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A Gadfly With Staying Power : Bedridden at 87, Carroll Lorbeer Still Keeps a Hand in Local Government

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With only a scratchy clock radio and a newspaper for companionship, the days could whittle by uneventfully for Carroll Winston Churchill Lorbeer.

Failing health has confined the famous gadfly--a fixture at Oxnard and Ventura County government meetings for more than 30 years--to a small, stale-smelling room at a south Oxnard convalescent home.

Because of a series of accidents and fractures, his 87-year-old legs are too frail to support his weight. He stays in bed most of the time. He has few visitors.

But despite being unable to attend the meetings where he became a legend among local bureaucrats, Lorbeer still hovers over Ventura County’s political landscape like some minor deity.

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He uses his personal phone line more often than many teen-agers, keeping in touch with all the players in Oxnard and county government--and offering suggestions on everything from corralling the Santa Clara River during rainstorms to averting traffic jams and preserving open space on the Oxnard Plain.

The phone still rings as well: Some politicians call him , looking for advice and historical insight into the minutiae of local government that Lorbeer has devoted half his life to uncloaking and understanding.

“I consider him one of the best archivists in the city,” said Oxnard Councilman Andres Herrera, who occasionally calls Lorbeer for help on airport and water issues. “He knows everything every council has done. I have a lot of confidence in him. He does his homework.”

To ensure that Lorbeer stays informed, the sister of another regular council watcher brings him agendas and minutes from the Oxnard City Council and Board of Supervisors’ meetings every week. City and county officials mail him maps and reports.

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But Lorbeer, who was once dubbed “the sixth supervisor” by some county officials, downplays his reputation, describing himself only as an active participant in democracy.

“I don’t know if I’ve made a difference or not,” Lorbeer said. “But at least I get some maps for free.”

Supervisor John K. Flynn, who has known Lorbeer for 31 years and considers him a friend, said his impact on local politics has been substantial.

“If anyone is a perfect citizen, it’s Carroll Lorbeer,” Flynn said. “He’s involved in every issue that exists.”

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Lorbeer, who has a local bridge named after him, said he learned the importance of participating in government in 1929, when he and other students at Pomona College visited China and Korea for a year. They were disturbed by how the citizens of both countries were distanced from the people in power, he said.

After college, Lorbeer helped manage several farms in Santa Monica with other family members before moving to Ventura County in 1950. He grew lemons and celery in the Oxnard Plain for a few years before entering the real estate business, where he soon became the representative for a local realtors group.

“When I quit farming and went into real estate, I decided to devote all Tuesdays to government,” Lorbeer said. “Supervisors’ meetings in the morning, council meetings in the afternoon and night.”

He attended almost all of them, rarely missing a meeting from 1958 until about three years ago, when his health prevented him from traveling regularly.

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During those years, Lorbeer spoke his mind on virtually every major issue that Oxnard and the county faced. But he does not view himself as a gadfly, saying he “never bit into a cow’s hide.” He prefers to be called an activist.

“I never was antagonistic and for rancor,” Lorbeer said. “I believe in love and understanding. Just don’t say [politicians] are dirty dogs, even if they are.”

“I think any community of significant size has a Carroll Lorbeer,” said Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig, who considers himself one of Lorbeer’s greatest admirers. “But they’re usually not as smart. He’s unique.

“He’s not like the guy that used to come to council and say we could fix our traffic problems by building flying automobiles.”

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The few who do speak negatively of Lorbeer only do so off the record. And even they emphasize how he never belittles anyone and always makes good-natured suggestions.

His suggestions have been many: For example, Lorbeer successfully championed changing dozens of street names in Oxnard for greater uniformity, and argued for bringing commercial jets to Oxnard Airport before the county gave its approval.

He also supported widening Victoria Avenue in Oxnard, and in 1993--in honor of his 85th birthday--the Board of Supervisors named the bridge spanning the Santa Clara River on Victoria Avenue the Carroll W.C. Lorbeer Bridge.

Some of his ideas--such as linking 5th Street through Plaza Park in downtown Oxnard--were considered unrealistic a decade ago. Now they are gaining acceptance.

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The Oxnard City Council has approved a downtown redevelopment plan that includes connecting the two strands of 5th Street through Plaza Park by next spring.

A meticulous record-keeper, Lorbeer has saved the hundreds of maps, agendas and government reports he gathered over the years. Dozens of cardboard boxes housing the collection line the walls of his Oxnard house, and his room in the convalescent home already contains several more.

“I’ll probably pass on and someone will throw them away,” Lorbeer said sadly. “I could put them in my will and give them to the Oxnard Library, but I’m not sure they care.”

He has been at the Maywood Acres Healthcare center since February, when he broke his leg during a fall at his home. Two men have since shared his room. Both have died.

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Flynn said he still speaks to Lorbeer every other day, and misses seeing him step up to the podium at the weekly supervisors’ meetings with help from his trademark cane, made from a broom handle.

He recalls meeting Lorbeer in 1964, when Flynn and some other county residents launched a local drive to thwart a state initiative that would have legalized racial discrimination in the sale of houses.

“Lorbeer was the only real estate man in Ventura County who joined us in that campaign,” Flynn said.

Aware of Lorbeer’s reputation for detail, Flynn asked the unofficial government historian for a fact-filled tour of Oxnard shortly before being elected supervisor in 1972.

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Flynn says he got more than he bargained for.

“He told me the width of every street, where the water lines were, who owned the property, who owned the buildings,” Flynn said. “I went to him because I knew he would probably give me the most detailed analysis, and I was right.”


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