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Civil Service Was Always on His Route

City Council: Since his bus-driving days, John Zaragoza has listened to the people while also believing in the role of Oxnard government.

November 10, 1997|CHRIS CHI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — Getting a job as a city bus driver is perhaps not something most people would view as a career break, but it changed John Zaragoza forever.

Steering busloads of working-class citizens through the streets of Oxnard in the 1960s, he heard plenty of complaints about city service. But behind the wheel of that bus, the future city councilman learned to absorb criticism without losing his cool.

That ability served him well as he climbed the ranks in City Hall, moving into middle management and eventually becoming a department chief.

Now, a year after being elected to the City Council, he is still listening to residents complain. And what he says he hears is that residents want to return to the way things used to be.

A sweeping program of restructuring and layoffs at Oxnard City Hall in recent years has not worked, Zaragoza maintains. When residents call city offices, he says, they cannot get answers and are transferred from one person to another.

The lack of accountability results from the downsizing, Zaragoza says. Without job security for the first time, and with important management positions eliminated, employee morale has plummeted--as has city service.

So, Zaragoza has spent much of his first year in office seeking to restore employee confidence by fighting for the job security of the city's 1,000 employees. He says he has a simple reason for pushing a pro-government agenda: experience.

"Look at all the investment the city of Oxnard has made in me," he said last week, soon after giving a talk on careers in government to Hueneme High School students. "I'm an example of what we had."

At a time when government at all levels--federal, state and local--is under siege as wasteful and inefficient, Zaragoza launched his political career by championing civil service.

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Soon after Zaragoza's election, council members voted to fire City Manager Tom Frutchey. Frutchey's corporate-style overhaul of Oxnard's bureaucracy included numerous layoffs and an abolition of the city's department head system.

With Frutchey's replacement expected to be chosen soon, Zaragoza's aim is to reverse the streamlining and reinstitute department head positions.

The 56-year-old Oxnard native, who grew up in the city's poor La Colonia neighborhood, did not always have such clear goals.

After graduating from Oxnard High School in 1960, he drifted through a string of manual jobs: plumber's apprentice, strawberry farm worker, bricklayer.

As a bus driver, he earned a reputation as hard-working and responsible, and eventually was named assistant manager in the city's now-defunct transit department. At nights, he studied business administration at Ventura College and went on to receive his bachelor's degree from the University of La Verne.

During Zaragoza's 15 years as the city's solid-waste chief, he listened patiently to infuriated residents fume about trash service, said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, a close political ally.

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"He had to handle complaints, and he was very good at it," Lopez said. "It's a real positive."

Zaragoza explains his low-key temperament this way:

"That's just me. You can get me angry, but it takes a lot. I'm not going to wave my fist at you.

"I've worked with the public everywhere, as a bus driver on up. It kind of helps to be levelheaded. The old saying is, if you talk too much, you talk yourself out of a job."

Zaragoza retired from city service in 1993 and lost his first bid for a council seat in 1994.

But when he ousted Councilman Andres Herrera in his second bid last November, Zaragoza made it possible for the council to reconsider the downsizing of recent years, forming a council majority with Lopez and Councilman Bedford Pinkard.

Zaragoza contends the restructuring of the city's 1,000-employee work force has failed because governments, fundamentally, are different from corporations.

Because they cannot pay as well as private companies, governments must motivate most employees by giving them job security and praising them for good work, Zaragoza reasons.

After Frutchey's firing, the new councilman took a couple of days to visit old colleagues. Many expressed their relief with hugs.

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"We have invested many, many dollars in city employees," Zaragoza said. "You train them to become professionals, and you need to protect them. It's a morale issue. A lot of people felt, 'I gave my soul to the city of Oxnard, and now I'm put out to pasture.' "

When Zaragoza upset Herrera, Councilmen Dean Maulhardt and Tom Holden--two strong proponents of the government restructuring--found themselves in the minority on the issue.

Maulhardt and Holden believe the changes in Oxnard's bureaucracy have been effective, making city employees realize that they have no excuse for slacking off when drawing a check from taxpayers. They point to numerous accomplishments: better upkeep of city parks, expanded community policing, a successful anti-graffiti program.

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