DIGGING UP THE DREAD: This week we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, which has morphed into a giant Cinco de Mayo party for white people, by drinking copious quantities of Guinness — a dankly dark Dublin brew capable of absorbing more light than all the black holes of the solar system combined — as if they actually liked the stuff. Pretty crazy? Crazier still, Santa Barbara City Hall will observe the actual Cinco de Mayo festivities by going to court in pursuit of the much discussed, though rarely debated, gang injunction. For those afflicted with concern about ethnic sensitivities, the timing seems a little awkward.
On gang injunctions, I’m a skeptical agnostic. Maybe they make sense some places. But here in Santa Barbara? I have serious doubts. First, gang violence has diminished since Police Chief Cam Sanchez first proposed the injunction three years ago. City cops have figured out how to respond effectively without availing themselves of the superpowers the injunction would allegedly bestow. Whatever the outcome of the Cinco de Mayo trial, the results will be appealed. And for years. My unsolicited advice to Santa Barbara’s new city attorney, Ariel Calonne? Cut your losses, declare a qualified victory, and use your finite time and resources on something other than grand rhetorical gestures. Serious crime in Santa Barbara, as Chief Sanchez told the council Tuesday, continues to drop. There was one-third less serious crime reported in the first two months of 2014 than the same time the year before. Aggravated assaults dropped by more than half from the previous February. As Sanchez explained, basic shoe-leather police work pays off. It pays off with gang violence, too.
The best public debate on the proposed injunction that no one will ever hear — and hardly anyone attended — took place last Wednesday not in the council chambers but at the Chamber of Commerce’s new digs. (The only public discussion to take place in City Council chambers occurred years after the councilmembers had already voted, behind closed doors, to approve the injunction.) The Chamber discussion took place at the instigation of middle-of-the-road councilmember Gregg Hart, who campaigned as a candidate last fall against the injunction. Hart is one of only two council votes against the injunction, the other being Cathy Murillo. With those odds, he could have easily picked more winnable battles to fight.
I’m glad he didn’t. Rather than preach to the politically correct choir, Hart sought to win the hearts and minds of the area business community. Three weeks ago, he successfully persuaded the Association of Realtors to oppose the injunction on the grounds it would require real estate agents to disclose to potential buyers if the property in question was located in any of the gang safety zone, which cumulatively encompass 42 percent of the city’s physical mass, designated by the injunction. Hart had the element of surprise, and the realtors decided in his favor before hearing from the other side. If he could pull the same trick with the chamber, maybe he could win over business-minded councilmembers, like Randy Rowse. But by last week, the element of surprise was gone, and “the other side” was on hand to make its case. Not coincidentally, it happened to be Randy Rowse.
Also jumping in was County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who opined — as a former resident of Oxnard’s gang-riddled La Colonia neighborhood — that Santa Barbara’s gang problem was “minimal.” Carbajal said he supported the injunction only because Latinos are most affected by gang violence, but cautioned his support was “tepid” and that he might change his mind. Hart made his pitch that since 18 of the 30 worst-of-the-worst have already been arrested, sentenced, or deported without the aid of the injunction, it made no sense to spend $1 million fighting for the injunction in court to put away the remaining 12. Traditional police methods, he stressed, got the job done. And why tarnish the entire city’s reputation as a dangerous gang haven, he asked, when we’re spending millions to promote it as a destination resort?
Rowse provided the rebuttal with effective amiability. He argued nothing in state law requires real estate agents to disclose the safety zones and took issue with Hart’s math regarding the true costs of litigating the matter. (Real estate agents are required to disclose any “material” information about the properties they list, and like “pornography,” the definition of “material” is sufficiently broad. Regardless of the law, many in the business subscribe to the better-safe-than-sorry school of thought and disclose as much as possible to protect themselves against potential litigation. The true costs to City Hall are similarly susceptible to interpretation, but over a year ago, City Hall itself estimated it had spent $500,000 preparing for the trial.) Rowse’s key point was that the injunction would provide cops a valuable tool in keeping established gang members from recruiting new and younger members. Anything that undermines “hero worship” of the old by the young, he said, is to be applauded.
Jumping in from the sidelines with a voice like rolling thunder, Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss stole the show when it came to raw passion, expressed both theatrically and sincerely. Sixteen people had been killed by gang violence since the 1990s, Hotchkiss boomed, and while others might place a price tag on their lives, he would not.
Naturally I thought Hart had the more persuasive argument; after all, he agreed with me. But that’s not the point. The point is that members of the council actually debated the merits of the injunction among themselves out in the open and not behind the closed-door protection that’s afforded lawsuits and issues of potential litigation. To belabor the obvious, had the council conducted this kind of public discourse then, maybe we could have avoided the problem we’re in now.
It looks doubtful Hart can get there from here. Even so, he insists he’ll bring the matter back to the council one last time before the trial starts. Who knows — maybe sanity will strike in the meantime. Hey, any reason to hoist a Guinness is good enough for me.
In the interest of fairness and full reporting, I should note that Councilmember Gregg Hart — as well as all members of the City Council — had been given a written opinion from the prior city attorney, Steve Wiley, who insisted that state law imposed no legal obligation on real estate agents to disclose whether their properties fell within the boundaries of one of the gang safety zones. Wiley added that state law would, in fact, require real estate agents to disclose whether there was any nearby gang activity or any gang nuisance to prospective buyers. Hart readily acknowledged having been given this memo, but took issue with its practical implications. Whether or not state law required such disclosures, he insisted, real estate agents would feel compelled to disclose anyway, if only to avoid possible litigation.