Port Hueneme Councilwoman Toni Young brings a soft, green puppet dragon to council meetings and flops it over the base of her microphone--a symbol of her role as a challenger of the old order.
For too long, Young said, the council in this small seaside community has made its decisions in an arbitrary manner, with too little input from the public.
“The people who voted for me expect me to sit there and be the dragon every week,” said Young, the only woman on the council and the first to be elected in more than 30 years.
“I’m not the Dragon Lady,” added Young, who has aspirations to run for the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. “I’m the lady with the dragon.”
Three months into a four-year term, the real estate agent said she is doing her best to live up to a campaign promise that she would be a dissenting voice on the Port Hueneme council.
But Young’s methods of bringing city matters to the fore have drawn the ire of her colleagues, who say her actions are not aimed at bettering the city but at drawing attention to herself.
She has vowed to fight new taxes, yet she asked city staff to look into a new tax for park maintenance. On the other hand, Young has adamantly opposed a proposal for a crossing guard assessment district and pledged to deliver postcards on the matter to each Port Hueneme resident.
“I understand the city is out of money,” Young said. “People have lost jobs . . . and I’m concerned. . . . But to put it on the backs of citizens, I have a problem with that.”
Young has also made efforts to focus public scrutiny on the activities of city government. She has tried to get council meetings aired on cable television. And she has been criticized by some officials for speaking too openly to the press about city business.
Despite her agenda of dissent, Young so far has voted against the council majority only once, on the crossing guard tax.
On virtually every other issue since she was sworn into office in December, Young has ended up on the same side as the group she calls “the Old Guard,” four Anglo men in their 60s and 70s with backgrounds in civic affairs and the military.
That will change, Young said. It’s just a matter of time before issues arise that will establish her as a “rabble-rouser” at odds with the rest of the council.
That kind of talk isn’t greeted with great enthusiasm by the more senior members of the City Council. But so far, they have tried to minimize their differences with their new colleague.
“What she appears to be doing is using the media to present that kind of image,” longtime Councilman Dorill B. Wright said. “And I specifically use the term use .”
Wright said Young’s claim to be the first “to open the doors of City Hall” has had no major effect on the workings of city government.
“If she calls herself the dragon, let her,” Wright said. “I’m not going to build on it. I need to work with this individual for the next four years.”
Wright attributes council members’ unanimity on past matters to their knowledge of municipal government and their good relationships with staff.
“The council actions were entirely public,” said Wright, who has been on the council since 1970. “The fact that people did not attend does not make the meetings closed.”
Mayor Orvene Carpenter, who was elected to his seventh council term in November, said it is difficult to generate interest in city politics in Port Hueneme.
But Carpenter does not agree with Young’s contention that city officials have worked secretly.
“In my opinion, there has never been anything done in secret,” he said.
In January, shortly after taking office, Young made public a staff memo outlining proposals for cutbacks in the city’s Recreation and Community Development Department.
Angered by what he called Young’s “premature” move, City Manager Dick Velthoen criticized her for releasing the proposals in a piecemeal fashion. He said that cuts were being discussed in several city departments and that all of them should have been presented to the public at the same time after a staff review.
“It’s never happened before,” Velthoen said after learning that Young had released the information. “It’s unfathomable. . . . We’re talking about people’s jobs!”
The other council members said they are not opposed to cable TV cameras in council chambers, but they believe that it is an unnecessary expense at a time when they have laid off employees and cut city services.
One longtime city staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Young is seeking to advance her political career by advocating televised council meetings. In the process, the staffer said, she has stirred ill feelings in City Hall.
“I think the discomfort is that the staff doesn’t totally trust her. They feel they have to watch what is said because it’ll be misinterpreted or she’ll run to the media.”
Young said the Old Guard at City Hall is upset because they cannot control her.
Laura Snell, chairwoman of Concerned Hueneme Citizens and a member of Young’s campaign committee, said the councilwoman has already brought light to city matters through her questions at meetings.
“I’m pleased with Toni and what she’s done so far,” Snell said. “Being a woman, she has been a good balance to what was an all-male council.”
For her part, despite the reprimands of city staff, Young remains optimistic.
“I’m enjoying this. I think it’s fun,” she said. “I really do think people should get involved and make decisions. Tell them the whole picture, not some little ‘I’m gonna charge you $45 a year for parks. Do you mind?’
“It’s important that people know what they can do.”