TILTING AT MOLEHILLS: In L.A., the hot issue is rogue cops who put a man behind bars for life on a murder rap by browbeating eyewitness testimony from a witness who insists he never saw what he was coerced to have seen. In San Luis Obispo, it’s how many whales and dolphins have to die excruciating deaths from underwater sonic tests needed to define the actual risk posed to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant by earthquake faults running a few hundred yards away. Here in Santa Barbara, we’re freaking that a few rogue members of the city’s taste police — the Architectural Board of Review — may have abused their vast powers to act arbitrarily and capriciously by refusing to act at all. For four hours this Tuesday night, the City Council attacked the issue, hammer and tongs. For all their exertions, the councilmembers wound up right where they’d started, with a 4-to-3 vote to do nothing. It was the right call.
The hubbub was over the now infamous mass abstentions by five ABR members this August over trivial outdoor patio-design changes for the Chick-fil-A slated for upper State Street. Two weeks prior, the world had just learned that Chick-fil-A was donating millions to anti-gay groups, one that reportedly endorsed efforts to make homosexuality a capital offense in Uganda. Gay rights supporters targeted Chick-fil-A franchises with mass kiss-ins. By contrast, the action at the ABR was all but inaudible to the naked ear. Boardmember Gary Mosel cited “political reasons” for abstaining but added nothing else. No one else said even that much. Even so, the outrage was instantaneous. Everyone across Santa Barbara’s political spectrum has agreed such political considerations have no place in design-review deliberations, but Santa Barbara’s right wing went bat-shit crazy. They demanded the abstainers be terminated with extreme prejudice at high noon. In short order, councilmembers Randy Rowse and Frank Hotchkiss fashioned a council proposal to do just that.
Hence the crowd Tuesday. There was much chest thumping, name calling, and sanctimonious finger pointing by all sides. The right-wing boo birds, who’d come for a tar-and-feathering, were the loudest, shouting down and drowning out Councilmember Cathy Murillo, then waxing too touchy-feely and politically correct for the crowd. The left sought to portray council conservatives Rowse, Hotchkiss, and Dale Francisco as closet homophobes pursuing some hidden homophobic agenda by selectively sensationalizing these abstentions while ignoring countless others that happen all the time. Yes, abstentions are common. But not five at a time and none that effectively hold up a project, albeit briefly. That actually is unprecedented. It’s true Francisco did donate money to the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, but Hotchkiss spoke at last year’s Gay Pride festivities at the beach. And Rowse made a good point, asking what would have happened had the tables been turned and some hypothetical right-to-lifers on the ABR done the same as the abstainers when confronting a proposed façade change by Planned Parenthood.
Still, there was something disturbingly out of kilter about the white-hot outrage over the abstainers’ behavior. It’s hard to imagine homophobia was not at play. Keep in mind no harm was inflicted. At most, Chick-fil-A was delayed a day. Two of the abstainers didn’t vote because they lacked sufficient information, not to take a stand. The other three explained they abstained because they didn’t think they could be fair. They claimed they were acting upon the advice of City Attorney Steve Wiley during a recent tutorial about conflicts of interest. When in doubt, Wiley counseled, sit it out. And that’s just what they did. Since August, two of abstainers have apologized. One resigned. Only Gary Mosel has refused to cry uncle. And he has a case. Mosel has been long active with the Gay and Lesbian Business Association. His life partner of 14 years is vice president of Pacific Pride. While councilmember Francisco concluded the abstainers committed a “serious dereliction of duty,” he also made a compelling case that the constellation of weird and unique circumstances allowing Chick-fil-A to be delayed was sufficiently improbable it wouldn’t happen again for 60 years.
Lastly, the accused abstainers have conducted themselves conscientiously, respectfully, and intelligently on the ABR. Even their accusers say so. They ain’t flakes or psychos. “I see this as strike one and you’re out,” said Councilmember Bendy White of the call for termination. “I can’t go there.” One wonders where all the fire and brimstone has been about design review boardmembers who pimp the system for profit, cashing in on their standing by insinuating an ability to get projects approved. Where was the hue and cry earlier this year when a member of the ABR was forced to resign after being fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for abusing his position and working the system? (Francisco did pitch a fit, but he was notably alone.) This type of abuse is far more prevalent than anything the abstainers did — or didn’t do — and the cynicism engendered far more damaging to public trust. And what about all the well-intentioned, public-spirited personality disorders on parade now serving on various boards and commissions who inflict abuse and invective on unsuspecting victims? It happens. What about the boardmember who circulated images on his Facebook page superimposing City Administrator Jim Armstrong’s face onto a photo of Adolf Hitler and that of Marcelo López’s — Armstrong’s deputy — onto Hitler’s dog? As Mayor Helene Schneider noted, the council doesn’t want to start dressing down errant volunteers at council meetings. People are spoken to. If they don’t listen, they don’t get reappointed. Even Councilmember Hotchkiss, who led the charge for terminations, has improperly abstained on votes. And Hotchkiss was forced to recuse himself from voting on a project just this Tuesday; he had a conflict of interest. But he had to be reminded to leave the room. Before he left, he praised the project. That was improper. But it was a brain fart. Flatulence happens. You don’t terminate people because of it. You open the window.