The position of County Counsel can be a tough one and in Santa Barbara County perhaps more so. Nonetheless, outgoing County Counsel Shane Stark-after 20 years in the department, the last 13 of it serving as the head of the 45-person department-said he loved his job and wouldn’t trade his time there for anything.
Anything, that is, except for retirement.
Stark, who turned 65 the last day of 2007, will be stepping down January 25, leaving a gaping hole in the county’s legal department, and taking with him an institutional memory and a fairness that colleagues say will be hard to rival. Sitting in a position intended to define the parameters of the Board of Supervisors’ discretion without confusing policy with law, Stark told members of the board what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. “When you have five people on a board,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, “you want a strong lawyer who isn’t afraid to stand steadfast in explaining the real facts on any given issue.” Stark is well-known for reducing cases down to their basic elements quickly and effectively while giving raw advice to the board. Counsel’s advice to the board isn’t always seen by the public as much of it takes place behind the doors of closed sessions while the board discusses legal or personnel strategy and procedure. “We don’t need a politician,” Carbajal said. “We need a professional, strong, intelligent lawyer. Shane focuses on the facts of the law and doesn’t try to create favor politically.” Marc Chytilo, who has stood opposite Stark in legal battles over the years, supported that description. “You have to represent your client’s position understanding it’s all political,” Chytilo said.
Not everyone agrees that the position can achieve that kind of fairness in light of the temptation to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear, even if it’s not the best use of county time or money. County watchdog and COLAB spokesperson Andy Caldwell said his beef wasn’t with Stark so much as it was with the position itself. “I look at County Counsel as representing the people of the county,” he said. “Sometimes I get the feeling that County Counsel is representing county government against people.”
Stark’s track record includes few large settlements or losses. Considering the litigious nature of society today and the fight for agricultural land within the county, that record is something to stand on. “If you approve something you get sued,” said County Chief Executive Officer Mike Brown, “and if you don’t approve something you get sued.”
Because the matter is in the hands of the state Court of Appeal, Stark declined to comment on one loss-the largest land use judgment ever against the county in which jurors in Santa Maria awarded a $5.6 million payout to Adam Brothers Farming and a judge ruled that the county also had to pay $1.1 million in the Adams’ attorneys fees and legal costs. (A technicality might absolve the county of these fees.)
Stark does have a few other regrets, though not many. He regrets not reopening the North County’s County Counsel’s office after closing it when he cut positions in his department. He also regrets not forming a deal with the Chumash tribe a few years ago that would have installed a mechanism for the county to keep up with goings-on in the Santa Ynez tribe. “I don’t think it’s our fault, but we had a narrow opportunity to establish a relationship and we didn’t,” he said.
While sometimes verdicts did not favor the county, Stark said he could think of only one instance in which he might have advised the board differently: the county’s six-year battle with Santa Maria farmer Ed Sutti. The county originally filed a lawsuit against Sutti in 2000 for allegedly violating a grading ordinance by bulldozing a wetland area. This suit was eventually thrown out, and the county had to pay Sutti’s legal fees. Stark admitted he “read the case wrong.” The county’s grading ordinance was “in a mess” at the time and too vague to be enforced, Stark said. In 2005, Sutti filed suit against the county in relation to grading on his agricultural land. With the $5.6 million verdict still fresh, the county eventually decided to settle for $450,000.
Stark’s legal acuity when it comes to land use is second to none, and he is respected around the state. Stark has penned two guides for those practicing public law, the “Owlet’s Guide to Public Business” and the “Eaglet’s Guide to Public Law.” Both guides are used by those inside the department and out. According to those who have seen him in action, Stark has a well-deserved reputation for his emcee routines at colleagues’ retirement and going-away parties. He’s a master of timing and commentary, they say, something he carries over to his office. “I got to laugh a lot,” said Alan Seltzer, who left the County Counsel office in 2006 to join the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. “Shane treated everyone as a professional and gave them respect and courtesy up front.” “He brought a professional level of levity to dealings with the County Counsel’s office,” said Chytilo, who added that the office had an “entertaining culture.”
While the County Counsel office culture may take a hit when Stark leaves, it won’t go without a leader. Supervisors named former Santa Barbara City Attorney David Wallace interim county counsel on January 15. The county will be embarking on a national search for a permanent replacement, but will be looking at candidates inside the counsel’s office as well. In the meantime, a well-respected lawyer, funnyman, and trusted advisor is packing up his office, leaving a legacy of good advice and good humor behind.