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FIRESTONE ACCUSED

Conflict of Interest Charges Stop Board in Tracks

by Ethan Stewart

On a day when it seemed more than likely that the Santa Barbara
County Board of Supervisors would pass the proposed Uniform Rules
changes — the ordinances that govern some 550,000 acres of
privately owned local land currently under the Williamson Act
contract — late-hour accusations claiming conflict of interest on
the part of 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone forced the
board to once again punt the controversial decision. The debate
over the Uniform Rules changes — which would, among other things,
allow guest ranches, one or two additional family homes, and
expanded support facilities on the traditionally
development-restricted, tax-sheltered Williamson Act land — has
been a hot-button issue throughout the county in recent weeks.
Opponents have called for more environmental review, given the fact
that the county is currently considering at least 19 other
ag-related policy changes, and supporters have claimed that the
changes are necessary for the financial survival of family
farmers.

Despite the loud pleas from the public to delay, supervisors
Firestone, Joni Gray, and Joe Centeno were all prepared to vote on
and pass the long-simmering ordinance changes today when the
Environmental Defense Center’s Cameron Benson served the board late
Monday afternoon with a 13-page letter detailing Firestone’s
possible conflicts of interest and requesting that the supervisor
recuse himself from the vote. A closed-door session with county
counsel ensued, resulting in the decision that “For the interest of
being clean and aboveboard” (as he put it), Firestone should
abstain from any discussion or action on the issue, pending closer
examination by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Thus, with
the majority lost, supporters of the rules changes begrudgingly
backpedaled on their previous “pass it now” stance and called for a
nearly two-month delay until late February.

Firestone-%28Lede-Main-Image%29.gifSpeaking after the hearing, Firestone
said that the allegations against him were “for the most part
inaccurate” but admitted that “I’m not quite sure what is going to
happen from here. … It seems to me that I am okay, but these are
gray areas.” To Benson and the various agencies that the EDC is
representing — such as the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance, the Santa
Barbara County Action Network, and the Gaviota Conservancy — the
“gray area” lies in the fact that Firestone and his family own more
than 573 acres of Williamson Act land and therefore stand, at least
theoretically, to reap some sort of financial gain from the
proposed rule changes. As their letter contends, “Under California
law, Supervisor Firestone cannot make, participate in making, or in
any way attempt to use his official position to influence a
governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he
has a financial interest.”

Specifically, it is Firestone’s winery holdings — which could be
a beneficiary of the expanded support facilities clause — and the
long-rumored possibility that he wishes to convert his large
Victorian-style home in Santa Ynez into a guest ranch — a change
that would also be allowed under a tweaked ordinance — that make
Firestone, according to the letter, “have a greater economic
interest in the proposed Uniform Rules changes than the [general]
public,” thus mandating his recusal. However, according to
Firestone — who has in the past willingly removed himself from
votes related to his family’s varied business endeavors — his
Victorian house isn’t even a part of his Williamson Act holdings,
and even if it was, “I don’t have plans to put a guest ranch there
because, well, that’s kinda where we live.” And as for the vineyard
argument, he offered only that the rules changes “don’t do nearly
as much for us as you might think.”

Whether the allegations are true or not, the bottom line is that
this week’s late legal maneuvering not only derailed what many felt
was going to be a slam-dunk approval but also buys time for what
all the commotion has been about in recent weeks — the full-scale
and comprehensive review of the environmental impacts associated
with all the ag-related policy changes currently being worked on by
various county agencies. As 1st District Supervisor Salud
Carbajal — who has been an outspoken supporter of additional time
and review — commented on Tuesday, “The issue here really is a
question of process. … How can we best get there?” While it seems
that time has been created, albeit somewhat unintentionally, for
that process to be improved before the board revisits the Uniform
Rules on February 19, it is still very much up in the air as to
whether or not the board will ask for and receive such an
analysis.

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