Thursday, September 27, 201
By Kit Stolz
Last winter, Steve Bennett, flew to Washington, D.C, huddled with consultants for the Democratic Party about campaign strategy, and then launched an ambitious effort to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to compete for a seat in Congress.
In February, he dropped out of the congressional race, deciding instead to run again for the Board of Supervisors. Bennett, who has represented the Ojai and Ventura area since 2000, returned approximately $300,000 to supporters of his Congressional campaign.
In June, he took 44 percent of the vote in the District 1 primary election — enough to best his Democratic rivals, but not to avoid a fall runoff election against Republican challenger Bob Roper.
“I think some people, over a period of time, have grown a little callous to the fact that all the programs the county funds — be they environmental programs or social service programs — require a viable local economy,” Roper said recently. “They may get involved in a presidential campaign or a congressional race, and don’t understand that any immediate change, or fairly immediate change, happens at a local level.”
In a telephone interview, Bennett said he had been heavily recruited by leading Democrats to run for the seat, but as he got into the race realized he didn’t want to go to Washington.
“I had an opportunity, and the path was pretty clear, but as I went forward, I realized that my passion was for serving here,” he said. “I think I can make a greater contribution as a county supervisor, and I think that’s a recommitment, and not a distraction.”
In his platform, Bennett stresses “fiscal discipline,” and cites a pension increase for county officials he says he blocked in 2000 as an example.
“Six weeks after I was elected, on the consent calendar, was an item giving elected county officials — such as the district attorney and the assessor — a completely-illogical pension spike,” he said. “To give an example, Sheriff Bob Brooks would have gotten a spike of $40,000. I objected, and (Supervisor) Kathy Long backed me. At that time there wasn’t this tremendous public outrage about pension payments, such as department heads retiring with $250,000 a year pensions.”
Roper retired this year after serving for 14 years as chief of the Ventura County Fire Department. He was awarded a pension of almost $250,000 a year, with guaranteed cost of living adjustments.
Bennett has pointed out that if Roper accepts credits towards a second pension, he would be required by state law to sacrifice his current retirement benefits.
If elected, Roper has promised to refuse credits he would earn towards a Board of Supervisors pension and continues to call for a broad-based reconsideration of total compensation for all county employees.
“Two years ago when (county employees’ unions) agreed to pay more for benefits for new employees, that was great, but the system needs a complete overhaul,” Roper said. “We need to look at both compensation and the benefits for existing employees as well as new employees.”
Roper also has offered to deduct from his supervisorial salary a new non-political “business facilitator,” position to help businesses succeed in the county.
“I’m offering to fund this position out of my salary,” he said. “If we could facilitate more businesses and business growth in this county, wouldn’t it create more revenue and a broader tax base to pay for more social service programs, health programs and public safety programs?”
Bennett argues that the Board has already made that a priority. “When we hired a new chief executive officer, Mike Powers, 18 months ago, we said we wanted to do a much better job of outreach to businesses,” he said. “We have created a point person for the permitting process for businesses, and the CEO is developing a collaborative model for business retention and assistance.”
Bennett thinks that long-term quality of life is the big issue. “In Ojai, that’s what people are most concerned about,” he said. “We don’t want the kind of urban sprawl we see in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. That’s important to residents and it’s part of the reason why tourism is an important business here.”
Roper said he supported the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (S.O.A.R.) initiative when it was originally proposed, but thinks that subsequent county restrictions on development have gone too far. “I think what the county needs now is to find that balance of business development and population growth here in Ventura County,” he said.