Year in Review

The year of 1995 began with another in a series of natural disasters that have plagued Ventura County this decade: a deadly January flood that followed the devastating earthquake of 1994, the wildfires of 1993, the downpours of 1992 and the ruinous freeze of 1990.

The year ended, too, with mammoth waves that crumbled nearly one-fourth of Ventura’s wooden pier. In between, the oceanfront hamlet of La Conchita lost its tranquillity to a collapsing hillside.

But the biggest local story of 1995 may have been the disaster that never happened.



Bases Saved

For six anxious weeks last spring, Ventura County toed the economic precipice: It stood to lose its largest employer, the Point Mugu Navy base, with an estimated 18,000 related jobs and $1.3 billion in annual sales.

Government and business leaders, bound in common interest as never before, took their fight to keep the base alive to Washington.

In the end, a federal base-closing commission admitted it had “goofed” in targeting the facility, because of Point Mugu’s unique ability to operate a missile testing range over the Pacific Ocean.

Point Mugu, in fact, was a barometer of the local economy. Both survived and prospered. And partly because Mugu stills lives, a business recovery that began in 1994 broadened slightly in 1995. The county’s population reached 720,500 in January by growing at its fastest rate in four years. Unemployment fell for the second straight year. Jobs in the county reached five-year highs. And after a steep climb during the recession, the number of Ventura County residents receiving welfare actually dropped for four straight months.

Consumer spending soared. And despite a drop in home sales from the robust levels of 1994, prices stabilized and even began to climb after a five-year free fall that saw a 20% loss in average value.

Anchoring the business rebound in 1995, Camarillo opened a 44-store outlet mall and two movie theaters with 28 screens. And in Thousand Oaks, the aging Janss Mall got a $60-million face-lift.

In a long-standing cross-river rivalry, Oxnard joined an effort to stop Ventura from moving two anchor department stores from the faltering Esplanade mall to the expanding Buenaventura center--a battle that will continue into 1996.

And even as the county counted its many blessings, a new Point Mugu task force flew to Washington in December to lobby Pentagon officials, who next year will face new calls to close military bases to save money.


Senseless Violence

While midyear figures suggest that affluent Ventura County will remain the safest urban area in the West in 1995, violent crime edged upward.

Husbands, fathers and boyfriends killed their own. Youth gangs ended a relatively peaceful two-year period with a flurry of drive-by shootings. And prosecutors say five Conejo Valley teenagers killed an acquaintance for drugs in a backyard clubhouse.

A Simi Valley police officer was shot dead when he approached the home of an out-of-work schoolteacher with a history of threatening behavior. Officer Michael Clark was killed in a shootout with Daniel Allen Tuffree, who maintains that he was only defending himself when he fired out of a kitchen window into his backyard.

And in a crime that may have been the year’s most chilling, 31-year-old Larry Sasse of Simi Valley chose Father’s Day to carry out death threats against his estranged wife by killing instead their 3- and 4-year-old children and then himself.

And in a case both tragic and odd, prosecutors charged that a 91-year-old Piru man strangled his wife of 62 years to stop her persistent cough. Authorities said they think Alfred Pohlmeier, accused of killing his 86-year-old wife, Lidwina, is the oldest murder defendant ever to appear before a Ventura County judge. But his failing health may keep from ever standing trial.

In all, nine children and teenagers were slain in 1995, an unusually high number. At the same time, the Sheriff’s Department reported that criminal drug charges against juveniles had increased tenfold in three years as drug prices plummeted and cheap, mood-altering methamphetamine became popular with teenagers.

As violent crime increased, however, communities across the county formed citizen patrols that took to the streets at night to lend police a hand. That led to a sharp drop in offenses in Oxnard for the third straight year. And countywide, because of reductions in property crimes such as burglary and theft, the overall crime rate was lower than it had been for two decades.


A Fallen Councilman

For the first time in nearly a decade, a local city council member pleaded guilty to a crime.

Moorpark City Councilman Scott Montgomery resigned from office and pleaded guilty to felony conflict of interest for accepting a $3,500 loan from a trash hauler, then voting on the company’s contract extension.

Aided by a new attorney, Montgomery is now attempting to withdraw his plea.

In other proven or alleged abdications of public trust, a sheriff’s deputy honored for meritorious service was arrested for allegedly stealing a $3,700 personal computer; two former Simi Valley police officers admitted participating in an illicit pyramid scheme; a county clerk solicited a bribe to lower a property assessment, and an Oxnard plan checker pleaded guilty to conflict of interest for approving projects for developers he worked for privately.


The Courts

The heart-rending drama that was the Kellie O’Sullivan murder case finally ended in May after the 6-year-old son of the slain Westlake nurse pleaded with a judge to take the killer’s life.

“All I think is that what the bad guy did to my mom should happen to him,” said Cliff O’Sullivan Jr., bringing spectators to tears.

Mark Scott Thornton, 20, who kidnapped O’Sullivan as she ran errands in Thousand Oaks, became the ninth man sentenced to Death Row by Ventura County judges since California reinstated capital punishment in 1978.

In another murder trial so emotional that families of the defendant and the victim almost came to blows, 20-year-old Timothy E. Chrestman of Port Hueneme was convicted of killing Andy Anderson, 24, of Simi Valley in the mountains above Ojai.

In a morality play of a different sort, Gloria Goldman, a former Thousand Oaks elementary school teacher portrayed as a femme fatale by prosecutors, convinced 11 of 12 jurors that she never had sex with a neighborhood teenager. Prosecutors dropped charges after the hung jury.

Outside the courtroom, attorney boycotts of two judges--one thought to be too lenient and the other too harsh--helped clog the wheels of justice.

First the district attorney’s office blocked the county’s most senior judge, Lawrence Storch, from hearing criminal cases. Then the public defender’s office used the same tack against Judge James P. Cloninger, the newest member of the Superior Court.

In October, Storch, who had been hearing only civil cases because of the boycott, announced his retirement. Then in December, Cloninger was transferred off criminal cases and into family court.

In the east county, the chronically underserved region got its first full-time judges, nearly five years after a new courthouse opened in Simi Valley.

And the latest appointment to the local bench was Rebecca S. Riley, the only woman among 12 Municipal Court judges.


Leaning to the Right

Always conservative, the balance of Ventura County politics shifted further to the right in 1995.

Thousand Oaks elected Compton homicide Detective Mike Markey to its City Council, three conservative businessmen were swept onto the Ventura City Council and a pair of east county conservatives, Judy Mikels and Frank Schillo, took their seats on the county Board of Supervisors.

Almost immediately, Schillo and Mikels joined veteran Supervisor John Flynn to end the supervisors’ running budgetary feud with Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury and Sheriff Larry Carpenter.

The supervisors gave five public safety agencies exclusive use of a special half-cent sales tax worth tens of millions of dollars a year. They also guaranteed that the agencies’ budgets would grow to keep up with inflation no matter what happened to other public services.

With that, Ventura County went further than any other county in California to shield such agencies from the budget ax.

The Board of Supervisors, controlled by a Democratic majority for 14 years, then promptly hired Simi Valley City Manager Lin Koester, a self-described conservative Republican, as the county’s chief administrative officer. Koester replaced Richard Wittenberg, a Democrat with liberal leanings on social issues, who had been the county’s chief administrator for 16 years.

The full-time county board could easily become even more conservative this year, with mayors Roger Campbell of Fillmore and Michael Morgan of Camarillo running to replace retiring moderate Supervisor Maggie Kildee. Her aides, Kathy Long and Al Escoto, are also seeking the job.

Through the year, the supervisors did remain solidly in support of a new $51-million wing to the county hospital. Yet the hospital project has prompted a legal battle with nearby Community Memorial Hospital. County costs of $1 million are expected to rise as it tries to pull a referendum off the March 26 ballot that would allow voters to decide on the project.

Another lawmaker who built his career on liberal causes is on his way out as well. Veteran U.S. Rep. Anthony Beilenson, who barely edged conservative Rich Sybert in 1994, announced he would not run for reelection. Sybert, former planning director for Gov. Pete Wilson, is already running hard for the congressional seat.


Saying No

The conservative tilt extended even to the county school board, where two new trustees--religious-right homemaker Angela Miller and small-government proponent Marty Bates--gave the right wing a majority.

Together, with trustee Wendy Larner, they forced speakers from Planned Parenthood and AIDS prevention groups to get special approval before appearing in classrooms.

The trustees then outraged local school districts by refusing a $500,000 federal grant that would bring a popular School to Work program to this county.

Frustrated officials from many local districts said they might stop using the county board as a clearinghouse for state and federal grants. And county Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis challenged his own board by saying he would accept the money anyway.

On two other measures where education stood to gain financial support, Ventura County voters said “yes"--but not by the required two-thirds super-majority.

In Camarillo, more than 64% of voters approved spending $55 million to upgrade aging schools or to build new ones, but the measure lost for the fourth time in four years. About the same proportion of voters backed a parcel tax for Ojai libraries. And more than half backed a library tax in Ventura.

Ojai will try again on the March 26 ballot. Camarillo will seek its own library tax this spring as well.

It took nearly all year for community college trustees to find the right person to replace Chancellor Thomas G. Lakin, who died suddenly from a so-called flesh-eating bacteria 14 months ago.

Philip Westin, chancellor of a small community college district in Orange County, was chosen over 50 applicants after he impressed trustees with his experience, open style and knowledge of the California community college system.

A nationwide movement toward greater use of computers at school--highlighted by President Clinton’s call for access to the Internet in every classroom--registered locally. The Hueneme Elementary district’s two junior high schools were even cited by Microsoft wizard Bill Gates at a Washington news conference.

In a continuing move back to basics, a Ventura elementary school joined two in Simi Valley and Moorpark in endorsing uniforms for students. Next month, an Oxnard elementary school will become the first in the county to require students to wear uniforms.

A dispute over school dress turned costly in Simi Valley, where district officials agreed to reimburse the American Civil Liberties Union for $13,000 it spent to challenge a junior high school dress code.

The suit, filed on behalf of an eighth-grader, said officials violated the student’s rights by keeping him from wearing T-shirts adorned with patriotic symbols such as the American flag and a bald eagle.


Watching Farmland

Even as their traditional political leanings were reaffirmed, local voters--many of whom are big-city refugees--showed again that they can be conservative and protective of the county’s rural environment at the same time.

In Ventura, residents narrowly approved a ballot initiative that banned development on thousands of acres of farmland until 2030 unless voters approve. The ordinance was the first of its kind in the state to be passed over the opposition of farmers, who promised to challenge it in court.

The victory so encouraged supporters that they are now planning similar initiatives countywide.

But the year also brought a challenge to the long-standing Ventura County planning dictum that sets it apart from the rest of Southern California. That policy--the Guidelines for Orderly Development--protects open spaces between cities by requiring that new projects be built within city limits.

The reconfigured Board of Supervisors, however, voted 3 to 2 to allow citrus orchards to be replaced by a 270-home subdivision near Somis. That prompted vigorous complaints from a coalition of cities.

Supervisors Schillo and Mikels argued that similar one-acre home sites are common in the unincorporated area. But they supported a task force to consider making development guidelines even more stringent.

As voters and officials moved to tighten growth restrictions, several new developments were approved. After years of debate, a $150-million Newbury Park project that includes 50 new stores and restaurants and 12 movie theaters was ratified by the Thousand Oaks council. The Moorpark council approved a 552-home golf course community.


A River of Woe

More than 100 homeless people were flushed from their makeshift shantytown on the Ventura River bottom by January’s torrential rains. City officials refused to allow the squatters back in, arguing that trash and human waste harmed the river’s habitat.

Months later, the city discovered that it had paid a contractor $178,000 to clean the river of debris when the actual cost was less than $58,000. Officials promised to be more careful next time.

In a separate action, the city and state spent $754,000 to scour the Ventura River mouth of nonnative plants such as thick river reeds and bull thistle.

And in July, the Board of Supervisors moved to protect the safety of surfers and swimmers at the river’s mouth--and along the whole county coastline--by heeding a state law that requires posted warnings when ocean pollution is severe.

In the east county, as a hedge against drought, the Calleguas Municipal Water District agreed to fill a vast underground basin with water imported from the mountains of the north.

Backers of a huge new landfill between Ventura and Ojai also pumped new life into their defeated Weldon Canyon proposal by qualifying the measure for the spring ballot.


A Center for Simi Valley

A year after Thousand Oaks opened its $64-million monument to grand municipal dreams, the Civic Arts Plaza, Simi Valley raised the curtain on its own Cultural Arts Center--a stylish $3.6-million transformation of a 71-year-old church into a community hall for music and the arts.

The Greco-Roman style Simi Valley center was christened at a black-tie gala in November. Its 292-seat theater is tiny compared to the 1,800-seat main auditorium in Thousand Oaks. But officials said it is just the right size. And ticket prices are low.

Operators of the Thousand Oaks center, meanwhile, announced that it had reaped an unexpected $400,000 profit after more than 400 concerts, comedy shows, plays and musicals.

The year was marked, as well, by the contentious merging of orchestras from Thousand Oaks and Ventura into a single New West Symphony. Six months into its existence, music critics generally praise the result--but audiences are smaller than for its two predecessors.


Flood, Mud and Waves

Storms slammed into the county, dropping more than a season’s worth of rain during the first two weeks of January. That prompted the worst flooding since 1968 and a disaster declaration by President Clinton.

A homeless man drowned when flood waters swamped his Ventura River encampment, Oxnard Plain farmers suffered losses of $23 million, and days passed before mud was cleared from the Ventura Freeway and travelers could again journey north.

As winter rains continued, 600 tons of unstable hillside slid onto nine homes in the funky beach community of La Conchita. Five more houses were damaged and 100 were tagged with yellow notices warning that fresh landslides could hit any time.

Along the coast, the county’s battered wooden piers twice took beatings and were closed temporarily. Port Hueneme’s landmark T-shaped pier became an L-shaped one in January. While open again, nearly half a million dollars is needed to rebuild it fully.

Despite a $3.5-million reconstruction of the Ventura Pier in 1993, huge waves prompted $500,000 in repairs last winter and caused another $1.5 million in damage this month. That prompted debate that will continue into the new year about whether the 123-year-old boardwalk should be rebuilt with wood or with stronger, more expensive steel and concrete materials.