Santa Barbara Councilmen Eric Friedman, left, and Oscar Gutierrez.
Santa Barbara Councilmen Eric Friedman, left, and Oscar Gutierrez got into a heated exchange on Tuesday during a discussion about the decision to stop remote public testimony during council meetings. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photos)

A quiet decision to end remote public testimony during Santa Barbara City Council meetings led to a fiery exchange between Councilmen Eric Friedman and Oscar Gutierrez, when both of them accused the other of “shameful” decision-making.

The city decided to end public testimony through at least the end of the year after three people on Oct. 31 called into the meeting and referenced removing non-white people from the country and opposing “the browning of our country.”

In response to those callers, Noozhawk has learned that City Administrator Rebecca Bjork and City Attorney Sarah Knecht issued a memo to the council and decided to stop testimony through at least the end of the year.

The email referenced the political climate nationwide and the need to stop remote testimony until the process could be examined.

“The pattern is they’ll start speaking as if they’re referring to a previous comment, and then they’ll shift really quickly into racial epithets and some pretty nasty speech,” Mayor Randy Rowse told Noozhawk. “I try to cut it off as soon as possible. We’re not alone. Other cities are going through this right now, too.”

The decision to end remote public comment might have gone unnoticed to the public, but Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon asked to pull a previous downtown Santa Barbara parklet discussion from the “consent calendar” so that she could delay final action on the vote.

When it looked like some of the council wanted to move ahead and not delay the vote, Gutierrez accused his colleagues of shameful acts.

“I personally was more offended by what happened last week than anybody else, but I am not going to deny people their right to speak openly about whatever it is they want to talk about,” Gutierrez said. “It’s about transparency.”

Then Gutierrez escalated the situation.

“The fact that some of you aren’t willing to postpone this item so the public has the ability to voice their opinion is just shameful, straight up, just shameful,” Gutierrez said. “That’s all I got to say. You all need to take a moment and re-examine why you are here and what you are doing.”

The comments angered Friedman, who quickly flicked on his microphone to respond.

Friedman, former chief of staff to former county Supervisor Salud Carbajal, said he had worked in elected office for more than 20 years and during that time had never been so insulted.

“That is the first time someone has said because I have a different vote than what they want that it is shameful,” Friedman said. “That’s shameful to me that you can’t have a disagreement with someone.”

Friedman pointed out that the council on Oct. 17 already participated in a full hearing on outdoor dining parklets with public testimony both in person and remotely. On Tuesday, the council allowed in-person comments but not remote comments.

“Don’t tell me that I am shameful just because I am trying to do my job and be consistent with my votes,” Friedman said.

The City of Santa Barbara is not legally obligated to allow people to make remote comments; it was something the council enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday’s fight also was unusual because items on the consent calendar are usually considered routine, or in this case, are ordinance introductions. It’s rare for council members to want to change their vote or delay a vote.

The council already had a full hearing on the matter on Oct. 17. At that time, the council agreed to allow outdoor dining parklets on the public right-of-way if they were protected by concrete K-rail. The vote was 5-2, with Mayor Randy Rowse and Friedman voting in opposition.

Sneddon on Tuesday changed her mind and chose to delay the vote because she wanted more discussion and because she opposes the K-rail. Further complicating matters, Councilman Mike Jordan was absent on Tuesday.

“I believe there were a number of people who had planned to comment but probably assumed they could call in,” Sneddon said.

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez also changed her mind and wanted more time even though, like Sneddon, she supported the K-rail on Oct. 17.

The conversation over the lack of remote public testimony and delaying the vote overshadowed everything else at the meeting, forcing multiple attorneys and traffic engineers to speak on the matter to explain the situation to the council.

The first vote to affirm what the council did on Oct. 17 failed because it deadlocked 3-3 after Sneddon and Alejandra Gutierrez changed their votes.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon then made a motion to talk about the item again the next time the council meets, on Dec. 5, for a full hearing, Councilman Jordan is also expected to show up to that meeting.

Harmon said she was “very disappointed” to delay the vote but that she didn’t see “another path forward” since people were changing their votes and Jordan was absent.

The final vote was 3-2-1. Harmon, Oscar Gutierrez and Sneddon voted to delay the matter to the Dec. 5 meeting. Rowse and Friedman stayed consistent in their votes and voted in opposition. Alejandra Gutierrez abstained from the vote.