By Daryl Kelley
Ojai voters have five choices this fall for two seats on the City Council.
Joining veteran council members Rae Hanstad and Sue Horgan on the Nov. 4 ballot are former Mayor Suza Francina, small business owner Betsy Clapp and federal government investigator Michael Lenehan.
Unlike many other campaigns this electoral season, the Ojai council race has been pointed but civil, with four candidate forums, including one Monday at Chaparral Auditorium co-sponsored by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and the Ojai Post.
The race has been defined in the context of incumbents vs. challengers, with Hanstad and Horgan citing the importance of their experience as public officials and Francina and Clapp insisting that Ojai city government should be more open to an array of citizen opinion and more active in pursuit of solutions.
By contrast, Lenehan, a city parks commissioner and federal military investigator, said he thinks both incumbents have done a good job but that he stayed in the race to give voters the option of a blue-collar candidate with a strong parks and recreation background.
“I predict this will be a close election,” Hanstad said. “All of the candidates are capable and all have as a goal to enrich the quality of life in Ojai. The difference is experience specific to this job.”
And, Horgan said: “The city has done a great job.”
But Francina and Clapp insist that current council members agree so often they nearly always see things the same way to the exclusion of diverse ideas.
“Consensus-building among people who think the same is easy,” said Francina, a council member from 1996 until 2000, when she chose not to run again after a controversial first term. “I respect Sue and Rae, but I think there should be a lot more transparency in our local government. Betsy and I are serious, well-qualified challengers.”
Clapp said she’d characterize the race as “status quo vs. the willingness to change and look at new ideas … For a long time, the city council has not been receptive or inviting to the public.”
This election represents the first challenge to Horgan and Hanstad since 2000. They ran unopposed for re-election in 2004.
Horgan, 53, a former business banker and city planning commissioner, was appointed to the council in 1999, then placed first in a three-person race the next year.
Hanstad, 57, a substance abuse consultant who was recruited by a group of city leaders in 2000, placed second, ahead of the late community activist, Bruce Roland.
Horgan had 1,903 votes, Hanstad 1,591 and Roland 1,378.
“The incumbents have never really had to run for their seats until now,” said Francina, 59, a yoga instructor and author of four books on health and yoga for older people.
As two-term incumbents, Hanstad and Horgan have become friends and admirers. Each signed the other’s nomination papers for council. Both participated in the fiscal turnaround of Ojai city government.
And each has received the support of Councilmembers Steve Olsen and Joe DeVito, who were both critical of Francina’s performance when she was on the council a decade ago.
Hanstad and Horgan said they are running for a third full term because they want to finish the work they’ve begun, especially construction of a skate park for Ojai youth, completion of a new comprehensive plan to guide city policies and adoption of a new housing plan that addresses state mandates for more affordable dwellings.
They also want to make sure the City Council adopts follow-up policies to assure that the city never gets in the same financial mess that led it to completely drain a $4-million budget reserve four years ago.
And, as the emerging Ojai Valley Green Coalition finds full voice, both Hanstad and Horgan are pressing with the rest of the City Council to begin to implement the “Road Map to a Sustainable Ojai” it approved in May.
Specifically, Hanstad said at Monday’s forum on environmental issues that the city needs to work with the rest of the Ojai Valley communities to better address serious problems of water quality and availability, traffic and the region’s overall quality of life.
“Ojai really is a very special place,” Horgan added. “We all want to protect what we have here. We know we have a gem here.”
But Francina and Clapp criticized the City Council for talking a good game but acting too slowly.
“I hear Sue Horgan talk about being in balance: Our world is way out of balance,” Francina said.
And Clapp said the council had shelved the bicycle and pedestrian master plan Francina helped draft in 1999, and still has 50 bike racks in storage behind City Hall.
“We need to have deadlines,” Francina said. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of hot air.”
On a sampling of questions at Monday’s forum: Hanstad and Horgan said they wouldn’t ban use of plastic bags in the city, while Clapp and Francina said they would, and none of the candidates said they would ban from city use the herbicide spray, Roundup, which Ventura County is using to rid the Ventura River of the invasive arundo reed. Francina did say, to applause: “As a general rule we should have a pesticide-free valley.”
In more general terms, the incumbents have stressed in interviews that they’re running separate and independent campaigns. “Ojai voters are studious,” Hanstad said. “They judge candidates as individuals.”
Hanstad said she’ll spend about $3,500 in a “paperless” campaign that has no mass mailings, focusing instead on her reelectrae.com web site. Horgan said she has raised about $5,000 and spent about $4,000 on a mailed flier, a “focused letter” to potential supporters, ads and Ojai Day. Francina said she has spent about $3,500, mostly on a web site (suzaforojai.com), newspaper ads, mailers and an Ojai Day booth. Clapp estimates her spending at $4,400 for ads, mailers, lawn signs, a booth and web site (Betsy4Council.net). Lenehan said he has spent about $200 and has refused to accept campaign contributions.
Both incumbents said they’ve been pleased with the civil way in which this campaign has been waged by all five candidates, although Clapp and Francina have taken the fight to them at some of the forums.
“Obviously, there will be attacks on the city and the incumbents, but that’s just part of the format,” Hanstad said. “But between the candidates, I think it’s been very civil and respectful.”
Lenehan, however, said he didn’t like the way Clapp has pressed issues sometimes.
“I don’t agree with her sound-bite attacks,” he said. “I like her and I respect her, I just don’t agree with her tactics. Whether I agree with Suza or not, or think she’s on this planet, I like her.”
He said he likes and respects both Horgan and Hanstad because he worked well with both when they served as liaisons to the city Recreation Department.
Clapp said she’s received praise for her aggressive performance at forums, and was endorsed by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce board of directors after one last week. When chamber executive director Scott Eicher called, “… he said I was incredibly prepared” at the forums, she said.
Eicher said that at least five of the seven board members who voted endorsed Clapp. The board has 10 members, but two were absent and one abstained because she works on the Francina campaign, he said.
Meanwhile, like the incumbents, Clapp and Francina have echoed each other on issues.
They signed each other’s nominating petitions and have stressed many of the same environmentally oriented issues.
Clapp, 57, who runs a small business that makes powdered food products, and Francina said they are running on platforms that include goals embraced by the Green Coalition.
“The Ojai Valley Green Coalition is advocating things I’ve supported since 1974,” said Francina, who was derisively dubbed “Mayor Moonbeam” during her mayoral term in 2000.
“I smile when I remember that I used to be called ‘that bicycle lady’ and ‘Mayor Moonbeam,’” Francina said in her official candidate statement. “Now conservation is the watchword of every government and business around the world.”
Both Clapp and Francina said it is past time for the city to implement the bicycle-pedestrian master plan. “Where’s our bike plan developed 10 years ago?” Clapp said. “It’s gathering dust somewhere in City Hall.”
Both Clapp and Francina also have 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 about $100,000.
The proposed initiatives were in favor of affordable housing and against chain stores, both issues addressed this year by the council.
But both Horgan and Hanstad said they would not vote to spend any more money on the case if the American Civil Liberties Union appeals it to the state Supreme Court.
“Enough,” said Hanstad in an interview. “We have other legal priorities at this time.”
In a general sense, the five candidates bring to voters distinct personalities and clear choices.
When Hanstad, a 28-year Ojai resident, was first elected eight years ago, she was a partner in a local surgical equipment firm, raising three teenage children and was active not only in local schools but also in groups such as Ojai Valley Library Friends and Foundation, the Ojai Music Festival and the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
“That combination of volunteerism and business experience appealed to my drafting committee (in 2000),” Hanstad said, speaking of former Mayors Nina Shelley and David Bury, Councilman Olsen and current school board member Ricki Horne, among others.
Today, Hanstad, who holds a community college degree and attended classes at the University of Chicago, said she’s hardly a seasoned political veteran.
“I don’t know if anyone ever feels like a veteran here,” she said. “Ojai has such an active public. And you know what they say, there are no small issues in small towns.”
Hanstad sees herself as “a centrist, and that’s a strength.” But she knows that could be a dicey position in a close election in which other candidates have niches of support. “The person in the middle of the road gets run over,” she said.
Horgan’s path to the council followed graduation from the University of Colorado and years as a commercial banker in Los Angeles. She, her lawyer husband and 2-year-old daughter moved to Ojai 16 years ago. She served as administrative director at Four Winds School until 2003, and has been a stay-at-home mother since then. Like Hanstad, she’s served on a variety of local, city and countywide boards as a representative of Ojai.
Lately, she’s also served as a board member to the Ojai Valley Community Hospital Foundation.
“Really what sets me apart is my belief in responsive government, openness to new ideas and prudent fiscal management,” she said. “It’s a really balanced approach to solving the issues we face. I have a broad focus and not a single agenda.”
Her top priority right now, she said, is getting the skate park built promptly.
Clapp, an 18-year Ojai resident, has a widely varied professional history. She worked as a finish carpenter for 20 years, cooked on an offshore oil platform for four years, cruised in a sailboat with her husband for a year and a half and operated a Ventura coffee shop. Now, she runs two small businesses. And she did much of that while raising a daughter.
During her campaign, Clapp has proposed a number of new initiatives, including creation of a valleywide recreation district, since people throughout the area participate in programs sponsored by the city.
Indeed, a survey Clapp did during Ojai Day showed her what residents want the city to do with its money. Placing first, was construction of a community swimming pool, while more recreational activities was second in her survey. Street repairs ranked high, as did library remodeling, refurbishing Libbey Bowl and more bike lanes and racks, she said.
“This is all about the quality of life in this valley,” she said.
Francina, who emigrated from Holland to Ojai 51 years ago, trained as an early childhood teacher before graduating from the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. She’s written best-selling yoga books and is a local teacher of that discipline.
She has raised two children and now lives with “lots of animals” on “one of the most beautiful streets in Ojai.”
“I feel very loved and supported by the community,” she said, and good about running for council again.
“I feel I’m headed in the right direction, and I’m at peace either way.”
She’s already personally involved in one issue before the City Council — a proposal to tear down 18 of 25 low-income rental units on Mallory Way near her home, and build 23 new units in their place.
“I’ve submitted my concerns,” she said. “These are about the last low-income houses left.”
Lenehan, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves who is an Iraq War veteran, said he moved to Ojai in 2001 because it was such a good place to raise his five children.
“We all live in a three-bedroom, one-bath, 950-square-foot house,” he laughed. “But we feel very fortunate just to be here.”
He said he’s running his campaign on behalf of blue-collar Ojai. “I’m pretty much a working-class individual, like a lot of Ojai residents,” said Lenehan, a graduate of Santa Barbara City College and the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Lenehan said a focus of his campaign is improving youth recreational programs, although he said he’s learned a lot about other issues during the campaign.
“Most folks here in Ojai know me as coach Mike,” he said.
Lenehan has coached youth soccer, T-ball and hockey teams on which his children have participated. He is also an assistant varsity football coach at Villanova Preparatory School.
“I thought being involved in so many sports and having so many kids, I might as well contribute where I can.”
By Daryl Kelley