SURE GLAD I DIDN’T STEP IN IT: This being summertime in Santa Barbara, our biggest problem, it would seem, is that five members of Santa Barbara’s Architectural Board of Review (ABR) mysteriously abstained en masse over an exceedingly obscure, and almost irrelevant, vote involving patio furniture and shrubberies planned for the Chick-fil-A slated for 3707 State Street. One might have thought the proposal to charge parking fees — for the first time ever — at Hendry’s and Goleta beach would have generated a bigger controversy, but such expectations have yet to yield fruit.
Like most people, I’d never heard of Chick-fil-A until recently, even though it’s a national chain with 1,600 outlets and $4 billion in annual sales. I accidentally stumbled into one with my son about a year ago. As a dining experience, it was pretty whatever. But afterward, we both felt sorry for the woman behind the cash register who expended way too much energy inquiring about our general tranquility, peace of mind, and whether we were having a nice day.
It turns out another link in Chick-fil-A’s sizable chain is slated for the now abandoned site of the Burger King out on upper State Street. Since January, the Architectural Board of Review had been mulling over its design plans. The shite hit the proverbial fan a month ago, when Chick CEO Dan Cathy proudly pled “guilty as charged” in some obscure Baptist publication to being a big-ticket supporter to that sprawling dysfunctionality known as the “traditional family.” When it comes to the theological primacy of Adam and Eve over Adam and Steve, Mr. Cathy is not just a firm believer but Viagrally tumescent. Under his leadership, Chick-fil-A has given millions to organizations implacably opposed to gay civil rights and gay marriage, and even a few that support pseudo-therapies that gay people can somehow be “cured,” by making them watch hetero porn and sticking electrical wires to their skull.
By July, Santa Barbara’s latest entry into the fast-food game had been all but approved. Then some last-minute exceedingly minor changes were proposed encompassing an area of about 180 square feet of outdoor patio space. On July 23, two members of the ABR abstained from the vote, one citing political and personal concerns with Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay corporate philanthropy. Then, at the first hearing in August, no less than five members of the ABR abstained, for a host of reasons, many of which still remain shrouded in mystery and confusion. Normally, organizations supporting family values are big fans of abstinence, but not in this case. City Hall has since been seized by a hue and cry that the five abstainers be shot at dawn, drawn and quartered, or summarily booted from the ABR, whose institutional sanctity and probity they have so egregiously violated.
To clear the air on a few points, no such mass abstention has occurred here since the De la Guerras ripped off Santa Barbara from Chief Yanonalit. This is a historic first. But contrary to what any sane person might have surmised, this was not the product of any nefarious political conspiracy to make a political statement. To the extent most members of the ABR said anything, they were mumbling with food in their mouths. Most of the boardmembers did not explain their votes at the time and have declined to so publicly since. The clearest and most outspoken — Gary Mosel — belongs to the Gay & Lesbian Business Association, and his lawfully wedded spouse sits on the Board of the Pacific Pride Foundation, two organizations which have taken positions hostile to Chick-fil-A. In hindsight, Mosel should have recused himself from participating — which means getting up and leaving the room — in any discussion on Chick-fil-A, rather than abstaining, an obscure parliamentary maneuver reserved for officials who haven’t done the requisite homework to render a decision. In fact, two of the commissars abstained for just that reason, one of whom has since taken issue with his abstaining peers for the politically tainted manner of their collective nonaction.
At the heart of the issue, as always in Santa Barbara, is real estate. Millions of dollars’ worth of plans are submitted to the ABR for review every year on properties that, combined, are worth billions. The sanctity of Santa Barbara’s aesthetic guidelines cannot be — or appear to be — adulterated or tainted by extraneous considerations having nothing to do with design. If people can’t trust the ABR, then the center of our political universe crumbles and property values plummet. City Attorney Steve Wiley has since issued a one-page memo instructing all members of city boards and commissions that they are legally required to check their personal opinions at the door, but he has declined to release it publicly. If I actually saw what he wrote, I’d no doubt say he was correct on this. You don’t want government boards and commissions sucker-punching applicants for peripheral political reasons. That’s dangerous turf. ABR members are free to boycott Chick-fil-A, and they’re free to call on others to do the same. But when you mess with the company’s patio furniture, that’s where we draw the line.
Chick-fil-A has suffered nothing from this slight other than an avalanche of free publicity. It’s clear City Hall has work to do with its boardmembers and commissioners. But calls for mass terminations — which would also be a historic first — are overblown and a bit hysterical. City Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss was the first one out of the gate demanding that the abstainers resign or apologize. But even Hotchkiss himself has abstained on a couple of votes — rather than casting a no vote — where it’s questionable that abstention was, in fact, appropriate under Robert’s Rules of Order. The good news is that the City Council is taking a three-week vacation, and by the time it reconvenes, we’ll have found other causes for outrage. I’m hoping beach parking fees become one. And if Chick-fil-A spent less money supporting anti-gay crusaders, maybe its employees wouldn’t have to spend so much energy wondering how its customers were feeling.