Friday, July 20 , 2018, 5:48 pm | Fair 73º


Local News

Schneider Opts Not to Recuse Herself from Discussions on Caltrans Project Litigation

Members of the public challenge the Santa Barbara mayor after she publicly supported the legal actions to the Highway 101 widening project

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider won’t recuse herself from discussing lawsuits related to the Highway 101 widening project, even though she has publicly supported the efforts of people suing both Caltrans and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments over the project’s environmental review.

The SBCAG board discussed two lawsuits during closed session on Thursday, and multiple people called for Schneider to recuse herself from that meeting or resign from the board altogether.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted to pursue its own lawsuit against Caltrans but then dropped the issue for undisclosed reasons, leaving two groups of private citizens to challenge the environmental impact report.

Unnamed Santa Barbara residents are using environmental attorney Marc Chytilo to file suit as the “Transportation Futures Committee” and another suit was filed by Padaro Lane-area residents Lawrence Grassini, Sharon Grassini and Mark Schwartz. Both say the review didn’t adequately analyze the project’s impacts.

After the challenge period closed, Schneider and Councilman Bendy White wrote an opinion piece explaining they don't support the current project and do support the lawsuits.

Santa Barbara officials are concerned about the extra lane’s impacts on local streets and intersections and believe the Caltrans widening project should be reimagined to include these city-jurisdiction projects, they wrote.

During public comment Thursday, people reprimanded Schneider for the public support of the lawsuits that could ultimately delay the project at taxpayer expense.

Joe Armendariz of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association said the SBCAG board is about regional collaboration and “parochial, self-centered political interest” should have consequences.

Andy Caldwell proposed that SBCAG respond by pulling funding for the Ventura-to-Santa Barbara train part of Measure A’s “lane and a train” proposal until Caltrans can complete its freeway project. Caldwell, the executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, said the community has been waiting more than 20 years for a third lane.

In letters to the board, people wrote that the concerns of a small group shouldn’t outweigh broad voter support for the project. They were particularly angry with the editorial’s line that stated Schneider and White “fully encourage and will be publicly supporting private parties who have filed lawsuits.”

“An 11-2 vote by SBCAG members in 2014 illustrates overwhelming continued support,” Hayley Jones wrote. “In opposition to this improvement, Mayor Helene Schneider has fought to halt progression of this project through legal wrangling.”

“Schneider and her campaign consultant, Jeremy Lindaman, have led an unrelenting campaign to subvert this voter initiative – by once again instigating yet another lawsuit to delay and sabotage this vitally-needed project,” Sara Miller McCune wrote. “Minimally, the mayor needs to immediately recuse herself from any legal or material issues regarding the 101 as she as publicly and privately repeatedly prejudiced herself.”

Lindaman was a consultant for the Common Sense 101 group that pushed for a “community alternative” plan for the project, fought to keep left-hand freeway ramps and regularly met with Caltrans and other public agency leaders.  

Schneider responded briefly to the comments and said the opinion piece was about public policy and she is not a plaintiff of any lawsuit regarding the Highway 101 project. Councilman White, who helped write the editorial, is not involved with a lawsuit either, she said.

“I have no personal or financial interest in any of these lawsuits,” Schneider said, adding that the confidentiality of closed session discussions is of “utmost importance to me.”

According to county counsel, there was no legal basis to force Schneider to recuse herself from the closed session discussion of lawsuits against Caltrans and SBCAG.

It was left up to her discretion, and she chose not to recuse herself.

Schneider has spoken out on a matter of public policy and public debate, and legislators are given the “widest latitude” in terms of First Amendment rights for public policy, county counsel William Dillon said, adding that someone doesn’t lose their rights to free speech just because they are in the minority on an issue.

Second District County Supervisor Janet Wolf asked about the rules to force a recusal and having someone voluntarily recuse themselves, and Dillon’s answer was the same.

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said Schneider represents certain people’s opinions and she’s entitled to that. He respects that, as a frequent dissenter himself, he said.

Adam was the other dissenting vote against SBCAG moving forward with the Highway 101 widening project in January, saying the county’s voters approved $140 million of funding for the project but they never approved $170 million of local gas tax revenues to go toward this project instead of local street and road maintenance.

SBCAG members said it was up to the City of Santa Barbara to decide if it didn’t want Schneider to represent it on the board anymore.

“I believe the op-ed was published after the lawsuits were filed so again, I do think that if her city has a problem with how she represents them that is their business, not ours,” Guadalupe Mayor Frances Romero said.

The SBCAG board went into closed session for several hours but took no reportable action, according to staff members.

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli 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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