Although the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Vital Mission Plan doesn’t hit the Board of Supervisors until May 4, the war of words over the controversial development project is already in full swing. From 30-second television commercials and 10-minute mailed DVDs to phone bank-powered telemarketing, supermarket-front petitions, and a free breakfast offered to supporters, the Garden’s administration is pulling out all of the public relations stops. Meanwhile, opponents of the project — concerned about fire safety, increased visitation, historical landmarks, Chumash villages, and more — have been running their own outreach efforts, including one widely circulating email that shows two young kids begging for help because they just barely escaped the Jesusita Fire and, presumably, will likely not escape the next time if the Garden expands.
It’s the Garden’s tactics, however, that’s creating the most blowback, even from people who don’t know much about the project. That includes Sol Morrison, a San Roque resident who was nearly named Santa Barbara’s official court jester years ago. This week, he received a “big, beautiful white envelope” that had been hand-addressed to him. Inside was a postage-paid envelope hand-addressed to the county supervisors and a pre-written letter for him to sign and send. Morrison asked some neighbors about the letter’s claims, and learned that it wasn’t the whole story. “They really seem to be obfuscating at the Garden,” said Morrison. “Didn’t they have to let staff members go?” he asked, referring to the spring 2009 layoffs. “Look at all the money spent on one iffy letter. It’s a weird expenditure of funds.”
Like Morrison, Marie Janisse has always enjoyed the Garden — she was even once a member — but is only remotely following the Vital Mission Plan. She was recently telephoned out of the blue and invited to breakfast at Elements Restaurant on the day of the hearing, where she could gather with others to support the Garden. “Their persuasive talk is well honed,” said the physical trainer, who said the caller also offered to put her through to the county supervisors’ offices so she could speak in support. Janisse said she’s sad that such an important community decision has been belittled to a PR campaign. “The issue here is fire safety and that’s not something you should hire somebody to sweet talk everybody about and take them out to breakfast,” said Janisse. “That’s too cheap.”
Paulina Conn, who’s battled the Garden over historical landmarks, was also lobbied on the phone by someone from Minnesota, and the pitch was that the project was simply to recover from the Jesusita Fire. “The Botanic Garden knows what my stance is,” she said. “That they haven’t even bothered to screen their contacts is quite surprising.”
Steve Sherrill got a similar call from someone in Wisconsin. After debating the caller, Sherrill decided to write a letter to the newspaper, in which he asked, “If the Botanic Garden expansion plan is so noble and the garden management is so sincere and upstanding, why do they find it necessary to stoop to such unscrupulous and dishonest tactics?”
Frank Arredondo, who is appealing the project on May 4 due to concerns over the disruption of possible Chumash village sites, concurred. He was approached at a supermarket in Goleta a couple months ago by someone asking for his signature to help “save the Botanic Garden” and allow it to recover from the fire. “The information was premised on the idea that, because of the fire, we have to push this plan through,” said Arredondo. “I didn’t think that was cool at all. That’s complete misinformation.”
Most recently, the Garden has sent out a letter inviting possible supporters to a free breakfast at Elements Restaurant on May 4, and claiming that “one neighbor — a specialist at opposing things — is leading a nasty effort to not only defeat this plan but also to change the Garden into a park for the neighborhood and eliminate our ability to conduct research and provide educational programs.” That man, everyone knows, is attorney Marc Chytilo, who lives upstream and has fought the project with Friends of Mission Canyon.
“Fortunately, anyone paying attention to the Botanic Garden’s antics in the past few years knows their leadership is completely out of touch,” responded Chytilo this week. “These smear pieces only reinforce this conclusion. Although we in the community don’t have the funds to respond in kind, we don’t really need to — the misleading petitions, uninformed phone calls, TV ads, and slick mailers tell the story all too well: another developer trying to bully their way to approval for an inappropriate project. That’s not how it works in Santa Barbara, and it’s a crying shame the Garden has wasted so much money this way.”
The Garden’s spokesperson Nancy Johnson bristled at the idea of this being a propaganda war, referring to call it an informational campaign. “We’re an educational institution,” she explained. “When we see the need for people to have information, we like to fill that need.”
Johnson said that the people contacted had “indicated to us in some manner that they are supportive of the project and wanted more information,” but didn’t have an explanation for why Conn was approached. The sponsored breakfast was a way to thank supporters for their help, said Johnson, but it was also practical, as those in attendance who wished to speak out at the hearing could be trained in the proper procedures.
Johnson defended the repeated linkage of the Vital Mission Plan to the Jesusita Fire, explaining that the disaster’s destruction of equipment, tools, and buildings “pushed us beyond the point of necessity.” As to the singling out of Chytilo, Johnson did not confirm he was the target of the letter, but explained, “We are not trying to vilify an individual, but we’re trying to get a responsible plan to continue the work we do here.”
Whatever the message, the Garden’s campaign has paid off, as more than 12,000 people have signed petitions in support of the project. That leaves Johnson and her colleagues “excited” for Tuesday. “We feel we can reassure the community not only of the need for this project, but that we have taken extraordinary measures to make this a very fire-safe garden,” said Johnson. “We’ve done as much as humanly possible and we feel we’ve acted in a very responsible manner.”