Twenty months ago, a rancher named Willy Chamberlin won a seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
Or did he?
In one of the more bizarre election disputes in recent California history, Chamberlin's narrow victory over veteran Supervisor Bill Wallace has been in question since November, 1992, tied up in a legal fight over a ballot count.
This week, the matter was finally settled by the California Supreme Court. The upshot: Chamberlin is officially out. Wallace is in.
It all began with that fall election in 1992, the one long ago when Bill Clinton was elected President. In a high-stakes battle where spending topped $1 million, Chamberlin--a conservative who is friendly to coastal development--was declared the winner over Wallace--a slow-growth environmentalist--by seven votes.
With the finish so close, Wallace paid for a recount, which narrowed Chamberlin's winning margin to 5 votes. He appealed to a Superior Court judge, who further cut the margin to 2 votes.
Undeterred, Wallace pressed on, and finally found victory in April at the 3rd District Court of Appeal. In a 62-page decision, the justices declared Wallace the winner--by 12 votes.
By now, however, Chamberlin had grown comfortable in his supervisor's seat, and he appealed to the California Supreme Court. On Thursday, he lost. In a two-sentence order, a majority of the state's high court declined to hear the appeal. That means the lower court's ruling will stand.
Wallace, who has been working as a veterinarian since his apparent election defeat, was out of town and could not be reached for comment. But slow-growth advocates were jubilant, noting that Chamberlin had given the board a development-friendly majority at a time of crucial decisions about the county's open spaces.
Wallace's attorney, Phil Seymour, predicted that his client would be back in the supervisor's seat by Aug. 9. "This is very good news" for Santa Barbara County, he said.
Chamberlin was not talking. But his close political ally, Supervisor Timothy J. Staffel, was gloomy: "I'm disappointed. With Supervisor Chamberlin on the board, this county was experiencing a positive change of direction."