It’s been three short days since former Ventura Deputy Mayor Carl Morehouse morphed into current Mayor Carl Morehouse and, while he may look one heck of a lot like country-crooner-slash-movie-star Kris Kristofferson, don’t expect the long-time planner to trade his blueprints for a steel-stringed guitar any time soon.
Morehouse, a native of Indiana who’s called Ventura home since 1986, has been a land use planner for 25 years. Not one to be messed with — he holds a third-degree black belt in Hung Gar Kung Fu and a green belt in Judo — Morehouse was involved in the development of Ventura’s Downtown Specific Plan, as well as with several other city issues, prior to his election to City Council in 1999. He is currently serving his second term.
Morehouse talked to the VC Reporter on Tuesday, when he spoke of his new role, the finer points of city planning and what it’s like to have a twin brother from another mother.
Ventura County Reporter: Why would anyone want to be mayor? It looks like a lot of work and it can’t be for that $600 a month stipend.
Carl Morehouse: It’s an important job in a couple ways. Number one, it’s important because the mayor is the person who represents the community and is the person who often has to communicate the needs and concerns of the city to the county and the rest of the state. It’s a title that shouldn’t be taken lightly, though the mayor doesn’t have more power than the rest of the members of the council. The mayor helps match the other council members with other assignments, committees or bodies that the city has some form of representation on. The mayor is the person who makes sure there is representation on all the various councils we have interest in.
VCR: So, in many ways, the mayor is like the manager of the City Council?
CM: Well, it’s important and valuable that the entire council does their homework. You have to be prepared for the deliberations and you have to be able to understand 360-degree viewpoints. The mayor leads meeting and facilitates relationships, but the council is designed to work as a body … You are the embodiment and the personification of the community for a couple of years and you have to have the capability to hear from your community and the responsibility to adequately represent the collective needs of your community. There will be a segment of the population that feels like you are representing them well and others who do not … As for being mayor, it takes a little while to sink in that that’s [the title of mayor] in front of your name … The mayor is the highest visible elected representative official and is petitioned for things that are of concern. The questions should be petitioned through the chair of the deliberative body — but the perception is that the mayor has powers that they simply don’t have … The mayor has the opportunity to advance causes and speak for issues, but, again, has no more power than any other council member and doesn’t have the last word. A mayor doesn’t have the power to veto the decisions of the council.
VCR: Can it be tough to understand all viewpoints when some of your detractors approach you at City Council meetings?
CM: Clearly, we have some people who do come before the council who have whatever issues they have on their minds. We just do the best we can do see their viewpoints, hear them out and let them know what the abilities of the council are to help.
VCR: Has anyone ever told you that look like Kris Kristofferson?
CM: Numerous occasions, and I’m very flattered by it. I met him once and even he agrees.
VCR: Where did you meet him?
CM: I met him at the Ventura fairgrounds. I also sent him an autographed picture of me, which is the reverse, of course, of what usually happens.
VCR: You are an expert on sustainability — developing livable communities and stopping urban sprawl. How is Ventura doing in these areas, in your opinion?
CM: Please remove the word “expert,” as I wouldn’t profess to be an expert in anything. I am a strong proponent of it, but the concept of mixed use as a new form of urban planning is very, very new and I think we are doing really well. The way that we planned to grow is a different paradigm — though I hesitate to use the word because it’s very overused — from what’s been done in the past … It’s a shift in thinking of what we had done for the ’60s through the ’90s in terms of planning.
VCR: Do you think that, because it’s so new, it’s difficult to determine how we’re doing?
CM: I think it’s too early in the game to do a measurement and see how we’re doing because it’s just too early to see. If people move into these spaces and have businesses near them, they might use them and they might not. Hopefully, it will be a scenario in which there will be mutual gains for businesses and residents.
VCR: As a long-time planner, where do you think the relatively new emergence of mixed-use planning came from?
CM: After World War II, there was a movement to try to provide adequate housing to those returning from war and we began to see the emergence of housing tracts, and people started to become tied to their automobiles. The cost is that cars are everywhere and now you are stuck if you don’t have one and there’s air pollution. As a result, we have houses that cater to cars … People began to become less connected to their neighbors and their communities in general. There has been a change and a breakdown of society, and we have been missing that connection … Now, there’s a move to, if the conditions are right, go back to the kinds of cities we used to see. We see movies like It’s A Wonderful Life and we say, “That’s the kind of street we all used to live on.” You used to be able to get out and walk to the pharmacy. It’s architects who’ve caught onto it and planners realized what we had done wrong.
VCR: Winter is here once again. What are your thoughts on the council’s role in sheltering the homeless during the worst weather of the year?
CM: Well, I’m not sure it’s the council’s responsibility. We do it and we do it annually, along with Oxnard, and we’ve set aside funding for shelter. Oxnard’s armory was supposed to open Dec. 1, but it’s being used for other purposes right now … I think we have an obligation as a community to take care of people who have nowhere to go and might freeze to death if they’re not sheltered. It’s a collective community responsibility.
VCR: Do you think some of the population doesn’t fully understand what the City Council’s responsibilities are?
CM: I think there really is a misconception about the mayor’s role and place in this community. We don’t have a directly elected mayor like many other communities, which rotate mayorship annually. Our city manager and our council members are very cognizant of the concern of disconnect between people’s understanding of where they pay taxes and where those taxes end up. We’re going to make a much stronger effort in the next couple of years to see if we can increase the public’s understanding. We want to try to raise much of our public’s consciousness to see how the city’s council, taxes and laws work.
VCR: With a shortage of quality jobs and affordable housing, do you have any ideas about how we can keep young people in Ventura?
CM: Clearly an expansion in housing types and variety in housing prices will be a part of it — and having jobs here. We don’t want to provide housing for communities that are jobs rich. It’s a combination of the two. I can’t say it’s exactly the chicken or the egg.
VCR: What are some of the things you’d like to see happen in Ventura while you’re mayor?
CM: We have a few serious challenges facing us. One is budgetary. We still, as a city, are not funded at the levels we were funded 15 years ago … The budget is a challenge. Another thing is that we need to be able to beef up our police and fire services. We’re growing in population but not in public safety personnel. We need to bring that up. We also need a variety of housing — like workforce housing — and we have an obligation to the lower income people, whether they be farm workers or those who work in motels or food service.
VCR: Any last words about important issues I have blatantly forgotten?
CM: I truly do mean that the title of mayor is a title that doesn’t particularly have more power, but it’s a great honor because it says that the community trusts me, has faith in my abilities and believes that I will respect them. To me, it means a lot and I will do my part to respect that.