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Drive to Split Santa Barbara County Revs Up

Organizers say they have collected more than half the signatures required to put issue on ballot. The rural, conservative north would break away.

May 27, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

Saying they are collecting valid signatures at a rate of about 2,000 a week, leaders of a movement to split Santa Barbara County in half are declaring they are now "a little ahead of the game" in ultimately forcing a countywide vote on the issue.

The organizers' goal is to split the northern, rural and conservative half of the county away from the wealthier, liberal and urbane south coast on the grounds that the two areas have very little in common.

Santa Barbara County would be split roughly at Gaviota Pass, where California 101 turns sharply inland from the coast.

In recent times, supervisors from the south end of the county have prevailed on issues ranging from opposition to more offshore oil drilling to condemnation of the Boy Scouts for discriminating against homosexuals.

Santa Maria developer Jim Diani, a leader of the movement to create a new Mission County, said that as of last week, signature gatherers had collected about 12,000 verified signatures of the 20,779 needed from registered north county voters by Sept. 30 to put the question on the ballot.

"We definitely have the support for that," he said. "A poll in January showed we have 40,000 to 45,000 voters in the north county ready to sign. I like to think we will have what we need by late July or early August."

As the signature gatherers for Citizens for County Organization fanned out across the north county, members of a rival group called the Coalition Against the County Split have been walking neighborhoods telling people how to remove their names from petitions. They have not released any figures on how many voters they have persuaded.

County officials, meanwhile, have begun expressing more concern about the potential of a split. Although northern secessionists have been trying to break from the south for 25 years, they have never been able to get the question on the ballot.Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, who represents Montecito and half of the city of Santa Barbara, recently predicted that the split movement could produce an economic disaster, costing both areas of the county untold amounts of money at a time when money is scarce for even basic services. She said nobody really knows what the cost would be of dividing the county's debt and pension expenses.

County Administrator Michael Brown estimated that it would cost the county $500,000 to $600,000 to finance a minimal six-month state feasibility study if enough signatures are obtained. The law requires the governor to appoint a five-member feasibility review commission, and Brown said that process could drag on more than a year and cost $800,000 or more.

"They are making inappropriate statements, in my opinion," Diani said. "Schwartz herself has said that from now on, she is going to watch where the county's money is going. The inference is she is going to cut the north off."

Richard Cochrane, a Santa Barbara political consultant involved in the split campaign, said such comments by Schwartz and other south coast political leaders represent a "shift to electioneering" that shows the split movement is gaining strength. "Personally, I believe she and her ilk have held sway for so long that they don't want to lose control over a lot of people who don't even like their politics," he said. "She hates oil so much, she's afraid the north county might be more open to the oil industry than the south coast would like."

The Board of Supervisors often has been divided over controversial issues by a 3-2 vote, with the three supervisors who represent the territory from Carpinteria to Solvang typically voting together against the two northern supervisors. Cochrane said many north county residents believe the south simply has too much control over them.

Supervisor Susan Rose disputed that view, however, in an interview last week. She cited a recent board vote setting new regulations on protecting oak trees that produced at least some agreement between southern environmental groups and northern agricultural forces. It passed by a 4-1 vote, with one of the northern supervisors siding with the southern majority.

"There's a spin out there for years now that the south doesn't care about the north," Rose said. "If I felt that way, I wouldn't be opposed to the split. But I am, and I do try to watch out for the interests of the whole county.

"I don't think a split would be particularly beneficial to the people up north. The majority of social services costs are there, and most of the revenues are generated here. Beyond that, if you start to break up the county, everybody loses. We end up with less clout in Sacramento, less ability to protect our economic viability."

Although accused of positioning himself against a county split, Brown, the county administrator, said he is remaining neutral on the issue.

"That is for the people to decide," he said. "I can argue it either way. The argument for a split is they could create a streamlined county government for themselves. The argument against would be that the larger county can capture more economic advantages over time."

One irony, Brown said, is that the north county is growing much faster than the south county. Although the county's 400,000 population is now about equally split, the north is expected to forge into a clear majority in the future, which many expect to give a more conservative tone to county government.

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