Political intrigue and personal bad blood circulated through the awkward debate and highly unusual decision by the City Council Tuesday night to strip Councilmember Jason Dominguez of his new position on the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) and instead hand the seat to Mayor Cathy Murillo.
The council voted four weeks ago to appoint Dominguez to the government supergroup ― which is responsible for dispensing millions of state and federal transportation dollars throughout the county each year and is the lead agency in the Highway 101 widening project ― but on Tuesday, Dominguez’s opponents successfully reversed course with the argument that a mistake had been made in the original vote and that, under the new district election system, only the mayor can effectively represent the city on the SBCAG panel.
Councilmember Eric Friedman took the lead. “The office of mayor is the only one directly accountable to all citizens of Santa Barbara,” he said. It would be a mistake, Friedman said, for Dominguez to serve on SBCAG because Dominguez’s Eastside district only composes 12 percent of the city’s voters, meaning 88 percent of Santa Barbara residents would not have direct representation on the regional panel. Friedman also argued it was tradition for the mayor to receive the appointment.
“This notion that it is a mayoral thing — it’s not true,” Dominguez rebutted. “That’s fake news.” Dominguez noted that Santa Barbara Councilmember Gregg Hart, as well as former councilmembers Dan Secord and Gil Garcia, all previously served on SBCAG, and none of them were mayor. He also questioned Friedman’s “fair representation” reasoning, explaining that Murillo only received 28 percent of the city’s vote in November, and that when he was elected to his district in 2015, he was supported by 51 percent of the District 1 electorate.
Dominguez questioned how a second council vote on the same issue could be taking place at all, as state law prevents the council from reconsidering a vote within 90 days of the original. Assistant City Attorney Sarah Knecht struggled to provide an explanation. She said Tuesday’s vote was technically not a reconsideration but an entirely new vote. If this was not a reconsideration, Dominguez pressed Knecht, then what was an example of one? She couldn’t offer any. “I haven’t had the opportunity to think this through,” she said.
Public commenters blistered Friedman for his remarks. “Are you are saying that because we didn’t elect you, you’re not going to represent us?” asked resident Natasha Todorovic, who lives outside Friedman’s district. “That’s scary.” Bonnie Donovan said she rushed to the council chambers after hearing Friedman’s remarks on TV. “I drove as fast as I could after I heard you say that,” she told him. “You are representing the city when you sit up there. So you don’t represent me?”
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon said she was surprised and dismayed by the debate and couldn’t understand why Dominguez was suddenly being considered for removal. “I feel like pulling a member off has to have a reason,” she said. Councilmember Hart, citing his employment with SBCAG as a public affairs director, recused himself from deliberations to avoid a conflict of interest.
Ultimately, it was Councilmember Randy Rowse who reversed his vote and backed Murillo. He said he did so to help curtail the dysfunction that has dominated the new council since it was sworn in last month. So far, he said, he’s seen decisions made based not on the city’s best interests but on “ideologies, outside groups, and outside contributions.” Rowse agreed with Friedman that the mayor was Santa Barbara’s most appropriate, citywide representative for SBCAG, and he said his initial vote for Dominguez was out of a concern of overloading Murillo with too much work. “I’m going to own the turnaround tonight,” Rowse said. “There needs to be some leadership and accountability.” For her part, Murillo said, “It is the job of the mayor to have positive relationships with everyone in the county.”
What went unspoken but played a major role in the proceedings were personal and political tensions between Murillo and Dominguez, as well as between Rowse and Dominguez, and an alliance between Murillo and Friedman, who were both endorsed and heavily supported by the county’s Democratic Party. Also underlying the conflict was an unabated concern about Dominguez’s ability to work in accord with the City of Santa Maria on the SBCAG panel, after he served as a plaintiff’s attorney against the city in its recent district elections lawsuit.