Two months ago, we wrote about the deplorable conditions on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara due to numerous and aggressive homeless people and umpteen vacant buildings.
The avalanche of feedback we received was vehement in its agreement with our assessment of the situation and our contention that Santa Barbara city officials and planners long ago lost the plot and appear to have no new solutions going forward.
And now, lo and behold, we’ve happened upon a city program (taxpayer-funded, of course) created in 2017 called “Santa Barbara Ambassadors.”
According to their website, these “ambassadors” exist for “enhancing the experience on State Street, by maintaining a consistent presence and working alongside local organizations, businesses and citizens for wholesome solutions.”
However, the way we heard it, from reporter Katy Grimes on an internet news site, “ambassadors” are apparently more interested in glossing over the State Street debacle with positive PR than solving the problems business owners and folks out for a stroll experience on a daily basis.
To illustrate, a 40-year-old business owner reported this:
“Last night, Friday, I was coming in to work and crossed State Street at Figueroa. I saw a vagrant who has parked himself there every Friday for the past few weeks. He sits in a folding chair and takes up a lot of space with a condo’s worth of belongings in a cart. Every Friday I call the Santa Barbara Street Ambassadors and ask them to have the guy moved along.
“Two SB Ambassadors were standing on the corner talking, in plain view of the vagrant. I stopped my car and got out and told them to do their jobs and move the guy. One was a heavy-set Latina woman, maybe around 30, and a young Latino male with glasses who I believe was younger and less senior. She told me to get back in my car and move along. I told her to do her job.
“I parked in Lot 4 and immediately called the Street Ambassador line and made a complaint about the vagrant, and about the Ambassadors, to the dispatcher. She said she would have the Ambassadors speak to the vagrant.
“A few minutes later I walked up the block and took pictures of the vagrant and his belongings. The 2 Ambassadors were still on the corner so I asked them if they had asked the vagrant to move. They both told me that they said Hi to him. I said, ‘You said Hi? Why don’t you do your job?’
“I walked back to my business, and when I looked back, the Ambassadors were both following me, and the female was using her phone to take videos of me. I turned and asked her if she was taping me and she said, ‘Yes. Is that your business? Can you stand there? I want to get a good video of you with your sign so I can post it on Yelp and show what a great downtown businessman you are.”
“I said, ‘You’re taping me?’ She said, ‘Yeah, it’ll look great on Yelp, it’ll be great for your business when people see the kind of person you are.’
“I said, ‘You won’t do your job, so you tape me and threaten me?’
“She said, ‘I’m doing it right now.’”
BOTH SIDES OF THE STORY
The Investigator always likes to hear both sides of any story so naturally we reached out to Santa Barbara Ambassadors through their generic e-mail address
Roy Forney, downtown parking operations supervisor, responded four days later by requesting to know what kind of information we were seeking.
We asked for a response to the above criticism and also if The Investigator could tag along with “ambassadors” on their rounds to observe how they operate.
A prompt response arrived from Brian Bosse, the waterfront business manager: “Our Ambassadors had a different take on the incident, and we are using it as a learning opportunity for all Ambassadors. The issue is one that can’t be solved by moving a person off a sidewalk, or by a Downtown Ambassador, or a Sit, Lie Ordinance. Homelessness is a much more complicated issue.”
No mention of what their “take” on it was or whether we can observe “ambassadors” in action.
Mr. Bosse also identified the “40-year-old business owner” quoted earlier. (We are not sure if this was meant to be malicious. We understand the complainant did not want his name revealed.)
We, of course, reached out to the business owner, who did not want to discuss the issue further because, as he told us, “It would be a shame for my business, colleagues and employees to get dragged into a wider and more public discussion of my comments. I have already seen a fair amount of negativity directed at me — including some threats.”
Huh? Threats from public servants?
When prodded, the business owner would not identify from whom threats were received nor their nature.
Nonetheless, nothing (beyond corruption and abuse of power) gets our gander up more than threats to freedom of expression.
So, of course, this required a deeper delving.
Starting with this: What exactly is “Santa Barbara Ambassadors”?
As in, who are they and what do they actually do?
Hence, our email to Mr. Bosse and his reply:
1) How many SB Ambassadors are on the books?
Answer: Seven Downtown Ambassadors are currently employed
2) Are they volunteers or do they receive payment?
Answer: “Paid position.”
3) If paid, what are their salaries? (If part-time, the hourly rate.)
Answer: “Part-time Hourly City Staff Position/$18 per hour/999 hours per fiscal year.”
4) How are these Ambassadors selected — i.e., what are their qualifications for the job?
Answer: “Interested candidates go through the City of Santa Barbara’s standard employment process. Desired qualifications include: Customer Service Experience and prior experience working with the public.”
5) How have they affected change in Santa Barbara since the creation of this program in 2017? Specific details are welcome.
Answer: “The Downtown Ambassador Program is a program providing hospitality and customer service while identifying and reporting State Street issues and individuals who are in need of assistance with referrals to the appropriate resources. We are very proud of the assistance our Ambassadors provide to all members of the public visiting downtown.”
While this answered a few basic questions, the last part was a wee bit too glib from our perspective, so we followed up with …
6) You say you use such input to better your program. Was your program bettered by this input? If so, in what way? Reprimands? Change of policy? Can you furnish me with specific examples of how and why service provided to the public by “ambassadors” has earned your pride?
And regarding question/answer No. 4: Can you confirm that none of the seven “ambassadors” employed are related to any Santa Barbara City Council members, the Board of Supervisors and/or City Administrator officials?
Regarding question/answer No. 5: May I see a few actual reports “identifying and reporting State Street issues” that have been submitted by “ambassadors.”
Finally, I would like to observe the “ambassadors” at work. Can this be arranged?
Mr. Bosse responded thus:
“We used the incident to discuss with our Ambassadors the communication skills needed in dealing with members of the public when they are angry and confrontational.”
So here we have it. The problem was not homeless people obstructing the sidewalks. The problem, from the city’s perspective, was the 40-year-old business owner who was “angry and confrontational.”
As for “specific examples,” Mr. Bosse replied:
“Any time our Ambassadors can help a member of the public with simple directions that improve their visit or possibly connecting someone experiencing a tough time in their life with social services that will help them, is a positive and something our entire community can take pride in.”
Again, it looks as if the “ambassadors,” and those overseeing such diplomacy, side with the homeless, not the business owners. (And so much for specific examples.)
Any relatives of City Council members, members of the Board of Supervisors or city administration officials?
Mr. Bosse’s response:
“As far as I am aware, this is not a standard question on the City of Santa Barbara Human Resources job application. As such, I am unaware of the various relations you refer to above.”
You’d think the city would strive to ensure that any appearance of nepotism be avoided when it comes to competitive, cushiony city jobs.
As for being able to view reports “identifying State Street issues”:
“We maintain daily reports that we keep internally as they often include the names of individuals who were referred to various community organizations.”
In other words: No, you can’t.
It appears that even the homeless, who exhibit themselves publicly all day long, are allowed to hide behind so-called “privacy.” Unless this program’s administrators have their own reasons for keeping the results concealed.
And finally, may we observe Ambassadors at work?
“Unfortunately, we do not offer a ‘ride along’ program.”
NO ACCOUNTING FOR YOUR MONEY
Remember, dear reader, this is a public program, funded by the public — i.e., taxpayer money. Your money.
Yet the media, which reports to the public, is denied access.
Based on what Mr. Bosse wrote, we calculate that $125,874 is spent on this program each year. You are paying this price. But you’re not allowed to know how it’s working or even if it’s working.
You would think those who supervise the “ambassadors” — Roy Forney, Brian Bosse — would want to oblige us by exhibiting all the good work their “ambassadors” have been doing.
Think again. Because they won’t show us a darn thing. We’re just supposed to take their word about how “proud” they are of their program.
Question: Based on the above interaction, what faith should we have in the worthiness of this city program?
Because it may well be, without proof to the contrary, “Santa Barbara Ambassadors” is just another example of boondoggle and a waste of public money.
Update: Where are the “ambassadors” every Saturday morning when a particular homeless man stomps his way through Farmer’s Market yelling and cursing threats to anyone and everyone out trying to enjoy a festive shopping experience? Nowhere, as far as we can tell.
And what might be their “take” on stall owners or shoppers who object to verbal abuse and disturbance of the peace? Based on what we’ve been told, their “take” is that the problem is the attitude of law-abiding citizens displeased with being abused.
In addition to setting local social media platforms on fire, last week’s column on the Clark Estate brought another avalanche of email from readers hopping mad at the way Jeremy Lindaman has been running the Bellosguardo Foundation; how he has failed, since his appointment as foundation president, to open it to the public as a center for culture and the arts.
Tom: “We are grateful for your courage, investigative talents and concern for our ‘Once upon a time’ American Jewel, Santa Barbara. Are you in possession of Mr. Lindaman’s email address? We would like to communicate our thoughts. Today, we will contact Randy Rowse regarding the appalling ‘Bellosguardo Boondoggle.’ Contacting soon-to-be ex-mayor Murillo is a waste of keyboard clicks.”
Our comment: Happy to oblige as he is a public figure: Jeremylindaman@bellosguardofoundation.org.
Celeste: “Keep digging. Demand an audit of the Foundation. Demand that City Hall step in. I’ve been concerned about the administration of Bellosguardo for some time. This goes back to when Helene Schneider first appointed people to the Foundation. You would have thought that she’d have sought out experts from throughout our community: an architect; the Historical Society; art historians from UCSB, Westmont, or SBCC; the Santa Barbara Art Museum; the Music Academy. Nope. Instead, she appointed people who supported her failed bid for Congress. There had also been a longtime caregiver who lived on the estate’s grounds. When Jeremy was installed, the caregiver was given the boot. Jeremy lives there still.”
Our comment: The foundation’s lawyer denies that Mr. Lindaman resides on the Clark Estate.
Nancy: “Once again you have hit the nail on the head. You are the only one in seven years who has boldly come out with a statement on this travesty of corruption and secrecy.”
Charles: “Shining a flashlight down various local ‘rat-holes’ is a necessary task of the Fourth Estate both long neglected and long overdue. It is beyond irksome that a small coterie of foundation minions roams the place (and who may also live there) as if lording it over their own fiefdom.”
We have a few corrections, courtesy of Bill Dedman, author of “Empty Mansions.” (Please note that we gave Mr. Lindaman several opportunities and ample time to provide these corrections himself in advance of publication last week, to no avail).
1. We referenced (in our correspondence with Mr. Lindaman) the foundation’s Articles of Incorporation filed June 2011 with the California Secretary of State. We have since learned this is not the genuine article but a “sham” that Huguette Clark’s relatives tried to pull off in an unsuccessful attempt to hijack the Clark Estate and place it under their own control. The genuine foundation was created a few years later in New York when Huguette’s Will was settled by the court.
2. “Huguette left her property to a private foundation, not the city of Santa Barbara,” wrote Mr. Dedman, “a foundation with the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the arts.”
City Attorney Ariel Calonne confirmed for us that “the city is apparently not a beneficiary in the estate plan” and therefore does not fall within the purview of the Santa Barbara Attorney’s Office to investigate. Mr. Calonne pointed to the New York Attorney General’s Office as the correct venue for citizens who wish to voice concerns or complaints: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-416-8090.
3. “The foundation is allowed to have private events,” wrote Mr. Dedman. “These events benefit the foundation by raising funds for its publicly stated plans.”
Our comment regarding point number 3:
According to a tax return filed by the Bellosguardo Foundation in July 2020 for the calendar year July 2018-June 2019, event revenue was around $85,000 but “promotional and event expenses” (not itemized) was a whopping $455,216.
This means that the foundation spent five times more money to “promote” the offering of events on the Clark Estate than they accrued from events. Perhaps the foundation’s board of directors should seek a more detailed accounting of these “promotional” expenses.
Editor’s note: The foundation reported on its work with the Clark Estate in a news release about Huguette Clark’s paintings being displayed next year at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. See the story on B3.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.