CHERCHEZ LA LEE: If Wendy Mitchell had become a famous celebrity chef rather than the infamous California Coastal Commissioner she now is, the former Santa Maria High School student turned statewide political mover and shaker might have gotten there by writing culinary classics with hardboiled names like You Can’t Make Omelets Without Breaking Heads.
Smart, glamorous, and irresistibly charming when she wants to be, Mitchell has been described by friend and foe alike as a force of nature somewhere between an earthquake and a tsunami. Mitchell has found herself caught in the unwanted glare of the political spotlight ever since leading the successful charge last month to decapitate the executive director of the Coastal Commission, Charles Lester. When it comes to coastal development, the commission functions as California’s equivalent of the Vatican and the Supreme Court. In this equation, Lester served as both chief justice and pope. It’s quite possible Lester had it coming, but you don’t just fire the chief justice and the pope without some sort of explanation. But during last month’s termination vote, Mitchell uttered not one word. Personnel matters, we were told, are strictly confidential.
Somehow, this code of omertà apparently flew the coop by last week’s commission meeting in Santa Monica, where Mitchell repeatedly sought to outline a detailed bill of particulars against Lester during time allotted for public comment. Just as repeatedly, commission chair Steve Kinsey declared Mitchell out of order and all but had to wrestle the mike out of her hand. Commissioners, he pointed out, are not allowed to speak during public comment, nor are they allowed to respond to statements made by the public during that time. The time to explain, Kinsey noted, would have been at last month’s meeting when Mitchell helped deep-six Lester.
Since last month, much head scratching has ensued about Mitchell’s motivation. Was she a stooge for big developers, big oil, or big desalination plants? But even Mitchell’s harshest critics say such explanations are too simplistic. But their explanations tend to be so nuanced as to be incomprehensible. Because the most obvious explanations are often the most elegant, I’d like to point out — as a public service — Mitchell’s full name is Wendy Lee Mitchell. As everyone reading this column should know by now, anyone with the first, last, or middle name Lee is statistically predisposed toward sociopathic behavior. Nomenclature might not be destiny, but in Mitchell’s case, it’s the next best thing.
Little wonder then that Mitchell now finds herself in hot water over what appears an egregious conflict of interest in voting in favor of the permits needed by the City of Santa Barbara to rebuild its long-mothballed desalination plant, a desperate hedge against the most crushing drought anyone can remember. At the time Mitchell cast her ballot in favor of Santa Barbara’s desal permits, she had been hired as a paid lobbyist by Carollo Engineers. Carollo — then as now — had been hired by the City of Santa Barbara to midwife its desal project into reality from time unto birth. At this date, City Hall has paid Carollo $4.6 million for services rendered.
It should be noted Mitchell had been hired by Carollo to help the company land a water-treatment-plant contract in the San Fernando Valley. She had nothing to do with the city’s desal project, and City Hall had no inkling she worked for Carollo. In addition, the Carollo office Mitchell worked for was different than the office handling the desal plant. Still, it’s the same company. For Mitchell to vote in favor of the desal permits when she was on the payroll for that project’s biggest and most crucial subcontractor flat out stinks. When asked for comment, Mitchell declined. “I’m not talking to you,” she explained. “It’s Sunday morning.” But she told L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, “I was not aware that Carollo was a subcontractor and ended my relationship with them as soon as I became aware of their involvement.”
Almost everything about this statement is questionable. According to Carollo, Mitchell had been hired late in 2014 and worked through 2015. They only parted ways this month. The desal vote took place last February. Are we to believe it really took Mitchell 13 months to figure out Carollo was working for Santa Barbara? Mitchell is way too smart for that. In addition, Carollo was explicitly listed — by name — in the two-page section of the staff report given to all Coastal Commissioners as one of the lobbyists, lawyers, engineers and consultants hired by City Hall to communicate on its behalf. It doesn’t get much clearer than black-and-white. Carollo, notably, never lobbied any of the commissioners, but did provide technical information in support of the desal plant.
City Hall spent nearly $350,000 lobbying the Coastal Commission to ensure that permits secured for the desal plant 20 years ago were still good. And for good reason. Twenty years ago, computers in the desal plant used floppy disks. Since then, desal technology has also evolved. The environmentally destructive open-ocean intake system deployed by Santa Barbara’s vintage desal plant — reviled for good reason by environmentalists — could not possibly get approval today. Though the city’s permit application won unanimous approval, many commissioners had serious qualms. The commissioner who made the motion to approve termed the proposal “unconscionable,” but said the commission had no choice. Mitchell, who seconded the motion, expressed no such reservations. The drought was so bad, she said, “The entire city could go away or blow away.”
With the desperately needed Miracle March rains poised to pass us by, the reservoir at Lake Cachuma will remain nothing but a big gob of spit. In this context, the desal plant — whatever its many faults — will prove a godsend. In the meantime, I like my eggs sunny-side up