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Ventura County's Tiny, Fast, Cheap Weddings

July 09, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Sure, getting married in the bowels of the Ventura County Government Center might be viewed by some as tawdry, even downright cheap.

But spend a morning with Carolina Mendoza, a clerk at the county's marriage license counter, and the allure of bare-bones nuptials becomes more apparent.

There is the bargain price -- for $122, couples get the requisite license and a brief ceremony performed by Mendoza or another clerk. Whether they choose a long ceremony (about three minutes) or a short one (45 seconds), it's all over in less time than a coffee break.

Then there is what might be called the hush-hush factor. No one, save the clerk and a witness, has to know a couple just tied the knot.

That is what drew three couples Thursday morning to Mendoza's counter deep in the basement of the Hall of Administration in Ventura.

"If we'd wanted everyone to know about it, we would have done one of those big flashy ceremonies," said a middle-aged man who declined to give his name, standing next to his new and evidently younger wife. "This is easy. One stop and it's done."

Cash-strapped Ventura County began offering counter-front ceremonies last month to help raise money. The $122 cost includes a $97 license fee and a $25 charge for the newly offered insta-ceremony.

County Clerk Philip Schmit figures that at $25 a pop for the ceremony, his department will raise at least $13,000 a year administering "I Do's".

Fees for a variety of other services, such as providing a marriage license or a one-day officiant's license, have increased 40% to 306% to keep pace with rising labor, insurance and equipment costs.

Many people still see the $122 license-ceremony combo as a bargain. But there are exceptions.

The middle-aged man who didn't want to give his name griped good-naturedly with Mendoza about the fee increases.

"This used to be worth every penny before the prices went up," said the man, noting it was his second marriage.

After paying up, he and his fiancee turned to each other, recited vows led by Mendoza and concluded the short ceremony with a chaste kiss.

Couples lined up behind them cheered loudly.

"See, that was worth every penny," Mendoza said.

Before them, Mendoza had married another couple who also wanted to stay mum.

The woman, from Egypt, was dressed in a colorful silk pantsuit. Her soon-to-be husband politely declined a request for an interview.

After selecting the short ceremony, the pair skipped the traditional kiss and hurried out of the office.

Next up was a young couple who had brought along a friend to witness the marriage. Though they declined to give their names, they explained why they were being coy.

He is in the Navy, the young man said, and the couple are unable to get housing at Naval Base Ventura County unless they are married.

Having subsidized housing will allow them to save money for a big wedding ceremony they are planning next spring, he said.

But if either of their families found out they had already tied the knot, there would be trouble.

"There'd be a conniption fit like you wouldn't believe," he said.

The anonymity of a government wedding was the best solution, they decided.

"My first wedding was in Las Vegas," said the sailor. "Biggest mistake of my life."

Then, turning to his fiancee, he smiled broadly and pulled her against him with a tattooed arm.

"She's the best thing to happen to me," he said, kissing her.

Not all of the lovers appearing at the clerk's counter want secrecy. Later the same day, Bernice and Leroy Powell were happy to tell their story.

The Santa Paula couple had divorced two years ago after a 27-year marriage. But the time apart only convinced them that they had made a mistake, the bride said.

So on Thursday, before a small crowd of well-wishers and friends, Bernice, 49, and Leroy, 54, exchanged rings for a second time.

"That was painless and quick," declared Bernice, who went to the Government Center on her lunch break from Farmers Insurance in Ventura.

Leroy took the day off from his job at Albertson's produce department.

The pair plan to honeymoon in Solvang, where they will hit the newly refurbished Chumash Casino. Leroy said he is already feeling lucky.

"It's better now because we know each other's ups and downs," he said. "Things happen for a reason."

Staff photographer Stephen Osman contributed to this report.

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