Suza Francinasuza-francina

67, former mayor of Ojai, author, writer specializing in health and environmental issues, yoga teacher and former preschool teacher.

I’ve lived in Ojai since 1957, attended local schools, and raised my children here. I served on the Ojai City Council from 1996 to 2000, helping to adopt Ojai’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and promoting sustainable city concepts.

What are the major city issues of concern to you in the future?

The four interconnected issues of greatest concern are the water crisis, lack of available housing, traffic congestion and balancing the needs of residents with the needs of tourists. There are many other issues that fall under these main categories.

What issues in the past do you feel are not being addressed?

To be fair, I wouldn’t say that there are issues not being addressed, but many issues end up unresolved (like the ubiquitous leaf blowers) or on the back burner until we are in emergency mode, such as with the current water crisis.

Many of the ideas I brought to the council in the ’90s through 2000, ideas that were nurtured and implemented over the years by organization like the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and the Ojai Valley Bicycle Coalition, are now being urgently considered by cities worldwide.

Water conservation and efficiency practices, green building standards, the recognition that sound economic development must be directly tied to environmental sustainability, the recognition that we cannot sustain a fossil fuel-dependent car culture and that policy makers must assure that our streets are bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, etc.  — all of these ideas are now recognized as essential components for creating sustainable cities.

What are your thoughts on the state of local businesses in the city?

I make every effort to shop locally and encourage others to do the same. Growing up in Ojai, I remember when the stores in our downtown core catered more to the daily life needs of residents and not mainly to tourists. Many of our businesses are doing well — others are struggling and many think that increased tourism is the answer to helping local shops to thrive. However, it is critical that local businesses fully understand the downside of overly depending on tourism.

At first it seems logical that more tourists means more customers.  But if you study what happens to towns where tourism has taken over, you will see that in the long run, along with this ever-increasing flow of tourist customers you inevitably get new competition.  As tourism increases past the balance between the needs of local residents and visitors, the town gets noticed by wealthy mega investors. 

This new competition is much more competitive with a high-end marketing department and ample cash and time to build their business.  They start buying up buildings, setting up shops that mainly cater to tourists, and the rents keep going up, driving locally owned business out.  I’ve seen many “mom and pop” shops close over the years. These shops are replaced by more profitable tourist-serving businesses and in the long run the locals cannot compete, even as tourism increases. 

When the familiar businesses are forced out and outside investors own most of the town, the Ojai we know and love will be gone. Locals lose the ability to control the town and it becomes more and more a corporate-controlled city. 

What are your thoughts on current public safety issues?

Three public safety issues immediately come to mind: The drought, traffic and drugs. There are many others but I’ll focus on these.

The longer it doesn’t rain, the longer we are in a drought, this lack of water increases fire risk. While we may be able to access sufficient outside sources of water for our personal needs, or even figure out a way to live within our means with our ground water and Lake Casitas, using wise water and other permaculture practices, consider how the dryness of the landscape, the dying trees, increases fire risk.

Increased traffic without a bicycle pedestrian infrastructure is a public safety issue, especially for the more vulnerable members of the Ojai community, our children and those who are new to traveling by bicycle.  Just a few weeks ago a child was hit by a driver who left the scene. The child’s bike was mangled and fortunately the child survived but the fact is that the child could easily have been badly hurt or even killed.

In recent years, I served on the city’s Complete Streets Committee and cycled the valley with representatives from CalTrans and other agencies/planners many times.

I attended numerous county and state workshops on making cities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, working with the Ojai Unified School District, law enforcement officials and the city of Ojai to promote bicycle safety education and create Safe Routes to School.

I look forward to helping to promote a bicycle and pedestrian culture in Ojai by working with the Ojai Valley Bicycle Coalition and other groups, and, as an elected official, setting an example by leaving my car at home and walking or bicycling as much as possible. 

The third public safety issue that immediately comes to mind is the well-documented opiate epidemic we are in. Accidental death from prescription opiates  like Oxycontin and Vicodin are now the leading cause of accidental death — greater even than accidental death from car accidents. For this reason I am strongly in favor of medical marijuana licensing, a process that the city of Ojai has already begun. Medical marijuana pain management properties are now well-established as a safer alternative to opiates — the time has come for doctors and other health professionals, law enforcement and policy makers to work together on this public health and safety issue.

What are your housing concerns for the city?  How will you address them in the future?

It’s well-known that our small town is in the midst of a severe housing crisis. While short-term rentals are not the main cause they are a significant contributing factor. The houses now illegally used as STRs were built and permitted to be long-term housing for local families and they are being misused as hotel lodging, forcing locals to seek lodging outside of the valley. I am committed to protecting our housing stock for our residents and enforcing residential zoning laws.  Second dwelling units are coming into compliance.

There are no easy solutions to our housing crisis but I believe there are creative, innovative, sustainable solutions. We need to solarize all public facilities and provide incentives for home owners to follow suit.

Ojai is looking at allowing “Tiny Houses,” if it can be done within our water-use means.  There is a wealth of information available on what other cities are doing to increase their housing stock while still preserving open space. In the years to come with our growing senior population I’m sure Ojai will be looking at things like co-housing and other housing solutions.

Housing issues cannot be separated from water issues. We can no longer afford to lose rainfall by watching it run away to sewers carrying our soil and pollutants with it.

The city needs to demand that all new construction and landscaping be designed to conserve water using aggressive efficiency practices such as low-flow toilets, gray-water systems and ways capturing rainfall. Like some other cities, we might consider a moratorium on issuing water service connections. New landscaping should be limited to drought-tolerant plants.

How important are the city’s natural resources to you and what are you doing about it?

My definition of “natural resources” is broad and encompasses the whole of nature, plants, animals, soil, water and the sky above. 

My philosophy has always been that in a more enlightened era a place as beautiful as Ojai would have the same level of protection as a national park. Our mountains, creeks, trees, fields, orchards and wildlife would be regarded as a treasure that should be preserved and protected for future generations.

Fortunately, we have organizations like the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, the Ojai Valley Defense Fund, the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, Ojai Trees, the Ojai Water Trust, Ojai Valley Bee Keepers, the Raptor Center and other wildlife protection groups, groups like  Pesticide-Free Ojai, as well as numerous individuals working with the City Council , Planning Commission and other agencies to protect our natural resources

Last but not least, our Land Use Element of our General Plan sets forth the city’s fundamental philosophy that future growth will consist primarily of in-fill development, thus preserving open space and mountain views. We also have a tree ordinance and various other ordinances that help protect the city’s natural resources. We even have a Dark Sky and Neighbor-Friendly Lighting ordinance that not only allows us to view the stars at night but helps to prevent wildlife disorientation and confusion. 

Discuss other concerns you have with your city and what you will do to address them. This may include water issues, the state of your city’s school districts, the city’s financial stability, unemployment, etc. 

Ojai residents should continue to vote into office people who are dedicated to preserving our small-town character and who respect our residential and village mixed-use zoning laws.

There are many reasons for the decline in enrollment in our school. I believe there is a strong argument in favor of keeping all our schools open — and that there are creative ways to enable us to do so. There is a direct connection between school enrollment and available housing for families. While reclaiming the houses now used for short-term rentals and making them available to families won’t solve all our housing problems, it is something we can act on immediately.

We need to bring the needs of the residents and tourists back in balance, with priority given to the residents. The pros and cons of the short-term rental debate that I touched on in previous answers to these questions is really a debate about our vision for Ojai’s future. Should Ojai be gradually turned into a tourist town where locals are forced out? That’s really the heart of the question voters need to ask.

As we look at the history of Ojai and all the past battles fought to preserve our small-town character (freeways, chain-store sprawl, mining, oil drilling, dumps, etc.,) and our efforts to preserve our magnificent natural surroundings, in many ways the problems Ojai faces now are similar, but the pressures that contribute to these problems have increased.