In county politics, there is one rule: You must be able to count to three. And at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, you can’t get anywhere close to three — votes that is — without the 3rd supervisorial district on your side.
The 3rd District seat — representing the Santa Ynez Valley, Guadalupe, the Gaviota Coast, and Isla Vista — is up for grabs this year because the environment-minded Supervisor Doreen Farr is retiring after eight years in office. Historically, district voters have been divided along geographical lines, with the South Coast tending to be liberal and the rural north more conservative.
For the last 25 years, the 3rd District has been the board’s political teeter-totter — determining, in vote after vote, which direction the county goes on the hot-button issues, including oil projects, Gaviota Coast development, winery regulations, the Chumash casino, the coastal garbage dump, and the character of the Santa Ynez Valley. Occasionally less polarizing, but equally important, have been board decisions regarding the North County jail, funding for the mentally ill, civil servant pensions, road maintenance, sheriff and fire departments, the homeless, and climate change.
In the last 12 months, the supervisors have voted three to two on a number of contentious issues. They adopted the most stringent emissions standards in the state (1,000 metric tons per year) that will require noncompliant oil companies to pay for offsets. They denied ExxonMobil’s request to haul hundreds of truckloads of crude oil each day along Highway 101 after last May’s Refugio Oil Spill shut down the pipeline. Last summer, the supervisors blocked attempts to develop the Gaviota Coast, including Naples and Las Varas Ranch. In symbolic politics, the supervisors also passed a resolution supporting Planned Parenthood at a time the Republican Congress was trying to strip its funding.
Political Gods Outdid Themselves
Five candidates have thrown their hat into the ring for this June 7 election. With so many candidates running, it is almost certain that the winner will be decided between the top two June vote getters in the November election. Supervisorial seats are technically nonpartisan, though local political parties often endorse. This race appears to have two frontrunners, both relatively unknown in county politics. One, Joan Hartmann, has the Democratic Party endorsement; the other, Bruce Porter, has won support from Republicans.
Porter would have had a leg up if just two candidates were in the race because the election could definitely be decided in the June 7 primary election, when more dependable conservative voters turn out to cast ballots. But politics is all about timing. In the November election, high student turnout in a presidential year gives a strong edge to the Democratic-supported candidate. Two of the outsider candidates, Bob Field and Karen Jones, call themselves conservatives, but their candidacy actually hurts the Republican establishment favorite. The third outsider, Jay Freeman, is the left-leaning founder of a multimillion-dollar tech company who has enough money and stamina to stay the course. All five have as distinctive personalities as the complex issues dominating the diverse district.
Joan Hartmann grew up watching the orange groves disappear in Glendora, a small community 20 miles east of Los Angeles. At 12, her father, a Korean War veteran, died after a long battle with cancer. Her mother, a 34-year-old nurse, took on a demanding, but not well-paying, job treating children with cancer at L.A.’s City of Hope. Those years, Hartmann remembered, the “Salvation Army brought Christmas.”
Survivor benefits from the GI Bill allowed her to attend the small, conservative University of La Verne in the 1970s, where her politics tilted toward the progressive. Asked if she considered herself an activist then, she said, “I was engaged.”
After graduating, Hartmann pursued a PhD in political philosophy and environmental policy, supporting herself as a teacher at high schools and Claremont College. Later she helped found the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, where she met her husband, Jim Powell, then the acting president, a geologist by training. She later got a law degree from Lewis & Clark. The couple has a daughter and two children from Powell’s former marriage.
In person, Hartmann, 65, has a runner’s physique and perfectly blow-dried brown hair. In public, she appears nicely put-together, well organized, and exhaustively prepared.
In 2004, Hartmann moved to the Santa Ynez Valley full-time, and got involved. She volunteered for foster kids as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), was active on Measure G (required voter approval to develop land zoned as agriculture), and participated in the Buellton Urban Growth Boundary Initiative (required voter approval for changes to the city’s boundaries).
More recently, she served for three years as retiring supervisor Farr’s planning commissioner. She proudly characterized her record as one of “balanced decision making,” approving energy projects (with environmental mitigations that oil industry proponents contend are too stringent), housing projects, the agriculture buffer zone, and the Gaviota Coast plan. In deliberations, she is known to ask lots of questions.
Hartmann had to do a little “soul searching,” as she put it, before jumping into the race. “Life is really short,” she said. “When opportunity is right there in front of you saying you can make a difference — you do.”
Bruce Porter has military in his blood. Growing up an army brat, he loved living overseas. He attended West Point, graduating in 1976, at a hot time in the Cold War. Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, he was deployed to Germany to “guard the Iron Curtain, basically,” and later to an air base in Japan, “a totally different experience.” The U.S. Army paid his way to Stanford where he earned two master’s degrees in computer science and civil engineering — and where met his future wife, Janette Brown Porter. He then returned to West Point, teaching mathematics and computer theory.
In 1990, Porter capped off his career as an operations officer in the Desert Storm Gulf War. At first he helped build roads and airfields, and then transitioned to combat engineering and responded to the giant oil spills caused after Saddam Hussein’s troops set fire to Kuwait oil wells.
Porter returned stateside to work at the Pentagon but retired a week before September 11, 2001; his former aide was killed in the terrorist attack. That same year Porter moved his family to the Santa Ynez Valley to finish raising their three kids, now all in their twenties. He joined the financial advising firm Edward Jones, the Rotary Club, the American Red Cross, and the Boys & Girls Club.
Porter, now 61, entered local politics in 2008, when he led the charge to recall all Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District boardmembers after they arbitrarily fired the popular principal, Norm Clevenger. Despite great public outcry, the board refused to explain their reasoning, even after Clevenger gave his approval.
Though the group gathered more than 13,000 signatures total, the protest was dropped when Clevenger was hired at San Marcos High School. That year, Porter was elected to the valley school board.
In 3rd District forums, Porter pledges an “unrelenting” commitment to the environment, pointing to his work in the army. At Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, Porter said, he protected the endangered desert tortoises. In the Pacific Northwest, he fought wildfires, and during Mississippi River floods, he provided clean drinking water.
At a GOP meeting in Santa Maria, however, Porter assured the audience that he plays up his environmental credentials to get the Isla Vista student vote, candidate Jones published online. When asked about this after a debate, Porter said, “My bio is my bio, and I stick by my bio.” Asked again via email, he wrote, “Her claim on my environmental record goes into the same categories as slavery and denying women the right to vote.”
Often dressed in a suit and tie, Porter is pleasant, though somewhat formal. Based on the number of giant Bruce Porter lawn signs seen throughout the Valley, he seems to be a popular fellow. Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam, unabashedly conservative, said, “I think his message is similar to mine. He blows away everyone else in that race.”
Bob Field, 71, describes himself as an old-fashioned conservative: “for conservation.” He is a longtime registered Republican, but Republicans dismiss him as a Democrat in disguise, trying to manipulate the election toward Hartmann. They cite Field’s contribution to her campaign last December. Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said, “His best way to help Joan Hartmann is not to give her $1,000. It’s to get into the race.” In fact, Field confirmed he is not trying to “spoil” it for Porter — he is in the race to “ruin” it for him.
Eighteen years ago, Field moved to a spectacular house in bucolic Happy Canyon after a successful career at a computer services startup — before anyone called them startups. He got hooked on county government in the early 2000s when he revived the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan.
Field worked on Brooks Firestone’s successful 3rd District campaign in 2004, but the two had a bitter falling out. Field publicly called out Firestone for working to allow non-agriculture uses on land protected by the Williamson Act (a law that helps preserve ag land by only taxing its agricultural value rather than its development potential.) Firestone owned such land and later recused himself from voting on the subject after conflict-of-interest accusations. The bitterness has not abated. When a Field campaign press release listed his past work with the former supervisor, Firestone quickly emphasized his support for Porter.
Field has become a bit of a controversial character in the valley in his crusade against the proliferation of wine tasting rooms and vacation rentals. At a recent county board meeting, Supervisor Lavagnino called Field a hypocrite for appealing a Santa Rosa Road winery expansion project while advertising his own property as a potential small-scale winery when he put it on the market. Lavagnino displayed a picture of Field’s 1930s farmhouse and address. “It’s the North County guys’ style,” Field said. “It’s all about what a horrible human being I am.”
Sitting on his porch overlooking picturesque rolling spring-green hills, Field said the race was about defending the “quality and the rural character in the Santa Ynez Valley.” “Tourism should be light mustard on a hotdog,” he said, noting he borrowed the metaphor. “A little bit makes it better, but nobody likes mustard sandwiches.”
Jay Freeman campaigns as if he’s having the most fun in this race. Freeman came to UCSB in 1999 to study computer science. In 2007, he founded Cydia — Latin for the proverbial worm in the apple — an alternative of sorts to apps that allows users to customize their jailbroken devices. He now teaches at the university’s College of Creative Studies. For 16 years he lived in the outskirts of I.V. but moved inside the so-called I.V. box last year. He is the only candidate who lives on the South Coast. Tall, long-haired, and somewhat gawky, Freeman usually wears all black and a big smile.
He’s in the race in part to stick up for Isla Vista, the community without a voice at the Board of Supervisors, he said. This includes totally rejecting the perception, held by many outside the I.V. bubble, that the college town is dangerous and a drain on county services. Two years ago, Freeman, now 34, energetically supported cityhood for Isla Vista, and he has vigorously supported the November ballot measure to establish a community services district in I.V. He even donated $22,000 toward its fiscal study. If he loses in June, Freeman plans to run for a seat on the new community services district board.
Freeman recently created a website that he’s hoping will capitalize on the young, liberal Isla Vista voters who will be turning out for the presidential elections. It serves as a massive data mine on Isla Vista voter registration. Info from door-to-door interactions — door slam, for instance — gets entered into an app that can be turned into charts and graphs. In a separate effort, Democrats have already registered 2,000 voters in I.V. and on the UCSB campus (including updates).
About a third of the district’s 42,400 voters live in Isla Vista or on the UCSB campus. That gives registered Democrats an 8 percent lead over Republicans. Thirty percent of voters decline to state a party preference.
Asked if his efforts to register Isla Vista voters could help Hartmann, Freeman said yes. “That is not a bad-case scenario for me,” he said, “as someone who is similar on the political spectrum to her.” He added the people of Isla Vista generally know who he is over Hartmann.
Karen Jones, now 57, moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1995 after marrying a descendent of the county’s historic Ortega family. Known for her exuberant, youthful spirit, she hosts big block parties every year. Publically she has been outspoken against career politicians and big government. In 2009, she joined anti-Obamacare protesters outside Congressmember Lois Capps’s regional office. Though Jones resists the term Tea Party — “the first rule of the Tea Party is we don’t talk about the Tea Party” — she conceded she once helped organize a protest, which “rocked,” she told me via Twitter. Her Twitter handle is “@SnakebiteJones.”
During this campaign, she has called Porter a “corrupt man,” spending as much time at a recent debate railing on him as she did arguing her own points. “I think Joan and Bruce are the same person …” she said, adding Hartmann has more credibility. “Bruce … moved here from Washington, D.C., to take advantage of a bunch of people he thinks are country rubes. I’m sorry, Bruce, but Dad is pulling the car over.” After the debate, Porter said he had “no idea what is at the root of all of that … I was shocked.”
Jones insists, however, that her primary issue is to “stand up to the Casino Empire.” Careful to clarify that the “people in the tribe are wonderful,” she opposes expansion of the reservation through congressional action. In fact, she suggested, “Maybe we should build a wall around the casino and make them pay for it.”
Taking the Gloves Off
Jones is not the only candidate ready for a fight. At a recent debate, Hartmann took Porter on aggressively, accusing him of ripping off her proposal to negotiate with the Chumash tribal leaders and spreading faulty information when he previously intimated the Goleta Unified School District would be forced to issue pink slips to teachers because of lost tax revenue from oil operations after the Refugio Oil Spill shut down seven oil platforms.
Porter and his supporters, for their part, have attacked Hartmann for being a tool of the liberal forces from the South Coast that they say seek to turn the Board of Supervisors into a “soap box for progressive causes.” “We don’t want land use against property rights and the needs of the economy,” said Andy Caldwell, longtime spokesperson for right-wing issues in North County. “What they are trying to do is a whole different mentality.”
In January, Hartmann, just before resigning from the Planning Commission, approved a zip line project after she voted last November to send the applicant back to the drawing board. She worked with the applicant, she said, to modify the project so at-risk kids or area families could use it during off-peak hours. Critics grumbled such stipulations went beyond the scope of the Planning Commission. But she claimed her contribution puts the applicant in a “much stronger position now” since neighbors are appealing the decision to the Board of Supervisors. This, however, did not endear her to property-rights activists.
At a Republican Party meeting in Santa Maria, Porter reportedly suggested Hartmann was affiliated with the now long-defunct ’60s radical movement Weather Underground, a claim that she dismissed as “nonsense.” In an interview, Porter confirmed his remark, explaining, “The South Coast machine, as I call it, has had a succession of candidates, and there are people like John Butney that have been supporters of that group,” he said. “I didn’t work it out in any kind of detail.”
(Butney, former influential 3rd District activist, staffer, and failed supervisorial candidate, admitted he was part of the Weatherman but said he left before they went underground. “The last time this came up was in 2004 when I ran for supervisor,” he laughed.)
Battle over the Tourist Trade
One of the most contentious issues among candidates has been how to handle vacation rentals. Field is strongly opposed to them anywhere. Late last year, he advocated an outright ban, arguing any attempt to regulate them would be virtually unenforceable.
Porter said he has no firm position and is open to learning more. Freeman said, “Unlike some tech people, I do not blindly agree with all things ‘disruptive.’ I understand why people are upset [with them].” “Our job as government is to try to figure out how to accommodate all these complex cross-interests.” Jones, who said she sometimes uses vacation rentals in the valley, also took a mixed approach: The county must “establish and enforce rules that reflect the will of the people.”
Hartmann, the only candidate with a voting record on the subject, favored a ban on short-term vacation rentals in residential areas, and, in a separate motion, remained open to short-term rentals on agriculture land, particularly in the North County, where neighbors live far apart. The issue is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors next fall after returning to the Planning Commission this summer.
Chumash Tribal Standoff
Perhaps the most heated issue in the vast 3rd District is how to handle matters with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Many Valley residents have long clashed with tribal leaders over proposed expansion of the reservation, aggravated by the fact that any reservation development is not governed by the county’s strict planning codes, and that, as a federally recognized sovereign nation, the Chumash are not subject to property taxes.
It gets ugly.
Confrontation escalated last fall when county supervisors began a series of public meetings — led by supervisors Farr and Adam — to hash out a deal with tribal leaders. The first of its kind in a decade, the meetings came after a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress demanded county officials negotiate with the tribe. If they failed to do so, congressmembers threatened to push legislation that would allow a tribe to bypass the lethargic Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucracy and directly annex land into its existing reservation. This is also known as “fee-to-trust.”
The meetings have been a mixed bag and are currently on a cooling-off hiatus. Meanwhile, the tribe is in the middle of a special election because Chair Vincent Armenta announced last month he was stepping down after 20 years in office.
The rub has always been that valley residents consider an agreement with the tribe unenforceable. During a recent debate, Field argued: “The [Bureau of Indian Affairs] is abusing a Depression-era law designed to get impoverished tribes off the welfare rolls to enable 21st-century super-mega-wealthy casino tribes to get off the tax rolls,” he said. “That is dead wrong.”
Freeman condemned both sides as “simply playing games where they didn’t go anywhere and could argue someone else’s fault.” As to Hartmann’s jab at Porter about ripping off her idea, Freeman argued it was actually Supervisor Farr who mentioned the proposal at a prior meeting.
Put simply, the current proposal would allow the tribe to develop housing near urban boundaries with an expedited permit if they revoke their annexation application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to Field, he actually came up with the proposal in 2004.
In any case, Chair Armenta said in March, tribal leaders would likely not go for it: “The tribe has a right to apply for fee-to-trust,” he said. “I will not forgive those rights for our tribe.”
The Impossible District
The 3rd District supervisor will eventually be in a position to vote on redrawing the county’s district boundaries. While this process will probably not take place during this four-year term — and will be after the next Census — incumbents tend to win reelections. The redraw matters because — if conservatives had their druthers — the 3rd District would exclude Isla Vista, and its blue voters, and be instead included in the currently overwhelmingly liberal 2nd District.
For now, it is difficult to overstate the complexity of running for 3rd District supervisor given the diverse demographics and myriad issues. Said one county insider, “They need to promise the world to everybody.”
Santa Barbara Vintners and The Santa Barbara Independent are hosting a Board of Supervisor’s candidate forum on April 28 at 6 p.m. at Hotel Corque in Solvang. The Independent’s Kelsey Brugger and Matt Kettmann will moderate the forum. See here for more details.