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City Officials Spar Publicly Over Civic Plaza : Thousand Oaks: Business and arts leaders call on members of the divided council to avoid grandstanding.


The infighting that sporadically flares at Thousand Oaks City Council meetings touched off a heated debate about the Civic Arts Plaza's budget this week--prompting two citizens to publicly reprimand their leaders for tarnishing the city's image.

Many of the dozen onlookers at the council meeting expressed disbelief as a facts-and-figures study session about the $64-million Jungleland development swerved into a tense, 45-minute exchange late Tuesday night.

Rival council members Alex Fiore and Elois Zeanah carefully kept their rhetoric civil, and often spoke with exaggerated politeness. But their cutting, sarcastic tones made clear the depth of animosity on the divided council.

By the end of the night, Fiore was rolling his eyes and pretending to shoot himself in the head when Zeanah's ally on the council, Jaime Zukowski, asked questions intended to bolster their point of view. Zeanah was staring stonily ahead.

Worried that the spat, relayed over local cable television, would reflect badly on Thousand Oaks, several business and arts leaders attending the four-hour council workshop called on the council members to stop grandstanding.

"It's no good," Steve Rubenstein, president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, said after the meeting. "We're losing sight of the real issues. Everything's giving way to petty politicking."

The dispute centered on the Civic Arts Plaza's $3.3-million contingency fund, which the council tapped, in a 3-2 decision, to pay for a $150,000 copper curtain to embellish the auditorium's 10-story tower.

Opposing the expenditure, Zeanah argued that the council should try to pad, rather than deplete, the contingency fund and should use any leftover money to build a long-promised, long-delayed auditorium at Thousand Oaks High School.

She also objected to the city's practice of loaning millions of dollars from one pocket--the taxpayer-supported general fund--into another pocket--the Redevelopment Agency--to finance the two-year construction.

Although costs have so far been well within budget, the Civic Arts Plaza bank account remains $11 million short because the city has not yet sold its old headquarters on Hillcrest Avenue. That fact, Zeanah insisted, proves that "there have been shortfalls in this project from the very beginning."

But Fiore, crackling with anger, suggested that his colleague needed some basic lessons in financial management.

"It's not that simple, Mrs. Zeanah," he responded, his tone much more cutting than his words implied.

Because the contingency fund is earmarked for the Civic Arts Plaza, Fiore said, the city should use it to enhance the building. The veteran councilman also defended shuffling money from one account to another as a sound business practice necessary to see the project through.

As the bickering became more and more bitter, Stephen Woodworth of the Alliance for the Arts took the microphone to warn council members that continued fighting could hamper his group's efforts to raise an endowment for the cultural center.

In a not-so-veiled barb at Zeanah and Zukowski, who have protested the project's price and design at every turn, Woodworth pointedly told city leaders: "I'm sure you all share the same sense of pride in what we're doing. (Negative) comments can be a hindrance."

Stepping forward to deliver a public scolding, Newbury Park resident Ekbal Kidwai chided the council for stooping to personal attacks.

"Sitting over here watching you was not too comfortable," he said.

Mayor Judy Lazar--who tried to mediate from her position in the center of the dais--could empathize: "Sitting over here was not too comfortable either, thank-you."

But Zukowski, a novice councilwoman elected in November, said Wednesday she thought the raucous debate was inevitable, given a council that so frequently splits 3 to 2.

"Actually, I thought it was the norm," she said.

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