Originally published April 13, 2017 at 12:00a.m., updated April 13, 2017 at 09:58a.m.
Things never really change in Santa Barbara, but they don’t exactly stay the same either. In between these two points lies the city’s equivalent of the twilight zone, where it appears mayoral candidate Hal Conklin could now be caught.
About 24 years ago, Conklin was elected Santa Barbara mayor, but he was booted from office just a few short months later when a couple of Santa Barbara judges concluded the city’s term-limits initiative barred him from serving. Conklin — who served four terms as councilmember from 1977 to 1993 — is now running for mayor in this November’s city election, and the term-limits issue might prove once again to be a banana peel on his path to political destiny.
The wording of the term-limits initiative — written and approved by voters in 1990 as part of a multipronged strategy to make the council more representative of the broader community — was plenty ambiguous in 1993, when Conklin last ran for mayor. Among the five judges who reviewed the matter, there was sharp disagreement what the language actually meant. It hasn’t grown any clearer with the passage of time. That confusion — and Conklin’s distinction as one of only two Santa Barbara mayors to be forced from office — could cast a serious question mark over his efforts to mount a campaign in what could become a crowded and competitive field of candidates.
There are other echoes that might compound Conklin’s sense of déjà vu. Leading the charge against him in 1993 was lantern-jawed libertarian Robert Bacchaus, an outsider eccentric known for his Abraham Lincoln beard. Leading the charge against Conklin today is Ernie Salomon, a take-no-prisoners public access TV talk show host, whose bushy dark eyebrows rise like ropes of smoke off a raging fire.
A retired commercial real estate broker, Salomon is the ever-agitated agitator, always outraged and frequently outrageous. It would be a mistake, however, to sell him short. Salomon — a German Jew who fled Europe with his family to escape Hitler — led a crusade against a chronic con artist who preyed upon a couple of elderly Catholic nuns facing eviction that resulted in her criminal prosecution. Three years ago, he played a key role in bringing down a multimillion-dollar City College bond measure.
According to Salomon’s many email missives, the initiative language is clear enough. “A dog has the right to run and get elected,” he wrote, “but it cannot serve.” At issue are the plain meanings of words like “cumulative,” “consecutive,” and “and.” The initiative clearly prohibits anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms on the City Council and more than two consecutive terms as mayor. Then it states, “No person shall be eligible to serve cumulatively as member of the City Council and Mayor for more than four consecutive four year terms.”
In 1993, Conklin had served four consecutive council terms, but never as mayor. Did that mean he’d used up his cumulative allotted time on the council dais? Conklin said no because he’d never been mayor. His opponent Ray Franco thought otherwise and sued to keep Conklin’s name off the ballot. Judges Ronald Stevens and William Gordon agreed with Franco, but a panel of appellate judges saw it Conklin’s way and ruled he could run. When he won, Bacchaus, the libertarian maverick, sued. Conklin lost that round, stepped down, and beat a graceful retreat from electoral politics.
Last year, Conklin’s long-frustrated mayoral ambitions came out of cryogenic deep-freeze. “Where is the leadership? “ demanded Conklin, who back in the 1970s helped start the city’s first recycling program. But 24 years is a long time to be gone. As accomplished as Conklin was, many voters have forgotten his name; others never knew it. Councilmember Cathy Murillo — darling of the Democratic left — has made her mayoral ambitions unambiguously clear, hosting fundraisers and get-togethers for the past six months. More moderate in tone, personality, and politics is Councilmember Bendy White, who — though unannounced — appears to have finally thrown his hat in the mayoral ring. Other names populate the speculative buzz: Councilmember Randy Rowse and former Deckers CEO Angel Martinez.
In this context, question marks about legal eligibility don’t help. Conklin said he never bothered seeking a legal determination before entering the fray. He was on the council that wrote the initiative, he said, and he knows full well they never intended to write a lifetime cap of 16 years. On this point, he is absolutely correct. Back in 1993 — when the meaning of the initiative was in dispute — the council declared by vote that they never intended to exclude Conklin from running. But the council’s intent, according to judges Stevens and Gordon, was irrelevant; what mattered was — and still is — what voters thought the language meant. And according to the judges, the language was clear.
City Attorney Ariel Calonne has steadfastly declined to render an opinion on the matter, preferring not to get embroiled, he explained, in politics. Conklin’s supporters have vowed to collect the signatures, if need be, to ask voters what they think the term-limits initiative means. As that question festers, Conklin has discovered at least one thing that’s changed dramatically — the pace at which interest groups endorse candidates. It’s accelerated greatly since he last served. Such groups, he said, are rushing to endorse right now, months sooner than when he last ran.
In the meantime, he expressed confidence that the controversy over term limits doesn’t matter. “I just came back from the grocery store,” he recounted. “Four people came up to me and said, ‘I’m ready to go vote right now.’ Not one asked about term limits.”
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected as to Ernie Salomon's origin, who informs that he and his family were Germans who fled to the U.S., arriving the day after World War II broke out.