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As Dog is My Witness

TOO MUCH INFO: Pearl Chase, world oil speculation, and trash wars collide at city’s Sign Ordinance


Thursday, May 26, 2011

TOO MUCH INFO: No doubt Pearl Chase is rolling over in her grave right now. If I were dead, I might be, too, though for different reasons. Miss Chase, as she insisted she be called, is the matron saint of Santa Barbara’s obsessive compulsive disorder about red tile roofs. In equal measure a political boss and civic visionary, Chase left her thumb prints indelibly impressed upon the city’s collective windpipe. Among her many now-legendary exploits, Chase singlehandedly chased the billboards out of Santa Barbara and ruthlessly ferreted out visual blight wherever she encountered it. This Tuesday, however, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to allow gas station owners to equip their pumps with 26-inch video screens equipped with built-in speakers with which to barrage their captive customers with a steady stream of 15-second ads and infomercials.

Angry Poodle

The city’s Historic Landmarks Commission opposed these contraptions — known as Pumpflix — finding them tacky, intrusive, and just not Santa Barbara. So, too, did the city’s planners, who worried about slippery slopes and the Los Angelization of our fair city. On the other side was Pumpflix founder John Price, who also owns 10 of the South Coast’s 32 gas stations. Working with Price was political consultant Jeremy Lindaman and PR whiz Jonatha King, who together personify both the iron fist and velvet glove in one tidy package. That Lindaman helped get Mayor Helene Schneider elected, not to mention councilmembers Grant House and Bendy White, certainly didn’t hurt. (White, having worked for Price as a land-use consultant, did not vote.) In addition, Price hired attorney Doug Fell, éminence grise in the world of land-use law. To the extent city staff tried to jam Pumpflix at the line of scrimmage, Price and his crew proved ready, willing, and able to slam back, prevailing with a 6-0 vote.

As much as I’m inclined to make mountains out of molehills, Pumpflix is not “The Beginning of the End.” Yes, it’s a new kind of sign that increases the visual din of the planet, but no, you can’t see it or hear it from the street. I am bugged, however, that anyone could sell my captive eyeballs to advertisers to make a profit. Where’s my cut of the action? That this transaction occurs while I’m getting hosed at the pump by the Evil Oil Industry adds serious insult to an otherwise minor injury. I have a hard time grinning and bearing it when the top five oil companies just reported record first-quarter profits — $38 billion. I have an even harder time maintaining my pseudo-Zen equanimity given that Congress just passed a bevy of bills — which will die in the Senate — to reduce environmental safeguards and accelerate the approval process for offshore oil development. These measures were sold on the bankrupt notion that expedited drilling will somehow bring gas prices down.

Do the math: The United States consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil; it has only two percent of the world’s reserves. Even if we pump everything we have, it’s not going to make much price difference at the pump. It should be noted that Congress approved these measures within one year of the big BP spill — and before enacting any new safety legislation designed to prevent future BPs from occurring. I’d suggest the $340 million spent by lobbyists hired by the oil and gas industry in the past three years might have paid off. Likewise, one has to wonder what the Senate was thinking when it voted last week against closing oil-industry tax loopholes worth $2 billion a year. I’m not suggesting passive acquiescence in the face of highway robbery. It’s worth remembering how Congress responded to the surge in gas prices triggered by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 by passing the first fuel efficiency requirements for motor vehicles. Now that we have a new and improved American auto industry, maybe it’s time to revisit increased fuel efficiencies again. Duh!

It’s not fair, I know, to hold all this against John Price, an otherwise smart and decent guy just trying to make a buck. And for the record, he said, it’s not all about “sell, sell, sell.” Yes, he charges $399 for a 15-second spot — an “impression” — that will play 330 times a day for 30 days. But he’s giving away free PSAs to area nonprofits like Adopt-a-Pet. And he’s worked out an exclusive contract with MarBorg so that his screens can broadcast up-to-the-second emergency info from the Office of Emergency Services in case of fire, flood, earthquake, and other natural disasters that tend to send people streaming to the gas stations. His screens can and will be used to show AMBER Alerts, as well, not to mention messages from Homeland Security. Not only will MarBorg pay for back-up generators at each of his gas stations, but it will also pay for the satellite connections needed to keep the screens running should the generators fail. Mario Borgatello of MarBorg will use this arrangement to make the case he deserves a trash monopoly in Santa Barbara in its upcoming franchise war with Allied Waste. It already made the same case in the City of Goleta to good effect, where Price’s high school chum, Councilmember Roger Aceves, led the charge on MarBorg’s behalf.

The central political question confronting Santa Barbara, in case you didn’t know, has nothing to do with the homeless, gangs, or even the massive budget deficits for which public unions are being so effectively scapegoated. In reality, the fundamental bedrock from which all political discourse springs — at least on the South Coast — has everything, it turns out, to do with trash-hauling franchises. Where Karl Marx wrote that history is propelled by class struggle, in Santa Barbara, it’s the clash between MarBorg and Allied. It’s probably not coincidental that Price and Borgatello use the same political consultant. The good news in all this is that Price has promised to offer reduced gas prices to customers of his advertisers. Assuming I am one of them, I will get a pay-off for my eyeballs after all. With enough Pumpflix, presumably gas prices will go down and the political support for new drilling will disappear. In the meantime, no doubt Pearl Chase is still spinning in her grave. But maybe I can get a good night’s sleep.

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