It’s been a tough year for Santa Barbara City Planning Commissioner Addison Thompson. First, his father died. Then, the Tea Fire burned his house down. And last week, without a syllable of advance warning or subsequent explanation, he was unceremoniously replaced on the Planning Commission-the most powerful, influential city body short of the City Council-by someone with an impressive political lineage, though none of the experience on city commissions typical of such a high-level appointment.
Adding to the sting, Thompson only discovered his application for re-appointment had been rejected while attending this year’s annual Christmas party the Planning Commission hosts for the city’s planners.
Typically, sitting city planning commissioners are automatically re-appointed unless they really screw up. By any reckoning, Thompson, a moderate-to-conservative commissioner, was no screw-up. “Addison is the Planning Commission’s planning commissioner,” exclaimed fellow commissioner and City Council member-elect Bendy White. “He was always well prepared, very clear in his thought process, succinct in his comments, yet global in his perspective.” White noted it was not uncommon for him and Thompson to disagree on the issues, but they did so, he stressed, with respect and civility. Fellow commissioner John Jostes, equally lavish with his praise, said, “This smells of politics.”
Political intrigue and land-use planning have long been kissing cousins in Santa Barbara. For those with higher political ambitions, the Planning Commission has served as a jumping-off point over the years. But Thompson’s experience suggests that when it comes to the politics of planning, the rules of engagement just got rougher and the stakes higher.
From a practical consideration, Thompson’s departure comes just as long simmering debate over Santa Barbara’s general plan-which guides growth and development over the next 20 years-is expected to come to a boil. Thompson, a retired test pilot who flew the B-1 bomber, served on the Palmdale Planning Commission when that city went through a similar exercise 20 years ago. On Santa Barbara’s commission, Thompson has been a significant player, pushing staff to crystallize the issues and accelerate the process.
It was commissioner Bendy White’s election to the City Council this November that would precipitate Thompson’s forced departure. With White’s position vacant-and Thompson’s term coming due-the council solicited applications. Thompson applied. So did Michael Jordan, a business-minded insurance broker with a long history of civic involvement. And so did Deborah Schwartz, a private consultant who grew up in Santa Barbara, moved to the Bay area for 20 years, and moved back five years ago.
Schwartz’s mother happens to be Naomi Schwartz, former First District Supervisor and still a force to be reckoned with in Democratic-environmental circles. Both Schwartz and Jordan had expressed interest in running for the council prior to the November election; neither, for various reasons, did so.
Late last Tuesday, December 15, the City Council voted to appoint Jordan to the commission, filling White’s vacancy. The vote was unanimous. The council also took the opportunity to appoint Schwartz to fill the space now occupied by Thompson. Ironically, the only two councilmembers to vote for Thompson-Dale Francisco and mayor-elect Helene Schneider-are ideological polar opposites and ran against one another for mayor.
The vote was over in about half a minute. There was no discussion. Into this void has come a whirlwind of speculation. One school of thought holds that the liberal Democratic council majority-substantially weakened in light of November’s election results-was grooming Schwartz to run for council in two years or four. Mayor Marty Blum, for example, had met with Schwartz last winter to encourage her political involvement. (Schwartz insists she intends to serve four years on the commission before contemplating a council bid.)
Or perhaps it’s simply a case of political pay-back. Although Thompson endorsed White in his council bid-and no other candidates-he also signed the nomination papers of Dale Francisco in his quest to be mayor. Francisco spearheaded a slate of other conservative candidates who were bankrolled to the tune of $800,000 by Texas billionaire Randall Van Wolfswinkel. The campaign was personally bruising as well as financially exhausting. In this context, maybe Thompson is collateral damage.
Or maybe it’s as councilmember Das Williams contends, that Thompson failed to wage any campaign to be re-appointed. Williams, who has been endorsed by Schwartz in his bid to become Santa Barbara’s next Democratic representative in the State Assembly, said he did not support Thompson’s initial appointment and that he often disagrees with Thompson’s votes. Yet Thompson noted that on February 17 of this year, Williams sent him a note stating, “I have found, over the years, that you are not only thoughtful and wise, but that your views and mine have drifted together. I very much regret not voting for you the first time you applied.”
Regardless, two new commissioners will soon take their seat on the council’s second most powerful political body. One-Michael Jordan-has served many years on several city and business commissions. The other-Deborah Schwartz-is a novice at City Hall, though she does serve on the county’s Historical Landmarks Advisory Commission. There, she’s ruffled the feathers of some county planners, who complain she asks too many questions, demands too much attention, and is too caustic when kept waiting: County planning chief Dianne Black felt compelled to intervene on her staff’s behalf.
Schwartz, who declined to discuss personnel issues, said she takes her responsibility on behalf of the taxpayers very seriously. It’s her job to ask questions and demand answers. “I am very independent and I am also very forthright,” she said, “Some people prefer to look the other way. I don’t.” Schwartz added that her lack of direct experience is more than offset by her years in the community. Having moved to Santa Barbara in 1967, Schwartz, now a private consultant, attended local public schools. “I have experienced change in Santa Barbara. I also know what sustains this community over time,” she said. “I don’t know that newer visitors have that breadth and depth of appreciation.”
In the meantime, Thompson will have more time to devote to rebuilding his home. As to his tenure on the Planning Commission, he said, “I gave 100 percent. I don’t think I would have done anything differently.”