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J’Amy Brown

Montecito’s Politics Are on Fire


Thursday, October 25, 2012
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HEAT’S ON ROY JENSEN: Who says nothing ever happens in Montecito? Right now the fire district’s got a red-hot firecracker of an election coming up, featuring good ol’ boy Roy Jensen, who’s pretty much run the board since Gerald Ford was president.

Now 84, Jensen was a Montecito firefighter in the 1950s, opened a service station, and joined the board 37 years ago. Since then, he’s usually gotten his way, raising the pay, benefits, and pensions, but creating one of the most costly fire districts in Santa Barbara County.

Barney Brantingham

“I have never seen anything like it, never anything like this” election fuss, retired fire chief Ron McClain told me. In fact, McClain and three other retired chiefs have gotten hip-deep into the controversy, actively campaigning for Jensen and three others. Other Montecitans are saying that it’s time for Roy to go.

“I’ve seen him blow up” at board meetings, “and I’ve seen him cry,” McClain said. “I would love to see Roy back.” But Roy may not be back after votes are counted November 6 for the first contested Montecito Fire Protection District in memory.

“He has run that board with an iron fist and should be replaced by someone with new ideas and more energy,” argues Gene Sinser, one of eight candidates on the ballot. Sinser, who lives across the street from the much-debated proposed fire station at the east end of the district, strongly questions whether the project pencils out financially. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Then there’s the pension issue. Four retired chiefs, together collecting a total by some estimates of about $900,000 a year and not living in the district, have been beating the drum for Jensen and for candidates Martha Collins, Mindy Denson, and Warner Owens. Pensions come out of the state pension fund, but the district must dig down for annual contributions and for lifelong medical benefits.

Also on the ballot is Measure F, to increase the board from three members to five. Procedurally, it’s awkward to manage with just three, but Jensen has fought expansion for years and is still agin it. If the measure fails, two members will be elected November 6, but if it wins, four will be, including quite possibly the first woman in board history. Three women are running: Collins, Denson, and Susan Keller. The Montecito Journal has endorsed Collins and Keller, along with Sinser and Abe Powell. Also on the ballot is Peter van Duinwyck.

Jensen’s take is that everything’s fine. While the district has stashed about $8 million to buy the land and build the third station on East Valley Road, some of those who have studied the books say the district is running hand-to-mouth and may actually be in the red, with inadequate funds in sight to actually run the new station. “I’m not sure the station is financially feasible,” says Keller. “The community has yet to see clear figures on what it will cost to build it and operate it.” The district has not released cost projections so far.

Craig McCaw and two other nearby property owners have filed a suit challenging the fire station’s environmental impact report.

Fingers are being pointed at the retired chiefs’ fat pensions and the fact that at $250,000 a year, newly appointed Chief Chip Hickman is one of the highest paid in the state. “We can afford it,” replies Jensen. Yet the district had to borrow $3.52 million to pay underfunded pension obligations, according to its 2011 financial statement. City of Santa Barbara Chief Andrew DiMizio, running eight stations, makes $181,175 a year.

Montecito does not run a cheap operation. It costs Montecito $7 million a year to operate each of its two stations, Carpinteria-Summerland runs two stations on $3.7 million each, and the city operates eight at $2.7 million each.

ROBERTS HOSPITALIZED: Jerry Roberts, former editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press and current columnist for The Santa Barbara Independent, is in UC San Francisco Hospital being treated for cancer.

OSAGE COUNTY: You never saw a dysfunctional family like the one in August: Osage County, where closets full of painful secrets come tumbling out. Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning play, performed by The Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College, is knockout theater. I couldn’t take my eyes off Susanne Marley, playing the role of acid-tongued matriarch Violet Weston. (Through Nov. 3 at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre.)

DEEP VOICES: The First United Methodist Church probably never before heard the likes of the deep, polyphonic music of the all-male Ensemble Basiani, which sang folk songs, chants, and sacred choral music from the Republic of Georgia on Sunday. (Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures.)

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The stealthy underbelly of phat special districts.

Looking forward to the Indy reporting on the water districts next, such as Goleta Sanitary District where the general manager there is the highest paid public employee in the county, a fact the new challenger candidates for the board are trying to expose to the voters. The Indy can help illuminate that.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
October 25, 2012 at 10:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

$7 millions a year so they can let the neighborhood burn while they sit at Westmont College during emergencies, and later come tell us to put sprinkler systems in the garden shed when we are scrambling to rebuild. What a joke. "Heroes" indeed!

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
October 25, 2012 at 12:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

For almost 15 years, I have attended almost every single meeting convened by the Board of Directors of the Montecito Fire District, I can tell you several things. The first of which, I don' believe that Mr. Brantingham has never attended any of them. (Until recently, very few people have ever attended these meetings.) Prior to submitting his application as a Board candidate, I believe that the only experience Mr. Sinser had at MFD Board Meetings, was to object to the Station 3 project which is planned to be constructed across the street from his residence. In MY experience, I believe their descriptions of Mr. Jensen's tenure on the board are untrue.

The Board has almost ALWAYS voted unanimously on the decisions put before them. I can only think of only a few circumstances in which this was not the case.

One such instance being Director Newquist's suggestion last year, that the Board consider becoming a Community Services District so that Fire District funds could also be used to manage Manning Park, and Firefighters in essence add "park ranger" to their job descriptions. Director Jensen and Director Venable did not support this idea, and it was dropped (for the time being). This may be back on the table depending on who gets elected, based on comments made by several of the candidates at the forum held on September 24, 2012.

However, for Mr. Brantingham to imply that Director Jensen "usually gets his way" is misleading and untrue. There has been general consensus for the decisions made by ALL THREE directors - and it has never been dictated by any one Director in particular. Mr. Brantingham is right about one thing though - Montecito politics are definitely heating up. We'll see what the voters want at the end of the day on 11/6/2012.

Please note, this is not an effort endorse or denounce any of the candidates; it is my hope the community does their own homework before they vote, but I do feel that some clarification on this article was in order.

Sincerely - Geri Ventura

geriv (anonymous profile)
October 27, 2012 at 6:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Barney,

As a candidate for the Montecito Fire Department Board of Directors, I am the only one who has been endorsed by the Montecito Journal and the four retired Fire Chiefs. I would have added to your article that I did not solicit either endorsement in any way.

I have not accepted any campaign contributions. I intend to stay as independent from the heat of local politics as much as possible as I don't see that the interests of cityhood, political ambition, and the need for public spotlight serve the fire protection and emergency service needs of the Montecito community.

-Martha Collins

moxarolls (anonymous profile)
October 28, 2012 at 3:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Montecito may have a bit more money, but the ethics of these astronomical salaries are in line with the disgraced cities of Bell, Southgate, Vernon and Maywood. Disgusting.

BeachFan (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2012 at 2:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

And explain to me how they operate the same number of stations as does Carpinteria for twice the cost? How about per station cost for Santa Barbara City at $2.7 million compared to $7 million for Montecito. How many calls does SB City get?

Go ahead Montecito....keep electing the same 3.

BeachFan (anonymous profile)
October 30, 2012 at 2:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Just a quick response to some of the above comments...

Montecito Staffs more personnel per day than does Carpinteria. Obviously not twice the number, but nonetheless. Business in Montecito costs more, obviously. Who would really choose to spend $8.5 million to build a station that could be built in Santa Maria for $2 million?

Regarding SB City - SB City has a whole city of staff whose salaries, facilities, benefits and other costs are not figured in the fire department budget. Montecito has to make all of those things happen in house - Building construction and Maintenance, Vehicle maintenance, Administrative personnel, etc. Of course, the argument could continue indefinitely regarding peoples worth vs. value.

Part of the issue, right or wrong, is that it is in Montecito. Montecito Public Schools spend $20,000 per student while the SB County average is only $6,000 per student. Does that mean that people in Montecito should expect their schools to spend less?

If you compare Montecito's service employees to like cities and towns across the state, I bet you'll find that they are at the lower end of pay and benefits. Comparing Montecito to Carpinteria is not an "apples to apples" comparison. Try Novato, or Santa Monica, or even Beverly Hills.

tederer (anonymous profile)
November 1, 2012 at 9:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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