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Bennett SOARS Into Local Spotlight

In two years as a county supervisor, the slow-growth movement founder builds a power base. But some say he's just 'controlling.'

January 12, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Pink streaks color the morning sky as Steve Bennett pulls on his running shoes.

Exercise, like many things in Bennett's disciplined life, is the common-sense thing to do. And if dawn is the only time to fit a run into his schedule, he will rise with the birds.

Constituents know the Ventura County supervisor as a champion of populist political views, especially his founding role in a citizens' movement that put the brakes on runaway growth and made Ventura County a nationwide model for anti-sprawl initiatives.

But the Ivy League-educated economist, who turned down corporate posts to teach high school students in rural Ojai, runs deeper than that. If his demeanor suggests a cautious policy wonk, it belies a steely determination to achieve a goal, whether it's rallying bored students, starting a political movement or keeping fit.

Bennett is determined, confidantes say, to forge the same exacting standards in public office.

"Steve's trying to do it right; he's giving it his best shot," said his wife, Leslie Ogden. "He's hopeful that he can do it and not succumb to the pressures of that office."

Since his election to the Ventura-based supervisor's seat two years ago, Bennett, 52, has shown he is gutsy, hard-working and shrewd: a strategist with a heart of green -- for the environment -- and perhaps the most influential local politician.

He had barely warmed his seat as a newly sworn supervisor before taking on the county's powerful law enforcement lobby and casting a critical third vote to cut public safety funding.

A few months later, he called for a ban on extra pay supervisors receive for serving on special commissions, so angering two colleagues that one of them tried to outlaw "grandstanding."

As the county's point man in fighting urban sprawl, he helped shoot down ballot measures last fall that would have allowed 3,900 new homes in Ventura and Santa Paula. The grass-roots group that rallied against the developments -- put together by Bennett -- can raise the money and foot soldiers to fight future growth battles.

The group has already succeeded in passing tough growth-control laws in every major city in the county, putting the region on the map as one of the most growth-averse in the nation.

His behind-the-scenes work on campaigns in the November election helped produce new slow-growth majorities on the Thousand Oaks and Santa Paula city councils. When environmental ally Linda Parks joins the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Bennett's influence in stemming growth and pushing through government reforms may be even greater.

Even opponents acknowledge the success of Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, or SOAR, the 2,000-member anti-sprawl group that Bennett and Oxnard attorney Richard Francis founded seven years ago.

"They have an issue that seems to have struck pay dirt," said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. and a frequent SOAR critic. "And Steve's been quite adept at putting that network together."

Bennett's unflinching style has earned him plenty of detractors. Critics call him rigid and uncompromising, attributes that work well for an activist but less so for a politician, they say.

His determination to win can blind him to reasonable alternatives, critics say.

"He works hard to get people to believe that his point of view is the correct point of view," said Ventura Mayor Ray Di Guilio. "It's kind of a fight to the death: Do it my way or you're going to be defeated."

Some find Bennett's Eagle Scout persona hard to take and resent the "good government" lectures he is prone to offer from the board dais. "Controlling" is a word used by some colleagues to describe him.

His severest criticism came when SOAR challenged the legality of Measure A -- a November initiative that asked voters to approve construction of 1,390 homes in the canyons north of Ventura.

Public approval of the project was required by the SOAR growth control laws that Bennett co-wrote. But when developers tried to place the measure on the ballot, SOAR went to court to kill it.

Bennett and Francis argued that the project should go through the city's planning process before facing a public vote. But the development's backers said the lawsuit proved SOAR's leaders are hypocrites who don't really trust voters.

Parting Ways

A judge turned down SOAR's request and the housing project was overwhelmingly defeated.

But the fight left a trail of bitterness. Downtown merchant Doug Halter, a one-time admirer of Bennett, parted ways with him over Measure A.

"We need leaders who know what developments to say yes to," said Halter, who believed that Measure A offered an intelligent mix of homes and open space. "This was a project that did exactly what SOAR said it was supposed to do."

In the November election, Bennett worked hard to help out his candidates and causes.

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