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Official Promises to Send Mayor's Office in a New Direction : Thousand Oaks: Councilwoman says she won't leave her Populist voice behind when she steps into the role Tuesday.

September 12, 1993|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The buzzwords flow easily as Councilwoman Elois Zeanah patiently, passionately defends her quixotic campaign against the Thousand Oaks powers-that-be.

Quality of life. Family values. Open government. Citizen empowerment. The themes crop up again and again as Zeanah spins speeches in her slight Southern drawl.

When she rotates into her nine-month stint as mayor Tuesday, Zeanah promises to bring this Populist rhetoric along with her. And she plans to back up the cliches with action.

As mayor, Zeanah vows to continue fighting what she sees as runaway growth. She also wants to spark more public scrutiny of government decisions, especially those dealing with development.

All of her plans, she said, focus on one aim--maintaining the scenic, semi-rural atmosphere that draws residents to the Conejo Valley.

Zeanah's critics, however, suggest the maverick councilwoman has a different goal in mind: furthering her own political career, to the detriment of the city.

When she casts her ballot against a new shopping center or a low-income apartment complex, Zeanah sees herself as defending the quality of life in Thousand Oaks neighborhoods. But her opponents accuse her of caving in to narrow-minded activists and their incessant chant of "Not In My Back Yard."

"It's like she's taking a free vote by grandstanding," Councilman Frank Schillo said. "She's saying, 'I'll go along with (a vocal minority)' instead of doing what's best for the community.' "

Equally outspoken, Schillo and Zeanah clash frequently. For the past nine months, they have sat next to each other on the council dais--but at every meeting, they swing their chairs as far apart as possible, emphasizing their philosophical differences with icy body language.

When she takes over the mayor's gavel and moves to the commanding seat in the center of the dais, Zeanah expects her conflicts with Schillo, Councilman Alex Fiore and Mayor Judy Lazar to continue.

But she plans to stick to her guns.

Although she's never yet persuaded the council majority to see things her way, Zeanah keeps plugging along--convinced that the voters, at least, have lined up solidly behind her.

"People stop me on the street and say, 'How do you stand all that abuse?' "' she said. "Well, the answer is, I don't feel it outside the council chambers. Public support keeps me on a high all the time. It's phenomenal."

*

With her coiffed red hair, vibrant tailored suits and perpetual photogenic smile, Zeanah commands attention. And after observing her in action, residents often praise her courteous demeanor and attentive look.

"Her unwavering politeness in the face of the most vicious personal attacks is heroic," said environmentalist Cassandra Auerbach, who frequently addresses the council. "She's always a lady. The way she handles her constituents and the people who come before the council is exemplary."

But when bickering breaks out among council members, Zeanah is not above throwing punches. She once called Lazar a liar in public, and occasionally sneaks in cutting remarks about her other colleagues.

Zeanah sometimes makes a more subtle statement through conspicuous absences. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, she skipped a gala party for the Civic Arts Plaza. Zeanah has opposed the $64-million cultural center because of its price tag and its massive size, and she continues to rail ineffectively against it.

But while she often finds herself tilting at windmills, Zeanah rarely lets her opponents see her frustration.

"Whether Elois hits a home run or strikes out, she always tips her hat to the crowd," said investment banker Robert K. Hammer, who disagrees with Zeanah on many business-related issues but has worked with her on crime-fighting programs. "She is always gracious, whether she's being booed or applauded."

Her gung-ho supporters lavish Zeanah with even vore effusive praise. One ardent backer, Jimmy Sloan, compared her to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. because of her willingness to "lay her life on the line" in fighting for her beliefs.

Zeanah tends to inspire such devotion in part because she perpetuates an image of herself as a brave loner battling entrenched and vaguely sinister forces at City Hall.

She has often complained that she has trouble getting information from the city when she wants to verify staff reports. "They're not used to answering the kind of questions I ask," she said. And she frets aloud about City Manager Grant Brimhall's strong influence over the rotating cast of policy-makers on the council.

Despite her fiscal conservatism, Zeanah once asked the city to hire council aides, so she could have help conducting "independent research" instead of relying on city staff members. The council majority shot down that idea before it even came to a vote, and now Zeanah plans to hire an assistant from her own salary of $9,180 a year.

"A council member is not supposed to be a parrot or a rubber stamp," she explains. "Are we going to let ourselves be controlled by staff, which has its own political agenda?"

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