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A Year’s Worth of Debate and More

What’s on the minds of the people of Ventura County?

Each Sunday, Ventura County Perspective provides a sample by hosting free discussion of whatever local issues are in the news.

Some debates flare briefly, are resolved or overtaken by history, then swiftly fade from memory. Others linger, inviting passionate commentary and counterpoint month after month.

On this final day of the long-awaited year 2000, let’s take another look at some of the issues that have been debated this year on these pages. Most of them promise to remain controversial in the new year.

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As always, Times readers are invited to share their own perspectives on these issues or others of local interest.

Smart Growth

Ventura County has long been dedicated to keeping growth within urban areas and preserving the land between cities for farming and open space. Yet as a growing population adds pressure to build more homes and shopping centers, debate over how to best use each acre has become ever more lively.

On April 2, we printed excerpts from a speech delivered by state Treasurer Philip Angelides at a Ventura conference on “smart growth.” In it, Angelides set out strategies for “how you shape a future that is truly sustainable and that is defined not only by economic success but also by a strong and vibrant social fabric.” He described how current growth patterns are undermining our quality of life, through traffic congestion, dirty air and costly housing. And he discussed ways of using public investment policy as one tool for encouraging the right kind of growth in the right places.

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On April 30, we invited Lynn Jacobs, president of Ventura Affordable Homes Inc. and of the Building Industry Assn. Greater Los Angeles / Ventura Chapter, to discuss the marketplace factors that encourage urban sprawl.

She noted that nearly everyone agrees on these goals: “Provide choice of housing types; plan, finance and provide infrastructure that includes schools, roads, water and sewer facilities and open space for commercial and residential development; site high-density and mixed-use development in urban centers and transportation corridors; reuse troubled infill sites, such as brownfields, with appropriate environmental remediation; use high-quality design; promote sustainable development principles; and protect the environment.”

So why, Jacobs asked, do we have suburban development patterns and urban sprawl in Ventura County and across the nation?

She concluded that consumer preference, government policy, slow acceptance of new technology, excessive litigation and scarce funding are all factors.

“If we truly want smart growth,” she wrote, “we must support it personally, financially and at all levels of government.”

On June 4, Susan J. Daluddung, Community Development director for the city of Ventura, examined the factors driving growth in her city and why the cookie-cutter approach to development won’t work.

On June 18, water policy specialist Randele Kanouse hailed a court decision that required developers of the proposed Newhall Ranch project to show that it would not overtax water supplies. “How can we make certain that our water supplies will match up to where the need for water exists?” he asked. “How might we maintain the economic prosperity and environmental health that we enjoy today, given that more than one-third of our years are classified as drought?” The Superior Court decision on Newhall Ranch, he argued, “affirms that these concerns are beginning to be taken seriously at last.”

As the new year begins with additional growth-control measures in place, Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) director Steve Bennett newly elected to the county Board of Supervisors and with a slow-growth majority on the Thousand Oaks City Council, it is clear that debate over how Ventura County will accommodate its growing population will continue.

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Ahmanson Ranch

For many area residents, Exhibit A in the debate over growth is the proposed Ahmanson Ranch project in the southeast corner of Ventura County. Approved by county supervisors in 1992 amid fierce controversy, the development has its adamant supporters as well as passionate foes.

On March 26, Penny Bohannon Boehm of the Ventura County Economic Development Assn. argued that the community of 3,050 homes, winner of awards for outstanding planning, should be allowed to build. “As an environmentally progressive development that helped to set aside 10,000 acres of open space (another 900 acres within the project), affordable housing, new jobs and a design plan important to Southern California, the project must be allowed to move forward,” she wrote.

The question of how far government should go to protect endangered species--one of the issues in the Ahmanson Ranch debate--was discussed by law professor Gideon Kanner on June 25, rebutted by environmental activist Ron Bottorff on July 16, and debated further in opposing articles Oct. 22.

As the year came to an end officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to give endangered species status to the San Fernando Valley spineflower, considered extinct until it was discovered on the Ahmanson Ranch site, saying they lacked the staff and budget to come to a decision within the one-year period mandated by federal law. At the same time, calls were growing for updated environmental and traffic studies of the project.

This battle, too, is far from over.

Public Safety

As Ventura County government survived yet another budget crisis and brought in a veteran chief administrator to fix some fundamental flaws in the way it does business, attention has turned to an ordinance that guarantees abundant and ever-increasing cash flow to four law-enforcement agencies, no matter what shape the county’s finances are in.

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Ventura County Ordinance 4088 directs about $40 million a year from Proposition 172 tax money solely to the Sheriff’s Department, district attorney’s office, public defender’s office and Probation Department. Funneling all of that money to those four agencies and guaranteeing hefty inflationary increases has produced a dramatic gap between law enforcement and all other county operations.

Sheriff Bob Brooks defended the arrangement May 28, seconded June 4 by Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury. Santa Paula resident David McGee took an opposing stand June 11, and on June 18 former assistant county counsel Andrew Gustafson argued that true “public safety” in Ventura County relies on the healthy functioning of many county agencies--as well as city police departments--that are denied Proposition 172 money under the narrow limits of Ordinance 4088.

By November, with two members of the Board of Supervisors promising to take a close look at Ordinance 4088, Sheriff Brooks proposed a compromise plan for spending millions of extra dollars expected next year from the Proposition 172 sales tax. His proposal is the first indication that the county’s law-enforcement leadership is willing to work with the board to resolve this financial imbalance.

How to maintain the top-notch law enforcement that residents demand without shortchanging other essential services? That debate is certain to continue on these pages in 2001.

Tobacco Settlement

A ferocious tug o’ war over Ventura County’s share of the national tobacco settlement dominated the local news for several months leading up to the Nov. 7 election. Voters ultimately rejected Measure O, the attempt by Community Memorial Hospital and several other private hospitals to take $260 million out of public hands and spend it as they saw fit--but not before a spirited campaign that cost more than $2 million.

Part of the debate took place on the Perspective pages. It began with a July 2 article by Diane Underhill of Ventura and an Aug. 13 piece by Bruce Roland of Ojai. Both writers are habitually skeptical of elected officials and government spending, but in this case each argued that these funds should remain in public hands.

The case in favor of Measure O was laid out Oct. 29 by Michael Bakst, executive director of Community Memorial and the initiative’s primary advocate. Neal Andrews of the Coalition Against Measure O responded vigorously Nov. 5. A week later, after voters had rejected the measure by a 2-1 margin, Supervisor Judy Mikels wrote about how the county would go about using this windfall to improve and expand health care for all county residents.

In the new year, as specific programs are announced and funded, there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss how best to use this extra money to make up for the damage done by tobacco use.

In addition, a solution must be found for the bitter rivalry between Community Memorial and Ventura County Medical Center, a feud that has caused millions of dollars to be spent on ballot initiative campaigns rather than medical care. County Chief Administrator Harry Hufford has begun talks that could lead to cooperation on such issues as earthquake retrofitting, distribution of tobacco settlement money and perhaps a merger of the two hospitals.

Watch for continued discussion on these pages.

Healthy Schools

Nearly everyone has strong views about education and the Perspective page frequently offers commentary on related issues. Along with articles by teachers and school administrators, we have hosted an ongoing debate about various factors that can affect the health of students and others.

On March 5, Lolita Echeverria of the Environmental Defense Center praised the Ventura Unified School District for implementing a least-toxic pest management program on its campuses but called for all of the county’s 21 districts to do more to protect students from chemicals.

On May 21, Patricia McCart-Malloy and Michelle Mascarenhas wrote about their efforts to encourage healthy school lunches.

Concerns about the potential problems of building schools adjacent to working farm operations flared anew in November when a cloud of pesticide being sprayed on a Ventura lemon orchard drifted onto the nearby campus of Mound Elementary School, causing illness and discomfort among students and others. Rob Corley, president of the Mound Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization, accepted our invitation to write about the school community’s response to the incident.

“Many parents are wiser but shocked at the gaps in the system,” he wrote. “They are angry enough to carry on this fight.”

The Mound School incident added to long-running debate on these pages over the wisdom of building a new school, Juan Soria Elementary, in a greenbelt site surrounded by farmland as the Oxnard School District proposes to do. Just days after the Mound School crisis, the Soria site was rejected by the state commission that has authority to approve municipal annexations. Nonetheless, as the year ends, the Oxnard City Council has agreed to extend city services to the site if the school is built there.

Clearly the battle over Soria School is not over. As it moves into 2001, watch for further discussion on these pages.

Youth Violence

As school shootings made national headlines and incidents of gang mayhem caused concern in Ventura County, several writers offered views on youth violence.

On Sept. 3, psychologist and author Aaron Kipnis described the trend as a symptom of larger social failings.

“Youth gun violence, once largely thought of as an urban gang problem, is increasingly occurring in America’s suburbs and small towns,” he wrote. “As long as we view this as primarily a law enforcement problem, however, it is doomed to grow worse. If we want to reduce crime and violence, we would do better to highly concentrate community resources on adolescent boys at risk and their families instead of building more youth prisons.”

He offered steps a community could take to give its young men more support and better role models.

“Many suburban boys today have something in common with inner-city gang boys: a profound feeling of alienation and a perceived lack of protection from others who corrode their emotional self-esteem or threaten their safety.”

On Nov. 26, teacher and nonviolence advocate Leah C. Wells offered similar advice for addressing this difficult problem at the root.

“If heavier policing, stricter sentencing and more time in juvenile hall or prison are not making a positive difference, then we ought to ask those directly involved what they think ought to be done,” Wells wrote. “Their answers might just surprise us.”

In the new year, as Ventura County begins construction of its long-awaited Juvenile Justice Center, we invite further discussion of what the community could do to give its sons and daughters the support and guidance they need so that fewer of them ever encounter the criminal justice system.

Transportation

What’s the best way to keep Ventura County residents moving, as the population grows larger and the highways grow more congested? On these opinion pages, those who favor more and wider roads have often collided with those who advocate improved bus and rail service.

On March 12, Ventura residents Kate Faulkner and Lillian Goldstein, founding members of the citizens group Transportation Vision 2020, argued that responding to increased traffic by building more roads is a no-win strategy: “We contend that this is no vision at all. This is little more than the concrete path paved by Los Angeles and Orange counties before us. Both of these counties are living proof that more freeways and wider roads bring more cars, not mobility.”

They criticized the amount of state money earmarked for public transportation that is routinely diverted to road-building because the county’s exceptionally narrow definitions allow those in charge of transportation to declare that all reasonable needs are being met.

“State and county officials appear to see no alternative to the Los Angelization of Ventura County,” Faulkner and Goldstein wrote. “They are doggedly pursuing the piecemeal projects and policies that will result in three parallel freeway arteries through the county.”

That same day, we published an article by Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, offering her view that the county’s transportation policy is following an appropriately balanced path.

Living Wage

When county supervisors voted in late 1999 to draft a law that would force companies conducting business with the county to pay their employees wages above the federal poverty level, we published opposing perspectives by the chair of the Ventura County Living Wage Coalition and the president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn.

On Oct. 22, coalition chair Marcos Vargas wrote about how popular support for the measure has already improved the quality of life for some of the county’s low-wage residents and helped to set a foundation for building a sustainable countywide movement for economic justice.

Earlier this month, the board took the next step and passed a resolution ordering a study on a proposed living wage ordinance, which would require the county to contract only with companies paying employees a minimum of $10 an hour. Approved by a 3-2 margin, the measure remains controversial with passionate advocates on both sides.

Politics

It was a busy year in politics both locally and nationally. Among numerous articles by elected politicians and ordinary voters, one stood out.

That was Moorpark High School senior David Graham’s account of his experiences at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. He attended as a participant in an educational program sponsored by the Junior Statesmen of America Foundation.

“While most people watched the convention on TV or ignored it altogether, I had a front-row seat,” wrote Graham. “I became convinced that our government, to stay connected to its people and simply to survive, needs the involvement of young people. Millions of kids my age couldn’t care less about who lives in a white house in far-off Washington, D.C. We need to change that.”

Graham returned from the convention ready to do his part. Interviewed last week, he said that after the convention he joined the local Democratic Party and helped with some campaigning. Then, he said, his loyalties shifted to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, and he spent some time staffing a Green Party table at the Oaks Mall.

The long, convoluted endgame of the presidential election took its toll on Graham’s enthusiasm for the electoral process. He fears that other young people, like himself, might be disillusioned by the outcome and the sense that their votes won’t really count.

“I’m really sick of both major parties now,” he said. “Toward the end, I didn’t really care whether [Al] Gore or [George W.] Bush won. I thought the way both sides handled it was really immature.”

Yet if anything is certain in politics, it is that a new year will bring new issues, new voices and continued passionate debate. Thanks to all who have shared their perspectives in this forum.

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Contributions for Ventura County Perspective are welcome. Please send them to Perspective, Ventura County Edition, Los Angeles Times, 93 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, CA 93001. They may be faxed to (805) 653-7576 or sent via the Internet to ventura@latimes.com.


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