake-proofing for unreinforced masonry buildings in the area.
Other candidates include Brian Lee Rencher, 31, a business administration student; Jamie Stewart-Bentley, 64, a psychologist and the only woman in the race; John T. Sudak, 30, an advocate for children and the homeless, and Bob van der Valk, 50, who owns three service stations. The other two are Carroll Dean Williams, 49, a perennial gadfly at Ventura City Council meetings, and Stanley R. Wyatt, 60, a general engineering contractor.
In other races around Ventura County, 15 candidates are running for two seats on the Ventura Unified School District board. And nine candidates are vying for two seats on the Ventura County Community College District board of trustees, one of which was vacated when Simi Valley Trustee James T. (Tom) Ely was convicted of embezzling $15,000 from the district.
Twenty-nine other candidates are running for seats on the Conejo Valley, Fillmore, Moorpark and Oak Park unified school districts, the Rio Elementary School District and the Ventura County Board of Education.
One major issue to be decided by Camarillo will be whether to fund Measure H, a $55-million bond issue to build a new school in fast-growing east Camarillo and renovate 14 aging schools in the Pleasant Valley Elementary School District.
Camarillo voters also will elect two members of the Camrosa Water District and decide whether to recall three incumbents on the district board.
Other elections include races for seats on the municipal advisory boards of Oak Park, just outside Thousand Oaks, and the Ventura River Valley, just outside Ojai.
Staff writer Adrianne Goodman and correspondent Patrick McCartney contributed to this report.