Pictured: Candidates for Ventura City Council, District 3. Photos submitted.
by Kimberly Rivers
District 3 is midtown, encompassing Ventura College, Arroyo Verde Park and Buena High School with the Pacific View Mall making up the western boundary. Cheryl Heitmann announced in August that she would not seek reelection leaving the seat up for grabs.
Candidate history and background
Barbara Brown: I’m a business owner and professor/instructor at UC Santa Barbara and Laguna College of Art and Design. I founded BBM&D Strategic Branding, which served startups to large corporations, nonprofits, governmental entities. Clients included the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Santa Barbara Airport, Ventura County Air Pollution and Control District, Ventura County Transportation Commission and Patagonia. I have city experience in varied roles: Public Art Commissioner, public/private partnership with the Ventura Botanical Gardens, business owner, Thomas Fire rebuild.
Skills include: High collaboration and communication skills, experience working with both the city of Ventura and the county. Experienced with helping a multitude of businesses overcome challenges and achieve their goals. Campaign website: www.barbarabrowncitycouncil.com.
William Cornell: My name is William “Billy” Cornell. I was born in Santa Paula in 1971. I’m a general contractor specializing in home repair and remodel serving the Ventura County area.
I’m a college graduate with further education in the building trades. I served a four year term as a commissioner for the San Buenaventura Housing Authority. I also served on the Ventura Rent Control Board. Both of those were appointed offices. I worked as a building inspector for the city of Ojai and the city of Goleta.
Not unlike so many others, I recently began a new role, along with my wife, as homeschool teachers for my son and daughter who are in middle and high school respectively. They are both currently enrolled via Zoom at Ventura Unified. Campaign Facebook page is online HERE.
Aaron Gaston: My family’s roots in Ventura start in the 1950s — my parents live in the same Pierpont Beach house where they raised my brother and me. As an alumnus of Pierpont Elementary, Cabrillo Middle and Ventura High, I had some of the same teachers and coaches as my parents. It’s a legacy I’m proud to uphold, having raised my own daughters in Ventura. My father owned and ran a small business in Ventura, and that entrepreneurial spirit was passed on to me at an early age. After I graduated from UCSB, I returned to Ventura to cofound and run a technology company, Infogrip, helping individuals with disabilities, where I worked for nearly 30 years. I’m now a realtor and business partner with my mother, Grace Gaston. I’m running for Ventura City Council District 3 to address the urgent and immediate issues affecting our city. I am committed to focusing on a robust local economy, supporting small businesses, improving public safety, preserving our environment, and addressing homelessness and housing issues. I am deeply committed to serving my constituents in District 3. I believe teamwork, not divisiveness, is essential to solving the challenges we are facing in this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Campaign website: www.aarongaston.com.
Mike Johnson: I’m 49 and a high school economics and government teacher, with a bachelor’s in U.S. history from UC San Diego and a M.Ed. from Maryville University, St. Louis.
I’m a wonk when it comes to local government. I’ve been with the College Area Community Council for 10 years, both as member and chair. I’m a regular at city hall, and not just for meetings of the city council, Planning Commission, and Design Review Committee. Over the last several years, I’ve been to nearly every meeting of the Economic Development Subcommittee, Homelessness/Affordable Housing Subcommittee, Water Commission, Measure O Committee, and Finance/Audit/Budget Subcommittee.
I have a passion for civic affairs. I believe firmly in transparency and community engagement, so I’ve made the effort to be involved. Unfortunately, I can’t count how many times I’ve been the only member of the public at a crucial committee meeting.
Those committee meetings are where many crucial decisions get made. After a couple years of attendance, you start to understand how we got where we are. You realize just how complicated every contentious issue is. Often, the key isn’t policies or politics, but process. The outcome is never any better than the process that got you there. Campaign website: www.mikeforventura.com.
Why are you running for this office now? If you are serving in office now, or have run before, what made you seek elected office?
Barbara Brown: As a 44-year Venturan, I want to give back to the community that has given me so much. My husband and I raised our son here, embracing that strong sense of community that living here provides. I want to maintain that quality of life… for everyone who calls Ventura home.
I was appointed by the city council as a Public Art Commissioner and acted as chair. I was president and board member of the Ventura Botanical Gardens, in public/private partnership with the city. I navigated the Thomas Fire disaster and rebuild process. In all of these positions, I gained invaluable knowledge and experience about how the city operates, and the nuances of getting things done.
I owned a business here for 25 years. I was able to assist start-ups, large companies, and nonprofits thrive. I served on the boards of Interface Children and Family Services, Ventura County’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of social services, and Goodwill Industries, which provides educational and vocational training for economic justice.
I was encouraged by councilmembers, staff members and leaders in the community to run for city council. They felt that my leadership, thoughtful decision-making, and vision for our future would serve Ventura well.
William Cornell: If I am elected to the Ventura City Council for District 3 the top three items on my agenda would be:
- To plan for the recovery from this global pandemic that we face now and likely will continue to endure for quite some time. And implementing recovery plans.
- Increasing the tax base for the city in an effort to fund our growing obligations and maintain our beautiful city without going back to the citizens to ask for more from them.
- Further the support for our mental health resources and law enforcement agencies to face the growing homeless population on our streets. This is a multi-faceted issue that will require support from the Housing Authority, mental health, many of our faith-based charities and special training for our police who are working on the streets, many times the first responders.
Aaron Gaston: Our family’s long history as business owners and community volunteers in Ventura has led me to seek a city council seat. Over the last 20 years, I have been approached multiple times to run for city council, but having two young daughters and numerous small businesses, I knew I didn’t have the time — and people who know me know that I only do things for which I can give my all. When Mayor LaVere came knocking on my door last year wondering if I was now ready to step up, I knew it was time to give it some serious thought. As a realtor with a more flexible schedule and both my daughters in college, I now have the time I need to serve my community as a council member. It’s also clear that now, more than ever, is the time to be getting involved in local government to affect the kind of change that improves our everyday lives.
Mike Johnson: With the budget crunch, housing crisis, rise in homelessness and water shortage, the next four years are going to be especially tough. City council has its work cut out for it.
Over the years, I’ve told plenty of people I’d never run for council, and I meant it. But everything changed when we switched from at-large seats to district elections. I’m glad that we adopted districts. It’s refreshing to see a more diverse council, and we all benefit from the wider range of life experiences that comes with that.
However, with only 15,000 residents, District 3 does not have a deep bench for choosing our next council representative. This should worry everybody in Ventura: Many new councilmembers have struggled with a steep learning curve their first couple years in office.
Far too much is at stake right now to elect somebody who’s inexperienced. It’s an open seat, but we need to fill it with a candidate with years of experience. Whenever someone asks my priorities, I point to my work over the last five years on homelessness, housing, water, economic development and the budget. I’m running for council because those are my priorities — not the other way around.
What is one issue in Ventura that is a priority for you? Why is that a priority and what is one of the first things you would do if elected to start to address that issue?
Barbara Brown: Water and the environment — clean water comes from a clean environment and creating open spaces is a part of that. That’s why I supported SOAR, and spent over a decade on the build of Ventura Botanical Gardens. It’s why I support the Ventura Land Trust and the Rancho San Buenaventura Conservancy Trust.
Maintaining high quality air and water, reducing waste, eliminating one-time use plastics, rezoning for greater mixed use and creating a more bicycle/walk-able community are issues that I plan to work tirelessly to resolve. Over the last two years, I worked on a bipartisan federal climate change initiative — the carbon fee and dividend legislation, H.R. 763 — co-sponsored by Salud Carbajal.
William Cornell: see previous answer.
Aaron Gaston: Anticipated budget deficits: The effects of COVID-19 on our local economy have been devastating. Our economy has to be our number one priority as a council so we can provide the services that all of our citizens need. We need to make fiscally responsible cuts wherever possible; however, I am not in favor of significant public health or safety cuts. We need to start by cutting out any redundancies within the city. It will be crucial to consider each cut carefully, so we still maintain the programs that generate revenue for the city. Creating a business-friendly environment is paramount, because Ventura needs to attract quality employers. We need to look closely at the fees we charge businesses and compare them to other California cities with higher-paying jobs. I want to broaden my conversation with business owners and hear from them on what they need.
Mike Johnson: The housing crisis is fundamental. We can’t make progress on many other thorny issues we face, from economic development to homelessness, until we make real progress on housing. We need more housing, both affordable and market-rate.
For affordable housing, city council needs to pass a city-wide inclusionary housing plan which applies to both for-sale and rental units. It must be truly inclusionary — the affordable units should be included in the project, rather than allowing developers to simply pay an in-lieu fee. We started the process in Spring 2018, but it stalled when the community development director left. It’s long overdue.
We need to submit a housing element to the state in 2021, showing where we could accommodate 5,000 affordable units over the next eight years. Our current housing element is problematic. It says somebody could build six affordable units in the parking lot of the KFC.
For market-rate housing, we should streamline the development review process by implementing the matrix report recommendations. However, we must not go further by disbanding the Design Review or Historic Preservation committees, nor demoting them to advisory panels. We need their expertise, and they need the authority to ensure high-quality, compatible projects.
What is one thing you have accomplished that you had a leadership role in? How did it impact you and your community?
Barbara Brown: In the great recession, in a drought, with some of the best and brightest people in Ventura, I worked to realize the vision of the Ventura Botanical Gardens. Drawing visitors from around the world, VBG sits behind city hall overlooking historic downtown, with spectacular views of the Southern California coastline and the Channel Islands. It was born out of a desire to create something wonderful for our community. We started with nothing but an idea and the desire to make it happen.
As president and board member for over a decade, my role was to inspire, engage and communicate our vision. Through CEQA, environmental studies, feasibility studies, engineering, master planning and fundraising, we were finally able to put the first shovel in the ground. We had hiccups along the way, and some very difficult challenges, but we fought through them and today, we have one of the most beautiful gems atop the hill. With over 107 acres, more than 8,000 plants, and over 2,000 members, we’ve just begun. I am so proud to have taken a leadership role in this extraordinary dream.
William Cornell: As a past commissioner with the Housing Authority, I worked with associate commissioners as well as staff and city officials to develop and approve new public/private housing developments and needed neighborhood redevelopment across the city. We began the long process of re-imagining the Westview Village property located at 955 Riverside St. and applied the same public/private assistance to all the properties needing capital investment for deferred maintenance. This process enabled the authority to provide needed maintenance that wouldn’t have seen funding under the usual public funding allowance.
Aaron Gaston: When I worked at Infogrip, my business partner and I manufactured and sold a one-hand computer keyboard and other devices for individuals with disabilities for almost 30 years. Every day we had a significant impact on the lives of veterans, seniors, and children who were disabled. We worked hand in hand with these individuals, and the technology that we provided helped with their education, jobs, and to live an independent life. I feel fortunate to have had such an impact on so many lives. Every day I am thankful for the wonderful humans that I met during my years in the assistive technology industry. On a daily basis my life was put into perspective working with my clients that had physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, and suffered from low vision or blindness.
Mike Johnson: One Wednesday morning in 2008, I was walking our son to kindergarten when another Poinsettia parent asked if I’d heard anything about burglaries in the neighborhood. I was surprised. In our little pocket of Campus View, we hadn’t had a burglary for several years.
When I got home, I discovered the Star was no longer publishing crime maps, and the police department wasn’t sharing them. I contacted our beat coordinator, who told me there were nine daytime burglaries in two days, four in my neighborhood. They were entering through unlocked front windows.
With his blessing, I printed 250 flyers warning my neighbors, and spent Thursday and Friday knocking on doors. Then on Friday night, around midnight, somebody poured a can of gasoline on my car and set it on fire.
On the bright side, the burglaries stopped.
I arranged a community meeting, with police, councilmembers, and 125 neighbors in attendance. We learned the PD had cut Neighborhood Watch without telling anybody, and didn’t want to warn residents about the crime wave, lest the burglars be scared off.
So we formed our own neighborhood group, with newsletters and meetings and block parties. Twelve years later, we’re still a tight-knit neighborhood.
What is one thing that you have not been asked about that voters should know about you?
Barbara Brown: In all my outreach during this campaign, voters have asked just about every question there is! But one thing I would share that I probably haven’t before, is where I come from and how this helped shape who I am. My mom was a nurse, my brother and sister were social workers, my dad worked for a nonprofit, my son is a paramedic, and my husband a firefighter. Every single person in my family chose a profession based on serving others. This is a wonderful legacy that is still hugely inspirational to me. That’s why even as a business owner, I always tried to serve however I could, whether that was on a board or through pro bono work for nonprofits. We aren’t all cut out to be first responders, but that shouldn’t stop any of us from responding, however we can.
William Cornell: Castillo Del Sol was one of my favorite projects with the housing authority. It’s a fully managed, 39 studio apartment facility, with preference given to adults with mental and developmental disabilities. The facility provides services from the county of Ventura and Tri County Regional Center.
Aaron Gaston: Many people don’t know how much I value education, and when I was younger, having a college degree was my ultimate dream. I worked two jobs to put myself through college, and it was worth every dollar and every sleepless night. I had preached to the point of being annoying to my sisters-in-law when they were still in high school and now my own daughters how important their education is. College can come in all forms, from a trade school to traditional degrees, but I feel passionate about the need for young adults to get this experience to find out who they are. I’ve prided myself on being a lifelong learner willing to listen and be taught over a lifetime. My dream now is to retire someday and have the time to go back to college and take all of the classes that I never had time for but sounded so intriguing.
Mike Johnson: I became the College Area Community Council’s point person on water five years ago. I was eager to attend every water commission meeting as a skeptical watchdog. Ventura’s future hangs in the balance.
My perspective on water broadened a couple years ago when my wife volunteered her ob/gyn services at a hospital in southern Ethiopia.
Along every road, we saw people, kids mostly, filling yellow jerry cans in the ditch. Some had donkeys, but most would lug the water up the hill to their farms. Many children can’t go to school, because their job is hauling water.
Famine was ravaging Ethiopia, and when that happens, nursing mothers grow malnourished. Their milk dries up. The baby cries, and in desperation, the parents give it water. The baby gets violent diarrhea, and the parents take the baby out to the road, hoping a stranger will transport them to hospital. Of the infants who do make it to the hospital, many don’t survive.
In Ventura, we pay about a penny per gallon for fresh, clean water delivered to our tap. We’ll argue over water projects, or residential rates, but we all need to be thankful for what we have. Water is life.