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Commission for Women in Jeopardy : Feminism: Members say the group could collapse without county money. But some critics question their effectiveness.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A commission created by Ventura County’s supervisors to improve opportunities for women in the early 1980s is now fighting to stay alive, and its leaders say it could disband unless it gets some public dollars.

Top leaders on the Ventura County Commission for Women will meet with County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Vicky Howard this week to plead for money to keep the panel and its programs running, said member Loma Siegel.

“We are struggling to stay alive,” said Siegel, the group’s vice chairwoman.

But some people question whether the county even needs a separate commission devoted to women’s causes. And they are concerned that the programs supported by the Commission for Women are doing little, if anything, to improve the quality of life for Ventura County’s women.

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One of those critics is Trecy Carpenter, director of the west county chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Carpenter said the county commission spends too much time and attention on its annual “Salute to Women” awards and not enough on getting women into positions of power.

Presented each October, the awards are given to as many as 10 women who commission members feel have made outstanding achievements in various fields in the previous year. Carpenter thinks the awards are little more than “fluff.”

She thinks the commission’s energy would be better used in helping women get appointed to boards and commissions or elected to political office.

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“They are going to kill me for saying this,” Carpenter said. “But how much does that award mean in terms of women getting ahead?”

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Just four years ago, the commission had a $25,000 budget, a secretary, an office and an array of county-provided services. Commission leaders flew to Sacramento to lobby legislators on decisions affecting women and represented Ventura County at a variety of forums discussing women’s issues.

But the group’s dollars began to be whittled away four years ago as the recession grew deeper, said commission Chairwoman Celeste Weingardt. Two years ago, during an austere budgeting process, the supervisors entirely eliminated the commission’s budget.

Since then, commission members have kept the group going by seeking donations from private women’s groups, Weingardt said. Many have also donated their own time and money to see that newsletters and events continue, she said.

But the biggest blow came four months ago, when Weingardt tried to copy a newsletter that is sent out to 100 people quarterly. She discovered that the commission had been locked out of the county’s copying network.

The commission’s spacious quarters at county offices on Poli Street in Ventura were taken away and the group has been given a “cubbyhole” in which to operate, Weingardt said. The space is so small, the group has used it for little more than storing records, she said.

“We’ve just been treading water,” Weingardt said.

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Unless the county agrees to pitch in, the group could collapse, some members said. And that would be a loss for the women of Ventura County, Weingardt said, adding that women still make only 72 cents for every dollar earned by men.

“We’ve made some headway, but it’s not enough to say we don’t need the extra help right now,” she said.

Siegel said she and other commission leaders will present Howard with a “wish list” during their meeting Thursday.

They will ask the county to give them at least $1,700 in the coming fiscal year so the commission can continue to send out newsletters advising readers of upcoming legislation dealing with child care, abortion, rape, divorce and other issues of interest to women.

The group is using money from donations and from a coalition of other advocacy groups to hold its annual seminar on family law, set for Saturday at Sheridan Way School in Ventura. And donations allow it to maintain a computer bank of women interested in seeking appointments to commissions and boards, Siegel said.

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The Board of Supervisors created the Ventura County Commission for Women 13 years ago. Among its stated purposes, the group is an advisory body to supervisors on issues concerning women. It is also charged with working with other agencies “to improve the quality of life for women,” according to its bylaws.

Weingardt said the commission in the past has been given wide latitude to fulfill those roles.

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Besides its annual awards and quarterly newsletters, the commission also has occasionally sponsored forums and seminars on women’s topics. For the past year, the commission has led a task force on teen-age pregnancy, Siegel said. In the coming months, the 70-member group will present recommendations on how to reduce youthful pregnancies to the supervisors, she said.

The commission is also organizing a countywide Assembly of Representatives that will unite the county’s women’s advocacy groups in a loose coalition, Siegel said. Such coordination will help improve programs for women and beef up their legislative voice, she said.

But the group’s best-known event, the “Salute” awards, is also its most contentious. Weingardt fends off any suggestion that the awards are meaningless and noted that the October dinner and dance is self-supporting.

“It serves as a good role model for other women,” Weingardt said. “It encourages women to look beyond their preconceived horizons.”

Past winners include Jewel Pedi, former director of Food Share; Anita Bingham, finance director for the city of Camarillo, and Mary Michel, an artist.

Siegel said she knows the supervisors have little extra money to dole out. The $1,700 figure is a “bare-bones” budget that would help the commission pay for postage, copying and other minor administrative costs.

She said she would like to keep the tone of the meeting cordial.

“We’re not taking (the budget cuts) personally,” she said. “We’re just trying to find some direction from the supervisors on where we can find some funds.”

Board Chairwoman Howard was out ill last week and was not available for comment on the coming meeting.

But a report commissioned by Supervisor Maria VanderKolk last year looked at all of the county’s commissions and boards to see whether any could be eliminated to save money.

The report recommended that the Commission for Women convert from a county-funded group to a private, nonprofit corporation. That way it could solicit private donations and grant monies in order to survive, said Terry Dyer, who supervised the study.

“It is a good organization,” said Dyer, who works in the county’s General Accounting Office. “But frankly, we just did not have the dollars to give them. It’s been a few really difficult years.”

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Although there are a handful of other women’s advocacy groups in Ventura County, the commission is hesitant to join forces with one because it prefers to stay nonpartisan on political issues, Siegel said.

Carpenter’s group, the National Women’s Political Caucus, for example, concentrates its efforts on putting women into office, while the commission’s goals are more broad-based.

While the caucus actively pursues women to run for political office, for example, the commission simply tries to match, via computer, a woman with an available position. Carpenter believes the commission’s method is ineffective.

“They may be doing stuff in other areas, but in appointments, I haven’t seen any progress,” she said.

Thousand Oaks businesswoman Martha Desch said she would be disappointed to see the commission disband.

“Women need a voice,” said Desch, owner of a Newbury Park public relations firm.

“We are not at the point where men and women are truly equal. It would be nice to be at a point down the road where a Commission for Women was not needed, but we are not there yet.”

FYI

The Ventura County Commission for Women will hold a family law forum on Saturday, dealing with such issues as child custody, spousal support and community property. The forum, which lasts from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., is free. Registration is at 8:30 a.m. at Sheridan Way School, 573 Sheridan Way in Ventura. To register in advance, call 652-7611 or 529-2060, Ext. 7611.


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