If dysfunction were an art form, the Santa Barbara City Council chambers just became the Museum of Modern Art. To paraphrase a line from Bette Davis, you better fasten your seat belts because it’s doing to be a bumpy ride. After watching the newly constituted City Council in action, it’s clear Bette didn’t know the half of it. The new regime—just sworn into office two weeks ago — is experiencing extreme difficulty finding its collective ass with either hand. Late Tuesday night, the council saw fit to make a bad situation that much worse by guaranteeing a state of perpetual gridlock will persist between now and June.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the council is shy one member. When Cathy Murillo was elected mayor last November, she went from representing the city’s Westside council district — the 3rd District — to banging the gavel. That created a vacancy that has to be filled. That also means there are only six votes to be cast on a given issue. This situation, in turn, created the theoretical possibility of tie votes and deadlock.
Tuesday night, that theoretical possibility became an inevitability.
The council is broken into two distinct and antagonistic camps. It’s not just political. It’s intensely personal. As a result, the brand-new council with a brand-new mayor found itself hopelessly deadlocked. A major housing development proposed — and opposed — at the corner of East De la Guerra and Santa Barbara streets managed to “win” approval with a 3-3 tie. Given the major policy implications surrounding this development — a high-density, three-story, 23-tiny-unit apartment complex — it matters what message the new council sends. The only “message” I took away is — to steal another movie line — that it’s every man for himself and God against all.
The solution, of course, is to fill the vacancy created by Murillo’s ascension to the mayoral throne. The rub is how.
According to the city charter — which functions as the Constitution and the Bible combined — the council has to appoint Murillo’s successor within 30 days. No ifs, ands, or buts. Sometime last December, the previous council voted to pursue just that approach and scheduled Tuesday as the day to do it. As a result, eight people seeking the council appointment showed up and jammed the hallways outside the council chambers, waiting to give their pitch. Many were first-timers and newcomers. They wore new suits. It looked like a convention of undertakers. They would have to wait five hours, however, before it became clear their wait was in vain.
That’s because supporters of district elections — represented by retired judge Frank Ochoa — objected the appointment process was inherently undemocratic. They argued people of the 3rd District — the largest minority-majority district in the city, by the way — should have the right to elect their representative. They threatened legal action. “We are not an oligarchy,” said one. “Enough with the malarkey of oligarchy.”
It’s a nice line. My father liked the word “malarkey.” And I’m a sucker for anything that rhymes. But I don’t think any of those considerations provide the basis for public policy, sound or otherwise. The problem here is with the timing of the election. The next one takes place this June.
According to my watch, that’s five months away. That’s a whole lot of 3-3 votes. That’s a whole lot of nothing getting done.
I went into Tuesday night’s meeting figuring the council would fall over itself to sound sympathetic to Judge Ochoa and the district election crowd — it’s the politically correct posture to take — but in the end opt to appoint, albeit regretfully. I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the risk of sounding like the crypto-fascist I no doubt have become, that would have been the expedient, practical, sensible thing to do. I say that because two weeks ago, district election supporters held a rally on the Westside, where I happen to live. A bunch of people from the Eastside showed up. There was no indigenous upwelling among 3rd District voters on this score, just the agitations of well-meaning carpetbaggers from the 1st District and a retired judge threatening to sue, but only just barely and probably not at all. Had it been otherwise, I might have felt different.
So here’s the scorecard. Councilmember Jason Dominguez evidently hates Cathy Murillo to such an extent he cannot bring himself to show her the least respect. At the previous council meeting, Dominguez insisted on making a motion — about the issue of succession — even though several members of the public had not yet testified. Murillo asked him to hold off until the public comment was through. He refused. It was kind of egregious.
Later in the day, Councilmember Gregg Hart — whose feelings for Dominguez on a good day could inflict frostbite at 40 paces — made a motion that Murillo be appointed to the board of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), the super-agency responsible for dispensing road-repair and freeway-widening dollars. It’s customary for the city’s mayor to sit on the SBCAG board. But Hart just happens to be second in command at SBCAG, so he was clearly out of line in making the motion for Murillo. It’s called “conflict of interest.” Hart has had to recuse himself from voting on freeway-widening votes because of this conflict of interest, but this is a vulnerability he has had a hard time getting.
Dominguez pointedly broached the conflict issue and pushed to have himself appointed over Murillo. With Hart disqualified, Murillo had only two votes. Dominguez wound up winning the appointment with support from councilmembers Randy Rowse and Kristen Sneddon. It ain’t over. Murillo and Councilmember Eric Friedman are now pushing to have the matter brought back, meaning they will try to strip Dominguez of his seat.
And that was just the first meeting.
At the second meeting, there were deadlock votes over a push to speed up the application process for potrepreneurs trying to get the new cannabis industry off the ground within city limits. There was a deadlock over how many retail pot shops should be allowed and over how much to tax them as well. From the outside looking in, it appeared half the council was in the hip pocket of the industry, desperately trying to inoculate its practitioners from all the regulatory static that all businesses rail against. The other half looked intent on killing the new industry in the cradle, using taxes and regulations as their murder weapon of choice. I didn’t know whom to root for, just whom to root against: everybody.
It was ugly and painful. Hart, endowed with perhaps the brightest smile in South Coast politics, was decidedly not smiling anymore. Hart, as everyone knows or thinks they do, will soon be running for 2nd District county supervisor, now that Janet Wolf has announced she’s not seeking a fourth term. That election will take place this June as well. Should he run and win, we’ll have to revisit the issue of council vacancies and how best to plug them all over again.
At the end, the mayor and three of the councilmembers voted to fill Murillo’s council vacancy via election. I’m guessing that two of them actually believed it was the right thing to do. The rest, I suspect, thought it was the right thing to appear to do. Council newcomer Friedman delivered an extended guitar solo of a stem-winder, explaining his reasoning; he quoted Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, Socrates, Rosa Parks, and I don’t know who else. It was eloquent and heartfelt. I have no idea what the hell he said. For the record, Dominguez quoted Rosa Parks, as well. I don’t know what the hell he said either, but it seemed like a significant about-face. Rumor has it that the Chamber of Commerce weighed in heavily in favor of the special election — bending Dominguez’s ear in the process — fearing that the wing-nut faction of the Democratic Party might gain absolute hegemonic control of the council if the appointment process were pursued. Only Councilmember Rowse expressed concern about deadlock as a way of life.
At the end of a very long night, the council applicants hoping for their three minutes at the podium were left in the lurch. Stalking the council hallways, they looked like ghosts hunting for a house to haunt. Mayor Murillo, in an act of misguided pity and guilt, suggested that they be given time to make their presentations even though none of them would be appointed. As consolation prizes went, it was a nonstarter. Rowse sputtered and muttered that everything was “very unusual” and that he didn’t really see the point.
Ultimately, there was no point. Everyone went home. All the carefully crafted speeches went undelivered.
Politics, they say, is the art of making sausage. I happen to like sausage. It just helps if you cook it first.