A Ventura City Council election fought primarily over the issue of growth has turned into an unprecedented political spending war between a group of Orange County developers and local environmentalists.
A coalition of Orange County construction firms has contributed an estimated $5,000 to $7,500 to the campaigns of four of the 16 candidates vying for four council seats in Tuesday's election.
Candidates who have received money from individuals and groups in the Orange County coalition include Mayor Jim Monahan, Councilwoman Nan Drake, Gary L. Nasalroad and Julie Van Maanen, all advocates of managed growth for the city. The largest share, about $3,500, has gone to Van Maanen.
A fifth candidate, Berta Steele, has received about $400 from one Orange County developer not associated with the coalition but rejected a $250 donation from Presley of Southern California, an Irvine firm that has led the Orange County fund-raising effort.
At the same time, the owners of Patagonia Inc., Ventura's third-largest employer and its most environmentally active firm, have donated $1,600 each to three slow-growth candidates, and the company says it is spending about $15,000 for campaign advertising.
The three candidates who have each been given $1,600 by Patagonia owners Yvon and Malinda Chouinard are Cathy Bean, Gary Tuttle and Todd Collart, all running on a campaign to sharply limit growth.
The combined spending by the Orange County developers and Patagonia in this year's council race--the most expensive in Ventura history--has touched off charges by rival candidates that both groups are trying to buy the council race.
Collart, 41, a supervising planner for Ventura County, said the money being spent by Patagonia "may be a way of leveling the playing field for environmental candidates" who cannot count on contributions from developers.
He criticized contributions from Orange County developers primarily on the basis that most were made as part of an organized fund-raising campaign run by a Westwood public relations firm--the Dolphin Group--on behalf of the Presley firm, which has two proposed housing developments pending in Ventura.
"I don't like it," Collart said. "Ideally, all the money for an election here would come from the community. It's not an unexpected thing but the unfortunate part, in my view, is that they are using a professional organization to solicit these contributions."
Just as Collart was critical of Orange County involvement in the campaign, however, Drake and other candidates who have received money through the Dolphin Group expressed indignation that Patagonia's owners had decided to spend heavily in support of slow-growth candidates.
Describing Yvon Chouinard as a "surfer who lives on the Rincon," Drake said she thinks that he opposes proposed developments such as establishment of a four-year university on the Taylor Ranch because college students might clutter up his beachfront property.
"Is he trying to buy the election?" Drake asked. "That shocks me more than a spattering of contributions from developers. More than anybody, I think, Patagonia has turned the race into a partisan race. They've grouped a whole bunch of us together, and I think it's unfair."
Saying he doubts that any candidate could be influenced by relatively small donations of $250 or more, Monahan said too much attention has been focused on the Orange County contributions and not enough on the fact that the individual donations have not been for large sums.
"We haven't solicited Orange County money, and nobody wants Ventura to become another Orange County," Monahan said. "A lot of the so-called large developers have sent me $99, which doesn't even show up on the financial statements. But no amount of money can buy my vote, and I have faith in the integrity of all the candidates in this race."
Van Maanen, 29, the first woman president of the Ventura Jaycees and a political intimate of Monahan, said the amount of money she has received from companies associated with the Dolphin Group is only a small percentage of the $17,118 in contributions that she has raised so far in her campaign.
While disclosing that the Dolphin Group has also provided non-monetary help to her campaign--"They've done a lot of word processing for me and provided ideas for my brochure"--Van Maanen said any suggestion that she might be obligated to the developers is an insult to her character.
Far more upsetting to her, Van Maanen said, is Patagonia's involvement in the campaign. On Tuesday, she wrote to the California Fair Political Practices Commission requesting an investigation of Patagonia's expenditures to see if they were made in cooperation or at the request of the candidates that Patagonia is endorsing.
State law forbids companies or individuals from contributing more than $1,000 to candidates who actively solicit such donations. But it allows unlimited donations otherwise.