Is our county headed for SPLITSVILLE?
North County residents prepare to find out if we could, and should, stand on our own.
by Tracy Idell Hamilton
The year was 1978.
Harrell Fletcher, then a brand-new county supervisor, had just lost an important vote to the South County majority.
He was steaming.
A reporter standing outside the county building asked Fletcher what he was going to do about it.
"I'm just going to split the county," he said.
Those words, spoken in haste and emotion, set the wheels in motion for an effort to split Santa Barbara County into two counties, each with its own geographical, financial, and philosophical styles.
When it came to a vote of the people, however, the initiative went down in flames.
"We went about it all wrong," Fletcher says today. "We did everything based on emotion, not facts."
This time, proponents for a possible county split aren't going to let emotions get in their way.
The innocuously-named Citizens for County Organization [CCO] is a fledgling group of North County residentsmany of them movers and shakers in the communitywho feel, deep down, that the differences between the north and south portions of Santa Barbara County are deep and perhaps irreconcilable.
But no matter how strongly they feel, this new group will not officially endorse a split unless its studies show that it would be beneficial for both the remaining old county, and the proposed new county.
Led unofficially by Fletcher, now a government consultant, and Jim Diani, president of A.J. Diani Construction, the group is moving forward methodicallygathering members, registering with the Federal Elections Commission and preparing what could be a two-year-long plan of attack that includes professional pollsters and a hired consultant to do a feasibility study.
"How can we sell this to the community without the facts?" Diani asks. "The fact is, we can't."
If the study, and the polls, and the various subcommittees to be formed to study the issues prove the split would be both feasible and beneficial to all involved, CCO will then, and only then, officially endorse a county split.
That endorsement does not mean the groups work is finished, however. With an endorsement, CCO will work to secure the signatures of 25 percent of the county population necessary to get the proposal on the ballot. That will take a fair amount of education, another thing CCO is willing to take on if they do finally back the idea.
Diani and Fletcher have just begun to take their act on the road, giving presentations to Committee INC [the Committee to Improve North County], and a recent Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce government affairs luncheon.
At each presentation, Diani outlined the purpose of the group, taking great pains to explain that CCO would not back a proposed split unless everything points in the right direction. "Otherwise I think were spinning our wheels," he said to the Chamber lunch crowd at the Central City Broiler.
That means getting everyone involved, from Santa Ynez through Los Alamos, from Guadalupe to Cuyama.
The 1978 effort was very Santa Maria-centric, to the detriment of the effort, Fletcher remembers.
"I remember someone from Lompoc say to me, back in 1978, Which is worse, having Santa Barbara telling us what to do, or having Santa Maria telling us what to do?" he said.
Today, CCO hopes to form individual community committees under the umbrella of the main group. Those groups would be charged, Fletcher says, with deciding, "Whats good for us? What do we want and need as a community? What things would need to happen for this proposed county split to benefit our community?"
The mayors of several mid-county communities, such as Lompoc's Dick DeWees, and Solvang's Ed Andrisek, have already signed on as advisory members.
Those Santa Marians that believe a split is is the right thing to do offer up geographic, economic, and philosophical differences they say make the split a natural.
Geographically, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara are worlds apart. It's between an hour and an hour and-a-half drive over San Marcos pass to get to the county seat for most North County residents. That makes it tough for citizens to access certain county services, Fletcher said.
Then there's the time wasted by government officials driving back and forth for meetingsmeetings that are still mostly held in the South County, he noted.
"It's just far better to have government that's more accessible to people," he said simply.
And the Santa Ynez Mountains are a much more obvious county boundary, Fletcher says.
"The [Santa Maria] river is not a proper boundary anyway," he said, pointing to a map of the county. "The geography, watershed, and air basin on either side of the river are essentially the same."
The air basins, watersheds, and geography on either side of the mountain range, on the other hand, are different, and make a natural boundary, he says.
It isnt only the natural features of the land that make the mountain range a more natural split, he says. "Look at the difference in housing costs, and the way we make our living," he said. "They dont even read the same newspapers as we do."
Therein lie some of the philosophical and cultural differences that Santa Marians and Santa Barbara residents both feel: Santa Barbara is perceived to be a more wealthy, white-collar town, full of environmentalists and liberals, people who believe government programs can alleviate many of societys ills.
"Theyre kind of strange people down there," Fletcher says, only half-joking.
Santa Marians and other North Coast residents, on the other hand, are seen by themselves as an earthier folk, more conservative, more agricultural and blue collar"hands-on" Fletcher calls them.
Religion also seems to play a larger role in people's lives here than in the north, and many feel that private solutions to social problems is the better way to go. The extent of the private philanthropy in Santa Maria, whether it be a barbecue fund-raiser or a Elks Club extravaganza, underscores this commitment.
Diani lays it out: "Why should the South County tell us what to do, or have us tell them what to do? Neither of us should have to impose our will on each other."
Financially, the split was found feasible in 1978, and Fletcher and others believe it will be found so again. He notes that Santa Barbara has always enjoyed the money produced in Santa Maria, whether it be oil money or agricultural money.
The city also has some plusses it didn't have in 1978, such as more infrastructure, in the form of the Betteravia Government Center, in which to house the new county government.
Chief Deputy Clerk of the Board of Supervisors Michael Allen laughed when asked if he thinks the county should split. "Sure, you all go on ahead. But where do you think the money for services is going to come from?"
Allen said that currently, Goleta and Montecito carry Orcutt, which does not create enough revenue to pay its own way in the county, to the tune of about $4 million a year.
Agricultural money is all good, he said, "But where does it go? Into someone's pocket, not into government coffers."
Breaking up may be hard to do even if a financial study found that the North County could afford it.
There have been few formalized attempts to split up California counties since the last, Imperial County, was formed in 1907.
"I'm sure people in every Cheers-type of bar in unincorporated parts of every county have thought about it," says Steve Keil, the legislative director for CSAC, the California State Association of Counties. "But there just haven't been that many of them that have been formally tried."
The most recent, he says, were efforts several years ago by parts of San Bernadino and Fresno counties to split off. Both efforts failed.
Like this area, the mountain folk of eastern Fresno county were feeling unrepresented by their flatlander supervisors, said Fresno county clerk Kathy Burroughs. "They have a very independent spirit out there," she said, "and they don't want much government intrusion."
Los Angeles County has been the target of some talk of a county split, but most recently, citizens of the San Fernando Valley are in the process of splitting away from the city of Los Angeles.
According to Jeff Brain, president of Valley Vote, there are two main reasons valley residents want to split: First, the city is just too large. With 3.6 million residents, the city of Los Angeles is larger in population than 25 states.
Secondly, valley residents feels like they're getting shortchanged on city servicesin a big way. Brain gives an example: "We make up 50 percent of the geographical area here," he said, "and last year we received $4 million of the $20 million available to fix city streets."
The city-split effort is similar to a county split, with proponents needing a quarter of the population to sign the petition that would get the split onto the ballot. That done, and with a feasibility study underway, valley citizens will vote on the split in 2002.
Even the 1978 effort here was not the first time the idea was bandied about.
In 1925, E.M. Barker, then-publisher of the Advertiser, Santa Maria's daily newspaper, wrote in an editorial in November of that year, "If Santa Barbara don't like the way we voted on the million dollar court house bond issue, there is nothing stopping her from getting a divorce and dividing the county."
Because efforts to split have been so few and far between, CSAC's Keil hesitates to identify reasons why those efforts failed. "There are just too few cases to draw any conclusions," he says, except to note that the process is an arduous one.
The process was made even more so after the 1978 effort by then-Sen. Gary Hart, who introduced bills that changed the law in two respects: Before, only 10 percent of voters in the proposed county had to sign the petition that would get the split on the ballot. Today, that number is 25 percent.
"I think he wanted to make it harder for us to try it again," says Fletcher. Hart also sponsored successful legislation that would prohibit counties who failed in their efforts from trying again for a full five years.
Once the petition has been certified, it's presented to the governor, who appoints a commission to study the feasibility of the split.
The commission is made up of two members from the proposed county, two from the affected county, and one "at-large" member.
In 1978, that study found that the split would indeed be feasible.
"A separate Los Padres County is economically viable," read the reports summary, using a name that has been bandied about as a possible new county name for years. "The fiscal impact of a county split upon remaining Santa Barbara County is minimal. The Commission estimates that the cost of providing services at existing levels for both counties will be at most five percent greater that for a single Santa Barbara County."
After the governors commission completes its study, it must submit the final document to the county Board of Supervisors, which certifies the study.
Once certified, the proposal finally goes on the ballot, where to pass it must secure 50 percent of vote from "both the proposed county and the affected county," according to state law.
With the population of the North County growing at a more rapid pace than its neighbors to the south, some wonder if a county split will even be necessary.
Educated guesses have put the population split as close as 52 percent in the north versus 48 percent in the south, to a full 60 percent in the north and 40 percent in the south.
When supervisorial districts are finally redrawn, it may be that three of the five supes are in the North County, Fletcher says.
As he recounts the numbers, he recalls what a 1978 opponent of the split told him recently, when she said she would now turn full circle and support the effort: "You all go ahead and split," he says he was told. "We dont want cowboys and oilmen telling us what to do."
On the other hand, with Santa Barbara looking to possibly annex Goleta, as many as three supervisors could end up being elected from the new supersize-city of Santa Barbara.
That could be an impetus for a split for both sides, Fletcher says. "If the entire South County is one city, maybe they might want to look at the possibility of a city-county type of government, like San Francisco."
For now, though, Harrell Fletcher and Jim Diani are worried with smaller issues, like who will they find to head up their newly formed committee. As of now, the CCO does not have a chairperson. Diani has agreed to be vice chair, shying away from the chair for the same reason others have: it will be a very time consuming job.
The group is also looking for members to fill out the community subcommitteesincluding, eventually, a subcommittee for the South County.
"We need to be inclusive if we're going to do this," Diani says. "Unless it's good for both, it's not going to work. That's why this time, we're going to do our homework first."
For more information about Citizens for County Organization, or to volunteer, call Etta Waterfield at 925-9533. For story tips or ideas, email Tracy Hamilton at email@example.com.