After months on the front line of signature-gathering, the group that hopes to put a county split on the ballot is scrapping its efforts and beginning anew in the new year.
Citizens for County Organization, Inc., a group of North County residents, was attempting to gather about 28,000 signatures from registered voters in the North County by a Dec. 1 deadline in order to put a county split on a future ballot. A lack of signatures and the aftertaste of the November election, which the group says has tarnished many residents’ views of the proposal, prompted CFCO to recently announce that they will begin the entire process again after Jan. 1.
The group – which includes 5th District Supervisor-elect Joe Centeno and Lompoc Mayor Dick DeWees – began its signature drive last spring. CFCO has proposed a new Mission County to occupy the land north of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the San Luis Obispo County line. The groups says the proposed county, or at least the opportunity to vote on it, would allow North County residents to decide their own “quality of life” – a decision they charge is now being made by voters and politicians with South County interests.
Jim Diani, CFCO president and owner of Diani Construction, said the group decided to scrap the original drive and begin again because they felt the split had become synonymous with the failed recall effort against 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall – an association he denies.
“We’re really not sure how many signatures we got. … The recall, it shadowed what we want to do,” he said. “We got associated because of a general consensus, between the CFCO and the [recall effort], that both wanted change, but we approached it differently. The recall was a balance of power issue: The basic premise of our organization is not to try to shift the power, but to say we’re both different and we both have to have the ability to govern ourselves.”
Joyce Howerton, spokeswoman for Responsible Taxpayers Against the County Split, said she expected the effort to fail.
“I think they fell about 26,000 signatures short – they needed about 28,000 … and they collected approximately 2,000,” she said. “It’s not a surprise. I could have told them before they started the effort … people don’t want a county split.”
In order to initiate a split, CFCO has to collect signatures from 25 percent of registered voters within six months of the time a proposal is filed with the county. The governor would then appoint a commission, which would prepare a report on the new county to, among other things, evaluate its economic feasibility. The proposed county would then have to be approved by a majority of voters in the existing Santa Barbara County.
According to Diani, the split effort only aims to allow residents to have a voice in their own county, not to accuse anyone of right or wrong. He said that it only appeared that the recall and county split efforts were initiated at the same time to reach a similar goal; really, he said, the push for a split began in 1999, years before the recall effort.
Howerton, however, maintains that the lack of signatures points to a lack of support. She said many residents want to put the divisiveness behind them and “work on making this a better county.”
“They thought the recall would pass and it failed, and rightfully so … they didn’t have the coattails to ride in on, and people said enough – we want to work on the issues that matter to all of us,” she said.
This is not the first time a county split has been attempted; in 1978, a similar proposal was defeated at the polls. Diani said the sentiments driving CFCO’s effort have long existed and rejects the idea that any one specific issue or person- especially in relation to Marshall’s history with the agriculture industry – is the reason for the push. He linked the 1978 county split effort to issues that trace back to the 19th century.
“It’s specifics that rattle everybody’s cages, but it goes much deeper than that. The ag issue is very instrumental, but understand that the group I run around with, it’s all positive,” he said. “Historically, what [happened] is at times, the South would allow the North to do what they wanted to do, particularly in relation to the supervisors. … In the late ’90s, the element changed on the board and the people in the North got tired and frustrated of getting things shoved down their throats.”
Opponents, however, also reject the proposed Mission County on the grounds of economics – from the taxpayers’ money that would be spent to study the feasibility of the county to the potential debt a new county would acquire.
“There’s a good reason no county split has passed since the early 1900s – economically, it’s not feasible. And if ever there was a lousy time to spend more money with less services, it’s now,” Howerton said.
She also feels that the members of CFCO have untruthfully presented the signature drive as just a chance to “study” the option of a new county. “Yeah, we do think people can study the issue as long as they know there’s a huge price tag attached, and even if the study shows it’s infeasible, it still goes to the ballot,” she said.
“We’ve never represented that there wouldn’t be a vote,” Diani said. “First, there is a state commission study, and second, there is a vote. That’s what we’ve always said. We get both things, but we don’t go to a vote until after the study.”
And CFCO’s position, according to Diani, is not that a county split is necessary, but that it is an option that should be considered.
“Lots of old-timers want a change,” he said. “We’re not all convinced that a county split is the way to go until we see the economics of it and see if it is feasible. We want a state commission to tell us [that], not the county, because there is a mistrust there.”
Diani said that the potential split should be considered by South County residents as well as those in the North in order to ensure all county residents are dictating their own quality of life, not having it dictated for them.
“We’re growing at a 10 to 12 percent clip in the North, compared to 3 or 4 percent in the South,” he said. “Everyone knows if the population keeps growing here, pretty soon, the three supervisors [that make a majority] will be from the North … and the North will dictate the quality of life.”
Howerton said it’s just not worth the time, energy or potential for another dirty political battle.
“There was so much anger and divisiveness in one year of the recall – think of four years of a county split campaign. It’s unbelievable in terms of what it could create,” she said. “In reality it doesn’t matter where you live; you’re going to be different than someone else in the county. Guadalupe and Santa Ynez are no more alike than Montecito and Isla Vista – it’s just simple rhetoric. In fact, we’re all very different. That’s one of the best things this county has going for it. Instead of slamming it, let’s embrace it.”