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Local News

Buellton Council Candidates Trade Barbs Over Tourism, City Spending

Incumbents and their challengers face off on the issues at a standing-room-only forum

On the surface, the city of Buellton seems like a quiet community next to Highway 101, known for its pea soup and as one of the anchors of the Santa Ynez Valley.

But behind the scenes, this town of nearly 5,000 people carries itself with the heft of the big city, where accusations of back-room deals, political hijinks and government mismanagement fly higher than the banners on the famed Avenue of Flags.

With less than a month to go before the Nov. 4 election, candidates for the Buellton City Council are throwing jabs, barbs and innuendos at each other with a ferocity that has transformed the race into perhaps the hottest council election on the ballot in the county.

In a lively forum moderated by Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, seven candidates for City Council gathered Monday night at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton in front of standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people.

The candidates commented on a wide variety of topics, from youth and senior activities to Chamber of Commerce spending and a rumored Buellton billboard.

"This crap has to stop!" incumbent Councilman Ed Andrisek blurted out, while holding a flier describing the billboard. "You do not need garbage delivered to your door."

The billboard idea, shelved for now, has come to symbolize the wider debate in Buellton: Should government leaders prioritize tourism or local residents as it looks to grow its tax base, while attempting to maintain its attractiveness as a homey, charming community?

One of the dividing lines in the race was the council's split decision vote earlier this year to award the Buellton Chamber of Commerce $350,000 to promote tourism.

Candidates Mark Preston, Tom Widroe and incumbent Judith Dale oppose the spending.

"We need to spend more money on our people in Buellton, seniors included," Dale said. "We need to spend our money wisely. We need to take care of our people." 

Dale and others noted that the chamber received $350,000 while the senior center received only $50,000 this year. Andrisek, who supported the contract, at times rolled his eyes or smirked when Dale spoke. He said Buellton should continue the "good work" it has already completed.

"Buellton is a destination," Andrisek said. "It is the center of the Santa Ynez Valley. Downtown Buellton deserves more attention. It is now time to invite investors into the community."

Widroe, a former staffer for retired Congressman Elton Gallegly, criticized the current state of the City Council and its split vote on the chamber contract. 

"There's no leadership on the City Council right now," he said. "Wouldn't you want a 5-0 vote?" Widroe also said the city should focus on some basics of city government. "When you are going to market Buellton, you need to have restrooms downtown, for God's sake."

Preston, who admitted he had already broken his own pledge to spend zero dollars on his campaign because he has actually spent $11.88, also blasted the council majority and leadership, calling the forecasting "atrocious."

He said he was tired of hearing that the state stole redevelopment agency funds, when Buellton had an RDA for years and didn't take advantage of it. 

"From 2005 to 2010, Santa Barbara did 34 RDA projects," Preston said. "You know how many Buellton did? Zero."

Preston said Buellton needs to see a return on its investment after spending $350,000 on tourism. 

"I want to see a plan," he said. "I think the budgets have been too sloppy the last 10 years to know what's really going on."

In addition to the debate over spending, the candidates fielded questions about public amenities, including services for youth and seniors.

Many of the candidates opposed the idea of building a public swimming pool in the city, raising questions about the possibly $225,000 annual cost to run the pool.

"Should Buellton have a swimming pool?" Andrisek asked rhetorically. "No. Santa Barbara has a pool. Santa Barbara lawyers will tell you about the liabilities. This town does not need a new swimming pool."

The candidates also answered questions about Measure R, which asks the voters whether they want to elect a mayor or have the spot continue to rotate among the council members.

Andrisek said Buellton is too small to have an elected mayor: "Let the council choose among themselves," he said.

Fellow incumbent Dale, however, disagreed.

"You are intelligent enough to say who who represents your city and who represents you," Dale told the crowd.

The candidates also talked about ways to ease traffic on Highway 246 and the link between traffic and affordable housing, 

Incumbent John Connolly said one way to get a handle on the growing traffic problems in Buellton is to halt high-density housing projects.

"I think ultimately over time apartments turn into slums," said Connolly, who added that he would only support apartments if they were for seniors.

Many of the candidates complained that residents from Lompoc speed through the city on Highway 246 on their way to work.

Dale suggested a flashing sign that tells motorists how fast they were going. Others suggested medians and bike lanes.

"I see kids cross that four-lane road and it's scary," Widroe said. 

Preston said tackling traffic problems on Highway 246 would be extremely difficult because Caltrans manages the property.

"If you elect me, I'll do what I can to work with Caltrans, but I am not optimistic," Preston said. "Better you should try to explain daylight saving time to your dog."

The three incumbents, Andrisek, Connolly and Dale, are running for re-election and are being challenged by Ron Anderson, a Realtor and president of the Buellton Chamber of Commerce; Dan Baumann, an RV resort manager; Joe Padilla, a local restaurateur/winemaker; Preston, a retired program manager; and Widroe, a local business consultant.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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