By Daryl Kelley
In spirited exchanges that revealed sharp differences, five candidates for Ojai City Council sparred Monday evening before a nearly full house at Chaparral Auditorium just 15 days before the November election.
While incumbents Sue Horgan and Rae Hanstad calmly defended the city’s performance during the last four years, challengers Betsy Clapp and Suza Francina aggressively pressed the need for change at City Hall.
A third challenger, Mike Lenehan, rarely engaged in the sharp exchanges, choosing not to “second-guess” the incumbents while stressing his own background as a coach in youth activities.
The incumbents laid out their platform of experience and collaborative problem-solving during tough financial times and noted the knowledge they had gained on numerous city and countywide boards.
They cited a list of accomplishments — new parks and community improvements and plans for more, finances allowing — even as they had struggled to replenish city budget reserves depleted by taxes lost during lengthy renovation of the Ojai Valley Inn, the city’s largest taxpayer.
Horgan said the city was in better financial shape now than the vast majority of other California municipalities.
Hanstad said she ran initially “to restore a spirit of consensus to our council,” and felt she’d been “drafted” by Ojai residents again to complete an ambitious agenda as the council attempts to balance local business and community concerns while maintaining the small-town character of Ojai.
Indeed, all of the candidates said keeping Ojai an oasis of livability and citizen involvement was a main goal.
But Clapp, in particular, took the fight to the incumbents in a wide-ranging, respectful and even-keeled forum hosted by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Ojai Valley Board of Realtors and the Ojai Valley News.
Clapp, a small business owner, criticized the City Council for supposedly not listening to citizens, failing to implement environmentally sensitive programs and wasting money to fight a citizen initiative through a costly lawsuit.
“I believe Ojai needs change, and I believe I can help bring that change,” Clapp said in her opening statement. “Our current city government is not doing enough …”
Horgan, who responded most often to Clapp’s criticisms, said the City Council had done a good job pulling the municipal government out of a financial mess in recent years. She and Hanstad both said their response to financial crisis, which saw city budget reserves fall from $4 million to nothing, was their proudest accomplishment in the two full terms they’ve served on the council.
“You can be sure my position was arrived at after careful consideration,” Horgan, a former business banker, said in her opening statement, describing her decision-making process in general. “We need the steady hand and balanced approach that I bring.”
Typical of the exchanges were answers to a moderator’s question to incumbents about what decisions they regret most and of which they are most proud. Conversely, the challengers were asked what City Council decision they disagreed with most and to cite one they agreed with.
Francina, a former mayor, yoga instructor and author, rapped the council for approving a 2006 lawsuit in support of the city attorney’s decision not to place on the city ballot two citizen’s initiatives he found too vague to be constitutional. The ensuing legal battle, in which the city prevailed on appeal this week, has now cost taxpayers almost $100,000 (see accompanying story).
“It’s a huge waste of money and sends the wrong message to Ojai’s citizen activists,” Francina said.
In turn, Clapp blasted the city for not accepting activist Jeff Furchtenicht’s offer to withdraw his own suit challenging the rejection if the council would put the two measures on the council agenda for discussion.
The proposed initiatives were in favor of affordable housing and against chain stores, both issues addressed this year by the council. The council restricted chain stores in the downtown core and is now considering what to do about a state mandate that the city provide more affordable housing.
“It’s horrible to sue a private citizen,” Clapp said. “(Furchtenicht) was reaching out the olive branch.”
In response, Horgan explained that city attorney Monte Widders could not legally prepare the initiatives for the ballot because they were unconstitutional, and since Furchtenicht refused to withdraw them, Widders had to sue to protect the city’s legal position. Now, the state appellate court has found the form of the initiative petitions “unconstitutional on its face,” Horgan said.
But when a questioner from the overflow audience asked whether the candidates would vote to fight the lawsuit further if the American Civil Liberties Union appeals to the state Supreme Court on behalf of Furchtenicht, both Horgan and Hanstad said they would not.
Clapp and Francina also criticized the incumbents for not doing more to implement a plan Francina helped draft while on the council nearly a decade ago to encourage bicycle riding in Ojai instead of driving.
“Where’s our bike plan developed 10 years ago?” said Clapp. “It’s gathering dust somewhere in City Hall.” That’s true, she said, even after a $22,000 rewrite of the plan two years ago by a consultant. Fifty bike racks purchased by the city remain in storage, she said.
But Hanstad and Horgan said they had served the city well, tackling complex issues in a productive four years since they ran unopposed.
Just this year they approved a “Roadmap to a Sustainable Ojai,” embracing the broad guidelines of an emerging worldwide movement and a new Ojai Valley Green Coalition, while also pledging funds for a new skate park for local youth and a successful grass-roots effort to limit the number of gravel trucks that use state Highway 33 through Ojai.
The council has also begun planning a $3-million, public-private effort to rebuild Libbey Bowl, a centerpiece of the city, they said.
“The list (of council accomplishments) is huge for a city this small,” Horgan said.
Clapp said a current dispute over skate park construction, and whether it should be a $350,000 project or cost $550,000 with add-ons, shows “how broken down the communication is” between the city and the community, which led fundraising for the skate park.
But Hanstad said the fact that Horgan, as mayor, had called last night’s special council meeting to discuss the issue showed how responsive the city is to community concerns.
In answers to other questions, the candidates expressed diverse opinions.
When asked whether a fully staffed visitors’ center should be in place to support tourism, the city’s largest revenue producer, the candidates said they supported such a center. The center is staffed by volunteers now, and not open every day. But Horgan and Hanstad opposed dedicating a portion of the city’s hotel-motel bed tax to that effort. And both said they’d worked with business leaders in recent months to piece together a coherent plan to bring tourists to town.
But Francina and Clapp noted that the city had withdrawn money it had once given to the Chamber of Commerce to support the center.
“Why is it that our visitors’ center closed down?” Francina asked. But she also said, “It’s a mistake to put all of our eggs in the tourism basket.”
Clapp said the city needs a fully staffed visitors’ center since 28 percent of its revenue comes from tourism.
Horgan said the city did not close the visitor’s center by withdrawing financial support for it during tough times. They stop funding the chamber for providing visitor services.
“When we had a financial crisis we cut funding to many entities,” Hanstad explained.
But the council, with the city now flush with a surplus each year, hopes to restore some of that support, including funds for a visitors’ center, she said.
The city’s annual budget surplus is more than $500,000 out of a budget of about $8 million, but an emergency reserve of $4 million has not been fully restored yet. It was that reserve, Horgan noted, that carried the city through tough times during the Ojai Valley Inn’s lengthy expansion and restoration.
Lenehan said the other candidates had all made “great points.” He noted that business operators east of Montgomery Street tell him they feel ignored by the city. “They have doubts they value much” to city officials, he said. Officials have said that East End improvements, including placing power lines underground, are part the redevelopment plan for the city.
All candidates said they thought the city was served well by the Sheriff’s Department, which functions as the local police agency, and that a local police department would cost more for less service. About one-third of the current budget goes to the sheriff’s contract, candidates said.
Lenehan, a federal investigator and Army reserve officer, said the city gets lots of costly sophisticated services from the sheriff’s contract that a small city police force could not afford — such as major crime investigation, gang suppression and emergency response. Yet, Clapp called for a police oversight committee to better involve the community in law enforcement issues.
A question about a potential conflict of interest by Jere Kersnar because he is both city manager and planning director, sparked a pointed exchange.
The incumbents said Kersnar functions in both capacities because belt-tightening eliminated the top planner’s position, but that the post might be re-established if there’s enough money in the future.
“The real issue is the city manager effectively runs the city of Ojai, because the City Council does not provide leadership …,” said Francina.
But Horgan and Hanstad said the council makes the final decisions. And the real concern about Kersnar, Horgan said, is that he may work too hard.
Clapp said city services suffer for lack of a planning director.
When asked by a member of the audience whether the city should annex surrounding neighborhoods that are now in county jurisdiction, the candidates agreed that didn’t make sense financially.
Hanstad also said there has been only “uneven” support among residents of the areas to be annexed. But she said she understood the frustration of many seeking annexation because so many issues, such as water availability and rates, overlap city boundaries.
Ojai is “a well-run city,” Horgan said. “It doesn’t make financial sense for our city to annex other property.”
But Clapp responded, “That doesn’t mean you can’t re-address things.”
Horgan agreed that issues should be reconsidered from time to time, “should something have changed. But nothing has changed” on the annexation financing issue, she said.
A Clapp recommendation that a valleywide district be formed to fund recreation programs now paid for by the city, drew support, including that of Horgan.
The candidates were asked by a member of the audience what “attitudes” made for a successful council member.
Francina said putting herself in “other’s shoes,” was a key as was in-depth research of issues. For example, she noted earlier that she’d been an expert on “sustainable communities” for more than a decade. The sustainability concept is that a society should plan its activities so they meet its needs while preserving the natural way of life, and to maintain this balance indefinitely.
Lenehan said an ability to take in a great deal of information was an important characteristic for a council member, as was understanding the need to “staff the ideas” for soundness.
Clapp said she personally offers “tremendous business skills,” and could work with others respectfully.
Horgan said always being available to constituents was important, as was an ability to listen well and respond in an analytical way to achieve consensus.
Hanstad agreed. “Most important is the ability to achieve consensus,” she said. Without that, even good ideas fall to the wayside, she said.
Monday evening’s forum was the second for City Council candidates, with another to follow at a Rotary Club of Ojai lunch on Friday before a final public discussion next Monday at 7 p.m. at Chaparral Auditorium sponsored by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition.
By Daryl Kelley