In a landslide vote that dramatically changes the makeup of the Ventura City Council, an overwhelming majority of Ventura voters this week elected three environmental candidates to council seats on platforms sharply limiting future population growth.
The vote that swept council candidates Todd Collart, Gary Tuttle and Cathy Bean into office Tuesday was widely interpreted as a no-growth mandate that could bring prompt City Council reconsideration of such existing city plans as a 115,000 population ceiling by the year 2010.
All three candidates campaigned partly on platforms advocating a 102,000 population ceiling for Ventura, and said after Tuesday's vote that a downward revision of the city's maximum population ceiling is now a strong possibility. The city's population is about 94,000.
The election of the three new council members, who will join slow-growth incumbents Donald Villeneuve and Richard Francis on the seven-member council in early December, gives slow-growth forces a clear majority on the city's governing body for the first time since the mid-1970s.
In addition to a downward revision of the population cap approved by the council in August, the new council is expected to give serious consideration to putting the issue of importing state water to a public vote. City officials say imported water is needed to support any population of more than 102,000.
The new council members, who will take office Dec. 4, are also expected to push for a much closer city look at plans for a proposed four-year California State University campus on the Taylor Ranch on a hillside overlooking Ventura.
The same vote that swept the three environmentalists into office swept one incumbent, Nan Drake, out of her council seat and almost resulted in the defeat of another incumbent, Mayor Jim Monahan, who narrowly kept his job while coming in a distant fourth in the 16-candidate race.
The 10-week campaign leading to Tuesday's vote--which saw a turnout of more than 14,000 voters, roughly 36% of the registered voters in Ventura--was fought largely over the growth issue and was marked by a spending war between Orange County developers and local environmentalists, led by Patagonia Inc., the city's third-largest employer.
In the closing week, the campaign grew into one of the most heated in recent years. One of the candidates most heavily supported by outside developers, Julie Van Maanen, accused the owners of Patagonia of trying to "buy the election" with a $15,000 advertising campaign and contributions to Collart, Tuttle and Bean as well as a fourth environmental candidate, Marvin Kwit.
As the landslide vote came in Tuesday night, however, the winning candidates as well as officials of Patagonia agreed that the results indicated that Ventura voters had cast a clear vote in favor of environmental concerns and against most candidates associated with political help from outside building developers.
The three top vote-getters--Collart, Tuttle and Bean--all received at least 70% of the vote or more, even though their campaign spending was less than 50% of some of their unsuccessful rivals. While Collart raised about $13,000, Tuttle ran his campaign on about $9,000 and Bean was elected after a $7,000 campaign.
Monahan, in contrast, spent more than $20,000 for his narrow election victory. Other candidates who raised $20,000 or more included Gary Nasalroad, who came in fifth; Drake, who finished sixth; Berta Steele, who came in eighth; and Van Maanen, who finished ninth despite a lavish campaign funded partly by a coalition of Orange County construction firms.
Kevin Sweeney, public affairs director of Patagonia, said the vote showed that spending by candidates was not actually as important in the race as the grass-roots political work of the Alliance for Ventura's Future, a newly formed environmentalist group that campaigned for the three winners as well as for Kwit, who wound up in seventh place with 4,787 votes despite a meager campaign war chest of about $3,000.
"The fact that Kwit did so well suggests that the Alliance is a new force in Ventura," Sweeney said. "If they can deliver that many votes to a candidate, they are a significant factor in politics here."
Sweeney also said the message delivered by Ventura voters was so overwhelmingly clear that the election could have significance beyond the city limits.
"I honestly think this election has meaning for cities elsewhere in the county and the state," Sweeney said. "The fact that slow-growth forces can do so well here could encourage movements like this in other cities."
Amid the election post-mortems that followed Tuesday's vote, that view was echoed by one of the current City Council members who decided against seeking re-election. Deputy Mayor William Crew predicted that Oxnard could be the city to next experience a major growth battle.