A house divided, as Abraham Lincoln famously noted, cannot stand, but a city council divided won’t be getting home for dinner anytime soon, as this Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting demonstrated. The evenly split council attempted to tackle such hot-button issues as homelessness, stricter energy standards, medical marijuana, and perhaps the most radioactive controversy of them all, bulb-outs. By the time the meeting came to a close — with Mayor Helene Schneider exclaiming “Phew!” — all but two councilmembers had their noses out of joint and their cheeks flushing.
The meeting started with Alan Bleecker, spokesperson for the newly formed Milpas Community Association, challenging the council to take swift action to remove the homeless — whom he blamed for inflicting a “toxic mess” upon the community — from the streets. But when the council confronted a $1-million decision whether to buy an old eight-room apartment building on the 2900 block of State Street to create transitional housing for the homeless mentally ill, many councilmembers most sympathetic to Bleecker’s viewpoint balked. Ultimately, the funding measure passed 5-2, but not before Councilmember Dale Francisco blamed the ACLU for forcing the closure of state mental asylums that once provided care for the mentally ill. Francisco would vote with the majority, but not before declaring City Hall needed to reserve its charity for the worthy and homegrown homeless, as opposed to out-of-town grifters looking forever for a handout. He also suggested the funds — which came from the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) — could be better spent to provide moderately priced rental housing for Santa Barbara’s downtown workers.
Rob Pearson, head of the city’s Housing Authority, noted that statewide RDAs have helped decimate the number of flophouse hotels that traditionally provided housing for the homeless — 600 rooms lost in the city in the past 20 years, he said — so it was fitting that RDA money be spent to create new housing opportunities. Former police officer Bob Casey, who spent his last six years on the force getting homeless off the streets, spoke approvingly of WillBridge House, which would receive the funds to buy the property, stating that one person he’d placed with WillBridge had been arrested no less than 415 times. Afterward, he said, the number dropped to just four.
On medical marijuana, City Attorney Steve Wiley asked the council to change the medical marijuana dispensary ordinance on which the council devoted more than 20 meetings over the last year. A federal judge had indicated provisions of the city’s tough new ordinance — which limits the number of dispensaries to three — were unconstitutional. To make two lawsuits go away, Wiley suggested amending the ordinance to allow two dispensaries to be grandfathered in. These had been granted permits under the terms of the city’s 2008 ordinance, but failed the terms of the one passed last year, which gave them just six months to close down shop. Without such changes, Wiley worried City Hall could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and conceivably have no legal basis for regulating dispensaries.
While four members of the council clearly favored no dispensaries at all, six members — led by Francisco — voted to refer the matter to a closed session next week to discuss terms and conditions of legal surrender less total than the ones suggested by Wiley. Under Wiley’s terms, there could be as many as five dispensaries legally allowed within city limits, almost two times the amount allowed in last year’s compromise.
When it came to adopting stricter energy standards for new buildings and additions than state law now requires, a majority of councilmembers were clearly not interested. The energy saved was not justified by the additional costs, they argued, adding that any new energy standards should be strictly voluntary. The state’s current standards, ironically, were inspired by an ordinance first enacted by the city three years ago. The proposal would have been rejected outright had Councilmember Grant House not fought for substitute language, adopted by a 4-3 vote, that referred the issue back to staff to conjure up new incentives for a much more voluntary approach.
But the controversy that commanded the most time was yet another knock-down-drag-out on the matter of bulb-outs, this time the ones mandated for every intersection along Chapala Street from Gutierrez to Canon Perdido. Councilmembers Francisco and Michael Self led the charge to have any reference to bulb-outs expunged from the Chapala Street design guidelines, adopted six years ago, while Mayor Schneider and Bendy White unsuccessfully sought a softer retreat by changing the word “shall” to “may.” Prior to the vote, the council heard a lengthy and spirited debate about the virtues and relative vices of bulb-outs by partisans of both sides. In the symbolic politics of the new council, opposition to bulb-outs constitutes one of the core beliefs of the new conservative majority, so by a 4-3 vote, any mention of bulb-outs was exorcized from the planning document.
Editor’s Note: Bleecker (whose name in the original posting was spelled incorrectly) has objected that his words were taken out of context. The full sentence was: “Those former councils have repeatedly used the Milpas corridor as a dumping ground for socially undesirable facilities that other neighborhoods would not stand for, leaving us with a toxic mess that has resulted in a huge spectrum of crime.”