True, there is not all that much I miss about New Jersey.
Still, I fretted when we made the move here 25 years ago how I would live without the brass-knuckle, trench-war, fine art of politics that so distinguishes my home state — land of ABSCAM, The Sopranos, and my personal favorite, Bridgegate.
So I pined for Bayonne — until about a year ago when Providence delivered a fabulously seedy dustup right here in Paradise.
You wouldn’t think that fixing the 101 freeway — the Measure A initiative approved by a whopping 79 percent of the voters to relieve the four hours of daily gridlock — would be the vehicle for so much political mischief. Think again.
As every Jersey girl knows, nothing tempts the sticky fingers of politicos more than the dangle of highway pork.
Still, who would have thunk that the mischief-maker-in chief would be the liberal Mayor Helene Schneider, who has made derailment of the 101 Widening Initiative her signature issue.
Certainly not the California Democratic Party, where everyone — from Jerry Brown to the county dogcatcher — is seething in fury at the New York–born mayor. Nor did her cohorts on SBCAG (the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, charged with implementing the 101 expansion), foresee that Schneider would turn guerrilla warrior.
Of course, no massive public works project is perfect — and this one is hardly an exception. That said, it resolves the major issues that threaten to landlock Santa Barbara; it adds the crucially needed third lane through gridlocked Montecito, supplies an HOV lane, and restores the southbound freeway entrance at Cabrillo Boulevard, thus rescuing Coast Village Road from death by bumper-car congestion.
Minds both great and small remain puzzled as to what exactly is motivating the mayor. Last year, Schneider and her consiglieri Jeremy Lindaman championed the idea of preserving left-hand freeway exits in Montecito, an idea backed by a few wealthy Montecitans who had retained Lindaman as their consultant.
Now, I am all for historical preservation — i.e., the Granada, Lobero, and New Vic — but asphalt freeway exits? Moreover, Caltrans has explained ad nauseam that left-hand off-ramps, deemed unsafe, are no longer allowed in highway upgrades in the State of California — nor, for that matter, nationally.
Then the mayor opined that the funds would be better spent on local road improvements — prompting a saucy rebuke from all of SBCAG’s South Coast members. In a public letter, the mayor’s colleagues reminded her that “state and federal gas-tax funds that are being used as a portion of the funding for the widening cannot be used for local road maintenance” (their italics).
In July, the 79 percent who voted for Measure A held their collective breath to see if Schneider would prevail at SBCAG’s final vote — as Schneider’s camp had leaked they would. Instead, she got hammered with a resounding 11-2 smackdown. Her sole dance partner was none other than Peter Adam, supervisor for the 4th District — and the darling of the North County Tea Party.
(As it turned out, Adam was game for some horse trading and was scouting for support for his Measure M to snare funds for road improvements — an initiative whose campaign was run by, yup, Jeremy Lindaman. Indeed, Schneider famously did not oppose M — to the chagrin of local Democrats. And thus was birthed the most fabulous political marriage since Nixon proposed to Spiro Agnew.)
Then, in late September, her own City Council voted down 5-1 Schneider’s request to sue SBCAG.
Jubilation reigned — at least for the 79 percent — until the 59th minute of the 11th hour in October, when allies of the mayor scrambled to file two lawsuits.
One suit — deemed by wags to be something of a nuisance suit — demands a sound wall for Montecito’s wealthiest at Fernald Point. The other, filed by Marc Chytilo on behalf of three residents (though only one will disclose his name), targets items in the EIR, a 1,600-plus-page dinosaur of an environmental document, that synch up closely with Schneider’s laundry list. Both ask Judge Thomas Anderle to slap an injunction on the halfway completed 101 project. (In 2013, Chytilo, on behalf of billionaire Craig McCaw, convinced the same judge to scuttle the proposed fire station for Montecito’s eastern flank near Ortega Ridge by also challenging an EIR. Generally, EIRs tend to be as imperfect as public works projects, and such suits can prove quite lucrative for the prevailing attorney.)
At minimum, says SBCAG, the lawsuits will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and at least two more years of gridlock agony. Others fret that they might convince Governor Brown and Caltrans to tell Santa Barbara to take a hike (literally) and give the millions to one of dozens of supplicating communities desperate for highway loot.
In the unlikely event that anyone doubted her role in the lawsuits, Schneider published an editorial in October urging more suits: “We fully encourage and will be publicly supporting private parties” [to file lawsuits], she wrote — a sentence that will surely follow her evermore. Meanwhile, the lawsuits name as defendants the very entities that Schneider is charged with serving, the City of Santa Barbara and SBCAG — and, yup, she’s “publicly supporting” them.
Last month, members of SBCAG and the public told Schneider she needed to recuse herself from any legal proceedings regarding the 101. To the jaw-dropping astonishment of all, she refused, although she had demanded that SBCAG staffer and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Gregg Hart recuse himself on 101 issues before the City Council — with a much less significant conflict of interest. (California’s conflict-of-interest statutes are virtually toothless, and short of a video of greenbacks being shoved into pockets, they are rarely invoked — and thus rely entirely upon personal integrity. And Hart recused himself.)
Hence, Schneider gets the opportunity to learn SBCAG’s legal strategy and ferry it right back to those lawsuits she’s “publicly supporting.” But, trust me, she has said, she would not do that — around the same time that she awarded three trustee slots on the Huguette Clark estate foundation to, yup, her fat cat allies in the lawsuits (none of whom are her constituents).
But it gets even murkier than the swamps of Secaucus. Protocol, albeit not a rule, has it that the chair of SBCAG rotates between the North and South County, and as fate would have it, Madame Mayor is next in the rotation. Unless, of course, her colleagues invoke prior precedent, and borrow her cojones, and make sure that she doesn’t.
Abetted by a sleepy political class and an indolent media, there’s just no saying how far Schneider is going to ride this one. Last month, she told the Santa Barbara News-Press that she has her eye on Lois Capps’s congressional seat in 2016. Never mind that the political establishment that won her the mayorship has jettisoned her — with former backer, philanthropist Sara Miller McCune, penning a withering slap down. Schneider appears to have lined up a few replacement tycoons — and, of course, there’s Peter Adam and the Tea Party.
But as Jersey girls and boys know, messing with traffic is a risky business. Unlike hidden taxes, gridlock traffic inflicts lasting pain and has a long half-life. Just a five-day traffic jam outside the George Washington Bridge appears to have cost Chris Christie the White House.
Then there’s Mother Nature. When (and if) Toro Canyon falls victim to a long-overdue fire, there is no fire station nearby. The mayor will have to pray that the inevitable fire strikes midday or late at night. Otherwise, the firefighters will be sitting in the gridlock with the cops, teachers, nurses, and everyone else who make Santa Barbara tick — but can’t afford to live here.
As for the 99.9 percent who can’t helicopter in to their gated estates, no need to despair. Though landlocked we may be, there’s always coastal access. Look, the Chumash used canoes — and so can we! And how they’ll love a landing dock on Fernald Point!
Ahh! I’ll never be nostalgic for Newark ever again …
Ann Louise Bardach is a PEN Award–winning journalist who opines from time to time for The Santa Barbara Independent on South Coast issues.