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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Troubles and Triumphs

1999: County saw difficulties--from financial chaos to murders. But it also enjoyed victories such as less smog and academic accomplishments.

January 01, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County's last year of the 20th century was eventful for its doomsday preparations and its broad prosperity, for the air in its smogless skies and the missteps of its county government.

Like a knight on a white horse, a squeaky-clean county boss galloped into town to expose behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the County Government Center. Then he sneaked out the back door.

Like a spy behind battle lines, a psychiatrist blew the whistle on questionable county billing practices. Then the supervisors agreed to pay $15.3 million to make the feds go away. And the psychiatrist kept $2 million.

Like a deed already done, students moved into Cal State's new campus at the old Camarillo hospital even though it is not yet a full-fledged university. Then a pioneer farmer decided the best way to spend 5 million bucks was to build a university library with the help of a world-class architect.

Like a powerful Santa Ana wind, the full force of a blustery economy pushed bulldozers into gear, put laborers back to work, boosted housing prices to record highs and filled city budgets with sales tax dollars. Then a big auto dealer folded and a shopping mall staggered, sending shudders through Oxnard City Hall.

Like the Justice Department invading Alabama, U.S. lawyers descended on Santa Paula to force its white-majority town council to slice the little city into five easy pieces where Latino candidates could campaign successfully. Then the council told federal lawyers they had no case, and should go away.

Like an obvious lesson learned again, a sex scandal at the coed Ventura School juvenile prison showed that when you lock kids away you had better pay attention to who is taking care of them. Then it showed how quickly reform can come when the powerful care.

Inevitably, 1999 demonstrated how cruelly or crazily people sometimes act whether rich or poor: A prosperous mother in a big house is suspected of killing three of her sons while they slept, and a long-suffering wife on welfare shot her husband, then cut him into pieces with a big red saw.

But this climactic year also showed how brilliantly youngsters can perform when they are challenged to do their best. It showed that a full year of grueling preparation could yield a brief shining moment of recognition for eight Moorpark teenagers as the nation's brightest team of high school scholars.

Our Top 10 Stories for 1999:

1. Mr. Baker's Wild Ride

Wresting Ventura County government from its intellectual slumber, new chief administrator David Baker rendered a drive-by analysis in a drive-through style that left bureaucrats gasping and griping about his audacity and accuracy.

Despite lasting just four days on the job Thanksgiving week, Baker, 50, rattled the cages of county supervisors and forced the county's fiscal watchdog to finally bark.

Baker fled after discovering the untidy nature of the county's organizational structure and its messy politics. He found "overwhelming problems" and the lack of political will to fix them.

Then the auditor warned that the county was so cash poor it could barely make its payroll. That scared employees and startled New York bond analysts. So the auditor decided to keep his worst fears to himself.

It turns out that the county can probably erase $5 million in red ink and balance its budget without too much pain.

But Baker's six-page resignation letter may one day rank as a local landmark document. He told the county to strengthen its top administrator, weaken its elected auditor and take another look at divvying up the windfall tax revenue police agencies get each year from Proposition 172.

Several officials said some of Baker's points had merit and should be considered. In fact, special budget hearings are set for this month.

And Baker? He got his old job back in Stockton as the winter fog descended over the San Joaquin Valley. His bosses even gave their prodigal son what amounted to a $5,000 raise.

2. A Whistle-Blower's Dream

The biggest financial scandal in county government history--one sure to cost $23 million, and still counting--ground to a conclusion in November when the Board of Supervisors agreed to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit for $15.3 million to make up for improper billing in thousands of Medicare cases.

For eight years, mental health workers used doctors' names to charge Medicare for services even if the patients never saw a doctor. That is illegal, federal investigators said, and may be criminal if those who broke the law did it on purpose.

It's likely this never would have come to light had it not been for a sudden power play in 1998, when Supervisors Susan Lacey, Kathy Long and John Flynn rammed an ill-conceived merger of the mental health and social services agencies through a divided Board of Supervisors.

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