In 20 years as a Ventura County supervisor, Linda Parks has built a reputation as a fighter who stands her ground.
“She has tenacity on issues that she has passion for and she never lets go,” said Kathy Long, who served on the Board of Supervisors with Parks for more than 10 years ending in 2017.
Rather than compromise, the county supervisor who retires from office Saturday is known for stepping away from a loss and figuring out to bring the issue back for a win.
“I have found there are creative ways of going about things that get past the no,” the five-term supervisor from Thousand Oaks said.
Parks is primarily known for her efforts to protect the environment and oppose sprawl. But she’s also credited with a long record of advocacy for people with mental illness and fixing parking and traffic woes in the unincorporated areas she represents.
Her longtime ally, former Supervisor Steve Bennett, said it takes the intense focus Parks has to succeed in public life — what he calls being “willing to work and work, build the support and do the legwork.”
She not only talked up her causes, but rallied her troops to fill the Board of Supervisors’ hearing room, Long said.
“That always put pressure on the board,” Long said.
At 65, Parks is ready to move on from public life. She has no plans to run for office again after serving on the board for 20 years and on the Thousand Oaks City Council for six. Including her service as an appointed member of the Thousand Oaks Planning Commission, she’s been in public office for 30 years.
She’s not sure whether she can slow down but can’t wait to try. She and her husband, Allan Parks, plan to move to San Luis Obispo County, where they met as college students. In a recognition ceremony in mid-December, she showed a photo of herself atop a paddleboard at the Morro Bay National Estuary and called it “my next board.”
Parks still plans to keep her fingers in environmental causes, including serving as the executive director of Save Open-space & Agricultural Resources or SOAR, the group behind initiatives requiring public votes to develop farmland and open space. She’ll also be working on habitat restoration at the estuary, may teach college courses and plans to spend more time with her grandchildren.
But she sounded ready to leave what board Chairman Matt LaVere called the 24-7 job of a county supervisor as she bid goodbye at the recognition ceremony in Ventura.
“I am just so honored and so fulfilled,” she said.
End of an era
As she leaves office, Parks said she feels like she has done everything she can “for the county, for the environment, for people.” She would have worked on the cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory if she had another year as supervisor, but she says she has done all she could to remediate the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959. Under term limits, she could not run for re-election last November.
Fifteen years ago, Ventura County voters adopted term limits that cap supervisors at three consecutive four-year terms. The supervisors at the time, including Parks, were allowed to run for three more terms in addition to the ones they’d already served.
Parks is the last of those supervisors to leave the board, which means she will be the last person to serve 20 uninterrupted years as a Ventura County supervisor.
“We’re entering a phase where a member of the county Board of Supervisors won’t have that history and historical perspective,” said Tim Allison, adjunct professor of political science at CSU Channel Islands. “Linda Parks leaves behind her a legacy that will be very difficult for anyone to replicate, because the times have changed and the laws have changed.”
Parks is credited with a series of major land-use wins over decades. She helped stop development of Ahmanson Ranch, which was sold to the state and converted into a nature preserve at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. She was a key leader in the drive to pass the SOAR laws countywide in 1998 and then renew them until 2050. She spearheaded a measure aimed at helping wildlife, including mountain lions move safely in the heavily developed county.
Herb Gooch, a professor emeritus of political science at California Lutheran University, said he considers Parks an important figure in Ventura County politics, because of her leadership in the movement to preserve agriculture and open space from development. The resulting SOAR laws amount to “probably the most significant piece of legislation in the county and cities” in recent decades, Gooch said.
“It wasn’t all her by any means, but she was one of the big leaders of that movement,” he said. “Just as Steve Bennett was a major influence in the city of Ventura, Linda on the other side of the grade was the mover and shaker.”
Gooch briefly ran against Parks for supervisor in 2006, criticizing her slow-growth record, but dropped out of the race due to health problems.
“I have often been on the other side from Linda on issues, but I respect her,” he said. “I think she has integrity and consistency, and she was really good at building a movement.”
Parks was always popular with her constituents, but sometimes at odds with her colleagues, especially when she served on the Thousand Oaks City Council. But Gooch said Parks won those battles in policy terms: Her signature issue of preserving open space is now universally accepted in Conejo Valley politics.
“She had her ups and downs, especially on the City Council and sometimes on the Board of Supervisors,” Gooch said. “She wasn’t always in the majority, and she didn’t like to compromise, but she stuck to her guns.”
David Grau, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, calls her tough and effective even though they didn’t always agree.
“I think she was a great advocate for a lot of the causes that she truly believed in, and I really respect that,” he said.
Grew up in the Valley
Parks grew up in the San Fernando Valley, an area she and other county politicians have called a glaring example of the urban growth that Ventura County should avoid. Her mother worked in bookstores, while her father was a writer and actor who was the voice of Smokey the Bear.
In high school she played on the tennis team and ran track but wasn’t in student government. She credits her mother with getting her involved in politics. Parks knocked on doors when she was around 12 to register voters in a campaign to elect Tom Bradley mayor of Los Angeles in his unsuccessful bid in 1969.
Parks went off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she earned a degree in political science, then completed a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Washington and became a transportation planner. She credits her husband with spurring her love for the environment.
“He introduced me to nature,” she said.
They settled in Woodland Hills but later moved to Thousand Oaks for the quality of the schools, she said. The couple has two daughters and two sons, each born 23 months apart.
“I’m a planner,” she said.
She says she initially ran for the Board of Supervisors because she believed she could accomplish more than on the city council and stayed to prevent the type of growth she saw in the San Fernando Valley. Through what she calls “bad planning or no planning,” cities in the valley grew together, buffers of open land disappeared and cities lost their identity, she said.
“I think it has gotten significantly worse in terms of the urban blight,” she said. “It became gridlock and smog.”
The battle over the proposed development of Ahmanson Ranch into a mini-city of almost 9,000 people marked her first foray into politics in the late 1980s. She wanted to protect nature, stop sprawl and protect air quality by preserving the ranch as open space between the Conejo and San Fernando valleys.
She analyzed the environmental impact report for the development, went to protests and testified before the Board of Supervisors.
“It was something never did I think would win, but we just kept trying,” she said. “I think that is a good lesson.”
Parks played a major role in preserving the ranch of almost 3,000 acres, said Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which owns the ranch.
“I think the consensus is Ahmanson Ranch would not have been successfully preserved but for her efforts and the efforts of many others, but it was her leadership,” he said.
Parks credits her appointment to the Thousand Oaks Planning Commission to Ahmanson and her background as an urban planner.
But if anything launched her into elected office, it was her 1996 initiative campaign to protect parks in the city, she said.
She won election to the Thousand Oaks City Council late that year, then to the Board of Supervisors in the early 2000s.
She defeated businessman Randy Hoffman in a tight finish for supervisor despite being heavily outspent but was never seriously challenged after that. An attempt to recall her failed in 2021 when residents angered over her votes to enforce COVID-19 rules could not collect enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
In a failed run for Congress in 2012, Parks took 18.3% of the vote, an extraordinary total for a candidate who wasn’t affiliated with a political party, but not enough to advance to the general election runoff.
“Her success and her independence translated very well at a local level, but as you rise up through the political ranks, it’s difficult for any politician to be as steadfastly independent as Linda Parks,” Allison said.
In recent years, she has noticed that the level of hostility in politics has grown.
As that happened, she pushed back. She launched a board resolution condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. , leading to a volley of criticism from the right but the board largely stood by it. After she was sent chocolate shaped like a penis amid the recall campaign, she sued the company that sent the product to unmask the customer who ordered it.
“The personal attacks seem to be ratcheted up,” she said. “I don’t feel as safe as an elected official, particularly as a woman. “
She pointed to the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan as well as the sending of the chocolate penis not to her office, but to her family home. “To me it has gotten ridiculous,” she said.
To Parks, her legacy lies in her environmental and mental health work.
One accomplishment she cites is founding Growing Works, a native plants nursery where individuals with mental illness receive job training and employment. She also served on an advisory board on county mental health programs for 15 years and spearheaded a task force to improve safety and mental health services following the Borderline mass shooting in 2018.
“I think the county is good at getting people into the system, but not out,” she said. “That is where you need something like Growing Works.”
She said her devotion to mental illness causes was inspired partly by the experience of someone close to her who was cured of mental illness although she recognizes that many doctors believe mental illness is managed, rather than cured.
As far as disappointments go, she can’t think of many except for backing some unnamed candidates for the Thousand Oaks City Council who made poor decisions on development issues. “Some of them turned into development boosters when they ran on a platform of slow growth,” she said.
Critics have questioned why the board, including Parks, didn’t intervene earlier with County Executive Officer Mike Powers. The administrator stepped down in March after an investigation supported an employee’s claim that he had sexually harassed her and used a racially insensitive nickname. The woman’s attorney said the harassment had gone on for several years.
But Parks said she didn’t know about the allegations until county officials informed her around September 2021, when the investigation started and the employee took a leave of absence.
“It is hard to know something is important unless someone speaks out, and I just did not know,” Parks said. “I certainly never heard him use derogatory words in front of me.”
Powers has denied any harassment and said the woman did not seem offended the few times he used the nickname.
Parks was influential in the appointment of several top officials that she linked to more inclusionary and ethical governance, including Sevet Johnson as Powers’ successor. Johnson is the first African American to hold the top county job. Johnson said she would not have applied for the post without the encouragement of Parks and the late Carmen Ramirez, a county supervisor from Oxnard who died in August.
“They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” Johnson said.
Former Republican legislator Jeff Gorell is due to succeed Parks Monday afternoon after edging Parks’ choice, former Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Claudia Bill-de la Peña, in the November general election. Gorell says he has a strong environmental record but also is pushing for more progress on housing, jobs and public safety.
Parks is concerned about what will happen under the new board on issues such as oil restrictions and preservation of farmland and open space.
Parks considers the oil business a “dinosaur industry” that needs to phase out the use of fossil fuels, particularly for transportation, and shift to renewable energy.
“What we can do to encourage that shift is important,” she said. “I don’t think the new board will be as supportive of that shift because the oil industry is grabbing onto every last gasp of air they can.”
Staff writer Tony Biasotti contributed to this report.
Kathleen Wilson covers the Ventura County government, including the county health system, politics and social services. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0271.