After years of infighting as well as a blistering audit, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors sent a strong message last week when it approved a plan to shift management of Santa Barbara's Veterans Memorial Building to county staff.
The supervisors expressed their interest in expanding programs for returning service members at the center, at 112 W. Cabrillo Blvd., but indicated it could be better maintained and managed by county employees. A council of veterans has been running the historic facility facing West Beach.
On Tuesday, the board directed the county General Services Department to create a management plan by July 1 for the Santa Barbara center; the Lompoc Veterans Memorial Building, 100 E. Locust Ave.; and the county Courthouse, 1100 Anacapa St. The county would need an additional $90,000 for the management of the three facilities, officials said.
The Veterans Coordinating Council has been responsible for maintenance and management at the Santa Barbara center, including the coordination of its facility rentals. In the future, however, county staff will take over accounting, facilities management and other responsibilities.
Concerns had poured in to county staff about the building's management, and an audit was conducted last year. A significant reorganization ensued, along with widespread turnover.
A host of speakers, most of whom were veterans themselves, turned out to make their voices heard at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting. They generally were divided into two groups.
The larger contingent urged the supervisors to allow the new coordinating council to keep operating the building and be given a chance to prove itself. They suggested at least a year was needed to demonstrate a turnaround.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Charles "Crash" Huff assumed management of the property Oct. 15 of this year, and many speakers indicated their support for him.
Members of this group were also concerned that if the county assumed management, veterans could be forced out and made to meet elsewhere.
Steve Penner, council chairman and a Vietnam War veteran, said the facility's problems have been addressed, and the group is almost in compliance with the audit's recommendations.
"Give us another shot for at least another a year," said Vietnam veteran Dennis Hartman, who added that the center's "old guard" had been replaced by new, progressive leadership.
"Keep the veterans running it," he said. "We know what to do."
A smaller group took issue with the extension request and called for county management.
He said the critical needs of returning veterans have not been addressed, and added that there is almost no outreach toward those struggling to readjust to civilian life, especially younger veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The "squabbling and conflicts" between different factions in the organization have prevented it from accomplishing its mission, said Eskin, who urged the supervisors to turn over the management to the county.
Concern was also presented by nonprofit organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous — which serve veterans as well as other citizens — over whether they would be required to relocate.
Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose Second District includes the Veterans Memorial Building, recalled encountering two separate veterans events going on during her first visit years ago.
"Someone told me 'the veterans groups don't get along,'" she said. "I thought ,'That can't be," but it was true and I continued to witness that.
"This issue has been so emotional for me because I can't believe there is a split among veterans," she added. "What has gotten in the way is this continued friction, and it's not the old guard or the new guard, it's both."
Wolf said the intention is for the county to only take over management of the building, so veterans could do what they want with it.
"I just think this is something we shouldn't be fearful of," she said. "It's time to move this forward and get some more services at the vets center ... I think there is so much potential at that center."
Other supervisors supported Wolf and the motion to create a county management plan.
"You guys will still have plenty to fight over, I'm sure," Supervisor Peter Adam said. "(General Services) is just going to manage the building."
"All veterans are great and equal in my book," he said. "We're not going to choose between veterans groups. We're going to support all veterans, and that's what this motion is about."