Conspicuous by his absence in city council deliberations over BevMo! — the high-end liquor superstore slated for the intersection of State and De la Vina streets — was Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams. Williams recused himself from the deliberations because he also serves on the board of the Peabody Charter School, which is located not far from the proposed liquor emporium.
Williams, the Democratic nominee for state assembly in this fall’s election, acknowledged no legal conflict of interest existed that barred him from voting, but said he would have been unable “to render an impartial assessment” because of his torn sympathies.
Williams stated that he would have been hard pressed to find a legal justification for denying the project — as had been urged by the Peabody principal as well as several neighboring residents and business owners — but that his heart would have been too torn. If forced to vote, Williams said, he might have concocted an argument against the project that would not have been intellectually honest. Because he could not give the project an impartial hearing, Williams said he opted not to vote at all.
Breathe Easy Santa Barbara, an ad hoc group opposing the superstore, argued the project needed more environmental scrutiny and that the traffic generated by the store would pose unacceptable impacts on surrounding neighbors. Such arguments failed to sway even one councilmember, however. Because BevMo! was proposing to occupy an existing building, which was already zoned for commercial-retail activity, city hall’s discretion to deny the project was exceptionally slender. And because BevMo! agreed to reduce the size of its building by nearly 30 percent and to triple the number of parking spaces provided on the site, the council voted 5-0 to give it the green light and to reject the appeal.
The results, however, belie much of the suspense surrounding the vote going into the council meeting this Tuesday. Council conservatives Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Frank Hotchkiss all ran for office espousing their sensitivity to neighborhood concerns about issues like traffic. Had they decided against BevMo!, they had the votes to derail the project. That, however, did not happen. In fact, it was Dale Francisco who spoke first. While he articulated serious concerns about BevMo!’s impacts, he made it clear he didn’t think grounds existed to oppose it. He also suggested that the project had mitigated many of the impacts to an unusual degree.
Francisco also insisted on conditions that addressed potential parking impacts on surrounding neighborhoods if BevMo! shoppers and employees parked off site. Williams’s recusal has been noted by many city hall observers, prompting speculation about its political motivation in connection with his assembly race. Williams acknowledged that he could have alienated possible supporters, but noted that he’d recused himself only twice during his seven years on the council.