SINCE 1972, it could be said that the motto for voters in Ventura County’s Fifth District has been “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” at least when it comes to appointing their local elected official.
With the exception of one term, that’s precisely how long voters have asked John Flynn to keep returning as Oxnard’s representative on the County Board of Supervisors. The inimitable Flynn was first elected in 1972 and has been one of the few constants in an ever-changing Oxnard, known just as much for his strong policy making as his fiery disposition.
But like all things that come to an end, Flynn’s seat on the dais at the county government center will be replaced, by another Oxnard stalwart — John Zaragoza — when the longtime supervisor steps down on Jan. 5, having lost this election by just over 3,000 votes.
It’s a bit of an anticlimactic finish for the outspoken Flynn, but it’s not concerning him too much, considering that the track record he leaves behind is marked by some landmark advancement for minorities, solutions to the area’s water problems, and a dedication to fostering mental illness awareness that nobody dared touch back in the 1970s.
His motto? “Deeds, not words.”
Flynn sat down with the VCReporter this week to talk about some of his achievements, what’s in store for himself, for Oxnard and for the future.
VCR: So, here we are just two weeks away from the end of your tenure. Has it sunk in yet?
Flynn: No, it really hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s hard to change your course of action after 32 years. But the voters have voted, and I accept that.
VCR: You’d toyed with the idea of retiring in the last few years. What kept you seeking your incumbency?
Flynn: I never said that [retirement] publicly. I may have joked about it, but I never said it. I really don’t believe in retiring. I really love to work; I’ve worked all my life. This is my 49th year of working after I graduated from UCSB.
VCR: Going back to the beginning: What was the impetus for your political ambitions?
Flynn: I was politically active at UCSB; I was president of our fraternity. That was in the mid-’50s. We were a fraternity that had that clause in it that you had to be white and Christian. Our fraternity members simply didn’t like that too much. So we integrated our fraternity. We were national and integrated and violated those bylaws. And that, I think, triggered some of my interest in political things. That’s more than just a political thing; it’s a moral issue, too. But we were one of the first, if not the first, in the United States, of a national fraternity like that to integrate.
I worked on campaigns, housing campaigns. A campaign against Prop. 14 in 1964, that gave people the right to discriminate in housing for whatever reason, including race, including religion, for any reason. We had a campaign against that.
VCR: When you were elected in ’72 as the newest member to the board, who were some of your colleagues at that point?
Flynn: (finds a framed board portrait from 1975) This is Ted Grandsen from Simi, “Hoot” Bennett from Ventura and Ojai, Ed Jones from Thousand Oaks. Frank Jewett represented Ventura.
VCR: What were the political and social climates like back then in Ventura County and in the Fifth District? Anything in particular you wanted to change or introduce in the early ’70s that was a priority for you?
Flynn: The demographics in Oxnard were somewhat different then than they are today. The Hispanic population has increased considerably, compared to then. I was one who very much supported agricultural labor, farm workers. The airport was a big issue, the Camarillo airport. There were people who did not want to see it as an airport. Oxnard’s airport was, to some degree, controversial, but not like Camarillo.
And then there were planning issues, growth was an issue then. The environmental movement was just starting then in the early ’70s. And so we did a lot of things that were environmentally oriented: open space programs, protecting agricultural land, that sort of thing.
VCR: You’ve championed water issues in Ventura County for decades. Your biggest coup was the Freeman Diversion, and you worked toward the imminent removal of Ojai’s Matilija Dam, improving beach quality, the harbor. What was it that set up this pattern of clean water advocacy for you?
Flynn: The groundwater issues at that time … the seawater was invading the Oxnard aquifer, about 200 feet below us. The seawater had actually gotten very close to where we’re sitting, only 200 feet down. If it had kept moving in the direction of El Rio, it could well have ruined much of our water system. So I thought it was an urgent matter. Some people said, “Don’t get involved with it because it’s very controversial.” But I did get involved with it. And out of that came what we have today, which is putting more water into the aquifer system, and pushing out the seawater. And we have a groundwater management agency … which is basically the first one of its nature in the history of the State of California.
VCR: Another controversial issue, you’ve also been outspoken towards greater awareness of mental illness. Was there a personal factor for taking up this cause, anything in your own life?
Flynn: There were families here who were not happy with the system. They weren’t happy with their inability to impact the mental health system. They became very upset about it; they weren’t listened to. So I organized them. All of them had sons or daughters or both who were mentally ill, some of them very seriously ill. We would meet often, and out of that gave them a greater voice. We put a face on mental health, I would say. Hopefully, people began to understand it better. Out of that came La Posada in Camarillo, and then we started the new psychiatric hospital in Ventura. My concern was to put a face on it so people understood. But we still have a long ways to go.
I did not know anything about it myself … and I felt I needed to learn as much as I possibly could. So the family members were really my teachers.
VCR: What’s your opinion on the proposed prison healthcare facility in Camarillo? It’s received a lot of criticism.
Flynn: I did not take a position. I think that the state and the judge who gave the order, and the person who’s carrying out the order, they have a great opportunity here to make some big changes in mental health, and I would hope they’d use the opportunity. Put facilities in the state that are much smaller than the one planned. Put one here, that’s fine, but much smaller. When something gets that big, 1,500 (beds), it becomes unmanageable. It becomes like the King Drew Hospital in L.A.
VCR: Talk about your proudest achievements — changes you ushered in, those that you thought you’d never see decades later, when you were first elected.
Flynn: I think my main emphasis has been on integration. I’m a firm believer in integration, and that belief started well before I became a supervisor. I think I represented all of the population, not just some of the population. And probably that, I’m proud of that more than anything else, that people come to me regardless of their race or ethnicity and feel comfortable coming to me personally. I feel proud of the openness and the connectivity to the population.
VCR: It’s well-known that early on you were active with the NAACP (in Santa Barbara), and as a supervisor, you went to lengths to learn Spanish so you could communicate better with your Hispanic constituents. Describe your relationship with minorities in the community.
Flynn: Our aim was to reduce and eliminate the effects of racism. That’s always been a philosophy of mine. At that time, there were some black minstrel shows that increased the sensitivity of black people, and we managed to get rid of those.
Then I was active in farm labor issues. In 1974, the sheriff’s department, during a strawberry strike, was using helicopters to control the strikers. I brought that issue before the board, who said it wasn’t a legitimate use of the helicopters.
So they stopped it, and Cesar Chavez called me that evening and thanked me. That was early on.
It’s an integrated district: 80 percent non-Anglo. I became very familiar with them and always stuck up for them and an issue.
VCR: Tell us your experiences with the communities of El Rio and Nyeland Acres? Are they assimilated into the Oxnard fabric as much as you’d like to see them?
Flynn: People want to remain unincorporated. They feel a greater independence. They like the way they live there, they like the openness. El Rio was not always part of my district. When it became so, I think in ’94, a person asked me, “What are you going to do about our children?” And I really hadn’t thought about it, and I said, “Build a gym.” And that’s what we did. But it took 10 years to get the money for it. And now we have a clinic there.
I made some improvements, but there’s always more to do. I’ve always carried El Rio pretty well. Nyeland Acres, the same way, we put sewers there, improved the streets. I had worked for about a year to put an office there. We had finally made an arrangement with the school district. But what’s going to happen with that, I don’t know.
VCR: You publicly declined a hefty severance benefits package in 1994 that you voted in favor of just four years prior. What made you change your mind?
Flynn: The problem with it, it was kind of sneaked into the middle of a document like this (holds hands wide apart) and I really didn’t know it was there. But I voted for it, not really knowing. It was just a violation of the public trust, I thought.
VCR: And the remaining supervisors?
Flynn: They all received it, yeah.
VCR: How did it feel, taking that stance, giving that up when you knew you didn’t have to?
Flynn: I just felt I could not live with myself if I took the money.
VCR: How much was it?
VCR: People have said John Flynn is adversarial, he has a hot temperament, he wars with the other supervisors. Yet the voters kept wanting you back for 30-plus years. How do you reconcile all of that together?
Flynn: I’m sure that, legitimately, it could be called a temper. (laughs) But sometimes people confuse passion — I’m very passionate — with temper. And I’m sure I’ve lost my temper. Otherwise, if I had done all the things people said I’d done through the years, I’d never have been re-elected.
VCR: Noting that, the majority vote last month to enact term limits on members of the Board of Supervisors: How much of an influence do you think your tenure had on that?
Flynn: I don’t know. I thought about it, how could people vote for that and then vote for me, too? (laughs) But they did, 70 percent of them. People have been for term limits in the state of California for the past 20 years or so. It’s never been on the local level until this time when (District Four Supervisor) Peter Foy put it forth. I wondered if it had any effect on mine, but I don’t know that.
VCR: Nonetheless, only you and one other county supervisor — Thomas Clark from Ojai, who served for over 30 years — are tied with the highest term records at eight each. What was the secret to your longevity?
Flynn: I think work hard, represent the people as hard as you possibly can. You can’t represent all of their views … but for the most part, really fight hard for the people. That’s what they elected you to do.
VCR: And what are some of Oxnard’s future needs?
Flynn: Probably a primary need here — and teachers are working hard at it — is that there’re a lot of young kids whose reading and writing and math proficiency simply isn’t there. I think that’s the biggest challenge. There’s one school a couple of years ago where only 17 percent of the kids could read and write proficiently. You think about what do the other 83 do when they grow up? I think that’s a major issue, and just because a kid is poor, doesn’t mean the kid can’t learn. That’s not an excuse. There are students that proved this is not an excuse that should be used. It’s a matter of teaching and bringing out those talents in students that are there, but are hard to reach. Once you expose a talent, it can be won. Once that happens, the whole world opens up.
VCR: What are your future plans? Any political work down the road? Your son, Tim (Oxnard City Council member), has suggested a seat on the Assembly for you.
Flynn: My main concern right now is ending this stay. We still have a lot of work to do to clean this office out. Number two, to visit my grandchildren. They live all over the state. And then, decide what to do. I don’t think I’ll be running for office, but I won’t rule anything out.
VCR: Looking back, anything you feel you could have done differently in your last campaign?
Flynn: I think it was a perfect storm that hit, and Measure V, the traffic initiative, there was a lot of money put into that, close to a million dollars. Whoever put the money into it thought I was in favor, and I never took a position on it. Probably because my son (Tim) sponsored it. (laughs) But I didn’t take a position on it, and more than anything, that knocked me out.
VCR: Any regrets over 36 years?
Flynn: My biggest regret, I think, is not winning. (laughs) I have no regrets. It’s true that we can all make improvements in the way we do things, but that doesn’t fit in with regrets. So I have none