Search for Excellence (Part 2)

By Bob Hazard   |   June 27, 0209

What is needed to make Montecito better?Last week my wife and I had lunch with our Congressman and former 1st District Supervisor, Salud Carbajal. Although we are on different sides of the political spectrum, Salud gets my vote and my financial support because of his sincere commitment to the Montecito community, his dedication to constituent services and his genuine concern for helping the disadvantaged in this community. 

Salud is an excellent listener and a master at bringing people together. He has had the advantage of great mentors ranging from his days as a boy scout, to the education community, the marines, and Naomi Schwartz. His father, who dedicated his life to creating a better life for his children, emigrated from Mexico to work in the mines of Colorado and in the fields of Ventura. Salud readily admits that he loved his job as the County Supervisor. He knows Montecito well, and has pledged to help.

Community Heroes

During our discussion with Salud, we both agreed that currently, the most popular man in Montecito is Abe Powell, founder of the volunteer Bucket Brigade, who dug this community out of the mud and muck at a time when we were most vulnerable. Alone, he grabbed a bucket, a shovel, and a backhoe, while creating a partnership with likeminded neighbors and the Habitat for Humanity. While others talked, Abe acted. Powell followed up by funding and installing a walking pathway along North Jameson Lane from San Ysidro to Olive Mill, a strong accomplishment.

Similarly, Pat McElroy, who doesn’t even live in Montecito, saw the problem of a mountain of boulders falling on Montecito, triggered by a moderately heavy rainstorm. He, and his team at the Partnership for Resilient Communities, mobilized and raised $4.1 million in private funding, partnered with the county for emergency permitting, and installed four ring nets within the private canyons of Montecito. Still, the job is not finished with two nets remaining in a warehouse and another seven waiting for delivery. What’s needed is another $900,000 in community contributions and greater permitting flexibility.

The Montecito Association (MA)

Kudus also go to the Montecito Association. With no public funding, limited staff, and no official authority, MA has emerged as a strong player under the active leadership of President Megan Orloff and Executive Director Sharon Byrne

Significantly, MA has identified the “Top 5 Concerns” of the Montecito community as: (1) safety and security from another natural disaster; (2) preservation and protection of Montecito’s semi-rural character; (3) water security and water independence from drought; (4) protection from the gridlock directly related to the widening of the 101, where GPS systems route freeway traffic through our surface streets; and (5) lack of a real voice in important strategic planning and decision-making.

Working in Separate Silos

While Montecito has a deep bench of talented individuals, its leadership is fragmented and uncoordinated. The county plays an outsized role in local governance and allocation of resources. Dysfunctional local districts sometimes make questionable decisions. For example, the Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) Board last week voted 3-2 to spend $5.5 million for an office building of 5,085 square feet for four occupants. The dubious rationale is that MSD had $7 million in reserves from a separate community tax assessment that needs to be spent before construction prices go up. 

MSD dubbed its project the “Essential Services Building,” forgetting that its essential service is to treat wastewater, recycle it and stop discharging wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. Think how that same $5.5 million of community money could have been better spent securing either ring nets or debris basins to protect future lives and the safety of this community. Alternatively, could that same $5.5 million be spent recharging our exhausted aquifers to provide reliable water during the next drought? 

A True Partnership

There is an old adage that if you want to go fast, go it alone; but if you want to go far, do it with partners. The primary lesson learned from the Partnership for Resilient Communities is that big solutions to big problems are not possible without a close working relationship between a focused group of Montecito citizens and our political master: Santa Barbara County government.

The reality today, like it or not, is that any successful effort by Montecito in marshaling community resources requires the support of County Supervisor Das Williams and his chief-of-staff staff Darcel Elliott; the county chief executive officer Mona Miyasato; and Scott McGolpin, County Director of Public Works and Tom Fayram, Water Resources Deputy Director. Their mission statement matches our own: “To efficiently provide, operate and maintain infrastructure, facilities, and services to make everyday life as safe and convenient as possible for the public we serve.”

County Public Works controls the purse strings. It secures disaster related reimbursement from FEMA and CalOES (California Office of Emergency Services). Its 2019-20 budget contains only $8 million for countywide “capital maintenance to address deferred maintenance backlog including pavement, drainage, traffic devices, bridges, and hardscape repairs.”

Next year, the county promises to complete the Ashley Road bridge replacement, two years after the debris flow. Also included is a possible acquisition of a long-term debris management site (Randall Road) to “ensure cost effective and timely excavations of basins, channels, and estuaries for flood protection and allow repurposing of these materials.”

Grading Das Williams

Das Williams is our county supervisor and he is likely to occupy that seat for a number of years. Once thought of as a short-term, supervisor-in-waiting for Hannah-Beth Jackson to term out in the California Senate, it now appears that Das will likely be retaining his chair and raising his family locally. 

The good news is that Das is young, energetic, smart, loves brokered solutions to complex problems, and has little patience with petty departmental squabbles at the Montecito district level. He may well face formidable election opposition from Lois Capps’ daughter, Laura, supported by Das’s neighbors in Carpinteria, who are concerned over the pungent odor of too much marijuana growth in their community. 

Das’s difficulty in serving his Montecito constituents is the same as every other County Supervisor – the County is fiscally broke. Without an unlikely massive overhaul of the county’s pension and healthcare system, it remains an impossibility for any supervisors on the South Coast to finance any major capital project that does not have the full support of the public service unions and the environmental community that supports their incumbency. 

A Community Service District

Without the right structure, business as usual will continue to be our unimpressive community standard and the order of the day. If a place such as Montecito opens its mind to doing things differently, the doors of opportunity could fly off the hinges. 

Envision a Montecito Community Service District that starts with the Montecito Water District (MWD), seeking to transform a potable water supply system that today is only 45% reliable, but if strategically planned, could be converted to an 80% reliable, drought-proof supply of water through reduced dependence on an unreliable state water system and greater dependence on desalination partnerships, recycling, conservation and greater groundwater sustainability through increased recharge of local underground water basins. 

The next step would be to research the benefits and weaknesses of consolidating the Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) and the Summerland Sanitary District (SSD) with the Water District into the new Community Service District. Potential savings and efficiencies could be derived from consolidation of water quality testing labs, emergency pipe and leak repairs, engineering, billing, administrative and management overlaps, but the real benefit is consolidated strategic planning for a secure water future.

Current flood abatement is a disjointed mess, trapped in concept between the volunteer-led Partnership for Resilient Communities favoring ring nets and a County seeking to build additional debris basins without funding and without a strategic plan co-designed by the county and the community it hopes to serve. The creation of a single Water Resources District is an idea worth exploring. The intent is simplicity of decision-making, economies of resources and faster responsiveness to community needs with local strategic input. 

Possibly Montecito Trails could be added to the Community Service District to secure reliable funding to restore the trails and create improved walking, bike, and equestrian pathways. Permanent funding for the Montecito Library might merit inclusion. It would be unwise to consider either Montecito Union School or Cold Spring School District, or Montecito Fire Protection District in the Community Service District mix because all three do a great job on their own. They are all adequately funded and professionally managed with strong local oversight.

Creating a Plan

Both Das Williams and his chief of staff, Darcel Elliott, have vast experience in working with LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) in the creation of a Community Service District. They did it in Isla Vista for different reasons than Montecito. By law, Community Service Districts can combine existing special districts, create new ones up to a maximum of 32, and serve as a limited form of governance that provides an alternative to the incorporation of a new city. Such a district would attract a high level of candidates for Board elections, ending years of district appointments with no election accountability.

More than 325 communities in California have formed community service districts to provide needed public services in unincorporated areas such as water security, sewer, flood control and a score of others. 

Forming a Task Force

Supervisor Das Williams has offered to chair a working task force of a dozen or so prominent Montecito community leaders (Abe Powell, Megan Orloff); a LAFCO representative (Paul Hood); County staff (Darcel Elliott, Betsy Schaffer); Montecito Water District (Floyd Wicks, Ken Coates); Montecito Sanitary District (Tom Bollay, Dana Newquist); Summerland Sanitary District (Martin Tucker); Partnership for Resilient Communities (Joe Cole, Pat McElroy); and a self-appointed community watchdog (Bob Hazard).

Das, as Task Force chairman, would be empowered to give the working group a limited time schedule to present a conceptual plan, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of a Community Service District for Montecito and Summerland, focused primarily on Water Resources, including water supply, sanitary services, and flood control and abatement. The Task Force would be asked to include funding recommendations for all desired services.

In return for his support of the Montecito and Summerland communities, Supervisor Williams could reasonably expect greater recognition for positive achievements. It’s exciting. Let’s see what Das and a community leadership group can offer as strategic planning alternatives, linking together community needs and suggested solutions, to create a more resilient, efficient and stronger service package for Montecito and Summerland.


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