Post-1/9 Debris Flow, Private Montecito Group Partners with County

They've Funded a New Position Within the County Executive Office

Paul Wellman (file)

Montecito has a new billionaires club.

A group of influential residents has formed the new nonprofit Partnership for Resilient Communities to contribute money to the county government’s post-1/9 Debris Flow recovery effort. It is a public-private partnership funded by at least three anonymous donors whom the group described as billionaires.

Several of the key players sat around a table of French toast and eggs at Jeannine’s last Friday. This breakfast, they said, was one of their first in-person sit-downs; they usually communicate via text and email. “A lot of times philanthropy can spill off on tangential issues,” said 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who is part of the partnership. “They have been really focused on what we need.”

The group includes former city fire chief Pat McElroy, Montecito Planning Commissioner and attorney Joe Cole (who is also a minority shareholder of the Santa Barbara Independent), political consultant Mary Rose, former Montecito Union school board trustee and entrepreneur Brett Matthews, and husband-and-wife screenwriters Les Firestein and Gwyn Lurie.

While the group declined to say exactly how much money they have raised, it is not believed to be chump change. The donations are paying for nationally renowned consultants as well as what they described as technological solutions that they hope will prevent the next debris flow.

Their first question was: “What can we do right away?” Firestein, dubbed the group’s researcher, said he has looked at what has been happening in other countries such as Japan. One idea was to install ring nets across the creeks to reduce the volume and velocity of what is coming down the mountain. Another idea was a solar-powered monitoring system to alert residents to flee their homes.

One of their first actions was to fund a position ​— ​a chief recovery advisor ​— ​in the County Executive Office under CEO Mona Miysasato and her No. 2, Matt Pontes. Six weeks ago, they brought on consultant David Fukutomi, who has experience in disaster relief at the state and federal levels. His six-month contract costs $95,000, according to Pontes.

There are several references to “partnerships” in official county documents, but Fukutomi’s contract was $5,000 shy of the amount needed for the county supervisors’ approval, Pontes explained. He added Fukutomi was not involved in the formal county planning and development process.

Fukutomi, who is based in Camarillo and is also helping Ventura city and county, works out of the county’s emergency office several days a week. He is working on cost recovery and hazard mitigation, Pontes said. He is also working on the emergency alerts system. “It’s been a challenge to really hit the right amount of people but not to scare them when [the rain] hits those thresholds,” he said.

While Miyasato acknowledged it is not common for donations to pay for consultant expertise, she said in an email, “This is a complex and unique recovery effort, and David’s depth of knowledge and understanding of federal and state systems has been extremely valuable.”

The group also managed to snag James Lee Witt, former FEMA director under former president Bill Clinton. In eight years, he oversaw the response to more than 350 natural disasters.

In an interview last week ahead of his April 25 visit to Santa Barbara, Witt said the question continues to be: “How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” He added there are new technologies available today to avert disasters of the future.

Witt was connected to Santa Barbara about 10 years ago, when the now-sunsetted Orfalea Fund was deeply involved in emergency preparedness grant making.

Based in Arkansas, Witt formed a private firm that is modeled after Project Impact, which he created under Clinton. President George W. Bush terminated the program.

Longtime Montecito resident and community advocate J’Amy Brown expressed both gratitude and skepticism. “I am really appreciative, but I’d like to know how much money there is, where it is coming from, and how the community gets to engage in how it is getting spent,” she said.

Pontes acknowledged it was a unique effort but said, “We have never experienced this type of incident in the county before.”

Cole concluded, “Hopefully we’ll be out of business once we accomplish what we need to accomplish.”