Santa Maria city attorney closes out 19-year tenure

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[b]Santa Maria city attorney closes out 19-year tenure[/b] By Quintin Cushner/Staff Writer To understand why Santa Maria officials value departing City Attorney Art Montandon, one need only look at his role in eliminating the olfactory nuisance that was the Williams Feed Lot. Until 1996, Williams Feed Lot and its thousands of cattle occupied a parcel of land bordering northwest Santa Maria, remembers City Manager Tim Ness. “The smell was horrendous,” Ness said, adding that citizens complained to the City Council about the cattle’s odoriferous manure. Since it existed outside city property, however, there seemed to be little the city could do. That was until Montandon, demonstrating the creative thinking that would represent the best aspects of his tenure as city attorney, came up with the idea of establishing a landscaping and lighting district in the area affected by the lot, Ness said. He proposed an informal ballot initiative that called for everyone who lived west of Broadway and north of Main Street to pay $1.82 per month to eventually buy out Williams Feed Lot. The residents surveyed overwhelmingly supported the idea, Ness said. Through the assessment, local citizens paid $700,000 to buy out the lot, and then immediately closed it. “Art is very pragmatic,” Ness said. “He’s solutions oriented and a problem solver.” Wednesday is Montandon’s last day as city attorney. He has accepted a new job as legal counsel and assistant general manager for the Cambria Community Services District, which is the community he’s lived in since 2000. Montandon, 51, said he’s tired of the hour-plus commute and that he wants to spend more time with his recently expanded family. In December, Montandon and his wife adopted five children – three of his wife’s grandchildren, ranging in age from 5 to 7, and her two older daughters, who are in their twenties. The younger children’s parents struggled with drug and emotional problems, said Montandon, who had custody of the children for the last three years. He also has a 17-year old son with his wife, Lynn. The departing city attorney said he also wanted to take more time to care for his ailing wife. For years, Lynn Montandon has suffered from “multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome.” The disease, in which people become allergic to even low levels of chemicals in their environment, can trigger both physical and psychological symptoms. Multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome was depicted in the 1995 film “Safe,” on which Lynn was a technical adviser. “He was commuting to Cambria and his wife’s not real well, and sometimes you just have to make these kinds of decisions.” said Mayor Larry Lavagnino. “He did a great job for the city of Santa Maria.” During his tenure, Montandon also butted heads with law enforcement agencies. [b]Montandon got himself embroiled in a controversy in December when the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office accused him of interfering in a criminal case it was investigating. District Attorney’s officials believe Montandon may have obstructed their investigation by having unauthorized contact with two women charged in a prostitution case, and are still considering filing charges against him, according to Assistant District Attorney Christie Stanley. For his part, Montandon denies any wrongdoing in the matter, and characterizes the District Attorney’s investigation as the product of a long-time feud between the two entities, the origins of which he is unsure. “Personally I think that whole thing has been blown way out of proportion,” Ness said, adding, “He and the district attorney’s office have never gotten along.” Montandon was also criticized by the Santa Maria Police Officers Association for his role in the dismissal of Police Chief John Sterling in May 2003.[/b] Though Ness decided to fire Sterling, Montandon defended the city’s right to do so. The Police Officers Association opposed Sterling’s dismissal. Cpl. Norman Comé, the current head of the Police Officers Association, did not return calls requesting comment on Montandon. Sterling only offered a cryptic comment on him. “There’s controversy surrounding Art,” Sterling said. Montandon said he has no problems with the Police Department and that he counts many of its employees as his friends. Police Chief Danny Macagni said he’s had a good working relationship with Montandon, noting that the city attorney will be difficult to replace. He acknowledged that there were conflicts between Montandon and the Police Officers Association in the past, but wouldn’t go into them. Macagni said those issues have since been resolved. Deputy City Attorney Wendy Stockton will take over as Interim City Attorney until a permanent replacement is selected by the City Council, Ness said. Since 1985, Montandon has acted as city attorney, representing Santa Maria in litigation involving the city and code compliance, and as attorney for redevelopment. He also managed a staff of 10 full- and part-time workers, with a budget of $797,000. When he took over, Montandon was the youngest city attorney in California at age 32, he said. The city then had population of about 40,000 and a Latino community that did not exert much influence. Now, the Latino population represents 60 percent of the city’s population and is a strong political presence in the community, he said. The housing market in Santa Maria was much more modest when he first arrived, said Montandon, who only lived in the area for a brief time because the agricultural chemicals irritated his wife’s condition. “Then, anyone who wanted a big house, bought outside the city,” he said, adding that new construction has turned what was once an affordable place to live into an expensive one. During his tenure, he represented Santa Maria in a number of hot-button issues, including a sexual discrimination case brought against city officials that lingered until 1989. The city eventually prevailed in that matter. In 1993, the City Council was prepared to give a $60,000 block grant to Planned Parenthood, provided that group didn’t use the money for abortion. The group blanched, and Montandon was unsuccessful in getting the grant legalized. The council ended up never giving the grant. In 1998, Montandon left the city to take a job as a lawyer for Gateway, Inc. However, he left that position for family reasons after nine months and resumed his work for Santa Maria. The biggest legal issue currently facing Santa Maria is a pending groundwater rights suit involving the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District and the city. Interim City Attorney Wendy Stockton will manage that issue in-house at least until a permanent city attorney is named, Ness said. That job will pay at least $130,000 per year, he said. Montandon is retiring after more than 19 years with the city at an annual salary of about $160,000 plus pay for performance. * Staff writer Quintin Cushner can be reached at 739-2217 or by e-mail at June 29, 2004 Source:

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