With her extensive financial background, Ventura County supervisor candidate Barbara Williamson says one of her top priorities if elected will be to zero in on wasteful government spending.
“I work in a bank, so I know about budgets,” said Williamson, 50, a Simi Valley councilwoman and vice president in charge of business development at Simi Valley Bank
And Williamson, one of three candidates competing in the June 7 election for the seat being vacated by Supervisor Vicky Howard, is not shy about citing what she considers wasteful spending.
In a recent interview, she was very critical of Richard Wittenberg, the county’s chief administrative officer, for hiring an outside consultant to find a replacement for Fire Chief George Lund, who recently retired.
“Now Mr. Wittenberg gets paid how much money, and he can’t pick a fire chief? That’s inexcusable,” Williamson said. “If this is any reflection of how he (works), I’ll tell you I don’t think he and I will get along.”
In fact, the Board of Supervisors voted to spend $15,000 to hire a consultant to conduct the search because they believed it would cut by half the time it would take to fill the vacancy. Wittenberg made no recommendation on the issue.
When informed of this, Williamson said, “Then he should have made a recommendation (to do the search himself). That’s his job.”
Williamson was also critical of a $12,400 pay raise for the county’s top courts administrator, Sheila Gonzalez. Seventeen of the county’s 27 judges approved the pay hike in February, saying Gonzalez had gone three years without a raise and crediting her with saving the county more than $3 million by streamlining the operations of the courts.
The 12.8% raise pushed Gonzalez’s base salary to $109,000, making her the third highest-paid appointed county administrator.
“Holy cow,” Williamson said. “This is why residents are upset with government. I don’t care who approved (the raise), it was wrong. This lady may walk on water, but maybe she belongs in private enterprise and not in government service if that’s the kind of salary she’s looking for.”
Defending her get-tough attitude, Williamson said if government is ever going to get serious about reducing expenditures “then we’ve got to find a way to work smarter.”
Williamson is equally passionate about other issues. She strongly supports the development of a commercial airport at Point Mugu to help create more jobs and attract new businesses to the county.
But she opposes a $30-million renovation and expansion of the 69-year-old Ventura County Medical Center. “There’s no money for it,” she said flatly. “I think this is a real sales job and I’m opposed to it.”
As for the county’s need for a new landfill to serve the west county, Williamson said she has her own solution but is reluctant to give any details. She said it does involve a longtime proposal to develop a landfill at Weldon Canyon in Ojai, which has successfully fought against a dump.
With Bailard Landfill in Oxnard scheduled to close in 1997, Williamson said she wants to ensure that the Simi Valley Landfill does not become the county’s only dump.
“Where do these hoity-toity people in Ojai get off sending their trash somewhere else,” she said. “If they have a trash problem, then they have to find other ways to get rid of it and not put it on their neighbors.”
In other issues, Williamson said she backs efforts by county firefighters to establish their own paramedic program and to collect a share of Proposition 172 sales tax money. Money raised from Proposition 172--approved by voters in November after wildfires swept the region--is now split among law enforcement agencies.
“Voters are upset because they went to the polls to ensure that firefighters had equipment to fight fires,” Williamson said.
Since announcing her candidacy in January, Williamson has raised more than $20,000 in campaign contributions, far outpacing her two opponents. She has also won the support of four county employee unions.
“This says to me that people are looking for a change,” said Williamson, who will keep her Simi Valley council seat if she loses the supervisor election. She was elected in 1992.
But her two rivals--Simi Valley Councilwoman Judy Mikels and Moorpark Councilman Scott Montgomery--say Williamson lacks the experience necessary to be a county supervisor. Mikels has held public office for three years, Montgomery for six.
“I don’t think she’s proven herself yet as far as her ability to grasp the issues and work them through,” said Mikels, who has been endorsed by Howard. “I don’t think that’s the kind of politician we need.”
Mikels also questioned Williamson’s commitment to her job with the city, saying Williamson avoids committee assignments and has missed numerous meetings, both as a council member and a member of the Planning Commission. Williamson served on the commission from 1990 to 1992.
“Barbara likes to take vacations,” Mikels said.
Williamson defended her attendance record in both instances, saying, “I’ve been there on all the important votes.” City records show that Williamson missed six of 57 council meetings, contrasted with two for Mikels; Williamson missed seven of 49 Planning Commission meetings.
“It’s a non-issue,” said Williamson, adding that it is difficult to coordinate her vacation schedule at the bank with the council’s. “I think (Mikels) is so far behind she’s grasping at straws.”
For her part, Williamson questioned Mikels’ fiscal priorities, saying Mikels is a strong supporter of the city spending $2.8 million in redevelopment funds to turn an abandoned church into a cultural arts center.
“I believe the city should have a cultural arts center, but I think the money should come from the private sector,” not from government, Williamson said.
Mikels said the project is too important for the city to pass up, saying it would not only be getting a new performing arts theater but would also be preserving one of its few historical buildings.
As for her lack of government experience, Williamson said she considers this an asset, not a liability. Besides, she said, “I’m a quick learner.”
She said she has demonstrated that she is unafraid to take a stand on issues, saying she was the first council member to publicly oppose the building of a Wal-Mart on a city hillside. Despite Wal-Mart’s well-financed campaign to win support, the proposal was shot down by voters in November.
“With me, what you see is what you get,” Williamson said. “There’s no mirrors or sleight of hand. I’m just who I am.”
To date, Williamson has picked up the endorsements of the Simi Valley Police Officers Assn., the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff’s Assn., the Ventura County Firefighters and the Service Employees International Union Local 998.
Barry Hammitt, executive director of the employees’ union, said he is most impressed with Williamson’s energy, persistence and attentiveness.
“She has an openness and a willingness to talk,” Hammitt said. “And there’s a desire to change the way things are done. With Vicky Howard, I never knew where she stood on the issues.”
Asked about her lack of government experience, Hammitt said, “It doesn’t make a difference if you have one year or 1,000 years’ experience. The question is, do you have the right personality makeup.”
Because of her banking experience, Williamson said she considers herself pro-business and pro-growth. But she said this doesn’t mean she supports all development, citing her opposition to Wal-Mart.
“I believe if a city doesn’t grow, it will die,” she said. “But I also believe in managed growth.”
It was Williamson’s former husband, John, a Simi Valley attorney, who got her interested in politics, she said.
Not long after the couple moved from San Diego to Simi Valley in 1972, Williamson said, her husband urged her to join a neighborhood council group. She served for 18 months as chairwoman of the organization, which advises the City Council on neighborhood issues.
Williamson enjoyed the experience and stayed involved in local politics, working on the campaigns of Simi Valley Republicans Rep. Elton Gallegly and state Sen. Cathie Wright--both of whom are former council members.
A registered Republican, Williamson also worked on the campaigns of a number of Democrats, including that of Councilman Bill Davis in his bid for county supervisor against Vicky Howard in 1990. Davis has since switched to the Republican Party.
“To me, friendship is more important than politics,” said Williamson, whose former husband was also a longtime Democrat until recently. The two remain friends.
But it is Williamson’s association with former Democratic consultant Jim Dantona that some say could hurt her campaign among Republican voters, even though it is a nonpartisan race. Dantona was Williamson’s campaign consultant in her 1992 council race and is an adviser in her bid for supervisor.
A former aide to state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys), Dantona, a Simi Valley resident, now serves as assistant to state Controller Gray Davis, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. One of Davis’ opponents is Wright, the state senator.
“I think her affiliation with liberal people isn’t going to help her” in an area that is mostly conservative and Republican, Montgomery said. “There’s a lot of negatives tied to that.”
Williamson said she will not let politics ruin her friendship with Dantona. Meanwhile, she said she has already spent several thousand dollars on a professional consultant to work on her campaign.
“I’m not a politician,” Williamson said of her decision to hire a consultant. “I don’t know how to run a campaign. But I want to win.”
Profile of Barbara Williamson
Barbara Williamson is one of three candidates competing for the seat being vacated by retiring county Supervisor Vicky Howard. Howard’s 4th District seat covers Simi Valley, Moorpark, Somis and the Santa Rosa Valley.
Born: March 12, 1944
Occupation: Incumbent Simi Valley councilwoman, vice president of Simi Valley Bank.
Education: Attended Yakima Valley College in Washington state for one year; completed USC course in marketing and advertising.
Background: Simi Valley resident for 22 years; former president of the Boys & Girls Club of Simi Valley; former chairwoman of Neighborhood Council No. 2; employee of Simi Valley Bank for 14 years; Simi Valley planning commissioner for two years, elected to the Simi Valley City Council in 1992.
Quote: “With me, what you see is what you get. There’s no mirrors or sleight of hand. I’m just who I am.”