Responding to recent instances in which members of Santa Barbara’s design review boards recused themselves when they should have voted — and others in which they voted when they should have stepped down — the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to augment the conflict-of-interest training required for members of City Hall’s many advisory boards and commissions.
The new guidelines make it explicit that the personal political beliefs of the commission members have no standing when they render judgments about the architectural merits of proposed developments. Last summer, five members of the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) recused themselves from voting on minor plan modifications sought by fast food emporium Chick-fil-A, three for political reasons. The company’s chief executive had made headlines with flamboyantly outspoken remarks hostile to gay rights and gay marriage. In addition, the company donated millions to organizations opposed to gay rights.
Some members of the ABR withheld their vote, explaining they could not render an impartial judgment given the company’s political agenda. A majority of the council repudiated the mass recusal, arguing such considerations were extraneous to their city functions. Two councilmembers — Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse — suggested the offending commissioners be terminated. Given how difficult it is to find qualified volunteers to fill City Hall’s 36 boards and commissions, the punitive approach got no traction. Instead, city officials drafted clearer guidelines calling for increased ethics training.
While Chick-fil-A was clearly “the electroshock incident” — in the words of Councilmember Bendy White — it’s hardly the only ethical concern. Last year, the Fair Political Practices Commission fined ABR member and architect Clay Aurell $3,500 for lobbying city staff on behalf of a client then appearing before the ABR with a controversial remodel. Aurell resigned, but not before Councilmember Dale Francisco called him out during a council meeting.
Far trickier for members of design review boards is what they can — and cannot — say or do on behalf of clients with projects before their boards. Under state law, they must recuse themselves from any deliberations and allow other members of their firms to make their clients’ case. The only exception allowed is for architects and other professionals with solo practices. In such cases, these sole practitioners are allowed only to present information about their projects, but not to advocate.
The bright line between “presenting” and “advocating,” however, is so dim as to be all but invisible. For example, the chair of the Historic Landmarks Commission, Phil Suding, quietly stepped down from his position at a meeting there weeks ago so he could testify on behalf of his client, the developer of the La Entrada hotel development proposed for lower State Street. A member of the public who showed up to testify against changes proposed for La Entrada — Jim Westby — expressed concern about the dual role Suding was playing. “From a public perspective, that just doesn’t look good,” Westby complained. But like 36 other members of city design-review commissions, Suding is a sole practitioner. Without them, City Hall’s intricate maze of volunteer-dependent boards and commissions would collapse.
In deference to the smell test, city administrators will now require a public acknowledgment to take place when members, like Suding, change hats during such proceedings. Under the new rules, the chair of the commission will be required to read a seven-paragraph statement, citing chapter and verse from state law, detailing the limited circumstances under which commissioners are allowed to play such dual roles.