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Steve Bennett, Ventura County Supervisor

 

While the first days of spring have been cloaked in ominous storm fronts, the First District Ventura County Supervisor race is in full bloom.

Three-term incumbent Steve Bennett has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $250,000, far exceeding the cash raised by all other candidates combined. Candidate Bob Roper, a Ventura County fire chief, has raised a little more than $40,000. Ventura City Councilwoman Christy Weir collected about $13,000, and Ventura City Councilman Neal Andrews reported a cash balance of $100 at the March 17 filing deadline.

The candidates have sounded off on a number of issues they think are essential to county voters, but the topic of fiscal discipline is the primary thread.

 

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Christy Weir, Ventura City Councilwoman

“When I came to the county after I was first elected, there were zero reserves,” said Bennett, a Democrat. “I really pushed to bring all that to an end. Now we don’t budget an ongoing expense unless we have ongoing revenue. And as a result, we have been able to grow reserves from zero to 10 percent of our budget in these last 10 years, and that is in spite of the fact we had the state downturn in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when almost all local governments were dipping into their reserves.”

Bennett added that while pension reform is a hot issue of late, he has been a watchdog of pension spikes since he was first elected to the board of supervisors in 2000. Two months into his first term, he made a motion to stop an agenda item that would provide pension spikes to elected department heads. The motion failed. “The spike was worth $40,000 a year to Sheriff Bob Brooks,” Bennett recalled. “There wasn’t a big newspaper article about because it wasn’t on the radar screen. But I was watching out before it was on the radar screen.”

Roper, 56, a 32-year county fire department employee retiring this week, understands that his pension plus a supervisor’s salary may catch the attention of voters, but said his insight as a public employee and from working with labor unions is invaluable.

 

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Bob Roper, Ventura County fire chief

“Whatever we do with pension reform,” said Roper, who would decline to take a second retirement from the Board of Supervisors if elected, “it has to stay viable for the long range, financially. The funding level will have to support the financial liabilities in the future.”

Roper, a Republican, said his campaign will also focus on the county being more business-friendly.
“When people come here and open up new businesses, the attitude needs to be ‘How can we help you,’ not ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that,’ ” Roper said.

Andrews, a three-term Ventura councilman, is known as a financial watchdog and has long opposed big salary and pension increases during his time as an elected official. He also boasts 35 years of experience in the health care industry.

“When I was working in the private sector,” said Andrews, a Republican, about his positions in the health care industry, “I was able to reduce overhead in administration costs and save the company I was working with literally $200 million a year; and it’s that kind of ability to see those savings, to cut the overhead … and increase the efficiency of the organization that is what I specialize in and what I do.”

 

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Neal Andrews, Ventura City Councilman

When asked if he was at a financial disadvantage in the campaign, he laughed and pointed to his record of facing financial heavyweights. “I knew I would enter at financial disadvantage and I was comfortable with that,” he said.  “I led the campaign against Measure O. The proponents spent over $3 million. We spent $140,000 and we won by 72 percent. In the last election with the city I was involved in, the police alone spent more than $100,000 trying to defeat me. I spent $11,000 and won handily.”

In an e-mail response, Weir, who some argue was the frontrunner before Bennett entered the race after dropping his congressional bid, touched on a number of issues driving her campaign, such as job growth, reestablishing commercial service at the Oxnard Airport and making the county more accessible to the film industry. Regarding county pension reform, Weir, registered as no-party preference, stated that the biggest problem is pension spiking. “Upper-level employees are allowed to add to their retirement formulaextra pay such as ‘annual leave redemption’ (unused vacation pay) and uniform, education and ‘30-year’ allowances, so that many of their pensions are higher than their base salaries.” Weir added that in 2002, the county paid $81 million to retirees. In 2011, the number was $180 million. Cleary, she explained, the county needs a government that puts a priority on current services, not spiraling pension costs.

The First District covers Ventura, Saticoy, Ojai, northwest Oxnard and the north coast. The election is June 5.