The Stage Show
Recent county supervisor forum leaves some attendees rooting for underdogs
By Shane Cohn 04/26/2012
In the lobby of the Ventura Marriot Beach Hotel, county residents Ron Elliot and Eric King ordered a round of drinks following the conclusion of Ventura County District 1 Board of Supervisors forum on Thursday, April 19.
It wasn’t that the forum was so dull that they needed a shot of alcohol to jump-start their nerves, but the format of the event was too rushed, they said, and they needed to take some time to vet the responses from the candidates vying for the one open seat.
Three-term incumbent Steve Bennett, retired county fire chief Bob Roper and Ventura City Council members Christy Weir and Neal Andrews took turns introducing themselves to the audience; answering questions provided ahead of time about job creation, pensions, general government and land use, and responding to questions from the panel and audience.
While Elliot and King, both local business owners and undecided voters in the supervisor race, would have liked the candidates to have more time to respond to the audience’s questions, including their own about agriculture and oil, it was a forum presented by the Ventura County Taxpayers Association (VCTA) and Ventura Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, so a focus on pension reform was to be expected.
As Elliot and King discussed the candidates while awaiting their drinks, Andrews and Roper, both Republicans, emerged as their favorites of the night. What’s interesting about their choices is that the fiscally conservative Andrews was arguably the darling of the evening, while Roper faced heavy scrutiny from panelist and taxpayers attorney Jim McDermott about how Roper, who had a base salary as fire chief of $190,000 and now a pension that will exceed $230,000, could possibly have credibility with employee unions in regard to pension spiking.
“As far as making sure we have credibility with labor organizations,” said Roper, “if we’re looking at the current number of employees out there that are already vested in the system, I don’t see making changes to that group at all. What we’re looking at is a long-term plan for new hires to look at salary compensation, benefits, packages as a whole.”
McDermott shot back. “Did I hear you correctly that you are only interested in making changes for new hires, in which case wouldn’t impact the budget for 30 years?”
Roper countered. “I don’t have the legal opinions of county counsel or outside legal firm on each of the labor contracts to say what we can unilaterally do and can’t do.”
Pension talk aside, King said he was impressed with Roper’s experience as a fire chief and the networking skills he developed over three decades of county service.
Andrews, on the other hand, elicited cheers from the audience when he discussed his plan to defer the draw on the retirements until a time that was consistent with most of the social security retirement provisions.
“Neal showed he held a strong conservative side of governing,” said Elliot.
The other two candidates, Weir and Bennett, were also firm in their stance regarding pension reform. Weir said that she supported all the VCTA recommendations to lessen the burden of pension costs on the county budget, and also added that the retirement age must be increased.
Bennett, elected to the board of supervisors in 2001, used his track record to prove he has been fighting for pension reform since well before it was really an issue, even of the VCTA. “In 2001 and 2004, when I challenged these issues and finally and successfully won,” said Bennett, “the old leadership of taxpayers association did not join me on those issues. So I thank the taxpayers association for new leadership and fresh approach on these.”
The forum, although briefly, also touched on job creation, general government and land use. But clearly, for those like Elliot and King, who came to the event detached from the media’s labels of underdog and favorite, the field is still wide open for a breakaway candidate.
The primary will be held June 5.
The Stage Show column will feature election coverage throughout 2012, a reporter’s candid analysis of forums and related events.