The buzzwords flow easily as Councilwoman Elois Zeanah patiently, passionately defends her quixotic campaign against the Thousand Oaks powers-that-be.
Quality of life. Family values. Open government. Citizen empowerment. The themes crop up again and again as Zeanah spins speeches in her slight Southern drawl.
When she rotates into her nine-month stint as mayor Tuesday, Zeanah promises to bring this Populist rhetoric along with her. And she plans to back up the cliches with action.
As mayor, Zeanah vows to continue fighting what she sees as runaway growth. She also wants to spark more public scrutiny of government decisions, especially those dealing with development.
All of her plans, she said, focus on one aim--maintaining the scenic, semi-rural atmosphere that draws residents to the Conejo Valley.
Zeanah’s critics, however, suggest the maverick councilwoman has a different goal in mind: furthering her own political career, to the detriment of the city.
When she casts her ballot against a new shopping center or a low-income apartment complex, Zeanah sees herself as defending the quality of life in Thousand Oaks neighborhoods. But her opponents accuse her of caving in to narrow-minded activists and their incessant chant of “Not In My Back Yard.”
“It’s like she’s taking a free vote by grandstanding,” Councilman Frank Schillo said. “She’s saying, ‘I’ll go along with (a vocal minority)’ instead of doing what’s best for the community.’ ”
Equally outspoken, Schillo and Zeanah clash frequently. For the past nine months, they have sat next to each other on the council dais--but at every meeting, they swing their chairs as far apart as possible, emphasizing their philosophical differences with icy body language.
When she takes over the mayor’s gavel and moves to the commanding seat in the center of the dais, Zeanah expects her conflicts with Schillo, Councilman Alex Fiore and Mayor Judy Lazar to continue.
But she plans to stick to her guns.
Although she’s never yet persuaded the council majority to see things her way, Zeanah keeps plugging along--convinced that the voters, at least, have lined up solidly behind her.
“People stop me on the street and say, ‘How do you stand all that abuse?’ ”' she said. “Well, the answer is, I don’t feel it outside the council chambers. Public support keeps me on a high all the time. It’s phenomenal.”
With her coiffed red hair, vibrant tailored suits and perpetual photogenic smile, Zeanah commands attention. And after observing her in action, residents often praise her courteous demeanor and attentive look.
“Her unwavering politeness in the face of the most vicious personal attacks is heroic,” said environmentalist Cassandra Auerbach, who frequently addresses the council. “She’s always a lady. The way she handles her constituents and the people who come before the council is exemplary.”
But when bickering breaks out among council members, Zeanah is not above throwing punches. She once called Lazar a liar in public, and occasionally sneaks in cutting remarks about her other colleagues.
Zeanah sometimes makes a more subtle statement through conspicuous absences. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, she skipped a gala party for the Civic Arts Plaza. Zeanah has opposed the $64-million cultural center because of its price tag and its massive size, and she continues to rail ineffectively against it.
But while she often finds herself tilting at windmills, Zeanah rarely lets her opponents see her frustration.
“Whether Elois hits a home run or strikes out, she always tips her hat to the crowd,” said investment banker Robert K. Hammer, who disagrees with Zeanah on many business-related issues but has worked with her on crime-fighting programs. “She is always gracious, whether she’s being booed or applauded.”
Her gung-ho supporters lavish Zeanah with even vore effusive praise. One ardent backer, Jimmy Sloan, compared her to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. because of her willingness to “lay her life on the line” in fighting for her beliefs.
Zeanah tends to inspire such devotion in part because she perpetuates an image of herself as a brave loner battling entrenched and vaguely sinister forces at City Hall.
She has often complained that she has trouble getting information from the city when she wants to verify staff reports. “They’re not used to answering the kind of questions I ask,” she said. And she frets aloud about City Manager Grant Brimhall’s strong influence over the rotating cast of policy-makers on the council.
Despite her fiscal conservatism, Zeanah once asked the city to hire council aides, so she could have help conducting “independent research” instead of relying on city staff members. The council majority shot down that idea before it even came to a vote, and now Zeanah plans to hire an assistant from her own salary of $9,180 a year.
“A council member is not supposed to be a parrot or a rubber stamp,” she explains. “Are we going to let ourselves be controlled by staff, which has its own political agenda?”
Because of her mania to double-check everything, Zeanah frequently gripes that she doesn’t have enough time to wade through all the government documents and pursue her own initiatives as well.
Her phone constantly rings with constituents’ calls, and Zeanah claims to spend “every breathing hour that’s not devoted to my family or to home maintenance” on council business. Indeed, her probing questions on phrases buried within encyclopedia-sized packets reveal how carefully she studies the issues.
Nonetheless, Zeanah’s complaints about her workload both amuse and annoy Schillo, the only member of the current council to hold a full-time job.
Far from sympathizing, Schillo accuses Zeanah of slacking off. He even suggested that she should not become mayor unless she proves herself “willing to go flat-out like everyone else on the council.”
But Zeanah shrugs off such criticism.
In her soft but emphatic Mississippi lilt, she warns that Thousand Oaks stands at a crossroads. As the city approaches its 30th birthday, she argues, its leaders must hold the line against excessive development.
Driving around the Conejo Valley, Zeanah sees countless examples of projects that she considers ill-planned, destructive and downright ugly.
She shudders when she mentions The Groves, townhouses for first-time home buyers wedged against the Ventura Freeway next to the Auto Mall. Future developments rankle as well: an apartment complex for low-income families along Hillcrest Drive, and another slated for Newbury Park.
In voting against each of these projects, Zeanah has tried to claim the moral high ground. With tears in her eyes, she bemoans developers’ tendencies to cram poor families into tiny apartments on busy streets.
Zeanah herself grew up in cramped quarters--the eldest of seven children who shared two bedrooms. “I’ve been there,” she said. “I know the problems associated with that kind of crowding.”
But these personal anecdotes don’t sit well with other council members, who chafe at the gap they perceive between Zeanah’s words and her deeds.
“She says she’s for affordable housing, but she never votes for it,” Schillo said, with evident irritation. “She says she’s for the business community but she never votes for them, either. How can you vote against everything? It’s just not right.”
Business leaders echo these complaints.
Citing Zeanah’s recent vote against a proposed McDonald’s drive-through as an example of anti-business bias, architect Gary Heathcote urged her to pay more attention to economic issues.
McDonald’s application failed in a 2-2 tie, after Schillo disqualified himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest. First-year Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski joined Zeanah in turning down the proposed fast-food restaurant--a rare victory for the pair, who usually find themselves on the short end of 3-2 votes.
“How many more McDonald’s-type cases does it take to start the destruction of a local economy?” said Heathcote, the incoming president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not convinced Elois is focusing on jobs.”
In response, Zeanah reels off dozens of cases where she helped individual entrepreneurs.
For instance, Nadine Xander, manager of Thousand Oaks’ EconoLodge, credits Zeanah with placing a sign pointing toward the hotel on Rancho Road. “She has been totally sympathetic to our business,” Xander said. “She’s a tough lady.”
Zeanah’s behind-the-scenes efforts to aid EconoLodge may reflect her first-hand knowledge of the hard-scrabble hotel business.
Just a few years after striking out to seek her fortune at age 17, Zeanah was summoned back to Mississippi when her father suffered a debilitating accident that left him disabled. She stuck around for several years to help her dad start up a 13-room motel.
Later, Zeanah headed back to Washington with her husband, Jim, whom she still describes as “the world’s best” after 30 years of marriage.
During the Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations, Zeanah held administrative and secretarial posts with several government agencies, including the White House Office of Consumer Affairs.
Her job reviewing consumer complaints on everything from unsafe toys to unethical auto mechanics sparked Zeanah’s interest in community outreach. But the years in Washington also soured her on politics.
“I saw what motivates office-seekers and it was not what I, as a naive resident, had thought,” Zeanah said, with a touch of her trademark down-home Populism. “When I walked away, I said I would never get involved in politics.”
But a decade after moving to Thousand Oaks in 1976, she caught wind of plans for the Dos Vientos development--2,350 residences on a mountainous parcel in Newbury Park. Horrified, she fought the project--which she describes, with typical drama, as a step toward “the final ruination of our city.”
Zeanah didn’t succeed in blocking Dos Vientos, but she did gain visibility. And she also collected some ardent fans, who boosted her into office when she ran for City Council on a slow-growth platform three years ago.
Since then, Zeanah has repeatedly proved her political acumen.
She managed county Supervisor Maria VanderKolk’s successful dark-horse campaign to oust incumbent Madge L. Schaefer in 1990.
Just last year, Zeanah duplicated her success in plucking candidates out of obscurity when she endorsed novice politician Jaime Zukowski for the City Council. Zukowski won, stunning the Thousand Oaks establishment.
Both VanderKolk and Zukowski admire Zeanah’s fight-to-the-death style.
“She doesn’t compromise as much as I tend to,” VanderKolk said. Although Zeanah has publicly slammed the supervisor for supporting the mammoth Ahmanson Ranch project, VanderKolk remains loyal.
Despite such high-profile backers, Zeanah insists she does not plan to seek any office outside Thousand Oaks. She has already announced plans to seek reelection to the council next year, dismissing rumors that she was considering running for the Board of Supervisors.
“I have found this job exhilarating, challenging and rewarding because of the overwhelming public support,” Zeanah said. “My heart is here.”
Profile ofEloise ZeanahAge: 51
Education: Remains a few credits short of a bachelor’s degree. Has attended night classes at several schools, including Harvard University and the University of Alabama. Graduated from Shelton State Business College.
Career: Has worked in administrative and secretarial posts at the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, U.S. Department of Commerce and NASA. Elected to the Thousand Oaks City Council in November, 1990. Will serve as mayor for nine months beginning Tuesday.
Volunteer jobs: Founded a grass-roots group, the Citizens Q of L Action Alliance. Also founded the Conejo League of Homeowners and served as president. Active with several environmental groups.
Family: Daughter Kristi, 14, a freshman at Thousand Oaks High School; son Derek, 22, a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany; husband, Jim, manager in a bank’s research branch.