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Can Helene Schneider Survive Fracas over Freeway-Widening Fracas?


HER HONOR A GONER? To steal a well-trod line, I come not to praise Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider but to bury her. Based on the high-voltage public smackdown inflicted on Schneider in recent weeks by her erstwhile comrades on the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), one might think Schneider’s stellar political career has become such burnt toast that no amount of butter or jelly could salvage it. At issue, as usual, is Schneider’s long-standing disagreements with the SBCAG board over Caltrans’ $450 million plans to widen a 10-mile stretch of Highway 101. Schneider flamboyantly jumped the shark in October when she penned a widely circulated op-ed article announcing her support for a lawsuit challenging the environmental impact report (EIR) for the freeway-widening plan. “We fully encourage and will be publicly supporting private parties who have filed lawsuits,” she ​— ​and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Bendy White ​— ​wrote. If the mayor was looking for a hair-on-fire reaction, she got one. If she wasn’t, it’s hard to imagine what she was thinking. In any case, Her Honor’s fellow SBCAG members (who include representatives of Santa Barbara’s eight cities and all five supervisors) retaliated by dropping a few napalm bombs of their own.

Angry Poodle

In a well-orchestrated public drubbing conducted shortly before Christmas, they got everyone except for Schneider’s grade-school teachers to show up and denounce the mayor’s actions. Then they very publicly voted 11-to-2 to deny Schneider the board position, a post that would otherwise have gone to her this year. After that, they went behind closed doors and voted to deny Schneider any opportunity to participate in discussions about SBCAG’s response to the Highway 101 lawsuit. What would she tell the other side? As a result, only SBCAG’s four-person executive committee will hear such matters; Schneider, conspicuously, does not sit on that committee. This change in protocol suggests Schneider’s fellow SBCAG members ​— ​13 in all ​— ​have come to so distrust her that eight gave up their own ability to participate. Talk about cutting off one’s collective nose to spite Schneider’s face. Houston, we have a problem. Just in case no one got it, County Supervisor Janet Wolf invited one of Schneider’s most outspoken and rhetorically colorful critics ​— ​nationally syndicated writer Ann Louise Bardach ​— ​to deliver the keynote address for this year’s first county supervisors meeting, always a ceremonial high mass for Santa Barbara’s political classes. Although Bardach’s remarks were subdued compared to her usual standards, she still managed to suggest ​— ​however obliquely ​— ​that Schneider was an opportunistic stooge for special interests contemptuous of the democratic process.

Personally, I hate to see anyone as smart, talented, and dedicated as Schneider self-destruct so gratuitously. Making this meltdown worse is that on the facts, Schneider is absolutely right. Although the freeway widening will ease rush-hour congestion for workers commuting to Santa Barbara from Ventura, it will also increase congestion for city drivers on the streets once that pulse of northbound commuters hit Santa Barbara’s Westside. It ain’t gonna be pretty. To this significant problem, the environmental impact report dedicated a scant half a sentence. That’s right: one-half. The rest was buried in an appendix. I understand people want the freeway widened right now for real and urgent reasons. But we should go into it eyes wide open, not sewn shut.

Schneider’s drubbers have told us, ad nauseam, how 79 percent of the voters in 2008 endorsed spending $140 million in future sales-tax revenues to widen the freeway. That’s true. But no one ever bothered to ask the voters’ opinion in 2010 when SBCAG committed to spending an additional $360 million ​— ​over the next few decades ​— ​on the freeway widening. That vote caught a lot of people by surprise, even several members of the SBCAG board who were reportedly furious to discover what they’d done. By then, however, it was too late. That $360 million will come from state and federal gas taxes that would have otherwise gone to a host of desperately needed local road-improvement projects. Last I checked, $360 million qualified as real money that could have helped fix such things as the Castillo Street onramps ​— ​flagrantly mis-engineered and massively overused. Next time you’re there, think about that. Like I say, eyes sewn shut.

The great mystery is how someone as skilled as Schneider failed so utterly in winning over other SBCAG members. But for a host of reasons, she didn’t. Last January, SBCAG voted 11-to-2 to support the project as proposed. It doesn’t get much more overwhelming than that. My hunch is that Schneider’s message  ​— ​which had been endorsed by her planning commission, city administrator, and transportation planner ​— ​got lost in the commotion generated by her longtime political campaign manager Jeremy Lindaman. He led the unsuccessful charge on behalf of a group of Montecitans who attacked the freeway-widening plan in hopes of preserving the left-lane off-ramps serving Montecito. Given close connections between the two efforts, it became hard to tell whose tail was wagging which dog. What Schneider needed was an acceptable Plan B. One existed. Yes, it required a perilous level of trust on her part, perhaps even magical thinking. But it also gave her potential veto powers down the road should such trust prove misplaced. Instead, Schneider doubled down on Plan A. First, she tried to get her own City Council to challenge the EIR in court. When that failed, she embraced the private parties suing instead. When other SBCAG members complained Schneider had a conflict of interest where the 101 lawsuit was concerned, she argued over the legal definition of what constituted a conflict of interest. Technically speaking, she was correct. But that’s not the point. Appearance is. Trust is. Some arguments you lose simply by being in them. Even when you’re right, you’re still wrong. This is one. Here’s hoping Schneider manages to dig herself out. I really don’t feel like burying her.

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