FAUX REAL OR SURREAL? What? No Bristol Palin? According to my records, she remains about the only person who is not currently seeking appointment to the Santa Barbara City Council to fill out the remainder of Das Williams’s term. Williams will be officially assumed into the political hog heaven known as Sacramento next week when he gets sworn in as our latest assemblymember.
No less than 45 allegedly sane and sentient souls have stepped forward to fill his shoes, or at least occupy his seat. That’s enough bodies to field five baseball teams, nine basketball teams, and three times the number of candidates who actually run during bona fide council elections. Having sat through enough City Council meetings over the years that the Get-a-Life Foundation has threatened to do an intervention on me, I am at a loss to provide a rational explanation. Has TV gotten that bad? Don’t these people know that all the “fun” was taken out of “dysfunctional” at City Hall a long time ago?
There is, of course, the money. While $36,000 a year may seem like chump change to the upper 2 percent of Santa Barbara’s socioeconomic rainbow, it technically qualifies as a middle-class gig at a time when Santa Barbara’s middle class has been increasingly exiled, expelled, exorcized, and extinctified to such places as Santa Maria, Oxnard, Lompoc, and even New Cuyama. That money looks a whole lot better when you consider councilmembers are required to show up for work only one day a week and they get paid whether they get anything done or not. What’s not to like? Given that the fate of the middle class has emerged as the key issue — other than medicinal marijuana, global warming, roundabouts, gangs, and the homeless — that’s brought our current City Council into perpetual petulant paralysis, maybe that’s appropriate. The bookmakers in Vegas are betting heavy that selecting a replacement for Williams will soon join the list of irreconcilable differences separating the deadlocked council’s left from its right.
Certainly, there’s been no shortage of interesting ideas or factoids in the candidate statements submitted by the council wanna-bes. One applicant noted that the cost of locking up one juvenile is $224,000 a year — enough to keep six councilmembers on the payroll — as opposed to the $46,000 it takes to lock up an adult. Another vowed to ride his bicycle to work if appointed, which should automatically disqualify him in the eyes of the three global warming skeptics who make up the council’s conservative bloc. One candidate referred to himself in the third person, a sure sign of greatness or mental illness, I can’t remember which. One threatened to turn council meetings into therapy sessions, vowing to deploy “no-blame, no-shame” listening skills so that everybody got heard in an “authentic way.” One pointed out that she grew up on the same street as Thomas Storke — Santa Barbara’s Original Godfather — and Pearl Chase, Santa Barbara’s other Original Godfather. One spiritually inclined soul explained he’s working on a Web site to promote “Earth consciousness community development.” One has conducted scientific research on ferreting out Improvised Explosive Devices. And lest you think the touchy-feely crowd has monopolized the action, one applicant called on the council to make homelessness a felony, make smoking a misdemeanor, and abolish free childcare. The same person claimed credit for coining such expressions as “The Shopping Cart Mafia” and “Section 8 Gangsters.”
I’m not sure whether all this qualifies as pearls before swine or taking coals to Newcastle, but why hire on a seventh councilmember when you can get just as little done with six? Naturally, I’m whining about the five years and $3 million spent dithering over a new General Plan — which defines what gets built, where, and how much — during the next 20 years. The chicken-bone-in-the-throat issue was increased residential densities.
The so-called smart-growthers — Williams, Bendy White, Helene Schneider, Grant House — argued increased densities are essential to expand affordable housing opportunities, and without those, we can kiss any pretense of a middle class good-bye. The just-say-no slow-growthers — Dale Francisco, Frank Hotchkiss, and Michael Self — countered that high densities just breed crime and congestion. To the extent they think the middle class should be catered to, it’s with the development of rental housing. Unfortunately, rental housing is at best an echo of a mirage. None of any consequence has been built here in 20 years, and none will be in the next two decades. That’s because the tax reform package passed by Ronald Reagan — Gipper of GOP and hometown hero — destroyed any incentive to build rental housing.
I know Reagan has since become enshrined in the Republican pantheon of secular saints, but it’s worth noting that he is to blame for disappearing the middle-class jobs base here in Santa Barbara. To an unhealthy degree, many of those jobs were dependent upon military research grants. But when Reagan kicked the Evil Empire’s ass and forced the nation formerly known as the USSR out of business, the whole Cold War economy on which the South Coast middle class depended suddenly had no reason for being. Since then, we’ve been forced to get by driving tourists around the Santa Ynez Valley, getting them sloshed at our wineries.
Those realities being acknowledged, I don’t think Santa Barbara’s only option is to become a Guccified health spa for the upper 2 percent in the twinkling of their twilight years. That’s a grim goodnight into which I would hope our City Council would not quietly go. But it’s one that Francisco and his council cohorts seem inclined to accept and embrace. At a recent meeting, Councilmember Williams complained, yet again, that Santa Barbara’s rich were getting richer, its poor poorer, and those in the middle squeezed out of the picture. Francisco replied, “I don’t believe you’re going to save the middle class, Das. This is a wealthy community for a reason. It’s irrational to try to build affordable housing in Beverly Hills, in Venice — Italy — or in Santa Barbara. We’ve done the best we can.”
Given Williams’s impulse to lecture, hector, and impugn Francisco’s integrity at every opportunity — never an effective persuasive strategy — Das was clearly not the one to change Dale’s mind. But probably no one is. Next week, we’ll see what those 45 have to say. Who knows? Maybe lightning will strike, someone will get appointed, and we won’t have 12 months of guaranteed gridlock.
Failing that, there’s always baseball or basketball.