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Low Turnout Is a Tacit Vote for Status Quo

Most incumbents retain their seats, though some newcomers break through. Growth measures -- both for and against -- go down.

November 07, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

With one of the lowest turnouts in Ventura County history, Tuesday's election showed that residents are in no mood for dramatic change.

Incumbents easily held on to their seats in the county's two congressional and four Assembly races. In council races in nine cities, current officeholders generally fared far better than their challengers. And for nearly all the questions posed on the ballot, from allowing development on Ventura's hillsides to imposing a $15 parcel tax for a swimming pool in Fillmore, the answer from voters was thunderingly clear: No.

At the same time, though, new political figures upset the status quo in several places. Members of a slate that billed itself as "certified slow growth" candidates were among the big vote-getters in Thousand Oaks, although ballots were still being counted in some close races. And in Santa Paula, the most popular candidate was a school administrator who never had run for office before.

Preliminary results indicated that just 42.5% of the county's registered voters had participated in the 2002 election, making the turnout in Ventura the eighth-lowest in California's 58 counties. Statewide, the turnout was 44.8%

However, Bruce Bradley, the county's assistant registrar of voters, said the final figures won't be as glaringly low.

Some 30,000 absentee ballots that arrived at election headquarters Monday and Tuesday have yet to be counted, he said. When they are tallied by sometime next week, the county turnout probably will stand at 49%.

"The numbers just weren't there, despite the issues," he said.

Paradoxically, aggressive registration drives might contribute to low turnout. "We have a lot of people on the roster who have never been at a polling place," Bradley said.

The negative overtones of the campaign for governor between Bill Simon and Gov. Gray Davis may have turned off some prospective voters, said Herb Gooch, a political analyst who teaches at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

"Negative campaigns depress the vote," Gooch said. "People just say, 'Why bother?' "

Gooch said low turnout also increases the power of organized efforts to get out the vote for one side or another.

In Thousand Oaks, Gooch said, the election reflected the effectiveness of the slow-growth network organized by Linda Parks, a former Thousand Oaks council member who is about to join the county Board of Supervisors.

"Over the last three elections, people associated with her movement have brought in the same numbers," he said. "She has a fairly reliable mechanism to get out the base vote, and she delivers."

Randy Hoffman, who lost his bid for a council seat, called the vote in Thousand Oaks "a monument to low voter turnout."

Hoffman urged his opponents from the slow-growth slate "to shift from a mode of blind attack to one of responsible leadership.... For the sake of all Thousand Oaks residents, I hope to be pleasantly surprised," he said in a written statement.

Bob Wilson, a restaurant owner and part of the four-member slate, scored a substantial victory over Hoffman and will serve the last two years of Parks' council term.

In the battle for three other open seats, incumbent Andy Fox won handily. Slate candidate Claudia Bill-de la Pena was in the No. 2 position, with council member Dennis Gillette lagging behind her by just 65 votes and slow-growth candidate Michael Farris behind him by only 95 votes. Elections officials said absentee ballots could be crucial in determining the second- and third-place finishers, who will fill the remaining two seats.

Likewise, two candidates in Ojai are sure only that they might be somewhere close to taking office. In preliminary results, Bruce Roland was just 10 votes behind Carol B. Smith in their quest for the third open seat on the City Council. Incumbents Joe De Vito and David Bury took the first two seats.

"It's kind of cool," Roland said. "I left a message for Carol on her machine ... that we're in for a wild couple of weeks."

In Santa Paula, incumbent Rick Cook was among the three council winners. But political novice Gabino Aguirre, a continuation high school principal in Moorpark, led the voting and urban planner Mary Ann Krause took second. The newcomers both opposed a measure that would have allowed massive development in an outlying canyon and doubled the city's area. The measure lost by a wide margin.

Santa Paula voters also said no to a measure that would have carved the town into five voting districts. The measure stemmed from a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit charging that the city's at-large voting system kept Latinos from being elected as council members.

Other local measures also went down. In Ojai, residents rejected by a ratio of more than 2 to 1 a proposal to restrict development by limiting the traffic it could generate. In Fillmore, the City Council failed on its third try to resurrect the dilapidated Fillmore High School pool by imposing a $15 tax on each property in town.

In Oxnard, the county's most populous city, voters reelected Mayor Manuel Lopez and Councilman Dean Maulhardt while tapping former Councilman Andres Herrera to fill an open seat.

"I've been gone long enough for them to see me as a new face, but I also offered them the experience of an incumbent," he said.

Incumbency played a poignant role in the race for the Oak Park school board. Running for his fourth term, 73-year-old Bob Kahn died Monday.

He drew 562 votes, placing fifth in a field of six.


Times staff writer Fred Alvarez contributed to this report.

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