OCEANSIDE — Familiar figures were leading the campaign to fill two City Council seats here Tuesday night.
With a handful of precincts reporting, former Councilwoman Lucy Chavez, Planning Commissioner Ben Ramsey, incumbent Ted Marioncelli and former Councilwoman Melba Bishop were leading the large field of competitors.
Eighteen candidates were vying for Marioncelli's post and a second seat vacated by John MacDonald, a candidate in the Fifth District supervisor's race.
Proposition R, which proposed the adoption of a city charter that would revamp the structure of Oceanside government, was trailing in early returns. The measure had support from a citizens' group but was opposed by civic leaders, who argued that the city is functioning fine under the existing system.
While the charter change would dramatically alter the shape of government in Oceanside, the city's fall campaign was dominated by a vitriolic battle for the two council seats.
Attracting perhaps the most attention was Bishop, a powerful one-term councilwoman in the early 1980s who lost a bitterly fought mayoral race to incumbent Larry Bagley two years ago.
After the defeat, Bishop quietly slipped from public view. But early this year she reemerged on the political scene to promote a slow-growth initiative calling for a cap on the number of homes built in Oceanside. The measure has not yet qualified for the ballot, but proponents hope to bring it before voters next year.
During the closing days of the campaign, Bishop and Marioncelli were targets of what they described as a "political hit piece," a mailer both candidates feared would hurt their chances at the polls.
The flyer, which featured caricatures depicting Marioncelli as a marionette controlled by Bishop, was circulated by a group of mobile home park owners who oppose the two candidates because they support rent control for mobile home parks.
Controversy also dogged Chavez. A one-term councilwoman in the late 1970s, Chavez on Monday filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the Blade-Tribune because of an editorial printed by the Oceanside paper. The piece raised questions about Chavez's honesty and suggested that her character was "below the standards Oceanside voters must demand." Chavez contends that the editorial was libelous and is seeking $1 million in damages.
The tumultuous campaign also featured a third former council member, Bill Bell. Bell was recalled by city voters in 1981 over allegations that he misused city credit cards, and his bid for a second chance in office was viewed as a long shot.
Rounding out the crowded field of 18 candidates were a host of political newcomers that included a barber, a mechanic and the manager of a drive-in movie theater.
The charter attracted little more than a collective yawn until late in the campaign. The proposed change would make Oceanside, which currently operates under the state's general laws for municipalities, subject to a wide-ranging municipal constitution.
Under the charter, the five-member council would be replaced with seven representatives, four of them elected by district. In addition, an auditor and budget analyst would be hired to act as fiscal watchdogs.
Supporters of the charter, who include Chavez and Mayor Bagley, argued that it would give residents a greater say in how their community is governed. Opponents argued that there was no need for a change.