Redistricting committee attorney Fred Woocher (left) has been accused of a conflict of interest by an attorney representing COLAB, the conservative watchdog group led by Andy Caldwell (right). | Credit: Paul Wellman (file) and Courtesy

The battle over redrawing the political map for Santa Barbara’s five supervisorial districts has heated up yet again, and we’re still seven months away from having the latest population counts courtesy of the U.S. Census. An attorney representing the conservative watchdog group COLAB — the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business — has threatened to sue, claiming the attorney hired to represent the county’s 11-member redistricting committee has a conflict of interest.

While the terms of this dispute may seem arcane, the balance of power on the County Board of Supervisors is at stake, and no detail is too small to fight over.

Attorney Mark Meuser has charged that Fred Woocher, the attorney representing the independent commission, must step down because Woocher represented former 3rd District supervisor Doreen Farr in a protracted court battle over alleged voter fraud in the 2008 election that Farr and Woocher decisively won in 2013. Meuser contends that Woocher’s representation of Farr within eight years of his appointment to the redistricting commission effectively bars him from serving.

Woocher has contended his only legal work in 2013 on behalf of Farr was to obtain compensation from the losing candidate who unsuccessfully challenged her election victory.

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In addition, Meuser has argued that Woocher is bound by the same requirements that apply to the appointed commissioners: that they must be county residents, that they must be registered Santa Barbara County voters, and that they must have voted in in any of the past three elections. Woocher lives in Los Angeles.

County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni countered that the initiative language cannot, in fact, impose the same residency requirements on the commission’s paid consultants as it does its actual commissioners. Likewise, he stated, nothing in Woocher’s work on behalf of Farr precluded the commission from hiring him.

County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

“We believe the supervisors have the discretion to approve or deny the contract,” Ghizzoni stated.

Meuser’s threat on behalf of COLAB will no doubt be a bluff called by a majority of the Board of Supervisors — hostile to COLAB’s agenda and unfazed by its legal arguments. 

Woocher is regarded as a cracker-jack elections lawyer and has effectively represented not just Farr — whose opponent’s claims of election fraud were vigorously tossed out of court by Judge James McLafferty, who cited lack of any substantiating evidence — but a prior 3rd District supervisor, Bill Wallace, who won reelection only after a protracted recount battle.

Both Wallace and Farr represented the 3rd District and won election thanks in large measure to the large and liberal Isla Vista voting bloc. Without Isla Vista voters in the 3rd District, the liberal environmental majority that’s held sway over the board for more than 25 years would be in serious doubt. Hence COLAB’s animosity to Woocher.

Supervisor Das Williams | Credit: Courtesy

Supervisor Das Williams — a onetime Isla Vista activist who now represents Carpinteria, Montecito, and much of Santa Barbara — said the supervisors would violate the independence of the redistricting commission if it refused to fund the legal counsel selected by that commission. Williams also helped craft the language for the countywide ballot initiative — Measure G — that gave rise to the redistricting commission. Williams noted that the commission interviewed three attorneys and selected Woocher.

“I am not sure how we could disapprove of one of their contracts without messing with their independence,” Williams stated.

CORRECTION: The contested election of Doreen Farr was in 2008 not 2012 as originally reported.

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