Barkin’ Loud, Sayin’ Nuthin’

TERROR BY TEDIUM: It was hardly the trial of the century. It only felt like it lasted that long. In point of fact, last Friday’s courtroom proceeding — an institutionally contained spasm of political perversity — took just six hours start-to-finish. At issue was the ballot language in support of Measure D 2006, the proposed quarter-cent increase on an existing half-cent sales tax that will fund $1.6 billion worth of freeway widening, commuter rail service, bike lanes, mass transit, road repairs, and more pork than all the public works directors throughout Santa Barbara County could ever hope to eat.

As such, it’s what professional public policy analysts refer to as a win-win-win-win-win scenario. In most places, people would be satisfied with far less. But this being Santa Barbara — where not even perfection is ever good enough — it will probably fall short of the mark. Leading the charge against the ballot language — and Measure D itself — was Greg Gandrud, the last in a long line of politicos to emerge from Carpinteria’s unique breeding ground of contrarian Libertarians. Depending on whom you ask, Gandrud — now seeking reelection to the Carpinteria City Council — is either an obnoxious opportunist who alienates friends and invigorates enemies, or a courageous and creative operator who marches to the beat of his own drum machine. After enduring last Friday’s deliberations, I think both are true. Gandrud has been banging the gong of freeway widening to the exclusion of almost everything else since coming to office. He is aggressively hostile to the commuter-rail option — admittedly still a pipe dream — which might one day alleviate the freeway pain suffered by people who live in Ventura but work on the South Coast. He’s similarly contemptuous of bicycle commuting, dismissing it as a nice recreational activity undertaken by people who like to parade in public wearing brightly colored garb. In his lawsuit — filed just days before the ballot statement’s printing deadline — Gandrud charged that the ballot arguments made on behalf of Measure D were false and misleading. So too, he claimed, was the ballot summary itself. Given that these had been signed or approved by the highest ranking elected officials of our county, he argued, they should be held to a higher level of accuracy.

In some instances, Gandrud had a point. For example, not all the money raised by Measure D will be spent in Santa Barbara County, as arguments in favor of the ballot claim. If the commuter rail ever gets off the ground, some of the money will have to be spent in Ventura County, where all the commuters live. But much of Gandrud’s case consisted of quibbling and hair-splitting. It should also be noted that some of the claims opponents of Measure D made in their ballot argument are equally suspect. That may be one reason none of them joined Gandrud in his lawsuit.

Although an accountant by trade, Gandrud served as his own attorney, and his lack of knowledge showed. Ever gracious, Judge Denise de Bellefeuille gave Gandrud all day to make his case. I found myself yearning for her predecessor, Judge William Gordon, who knew how to whack a mean gavel. But de Bellefeuille recognizes the importance of listening.

Consequently, the proceeding was loosey-goosey in the extreme. However, there were a few moments of genuine courtroom melodrama. Longtime antagonists had a chance to put each other on the witness stand and grill away. Eco-attorney Marc Chytilo — representing one of the many defendants named by Gandrud — got to cross-examine witness Andy Caldwell, the right-wing, pro-business watchdog who has opposed virtually everything for which Chytilo has ever stood. Anti-alternative transportation crusader Scott Wenz — another non-attorney serving as Gandrud’s co-counsel — got to put Wilson Hubbell on the Hot Seat. Former director of the county’s alternative-transportation program, Hubbell was and remains a die-hard cycling advocate. Just as Caldwell proved slippery on the stand, so too was Hubbell.

Wenz tried to get Hubbell to admit that bike lanes were a big waste of money and did nothing to promote bicycle commuting. Hubbell countered that 5 percent of South Coast residents are bicycle commuters — a robust figure when compared to other locales — and added this figure did not include any of the thousands of UCSB students who rely on the bike as their primary means of transportation. Gandrud himself got to give the Third Degree to Jim Kemp, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments and one of the key architects of Measure D.

But he too came up short. In discussing the commuter rail option, Gandrud tossed around adjectives like “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “asinine,” and “ridiculous.” In his courtroom interlocution, he was desperately trying to pry open Kemp’s lantern jaw and insert some of those words into Kemp’s mouth. Kemp wasn’t cooperating, and when forced to answer Gandrud’s yes-or-no questions, his reply was invariably a clenched “no.” Gandrud got the last word, I suppose, retorting, “You’re entitled to your answer, I suppose,” or “You took a long time to come up with that answer.” Ultimately, the judge ruled against Gandrud on all counts — as everyone expected — stating he’d failed to meet his burden of proof. Ever the solicitous jurist, de Bellefeuille did her best to soften the blow, noting that Gandrud’s burden was dauntingly high.

Walking away from the courthouse, I was struck most by the sheer nuttiness of it all. Even though Measure D will allocate $140 million to freeway widening — the thing Gandrud says he wants above all else — he’s going to oppose it. He wants the whole loaf, not just a few slices. Not even half. Likewise Travis Armstrong, the News-Press’s ever-inflamed editorial writer, has made it clear he will oppose Measure D with his last breath even though it reserves $126 million for commuter rail — something he has ardently supported. Why? Travis is always hard to figure, but it has something to do with the money Measure D reserves for freeway widening, which Armstrong has adamantly opposed. What’s nutty is that someone like Gandrud — who went into court so conspicuously bereft of allies — could kill Measure D.

That’s because it needs a two-thirds supermajority to pass, making it exceptionally vulnerable to any opposition. Even Travis Armstrong — whose credibility has plummeted to new depths — could prove fatal. A two-thirds majority is hard to get. What’s nutty is that people who stand to benefit from Measure D — it translates, by the way, to $4,000 per county resident in congestion relief — are sitting on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets. If and when Measure D goes down in defeat, it won’t be the end of the world. But it will probably feel like it. When that happens we can expect freeway traffic to crawl along even slower than last Friday’s courtroom theatrics. But no doubt the quarter percent we saved in tax increases will make it all worth it.

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