Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary title=
The Montecito Sanitary District is located at 1042 Monte Cristo Lane. (Photo by Melinda Burns)
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By Melinda Burns

Gary Fuller, the only Montecito Sanitary District board member who has publicly opposed a future merger with the Montecito Water District, resigned last Thursday, citing the board’s failure to address what he believed to be violations of the state Brown Act, the “sunshine” law for transparency in local government, by the sanitary board’s president and vice president.

Fuller, a building and plumbing contractor and attorney who was elected to a four-year term in November, 2020, turned in his letter of resignation to Brad Rahrer, the sanitary district general manager, on April 14, minutes before the board met in a special closed session.

Fuller’s abrupt departure is the latest flare-up in a long-running controversy at the district, amid a push by the four other sanitary board members and the water board to consolidate water and sanitary district operations and administration. With the exception of Fuller, both boards were elected in costly, aggressive campaigns, an unusual display of raw power politics in a bid to seize historically low-profile elected offices.

At stake is the cost and resilience of the water supply in Montecito, an affluent enclave of one-acre lots, large estates and luxury resorts where the average per-capita residential water use is among the highest in the state.

Based on conversations with the district earlier this month, Fuller said, he believed that on April 14, the sanitary board was going to discuss Brown Act allegations he had brought up in January, 2021, not long after taking office; and recent counter-allegations by board President Dorinne Johnson. These reportedly included Johnson’s claim that he had violated the state Ralph Civil Rights Act in early 2021 by threatening her, an Asian-American woman, with litigation, in a voicemail message to an attorney, Fuller said. When the voicemail came to light at a board meeting this March, Johnson requested a copy of it.

Fuller remembers telling his colleagues that he believed Johnson and board Vice President Woody Barrett may have violated the Brown Act by attending a Jan. 6, 2021 meeting with water district representatives and officials of the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency that oversees district consolidations, without first obtaining the authorization of the sanitary board, and without reporting back on the meeting.

“I felt they were going to just bulldoze ahead with consolidation,” Fuller said.

Fuller said he felt strongly that last week’s board discussion should not be held in secret, so he decided to resign in protest before it started. His decision was made easier, Fuller said, because his cardiologist had warned him that morning that his heart condition was worsening.

“I couldn’t take the stress of watching people do something that I felt was wrong and having them act as if it wasn’t happening,” he said. “I was so disappointed in the fact that I had brought the conduct of these directors to their attention multiple times, and the board wouldn’t even entertain a conversation about it. And it appeared they were going to take action against me for simply attempting to hold them accountable. That’s insane. I believe this board will never change its ways.”

Gary Fuller (Courtesy photo)

The exodus

The Brown Act requires local government business to be conducted in open and public meetings so that the people can be well-informed and can exercise control over their government. The Ralph Civil Rights Act prohibits threatening a person because of his or her gender, race, sex, religion, age, skin color or national origin.

Johnson and Barrett did not respond to a reporter’s requests for comment this week. Rahrer declined to comment on the contents of last week’s closed session, which lasted two hours. The board is scheduled to meet in closed session at 2 p.m. today (April 21, 2022) to discuss anticipated litigation regarding the Brown Act and Ralph Civil Rights Act. On April 28, the board is expected to discuss how to fill Fuller’s vacant seat.

Fuller is the latest person to flee the sanitary district, a small, independent agency with about 18 employees serving 9,000 people. Since the start of the 2020 election campaign, 12 employees, including two general managers and two attorneys, have quit.

Fuller was the only member on either the water or sanitary district board whose election campaign was not funded by a group of wealthy Montecitans who raised more than $250,000 during three election cycles to oust the incumbents.

Bob Hazard, a major donor, a former president of the Birnam Wood Golf Club and an editor at the Montecito Journal, spearheaded the campaigns, frequently advocating in his columns and at public meetings for the consolidation of the water and sanitary districts.

Riding a backlash against rationing in the drought, the candidates swept nine out of 10 seats on the two boards. Fuller, who spent zero funds to get elected, was an anomaly. In mid-2021, he made a public records request at the sanitary district; it revealed that Johnson and Barrett had been ordered in 2015 and early 2020, respectively, to replace their leaking sewer laterals. In the pandemic, Barrett got an extension to early 2021. To date, neither director has done the work; the board is not enforcing such orders for now, Rahrer said.

Old grievances

The Jan. 6, 2021 LAFCO meeting was a conference call with Johnson and Barrett, two water board directors, and the water board general manager; LAFCO officials provided an overview of consolidation procedures and answered questions. Sanitary district interim General Manager Jon Turner did not participate; instead, he submitted his letter of resignation, noting that the sanitary board majority apparently intended to seek a merger with the water district.

“This meeting with the Santa Barbara County LAFCO was done without notification or advertisement and appears to be a violation of the Brown Act,” Turner wrote.

On Jan. 26, 2021, Fuller said, he was surprised to learn that Holly Whatley, a Pasadena attorney, had addressed a letter to Johnson and the water board general manager — “as asked,” she wrote — outlining the terms under which she could advise the water and sanitary districts about LAFCO and their “potential reorganization” into one agency.

The sanitary district board had taken no action to pursue consolidation, Fuller said, so he called Whatley in February, 2021 and left a message on her voicemail.

“I’m looking at correspondence from you regarding basically some sort of hostile takeover of Montecito Sanitary,” Fuller began. Johnson, he said, “is about to be hit with a Brown Act violation currently for meeting on this topic without discussing it with the other board members. So, I hope that gives you some pause … I am opening a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Division of the local district attorney based on the conduct of Director Johnson and Director Barrett and the influence of one Mr. Bob Hazard.”

In the end, Fuller decided not to file a complaint; the DA’s office, he said, was not encouraging about the time and complexity it would entail. Fuller said Johnson’s claim that his voicemail violated the Ralph Civil Rights Act amounted to “unfounded retribution.” He said Johnson apparently also was alleging that he had violated the Brown Act by phoning three other board members back in December, 2020 to tell them he would support them and not Johnson for board president.

“This is a complete waste of the district’s time and money,” Fuller said of Johnson’s allegations.

A consolidation study funded by the water and sanitary districts is expected to be made public by the end of this year. Recently, both boards voted to retain Whatley for advice about LAFCO.

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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a-1650557628 Apr 21, 2022 09:13 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Really bad sign when the only person who didn't BUY their seat on the board resigns. We need to limit local campaign funding, it leads to corruption and self-serving decisions.

a-1650562233 Apr 21, 2022 10:30 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

It is unclear from this narrative why threatening a lawsuit could constitute a Ralph Act violation. Certainly it cannot be just because she is an Asian American woman. Please help us understand what merit this charge has.

a-1650580872 Apr 21, 2022 03:41 PM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Another 'poo poo Montecito' story from Burns. Unfortunate subject matter, as this guy has been thoroughly discredited. He showed up for his first District Zoom board meeting laying in his bed, on a dirty pillow. He was barely comprehensible. It only went downhill from there. He represented himself as an 'attorney', on district business, in attempting to intimidate the other attorney in this story. The author left that part out. Fuller's status with the CA Bar is 'inactive'. You can't advertise yourself as an attorney if you're not an active bar member. He told directors he was just here to make trouble for them. That's indeed all he's done for the past 15 months. His resignation - right before the board's closed session with legal to deal with all the messes he caused! Guess he wanted to flee the coop before charges were filed against him. Like some SB city officials that abruptly quit recently. Hmmm... The district should sue him on behalf of the ratepayers to recoup the legal expenses he ran up with all these stupid antics.

pstarSR Apr 22, 2022 07:52 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Wow fling “mud” with no substance. The article stats legit concerns. You post about zoom meetings and a dirt pillow? Who zooms into that?

Very odd indeed. Sounds like the buy my seat crowds a bit pissed

mtndriver Apr 22, 2022 08:26 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

To the numbered comment at 3:13 am—pretty bold claims you make about Gary Fuller. Sounds like you might be on the water board yourself, given your description of how he seemed to you at meetings. No comments about board members not making required repairs to their sewer laterals? Among the highest per capital water use in the state, irritated by requests to conserve, so the answer is to take over the board. Please, the problem is the sense of entitlement, not Gary Fuller. Hey, it’s Earth Day!

a-1650622398 Apr 22, 2022 03:13 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

This guy may be nuts but what this article states is true. The sanitary district was a well oiled machine. No one wanted to be on it let alone ever campaigned for those board seats. Until Bob Hazard decided their property and consolidation would be beneficial to water wasters. That’s how the “ Water Security” Slate of candidates came to be. They spent hundreds of thousands to boot out board members who had successfully run the sanitary district when no one else would. They were within budget for years, had made gains in future recycled water projects and contrary to what the new candidates stated, had outstanding records. This was a takeover by a wealthy group who planned to merge the two districts from the get go. The MWD will end up costing their residents a fortune for these water deals and merger studies. All long time employees quit in protest of these back room deals.

NotReallyDave Apr 22, 2022 07:54 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Back room deals are an accepted way of doing "business" within the City of Santa Barbara. What I have found is that there is no way to efficiently report corruption. No one will listen anymore.

Rinconer Apr 22, 2022 08:22 AM
Making a Stink at Montecito Sanitary

Candidates who overspend on campaigns are a red flag. When the ex-Mayor of Carpinteria had campaign expenditures ten times normal it was also a red flag. He was elected, and sadly
turned out to be a oil company shill who drunkenly rolled his car not once, but twice while in office, once on the way home from his board position on a sobriety non-profit.
Candidates who spend way more than normal, violate the law, and operate in secret, are waving red flags in triplicate.

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