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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS / Board of Supervisors

Bennett Accuses Monahan of Misusing Poll

September 19, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Supervisorial candidate Steve Bennett on Monday accused his opponent Jim Monahan of conducting a professional public opinion poll before taking a position on a controversial countywide initiative, a move Bennett says proves Monahan lacks the leadership skills necessary for the job.

Bennett's attack centered on Monahan's decision to further study Measure O before staking out his position. The initiative would turn over the county's $260 million in tobacco settlement money to seven private area hospitals.

"Citizens don't want their leaders to base their decisions on polling results," said Bennett, a candidate in the Ventura-based 1st District. "We need leaders who can study complex issues, make up their own minds, not politicians who stick their finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing."

Monahan dismissed Bennett's verbal assault as political gamesmanship. But Monahan could not say for certain whether an Arkansas polling firm was conducting a survey on his behalf as alleged, only that his campaign was doing some voter research.

"We are studying many things about voters," Monahan said. "I believe you are elected to do a job, to know what people think, how they feel. That's how I've always worked. If Mr. Bennett doesn't want to know what the public thinks, that's his business."

Last week, Bennett announced his strong opposition to the measure because it would preclude the county hospital, which provides most of the care for indigent and uninsured patients in the county, from receiving any money. The measure is sponsored by Community Memorial Hospital.

Monahan, on the other hand, said he wanted more time to study the issue. He has assembled a 20-member panel to discuss the pros and cons of the measure.

Bennett said, "It now appears he needs the help of the 20-person committee and a professional poll to make his mind up. How will he ever make a decision on the billion-dollar county budget?"

Bennett, an Ojai high school vice principal, said he first learned of the poll Friday after several supporters called his office to complain about a line of questions asked by a pollster with a firm out of Little Rock, Ark.

They said the poll was very detailed, lasting about 15 minutes and including as many as 30 questions, although not all were about Measure O.

The pollster asked for opinions on issues including tearing down the Matilija Dam, the SOAR slow-growth measure and needle exchange programs, according to three Bennett supporters who participated in the telephone survey. They were also asked their opinions of several local politicians, including Bennett, Monahan, Supervisor John Flynn and Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).

At least three questions focused on how the county's portion of the tobacco settlement should be spent, said Ventura resident Suz Montgomery-Hart, 52.

But it was a series of questions at the end of the interview that most disturbed some of those polled. As the questions progressed, they became increasingly hostile toward Bennett, the three participants said.

According to one woman who was surveyed, one question asked if the voter would support Steve Bennett if it was known that he supported the "fraudulent" use of tobacco money. Ventura resident Cornelia Johnson said she was asked if she would have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a candidate if that person had "walked out of a classroom."

"That one was very directed against Steve Bennett," added Montgomery-Hart, believing the question was a reference to Bennett's decision to take a leave of absence to run for office. "That's not even veiled."

Montgomery-Hart and Johnson said the line of questioning made them question the motive behind the poll. They said they suspected the pollster was not a local volunteer because he spoke with a deep Southern accent, often mispronouncing the names of area politicians and places.

"Finally I said, 'Who is paying for this?' " Montgomery-Hart said. "He hesitated, then said, 'Jim Monahan.' I was shocked. I think if the average citizen were polled like this, they would just hang up the phone."

Supporters from Monahan's camp vehemently denied any research group affiliated with their campaign would ask questions openly attacking Bennett's character.

"I can absolutely guarantee Mr. Monahan has nothing to do with questions asking about abandoning children in the classroom," said Monahan consultant Richard Cochrane. "That question would be an outrage. . . . No one said that, to the best of my knowledge."

However, Monahan, Cochrane and campaign spokeswoman Beverly Benton could not say whether an Arkansas firm was conducting research on their behalf.

"I can neither confirm nor deny it," Benton said. "I don't know."

Meanwhile, Bennett acknowledged he has used pollsters, mostly volunteers to query residents about issues such as campaign contribution limits and growth initiatives.

But he said he already had staked out his positions and was simply questioning voters to understand how great an emphasis the issues should play in his campaign. Bennett said he specifically avoided polling on Measure O.

By now, Bennett said, Monahan should have enough information on the initiative to make a decision.

"Here you have this fairly big issue out there, and to launch a poll, that's what's inappropriate, when he is still unable to make a decision about it himself," Bennett said.

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