It seemed like a simple decision. A majority of Ventura County Supervisors decided that a man the board had already appointed to the Ventura County Planning Commission wasn’t qualified for the post.
But, here’s the twist. It wasn’t that he was underqualified. They decided he was overqualified, because the retired Ventura man had been an employee and manager in the County’s Planning Division for more than three decades. To a trio of board members, that raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
The story starts February 28th, when First District Supervisor Steve Bennett asked the board to approve Bruce Smith as a new Planning Commissioner. The County has five planning commissioners, one appointed by each county supervisor, with the board routinely approving supervisors choices. So, on that day, Bennett’s selection was approved on a 3-0 vote, with Bennett, John Zaragoza, and Linda Parks voting yes. Supervisors Peter Foy and Kelly Long missed the meeting.
Now, fast forward to Tuesday’s meeting. Supervisor Foy asked Supervisors to take the unusual step of removing Smith. He asserted with a new county general plan being developed, it would be inappropriate for Smith to help review a document he might have had a past role in developing. Foy contended the panel should reflect the views of ordinary citizens, not someone who was a county insider.
But, there are few formal rules to serving on the commission. Bennett, who nominated Smith, said given the lack of rules, it’s unfair to try to make them now and then apply them to someone who’s already been selected for the commission. He said it's a fair issue to raise, but given the lack of formal policy, it would be unfair to remove Smith while trying to create a more formal definition.
Smith, who has been retired for more than five years, campaigned for the successful SOAR voter initiative last year which protects open space and agland in the county. The issue was controversial because it would continue existing restrictions on large scale projects, requiring voter approval for them. But, Foy said there was nothing personal in the effort, and that it had nothing to do with SOAR.
As the discussion continued, it became clear the board was split 2-2 on Smith’s removal with the tiebreaking vote being Supervisor Linda Parks, who had supported Smith’s appointment in February. She changed her mind, citing concerns about having someone who was a member of the public, and not a county insider on the panel.
Bennett says there is nothing in county policy which says a former county employee can’t serve as a commissioner, noting that the County Counsel had reported that there was absolutely no conflict.
The discussion then became more personal, with Bennett saying the change in heart by Parks was personal, while Parks insisting she was simply acting in the county’s best interests.
The board voted 3-2 to remove Smith in advance of the Planning Commission’s next meeting, which is set for Thursday.
What’s unclear at this point is why the controversy even got this far. County Supervisors can’t vote on an appointment unless it’s on their agenda, and the agendas legally have to come out days in advance of the meeting. There was no furor when Smith’s named was advanced by Bennett. Even though Fog and Long missed the February 28th meeting where the first vote happened, it’s taken more than five weeks for the question to be formally raised.
Bennett will have the opportunity now to come up with another candidate.