Talk City
     by Bill Fulton

Excerpt from Talk City

In most ways, Ventura is a typical Southern California beach town. It’s a pretty and historic working-class oil town 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, a regionally important surf spot, one of California’s original Mission towns, seat of the Ventura County government, gradually becoming a suburb of uber-expensive Santa Barbara and, to a lesser extent, uber-huge L.A. My family moved there in the ‘80s because it seemed like a good place for our kids to grow up, and it was. Even today, Ventura has an unusually robust community life, where people know each other many different ways -- through PTOs, soccer leagues, senior centers, community orchestras, art programs, environmental organizations, and all kinds of other activities.

Yet from the beginning I could see that Ventura had a lively, colorful and sharp-elbowed political scene. The police and fire unions, the Chamber of Commerce, the developers, the local anti-growth environmentalists – all were in constant battle with one another. The “Letters To The Editor” page of the local newspaper was immensely entertaining reading. The gadflies were far more interesting in Ventura than anywhere else I could recall, led – if you could call it that – by a voluntarily homeless man who wore a black cape, a bicycle cap, and a Wyatt Earp moustache and tooled around town on a bicycle carrying his laptop computer. (He ran and lost for the City Council every time out.)

The City Council met in an elegant 1912 beaux-arts former courthouse, in the very room where the last woman ever executed in California had once been tried, for the murder of her pregnant daughter-in-law. Outbursts had become so disruptive at City Council meetings that applause had been banned and replaced with the American Sign Language version of applause instead – a kind of wiggly hand-waving above the head that made it seem as though the City Council Chambers had just been infected by baseball’s “Wave”. In some ways, it was typical small-town politics; in other ways, it was as high-pressure and ruthless as presidential politics.

I got involved in civic life in Ventura in the late ‘90s, when I was appointed to the city’s Library Commission and, shortly thereafter, when the City Council asked me to chair a 39-member stakeholder committee charged with creating a common vision for the future of Ventura. Although most people loved Ventura’s historic, small-town-by-the-sea-near-LA environment, it had become very hard for people to agree on much of anything else.

Growth wars dating back to the 1970s had left deep scars. The skirmishes are too numerous and parochial to enumerate here, but they were pretty typical of the battles up and down the coast during those years. They were mostly fights over the amount of suburban-style residential development, which spilled over into the courts and onto the ballot on a regular basis. (The amount of residential growth was cut in half during this period as a result.) The most dramatic example was the time that the owners of Patagonia Inc., perhaps Ventura’s most important company, intervened in a local City Council election with the express goal of killing the idea of a California State University campus in town. Kill it they did, and the result was a lasting rift between environmentalists and business types, with nobody thinking of the Patagonia folks as Chamber of Commerce types.

Although Ventura often seemed paralyzed by the political diversity of the residents, I grew to love practically everybody who was involved in politics or civic life. Rarely did they fit into a neat political box. Surfing environmentalists were often hard-core libertarians as well. The evangelical pastors, though extremely conservative on most political issues, had a strong sense of social justice and were committed to helping the homeless, single mothers with small children, and others who were having a hard time.

And you never knew where help would come from next. One Sunday after a service at the local Unitarian Universalist Church, I was approached by a man in his 30s wearing all black with several tattoos. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter, both of whom were dressed in all black with heavy dark makeup.

“Mayor Fulton,” he said, “I just wanted to say we love what you’re doing. We are so excited about where Ventura is going.”

I thanked him in a perfunctory way, and he added:

“We were wondering – how can the Goth community get more involved?”

Despite this passion, political diversity, and quirky sense of commitment, though, Venturans had a deeply conflicted view of their own government.

On the one hand, people usually expected the city to do everything. It was an old-fashioned “full service” city, which must provide all services (police, fire, parks, water and sewer), and very often it was the only local institution big enough and with enough revenue to initiate any large-scale undertaking.

On the other hand, most people didn’t vote in local elections; they were deeply skeptical of the city government’s competence; and they regularly voted down tax increases and tied the city’s hands on policy decision via other ballot initiatives.

Sometimes we couldn’t even agree on what to call our city. The official name is “San Buenaventura,” named for our mission, which was in turn named for St. Bonaventure, the 13th Century Catholic saint. (St. Bonaventure was a Franciscan, as was Father Junipero Serra, father of the California mission system.) But that name had been shortened to “Ventura” in the 19th Century, supposedly because the full name was too long to fit on the railroad schedules. Yet we never quite decided what to call ourselves – even our wayfinding signs said Ventura in some locations and San Buenaventura in others. In the middle of a heated debate on this topic one night, one of our longtime City Councilmembers said, “We should use San Buenaventura on all of our signs so everybody knows they’re in Ventura.”

I ran in 2003 largely as a follow-up to the community visioning effort, and also because as a city planner with a statewide reputation I felt I could help to heal the scars from the growth wars and help the city set a new course of responsible and high-quality development. I was worried that in the long run Ventura could become nothing more than a tourist, retirement and commuter town and gradually lose its character.

Although I ran in part as an environmentalist – it was hard to get elected in Ventura without being an environmentalist – over time I settled on two themes for my time in elected office: improving the quality of life in Ventura and creating enduring prosperity. These were not easy themes to translate into action. The first theme was, of course, subject to everybody’s definition of the term. Improving one person’s quality of life often involves harming somebody else’s – or at least many people think so. And creating enduring prosperity often means picking your spots and not giving somebody what they wanted in the short-term. As I often said, just because something was in the short-term financial interest of some landowner didn’t mean it was in the long-term economic interest of the city and its residents.

During my first term, pursuing these objectives was difficult but not impossible. A reform movement had emerged in my field of urban planning – common known in those days as “Smart Growth” – which focused not on the quantity of new development but the quality and geographical distribution of that development. We were able to use some of these ideas to break the traditional gridlock over growth by adopting a new general plan, redoing some of our codes, and approving many new development projects, especially in our downtown. We also hired Smart Growth advocate Rick Cole, a legendary former mayor of Pasadena, as our city manager. (Rick went on to serve as a deputy mayor to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and is now city manager of Santa Monica.) Unfortunately, few of those projects were ever built because of the Great Recession that began in 2007.

During my second term – which coincided with the Great Recession – it was almost impossible to focus on improving anything, especially in the long term. We were confronted every day with just trying to keep our head above water financially and keeping the city solvent.

During the recession – when I served as deputy mayor and mayor -- I was surprised at how hard it was to truly engage my constituents and overcome the general skepticism about our financial situation, the limits on our ability to do things, and even whether we were telling the truth. I also came to see how hard it was to move past the desire to talk about everything forever in preference to actually doing things. As we used to say at the City Council meetings, “Everything has been said, but not everybody has had the chance to say it.” I had no problem with endless talk if it led to a consensus to act. Often I was frustrated, however, when the talk seemed to be an end in itself and served as a process designed to reach a consensus to do nothing. Because doing nothing was a choice about how to proceed – and not always a good one.

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