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Ex-commissioner Sarah Christie says she was betrayed

Former Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie says the man who appointed her, Supervisor Jim Patterson, betrayed her in “a muscular act of political disloyalty” and has created a rift in the North County environmental movement.

Christie resigned Thursday under pressure from Patterson, who asked her to leave.

Christie said Patterson knuckled under to people “who came running into his office with their hair on fire and said Sarah Christie is trying to hijack the General Plan.”

Patterson denied the existence of either a betrayal or a rift among environmentalists.

Some Christie supporters said at a minimum Patterson may lose support among his base should he run for re-election in 2012.

Sue Harvey of the environmental group North County Watch said the chief problem with Christie’s departure is the loss of her knowledge and skills. But, she added, “If you are asking does this fragment and erode Patterson’s political base, yes I believe it does.”

Morro Bay Vice Mayor Betty Winholtz was part of a group that tried to talk Patterson out of replacing Christie a week before he did so. She told The Tribune on Tuesday that the group warned him it would be political suicide to abandon Christie.

However, Patterson told them and later the general public that he asked Christie to resign because a growing number of people were telling him that they were not being treated even-handedly when they went before the commission.

He said, for those people, “It was like going to court and thinking the judge is biased and you don’t have a chance.”

“I try to ... build consensus,” Patterson told The Tribune. “I don’t think she was good at building consensus.”

Asked if that were perception or reality, Patterson said, “It’s actuality as well.” He said he observed her at commission hearings and “she was not handling herself well,” coming off as confrontational and “too forceful.”

Political fallout

Christie and Patterson spoke with The Tribune in separate interviews.

The discussions delineated a fissure that has been widening since at least last summer between the two old friends and political collaborators. The pair worked to dislodge conservative Supervisor Mike Ryan in 2004 and fend off a strong attack from Ryan acolyte Debbie Arnold in 2008.

Christie, a strong-minded, highly knowledgeable environmentalist and a member of the California Coastal Commission staff, drew criticism from the start, particularly from North County ranchers, gravel miners and property rights advocates.

She acknowledges being a lightning rod for criticism but adds, “Lightning rods are important; they keep your house from burning down.”

Until this past summer, Patterson defended her, even during the 2008 campaign when she was being loudly reviled by Patterson’s opponents. He said in light of that and other acts of loyalty, he finds Christie’s accusation of betrayal “odd.”

“I don’t get the betrayal thing,” Patterson said.

During the 2008 election, Christie said Patterson’s campaign polled to see how much of a drag she was on his re-election chances. “It was on the table,” she said.

Patterson was re-elected in June 2008, but it was not until this past August that he told her to prepare her exit strategy, she said.

Christie said he told her there are people in the community who would not speak to him because she was his planning commissioner.

“He thinks with me gone the noise will stop and he can go back to being the beloved, benevolent politician he sees himself as,” Christie said.

Christie believes the change in Patterson’s thinking occurred after she submitted comments ahead of time for the commission’s discussion about energy last summer. None of the other commissioners did that this time around, although Christie said they had in previous meetings on other subjects.

She said people unhappy about the way that meeting went showed up at the next hearing and “excoriated the Planning Commission.”

Patterson said it is “absolutely untrue” that he is being pressured by energy companies.

He said he had been “thinking about this for a long time,” and his feeling that it was time for a change grew when he began hearing complaints about Christie’s confrontational style from people who were “not the usual critics.”

“I’m talking about the general public,” he said, citing people in business, health care, agriculture and housing, for example.

None of Christie’s fellow planning commissioners who spoke at the commission meeting after she resigned echoed Patterson’s criticism.

Bruce White, who represents the conservative North County on the commission, called her “thoughtful, considerate and respectful.”

South County farmer Gene Mehlschau, who sometimes disagrees with Christie on policy, added that “the issues are more widely discussed because we are different; that’s the beauty of it.”

In one sense, the matter is academic. Patterson has appointed Dan O’Grady of Atascadero, who has similar values but a different style, saying, “She (Christie) is not the only one who can do this work.”

But if the coalition that worked to put Patterson in office falls apart, it could put a conservative back on the board from the 5th District. That in turn could tip the board’s 3-2 environmental balance back into a 3-2 pro-growth dynamic.

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