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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

The Washington lawyers came because they were called. Activists have long maintained that Santa Paula's system of electing all five council members from anywhere in the city made it unreasonably hard for Latinos to get elected. They wanted council members selected by only the voters in their own neighborhoods, because Latinos would hold voting majorities in two of five districts.

Finally they complained to the Justice Department.

So like the racially divided towns of the South in the 1960s, Santa Paula got a letter demanding a fix. "[Latinos] continue to suffer the effects of a history of official discrimination in voting and other areas," it said.

City leaders scratched their heads.

It is true that this agricultural town, populated by many farm laborers, is two-thirds Latino, and that just one council member is Latino. But it wasn't long ago that a second Latino councilman was defeated. And just look at the two local school boards, they argued. Both have Latino majorities--clear evidence that Latinos can win in citywide races.

A lawyer hired by the city found that most voting-age Santa Paula residents are Latino, as are 44% of registered voters, up from 31% just a decade ago. That is progress and puts a lie to the discrimination charge, said the lawyer, whose bill so far is $60,000.

A Times study found nine other California cities more Latino than Santa Paula that also elect their councils citywide and have just one Latino council member, or none at all. But those cities face no federal threat.

So the council voted 5 to 0 to keep things the way they are.

That was in October. Mayor Robin Sullivan says she doesn't know what to think. But the feds often move slowly. So expect a federal lawsuit this year.

6. Party Like 1999

It made everybody nervous when the economic boom of 1998 just got better in 1999.

Higher mortgage rates were supposed to cool last year's home-buying frenzy, but they didn't.

Increasing consumer debt was supposed to chill the Christmas sales orgy, but it didn't.

Now projections are for more of the same next year, just not quite so much of it.

Usually cautious Mark Schniepp, director of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, says nonetheless, "The overall attitudes about the economy are probably the best ever in the history of the world. I may not be able to say the things I'm saying now ever again."

Consider this:

County jobs, already at a record high, have climbed 8,400 from a year ago, and the jobless rate is nearly the lowest ever.

Sales at shops and stores soared in every major city.

Builders erected new business parks and office buildings at the fastest pace since 1986, but demand was so strong that vacancies stayed low.

Home sales, up 26% in 1998 to the highest level since 1988, climbed even higher in 1999. And housing prices marched upward, too, reaching record highs.

Home building permits climbed 33% in 1999, thanks to large new subdivisions in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Ventura.

"We think that sales are going to continue to go up and that prices will too," said real estate analyst John Karevoll.

Ventura's plans for a revived downtown came true as trendy new shops opened and a new movie theater brought more business. The city's expanded Pacific View shopping mall also lured two department stores from the struggling Esplanade mall in Oxnard.

Oxnard took a second hit when AutoNation USA's local megastore, which had arrived like a Christmas gift a year ago, fizzled, laying off 90 workers and wiping $400,000 a year out of the city budget.

Then there was Y2K. Big business and local governments spent tens of millions of dollars to update computers and calm fears of a century-ending meltdown. Sheriff Bob Brooks said millennial revelers pose a greater threat.

"People have never celebrated the way they will celebrate this year," he said.

7. Ventura School Scandal

There had been rumors for years about the razor-wired juvenile prison among the onion farms of the Las Posas Valley.

And when 2 1/2 years of investigations were finally completed last June, 15 employees of the deceptively named Ventura School had been fired or forced to resign for having sex or improper relations with youthful inmates. Sixteen more were disciplined for lesser offenses.

The prison's three top administrators were removed. A former superintendent left the California Youth Authority rather than be questioned about his relationships with female subordinates in Ventura. The statewide director of the 15-prison CYA was given his walking papers.

It was an unparalleled scandal for the CYA's only coed institution.

Just how things went wrong wasn't much of a mystery.

Workers and inmates described a precarious line that employees walk in an institution occupied by streetwise criminals who are both defenseless and manipulative.

"A lot of girls agree to do this stuff, messing with the staff, because they get things they can no longer receive in here," said a 20-year-old convicted murderer from North Hollywood.

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