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For Oxnard's Tom Holden, 'Change' Is Still the Watchword : Politics: Councilman believes that the city should be run like a business. Efficiency, privatization are at the top of his agenda.

March 21, 1994|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Holden was preaching to the converted.

Oxnard's newest councilman returned last week to the neighborhood of his youth, a middle-class community like many in the city that are fighting hard to loosen the grip of gangs and graffiti.

He told members of the Fremont neighborhood patrol how they have come to represent Oxnard's future: a group of residents willing to look out for themselves rather than waiting for the city to ride to their rescue.

"We talk a lot about changing the way we do things and, when you talk about change, you leave the comfort zone," Holden told the patrollers, who nodded and chanted their approval like churchgoers swept up in a religious revival.

"But just because it's not comfortable doesn't mean we shouldn't deal with it," he added. "The days of saying that the city is going to do it all alone are pretty much gone."

These, too, are unprecedented days in the life of the 39-year-old eye doctor turned politician.

Holden concluded his first year of City Council service last week. In that time, he has faced a room full of angry firefighters, roused by the council's consideration of a proposal to merge police and fire services.

He and his fellow council members pulled the plug on a proposal to bring big-time gambling to Oxnard, an issue that split the community and ultimately prompted an investigation into possible laundering of campaign contributions.

He has helped hire a new city manager, voted to put more police officers on the street and supported merging city departments as a way to cut costs without cutting services.

The job has been more work than Holden expected. Yet he has all but committed to running for reelection when his term expires in November.

"It would be very difficult not to run again," said Holden, who beat out 12 rivals in a special election March 2, 1993, to fill the seat vacated when Manuel Lopez was elected mayor four months earlier.

"This isn't a question of a system being broken. It is broken," Holden said in an interview. "But we--the residents, city staff and the council--are changing that, and I'm excited about the prospects for our city."

But some are less than comfortable about those prospects.

Oxnard remains Ventura County's most crime-plagued city, and even the recent addition of eight police officers leaves the city short on crime fighters. Most park restrooms, closed years ago because of budget cuts, remain locked.

And some residents fear what Holden might mean when he talks about a city in need of change. Is it wise to merge city departments if the result is that the library is now headed by the recreation director?

Has the city that battles gangs and graffiti forgotten that youngsters also need recreation programs to keep them out of trouble? And will the City Council's zeal to boost the economic base translate into neglect of its poor and powerless?

"When a council becomes so interested in money, in the almighty dollar, then it's easy to lose sight of the best interest of the community," one longtime council observer said. "They don't understand; they don't see anything wrong with all this pro-growth. But it can be reckless and, in the end, gain the city nothing."

Holden said he believes that the city is in its best shape in years, and he doubts that many people would disagree.

"I don't think you are going to find a whole lot of residents who think that city government is changing too fast to become cost-effective and efficient," he said. "I think what they will say is that we are 10 years behind."

Those who know Holden best say it was his longing to return to a day when Oxnard was financially sound and services were plentiful that stoked his desire to seek elected office.

"He remembers Oxnard as being a small town, and I think he was concerned about the direction it was going," said Lisa Knapp, Holden's wife of six years and business partner. "He was frustrated in that he thought things could be done a lot better."

Added his father, longtime Oxnard businessman Pat Holden: "He's probably one of the few people who still figures that one person can make a difference."

The Holden philosophy of orchestrating city government is actually quite simple: City Hall should be run like a business.

The third-generation Oxnard businessman campaigned on the idea that the city should strive for maximum efficiency in its attempt to provide the same level of municipal services for fewer dollars. He championed the cause of private-sector competition and, in some cases, advocated private management and operation of public programs.

And he stressed the need to find new approaches to old problems.

It hasn't been easy. He joined a panel that had been unable to reverse a financial slide that critics attributed to years of fiscal mismanagement, bad business deals, and the failure of past councils to make hard decisions about spending and saving.

And he inherited a stubborn budget shortfall that had whittled down the city's work force and gutted services over the years.

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