When Frank Schillo retires from politics next year, the veteran Ventura County supervisor may be ending a conservative era in county government.
For the past seven years, the blunt and burly retirement advisor plodded methodically toward traditional Republican goals, paying close attention to business, law enforcement and balancing the county's $1-billion budget.
Triple coronary bypass surgery in March seems to have mellowed the 67-year-old a bit. But after 17 years in office, he is known as a reliable conservative vote--and a man with a strong philanthropic streak.
"You know that term 'compassionate conservative?' It's not talk with him. It's real," said Alex Fiore, Schillo's closest ally while both served as Thousand Oaks City Council members. "He's a very compassionate, church-going man. But he's also an effective politician."
Together with Simi Valley Supervisor Judy Mikels, another conservative, and the occasional crossover vote of maverick Supervisor John Flynn of Oxnard, Schillo has had a number of successes.
One of his first tasks as supervisor was to help fix a $38-million imbalance in the county's budget, in part by freezing county jobs. Schillo for years has underlined his credentials as a fiscal guardian.
His instincts were right in opposing a disastrous merger of mental health and social service departments, and he has been the sheriff's strongest defender on the Board of Supervisors.
He used his clout as a city councilman, and later as a supervisor, to help save the county's two military bases when they were threatened with closure. He created a countywide business booster organization that has succeeded in drawing some high-paying, high-tech employers.
But Schillo's recent announcement that he will step down next year probably opens the door to the liberal environmental candidacy of Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Linda Parks. Parks, 43, teamed last fall with celebrity lawyer Ed Masry in sweeping the most expensive City Council campaign in county history.
Also mentioned as a potential candidate is Parks' rival on the City Council, retired sheriff's deputy Dennis Gillette. Many see Gillette as a conservative counterpoint to Parks, setting up what could be an ideologically divisive--and costly--campaign.
"It will be a crucial race that will really determine the composition of the board for years," said Herb Gooch, political science professor at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. "Judy Mikels could become a minority of one."
What's interesting about Schillo, Gooch said, is his success in crafting a reputation as a penny-pincher while acting with a strong sense of social obligation.
As supervisor, Schillo held firm against a rival Ventura hospital's attempts to put the nearby public hospital out of business. He toiled more than two years on a plan to rescue a county library system teetering on bankruptcy when no one else wanted to touch it.
Before he entered politics, Schillo helped found Manna, now the largest food bank in Thousand Oaks, and Many Mansions, a nonprofit group that provides low-income housing.
And in recent years, he launched a car-buying program for welfare mothers trying to find a reliable way to work. That project is now run as a nonprofit offshoot of Many Mansions.
"He's a miser who's done one heck of a lot for Tiny Tim," Gooch said.
Over the years, Schillo has had his share of critics. He infuriated some Thousand Oaks residents by backing construction of a performing arts center, a $64-million project that opponents said would drain the city's treasury. The Civic Arts Plaza is now a popular, and financially successful, regional attraction for concerts, plays and community gatherings.
On the Board of Supervisors, Schillo unflinchingly backed a local law that guarantees a $49-million annual funding windfall for the Sheriff's Department and three other law enforcement agencies--an arrangement that advisors warn could eventually spend the county into debt.
Critics say the county's generous funding for the four public safety departments, which is supplemented by annual cost-of-living hikes--has created a widening budget gap between public safety and all other county departments.
Support for Deputies' Pay Draws Criticism
Even now, as other supervisors worry about the hit to the budget, Schillo supports a proposal that would give sheriff's deputies 75% of their pay in retirement after 25 years of service--a benefit far more generous than offered to the rest of the county's work force.
This has opened the door to criticism that Schillo talks a tough fiscal game not supported by his votes.
"To have a knee-jerk reaction to always provide more for law enforcement is not fiscally sound," said John Relle, a retired IBM marketing executive and Thousand Oaks resident. "Any department, as long as you keep pouring money in, they will take it. We depend on our supervisors to hold the line."
Schillo is unapologetic.