Dueling Pseudo-Slates Vie for Control
by Nick Welsh • Photographs by Paul Wellman
So irresistible is Carpinteria’s small-town charm that it infects even preelection mudslinging. Just recently, allegations have been leveled at Carpinteria Mayor Brad Stein — now seeking reelection — accusing him of abusing his mayoral influence on behalf of special interests. But unlike the usual suspects dogging city halls across the state, this special interest is not a real estate developer, trash hauler, or public employees’ union. Instead, it’s Little League Baseball. Stein — who has now served 16 years on the City Council — also happens to be vice president of the Carpinteria Little League. Three weeks ago, a Newport Beach attorney representing a then new and anonymous group calling itself Carpinterians for Ethical Government (CEG) demanded a full public investigation into Stein’s alleged ethical transgressions.
Specific charges were brought to light at a recent press conference, when CEG spokesperson Alan Alpers — an Oxnard resident who reportedly continuously mispronounced the city’s name as “Carpeteria” — charged that Stein used his mayoral mantle on behalf of Little League in its long-simmering turf war with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) over scheduling rights to Carpinteria’s El Carro Park fields. About 18 months ago, according to his detractors, Stein angrily threatened to have the soccer players participating in Carpinteria’s established Beach Cup regional tournament denied any future access to El Carro Park. In addition, CEG complained that Stein — acting not as mayor but as a private citizen — commandeered city parks workers on behalf of Little League that same weekend and that he improperly participated in not one but two City Hall meetings from which any ethically minded elected official would have recused himself due to his Little League ties.
Stein denied ever threatening to ban the soccer tournament from the fields. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, adding that even if he had, it clearly had no impact. Since the alleged incident took place, the Beach Cup has used the El Carro fields two years in a row. Stein — who also coaches youth baseball and football and volunteered to line the fields when his sons played AYSO soccer — acknowledged attending the two meetings, but said he left the talking to others. He finally did recuse himself the second time the controversy went to the City Council, he said, but only to avoid the appearance of a conflict. By then, Stein said Carpinteria’s city attorney had assured him he had violated no actual conflict of interest laws. “This is a small community,” Stein said. “I figured we could settle things as adults.”
Stein and his supporters contend it’s no coincidence the last-minute attack — which now includes a new blog bird-dogging the issue and a hit-piece mailed to Carpinteria voters asking, “Who Really Is Brad Stein?” — was launched in the final weeks leading up to next Tuesday’s election. “It’s the silly season,” he said. “What can you expect?” Some of Stein’s City Hall supporters privately concede the mayor should have recused himself from the matter sooner for the sake of appearances. But the two councilmembers appointed to the ad hoc subcommittee created to resolve the soccer-baseball rift — Donna Jordan and Michael Ledbetter — insist that Stein has adopted a strictly hands-off attitude and never broached the matter with them.
Such seemingly small-scale dogfights might be the envy of big cities struggling with more dire controversies, but for people living in Carpinteria, such accusations could have a profound effect on the future direction of their City Council. With three out of five seats up for grabs, the $64,000 question is whether the moderate slow-growth slate that’s been calling the shots in Carpinteria since first winning a council majority in 1990 — of which Stein is a charter member — can retain control. It remains to be seen what influence the assault on Stein’s character will have. Some are hoping it will illustrate the need for a change; others are betting Stein’s critics, with their out-of-town attorney and spokesperson, will turn off most Carpinteria voters.
Running as an informal slate is Stein — the four-term incumbent — and two first-time contenders for public office: Al Clark and Gregg Carty. Clark, an industrial safety consultant, ran the 1990 campaign that initially put the majority of former slate candidates — Donna Jordan, Michael Ledbetter, and Stein — in office. (Jordan is stepping down this year because of her diminished hearing ability; Ledbetter doesn’t come up for reelection for two years.) While Clark has toyed with running in the past, he was dissuaded by those concerned he would be perceived as too much of a tree-hugger to win. A Santa Barbara native who moved to Carpinteria in 1987, Clark just stepped down as president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (a slow-growth advocacy organization), helped found Carpinteria Seal Watch, and has been active in creek preservation efforts. “For some, the almighty dollar is the be-all and ends-all,” said Clark of his decision-making process, “but that’s not the case for me.”
Carty, a building contractor, has lived all but the first five years of his life in Carpinteria, where his father served as school superintendent for 27 years. An energetic volunteer on behalf of Carpinteria’s signature Avocado Festival and a 12-year veteran of the Architectural Review Board, Carty — the only Republican running on the slate — embodies Carpinteria pride to such a degree that he rarely ventures outside its borders for work or recreation. “I’ve been to lots of places in Southern California where you hear people say, ‘This used to be nice, but look at it now,’” Carty said. “I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen to Carpinteria.”
All three contenders — who actively embrace the platform of the original Jordan, Ledbetter, and Stein slate — were involved in the successful community campaign to buy the Carpinteria Bluffs from private developers and preserve that scenic coastal expanse as open space and park land. All take pride in downtown’s low-key revitalization campaign that spruced up Linden Avenue without running out the local shops in favor of the chains. All have campaigned to protect Carpinteria’s community spirit and small-town essence from the threat of overdevelopment. And all three support Measure D 2006, the quarter-cent sales tax surcharge that will finance freeway widening, commuter rail, and a host of other congestion relief measures, also appearing on this November’s ballot. Because of these factors, this informal slate is known as ABC (Al, Brad, and Carty) for D.
Running on the other side is the even more informal pairing of candidates Greg Gandrud — the ever-outspoken Republican now seeking his second term — and Ron Hurd, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant active with the Lion’s Club. While Hurd has little civic involvement in Carpinteria politics, he grew up there, and his high school civics teacher was the city’s first manager. In addition, Hurd’s mother is widely regarded as a major force within Carpinteria Republican circles. Hurd is campaigning on the slogan “Time for a change” and is hoping that after 16 years the current slate has worn out its welcome. Gandrud, in keeping with his Libertarian leanings, is running on the slogan “More freedom, less government.” Initially, Gandrud said he supported the Jordan-Ledbetter-Stein slate and even donated money to their campaigns. But his eyes were quickly opened, he said, by the “unintended consequences” of the slate’s slow-growth policies — lack of economic opportunity and a dearth of affordable housing.
Above all, Gandrud and Hurd are campaigning against Measure D, arguing it doesn’t provide nearly enough money for freeway widening and gives way too much to alternative modes such as commuter rail. Gandrud’s political career has been defined almost exclusively by his tireless support for freeway widening. In fact, of all the 47 elected city and county officials within the county borders, Gandrud is the only one to vote against placing Measure D before voters. “I guess I’m the only one with any guts,” he said. Acting as his own attorney, Gandrud challenged the accuracy of the ballot language in favor of Measure D — as well as the impartial analysis — but lost after a very long day in court. In the emerging alphabet soup of Carpinteria politics, the Gandrud-Hurd ticket is known as “FGH,” which stands for “freeway widening, Gandrud, and Hurd.”
Should Gandrud and Hurd prevail next week, they would team up with conservative Councilmember Joe Armendariz to form a new council majority. But given the obvious bad blood between Gandrud and Armendariz — whose differences are both personal and political — it’s doubtful that the new majority would be nearly as cohesive and collegial as the existing one. Regardless of who’s in office — and how well they do or don’t get along — the new City Council will confront a basketful of tough issues. The most obvious is Venoco’s proposal to build an onshore slant-drilling operation, replete with a 175-foot-tall tower, at its existing coastal facility. While Carpinteria enviros are emphatically opposed, the new plant promises to contribute millions in royalty payments to City Hall’s coffers. In addition, there are two major resorts now on the drawing boards for the Carpinteria coast; the biggest features a 220-room hotel, three restaurants, a spa, and a culinary school overlooking Rincon. There’s also talk about a ballot measure to challenge the Lagunitas housing project and research and development park — 74 housing units plus 145,000 square feet of offices — which was approved just two weeks ago by the City Council. And finally, there’s People’s Self-Help Housing’s proposal to rezone eight acres of agricultural land to allow the creation of affordable housing for farm workers who, all sides agree, are now living in sub-slum conditions.
With such difficult matters on the horizon, is it any wonder some people would prefer to talk about Little League Baseball?