Lights Out for Mike Pahos

The Former Parks Director Put the Scheme in the Dream

Goleta Pier | Credit: Courtesy

I can’t honestly say Mike Pahos was the second coming of Zorba the Greek. He did, however, singlehandedly invent Santa Barbara’s now-enshrined Greek Festival, paving the way for a multitude of ethnic festivals that have since followed. I never actually saw Pahos dancing around with a table in his mouth. But then, I never saw Pahos jitterbug either, and by Mike’s own reckoning, he was a hell of a jitterbugger. All the girls, he told me, wanted to dance with him back in Chicago, where he grew up. Maybe that was the key to Pahos’s success. He was the guy all the girls wanted to dance with.

And he knew it.

Either way, Mike Pahos had some serious moves. He died this week at age 90 of complications from pneumonia, his brain still sharp and clear. We hadn’t stayed in close touch over the years after he stepped down as County Parks Director in 1994. But Pahos in action was something to behold; as parks czar for 22 years, Pahos routinely put the scheme in the dream and the dream in the scheme. He did the same in the years before, when he was charge of the city’s parks program. Mike Pahos had a habit of making things happen. Many of those things we all will enjoy for decades to come, never wondering how they came to be.

Let’s start with just a few. Shoreline Park overlooking Leadbetter Beach, the place every politician running for office now shoots their obligatory anti-oil TV commercials? That park was Mike’s handiwork. Lake Los Carneros, one of the great hiding-in-plain-sight open secrets of the South Coast? That too was all Pahos. Thank Mike the next time you listen to some Stow House fiddler scratch out another rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.” (Or not.) Ever enjoy a stroll out to the end of the Goleta Pier? Pahos extended it by 800 feet. That’s nearly half a mile. 

Or what about the Santa Barbara Bowl? Back when Pahos was in his prime, the Bowl had been grossly neglected by Old Spanish Days, which milked one of the more magical venues anywhere on planet Earth as an anorexic cash cow to fund Fiesta. One of the great bureaucratic chess masters, Pahos hatched a successful conspiracy to wrest control of the Bowl away from Old Spanish Days. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the outcome of that conspiracy seems preordained; at the time, it couldn’t have been more improbable. Likewise, back when the powers that be were eager to pull the plug on the Lobero Theatre ​— ​then under the jurisdiction of County Public Works ​— ​because of high seismic retrofit costs, Pahos intervened. As a result, the lights are still on at the Lobero, one of the greatest places to hear live music anywhere. 

Naturally, Pahos had to be punished.

He was way too adept at robbing Peter to pay Paul. He was too good at playing politics. He was a cajoler and co-conspirator. He was fun, and his brand of fun was often contagious. When it wasn’t, he was quick to go over the head of whichever poor fool thought he was in charge just because he happened to be CEO. Anyone working on the county’s fourth floor knew to keep their hands on their wallets whenever Mike was in the room. Deals happened so fast with Mike that sometimes ​— ​frequently ​— ​the other party might have no idea one had been struck.

Back in the 1980s, it looked like a 118-acre parcel of undeveloped coastal land in outer Goleta by Ellwood Shores could be acquired. The place was festooned with eucalyptus groves from which great cumulonimbus clouds of monarch butterflies seemed to explode. Pahos sprang into action. How could he not? In a by-hook-or-by-crook masterpiece of open field running and fiscal improvisation, Pahos secured the land. He wanted playgrounds and soccer fields and even a velodrome. Stuff. Action. Picnic tables. Softball diamonds. The butterfly huggers had other ideas and fought Pahos over every centimeter. They won that fight and today, that park remains open space and passive recreation.

To close the deal, Pahos borrowed a few million from a partially unwitting North County supervisor. The money came out of a cookie jar established to fund a new medical clinic in Lompoc. At the time, the clinic remained many years away. Pahos figured he could pay the money back later. In the meantime, a new supervisor got elected ​— ​now Judge Tim Staffel ​— ​who took a dim and glowering view of Mike’s machinations. Staffel was part of a conservative North County majority that briefly controlled the Board of Supervisors. They were eager to punish any department heads inclined to play footsies with the vanquished regime. There wasn’t enough room on their silver platter for all the severed heads they hoped to see. 

The nuevo conservatives, led by then county supervisor Mike Stoker, outlined plans to slice and dice the county’s organizational flow chart, creating new mega-supergroup departments to reward friends and punish enemies under the pretense of cost savings and organizational efficiencies that would never materialize. Mike Pahos wouldn’t be fired; he would be bureaucratically decapitated. His beloved Parks Department would be put under the control of the bean counters at General Services. Once stripped of his position as department head, Pahos would be denied direct access to the supervisors; he would be forced to go through channels. In other words, death. 

Miraculously and mysteriously, Pahos managed to save the jurisdictional independence of his department, at least for the time being. But in 1994, after 22 years, the time had come. Mike Pahos stepped down. In so doing, he left behind some massive footprints. 

In any context, such accomplishments demand acknowledgement. But when government has become the ultimate four-letter word, such recognition is essential. Things don’t just magically happen. 

Mike Pahos, you were one hell of a dancer.

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