May 18 was a sort of symbolic day for outspoken SLO County Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie.
On that day, Christie won ECOSLO’s top environmental award, an honor that shows how she’s regarded by much of the environmental community.
Yet that same day a Tribuneeditorial called for her to step down from the Planning Commission because of her “abrasive” personality.
Indeed, Christie’s position as a county decision-maker—appointed to the Planning Commission post by 5th District Supervisor Jim Patterson in 2005—has become an election issue for Patterson’s opponents, who say she’s “been a divisive force and has alienated the building community,” according to the newspaper editorial.
She’s become the apparent target of a letters-to-the-editor campaign, and Patterson’s opponent, Debbie Arnold, said in an interview that she considers Christie’s votes a valid campaign issue.
“She has really pushed what I would call her personal agenda on the Planning Commission,” said Arnold, who also says Christie’s day job as an aide for the California Coastal Commission is a potential source of conflicts-of-interest, because Planning Commission items sometimes get appealed to the Coastal Commission.
As for Christie’s personality, Arnold demurred: “I have no comment on that.”
But Christie herself is unfazed by the criticism, saying, “You can’t talk about ‘smart growth’ without alienating the building community. Land use issues are inherently contentious, and are almost always
surrounded by conflict.”
Christie believes that her opponents in the building industry are upset because they can’t influence her vote, which she said she bases on “the law and the facts of the case.
“It’s not how much money has been spent on a project, or how many signatures are on a petition. It’s ‘What is going to be in the best long-term interest of the community and the natural resources?’ That’s my framework for decision-making,” she said in an interview.
She said she’s voted in favor of most of the projects before the commission, and states her reasons for any “no” votes, to inform the public about the grounds for her actions.
The planning commissioner pointed out that the criticism leveled at her—like that of other strong women—is based on her personality, rather than on concrete examples, adding, “I think it’s so much easier to try to undermine people who you don’t philosophically agree with by attacking their personality or their communication skills or their style, as opposed to having a substantive conversation about their work.”
A former professional horse-trainer who owns a horse ranch in Creston, Christie noted with a laugh, “Horses are big powerful animals, not unlike developers. In training, you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. You’d be amazed at the similarities between politics and horse training! That sums up my approach to this work.”