Pictured: Suz Montgomery at her home in Ventura. Aug. 17, 2021.
by Kimberly Rivers
“Sometimes I think about how much easier it would have been if I hadn’t been such an angry woman; it’s what fuels me.”
I was sitting with Suz Montgomery, 73, in the backyard of her home in West Ventura off the Avenue. Her home was full of activity: Water damage was discovered and a construction crew had torn up her kitchen to repair it. But that’s life, isn’t it? Even as cancer marches forward, kitchen construction proceeds.
It was a foggy morning on Wednesday, Sept. 8, and it wasn’t certain that we’d be able to meet. She had been battling cancer for about seven years, and had come to the point of peace with the outcome. But meet we did, on her patio lush with a diversity of plants, an inviting habitat for all manner of birds. Through the years, it’s proved fertile ground for humans hatching plans as well.
While we spoke, she threaded humor in with her bluntness about her impending departure from this world, but it was improving the community that she wanted to talk about. Amidst the projects and successes, we also spoke of plans that fell short. She shared a few of those stories, such as the burn of losing the university planned for Taylor Ranch just north of Ventura years ago — that institution would instead be located in Camarillo, becoming California State University, Channel Islands. But mostly she was riled up, and perhaps a bit angry, about the need for more people to pay attention and get involved in their community today, and take an active interest in local politics.
We need to “see more and more people get involved. If we don’t, our communities will just spiral down,” she said.
“34% of the county and city are seniors”
While Montgomery has been involved in many aspects of civic life, her most enduring legacy might be in her work with Ventura County’s eldest citizens.
Most recently she was a resource coordinator at Ventura Adult and Continuing Education (VACE) in the Ventura Unified School District. She brought cooking and gardening classes to seniors to help them stay active and improve memory. She has served as chair of the advisory council of the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging and has been on the Ventura City Parks Commission. She founded a popular local television show, <em>Schmooze with Suz,</em> and in 2017 was named a Woman of the Year by State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson. (She also speaks Italian and is a formally trained chef.)
Her advocacy on behalf of seniors is a treasure to the community and her face brightened as she spoke of the men and women she has worked with through the years.
“My seniors, they are the best people I’ve ever known in my life . . . My seniors are educated and smart, Tuskegee airmen, congressmen, captains of industry, Bataan Death Marchers, fascinating historical people . . . They are invisible now, but 34% of the county and city are seniors. That’s a voting block. We can vote you in, and vote you out.”
She mentioned current Ventura County District Attorney Erik Nasarenko, who has dedicated four attorneys in his office to investigating issues of fraud and abuse targeting seniors. He gave a recent presentation for the seniors she works with and she said “he’s getting it done.”
“Leadership is mostly not up to speed”
Montgomery has never been one to limit herself to a single issue, however. While her work with seniors has always been integral to her activism, she has also been a local government watchdog for decades. She has amassed a library, of sorts, of city documents in her house. Institutional knowledge to which no current elected official or city staff member can lay claim.
Montgomery applauded the young people she has seen in Ventura and around the county who have been hitting the streets, speaking at meetings, getting active, forming political groups.
“The young people are going to save us. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
She felt that her generation didn’t do enough to bring them along. “We need to be training younger people. Millennials are going to carry the ball. Our generation screwed up, there wasn’t enough mentorship.”
She noted that her generation should have done more to tell young activists about why it’s important to get involved, “not the bottom-line mentality, not for personal gain, but what’s good for all of us . . . educate yourself [about local government and the issues.] Be a part of it, don’t wait . . . Again, we can do this. If everyone jumps in.”
She simply replied by saying, “There are no wrong answers . . . I’ve devoted my entire adult life to public service, so many roadblocks . . . leadership is mostly not up to speed.”
In true Montgomery fashion, she didn’t pull any punches. “I’m not afraid to speak, to tell the truth,” she said when asked about Ventura City Council. Acknowledging that some councilmembers run and get elected with good intentions, she said that the trend she has seen involves either pushing an agenda or becoming reliant on staff.
“It used to be an honor to be a city council member. Now we can’t find people who want to run,” she said. In her opinion, too many come forward seeking recognition or financial gain. Again and again she has found a “weak city council” that seems to be under the thumb of city staff, failing to question the status quo.
“There are a lot who feel like I do, but they are hesitant,” she said. “I’ve only got a couple of weeks left; I have no fear.”
“Homelessness is the root of all the problems”
As I wrote this story, Montgomery was finding it hard to speak. Just a few weeks ago, sitting around her teak patio table that had seen its share of planning and strategy meetings, she shared that the cancer was in most parts of her body, including her stomach and lungs. Her husband, John Hankins, checked her temperature and ensured that the oxygen tank was working properly. Nevertheless, she didn’t miss a beat.
Along with her pleas for more people to get involved in local issues, she emphasized coming at the issues without a focus on financial gain. When a community is built to better the lives of the residents that are here, it will thrive. But when the agenda is financial gain it can warp the plans and have consequences that do not improve the lives of residents and, in some cases, cause harm.
By example, Montgomery pointed to issues of traffic and homelessness while dozens of residential development projects go up or are in the pipeline.
“Pay attention to developments. Do we have to build so many units? Are they the right kinds? Are they serving the needs of the community? The people who work here, but can’t afford to live here.”
She noted one current project for 250 units off of Ventura Avenue near DeAnza DATA Middle School, which will be mostly higher-priced homes — clearly, Montgomery said, not for existing residents or local working families. Most of the homes being built are condominiums or townhomes, unaffordable to middle-class families, seniors or those who may be at risk of homelessness. These planned housing projects will do nothing to alleviate homelessness because they don’t include enough low-income units.
“Homelessness is the root of all the problems. We are not dealing with the problem, we are putting a bandaid over a gaping wound.”
Montgomery pointed to homelessness as a key factor affecting mental health care needs in the county, another issue she has been actively working to address. She along with other local advocates have been putting pressure on the county to build a facility that would provide long-term acute care for the severely mentally ill.
“We need to build it. The situation is getting worse every passing day . . . we can’t rely on the nonprofits to do a lot of the work. They don’t have the resources or the budget, the county can take up the slack, why not?”
A secondary issue related to ongoing development projects: traffic and emergency evacuations. Montgomery said that while the city hired a staff member tasked with overseeing a citywide emergency response plan, including an evacuation plan for the Westside, a plan has not yet been formulated. All while yet more homes are being built, in an area she described as having limited routes for evacuation in the event of the next fire or other emergency.
According to Montgomery, the money is available — the county just needs the leadership to make it happen. She pointed to this as yet another area where elected officials are relying on staff without questioning whether people are actually being helped in the community.
Montgomery may say her activism is rooted in being angry. But as she talked, it was clear that she has been driven by a fierce concern for her community. She cares for the people who struggle, who are aging, who are alone and troubled.
She started in community activism and local politics when she was a teen working for Congressman Jim Corman. “I was a file clerk and I paid attention.”
Montgomery, born “just south of Chicago to a political family,” had six brothers; she was the only girl. Her way of challenging the status quo and seeking change through action was surely rooted in her family, who always encouraged her “ to not do the normal thing.” The family moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1953. She came to Ventura in 1983.
Her family was Catholic and Montgomery attended private schools, which she described as providing an “excellent education” where she was taught to “question” everything and “be curious.”
When I asked about favorite projects of the past, she demurred, noting that she doesn’t look back.
“What I do, when I complete a project, it’s done, full circle and then I move on to the next project or issue,” Montgomery explained. “I don’t even look back, so much of this can be done moving on to the next mountain.”
When pressed, however, she spoke of Kellogg Park on Ventura Avenue, saying it was her favorite recent project: “It’s activated every day,” with kids and people playing or sitting, enjoying the space.
At the time, as a member of the city parks commission, she worked with Jackie Pearce, executive director of the Westside Community Development Corporation, to push for the project and line up funding. Since opening in 2018, Kellogg Park quickly became the heart of the Westside, hosting birthday parties, community gatherings, protests and individuals seeking a quiet bench.
Montgomery spoke also of her recent endeavors to form a citizens oversight committee, that would be wholly independent of the city and the county. She said she’d provide such a committee access to the trove of documents she has amassed, to aid its members as they address issues.
“If we don’t get satisfaction, take it to the grand jury,” she emphasized.
She likened the work of the oversight committee to the “Little Hoover Commission,” or, more formally, the Milton Marks “Little Hoover” Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy. Founded in 1962, the Little Hoover Commission was a state oversight agency tasked with investigating state government and operations to ensure efficiency and good service, and make recommendations on all government reorganization plans.
“Lead when you need to”
Today, in Montgomery’s opinion, the city of Ventura is in “worse shape” than when she moved here decades ago. While she acknowledged that there is “no easy answer,” she tasked the elected officials with “hiring the right people, and the city did not do that.” She faulted the city for failing to plan ahead and being “reactive, never proactive, never looking down the road.”
She likened the city’s approach to always “filling a pothole without looking at the whole street.” She expressed concern that the city might become what “the city wants . . . but not what the community wants at all.”
That comes full circle to her pleas to her neighbors to step in, without an “agenda,” but rather to make the community better for everyone.
“Lead when you need to. I’m not doing this for recognition, either, but to make it better, and it can be.”
As I prepared to hand this story off to my editor, Suz Montgomery was at home, being lovingly cared for by her husband and friends. I was told she was fading a bit, but that my follow-up questions (sent via email) were in no way a bother. For Montgomery, even speaking to a local journalist was an extension of her advocacy, a way to continue helping her community in her final days.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done. I can die in peace knowing it’s been done. I love my city, I love my county, I chose to live here after all this time. It’s got potential.”