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ELECTIONS / SANTA PAULA COUNCIL : Candidates Running Low-Cost Campaigns, Call Business Top Issue

October 20, 1994|JEFF McDONALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Only a handful of campaign signs dot the storefronts and roadsides around Santa Paula, and even fewer brochures have found their way into voters' mailboxes.

Although few of the candidates for three seats open on the Santa Paula City Council will spend much money seeking election, each agrees that the top issues facing the city this year are attracting jobs and creating a more favorable climate for companies already in business.

According to the latest filing statements, the eight candidates will spend less than $15,000 combined on their campaigns.

Meanwhile, voters and candidates are talking primarily about restoring the once-thriving downtown and creating jobs for residents of Santa Paula, the poorest city in Ventura County.

Other concerns, such as cleaning up graffiti and solving a continuing gang problem, have for the most part taken a back seat to business among those who would rule the mostly agricultural city of about 25,000 residents.

"Crime was a big issue in the past," Police Chief Walt Adair said. "But crime rates are down substantially in Santa Paula, as much as 25% over last year. So it's not surprising it's no longer foremost on people's minds."

Each of the candidates list attracting business and industry as their top priority.

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Another candidate, 33-year-old production supervisor Sergio Hernandez, who is waging a write-in campaign for a seat on the council, needs 20 valid signatures of support by Tuesday to become an official write-in candidate.

The Ventura County city with the lowest median income--roughly two-thirds of the county average of $45,612 a year--Santa Paula seemingly has been passed by as an investment prospect by builders and developers, candidates and city leaders say.

The crowded ballot features a variety of candidates: incumbents seeking return trips to the dais; former council members trying to pick up where they left off; and political newcomers intent on change.

Despite their varied backgrounds, the candidates use a similar theme in their campaigns. It is a message not lost on Santa Paula voters.

"I was born and raised here," said Daniel Robles, director of the Blanchard Community Library in Santa Paula, "and we've really stagnated over the last 15 to 20 years.

"We need to look very seriously at economic growth. Now, the way the economy is, there isn't enough money to go around to get things done."

Besides economic development, Mayor Wayne D. Johnson, a first-term council member up for reelection, adds increased police and fire services to his list of goals. He also wants to better support youth programs such as the Boys & Girls Club and improve recent progress made to streamline permits and other services at City Hall.

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Johnson reported that he has just under $2,000 to spend getting elected.

He is on personal leave from his job as an insurance agent that began last year as a stress disability leave. Some voters wonder how he can seek reelection when he could not work professionally. But Johnson stands on his record.

"When they can start finding fault with the job I've done on the council, then they'll have something to talk about," he said.

Longtime Councilman John A.F. Melton points to his two decades of council service and reminds voters that he is well-known by state and federal officials, adding that contacts like those pay off at home.

He also says he wants to expand industry, but opponents point out that he voted against the K mart, its jobs and sales tax dollars when it came up for review at the City Council several years ago. Melton now says he was merely trying to preserve the greenbelt around the city.

Challenging the two incumbents are the town's newspaper publisher, a legal clerk, a lumber yard manager, two business owners and a former councilman. Councilwoman Margaret A. Ely announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection.

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Five of the eight official candidates, including four-time mayor Melton, filed papers saying they would spend less than $1,000 on their campaigns.

Laura Espinosa, who has a law degree and works as a clerk in the district attorney's office while she prepares for the State Bar exam, reported total contributions of more than $4,000. She said she would work at enhancing youth programs and building stronger relationships between private industry and education.

Another leading money-gatherer is Santa Paula Times Publisher Don Johnson, no relation to the mayor, who has raised more than $3,400 in cash and other contributions for his campaign. He touts an economic revitalization plan that includes building more middle- and upper-income homes to increase the city's tax base.

Some rival candidates and business owners do not like the idea of the city's lone newspaper publisher seeking election to the council. But that doesn't bother Johnson.

"It puts me in a better position to make sure the truth is getting out," he said.

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