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


Others say the environmental movement is only dormant and will make its influence felt in city politics if an issue crops up that stirs its interest. The movement is looking for candidates and issues now, environmentalists say.

One issue some environmentalists have started to raise is whether the council will build a desalination plant that residents recommended in a special election last November.

During that campaign, the same business groups that helped elect Carson, Buford and Tingstrom threw their financial muscle behind a proposed pipeline to the State Water Project. But former Ventura Planning Commissioner Tim Downey, along with Bennett, mounted a grass-roots battle to build a desalination plant instead and emerged victorious when residents voted 55% to 45% in favor of desalination.

Last month, Bennett and Downey accused the council of deliberately delaying progress on the desalination project. They said some on the council hope this year's election will bring in new council members from the business community, who will ignore the citizens advisory vote and kill the desalination project.

"I'm planning on making it a campaign issue," Bennett said.

However, Paul Tebbel, director of environmental affairs for Patagonia, has doubts about whether desalination can still be used as a major issue. In fact, he sees no major environmental issues at the moment.

"I think the environmentalists are out there, and I think they care. It's tougher because the economy is still unstable and people are worried about jobs," he said.

"Unless a major environmental issue produces itself on the pages of newspapers in the next two months, we'll be looking at a pretty mundane, lackadaisical election."

According to Tebbel, Patagonia decided to get involved in local politics in 1989 because a majority of seats on the council were open and the firm's owners, Yvon and Malinda Chouinard, were upset with "the encroachment of L.A.-style growth on this city."

The Chouinards were not pleased with the council's support of a proposed state university at Taylor Ranch and opposed the city's pace of growth.

During that election, Patagonia spokesman Sweeney--who had experience in national politics--advised and directed political strategy for the environmental movement. The Chouinards gave $1,600 each to Collart, Tuttle and Bean, and the company spent about $15,000 for ads endorsing the trio.

But Patagonia kept a low profile in the 1991 City Council race because the company was distracted by challenges to its economic survival, Tebbel said.

"We had just laid off 20% of our work force," Tebbel said. "The candidates on our side were not that strong, and the drought was basically controlling growth."

In the council races two years ago, the company donated some office space for fund-raising events and made endorsements, but it was not as visible as it was in 1989. Sweeney contributed $100 to Bennett's campaign and the Chouinards gave $1,500 to Villeneuve's effort.

That year, the environmentalists were overshadowed by the Chamber of Commerce and Venturans for Responsible Government, a business coalition that helped elect Carson, Buford and Tingstrom.

Sweeney's departure from Patagonia in January, 1992, also dealt a blow to environmental interest groups, said Carolyn Leavens, spokeswoman for Venturans for Responsible Government. Sweeney is now director of communications for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

"Sweeney was the guru," Leavens said. "He was awfully good at what he did. They may feel they want to sit this one out."

Tebbel said Sweeney's leaving did cost the environmental movement momentum.

"Kevin was a pro, and in his absence, the responsibility falls upon different people who don't have as much as experience," he said.

Tebbel said Patagonia is now in a financial position to get involved in local politics again.

"We have the ability to play as strong a role as we did in 1989 if we choose to. We're waiting to see who steps forward," said Tebbel, who emphasized that Patagonia endorses candidates, but does not recruit them.

But Tebbel noted that the environmental movement in Ventura reacts to issues, and the public's overriding concern with the recession has muted issues that may motivate activists, he said.

Cheryl Brant, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Ventura's Future, a grass-roots environmental group, doesn't view the environmental movement as completely dormant.

"When something comes up that's important, they come out of the woodwork," she said. "The economy is on everybody's minds now."

Chamber officials said the economy will give pro-business candidates an advantage this year, and environmentalists who traditionally oppose development will have a harder time finding an issue because few businesses are building.

"What issue are they going to jump on?" asked Wysinger, the chamber president. "They're opposed to any kind of growth. I think the voters recognize that there has to be some kind of managed growth."

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