Santa Paula Times

Rita Stafford: High-energy, low-cost campaign for City Council

October 29, 2010
Santa Paula City Council

Rita X. Stafford is running a high-energy, low-cost campaign for City Council, a race she entered when she thought no one else would try for a seat that carries a four-year term overseeing a city with financial problems.

Stafford and her husband Fred have owned their Santa Paula home for “a year and a half, but only moved here six months ago. That’s what happens when you renovate a house that’s been condemned,” she noted of her Oaks residence.

Stafford holds a doctorate from USC Department of Educational Policy and Administration, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Los Angeles City College.

Active in her former Los Angeles mid-Wilshire residential neighborhood, Stafford founded the Catalina Street Neighborhood Association to counter neighborhood rising crime and eroding quality of life. The group became the Ambassador Hill Neighborhood Association serving more than 250,000 residents; Stafford worked closely with Councilman Eric Garcetti to spearhead anti-graffiti and beautification efforts.

When Stafford read a July Santa Paula Times article noting no candidates had yet pulled council nomination papers, she “became alarmed and went right down to City Hall” prior to other candidates pulling papers.

Stafford believes the most pressure issue the city is facing is “balancing the budget,” which requires “austerity measures, until the economy rebounds. Examples throughout the world show that throwing money at problems doesn’t work.”

Her number one priority would be to make the “tough decisions to balance the budget,” decision-making that would depend on fiscal facts. Staff and citizen input are important, as is developing alternate funding for particular needs, such as the Santa Paula Police & Fire Foundation, and holding the state accountable in returning funding taken by money grabs to balance its own budget.

Stafford opposes privatizing refuse services: “Selling off the city’s assets and privatizing services opens up the city to unforeseen complications and inefficiencies that in the long term may be more costly,” and could create a domino effect. “Selling trash services today may mean selling something else tomorrow, and so on. It would be sad for Santa Paulans to wake up to an infrastructure that is no longer theirs, and with no control over what happens. However, to be fair, the privatization matter is still being studied,” and bids are yet to be released.

Stafford also opposes melding the finance and public works departments, a move she believes would create “an inherent conflict of interest; but if budget constraints require it, and it’s turned over to qualified individuals and is fiscally clean, yes.” However Stafford believes such a move would remove a “certain amount of pride,” if positions could be interchanged so easily. “It’s almost like diminishing the work of someone’s labor and expertise and what they’ve committed themselves to...  it’s a very human dilemma.”

When it comes to the city retaining its own state certified engineer on staff, “Yes, yes, yes. As soon as we can afford it,” although she believes there was “no alternative” to the overall reductions in public works personnel. “However, with $5 million dollars” in bonds “for potholes and street repairs, slashing so many public works jobs doesn’t make sense to me.”

When it comes to the city’s new water recycling facility and spiraling customer fees, Stafford said, “There are widespread complaints regarding the new wastewater facility, and many are valid. Yet, as things stand right now, we need to buck up and pay.”

But that doesn’t mean Stafford doesn’t have questions: “Santa Paula’s city services work well, and are a source of civic pride and power for the city’s residents. However, it seems like the city’s been mugged” with the new plant, “and nobody’s being held accountable.”

The privately owned plant was built under the Design/Build/Operate/Finance process, and “From now on, resisting privatization of city services and departments will be an uphill battle. That’s the consequence of the wastewater plant and the disbanding of the public works department. Next will be trash, then police, fire and so on.”

And, Stafford believes, “This speaks to the heart of the matter when thinking about the relationship between the city council and city management. Management has a job to do and the expertise to do it, but the council must keep management transparent and accountable... in other words, honest. Because we are all human, the temptation to wheel and deal will always be there, but Santa Paula’s integrity and best interests must not be sold off.”

Council members can only make the right decisions if they are informed: “It is up to each one of them to fully research and investigate present and future matters. They can’t just sit back and say, ‘Hmmm, this sounds good,’ and vote yes. They must play an active role and find out for themselves. It takes a lot of time and effort, but there is no better way to guide and support management. Being fully and accurately informed is fuel for the courage and resolve necessary to succeed for the sake of the people of Santa Paula.”

“I can’t imagine sitting on the council and not knowing what you do there,” and Stafford said, “It’s important to listen and important to lead...  they’re not mutually exclusive.... It’s a sorry state if council members anywhere go there and just keep a seat warm,” and “when you question things people want to participate more... if they see a council not being creative, challenging and questioning they don’t show up.”

Police and fire services can be buffed up as the economic crisis tapers off. And “Now is the time for city government to become more efficient, not more expensive.”

When it comes to Fagan Canyon development, “If it’s developer driven, Santa Paulans are right to refuse it.” New housing “has to come from genuine need and a desire to promote a vibrant, sustainable future. I want to see environmentally sound development with housing that has architectural merit, so that young professionals seeking a wholesome place to live, work and raise families will want to live here.”

And such growth will have a spillover effect: “I can’t think of a more natural way to revitalize downtown.” Stafford envisions Santa Paula 2020 as “thriving, youthful, modern and hi-tech as it is beautiful and historic.”

What she would like to see changed is for “Santa Paula to confidently step into the 21st century with innovative economic development and celebrated new housing so that young people - our human capital, our wealth - will live and make things happen right here just as the first young Santa Paulans did over a hundred years ago.... I’d also like to see,” Stafford laughed, “more nerds and geeks.”

Stafford loves Santa Paula’s “diversity, the harmony, the beauty, the potential to do things right, the warmth of its people, and that it doesn’t have sprawling cookie cutter, faux-Tuscan developments.” And its greatest need? “To create a generation of entrepreneurs who will want to stay here. What better way to help seniors, low-income residents and the disabled than through the wealth created by its own citizens?”

When it comes to endorsements Stafford said she has her own: “I’ll endorse anyone who at this time comes down on the side of austerity.”

Although “I support civic virtue and volunteerism 100 percent,” until December Stafford will commute to Los Angeles three days a week, “which leaves me little-to-no time” to take part in local events. “When I start teaching closer to home, then I can devote myself to my Santa Paula life.”

Her primary source of news is the Santa Paula Times, major dailies on the Internet, and “some talking heads on TV.” Her favorite film is “It’s A Wonderful Life” - especially when “George visits the town as it might have been if he never existed.” The last book she read was “Imperium” by Robert Harris, his second about Roman statesman Cicero.

She has a stepchild and “four beautiful grandchildren all living in Santa Paula.” And, “Is there such a number as sixtyteen?” Stafford laughed before she said she is 64.