Montecito’s Politics Are on Fire
Thursday, October 25, 2012
HEAT’S ON ROY JENSEN: Who says nothing ever happens in Montecito? Right now the fire district’s got a red-hot firecracker of an election coming up, featuring good ol’ boy Roy Jensen, who’s pretty much run the board since Gerald Ford was president.
Now 84, Jensen was a Montecito firefighter in the 1950s, opened a service station, and joined the board 37 years ago. Since then, he’s usually gotten his way, raising the pay, benefits, and pensions, but creating one of the most costly fire districts in Santa Barbara County.
“I have never seen anything like it, never anything like this” election fuss, retired fire chief Ron McClain told me. In fact, McClain and three other retired chiefs have gotten hip-deep into the controversy, actively campaigning for Jensen and three others. Other Montecitans are saying that it’s time for Roy to go.
“I’ve seen him blow up” at board meetings, “and I’ve seen him cry,” McClain said. “I would love to see Roy back.” But Roy may not be back after votes are counted November 6 for the first contested Montecito Fire Protection District in memory.
“He has run that board with an iron fist and should be replaced by someone with new ideas and more energy,” argues Gene Sinser, one of eight candidates on the ballot. Sinser, who lives across the street from the much-debated proposed fire station at the east end of the district, strongly questions whether the project pencils out financially. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Then there’s the pension issue. Four retired chiefs, together collecting a total by some estimates of about $900,000 a year and not living in the district, have been beating the drum for Jensen and for candidates Martha Collins, Mindy Denson, and Warner Owens. Pensions come out of the state pension fund, but the district must dig down for annual contributions and for lifelong medical benefits.
Also on the ballot is Measure F, to increase the board from three members to five. Procedurally, it’s awkward to manage with just three, but Jensen has fought expansion for years and is still agin it. If the measure fails, two members will be elected November 6, but if it wins, four will be, including quite possibly the first woman in board history. Three women are running: Collins, Denson, and Susan Keller. The Montecito Journal has endorsed Collins and Keller, along with Sinser and Abe Powell. Also on the ballot is Peter van Duinwyck.
Jensen’s take is that everything’s fine. While the district has stashed about $8 million to buy the land and build the third station on East Valley Road, some of those who have studied the books say the district is running hand-to-mouth and may actually be in the red, with inadequate funds in sight to actually run the new station. “I’m not sure the station is financially feasible,” says Keller. “The community has yet to see clear figures on what it will cost to build it and operate it.” The district has not released cost projections so far.
Craig McCaw and two other nearby property owners have filed a suit challenging the fire station’s environmental impact report.
Fingers are being pointed at the retired chiefs’ fat pensions and the fact that at $250,000 a year, newly appointed Chief Chip Hickman is one of the highest paid in the state. “We can afford it,” replies Jensen. Yet the district had to borrow $3.52 million to pay underfunded pension obligations, according to its 2011 financial statement. City of Santa Barbara Chief Andrew DiMizio, running eight stations, makes $181,175 a year.
Montecito does not run a cheap operation. It costs Montecito $7 million a year to operate each of its two stations, Carpinteria-Summerland runs two stations on $3.7 million each, and the city operates eight at $2.7 million each.
ROBERTS HOSPITALIZED: Jerry Roberts, former editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press and current columnist for The Santa Barbara Independent, is in UC San Francisco Hospital being treated for cancer.
OSAGE COUNTY: You never saw a dysfunctional family like the one in August: Osage County, where closets full of painful secrets come tumbling out. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning play, performed by The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College, is knockout theater. I couldn’t take my eyes off Susanne Marley, playing the role of acid-tongued matriarch Violet Weston. (Through Nov. 3 at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre.)
DEEP VOICES: The First United Methodist Church probably never before heard the likes of the deep, polyphonic music of the all-male Ensemble Basiani, which sang folk songs, chants, and sacred choral music from the Republic of Georgia on Sunday. (Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures.)