One summer back when Susan K. Lacey still taught elementary school in Santa Paula, she and her husband, Ed, opened their Ventura home to a 10-year-old child with a learning disability.
The Santa Paula boy was enrolled in a special Ventura summer school, but had no way to get there because his mother did not drive. So each weekday for three months, Lacey ferried him back and forth from school and took him home with her at night.
Lacey is a Ventura County supervisor now, a job she was elected to in 1980 after serving seven years on the board of the Ventura Unified School District. The teaching is now behind her, but colleagues say Lacey has lost none of the compassion that once inspired her to help a troubled child.
As she campaigns for a third term as county supervisor, the 47-year-old incumbent is stressing her contributions to human services in Ventura County, including helping to establish a nationally praised children's mental health program.
Lacey couples this with an adamant refusal to weaken the guidelines that prohibit development on nearly 500,000 acres of open land in Ventura County, a stance that has gained her allies among environmentalists and anti-growth groups.
After eight years in office, Lacey is a familiar presence throughout the 1st District, which includes slow-growth Ventura, most of the Ojai Valley and the Saticoy-Montalvo area. Many in public agencies praise her as accessible, willing to listen and not afraid to roll up her sleeves and tackle thorny issues.
Others Have Criticism
But others--including five past presidents of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and one Ventura City Council member--criticize her for a lack of leadership.
Lacey does have the endorsement of Ventura's two newest City Council members, Richard Francis and Don Villeneuve. She also has been endorsed by the Ventura County Firemen's Assn., the Ventura Police Officers' Assn., the Ventura County Alliance for Children and Families, Channel Islands Business and Professional Women, Citizens to Preserve the Ojai and the Environmental Coalition.
But the supervisor is not resting. She has raised $38,000 and is campaigning actively in the last days before Tuesday's primary, her pace doubtlessly quickened by an opponent who has raised twice as much money and hired a political consultant.
That candidate is 57-year-old rancher-businesswoman Carolyn Leavens, an articulate speaker who has rallied a number of the county's ranchers and business people to her side. Lacey also faces competition from writer/consultant Robert W. McKay, 54, a former president of the California Wildlife Federation; real estate agent Herschel M. Johnston Jr., 67, and businessman Gary Wean, 66. If no candidate garners more than 50% of the vote Tuesday, the top two contenders will compete in a November runoff.
Leavens, a political newcomer who has served on civic and appointed boards, but has never held elected office, said it is time to revise the long-standing guidelines that govern growth and green space. She hopes to capitalize on the dissatisfaction that a number of ranchers and developers say they feel with Lacey.
"Susan Lacey has been anti-growth," said Don Edwards, president of the Ventura County chapter of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "Frankly, we would prefer someone with more foresight who sees the need for the county to . . . grow reasonably and responsibly."
Longtime Ventura City Councilman John McWherter has also criticized Lacey, saying she should have better represented Ventura's interests in negotiating payment of the Freeman Diversion, a $30-million project to halt seawater intrusion on agricultural lands.
"The Freeman Dam was . . . absolutely no benefit for the city of Ventura and yet the Board of Supervisors wanted us to pay $8 million to construct it," McWherter said.
In addition, five former Ventura chamber presidents have circulated a letter endorsing Leavens because they say Lacey has failed to adequately address traffic and air pollution concerns and has not done enough to bring new business into the city of Ventura.
Job of City Officials
Lacey counters that city officials, not county supervisors, have the primary responsibility of luring new businesses, if they so choose.
In the early 1980s, Lacey helped put together a landmark county program that set aside about 500,000 acres as greenbelts, which she refers to as "mental health belts."
She also helped the Local Agency Formation Commission negotiate a deal in which Oxnard gave up the right to develop 2,200 acres of prime agricultural land in El Rio greenbelt in exchange for approval to expand in other areas.
But Lacey is probably better known for her work in the social services sector.
"She's a very caring person. She would spot a kid she felt had the intellectual capacity to go on to college and give him the motivation to want to go on," said Ventura County Superior Court Judge William L. Peck, who served with Lacey on the Ventura school board for six years.