If a group of North County residents gets its way, Santa Barbara County could be split in two.
Citizens for County Organization (CCO), composed of Santa Ynez Valley residents, is seeking to create a new county north of the Santa Ynez Mountains as a solution to increasing population, and what it perceives to be cultural differences in the rural area and a minority position in county politics.
The decision to split the county is currently in the hands of the state, which will appoint a five-member formation commission to study the feasibility of the proposed county and ultimately determine if the decision should go to a vote of the people. The vote must pass by a majority in both the existing county and the proposed county.
CCO Chairman Jim Diani said the geographic difference between the rural North County and urban South County fosters markedly different cultures and economies, and that these contradictory halves would best govern themselves.
“The geographical difference creates a separation that enhances the differences between the predominately urban south and the predominantly rural north – these are natural differences,” he said. “The north and south of Santa Barbara County are socially, culturally, politically and economically different. Why can’t we dictate our own policy? It comes down to greater representation of our area.”
Third District Supervisor Gail Marshall said that North County residents and businesses are not interested in breaking the strong economic ties within the county.
“Most people in the Santa Ynez Valley would not be interested in separating from the county. A large segment of that population commutes to Santa Barbara for work every day – that seems to me like one county,” Marshall said. “There is a huge wine industry in that area, which has counted on the Santa Barbara label for 20 years for their name. I don’t think they would be interested in losing that name recognition.”
The five-member Board of Supervisors has historically leaned toward the more heavily populated South County, via a 3-2 majority. Diani said the North County has been an underrepresented minority and the creation of a new county would eliminate the perennial minority/majority power struggle.
“The differences between North and South County have always been here,” he said. “If the split occurred, we could dictate our own will regardless of the balance of power. Even if the balance of power shifted to the north, the problems would still exist.”
The Legal Battle
Proponents of the split have focused their efforts on two actions: a recall effort against Marshall and a redistricting lawsuit against the county.
Marshall was served with a recall notice, signed by 20 citizens of the 3rd District, on Oct. 23. Petitioners accused Marshall of violating her oath of office, ignoring the expressed will of county citizens by not preserving the interests of the county, creating hostility between North and South County, and undermining the future of the county. Residents are attempting to gather 8,819 signatures before March 18 in order to force a special recall election.
The lawsuit, sponsored by the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB), alleges that the newly remapped district boundaries disenfranchise North County residents of the 3rd District by attaching them to Isla Vista, a population they consider to be sympathetic to South County interests.
Marshall said the plaintiffs assume that if the 3rd District did not include Isla Vista, a supervisor more in line with the philosophy of the north would be elected and majority control of the Board of Supervisors would switch to North County.
“In order for them to control the Board they need to control the 3rd District … [But] when you redistrict you can’t gerrymander – you can’t slam districts together haphazardly to create a voting block. I.V. is what they want to remove because students vote more liberally. But it is a balanced district. They want to swing the balance,” she said.
COLAB Executive Director Andy Caldwell said the movement to split the county will continue, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
“Even if the redistricting lawsuit were successful they would still be moving to split the county,” Caldwell said.
Diani said the recall and redistricting are irrelevant to the larger problem.
“We feel they are short-term solutions for long-term problems. The philosophical differences will continue regardless where the balance of power is,” he said.
A Question of Feasibility
Goleta mayor-elect Margaret Connell said the North County does not have a sufficient economy to support the services it receives.
“I am not sure, if fiscally, North County can survive as an independent group. Revenues from South County flow to North County for services – the majority of the welfare cases are in the north. I don’t think they can afford to provide those services without the revenue-generating parts of the county,” she said.
The CCO commissioned a study by the Berkeley-based consultant Economic & Planning Systems Inc. to determine the financial feasibility of the proposed county, Diani said.
“The study shows that if the county were to split, there would be a budget surplus in the south and a deficit in the north of $11.5 million. That represents 4.6 percent of the North County projected expenditures,” he said. “It is the opinion of Economic & Planning Systems that 4.6 percent does not represent a significant problem that the county could not overcome.”
“Ultimately, it is up to the people. I think this one is a hard one to call. People in the South County are getting so sick of North County people wasting tax money they just might vote for it,” Marshall said.