The Santa Barbara City Council’s meeting Tuesday night was nothing short of explosive as the council was asked whether to force members of the Architectural Board of Review to resign over abstaining for personal reasons from a vote on minor changes to a Chick-fil-A restaurant in the city.
After a four-hour evening session in a packed council chambers, the City Council ultimately voted to allow the abstaining board members to stay in their positions, but that members of the city’s boards and staff will go through extensive ethics training. Board members will also have to sign an agreement that they’ll separate their political views and personal opinions from their board decisions.
On Aug. 6, ABR members were asked to consider minor changes to an already approved plan for a new Chick-fil-A restaurant at 3707 State St. At the time, Chick-fil-A was at the center of a firestorm of
national controversy over an interview that company president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy gave in which he expressed support for traditional marriage and opposition to same-sex marriage.
All five ABR members there that day abstained from voting, delaying a vote on the project. City staff later approved the changes because they were minor and conformed with the already approved project.
Hotchkiss and Rowse requested that the council review the ABR’s actions, since advisory board members are supposed to review applications based on their merit and not on political considerations.
The heart of Tuesday’s meeting came down to whether abstaining from the decision was appropriate or whether board members should have voted on the architecture, regardless of their views of Chick-fil-A or its CEO. Speakers were divided equally between indictment of the board, calling the abstentions a “dereliction of duty” and the remainder calling it a “witchhunt.”
Francisco walked the audience through the project’s timeline, and painted a picture of a completely non-controversial item that had been approved three times until the national controversy erupted.
“Abstaining is something that you do when you feel you can’t make an informed decision,” Francisco said. “This is the first occasion in roughly 60 years in which people have abstained for political reasons. I believe that’s the reason we’re here today.”
Two ABR members, Chris Gilliland and Gary Mosel, spoke Tuesday, and Gilliland was penitent while Mosel remained true to his decision.
Gilliland said he abstained in an effort not to let his personal feelings get in the way, but that the city attorney later clarified the meaning of conflict of interest.
“This was a one-time occurrence and will not happen again,” he said. “I would like to put this behind me.”
Hotchkiss then asked him if political decisions would not be a part of his ABR decisions moving forward, and Gilliland agreed.
The most impassioned case of the night came from Mosel, who is gay and has served on the board for seven years.
“This is where my worlds met,” he said of that meeting, adding that he had to choose whether to abuse his power or put on blinders and vote on the issue.
“The only possible thing I could do was abstain,” he said.
Mosel went through the city’s ethics training earlier this year, and “[abstaining] was what the City of Santa Barbara taught me to do,” he said, adding that he did believe he was impartial.
Mosel’s partner, Marco Silva, vice president of the Pacific Pride Foundation, also spoke of the decision to abstain.
“He did so because [the issue] is near and dear to our hearts,” Silva said, urging the council not to force Mosel’s resignation.
Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said the public needs to know that the board will be reviewing the “application and not the applicant,” but felt the ABR members could do their jobs going forward.
Rowse said the city could have faced liability if the project hadn’t already been approved.
“If we had some ardent right to lifer on the board and Planned Parenthood wanted to make changes to their building, would they abstain?” he asked.
He commended Mosel on a personal level, but said the decision was incorrect.
“I know you think I’m some sort of Satan, but I’m not,” Hotchkiss said to Mosel, adding that he felt he had to ask for the board member’s resignation.
Mayor Helene Schneider said that out of all five of the abstentions, Mosel’s was the closest to a legitimate abstention because he had a loved one working for a group that opposes Chick-fil-A.
“What happened on Aug. 6 was unfortunate for a lot of reasons, but I’m not ready to vote anyone out,” she said. “I think they got the message.”