Ventura County voters Tuesday will cast ballots in three county supervisor races dominated by law enforcement issues, and -- in a costly and divisive Republican primary -- they will pick the candidate likely to fill the 37th District Assembly seat.
Also on the ballot is a $145-million Simi Valley school bond to improve 28 campuses and a temporary property tax in Oak Park to keep school class sizes small. Santa Paula property owners are also being asked to support their local library with a new parcel tax.
In an otherwise quiet presidential primary season, races for supervisor have provided most of the heat, although the contest to replace termed-out Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) has also been marked by caustic comments and allegations of misconduct.
Two races for the five-member Board of Supervisors pit challengers backed by the county Deputy Sheriffs' Assn. against incumbents Kathy Long of Camarillo and John Flynn of Oxnard. Both voted with the majority in denying a hefty pension boost for deputies and capping budget increases for public safety departments. In an unusual series of public letters, Sheriff Bob Brooks has opposed Long's reelection, but has taken no position in Flynn's race.
The third supervisor up for reelection is Steve Bennett of Ventura, who also voted to hold the line against law enforcement increases, but faces only nominal opposition. The deputies' union passed on endorsing a candidate in that race, as did Brooks.
Two of the supervisorial primaries are sure to be decided Tuesday because only two candidates are on the ballot in each race. But in Flynn's 5th District race, four candidates, including Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez and Oxnard Councilman John Zaragoza, increase chances that no candidate will receive a majority. That would send the top two vote-getters to a November runoff.
The primary election comes as Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten are suing the supervisors over budget restrictions that they say are illegal and put residents at risk, but which supervisors insist are necessary to keep from decimating other county departments.
"This election could mark a watershed," said Herb Gooch, a political science professor at Cal Lutheran University. "What's different here is that not only the deputies' union but also the sheriff and the district attorney have thrown their weight into getting more law enforcement dollars. This is a new kind of politics, going over the heads of the Board of Supervisors to the public."
Camarillo Councilman Mike Morgan, 56, was recruited by the sheriff himself to challenge Long, 53, and is backed by the deputies' union, which expects to spend up to $37,500 on his behalf by election day.
Morgan has already lost twice to Long, but that was before he was endorsed by the sheriff and the deputies' union, which supported Long in 2000. Even then, Long won only 52% of the vote to 48% for Morgan, a gap of little more than 1,000 votes.
Long, a longtime government aide before being elected supervisor in 1996, emphasizes her leadership in opposing the Newhall Ranch project, trying to save the financially crippled Santa Paula Memorial Hospital and restoring wetlands at Ormond Beach.
But for Morgan, a retired federal probation officer and a popular councilman for more than two decades, the race turns on public safety. He criticizes the Board of Supervisors for tightening the sheriff's budget so much that Brooks closed a women's jail in Ojai, reduced hours at the east county lockup, disbanded a highly effective anti-gang unit and began to release inmates early.
Long, who at public debates has sometimes challenged Morgan's grasp of budget numbers, said the challenger's campaign was more about politics than public safety, since Ventura County routinely rates as the safest urban area in the West.
In her own public letter, Long said last week: "This election is about power and political payback. The sheriff and the union want to punish me for those votes, and to send a message to other supervisors not to disagree with their demands.... This election will decide who sets budget policy in Ventura County."
But Brooks insisted in an interview that the Long-Morgan election had nothing to do with power, except that the supervisors abused theirs. Rather than change a public safety funding ordinance as it did three years ago, he said, the board should have submitted amendments to the ordinance to voters. That is because the original measure had already qualified for the ballot when the supervisors first approved it in 1995.
"If we don't get more services at the county level we will not be able to do even an adequate job of protecting the public," the sheriff said. "This is about the future of public safety in the county, not the past."