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'He doesn't tolerate fools gladly.' : Mora No Stranger to Storms

April 28, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Taped inside the black notebook that Oxnard's city manager totes through City Hall is a comic strip depicting a weary man impaled by arrows like some latter-day St. Sebastian.

"Sometimes I feel that way," lamented David R. Mora, who may enjoy the dubious distinction of being Ventura County's most chronically embattled city official.

After nearly three years on the job, the manager of 1,038 permanent employees and a $100-million budget has yet to receive his annual bonus by anything more resounding than a 3-2 vote.

Residents recently called for his resignation after he pushed for a controversial staff retreat that would have excluded the city clerk. And, every Tuesday, two City Council members and a swarm of gadflies shower him with the same torrent of invectives.

Mora's critics, led by conservative council members Ann Johs and Michael A. Plisky, say he is egotistical, dictatorial and scheming. They claim that his development plans are too ambitious. They say he pursues his own ends over the objections of council members and city staff. Under him, they charge, morale in City Hall has diminished to the point where employees seek the solace of council members late at night.

If the balance of power shifts after the November election, which could be accomplished with the addition of a single conservative council member, Mora may be out of a job.

Plisky says he will press for Mora's ouster "if he doesn't become more responsive to council wishes." And, in the least, clashes could become more frequent if Plisky is elected mayor, observers say.

Yet anyone looking for a monster behind Mora's desk is going to be disappointed. They will find a consummate bureaucrat with an anxious smile, a guarded manner and a reputation for flourishing in volatile cities.

"Dave's always looking for a challenge," said Sacramento executive recruiter Ralph Andersen, who lured Mora to Oxnard. "He wants to use his energy and skills on a regular basis."

Mora cut his teeth on municipal government in Santa Barbara when the community was weighing some of the most stringent growth limits in the United States. He landed his first job as a full-fledged city manager nearly eight years ago in Los Gatos, at a time when the city manager, police chief and city attorney had resigned, two council members were being recalled and angry citizens were mounting a referendum over a low-income housing project.

"We needed someone who could weather political storms," said Thomas J. Ferrito, a longtime council member in the city of 28,000 near San Jose.

3-2 Council Split

And the Oxnard that Mora entered in July, 1985, was no better. Then, as now, the council split on most decisions by a 3-2 vote. The city manager had been ousted and two council members were being recalled over an unpopular utility tax. Citizens were still seething over an ill-fated attempt at computerizing city records.

"David's had a hard time ever since he's been at the city of Oxnard," said county Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard.

But Mora has not always been drawn to the center of the storm. As a teen-ager, he spent four years in a Santa Barbara seminary, toying with the idea of leading the contemplative life of a Franciscan priest. Instead, he went to Cal State Los Angeles, but the taste for privation hadn't left him; he signed on with the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines.

It wasn't until Mora helped administrators in a regional Philippine capital hone their management techniques that he considered government work, and then only abroad. Working for the government at home never struck him as worthwhile until he began tutoring black ghetto children when he was a graduate student in government at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even then, he never believed that Latinos could wield political power until after graduate school, when he began working for Jobs for Progress, a nonprofit organization that found jobs for Latinos. The people who ran the organization were Latinos, and their work appeared to make the kind of difference he had never seen Latinos make as he was growing up, the son of a widowed factory worker, in East Los Angeles.

Old-Style Liberal

The first of his family to go to college, Mora sees himself as an old-style liberal whose mission is to expand government programs and services as well as employment and educational opportunities. In Oxnard, he sees development as the best means toward that end.

"Unless we have economic development, we won't be able to do what we have to do in terms of services," he said.

"We have the lowest ratio of police and firefighters for any city of comparable size in California. We're behind in our street program. We don't have a community park. And we probably have one of the smallest libraries for a city of our size. There are a whole number of programs that aren't being offered to our residents that other cities are offering."

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