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The Recusal Option


There are some who think that life is “black and white,” and believe that all conflicts have clear and concise solutions. I admit that I have secretly wished this might be true when I have found myself in the middle of a family maelstrom and unsure of an obvious solution. And so it comes as no surprise that the recent Architectural Board of Review (ABR) turmoil over the Chick-fil-A design debacle is quickly being swept into the “black and white” category. Quick fix: Fire the offending ABR board members.

After learning of the recent struggles faced by some of the members of the ABR, I wondered how I might have handled the situation. I do not believe that the members came into the meeting with the intent of denying consent approval for this project but rather some of the members struggled to keep their opinions and personal sentiments out of the design discussion with the only tool they thought they had at their disposal – their abstention. If only one or two members had abstained that day, we would never have learned of the ABR’s review of this project. What was unfortunate was that five members exercised their “abstention” vote at the same time.

In hindsight, there were other actions that could have been pursued: The ABR members could have recused themselves or the ABR senior planner could have been called in to provide clear guidelines to the board members. But despite the abstentions, city staff was still able to provide administrative approval and the applicant experienced no delay in their permitting process. In fact, I am confident the message the applicant received was that the city was taking steps to ensure their project was not impacted by the ABR members’ lack of action.

I empathize with those board members who struggled with matters of conscience. They are in the company of many others who are struggling to understand Chick-fil-A’s behavior. Fortunately, the actions of many individuals combined with the harsh public rebukes from the mayors of major American cities including Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have made an impact. Chick-fil-A has stated it will end its corporate support to groups who actively pledge to treat members of our gay community as second-class citizens.

Social change is slow and social issues are not “black and white.” And despite the inaction of the ABR members at one meeting, it should not be forgotten that they are volunteers who have dedicated countless hours of their time. And whether you agreed with their actions, the reality is their behavior did not block the permitting progress of the applicant.

Insisting that ABR members resign or be fired is a draconian response. The better solution would be to provide additional guidance to both staff and the ABR members on how to deal with difficult situations that may arise. The consequence of removing five members would be a negative impact on the ability of other applicants to have their projects reviewed in a timely manner. I urge our City Council to dedicate its time and efforts in a more productive manner and move forward in a positive direction. It is time to leave the ABR/Chick-fil-A debacle and work on more important issues; perhaps on ensuring that all members of our community are treated fairly.

Elizabeth Sorgman describes herself as an architect and Santa Barbara native.

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