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DECISION 2000

Supervisors Assess Effects of Bennett's Decisive Win

County: Incumbents expect little ideological change with addition of slow-growth advocate, but hope fresh face will improve relations among members.

November 09, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It will be January before slow-growth warrior Steve Bennett takes his seat as the newest member of the Board of Supervisors.

But by 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, just hours after a decisive win against businessman Jim Monahan, Bennett was up and running. True to his reputation for organization, the former Ventura councilman immediately launched a series of telephone calls to advisors. By afternoon, he was holed up for two hours with county Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford to begin preparing himself for the job.

His top priority, in the wake of last year's budget crisis that threatened a $5-million shortfall, is to try to establish "a stronger long-term financial footing so that people have confidence and we don't lurch from one short-term crisis to another."

Bennett wants the board to consider scaling back automatic annual budget increases for law enforcement departments, an idea supported by Hufford but opposed by the politically powerful Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.

Supervisor Kathy Long of Camarillo was more introspective than Bennett, after her less-comfortable margin of victory, 52% to 48%, against two-time challenger Mike Morgan.

"I don't feel it's a resounding mandate," said Long, whose campaign was plagued by her 1998 vote for the botched merger of the county's mental health and social service agencies that contributed in part to administrative and financial troubles. "I'm going to have to win back some trust from the voters who didn't support me, and I'm going to work hard to do that."

Among Long's priorities: Maintaining a sound budget. Selecting a replacement for Hufford, who is serving in an interim capacity. And working with constituents in Santa Paula to improve the city's economic opportunities, particularly in light of Tuesday's vote to block development in neighboring canyons.

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Morgan could not be reached Wednesday, but he said earlier that it had been difficult to compete against Long because her campaign was heavily funded by unions and other special-interest groups.

Supervisors Frank Schillo, Judy Mikels and John Flynn contemplated what Bennett's overwhelming 63% to 37% victory said about voters' ideology in the Ventura-based district. The district, which also includes part of the Ojai Valley, is currently represented by retiring Supervisor Susan Lacey.

They agreed with Bennett that most voters in the district favor the strict growth limits he helped enact under the SOAR movement that began in Ventura five years ago.

They also tied Bennett's victory to voters' overwhelming rejection of Measure O, which would have turned the county's $260-million share of national tobacco settlement money over to private hospitals. Bennett opposed Measure O, while Monahan supported the measure, saying the public couldn't trust supervisors to spend the money properly.

And they generally agreed that Bennett's election would have little ideological effect on the board, because Bennett and Lacey share similar backgrounds, both liberal Democrats with careers in education.

Supervisors also speculated on how the five-member board will get along, given both Bennett's addition to their membership and the reelection of Long, who has often tangled with Schillo and Flynn.

Schillo, who shocked many by endorsing Morgan, offered Long only a lukewarm peace. Long's sprawling district includes Camarillo, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ojai.

"I've got to respect the people in the 3rd District about who they want to represent them," he said. "I'll work with Kathy."

At the same time, he cautioned, "It was a close race. You have to take close races as what they are and be pretty careful about how you proceed."

Flynn acknowledged that infighting among board members in recent years has been a public embarrassment and vowed to mend fences. "The board has got to . . . almost have a public confession about our inadequacy to work well together and try to overcome that," he said.

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Incumbents were hopeful the fresh addition to their board would serve as a calming influence. "I'm looking forward to meeting with him," Mikels said of Bennett. But she and others admitted they didn't know Bennett well enough to predict how things would go.

Bennett's slow-growth ally, Richard Francis, has called him "an excellent mediator," while election foe Monahan said Bennett "cannot get along with those who disagree with him."

Even as supervisors looked toward the future, Monahan was refusing to concede defeat in Tuesday night's race.

In a statement e-mailed to The Times on Wednesday, Monahan said he would provide "better constituent service than if Steve is the winner."

"With Bennett, business owners will be forgotten and the economy will be the worse for it . . . He is not a practical man. He would like to see the price of gas go up to $5 to force people to ride bikes . . . These cockeyed ideas could bankrupt us."

Bennett called his opponent's response "unfortunate."

County election official Bruce Bradley said an estimated 8,673 absentee and damaged ballots in the District 1 race had yet to be counted, but concluded that even if each one of those voters picked Monahan it would be impossible for him to overtake Bennett.

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