Without the well-backed environmental candidates of campaigns past, the race for three seats on the City Council is shaping up as a push by business and development interests bent on retaining majority control of the seven-member panel.
With only one incumbent seeking reelection, the campaign has attracted a field of more than a dozen council hopefuls that features a mix of well-heeled business leaders and low-budget candidates.
And the business community already has organized a slate of candidates with political savvy and resources that may be difficult for lesser-funded campaigns to overcome.
“With three seats up and two incumbents not running, there is certainly the possibility of changing the flavor of the whole council,” said John Walters, the Doubletree Hotel general manager and chairman of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee.
“We feel very strongly that we need to be involved,” he said.
Business-friendly candidates include incumbent Jack Tingstrom and chamber President Jim Friedman, property manager Craig L. Huntington and attorney Donna De Paola-Peterson.
Incumbent Gregory L. Carson also pulled papers late last week, but announced Friday he would not seek reelection.
Also plotting campaign strategy are businessman Charles (Buster) Davis, college administrator Ray Di Guilio and marketing manager Stephen L. Hartmann.
Less-organized candidates include manufacturing engineer Carol Dean Williams, software consultant John S. Jones, minister Gregory John Marshall, recycling coordinator Christopher Staubach, business consultant Brian Lee Rencher and writer Keith Burns.
Everyone besides Tingstrom has until Wednesday to return their papers and qualify for the election. Wednesday night, the chamber’s political action committee will host a forum for any candidate willing to debate.
But nowhere on the ballot, if it were printed today, is a known pro-environment candidate such as those swept into office in recent years with the help of ecologically sensitive companies such as the locally based Patagonia, an outdoor equipment and clothing company.
“It’s always more difficult to get environment-oriented people to run for City Council because they don’t receive any secondary benefits,” said Councilman Steve Bennett, elected two years ago on an environmental platform.
Sitting on the council “doesn’t enhance their business,” said Bennett, a schoolteacher. “In fact, it just makes their life that much harder.”
Former mayor Richard Francis put it this way: “Without significant economic backing, it’s difficult to get people to run, and it’s difficult to get significant financial backing for people that don’t have an interest in the system.”
Most of the candidates who have taken out papers say they support limited growth, slashing bureaucracy and representing the wide variety of interests that ripple through the city.
Beyond those professed ideals, however, some candidates unabashedly say they expect to boost business opportunities and invite investment if elected to the City Council.
“It bothers me that a lot of business has come and gone out of Ventura,” said De Paola-Peterson, a former administrator at the Ventura County Bar Assn. who now practices family law.
“We need to do something to recruit and retain businesses so Ventura doesn’t end up a little hole in the wall between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara,” she said.
One of the most visible issues of the fall campaign is certain to be two open-space measures that have qualified for the November ballot.
Dubbed the SOAR initiatives, short for Save Our Agricultural Resources, both laws would require a public vote before farmland in and around Ventura could be developed.
There are two initiatives because one has been upheld in court and the other is untested. The Ventura County Economic Development Assn. already has begun campaigning against the measures.
Most of the candidates who plan to spend $20,000 or more on their campaigns are opposed to the measures, arguing that land-use decisions are best left to elected officials.
“The recall process and initiative process have become abused in our society,” said Moorpark College vice president and council candidate Di Guilio. “I do not support the SOAR initiatives.”
Recycling coordinator Staubach and marketing manager Hartmann have both come out in favor of the measures, saying that without voter oversight, farmland will not be adequately protected.
“I don’t want Ventura to go the way of Los Angeles and turn into a massive sprawl of concrete, neon signs and streets,” Hartmann tells voters in a recorded message.
“I have no sympathy for a farmer who wants to turn agricultural land in Oxnard or Ventura over to L.A. developers for a tidy profit,” he adds.
Another measure on the November ballot also promises to become a premier campaign issue--campaign spending limits proposed by Bennett.
Earlier this year, the council opted to let voters decide whether to limit the amount of money candidates can receive as donations. The initiative would cap contributions at $100. But if a candidate agrees to spend less than $20,000 overall, he or she would be allowed donations of up to $200.
After the 1993 election, which at more than $220,000 became the costliest campaign in the city’s history, Bennett asked the council to enact the law. The council instead decided to place the measure before voters.
“Money, and the influence of it, has in the last couple of years played too big a part in council decisions,” said Councilman Gary Tuttle, who supports the measure.
“With the kind of council members that we get nowadays, the amount of campaign contributions has influenced some people’s votes,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The lack of any cohesive attempt to install environment-friendly candidates on the next council is significant because it signals what could be the end of gains made by those interests in recent elections.
In 1989, Patagonia successfully backed three candidates, who with two incumbents seized control of the panel. That council blocked a proposed Cal State University campus at Taylor Ranch and launched an ambitious desalination project that fizzled when they lost control of the panel.
Two years after the coalition’s successful showing, business leaders organized and helped elect Tingstrom, Carson and Tom Buford, leaving only council members Tuttle, Todd Collart and Cathy Bean to champion the outdoors.
Within months, residential projects and other development-related investments began winning approval from the council.
In 1993, voters rejected Collart and others in favor of Bennett and trust-fund administrator Rosa Lee Measures. Bean chose not to run, and only longtime Councilman Jim Monahan and freshman Tuttle were reelected.
To many in this year’s crop of candidates, the most important issue facing the city is continuing the business-friendly advances that have been made under the current council.
“The council in the past two and four years has taken some steps in the right direction,” said Huntington, the Ventura property manager. “I’m really concerned that some of the gains we’ve made will be lost.”
Nonetheless, a core of environmentally active residents is interviewing the field, looking for the candidates they feel would best represent their interests.
“We’re hopeful there would be someone whose environmental concerns we’re familiar with,” said Roma Armbrust, an environmentalist who has been active in the Ventura political scene for several years. “There could be someone on this list.”
But Cheryl Brandt, another activist who worked on Bennett’s successful 1993 campaign, said there seem to be fewer and fewer environmentally conscious candidates.
“It’s a huge time [and energy] commitment, and the issues are becoming more complex,” she said. “It’s a problem to find people who will run.”
Bennett, however, said he is confident that the environmental community will rally around one or more of the 13 candidates, once interviews have been conducted.
“We have a lot of people willing to work, we just don’t have as many willing to run,” he said.
“Any credible environmental candidate has a good chance to win,” Bennett said. “They may not have as much money, but they will certainly have people willing to work for them.”
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The Ventura Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee will host a candidates’ forum Wednesday night at the Doubletree Hotel in Ventura. Candidates will be asked several questions before answering queries from audience members and making brief closing statements. The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at 2055 E. Harbor Blvd. For more information, call 643-6000.