GLOVES OFF: During the Santa Barbara City Council meeting two weeks ago, Councilmember Das Williams stood up during deliberations, walked over to the thermostat, and turned up the ambient temperature setting by three degrees. At the time, the air conditioning was cranking and chambers were decidedly chilly. A few moments later, Councilmember Dale Francisco-who sits right next to Williams on the dais-got up, walked across the room, and reset the thermostat to a lower reading, thus undoing Williams’s work. This simple dance sums up the increasingly prickly relationship between the two most ideologically, if not personally, polarized personalities on the council. Not a word-not even a glance-was exchanged. This week’s showdown between the two, however, was far more overt. About the only thing not exchanged between these two were a few elbows to the throat.
How Das and Dale came to sit next to one another remains one of life’s mysteries, though Mayor Marty Blum’s perverse sense of humor probably is at the heart of it. Williams represents the far left of the council’s political spectrum; Francisco the right. Both men are smart, articulate, and know how to move the chess pieces around to strategic effect. Where Williams is temperamentally effusive, but cool, Francisco is reserved, but hot. Both are intensely competitive; both get under the other’s skin. It’s a guy thing.
It’s also extremely political.
On the table Tuesday was one of those boilerplate, feel-good, symbolic resolutions in which the council had been asked by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) to send an official letter opposing any further offshore oil leasing in the Santa Barbara Channel. Currently, such a leasing plan is under consideration by the Department of the Interior, though the immediate sub-agency responsible-Minerals Management Service (MMS)-is now grappling with several in-house scandals of its own. MMS leasing agents, it turns out, have not been collecting anywhere near the full amount due in federal oil and gas royalties; many of these same agents have been way too socially cozy with the oil and gas industry employees they regulate, to the point of sexual relationships. Thus far, however, no reports of spanking have been reported. (See Jerry Roberts’s column here.)
Naturally, Francisco was suspicious about the timing. Heck, I was too. The resolution was submitted for council consideration by Williams and Councilmember Helene Schneider. Williams is running against Susan Jordan for a chance at an Assembly seat in next June’s Democratic Party primary, and in that contest, a candidate’s anti-oil credentials are absolutely essential. Schneider, a progressive Democrat, is running for mayor with strong backing from the Dem machine. Francisco-just two years into his first term-also is running for mayor. He’s hoping to cobble together a coalition of Republicans, traditional slow-growthers upset with the so-called smart-growth inclinations of City Hall, and toss-the-bums-out fiscal conservatives.
In Santa Barbara, all card-carrying members of the eco-minded liberal left are supposed to stand and salute every time the anti-oil national anthem-“Remember the Spill of ‘69”-is played. While the cause is righteous, the continuous up-and-down of it all grinds on one’s knees after a few decades. Francisco reasonably reckoned that Williams and Schneider had engineered the event to pimp the Pavlovian anti-oil salivary function of their political base by bringing the matter to council just three weeks before election ballots are mailed out to city voters. I harbored similar concerns; as visceral wedge issues go, Santa Barbara has nothing more reliable than oil. It turns out, however, that EDC lead attorney Linda Krop was, in fact, in Washington lobbying against the leasing proposal this week, and that the letter-which followed one submitted by the Board of Supervisors last week-was part of the same effort.
Three pro-oil representatives argued against the letter. At a time when needy programs are being cut, they argued, oil brings in good money. By drilling for oil, they insisted, the subsea pressure that gives rise to natural seeps is reduced and so is the natural pollution they cause. One speaker opined that South Coast beaches are cleaner now than they’ve been in 400,000 years thanks to oil drilling (little matter that the UCSB scientist whose research these people cite has repudiated these statements so many times he could obtain a legal injunction by now). Typically, members of the public are allowed to speak with no argument or rebuttal from the council. But Mayor Blum felt compelled to note that Santa Barbara receives not one cent in oil revenues. She also commented how odd it is that so much of Santa Barbara’s oil gets exported to places like Korea and Japan when the United States allegedly is attempting to wean itself from its addiction to foreign oil. When EDC attorney Nathan Alley took to the podium, Francisco understandably figured he could do the same, and lit into Alley like a prosecuting attorney in the heat of cross-examining a hostile witness. How can the EDC oppose federal leasing, Francisco demanded in that “yes-no” staccato of a courtroom litigator, when it supported new production from state waters (referring, of course, to the controversial PXP deal)? Blum objected Francisco was badgering the witness and admonished him to be more civil. Francisco snapped back he was only following Blum’s lead.
Francisco saved most of his ire for Williams, however, seeking to subject his council colleague to the same rat-a-tat-tat cross-examination that he’d attempted on Alley. Why did Das and Helene wait until it was almost too late to submit the letter for council consideration, he wanted to know, when Williams and Schneider had the 149-page federal report on offshore leasing proposals in their possession for no fewer than seven months? And given the less-than-cursory attention the matter had received, how could the council in good conscience say it had reviewed that report? With notable starchiness, Williams declined to be cross-examined by Francisco, suggesting he would deign to answer Francisco’s concerns if he articulated them all at once. Council staff had been reviewing the document, Williams insisted; and given recent council vacations coupled with work sessions focused exclusively on the budget, there simply had been no time to bring it up sooner.
Should you visit the City Council chambers between now and this November’s election, just wear shorts and sandals. No matter how much Dale and Das tweak the dial, that room will stay hotter than a sauna.