SIMI VALLEY — Four years after the image troubles caused by the 1992 Rodney King beating trial here, Simi Valley leaders are worrying whether a new public relations problem is brewing.
This time the trouble revolves mainly around the pro-gun zeal of Councilwoman Sandi Webb and a vocal group of Simi Valley gun advocates lobbying for the city to make it easier for residents to arm themselves.
While Simi Valley regularly hovers among the top three safest cities in the nation, more than 250 gun advocates packed a City Council hearing last week to ask Police Chief Randy Adams for fewer restrictions on gun permits.
It was a noisy, four-hour meeting.
National Rifle Assn. members repeatedly booed speakers who backed Adams' requirements that handgun permit applicants pass mental exams, be fingerprinted and buy $1-million insurance policies.
And all that came after the latest incident involving Webb--the controversial finger-flipping episode in Washington earlier this month.
While Webb apologized last week for gesturing obscenely at Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in a disagreement over the assault weapons ban, the councilwoman's brazen middle finger is taking shape--for better or worse--as a widely recognized symbol of Simi Valley attitude.
Webb's gesture hit the pages of the Sacramento Bee, Atlanta Constitution--even The Washington Post.
And it only bolstered Webb's image as a controversial, if unintentional, figurehead for Simi Valley.
"I feel really bad for the people of Simi Valley . . . because Sandi Webb has sort of become what people view of Simi Valley," said Sandy Cooney, California director of a lobbying group called Handgun Control Inc.
Cooney also described the outpouring of pro-gun sentiment in the city as another public relations problem for Simi Valley.
"If that's a reflection of what goes on in Simi Valley, it's extremely unfortunate," Cooney said of the NRA meeting. "It sends a terrible message not only to other towns but to the people that live in that town and to the kids.
"What sort of example is this to the children? It's unfair for the reputation of those who live in the city."
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Davis agreed that the public face Webb puts on Simi Valley belies the residents' nature as moderate, responsible folks.
"Outside the city is where the stigma goes on, because the people out in the state don't know the rest of us on the council," Davis said.
"All they know is you've got a councilwoman who goes to Los Angeles carrying a gun, goes to Washington before the California senator and gives her the finger," Davis said. "They don't realize that this is one of the safest cities in the country and she's only one of the five [council members]."
Former Ventura County Supervisor Madge Schaefer said, "I think Simi Valley has suffered some unfair slings and arrows, there's no doubt about it."
Schaefer said the city was unjustly blamed in 1992 when a Ventura County jury that included only two Simi Valley residents found four white LAPD officers not guilty in the Rodney G. King beating.
"There's a lot to be said [in favor of] Simi Valley. Unfortunately, what seems to surface and get lots of headlines is this kind of thing, where the pistol-packin' mama brought it home," Schaefer said.
"Simi Valley does have an image problem. And that's too bad because I think it's got some good leadership, and it's a nice-looking city and it's got a lot to be proud of. But things like this keep popping up."
NRA member Steven Paine said that while the city took its lumps over the King beating trial, he has heard no criticism of Simi Valley over Webb's gesture or the behavior of her supporters.
"Although I've heard an awful lot of self-examination and criticism by the people who live in Simi Valley," Paine added. "I think there are many who empathize with the views expressed by Sandi Webb, but wish she hadn't expressed them in quite that way."
Any negative reputation for Simi Valley is undeserved, he said.
"If the people in Simi Valley were carrying guns around and shooting people all the time, we'd be reading about it in the Los Angeles Times," said Paine, a lawyer who holds one of the 21 privately held concealed-handgun permits here.
"None of my friends and neighbors have come to me expressing concerns about being perceived as rednecks. I think the impression is of a quiet bedroom community of hard-working people."
Many Simi Valley residents hate the tarnish that Webb and the gun advocates have put on their city.
Yet even outsiders are coming to admit that their jaundiced view of Simi Valley may be unfairly colored by a vocal pro-gun minority.
"When I hear of places like Simi Valley, I think, 'Where are these guys? Is this some place way out in the desert? Is this a sleepy little bedroom community somewhere that's completely divorced from the realities of urban life?' " Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles). "It sounds like the Wild West. Probably one of the last frontiers on the Wild West."