Sanity Breaks Out on Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors

Two Conservative Supes Speak Up for Good Government

From left to right: Andy Caldwell, Mona Miyasato, and Bob Nelson. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file) and Courtesy

NEWS OF THE WORLD: I woke up Tuesday morning with a red sun burning high in the sky, its color the optical byproduct of a few billion trees burning in what promises to be another record-setting year. I’m not a religious person, but running around my brain was a searing blues song “John the Revelator,” sung in a voice to peel the skin off one’s back.

It was to be one of those days. I tried to read the comics. But Afghanistan — where 20 years of chickens were coming home to roost — kept intruding over my bowl of cereal. It took the United States two decades to understand what the Soviet Union figured out in one: that Afghanistan is, was, and remains the graveyard of great empires. Lost in the avalanche of I-told-you-so outrage is any appreciation of how many Afghans prematurely met their makers fighting a war we are told they refused to fight. At last count, 75,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers bought the farm; 71,000 civilians went with them.

I tried to catch up on the Dodgers, but the din of all the instant experts blaming Joe Biden got in the way. No doubt he’s got it coming. But where were they back in August 2001, when George W. Bush steadfastly ignored intelligence reports that Osama bin Laden was about to attack? Where were they two years later, when Bush et al. opted to declare premature victory and attack Iraq too? Did that second war divert resources that could have prevented the first from ending so disastrously?

That’s way more chickens than Colonel Sanders could hope to fry. 

Welcome to Afghanistan, where, I’m told, the price of a burka has just gone up 100 percent. 

But I had to get to work, so I tuned into the county board of supervisors meeting, where I caught up on all the bad news about COVID. But much to my great surprise, I walked away from the meeting strangely uplifted. And — dare I say it — encouraged. On some small micro-local-hyper artisanal way, government was working the way government should.

Stop the presses.

Maybe it’s because all five county supervisors were sitting at the same dais in the same room — all wearing masks — actually talking to one another. Maybe it’s because County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato had spiked their Kool-Aid and threatened to quit if they didn’t get along. 

But for whatever reason, the lions and the lambs — three liberal-enviro “south” county supervisors and two conservative northern supervisors — were making a serious good-faith effort at working things out. 

Special props need to go to Bob Nelson, the most conservative supervisor who represents the 4th District, the most conservative in the county. Nelson’s predecessor — Peter Adam — believed that government can’t work and made sure his worst expectations were realized. 

By contrast, Nelson has been genuinely engaged during his first six months. When he reaches out across the proverbial aisle, it’s not with an olive branch but with his hand. 

A small case in point. On Tuesday’s agenda was a ministerial item to give county CEO Miyasato a 7 percent pay hike. This would bring her base pay to $309,000. Issues like this — high-paid county bureaucrats — tend to be red meat for Andy Caldwell, the right-wing watchdog who has been railing against county government since he founded the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business in 1991.

Over the weekend, Caldwell — who can accurately be described at times as shrill — sent out a missive decrying Miyasato’s proposed pay raise. Presumably, a fellow red-meat conservative like Nelson could be expected to jump on that bandwagon.

Instead, Nelson took on the loudest conservative voice in the county — though without mentioning Caldwell by name. The information in Caldwell’s dispatch was not accurate, Nelson said. Miyasato would not be taking home the $450,00 that Caldwell had written. “It’s really easy to tell half the story,” Nelson said. “But it depletes trust in this board.”

Nelson heaped mountains of praise on Miyasato for keeping the county on an even keel during the craziest of times, navigating a $1.3 billion organization with 4,300 employees and 22 separate departments through nonstop crisis and catastrophe. 

Miyasato, he also noted, was paid considerably less than executive counterparts elsewhere and had opted to not take a raise many years when she could. Nelson described the pay increase as “one of the most fiscally responsible decisions” he ever made. 

Caldwell took to the podium to defend his good name even though it had not yet been mentioned. If Nelson wanted to hammer him for “distorting the facts,” Caldwell said, then Nelson shouldn’t distort the facts himself. Caldwell insisted the $450,000 figure was correct, because it included insurance and benefits. “The point here is that these things are too high,” he added.

That’s when Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, the board’s second most conservative member, jumped in and credited Miyasato with cultivating the board’s culture of civility and collegiality. (Rumor has it that Miyasato has threatened the supes with her resignation if the board descended into dysfunction.)

Lavagnino mocked the notion that maybe the county could do better with a private industry CEO. No chief exec in Santa Barbara, he said, made less than $800,000 a year. And none ran an organization one-tenth as complex and challenging as the county. 

Caldwell quickly changed the subject, launching into a tirade about environmentalists being two-faced for not getting more agitated about a recent Toro Canyon oil spill. They only care about attacking oil companies, he charged, not protecting the environment. Caldwell can accurately be described at times as shrill; this was one of them. 

Some people see what they want to see. I see what I need to see. Hope.

At the Board of Supervisors?

Stop the presses.

CORRECTION: Andy Caldwell claimed Mona Miyasato would cost the county $450,000, not $403,000 as originally reported. 


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