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Growth Focus of Oxnard Election

City's rapid expansion is hot topic for nine candidates running for two City Council seats.

October 24, 2002|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Despite the anti-sprawl limits voters placed on city growth four years ago, Oxnard's rapid expansion remains the overriding issue for most of the nine candidates vying for two seats on the City Council.

Incumbent Dean Maulhardt, 52, a local business owner and descendant of a pioneer farming family, and eight challengers are vying for his seat and the spot being vacated by two-term Councilman Tom Holden, who is not seeking reelection. The top two vote-getters in the Nov. 5 election will earn seats on the next council.

Mayor Manuel Lopez, an Oxnard institution with 24 years on the council, is running unopposed.

Most of the candidates said growth was their major concern.

But most were also careful not to criticize the current council, and said they wanted to continue the gains in crime fighting and economic development the city has made in recent years.

Maulhardt, a councilman for eight years, said he has faith that voters will remember the council's successes.

"We dropped crime in half, we increased police staffing levels," Maulhardt said. "Our revenues are solid, our expenses are controlled. In these tough economic times, the city is on very strong financial footing."

But several candidates criticized the City Council as being too closed to the public and not responsive enough to an increase in demand for city services prompted by new projects sprouting all over town.

As Ventura County's largest and fastest-growing city, Oxnard's population increased nearly 20% in the 1990s to about 170,000 residents. And its rate of growth has only accelerated since then, as thousands of houses have been built in the city's north end.

This year, the City Council approved construction of the RiverPark project along the Ventura Freeway, the largest business-and-residential development in county history.

The projects are all within the city's new growth boundaries, but have caused concern, nonetheless.

Former Councilman Andres Herrera, who was criticized for supporting an ill-fated overhaul of city government structure, said residents need his experience to tackle the financial issues faced by a growing city.

"I think all in all, they're doing a good job," he said. "But we need to make sure we will have the money to pay for all these services. There's a lot of good things that are happening. I just don't want to lose that."

Oxnard seemed to have addressed its sprawling growth in 1998, when voters passed a Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources measure that prevented urban development on most of the farmland surrounding the city.

But it is growth within Oxnard that has some candidates worried.

"We can't just grow for the sake of growing," said candidate Saul Medina, 29, a psychiatric social worker with the county. He said he favors so-called "smart growth," a description of development that clusters jobs, housing and shopping within walking distance of each other. "We can't grow at a faster rate than we can accommodate."

Medina also envisions a revival of Oxnard's tattered and aging downtown. He sees a central city where college students at the fledgling Cal State Channel Islands live in apartments and take a shuttle bus to classes, use the city's modern red-brick library and buy coffee and books at local shops.

"We need to cater to this new population," Medina said. "We need to look to downtown as a solution."

Candidate Alex Escobell, 46, agrees that Oxnard can be a destination for young people seeking recreation.

"Downtown needs to be made more attractive to the youth in our community," said the second-grade teacher. "Compared to other cities in the county, we have a bigger population. But come nightfall, downtown is closed and dark."

In an attempt to spruce up the city's image and bring in new business, Oxnard leaders have welcomed new projects.

Most prominent is RiverPark along the Santa Clara River at the junction of the Ventura Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway -- one of the most attractive undeveloped sites in the county.

The project calls for about 2,800 living units centered on village greens. It would include a vintage town square, a movie theater, restaurants, hotel and convention center, three schools and athletic fields.

Virtually all of the candidates said the city has to focus more on hiring extra police officers and firefighters. The working-class city now has about 200 police officers and 80 firefighters after a spate of police hiring last decade.

"Four years ago we added police officers," Maulhardt said. "We've fallen behind and need to bring that number up again."

Candidate Al Duff, chairman of the city's planning commission, said public safety staffing will be the foremost issue for the next council.

"The police need to be more visible in the community," said Duff, 67. "We need to work with our police departments, so they can begin conversing with citizens in their own neighborhood."

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