Longtime Feud Now Wrapped Up in Flag


It’s hard to think of anything worse for a public official than to be accused of disloyalty in wartime.

Yet that is where Gail Marshall found herself as she tried to fend off a recall brought on by allegations that she opposed saying the Pledge of Allegiance at a public meeting two weeks ago.

“I am an American who is patriotic and proud of my country,” said a beleaguered Marshall, serving her second term as Santa Barbara County’s 3rd District supervisor. She said she just believed that suddenly bringing the flag into a meeting to discuss riding trails could be “divisive. Patriotism is a private, as well as a public, matter.”


An aide, John Buttny, considered it a political dirty trick and labeled Marshall’s opponents that night as a “mob” whose members were “wrapping themselves in a bloodstained flag.”

But Laurie Huarte, who was at the meeting inside a little church in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, said she was appalled. “Anyone who would be making [reciting the pledge] an issue is not a true American.”

It may be hard to reconcile such intemperate language with the popular image of this blessed part of California’s Central Coast. But the “controversy over the flag,” as it’s known around here, is merely the latest chapter in a decades-long power struggle pitting this county’s rural north against the gentry of Montecito and Santa Barbara.

Though a Northerner, Marshall Is Targeted

Power struggles over growth, jobs and the environment are increasingly common as suburban America matures and people with differing values suddenly find themselves bumping up against each other.

What distinguishes this one is the degree of hostility and the wide gap in understanding, underscored by a recent series of events, from the arrest of a northern farmer for plowing a wetland to passage of a law preserving oak trees on farmland to charges that the south used state prison felons in redrawing the political map to preserve its dominance.

Marshall became a target because she voted for the controversial map, even though she is a northerner herself, living in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“The north sees themselves as on the short end,” said Mark Schniepp, director of California Economic Forecast. “They see the south county as arrogant people who control them and they hate it. They’re the stepchildren of Santa Barbara County, and that’s the way it’s always been.”

But perhaps for not much longer.

While the south has occupied itself with controlling growth and preserving the old-line power centers in Santa Barbara, the north has been growing in numbers and ambition. The population of Santa Maria, a sprawling farm town once nothing more than a gas and taco stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco, increased 22% in the last decade to 80,000, only about 10,000 less than Santa Barbara. Now, the local burghers have their sights on eclipsing Santa Barbara’s position as the “capital” of the Central Coast.

“Santa Barbara is pretty much stagnant,” said Dave Cross, chairman of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce. “They are against growth and industry. We are pro-agriculture and industry. What you’re seeing is a shift in power.”

Saying it is one thing. Putting in the shade a city that attracts visits from presidents and has more chief executives per capita than any other city in America is another thing altogether. But population figures bear him out. The 2000 census showed the north county grew twice as fast as the south coast in the last decade, to 198,345, nearly equaling the south’s population of 201,000.

Goleta, an unincorporated southern community that has been more hospitable to housing construction than most, will vote Tuesday on a cityhood measure partly driven by its own slow-growth movement. If Measure H passes, Goleta will be able to compete with Santa Barbara for federal dollars and influence.

“Santa Barbara is a hell of a city,” said James Farr, 56, publisher of the Valley Voice newspaper. “But it’s time for Goleta to go off on its own.”

District Straddles North-South Boundary

Farr, who makes no secret of his pro-cityhood sympathies, announced several weeks ago that he would not accept anti-cityhood advertising. Opponents of cityhood accused him of suppressing free speech, an allegation that caused him to relent.

“It bothered me that I didn’t see the bushwhacking I was in for,” Farr said.

Which brings us back to Gail Marshall, a determined, driven woman who more than anyone is at the center of Santa Barbara County’s civil war. Her district straddles the imaginary north-south boundary line at Gaviota Pass, between those who have power and those who want it.

People in the north tend to see the division as about more than numbers, frequently lapsing into speeches portraying themselves as the kind of Americans who built the country and southerners as out-of-touch dilettantes determined to preserve their bit of heaven by keeping everyone else out.

“If you add up all the trust fund babies, college students, retirees and people who work for the government [in the south], they are not tied to the local economy,” said Andy Caldwell, a north county activist. “They can be very particular about growth. Income levels between north and south are totally different. There is a group of impoverished tourist-sector workers and the rich in the south.”

In the north, he said, a hard-working middle class is building futures, not living in the past. That’s why it so disturbs northerners to see Marshall aligning herself with the two southern supervisors, Naomi Schwartz and Susan Rose, on one 3-2 vote after another.

Among the grievances of north county residents is a belief that they don’t get their fair share of tax dollars, as well as symbolic actions, such as a measure approved by supervisors condemning the Boy Scouts for their practice of excluding homosexual members.

But what really got the northerners’ goats was the redistricting process, in which electoral boundaries were changed this year to reflect the 2000 census. The northerners believed that their population gains gave them a chance to lock up the 3rd District, not just win it from time to time.

In the end, 22 different maps were proposed. Northerners considered the map that was finally chosen to be one more insult at the hands of the south. Vandenberg Air Force Base and the state prison near Lompoc were included in the 3rd District.

“The military doesn’t vote [in local elections] and felons can’t vote,” said Mike Stoker, a conservative former county supervisor. “Locking in 10,000 people who won’t be voting kept them from taking 10,000 real north county voters” in Marshall’s district.

“We won,” a south county resident gloated in a letter to a local newspaper. “Get over it.”

Instead, the north got revenge. It happened in an unlikely place, a meeting of a local advisory committee, one of those incidental gears that keep the engine of democracy running but which no one usually notices. Riding trails were on the agenda the night of Oct. 18.

Pledge Called Possibly Divisive

Joe Olla, chairman of the Santa Ynez Valley General Plan Advisory Committee and a Marshall appointee, told her the day before the meeting that he wanted to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. But, Olla said, Marshall was not enthusiastic.

“ ‘Joe, it could be very divisive,’ ” he recalled her saying. “ ‘We all have our own way of showing patriotism.’ ” Normally, the pledge is not recited at the meeting, Buttny said.

Olla said he “was shocked” at Marshall’s attitude. He said he called Sheriff Jim Thomas, whose name has been prominently mentioned as a possible future opponent for Marshall, and asked him to bring a flag to the meeting anyway.

Word quickly spread of a brewing showdown, and when the meeting started that night, the room was packed with local reporters, as well as farmers, cattlemen and an assortment of other north county stalwarts.

Olla denies planning to embarrass Marshall, but Buttny is convinced a trap was set. “We didn’t call the press,” he said.

After it was over, said north county activist Caldwell, Buttny read a statement denouncing extremist politics. Buttny said his feelings were based on the belief that “it would be unfair to spring [the pledge] on people. It would put them on the spot.”

In a statement released by her office, Marshall explained her concern was that Olla “imposed his own personal agenda” on the meeting.

When the pledge ended, Huarte stood and denounced Buttny and Marshall. “Shame on you, Miss Marshall. Shame on you, Mr. Buttny,” Huarte said.

At this point, most everyone agrees, Marshall ran to the front of the room, gave the timeout sign and shouted for order. “The supervisor lost it,” said Sheriff Thomas. “She started yelling. I thought her behavior was disgraceful.”

Then, according to several accounts, Marshall told Huarte to get out. Buttny denied that, saying, “She made a general statement that if you’re here for political reasons, get out.”

Huarte said she was in shock and left immediately. After the meeting, Marshall fired Olla.

Foes Capitalizing on Supervisor’s Outburst

The whole event was captured on television, and within days a recall movement had started. Observers such as Nick Welsh, who writes the Angry Poodle column for the weekly Santa Barbara Independent, thought that Marshall handled the situation badly. “It would have been easy to avoid,” he said. “She could have led the pledge herself. Instead, she stuck her head in the noose and kicked out the ladder.”

Opponents are capitalizing on Marshall’s outburst. In recent days, Buttny’s antiwar past has been exposed. Buttny, 63, had been convicted of several felonies over his activism in the late 1960s, first with the Students for a Democratic Society and then with the Weathermen, an SDS splinter group. He said he left before the Weathermen went underground and turned violent.

Buttny is not surprised the issue came up, but shrugged it off. “It’s not news in this county,” he said, adding that he is convinced Marshall will survive the recall.

Even if she does, the larger battle seems sure to go on.

“Ultimately,” said Schniepp, the director of California Economic Forecast, “the north is going to dominate in population, so the south county is trying to scramble to preserve the status quo.”