The inaugural meeting of Santa Barbara's new City Council included a bit of celebration, some bittersweet farewells and a modest victory for champions of a special district election.
The image that will endure, however, is Fire Chief Pat McElroy choking up as he briefed members on the deadly horror still emerging in Montecito.
“To anyone who considers Santa Barbara their home,” said McElroy, who had to pause several times during his briefing to head off tears, “this is a real tragedy.”
Although the lethal mudslides did not strike within city limits, the chief noted, ticking off the logistical statistics and outlining the awful scope of the disaster, “This is a Santa Barbara thing…it’s all of us...we’re in this together (and) we’ll work through it.”
In a hallway interview outside the council chambers later, McElroy told Newsmakers the Montecito mudslides, coupled with the preceding ferocity and damage of the historic Thomas Fire, was by far the worst catastrophe he has battled in his 36-year career.
"We knew it was going to happen, but the reality of it,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I have friends, my kids have friends...there’s going to be a lot of names people recognize.”
The top local news organizations, scrambling to cover the widespread and fast-developing natural disaster, have thrown all their resources at the story, and all deserve mega-kudos for their work. Follow the Independent’s team coverage here, Noozhawk’s continual updated reports here, and link to KEYT’s broadcast and online presentation here.
Six other takeaways from Tuesday’s meeting.
1-Special election supporters win a hearing. In a long shot victory, Westside neighborhood residents and advocates succeeded in convincing the council, on a 4-to-2 vote, to consider changing the process for filling the District 3 seat, left vacant by Cathy Murillo’s ascension to the mayor’s chair, from a council appointment to a special election.
After a parade of residents, along with the learned, retired Judge Frank Ochoa, made their case for an election during public comment, Kristen Sneddon made a motion, seconded by fellow newcomer Eric Friedman, to place an item on the January 23rd agenda, for a discussion of alternatives to the straight appointment process set in motion last year.
Mayor Cathy and Gregg Hart agreed, while Jason Dominguez and Randy Rowse voted no.
It does not necessarily mean there will be a special for Murillo’s seat, but getting at least a formal hearing on the matter is a critical procedural step for the neighborhood.
2-Helene’s mom's watching. Outgoing Mayor Helene Schneider was characteristically gracious in her farewell remarks, thanking City Hall staff for their service and local citizens for their active participation in civic affairs, but her funniest comments came after she said hello to her mother, who was viewing the city TV webcast of the meeting from back in New York.
Turns out mom has watched nearly every council meeting since Helene became mayor, and freely offers her opinions to her daughter afterwards – “She knows when I get a haircut, and who needs to lose their beard,” Schneider said, eyeing Dominguez, who’s sporting some patchy facial hair he described to Newsmakers as “my winter look.”
3-Bendy’s tearful goodbye. Outgoing council member Bendy White also fought back tears, as he recounted his 30 years of City Hall service on various boards and commissions, not only warmly thanking a long list of usually anonymous staffers and better known officials (Sheila Lodge in the house!) but also emotionally recognizing his wife, Cathy.
Several insiders noted that White conspicuously did not mention Murillo, a frequent political foe, in his farewell address, and were taken aback when he gave a shout-out to controversial political consultant Jeremy Lindaman, who ran several of his campaigns, but who more recently has acquired a notorious reputation.
4-Cathy’s commentary. New Mayor Murillo was generous in praising her predecessor – “a role model for girls, teens, young women and middle aged women and older women” and appropriately described the historic nature of the occasion – “It is humbling to be the first Latina” mayor, she said.
Remarking, however, that “I’m glad we’re maintaining a sense of celebration,” on a day when at least 15 were confirmed dead and dozens were missing in Montecito seemed off-key, and her problematic handling of the convoluted special election discussion, contrasted with Schneider’s crisp gavel wielding.
We'll write both off to opening day jitters.
5-Eric’s eloquence. New kid Friedman put down some markers that suggest he’ll be a political force on the council, starting with his introductory remarks, which were well written, stylish and funny (although he failed to forward us a copy as promised).
He began by recounting the advice his 8-year old son gave him –“Tell everyone they’re awesome and drop the mike” – and ended with a Biblical quotation of Jeremiah 6:16 - “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
He's lean, hungry and smart, so don't be surprised if he emerges as a star.
6-Take that, Gail said. Santa Barbara County Democratic Party chair Gail Teton-Landis is mightily annoyed with Newsmakers for reporting that some party apparatchiks are lobbying behind the scenes to influence a decision on the special election matter. After Judge Ochoa cited our report in his public comments, Gail marched to the microphone, said she had not planned to speak, but wanted to make clear that the party has not taken a formal position on the issue; we didn’t report that they did, but thanks for the feedback anyway.
Images: Rescuers saving a young girl in Montecito (The Weather Channel); Fire Chief Pat McElroy; Council member Kristen Sneddon; former Mayor Helene Schneider; former council member Bendy White; Mayor Cathy Murillo (latinasleadca.org); Council member Eric Friedman; Democratic Party Chair Gail Teton-Landis; Mayor Cathy Murillo is sworn in as newly elected council member Friedman and Sneddon (l) look on, with incumbent member Dominguez (r). Photo by Mollie Culver.