Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco accused Santa Barbara Channelkeeper of pursuing litigation at the expense of cooperation, blaming the environmental group’s recent out-of-court settlement over past sewage discharges for most of the wastewater-treatment rate increase approved by the City Council Tuesday. By the time Channelkeeper sued City Hall in 2011, Francisco charged, the number of sewage discharges — and the quantities released — had dropped precipitously. “The city was already doing the right thing,” Francisco said, noting the number of spills had dropped from 45 in 2009 to 12 in 2011.
Each sewage release constitutes a violation of the federal Clean Water Act; as part of its settlement, City Hall agreed to double its normal rate of sewage-pipe replacement, vowing to spend $25 million during the next five years. What galled Francisco was the $700,000 City Hall spent on attorneys’ fees — its own and Channelkeeper’s — to settle a case that, he insisted, could have been worked out cooperatively. Echoing Francisco’s words were councilmembers Cathy Murillo, Frank Hotchkiss, and Bendy White — representing the council’s left, right, and middle. To any activists watching with a bone to pick with City Hall, Murillo pleaded, “Please come to us and try not to bring your attorney with you.” In a similar vein, Hotchkiss stated, “Please come and knock on the door, and don’t knock it down.”
After the meeting, Channelkeeper executive Kira Redmond insisted Channelkeeper did try to work with City Hall and described the lawsuit as “the last thing we wanted.” She said it was filed only after City Hall proved too slow in responding to sewage spills. When the lawsuit was initiated, she noted the number of spills had only dropped to 35, not 12. “That was unacceptable,” she said. Redmond noted that the settlement would cost the average ratepayer an additional $2 a month. She termed that “a small price” given the benefits derived. Ultimately, the council approved fee increases for trash collection, water treatment, and wastewater treatment that, combined, will cost the average ratepayer an additional $6.64 a month.