Pictured: Supervisor Matt LaVere (Dist. 1) during his 2020 campaign speaking at a meeting of the Ventura Democratic Club at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura, Jan. 12, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers
by Kimberly Rivers
Ventura County Supervisor Matt Lavere (Dist. 1) is postponing his appointment of Chris Stephens to the Ventura County Planning Commission in light of “concerns” from the public. Phil White, current commissioner for Dist. 1, will continue to serve in the role for the time being.
“I have decided to continue this item until I have time to do further public outreach,” said LaVere, responding by email to the Ventura County Reporter on Jan. 11. The item appointing Stephens to the Planning Commission is on the agenda for the Board of Supervisors meeting today, Jan. 12.
Stephens served as director of the Ventura County Resource Management Agency for 13 years after retiring from the post in 2019. The VCRMA includes multiple county agencies including planning, environmental health, code compliance and building/land use enforcement.
LaVere cited Stephens’ “diverse professional background and his ethics” as reason for the appointment but said “many in the community have reached out to me about this appointment and have expressed several concerns, I think it is prudent to hold off on this decision…to do more extensive community outreach.”
If Stephens were to be appointed and confirmed by a majority of the board to sit on the planning commission, he would eventually cast votes on projects and recommendations being made by individuals he formerly oversaw in his role as director of VCRMA — including the current VCRMA director Kim Prillhart, who was planning director under Stephens.
Late in the afternoon of Jan. 11, 16 public comment letters were posted with the supervisors meeting agenda for Jan. 12. Among the handful of comments in favor of Stephens’ appointment is John Krist, chief executive officer of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, who states, “His background in land-use planning, coupled with his many years of experience in Ventura County and his open-mindedness to various points of view, make him an ideal candidate for the Planning Commission.”
But Stephens’ background in land use planning and experience in county government was cited as a disqualifier in 2017 for Bruce Smith, another long-time employee in the county’s planning department. Smith, who had worked years before as a long-range planner for Ventura County, had been appointed by then-Supervisor Steve Bennett, and initially confirmed by the board. Several objections were later raised to his appointment, however, including those levied by Supervisors Peter Foy (Dist. 4), and Linda Parks (Dist. 2). Parks initially voted to approve Smith, but then revised her position when Foy formally asked for the board to vote again on the matter.
In May 2017, Foy submitted a letter to the board quoting the Ventura County Planning Commission Handbook: “Planning Commissioners are appointees who do not necessarily have a background in planning or related areas, but may have had some relevant experience.” The handbook also states, “The philosophy behind the relationship of the Commission and the Planning Division staff is that the staff provides legal, technical and professional information and evaluations, but the Planning Commission adds to the staff recommendations the view of the ordinary citizen as to how the County will be developed and maintained.”
During that time, the local advocacy organization Coalition for Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) posted information on their website in opposition of Smith’s appointment, which states, “Filling the commission with lifelong regulators would obliterate the purpose stated in the Planning Commission Handbook to add ‘the view of the ordinary citizen’ to the planning process.”
Tuesday’s agenda and submitted comments are online at: www.ventura.org/board-of-supervisors/agendas-documents-and-broadcasts/