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Camarillo Residents Shrug Off Loss of City's $25 Million

June 02, 1988|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

On the day after Camarillo residents learned that their city had lost virtually all its savings--about $25 million--in bad investments, Kevin G. Staker expected to get a rise out of the normally staid Ventura County city of 47,000.

Staker, a local attorney and chairman of a citizens group that is critical of city fathers for failing to detect the losses, showed up early at the Los Nogales Elementary School auditorium to set up benches for the group's meeting May 24--seats he hoped mobs of angry residents would fill.

Instead, 18 people showed up. And, despite the new audit that pinpointed the city's losses at $25 million, the group voted against mounting a City Council recall drive, which had been under consideration. The vote failed mainly because no one would volunteer to lead the effort or gather any of the 5,200 signatures needed to place the issue on the ballot.

Then, in a flurry of name-calling and accusations, several people stormed out of the meeting after learning that five members of the group had already served three of the Camarillo City Council members with notices that they intended to recall them.

"I'm going to recommend that the committee be dissolved," Staker said of the 4-month-old Camarillo Committee of Concerned Citizens, which he said had completed its purpose: to find out why the money was lost.

Community Outrage Missing

The scandal that in many other cities would have thrown City Hall watchdogs into a frenzy has caused barely a ripple in Camarillo. With all the elements for a major controversy--staggering financial losses, hints of criminal wrongdoing, repeated criticisms of the council in local newspaper editorials--the only thing apparently missing has been community outrage.

With few exceptions, the 100 or so residents who attended last week's regular council meeting after the release of the final audit heaped praise on the five-member City Council.

Although officials estimate that it will take the city years to recover from the $25-million loss, most of those who spoke at the council meeting directed their dismay at the five citizens spearheading the recall movement. One speaker called those citizens members of a "radical, political fringe group."

People have always been pretty content with the way their city has been run, past and present city officials suggested in interviews. They say residents of Camarillo, who are referred to as Camarillans by the local newspaper, have been blessed with a low crime rate, good schools and weather that nearby Oxnard Plain farmers joke is so good that it is hardly worth conversing about.

"Most cities have City Hall gadflies, but that's never seemed to be the case in Camarillo," said Vice Mayor Sandi Bush, a 14-year resident who is in the middle of her second term on the council. Bush, Mayor Thomas S. Martin and Councilwoman Charlotte Craven were served with recall notices last week.

Council members Michael D. Morgan and F. Burrows Esty were not served with recall papers because their terms expire in November, the five recall supporters said.

Bush concedes that the council bears some responsibility in the losses, but said most residents agree that the policy-making body is elected to make major decisions rather than to oversee the details of city administration.

"People are not being apathetic about the losses," Bush said. "But there is a large group who trust us to do the job."

Bush and other city officials say the only two issues that have mobilized residents in great numbers in the last five years have been opposition to commercial jets at the Camarillo Airport and support of the city's growth-control law.

The current council's unanimous support of those positions has provided some political insulation from the potentially harsh ramifications of the $25-million investment loss, officials said.

So far, the only casualties have been City Hall bureaucrats.

Former City Treasurer Donald F. Tarnow, who single-handedly transacted the highly speculative investments, was fired in January for failing to tell the council about the losses. Former Finance Director Larry Weaver, Tarnow's boss, who auditors say should have known something funny was going on as early as March, 1987, announced his resignation shortly after Tarnow was fired.

And, last week, City Manager Thomas W. Oglesby, Weaver's boss, submitted his resignation to the council, effective June 30. Auditors from Arthur Andersen & Co. concluded that if Oglesby did not know of the bad investments, he should have. In his resignation letter, Oglesby agreed.

Tarnow last year began trading heavily in government securities, hoping to make the city millions of dollars by betting on changes in interest rates that would boost the value of bonds that he bought on credit. That high-risk investment strategy seemed to work when interest rates were falling in late 1986, but backfired in the spring of 1987 when rates again climbed and the bond market fell.

Dramatic Drop in Value

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