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Political Power Shifts in Santa Barbara County

Conservatives in the rural northern half win control of the Board of Supervisors, which may alter the debate over a proposed county split.

March 14, 2004|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Residents of Santa Barbara County's rural northern half have grumbled for years that their needs are routinely ignored because of a liberal majority on the Board of Supervisors elected by south county voters.

The north's discontent led last year to a successful petition drive for a ballot measure in 2006 on whether the county should be divided into two counties at Gaviota Pass, which splits the north from the south. Until now, many in the south had not paid much interest. But a shift in county politics is changing that. The Board of Supervisors is about to switch from liberal to conservative with deeper northern roots. The shift came abruptly with the March 2 election of Republican Brooks Firestone in the pivotal 3rd Supervisorial District, a diverse area that includes the north's Santa Ynez Valley, but also the south's much more liberal UC Santa Barbara region.

Firestone won't replace liberal 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall, a controversial force on the board who was the subject of an unsuccessful recall campaign last year, until next year. But already some south county politicians are noticing a change in the rhetoric of some of their previously low-profile northern colleagues. And the south, soon to find itself in the minority, is beginning to take a new look at the secession issue.

Firestone ran as a peacekeeper, trying to help the north and south stay together. Opposing a county split, he campaigned on the theme that his arrival on the board would signal a time for healing. That went over well with south county politicians. But just last week, the south's complacency ended when 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray, representing the north county area around Lompoc, stunned her colleagues by comparing the liberal board members to prison guards. That was only the beginning for Gray, who made it clear that she had been keeping a low profile while there was a liberal board majority, but that those days are over.

Supervisors Naomi Schwartz and Susan Rose, who represent the Carpinteria, Montecito and Santa Barbara areas, said they were shocked.

"I was amazed to find such tremendous repressed feelings," said Schwartz, who did not run for reelection this year and who will be relinquishing her seat on the board next year to Salud Carbajal, the 1st District supervisor winner in the March primary. "I think it's unfortunate. I think it's unfortunate that we are already at the point where we are forming a commission to study the impacts of dividing the county. It's going to cost us $1 million in the next year to fund that study, and that's money we don't have."

Gray did not return calls seeking comment.

Schwartz said she hoped Firestone would succeed as a bridge builder between the north and the south, and that Gray's tone would soften in the future. She also pointed out that Firestone's fence-mending was going to have to extend to the south as well as the north.

"Montecito's 10,000 residents contribute about $11 million more to the county in property taxes than they receive in social services," she added pointedly. "Most of the social service costs go from the south to the north. It all comes down to mutual respect. Should there be a future Board of Supervisors that exhibits a lack of understanding to Montecito, for example, then you might expect a move there toward a county split and maybe cityhood."

Santa Maria developer Jim Diani, a leader of the group that successfully ran the petition drive to create a new Mission County north of Gaviota Pass, said from the beginning of his effort that it was always a case of unreconcilable differences between north and south, not one of personalities. "I think it's a little premature to predict the impact of Brooks' election," he said last week. "We know there are people saying, let Brooks have some time to mend fences. But we believe we are very different. It's not a matter of one politician versus another. We have always made that point."

When Firestone joins the board, he will become the third conservative member of a northern majority that includes Gray and 5th District Supervisor Joseph Centeno. Firestone remains optimistic that they will work closely enough with the southern board members to prevent secession. "If it were to come to a ballot today, I feel it would not pass," he said of the county split movement. "It's like a recall. You have to have a lot of frustration for something like that to pass."

What's needed, he said, is for people throughout the county to feel that their leaders are listening to them. "Mostly it's showing up and going that extra mile," he said. "In the past, we weren't going that extra mile to Santa Maria. That's going to change in January. I think that will mean a lot in the north, and I don't feel that the south has any real strong motive to favor secession."

Maybe not yet, said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum.

"The wounds between north and south go very deep and I don't think one person's election will solve the matter," she said. "It's a big problem. It's huge. I think they are tasting blood in the north. And I think some people on the south coast are getting tired of all the fighting."

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