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Looking back, looking forward

New Times sits down with Sarah Christie

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I’m sitting opposite Sarah Christie in her living room. She’s just pulled a kettle of boiling water from a wood-burning stove and poured two cups of tea. She has some collection of folksy music playing and occasionally jumps up to fiddle with the stereo or put in a new CD when the music stops. When she walks back, she sways her hips slightly in little dances, and when she sits back down, she sometimes sings along for a word or two.

“All right, first question,” I say. “Any regrets? And looking back now, is there anything you would have done differently?”

On Dec. 17, the night before, at the end of a full-day planning commission meeting—the last such meeting of the year—Christie formally announced her resignation as both chair and commissioner. She read a prepared speech, and her voice quivered on the edge of tears. When she finished, the room broke into full applause. Audience members, county staffers, and the commission all stood.

Not long after, Supervisor Jim Patterson released a statement explaining why he had asked Christie to step down.

“Contrary to recent speculation, there is positively no substance to the assertions that this action is politically motivated or that I’m being pressured by some unknown entity or entities to ‘fire’ Ms. Christie,” Patterson wrote. Patterson replaced Christie with Dan O’Grady of Atascadero, his appointee on the Water Resources Advisory Committee.

He complimented her five years of service, but said the two “have very different ways of pursuing and accomplishing” their goals.

Conversely, in her speech, Christie said Patterson “has grown weary of defending me.”

But back to that first question:

“You know I gave that job my all,” Christie says. She’s not wearing any shoes. She’s got on a pair of jeans and a shirt featuring a large dog and the words, “Not your typical political animal.”

“And I did the very best job I could, and I think I did a good job,” she continues. “And I don’t regret a single vote that I ever made in five years on the planning commission. Because I always made my vote according to the law as it applies to the fact in the record, regardless of who the applicant was and regardless of what my personal tastes or preferences might have been. And I don’t have a single regret. I, honestly, if I had to do it over again, I can’t think of one thing I would have done differently.”

NT: I know you hate this description, but why are you so controversial?

SC: “I think it’s because I have the ability to articulate a rational argument in support of a perspective that is very threatening to the entrenched interests that have become accustomed to seeing the public’s business done in a particular way. And because we actually have a forward-thinking, open-minded planning commission right now that understands the necessity of change in the way we approach land-use planning in this county, those articulate, rational arguments as often as not have an impact.

“That’s a roundabout way of saying I have the ability to get the vote. Now if I was—you know—an abrasive hell-on-wheels-roller-derby-queen with no social skills, which is what the mythology promotes, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I would be discounted and marginalized and inconsequential.”

NT: Were you surprised by Supervisor Jim Patterson’s official statement?

SC: “It made me laugh.”

NT: Why were you asked to resign?

SC: “As you know, I’m a former reporter, and in all the years I did that work, I developed the ability to remember words clearly because you don’t always have the ability to take notes. And I remember very clearly what he said to me, and what he said to me was this: ‘I am done with you, I am so done with you. I have been defending you since the day I appointed you, and I can’t defend you anymore because at this point I agree with the people who are criticizing you.’ And that is verbatim. And as I said last night, I don’t know what that means because I haven’t changed. I mean, I hope I have grown in the job, but in terms of my values and my priorities, I have been completely consistent, regardless of what side of the vote I was on. … I have never ever voted against those values. I haven’t changed. Begs the question: Who’s changed? What’s changed?”

NT: What’s next?

Christie sings along to the music a bit, then starts laughing.

SC: “Well, surprising as it might seem, I actually have quite a full life outside of the planning commission. I know it seems like that’s kind of the sum total of who I am and how I live and what I do. The reality is it’s been an incredible challenge to try and manage a very demanding full-time job that takes place largely in a city that’s 300 miles away from here [Christie is legislative director with the California Coastal Commission in Sacramento]. And maintain a 25-acre property as a single person with no hired help. And still maintain relationships with my family and friends. And still make time for music festivals. And so, not serving on the planning commission anymore is actually going to deescalate my crazy life into kind of a more normal tempo. … The question is: What am I going to do in terms of my public engagement and advocacy and my continuing sense of responsibility to be taking my part in this experiment we have called participatory democracy?”

Pretty soon, we’re talking about the commission’s work over the last year, like the Los Osos sewer project, a new grading ordinance, and the Conservation and Open Space Element.

“We were fortunate that we had some long-range planning opportunities,” she says. “That’s where the real change takes place. … Those long-range policy documents are the kind of things that are going to have payoff for years, if not decades to come. The kind of projects that they will shape and hopefully the kind of projects that they will prevent will have benefits to future generations that we can’t even calculate. Because I guarantee you, 10 years from now there’s going to be some project—some god-awful project—coming down the pike, and there’s going to be some group of activists who makes a commitment to protect their home front, and the way they’ll do it is by turning to those policies and turning to those ordinances and say, ‘Look, you can’t do this. It says right here you can’t do this. If you do this, it will be inconsistent with your general plan.’

“So I feel very reverent that I have been able to help craft the tools that people can use in the future in the continued fight to protect this place,” she continues. “I want you to use that quote. That’s the thing I mean more than anything I’ve said to you today.”

Christie usually doesn’t like talking about herself or her public persona. Before we started the interview, she said she’d like to talk about the commission and the planning department in general—really, the philosophy of planning.

“We desperately, desperately need a planning director,” she says. “Because that department is rudderless right now.”

Actually, the overarching thought process should be retooled, she thinks. She stresses that there are a lot of really good planners, but the motto in the department, which Christie clearly sees as something dangerous, emphasizes that their No. 1 job is customer service.

   “The applicant is that client, the person writing the check,” she says. When you look at things that way, she thinks, “your obligation is to get them what they want.”

 Contact Staff Writer Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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