In a meeting that seemed more like a protracted family therapy session than an official government gathering, the Carpinteria City Council voted to strip fellow Councilmember Joe Armendariz of his committee assignments, to officially ask him to resign, and to censure him for driving so drunk he steered his car off the freeway December 2 and crashed into a tree. Armendariz’s blood alcohol level — 0.18 — was more than twice the legal limit at the time, and it was his second major drunk driving incident in the past five years.
Although Armendariz opted not to show up for the council deliberations, he has steadfastly refused to resign, insisting he’s seeking help for his drinking issues and that his lapse in judgment behind the wheel has not affected his ability to represent Carpinteria residents. Under state law and municipal ordinance, the council lacks the legal authority to force Armendariz to step down. So instead, three of his fellow councilmembers voted to make the strongest expression of official disapproval available to them. For Councilmember Brad Stein, that wasn’t quite enough. “If I could, I would not ask, I’d force his resignation,” he said. Councilmember Kathleen Reddington — who cast the lone vote against censure — termed the proceedings “a witch hunt” and argued that Armendariz should be afforded a leave of absence to enroll in a detox program.
It was third time in three months that sanctions against Armendariz were under discussion, and members of the public weighed in vigorously on both sides. Armendariz is one of the county’s most prominent — and pugnacious — conservative voices, and his public profile transcends well beyond the jurisdictional confines of Carpinteria. Some speakers, such as William (a.k.a. Hot Dog Man) Connell and Susan Allen, a longtime community activist, argued that nothing but a forceful statement could distance the council from the ethical blight brought upon it by Armendariz’s action. “We can enable, make excuses, or we can stand up and say we won’t take it,” said Allen, after describing her painful personal experience dealing with — and divorcing — an alcoholic ex-husband.
Others, like prominent community activist and volunteer Mary McWhirter, argued that Armendariz’s problems with the bottle were never manifest on the council dais. “I never once witnessed or heard him under the influence at any council meetings,” she stated. McWhirter cautioned many on the council that they, too, lived in glass houses and should refrain from throwing stones. “Gregg Carty is the only of you I haven’t heard stories about,” she said. “He’s apple pie.”
Councilmember Stein challenged supporters of Armedariz, asking them how they might feel if he’d killed someone while driving drunk, all but guaranteeing that would happen one day. Councilmember Reddington reminded everyone in attendance how her husband had been seriously brain damaged as a result of a hit-and-run accident nearly five years ago. She argued it was dangerously premature for the council to take any action against Armendariz until legal proceedings against him concluded. Armendariz, she said, should have resigned on his own, but added that the council should encourage him to get treatment. “Are we about healing or hurting?” she demanded. “Are we about kvetching and complaining, or are we about kindness?”
Mayor Al Clark laid out a case that Armendariz had clearly breached the council’s own ethics policy, adopted in 2006, which calls for councilmembers to conduct their personal and political lives in an “above reproach manner.” Clearly, he said, rolling two cars while under the influence constituted a clear-cut violation. But first, Clark took exception to written allegations that were included in a city council agenda report that he beat his wife. “I need to say that’s not true,” Clark said. “If you need further elaboration on that, you can call my wife.” With that, he gave out her number.