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Acrimony Finds Home on Ventura City Council : Government: After months of bitter flare-ups, members say it's becoming harder to deny that they simply don't get along.

November 06, 1994|CONSTANCE SOMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Already split into rival camps, Ventura City Council members have reached a new level of fractiousness in selecting a city manager--seven months after former manager John Baker announced he was leaving because he could no longer take the hassles.

"I think some council members aren't necessarily willing to compromise on issues," Councilman Gregory L. Carson said. "But at a certain point, you see you are going to lose, and you negotiate to get the best you can. You try to get the best you can off that ship before it sinks."

Frustrated by the series of long, contentious, closed-session deliberations, after months of bitter flare-ups over hot-button issues, council members say it is harder and harder to deny that they simply don't get along.

"This one is not fun," says Councilman Gary Tuttle, the council's second-most-senior member, of the current panel's dynamics. "I just sit there (on the dais) and shake my head, time after time."

"We do have a problem," Councilman Steve Bennett allows, "when disagreements about issues become disagreements about personalities."

Exactly, agrees Councilman Jack Tingstrom, Bennett's sometime-ally.

"There's no place in debate for barbed comments," Tingstrom says of the council's personal style of argument. "We're all adults. To me, that makes you look very immature."

Over the past 11 months, residents and local developers have watched the seven council members bicker extensively over some items.

Where previous councils split into a clear majority and minority, this council's alliances shift from issue to issue. When clashing over philosophical differences, council members often cite the viewpoints on the interests that elected them and refute each others' arguments with personal attacks and pointed volleys.

"There's an acrimony, a lack of civility and a lack of morality," said Dennis Orrock, who served on the council from 1979 to 1985, when he chose not to run again. "I just see these people sitting up on the dais, floundering. I don't think they have a consensus on anything."

One such issue is the selection of a new city manager.

Seven months have passed since Baker announced his resignation. The council began a search four months ago, received a list of finalists a few weeks ago and launched into hours of interviews and deliberations on Oct. 21.

They are due to meet again on Monday. But Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures said there is a possibility that the process will drag on into the new year.

"I personally think we've just gotten into the process," she said. "There's a good possibility we may have to do another search."

Measures, like many of her colleagues, weighs her words carefully before describing the bickering that has so far left the deliberations at a standstill.

"I try to be careful about saying anything that would further fragment us," she said. "Each of us have expressed that we want a more cohesive council. Whether it's actually carried out or not is a good question."

*

It is precisely those types of disagreements that, in part, prompted Baker to leave in July to start his own consulting business.

Today, he travels from city to city around the western United States, helping local governments solve specific problems. He says he sees the same type of divisions among politicians in Visalia that caused him such Angst in Ventura.

"The (trend) took place in Ventura after it took place in Oakland and in Los Angeles," he said. "But all of the factors that get people elected to office now mean you don't have the same sort of people being elected that you used to. They're much more cognizant of special interests."

Indeed, in council debates, the council members' support bases come up repeatedly as justification for not bending on particularly thorny issues.

"I'm trying to represent the voters, the ones that elected me," Tingstrom, who ran on a pro-business, growth-friendly platform, told Tuttle during an argument over housing allocations in August. "That is why I am saying we should give out allocations here."

To which Tuttle, a slow-growth candidate in the recent election, responded, "Some of us up here represent different voters and different viewpoints."

The current council came into existence last November, when newcomers Measures, a pro-business candidate, and Bennett, who ran as an environmentalist, joined five incumbents--Tuttle, Carson, Jim Monahan, Tingstrom and Tom Buford, now the mayor.

Tuttle, Carson and Buford were used to sticking together and getting results. On the previous council, the trio could usually count on Councilman Todd Collart to provide the fourth vote needed to pass or kill a motion.

But Collart was defeated in 1993, and no one moved in to fill the spot. Bennett wanted to make up his own mind. Measures touted her own fast-paced, business-oriented agenda that clashed with the more politically moderate views of the other three.

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