Gary Fuller, the only Montecito Sanitary District boardmember who has publicly opposed a future merger with the Montecito Water District, resigned last Thursday, citing the board’s failure to address what he believed to be violations of the state Brown Act, the “sunshine” law for transparency in local government, by the sanitary board’s president and vice president.

Gary Fuller resigned from the Montecito Sanitary District board last week. | Credit: Courtesy

Fuller, a building and plumbing contractor and attorney who was elected to a four-year term in November 2020, turned in his letter of resignation to Brad Rahrer, the sanitary district general manager, on April 14, minutes before the board met in a special closed session.

Fuller’s abrupt departure is the latest flare-up in a long-running controversy at the district, amid a push by the four other sanitary boardmembers and the water board to consolidate water and sanitary district operations and administration. With the exception of Fuller, both boards were elected in costly, aggressive campaigns, an unusual display of raw power politics in a bid to seize historically low-profile elected offices.

At stake is the cost and resilience of the water supply in Montecito, an affluent enclave of one-acre lots, large estates, and luxury resorts where the average per-capita residential water use is among the highest in the state.

Based on conversations with the district earlier this month, Fuller said, he believed that on April 14, the sanitary board was going to discuss Brown Act allegations he had brought up in January 2021, not long after taking office; and recent counter-allegations by board President Dorinne Johnson. These reportedly included Johnson’s claim that he had violated the state Ralph Civil Rights Act in early 2021 by threatening her, an Asian-American woman, with litigation, in a voicemail message to an attorney, Fuller said. When the voicemail came to light at a board meeting this March, Johnson requested a copy of it.

Fuller remembers telling his colleagues that he believed Johnson and board Vice President Woody Barrett may have violated the Brown Act by attending a January 6, 2021, meeting with water district representatives and officials of the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency that oversees district consolidations, without first obtaining the authorization of the sanitary board, and without reporting back on the meeting.

“I felt they were going to just bulldoze ahead with consolidation,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he felt strongly that last week’s board discussion should not be held in secret, so he decided to resign in protest before it started. His decision was made easier, Fuller said, because his cardiologist had warned him that morning that his heart condition was worsening.

“I couldn’t take the stress of watching people do something that I felt was wrong and having them act as if it wasn’t happening,” he said. “I was so disappointed in the fact that I had brought the conduct of these directors to their attention multiple times, and the board wouldn’t even entertain a conversation about it. And it appeared they were going to take action against me for simply attempting to hold them accountable. That’s insane. I believe this board will never change its ways.”

The Exodus

Dorinne Johnson is the president of the Montecito Sanitary District board. | Credit: Courtesy

The Brown Act requires local government business to be conducted in open and public meetings so that the people can be well-informed and can exercise control over their government. The Ralph Civil Rights Act prohibits threatening a person because of his or her gender, race, sex, religion, age, skin color, or national origin.

Johnson and Barrett did not respond to a reporter’s requests for comment this week. Rahrer declined to comment on the contents of last week’s closed session, which lasted two hours. The board is scheduled to meet in closed session at 2 p.m. this Thursday, April 21, to discuss anticipated litigation regarding the Brown Act and Ralph Civil Rights Act. On April 28, the board is expected to discuss how to fill Fuller’s vacant seat.

Fuller is the latest person to flee the sanitary district, a small, independent agency with about 18 employees serving 9,000 people. Since the start of the 2020 election campaign, 12 employees, including two general managers and two attorneys, have quit.

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Fuller was the only member on either the water or sanitary district board whose election campaign was not funded by a group of wealthy Montecitans who raised more than $250,000 during three election cycles to oust the incumbents.

Bob Hazard, a major donor, a former president of the Birnam Wood Golf Club, and an editor at the Montecito Journal, spearheaded the campaigns, frequently advocating in his columns and at public meetings for the consolidation of the water and sanitary districts.

Riding a backlash against rationing in the drought, the candidates swept nine out of 10 seats on the two boards. Fuller, who spent zero funds to get elected, was an anomaly. In mid-2021, he made a public records request at the sanitary district; it revealed that Johnson and Barrett had been ordered in 2015 and early 2020, respectively, to replace their leaking sewer laterals. In the pandemic, Barrett got an extension to early 2021. To date, neither director has done the work; the board is not enforcing such orders for now, Rahrer said.

Old Grievances

The resignation of Gary Fuller from the Montecito Sanitary District (shown here on Monte Cristo Lane) is part of an exodus of personnel since the 2020 election campaign. | Credit: Melinda Burns

The January 6, 2021, LAFCO meeting was a conference call with Johnson and Barrett, two water board directors, and the water board general manager; LAFCO officials provided an overview of consolidation procedures and answered questions. Sanitary district interim General Manager Jon Turner did not participate; instead, he submitted his letter of resignation, noting that the sanitary board majority apparently intended to seek a merger with the water district.

“This meeting with the Santa Barbara County LAFCO was done without notification or advertisement and appears to be a violation of the Brown Act,” Turner wrote.

On January 26, 2021, Fuller said, he was surprised to learn that Holly Whatley, a Pasadena attorney, had addressed a letter to Johnson and the water board general manager — “as asked,” she wrote — outlining the terms under which she could advise the water and sanitary districts about LAFCO and their “potential reorganization” into one agency.

The sanitary district board had taken no action to pursue consolidation, Fuller said, so he called Whatley in February 2021 and left a message on her voicemail.

“I’m looking at correspondence from you regarding basically some sort of hostile takeover of Montecito Sanitary,” Fuller began. Johnson, he said, “is about to be hit with a Brown Act violation currently for meeting on this topic without discussing it with the other boardmembers. So, I hope that gives you some pause … I am opening a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Division of the local district attorney based on the conduct of Director Johnson and Director Barrett and the influence of one Mr. Bob Hazard.”

In the end, Fuller decided not to file a complaint; the DA’s office, he said, was not encouraging about the time and complexity it would entail. Fuller said Johnson’s claim that his voicemail violated the Ralph Civil Rights Act amounted to “unfounded retribution.” He said Johnson apparently also was alleging that he had violated the Brown Act by phoning three other board members back in December 2020 to tell them he would support them and not Johnson for board president.

“This is a complete waste of the district’s time and money,” Fuller said of Johnson’s allegations.

A consolidation study funded by the water and sanitary districts is expected to be made public by the end of this year. Recently, both boards voted to retain Whatley for advice about LAFCO.

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science, and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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