The most controversial member of the county Board of Supervisors -- the target of an unsuccessful recall drive last year and the liberal swing vote on many issues dividing the southern and northern halves of the county -- has announced that she will not seek reelection next year.
The decision by Supervisor Gail Marshall, whose 3rd District covers a politically diverse area stretching from UC Santa Barbara in the south to Vandenberg Village in the north, coincides with a continuing drive to split the county in two.
Although she lives in the north county city of Solvang, where politics are more conservative than in the south, Marshall has often voted with the two liberal supervisors on key issues. That has produced a series of 3-2 decisions that have left many north county residents feeling abandoned.
Defending her voting record, Marshall has pointed out that two-thirds of the 50,000 voters in her district live south of the Gaviota Pass, the county's symbolic dividing line.
With strong support from the liberal enclave of Isla Vista, adjacent to UC Santa Barbara and home to many students, she survived a recall election last November with 54.3% of the overall vote.
Marshall said Monday that she never really thought she would seek a third term as supervisor. She said her accomplishments have included living up to campaign promises to fight to protect the environment, support agriculture and preserve coastal areas.
She said the bitterness of last year's recall fight was not a factor in her decision. She added that her primary goals in the coming 14 months will be to finish planning projects in the Santa Ynez Valley and Isla Vista that will strengthen environmental protections and orderly growth.
Criticized during last year's recall election as having a volatile temper and an abrupt style in dealing with people, Marshall said she has learned some lessons.
"This has also been a time of personal growth," she said. "I grew more comfortable with speaking in public and learned the virtues of patience and taking criticism."
In many votes, she has joined Supervisors Naomi Schwartz and Susan Rose against the county's two other supervisors who represent areas of the north county. Those votes ranged from opposing more offshore oil drilling to condemning the Boy Scouts for discriminating against homosexuals.
Rose said last week that her colleague's voting record had been distorted by critics during the recall effort.
"I think she's done a wonderful job," Rose said. "She tried to get the north and the south together, and she often succeeded on issues such as protecting our county's oak trees."
But conservative critics said Marshall would be remembered by most north county voters as a divisive force.
"I don't think government by confrontation works," said Richard Cochrane, a conservative political consultant. "Unfortunately, she was very confrontational."
Marshall's seat is one of three that will be up for election in March. Supervisor Joni Gray, who represents the north county 4th District, has already announced plans to seek another term. Schwartz, who represents the 1st District and is chairwoman of the board, has not yet revealed her plans.
The drive to split Santa Barbara County in half will not be affected by Marshall's decision, whether she is succeeded by a liberal or a conservative, said Jim Diani, leader of a signature drive to place the issue on the ballot by 2006.
"We collected 38,000 signatures by Sept. 30 to place this on the ballot, and we only need to have 20,800 of them certified," said Diani, a Santa Maria developer. "We have 60 days to turn in our petitions and will probably not submit them until around Nov. 15 to avoid confusion with November elections."
So far, only two prospective candidates have emerged as potential replacements for Marshall, both of them north county residents. One is Los Olivos businessman Steven Pappas, a Republican, who could not be reached for comment Monday. Another is the incoming mayor of Solvang, David Smyser, an attorney who specializes in mediation and describes himself as a moderate Republican.
"We're at a very important crossroad in Santa Barbara County," Smyser said. "The move to split this county has arisen from an anger that the north county feels about lack of representation. I think unity is needed now as never before. If people start to see that, it will stop the move to split the county in half."
Although Marshall's political battles have included fights with farmers and developers, one of her most heated confrontations has come in her dealings with the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, which recently opened an expanded gambling casino across California 246 from the small community of Santa Ynez.
She has been the strongest voice demanding that the Chumash pay millions of dollars in local mitigation fees, demands that the tribe has ignored on grounds of sovereign nation status.
"I think personalities have played a part in this impasse," Smyser said. "A lot has to do with the way you approach people. Do I think the tribe could do more? Yes. But I think that's also the view of Vincent Armenta, the tribal chairman. Let's work together on this. It doesn't have to always be a big fight."
Armenta's reaction Friday was straightforward: "Good. She divided her district. It's time for the district to have fair representation."
Marshall was unfazed when told of Armenta's comments. "That's basically name calling," she said. "It's a response I could expect from Vince."