Gary Fuller, the only Montecito Health 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’s Brown Law, the “sunshine” law. for Transparency in Local Government, by the President and Vice President of the Health Council.
Fuller, a building and plumbing contractor and attorney who was elected to a four-year term in November 2020, delivered his resignation letter to Brad Rahrer, the health district’s chief executive, on April 14, minutes before the special board meeting. closed session.
Fuller’s abrupt departure is the latest flare-up in a long-running controversy in the district, amid a push by the other four members of the health board and water board to consolidate health district operations and administration and some water. With the exception of Fuller, both councils were elected in expensive and aggressive campaigns, an unusual display of raw power politics in an effort to grab historically low-profile elective positions.
At issue is the cost and resilience of the water supply in Montecito, a wealthy enclave of one-acre lots, grand estates and luxury resorts where average residential water consumption per capita is among the highest. state highs.
Based on conversations with the district earlier this month, Fuller said, he believed that on April 14 the health board would discuss the Brown Law allegations he raised in January 2021, shortly after he joined. active ; and recent counter-allegations by Board Chair Dorinne Johnson. These allegedly included Johnson’s claim that he violated Ralph’s Civil Rights Act in early 2021 by threatening her, an Asian-American woman, with litigation, in a voicemail to an attorney, said Fuller. When the voicemail was revealed at a board meeting in March, Johnson requested a copy.
Fuller recalls telling colleagues he believed Johnson and Board Vice Chairman Woody Barrett may have violated Brown Law by attending a Jan. 6, 2021, meeting with district officials from the and officials of the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Training Commission (LAFCO), the agency that oversees district consolidations, without first obtaining approval from the board of health and without reporting to the meeting.
“I felt like they were just going to bulldoze with the consolidation,” Fuller said.
Fuller said he was convinced last week’s board discussion should not be held in secret, so he decided to resign in protest before it began. His decision was made easier, Fuller said, because his cardiologist had warned him that morning that his heart condition was getting worse.
“I couldn’t stand the stress of watching people do something I felt was wrong and have them act like it wasn’t happening,” he said. “I was so disappointed to have brought the conduct of these directors to their attention on several occasions, and the board wouldn’t even engage in conversation about it. And it looked like they were going to take action against me for simply trying to hold them accountable. That’s crazy. I believe that this advice will never change his habits.
The Brown Law requires that the business of local government be conducted in open and public meetings so that the people can be well informed and exercise control over their government. The Ralph Civil Rights Act prohibits threatening a person because of their sex, race, gender, religion, age, skin color, or national origin.
Johnson and Barrett did not respond to reporter requests for comment this week. Rahrer declined to comment on the content of last week’s closed session, which lasted two hours. The council is due to meet behind closed doors at 2 p.m. this Thursday, April 21 to discuss planned litigation regarding the Brown Act and the 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 health 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 lawyers, have resigned.
Fuller was the only water or health district board member whose campaign was not funded by a group of wealthy Montecitans who raised more than $250,000 over three election cycles to oust the holders.
Bob Hazard, major donor, former president of the Birnam Wood Golf Club and editor of the Montecito Newspaperhas spearheaded campaigns, frequently advocating in its columns and at public meetings for the consolidation of water and sanitation districts.
Riding on a backlash against rationing during the drought, the candidates won nine out of 10 seats in both councils. Fuller, who spent no money getting elected, was an anomaly. In mid-2021, he made a public records request to the health district; it revealed Johnson and Barrett were ordered in 2015 and early 2020, respectively, to replace their leaking sewer laterals. In the pandemic, Barrett was granted an extension until early 2021. To date, no director has done the job; the council is not enforcing such orders at this time, Rahrer said.
The January 6, 2021 LAFCO meeting was a conference call with Johnson and Barrett, two directors of the water board and the chief executive of the water board; LAFCO officials provided an overview of consolidation procedures and answered questions. The health district’s acting chief executive, Jon Turner, did not participate; instead, he submitted his letter of resignation, noting that the majority of the health board apparently intended to seek a merger with the water district.
“This meeting with the Santa Barbara County LAFCO was made without notification or publicity and appears to be a violation of Brown Law,” Turner wrote.
On Jan. 26, 2021, Fuller said, he was surprised to learn that Holly Whatley, a Pasadena attorney, had sent a letter to Johnson and the water board’s chief executive — “as requested,” he said. – she writes – outlining the terms under which she could advise water and sanitation districts on LAFCO and their “potential reorganization” into a single agency.
The health district board had taken no action to pursue consolidation, Fuller said, so he called Whatley in February 2021 and left a message on voicemail.
“I’m looking at your correspondence regarding basically some sort of hostile takeover of Montecito Sanitary,” Fuller began. Johnson, he said, “is about to be hit with a Brown Law violation currently for coming across this topic without discussing it with the other board members. So, I hope this gives you pause… I am opening a complaint with the local District Attorney’s Fair Political Practices Division based on the conduct of Director Johnson and Director Barrett and the influence of a Mr. Bob Hazard.
Ultimately, Fuller decided not to press charges; the prosecutor’s office, he said, was not encouraging about the time and complexity it would entail. Fuller said Johnson’s claim that his voicemail violated Ralph’s civil rights law amounted to “unfounded retribution.” He said Johnson also apparently alleged he violated Brown’s Law by phoning three other board members in December 2020 to tell them he would be supporting them and not Johnson for chairman of the board.
“It’s a complete waste of time and money for the district,” Fuller said of Johnson’s allegations.
A consolidation study funded by the water and sanitation districts is expected to be made public by the end of this year. Recently, both boards voted to retain Whatley for advice on LAFCO.
Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience in the fields of immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to several Santa Barbara County publications, at the same time, free of charge.