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Mayor Cathy Murillo

Paul Wellman (file)

Mayor Cathy Murillo


Dust Up at Santa Barbara City Hall

Cathy Murillo and Jason Dominguez Duke It Out over SBCAG


There are a thousand and one stories in the Naked City. This one requires a raincoat. That’s because the pissing match that’s engulfed City Hall since the beginning of the year shows no sign of abatement. If anything, it’s picking up steam. Umbrellas will soon be needed.

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo was just named in a legal complaint filed with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra by supporters of Councilmember Jason Dominguez. Since January 9, when Murillo was first sworn in as the city’s first Latina mayor, she and Dominguez ​— ​who represents the city’s Eastside district ​— ​have been engaged in a sharply worded exchange of elbows that shows no sign of easing up. Both want to represent City Hall on the most powerful cabal of elected government officials in the county, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, otherwise known as SBCAG. This agency is so omnipotent, it can and does meet in public, safe in the knowledge no one knows what the hell it is doing. What it does is really important: It dispenses millions of dollars in road-repair money, it manages the freeway-widening process, and it determines just how many more housing units the county decides need to be built in order to meet natural demand. In other words, everything.

On all these issues, Murillo and Dominguez differ substantially.

On January 9, Dominguez simultaneously sucker punched Murillo and ate her lunch. Via an adroit but ultimately self-destructive maneuver, he managed to snag the SBCAG appointment away from Murillo by a 3-to-2 vote. By City Hall standards, this constituted a declaration of war. On February 6 ​— ​Ronald Reagan’s birthday ​— ​Murillo struck back. Availing herself of a parliamentary maneuver no one had ever seen before ​— ​let alone heard of ​— ​she snatched the appointment away from Dominguez, again by a 3-2 vote.

From where I sit, all this was totally unprecedented but equally predictable. In the contact sport of politics, tit follows tat as day follows night. Jason jumped Cathy; Cathy jumped him back.

End of story? Not hardly.

A well-greased machine of histrionic ​— ​dare I say hysterical ​— ​Cathy haters (known as ABC or Anybody but Cathy) ​— ​is now screaming bloody murder. They contend Murillo’s action was so egregiously improper it violates the norms of all civilized society. Hence the mumbo-jumbo-sounding “quo warranto” filed this past week with the Attorney General by Santa Barbara attorney and real estate mogul John Thyne III on behalf of Dominguez. For the record, Dominguez insists he has absolutely nothing to do with this action. “John is not representing me,” he insisted. “It is not being pursued on my behalf.” These assertions so beggar belief they might actually be true. But I doubt it. Thyne and Dominguez are former roommates; they pal around together. I don’t know that they complete each other’s sentences, but they are bona fide buddies.

The named client in Thyne’s legal papers is James Fenkner, who, like Thyne and Dominguez, suffers an overabundance of restless IQ points. Fenkner is also a founding member of the Anybody but Cathy club and was a key mover and shaker behind the unsuccessful mayoral quest by former shoe mogul Angel Martinez last November. In his legal pleadings, Thyne ​— ​who also supported Martinez ​— ​accuses Murillo of engaging in “wrongful and biased conduct” that resulted in “her usurpation of a public office to which she is not entitled.”

The rap on Murillo before the election was that she lacked procedural chops; she wouldn’t know how to run a meeting to save her life. Maybe not, but she did pull a rabbit out of her hat here. Typically, city councils can undo their actions only by something called a motion for reconsideration. But these motions have time deadlines and other requirements that effectively blocked Murillo from going that route. So instead she and new councilmember Eric Friedman filed a motion to consider, something new and different.

Thyne objected mightily. This was akin to calling a tiger a zebra, he argued in otherwise impenetrable legalese, because they both have stripes. To do so, he charged, violated the council’s own procedures and protocols adopted in 2015. As such, it is illegal. Hence the high-dander charge of “usurpation.” Thyne is correct in the former but ​— ​at least according to City Attorney Ariel Calonne ​— ​wrong on the latter. Calonne informed the council that the procedures to which Thyne refers are “directive” and not “mandatory.” Translated, that means they can be ignored when it suits the council’s purpose to ignore them. Thyne complained this interpretation effectively renders council procedures a “nullity,” which is my new all-time favorite word. For good measure, Thyne added a line engineered to reverberate throughout the ages, “The law abhors a nullity.”

One notion making the rounds is the Chaos Theory. Its adherents suspect Dominguez is trying to generate as much chaos as possible as prelude to a possible recall campaign against Murillo that will allow him to become mayor. Another theory suggests Putin and the Russkies might be trying to destabilize Santa Barbara politics; after all, the wives of Thyne and Fenkner are both Russian.

Here’s the real deal. On any given Tuesday, the council can vote to do whatever it wants. Or as Councilmember Randy Rowse ​— ​who first voted to appoint Dominguez to SBCAG and then against him ​— ​bluntly put it: “Cause? We don’t have to give a cause. We just did it.” Maybe Rowse flipped his flop because Dominguez ​— ​as even his best friends admit ​— ​can be his own worst enemy, taking way too much time asking way too many questions from the council dais. Or maybe, as Rowse suggested, he got tired of all the Cathy haters burning up his phone lines right before the vote in question. Who knows?

Only one thing’s for certain. We ain’t seen nullity yet.  ​

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