Santa Barbara City Attorney Gets the Boot

City Council Votes to Fire Ariel Calonne in Closed-Door Session

Ariel Calonne | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

During a special closed-door hearing, the Santa Barbara City Council voted on Tuesday to terminate long-time City Attorney Ariel Calonne, who’d been placed on paid administrative leave this past July after what had been described as an exceptionally heated exchange with another attorney who worked in his office. 

Calonne, who’d previously served as City Attorney for the City of Ventura, was hired by the City of Santa Barbara in 2014. In the intervening eight years, he enjoyed a reputation for both intelligence and intensity, taking on, for example, slumlord Dario Pini in an especially protracted legal war over the habitability of Pini’s units. In this action, Calonne sought to use the court system to hold the feet of Pini’s lenders to the fire, as well as Pini himself. 

But in his zeal, Calonne also dispatched teams of city inspectors backed by city police wearing body armor to the apartment complexes, alarming in the process many of the predominantly Spanish-speaking tenants. At the time, Donald Trump had just been elected president, and many tenants worried this might be an immigration raid. 

Other than acknowledge the termination vote, Mayor Randy Rowse would say only, “That’s about all she wrote,” adding, “Once again, I have to give you the stone wall,” followed by “Nope,” and finally, “Nothing.” Hiring and firing qualified as “personnel matters,” Rowse stated. “We don’t discuss those. People still have rights.” 

Rowse acknowledged that an investigation had been conducted prior to the council’s vote but made a point not to confirm that there had been any “incident” to look into. 

Calonne himself was equally reticent, stating only that he was not prepared to say anything other than “No comment.” 

Calonne, who earned in the neighborhood of $280,000 a year, is contractually entitled to a year’s salary, plus a year’s worth of health insurance and the equivalent of his car allowance, valued at $605 a month. 

Among the council’s key functions is the hiring and supervision of the City Attorney and the City Manager. The vote to terminate was 6-0; councilmember Michael Jordan was not present. 

In the meantime, Sarah Knecht will continue to run the department as interim City Attorney. 

“There’s been no drop off in the quality of service,” Rowse said. “We’re still firing on all cylinders.”

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