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ELECTIONS / VENTURA CITY COUNCIL : Patagonia's Role in Race Still Unclear


On the western edge of Ventura, set apart from the rest of an industrial neighborhood, lies a compound of mustard-colored stucco buildings that has served as a kind of environmental think tank in city politics in recent years.

Four years ago, activists at Patagonia Inc., a worldwide seller of outdoor clothing and one of the city's largest employers, helped plan the environmental revolution that swept three slow-growth candidates into the Ventura City Council.

Two years ago, however, the company found itself preoccupied by the same kind of business troubles that triggered a counterrevolution in city politics and reinstated a pro-growth majority on the council.

After endorsing two losing candidates in the City Council race that year, Patagonia officials say they are in financial shape again to become more active. But they still are uncertain about what role, if any, they will play in the upcoming campaign.

Since 1989, the company has lost chief political strategist Kevin Sweeney, and Ventura's environmental movement has faltered politically. No environmental candidates found success in the 1991 election.

With only a few days until the filing deadline, only one environmental challenger has emerged. And he openly questions whether Patagonia can maintain a leadership role in the local environmental movement indefinitely, even if it wants to.

Steve Bennett, 42, a Nordhoff High School teacher running for City Council who enjoys grass-roots environmental support, ran a strong write-in campaign with Patagonia's help in the last council race. He came in fifth, with 5,315 votes.

"A big company like that can't play the lead over a long period of time," Bennett said. "A grass-roots movement can be supported by a corporation, but it can't be led by a corporation."

In addition to supporting Bennett in 1991, Patagonia endorsed incumbent Councilman Don Villeneuve. He came in fourth, behind victorious pro-growth candidates Gregory L. Carson, Jack Tingstrom and Tom Buford.

This time around, two incumbents backed by Patagonia four years ago--Councilmen Gary Tuttle and Todd Collart--are seeking reelection, as well as incumbent James Monahan, a pro-growth candidate. Councilwoman Cathy Bean will not run again.

Other contenders who have submitted their candidacy papers: Nancy Cloutier, publisher and editor of the Ventura County & Coast Reporter; Neil Demers-Grey, a writer and gay rights activist; Charles Kistner, a political consultant; Dick Massa, owner of a medical supply company; Rosa Lee Measures, a financial planner; Clark Owens, a real estate broker; Brian Lee Rencher, a Ventura College student; Kenneth Schmitz, a certified public accountant, and Carol Dean Williams, a local activist.

Others have taken out candidacy papers but have not filed them with the city clerk: Bennett; Gregory Bailey, manager of a wire rope company; Marilyn Miller, a planner; Gary Warren, a manufacturing manager, and Virginia Weber, who is self-employed.

Bennett said environmental interest groups were hoping to run a four-person slate this year, but have been unsuccessful in finding a fourth candidate. The three candidates expected to be backed by slow-growth groups are Bennett, Collart and Tuttle.

Patagonia officials said it is likely they will back the trio, but don't yet know how much support they will offer.

According to Bennett, "People aren't beating down the doors for the opportunity" to run for council, and environmentalists have been seeking candidates to run since February.

Even as Ventura's environmental groups are looking for a fourth candidate, some environmentalists admit the poor economy has made it difficult to rally around traditional issues like battling urban sprawl.

The sputtering economy in recent years has inspired more business-oriented candidates to step forward, promising revitalization and economic growth.

Since 1989, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce has risen as a major political force--partly in reaction to Patagonia and the environmental movement.

In 1991, the chamber helped elect a trio of candidates--Mayor Carson and Councilmen Buford and Tingstrom--who campaigned on making the city friendlier to business interests. All have strong ties to the chamber and received thousands of dollars in donations and advertising from the group.

Chamber officials said they plan to spend about $16,000 on the campaign this year and have been raising funds for months. Its political action committee will soon begin interviewing candidates prior to endorsements next month.

Some of the environmentalists' rivals at the chamber gleefully point to the environmental camp's inactivity as a telling indication that the movement is fading in Ventura.

"I don't know if they're sleeping out there or what," said Guy Wysinger, president of the chamber. "It's either faltering or it's very slow to come to surface."

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