Steve Lavagnino

Santa Barbara County 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino explains why he couldn't vote to approve the attorney selected by the Citizens Independent Redistrict Commission in this screenshot from CSBTV's livestream of the Board of Supervisors' meeting on March 9.

On a split vote, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors OK’d funding for the Citizens Independent Redistricting Commission’s choice of attorney without commenting on legal action taken in an attempt to block the approval.

During the March 9 meeting, supervisors voted 3-2, with board Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino dissenting, to approve the commission’s decision to hire Fred Woocher of the Strumwasser and Woocher law firm.

The request for approval was on the administrative agenda, consisting of items generally OK’d in a single vote without comment unless pulled for discussion or public comment, but the board agreed to trail the item until after the noontime closed session.

An attorney representing the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business had filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the County Superior Court, seeking to block the board from approving hiring Woocher due to an alleged conflict with the ordinance that established the commission.

COLAB Executive Director Andy Caldwell said Woocher was disqualified on four counts by provisions of the ordinance barring anyone who had worked for a political committee within the past eight years, who was not a county resident, who was not registered to vote in the county and who had not voted in one of the last three general elections in the county.

The court was scheduled to consider the petition March 9, but there was no mention of a decision nor even that the petition had been filed when the board took up the item in the afternoon session.

But Caldwell said on the afternoon of March 9 that Superior Court Judge Donna Geck ruled a decision on the petition must wait until after the Board of Supervisors acted on Woocher’s hiring.

Both Woocher and County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni denied Woocher was disqualified by the provision barring work for a political committee, although neither addressed the alleged violation of residency and voting provisions.

But the majority of the board chose to approve the commission’s decision to avoid violating the independence of the commission by indirectly imposing their opinion, although that’s what the COLAB petition accused several Democratic party members of doing to influence the decision on the attorney.

First District Supervisor Das Williams, who authored the ordinance, said people in the community were wrestling with the same issues he was.

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“For this thing to work, and for the Independent Redistricting Committee to work, inevitably they’re going to do something we don’t agree with,” Williams said. “For me, it is hard to see how the independence of this commission is preserved if the board can spank them by using the power of the purse string.”

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said if the commission wanted to hire Woocher, there is no reason for the board to inject itself into the decision, adding the board’s job was to provide the commission with the resources it needs.

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann noted the county had worked hard to make sure the commission is independent.

“I gather this was a unanimous decision, and we should honor that,” she said.

But Lavagnino said the ordinance went to great lengths to assure the commission would have not connection “to anything” and would be a truly independent committee, but because there was an appearance of outside influence, he could not support hiring Woocher.

“At the end of the day, I want to turn to my constituents and say, ‘It was a fair process. … You may not like the lines [that were drawn] but it was a fair process,” Nelson said. “There’s enough stink, I think, on Woocher that we don’t want this brick in our county.”

He added, “I don’t want this as ammo in a criticism of the final solution the commission comes up [with].”

Ultimately, Hart moved to approve the decision, and Williams seconded.

“Everyone made valid points, but it’s not our call; it’s their call,” Williams said.

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