<b>GAGGLE OF BRASS:</b> (from left) Veterans Coordinating Council Chair Steve Penner consults with U.S. Marine Corp General Fred Lopez and Vietnam War veteran John Blankenship before the supes’ vote.
Paul Wellman

It’s hard to argue that the view from the second floor of the Veterans Memorial Building is anything but spectacular. But it’s been easy for veterans who have been running the place to argue about almost everything else.

Such was made clear at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where the supes unanimously voted to eventually seize management of the oceanfront property. The board’s move allows a contract with the Veterans Coordinating Council ​— ​which has overseen building operations for 15 years ​— ​to expire next June.

A long-term power struggle between the “old guard” and its younger counterparts has produced bickering matches, painful council meetings, and strings of “nasty emails,” prompting the supervisors to take the first step to pull the plug on the council’s supervision.

During the hearing, a collection of former servicemen and auxiliary advocates filed to the podium to argue for or against the county’s recommendations. Under the plan drafted by the General Services Department, a county staff member would manage “operational, fiscal, and staffing components” at three county-owned properties ​— ​the veteran’s building on Cabrillo Boulevard, a veteran’s building in Lompoc, and space at the Courthouse, which is estimated to cost the county $90,000 a year. Per the current agreement established in 1998, the coordinating council is responsible for managing and maintaining the building, and renting out space to outside groups like the Organic Soup Kitchen, Alcoholics Anonymous, and private parties.

At first glance, the county’s proposal to strip the council of its managing powers appeared as if it would elicit overwhelming opposition by all veterans. But not all vets sang the same tune on Tuesday, as several individuals took to the podium to express diverging opinions.

Several urged the trustees to give the coordinating council “one more year,” arguing that the “new” council and recent building managers ​— ​there have been two new managers in the past six months ​— ​have “done backflips” to try to bring order to a bickering group. The council’s chairman, Steve Penner, claimed that numerous audit and management problems were in the past and that “the Veterans Memorial Building is and should be run by veterans and for veterans.”

This remark promoted Supervisor Doreen Farr to ask, “Why is everyone afraid if the county went ahead to manage this building?” She further axed rumors that veterans would be forced to move to another location or would be unable to continue to use the space in the same fashion. She added that counties and cities manage veterans’ buildings in several areas including in Solvang, Guadalupe, and Santa Maria. Further, this proposal is “on the heels” of a similar one that occurred in Lompoc, which the county now manages.

Several of the “old guard” countered the “new” council’s plea and supported the county’s plans to look into managing the building as long as existing meetings, activities, and events would continue at the location. They reasoned that tensions may be too severe to reconcile and that the factions could use a third party to facilitate a cooling-off period.

Years ago, newer members ​— ​largely represented by husband and wife John and Hazel Blankenship, who founded the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum and Library Foundation in 2003 ​— ​proposed to transform the decaying structure into a museum and an attraction, claiming they had access to the foundation funds to do so. But the older vets have long argued that a museum would “glorify war” rather that provide a place of healing for veterans of all ages in Santa Barbara.

Regardless of these warring factions, the building was labeled a historical site built on Chumash remains, thereby terminating museum plans. Though the proposed museum has been a serious point of contention, various factors ​— ​war served, former rank, political affiliations, and strong personalities ​— ​also distance the two sides. Throw in clouded bylaws and contested elections, and tensions intensified.

Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes the Veterans Building, read aloud a letter from an Iraq War veteran.
Paul Wellman

During the deliberation portion, Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes the building, read aloud segments of a letter written by Iraq War veteran Raymond Morua, a nonvoting member of the council who has been involved in a slew of veteran’s organizations: “As a Veteran, I find it rather embarrassing that Men and Women who at one point learned to fight together cannot find a way to strive together.” The letter goes on to explain that an alarming number of veterans experience difficult transitions once they return to civilian life. The veterans building could be a hub to facilitate collaborative efforts ​— ​without replacing the council ​— ​and share resources and information, expand outreach, and develop partnerships.

Supervisor Peter Adam also acknowledged Morua’s letter and later assured the audience, “You guys will still have plenty to fight over.”

The fact that the coordinating council’s contract does not expire until next June confuses an already tangled matter. The supes’ stamp of approval allows county staff to draft a formal management plan and present it to the board at a later date. The council has 90 days before the June expiration date to formally request an agreement to continue to manage the building


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