This story first appeared at Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts.
There aren’t many people in Santa Barbara possessed with the rare combination of public policy chops, political smarts and communitarian principles as retired fire chief Pat McElroy.
A Gaucho Old School Deadhead who served as a city firefighter for 37 years, McElroy learned local governance first-hand from a wide range of perspectives, including two decades as a union leader and a career-capping five-years as chief.
The Poodle once labeled him “the best natural politician operating in Santa Barbara County that nobody ever voted for,”and his vast network of connections has expanded since his retirement three years ago, amid an avocational occupation with the non-profit/volunteer universe, most notably his leadership of the Partnership for Resilient Communities, organized in the wake of the Montecito catastrophe.
Pat returned to Newsmakers TV last week with multiple matters on his mind – and on his chest.
On policy, he expressed his most urgent concern that the city act swiftly to consign some earnest money towards a new countywide emergency services dispatch center: “This is like a once-in-a-generation opportunity and Santa Barbara’s got to commit to it,” he said.
On politics, the ally and adviser to mayoral challenger Randy Rowse panned the performance of the current City Council, for a dearth of non-partisan, non-politically calculated, intelligent pragmatism — a key campaign theme of former council member Rowse: “As the decades proceeded, to win in a city election, you had to get about 8,000 votes. That’s what it took. The current council, all six of them are there with 8,900 votes total, all six offices, 8,900 votes total. And they range from a high of 3,237 in one district to zero in another.”
For hardcore political junkies, most notable in the interview is McElroy’s extended expression of scorn and anger for an unidentified, politically hungry, small cabal, consisting, he said, of several real estate players, a pushy politician or two and a couple of impatient and ambitious city bureaucrats, whom, beginning last year, he asserted, collectively impelled the reporting of a “hit piece” — that famously flawed Los Angeles Magazine article which inaccurately insinuated alleged cannabis corruption at City Hall.
Their purpose was to advance what amounted to a behind-the-scenes soft coup attempt against City Administrator Paul Casey, former Department of Development Director George Buell, former Police Chief Lori Luhnow, and her former top aide, former SBPD public information officer Anthony Wagner, McElroy claimed.
“And there were people, high ranking people in administrative posts in the city of Santa Barbara, openly talking in public about where everybody would end up if he got rid of Paul. ‘How would that advance my career?’ ‘How would I end up here?’ ‘And what if we get rid of George Buell first and then Anthony Wagner next?’ And Chief Luhnow just got tired of the whole thing and left, and then it was, ‘let’s get rid of Paul.’
“But the thing is now, if you think of the people involved, when this article was being first looked at, public enemy number one was George Buell. Well, he’s gone. Anthony was always on somebody’s list. The other person they wanted to damage was chief Luhnow. Well, she retires. So, by the time this article comes out, she’s gone…
“And Paul was probably the ultimate target to be weakened.”
Less than six months before the city election, McElroy’s comments are likely to fuel recriminations and reckonings inside City Hall, along with speculation about litigation over the controversial magazine article, as well as debate in the mayor’s race about a proposal, set forth by mayoral wannabe Deborah Schwartz, to weaken the City Administrator’s authority and give more power to the elected mayor and council.
“There’s definitely going to be litigation” (arising from the story), McElroy predicted. “There’s some people around town who should be awfully nervous.”
“It’s not like there’s not snail tracks all over the place of where this came from,” the former chief told Newsmakers.
Some key excerpts from our conversation:
Homeless encampment fires. “Almost all fires are human ignition. Whether innocently or maliciously, human activity causes fire…You have this many people living on the street right now, all the unsheltered people right now, there’s going to be more of those types of fires because they are doing all of those things in a setting with not a lot of safety afforded to them. So, you’re going to see these things.”
The ancient 911 system. “You have trouble with the 911 call going to the wrong location because of the way that the historical rules were set up in the late 1960s, which is amazing, because Lyndon Johnson was president when the 911 system started. So, at that time in California, what’d you have, maybe 5,000 car phones, usually military or government or something like that.
Now you’ve got 40 million phones. So, it was a system that was set up then, still responsive to that type of load. Well, it isn’t, and it needs to be corrected. It is in the process of being corrected. We put forth a bill…it was unanimously approved by the Assembly, Senate and signed by Governor Brown….So, I know that’s happening.”
The need for regional dispatch. “You’re in a world where your Uber driver knows where you are, and Dominoes knows where you are, but the fact that the 911 system doesn’t know where you are, because of how calls are routed in the 911 system, is something that most people just aren’t aware of…
“There are five municipal dispatch centers (around the county) — now the goal of the current group of chiefs is to have one common dispatch center….What we’re trying to do is what they’ve doing for a long time in Ventura County. You have one dispatch center, you close the other dispatch centers and locate it in one place. The county has offered a space for that facility to be where county Office of Emergency Management is.
“As it is right now, Montecito (Fire) can see their engines, Carpinteria (Fire) can see their engines. We can see our engines, the county can see their engines. But what if we have one common dispatcher, that dispatcher can see everybody.
“The new technology there is AVL, which is Automatic Vehicle Locator…The thing is, we need to stop being territorial and realize that the force multiplier – this is for each agency and thus every citizen – and it doesn’t matter, this affects you whether you’re rich or unsheltered. Wherever you are, this is going to help you if you have an emergency.
“And that dispatcher will be able to dispatch the closest available resource to the person, it doesn’t matter what color the engine is, what kind of patch they wear. Who’s going to get to that person first? And so that’s the important thing behind it.”
The city and regional dispatch. “The city of Santa Barbara’s piece would be about $750,000 a year. And what that is, is for five full-time dispatchers, who will no longer be needed at the combined police/fire dispatch in the city of Santa Barbara, they will work now for this agency at this communication center, dispatch center in the county.
They’re in the budget right now. If you look at it, it’s five full-time positions looking, at the cost of $150,000 for total compensation, that’s retirement, benefits, all of that stuff. That’s the $750,000, is five positions.
And so to me, we get caught up on all these issues where we find ourselves kind of in this crazy frustrating stuff that Council gets caught up in. This is a no-brainer. This is, you’re going to help everybody in this community, including the tourists, including people that are passing through, everybody’s going to have improved level of service for a relatively small cost. It doesn’t boost salaries. It doesn’t add any perks to anybody else.”
“Carp’s board has already passed this, Montecito’s board already passed this, the county’s waiting for Santa Barbara and Santa Maria to jump in. And then they’re ready to go. But if you build a system that doesn’t include Santa Barbara…well, it doesn’t bridge, those things don’t connect. It doesn’t work.
This is like a once in a generation opportunity, and Santa Barbara’s got to commit to it before the end of the summer, or it goes away. And council needs to focus on stuff like this.
The district-elected council. “When I first got involved in (politics in) 1982…everybody was (elected) at large. And so as the decades proceeded, to win in a city election, you had to get about 8,000 votes. That’s what it took. The current council, all six of them are there with 8,900 votes total, all six offices, 8,900 votes total. And they range from a high of 3,237 in one district to zero in another.
“So understanding the intent of district elections, expanding the diversity of representation in your community, I get that, but getting a smaller and smaller electorate.”
The L.A. magazine story. “I always loved that Mark Twain quote — ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is still putting its shoes on.’ And this is a classic example of that….
“When you look at the piece, who stood to benefit from linking all of these things together? So it’s an attack on (former SBPD spokesman) Anthony Wagner, attack (former Police) Chief (Lori) Luhnow, attack on (City Administrator) Paul Casey. And that’s the thing, the glaring thing isn’t who got the (cannabis) dispensary license, it’s who didn’t get it. Whose ox was gored in that thing, and what were they going to do about it?”
Sources inside City Hall? “There were people, high ranking people in administrative posts in the city of Santa Barbara, openly talking in public about where everybody would end up if (the magazine story) got rid of Paul. How would that advance my career? How would I end up here? And what if we get rid of (former Community Development Department Director) George Buell first and then Anthony Wagner next? And Chief Luhnow just got tired of the whole thing and left, and then it was, ‘let’s get rid of Paul.’”
The tradecraft of the alleged plotters. “I can say this, and I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to impact anybody’s legal case down the road, but if you’re plotting something like this, it’s best not to do it in a bar or a restaurant where other people are there, because that’s the kind of stuff that happened.
There’s people that are going, ‘you can’t believe what I heard at Finney’s last night or what I heard at someplace, any place.’ But if you don’t realize that you’re a public figure, in a public place, talking about stuff or texting stuff to big lists or emailing stuff to big lists about who you’re going to take out, you don’t realize that you’re leaving a trail.”
Leaks about Anthony Wagner’s personnel records. “The other thing is too, is Anthony’s background check. I mean, I had access to those, when I was in my position (as Fire Chief). And you learn a lot about people, that’s extremely confidential. Because you’re going to pay a firefighter or a cop a lot of money over the course of their career, if they do a full career.
So you want to make sure there’s not any skeletons in the closet, any behavioral problems, anything like that, that you’re going to have to deal with at some point later, in their capacity as an employee. But if I leaked that to anybody, I would expect to be fired.
If details of a background investigation are shared, I know that I would have been, if working for (former Administrator) Jim Armstrong, I would have not been surprised if he just called me and said, ‘Turn in your stuff, you’re done.’ Because it’s a sacrosanct thing, and you’re not to use that against somebody.”
The fallout for Wagner. “And guess what? This article ruined his life. And I’m not being dramatic about this. This ruined his life. And nobody cared if it was true or not, he was just roadkill. And it’s been very detrimental to his wife and daughter, who have left town over this.
“And it’s not like Anthony was the pot czar. He was part of a team. He had one part of a five-part selection process (for cannabis dispensary licenses) that he was responsible for. He wasn’t moving all the chess pieces around to do that. But people didn’t care.
“It was a hit piece. It was a hit piece.”
What next? “My fervent hope is now that all this stuff has happened, that one of the journalists in town or the group of them will go, ‘Well, how did this thing come out?’
“If a person loses their means to support their family and their healthcare (Wagner’s position has been cut from the budget for next year), because somebody decided they were just a roadblock that they needed out of the way, and ruining their life was the price of it. Well that’s fine. Now, there’s damages to that person. Besides just the fact that it was a chicken shit thing to do. Now there’s real damages.”
“There’s definitely going to be litigation. There’s some people around town who should be awfully nervous…But it’s not like there’s not snail tracks all over the place of where this came from.”