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Status Quo Holds Sway in Oak Park

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly three years after rejecting a bid to incorporate as a city, leaders in this small suburban enclave are exploring ways to gain more control over the community’s fate, including creating a community services district that could decide many key issues now left to the county government.

Acknowledging that Oak Park still faces many of the problems that fueled the earlier incorporation drive--and that it remains subject to the winds of county politics--officials here are looking for a compromise approach.

The services district, a model used in the county’s beach-side communities near Oxnard, has caught the attention of leaders who want more autonomy but not more taxes.

“If this type of district would give us more authority over our day-to-day operations and it doesn’t result in an increase in taxes, then I’m in favor of it,” said Todd Haines, an incorporation foe who sits on the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council.

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But others say the move may be premature, given that most of the community’s 15,000 residents like things just the way they are.

“Looking at it from where we sit now, I don’t see a strong groundswell of support to change anything,” said Douglas Hewitson, who heads the advisory council.

Indeed, in Oak Park, status quo is the way to go. The only changes locals like to see are more police, higher SAT scores and better grades on report cards.

Satisfaction is so endemic in this suburban development near Thousand Oaks that in the June 1994 election, residents overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure calling for annexation by Thousand Oaks or incorporation as a city--preferring to leave things alone.

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But keeping things as they are has had its drawbacks.

Oak Park residents are still fighting for a ZIP Code of their own to set the community apart from Agoura Hills in Los Angeles County--a move that would likely lower auto insurance rates in the bedroom community.

And despite its size, Oak Park also continues to suffer a sort of identity crisis in which some residents--and on occasion ambulance drivers and Los Angeles County firefighters--are unsure of what or where the community is.

More nagging is Oak Park’s ongoing dependency on the whims and shifting makeup of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, whose final approval is necessary for everything from amending the advisory council’s bylaws to installing speed bumps.

Next year’s Board of Supervisors race and, in particular, the future of the 2nd District seat now held by the community’s main advocate, Frank Schillo, has some council members and residents worried.

“If Mr. Schillo at this point in his career is still ambitious, he may decide to run for higher office,” said Kent Behringer, an advisory council member for 15 years. “In that case, we would then have a battle royal for the 2nd District.”

An overriding concern is a bid for Schillo’s seat by one of Oak Park’s residents, Vince Curtis, who announced his intention to run in mid-March. Among Curtis’ backers is the environmental group Save Open Space, which helped former Supervisor Maria VanderKolk win the 2nd District seat in 1990.

During VanderKolk’s term, relations between the supervisor and the adamantly nonpartisan council could best be described as tense.

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Some residents fear that Oak Park’s relationship with the board could once again deteriorate with another Save Open Space candidate representing their interests, despite both groups’ common stance on limiting development.

“They talk about the devil you know instead of the devil you don’t know, but [Schillo] isn’t that much of a devil,” said David Ross, president of Oak Park’s Community Foundation and a founder of the school district.

Ross said heavy-handed tactics used by VanderKolk’s staff--many of them Save Open Space members--to sway Oak Park residents to support annexation during the June 1994 advisory vote left many in the community wary of the group.

To head off any possible friction, the council has begun weighing its options to ensure that changing political winds don’t blow away the services and amenities residents have come to expect.

One scenario suggested to the council at its March meeting by members of the community’s pro-incorporation camp was the eventual formation of a community services district to replace the advisory council.

The district, much like a city council, would have the final say over matters such as street repairs, trash collection, public safety and law enforcement. However, decisions regarding Oak Park’s library and land-use issues would continue to be the responsibility of the supervisors and county staff.

Formation of the district would require approval by the Board of Supervisors and ultimately rest in the hands of Oak Park’s voters.

“My only misgiving about forming a community services district is that it would delay the day in which we decide to incorporate,” said Ross, a proponent of cityhood.

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The idea appeals to such leaders as Haynes who are opposed to incorporation on the grounds that becoming a city would raise taxes.

Haines, though, said he remains cautious.

“We need to know what this entails before we take steps to do it,” he said. “We need to look at what the cost would be to the people of Oak Park, what authority we would get as a result of it and also if there’s any detriment to gaining some additional authority.”

Behringer said forming a services district would come with a price.

“We would have to hire at least part time a general manager, an engineer or a combination thereof--someone who would know about handling contracts for getting roads repaired, sewer drains installed and repaired, whatever,” he said. “I doubt you could get someone on the [services district] board who would have that kind of knowledge and time.”

Behringer said hiring a general manager could cost about $40,000 to $50,000 a year, plus expenses for an administrative assistant and office space. Board members would also need to meet more often than once a month, as the council does now.

“It’s not impossible,” he said. “It’s really a question of how important it is to the citizens, or how unhappy they are with the county.”

Near Oxnard, the Channel Islands Beach Community Services District has managed trash pickup, sewer lines and water in Silver Strand, Hollywood Beach and Hollywood by-the-Sea since 1982.

Marcia Marcus, a district board member for three years, said the arrangement has been effective in giving residents more control over the area’s day-to-day affairs.

“I think it’s great grass-roots representation,” she said. “It’s both an advantage and a disadvantage to be so small [a community]. The greatest problem is lack of finances and how you spread around the need for service among a group of people.”

Marcus said much of the cost borne by residents living in a community services district depends on the level of service they expect.

“We as residents always want more than we can pay for--so that’s a quandary,” she said. Right now, for instance, many in the beach communities are concerned about the costs that a new water treatment plant will bring.

Hewitson said he would like to see more local control over Oak Park’s affairs, but is not sure that residents will support such a move.

“Residents appreciate that some better things are happening in Oak Park, and I think a lot of that is attributable to Supervisor Schillo,” he said.

Hewitson said one of the best ways that residents can ensure their needs are met when the 2nd District seat goes up for grabs is to choose their candidates carefully.

“For any resident in Oak Park, it’s much more important that they get someone who is cognizant of the area than, say, a Thousand Oaks resident,” he said. “It’s incumbent on all of us who live in Oak Park to make sure we elect future supervisors who reflect the needs and will of the people.”


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