ELECTIONS / VENTURA COUNCIL : Candidates Zeroing In on Quality-of-Life Issues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a recent candidates' forum, two businessmen running for the City Council stood in the early morning fog, bickering over the city's future.

Development, one argued, taints Ventura's drowsy character by attracting too many people who strain public services. Development, the other countered, generates money so that the city can provide those services.

The forum had ended 30 minutes earlier, but the question of how to preserve Ventura's quality of life--which many have defined as good schools, safe streets, abundant parks and vast stretches of farmland--lingered.

It is an important issue in this year's council race, one that the 12 candidates seeking three council seats on the Nov. 7 ballot approach differently.

Candidates Ray Di Guilio, Craig Huntington, James Friedman, Charles E. (Buster) Davis, Stephen Hartmann, Brian Lee Rencher and incumbent Jack Tingstrom all say improving public safety is a top priority.

Not surprisingly, Di Guilio, Friedman and Tingstrom have been endorsed by the city's police and firefighters' associations. All three contend that the city should embrace pricey development deals to secure a tax base that will generate funds for more police and fire services.

Other candidates say the city needs to invest more of its current revenue on youth activities, library services and cultural and recreational facilities.

Donna De Paola-Peterson, Keith Burns and John S. Jones have all rallied behind these goals.

That trio--plus Hartmann, Christopher T. Staubach and Carroll Dean Williams--have also embraced two restrictive land-use measures on the November ballot that would curb urban expansion into farmland.

De Paola-Peterson and Hartmann have been endorsed by the Sierra Club and Voters Coalition, two pro-environment groups.

Although critics say the initiatives attack farmers' property rights, the six candidates who support measures I and J say the measures will safeguard the city's tranquil character.

"What are we going to be when we have concrete buildings everywhere?" Staubach asked at a recent candidates' forum. "I stay here because we don't look like Los Angeles."

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Indeed, Ventura residents enjoy living in a quiet, relatively crime-free community. And the city already spends a significant chunk of money to keep it that way.

About 46% of the city's $51-million budget is spent supporting public safety agencies. Ventura spends about $14.7 million on police services and more than $8.7 million on fire services.

Of the county's 10 cities, only Ojai spends more on parks and recreation. That city's combined parks and recreation budget is about $780,000, or about $95 for each of its 8,150 residents. Ventura spends about $73 per person for each of its 100,677 residents.

"I think all in all," Mayor Tom Buford said, "we maintain city services pretty well . . . I don't think it would be fair of the city to plead poverty."

That said, some candidates contend that the city can afford to do more in the areas of public safety and recreation.

"Money will follow the need," said Di Guilio, an administrator at Moorpark College. "And the need, as I see it, is that we need to have a strong police force in numbers."

Although relatively low in violent crime for a city of its size, Ventura did see an increase in assaults and burglaries last year.

Residents want a safe community with a small-town atmosphere, Di Guilio said. "That does not happen by itself. . . .You have to stay the course."

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Friedman, a financial consultant and president of the Chamber of Commerce, agrees and contends that the city must attract new business and development to continue to provide services.

"The bottom line, whether we like it or not, is money," he said.

In terms of improving or adding new recreational facilities, several candidates have embraced specific projects, such as a park in the city's east end.

"We have over 40,000 people out here and we don't have any facilities," Tingstrom said. "I am really concerned about that."

Many candidates have said the city needs to salvage library services as well, possibly by usurping control of local branches from the county and operating them independent of the Library Services Agency.

But Buford said the city has never studied what that might cost. The city currently sends $865,000 in property tax revenue directly to the county and has chipped in an additional $145,000 in recent years to keep the cash-strapped libraries open.

Most of the candidates support a $35 parcel tax on the November ballot as a way to temporarily bail out the libraries. But everyone agrees that a long-term solution is needed.

"It's like putting a Band-Aid on cancer," Davis said of the measure, one of three on the November ballot aimed at generating more library funds.

Improving youth activities is another top goal for many candidates.

Just 23.5% of the city's population is made up of children under the age of 18--the lowest percentage in the county. But parents and youth activists have pushed to spend more money on kids.

"I really believe that we do not have enough for young people to do," Tingstrom said, a comment echoed by several candidates at recent forums and community meetings.

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De Paola-Peterson, Davis and Rencher participated in a Saturday morning brainstorming session recently to discuss plans for a skateboarding park, which all three say would benefit youths in the community.

But with so many glossy proposals and ideas on the table, council veterans warn that setting priorities is critical and not always easy.

Buford, who along with Councilman Greg Carson decided not to seek reelection this year, said one of the first orders of business for the new council will be to define common priorities--something the current council has had trouble accomplishing.

And while candidates have romanced residents with talk of stamping out crime and building new parks, Buford said the realities of serving on the City Council don't always live up to candidates' ambitious plans.

"I think the candidate who gets up and says, 'I believe in good government and I believe in maintaining city services' is going to put the audience to sleep," Buford said.

But quality of life, Buford said, has as much to do with making sure the sewer lines don't clog as championing public safety.

"Maintain the ongoing services of the city," Buford said. "That's really No. 1, because if that falls apart, all hell is going to break loose."

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