This year, we felt a little like Goldilocks of Three Bears fame — trying to decide which three candidates would be “just right” to endorse for the Santa Barbara City Council. While Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone, and Deborah Schwartz might not reach Goldilocks’s high standards of perfection, we’re convinced these candidates will help move City Hall in a constructive and modestly progressive direction.
Since December 2010, a conservative majority has controlled the council. At first, we were interested to see how this new political direction would approach the hot-button issues that Santa Barbara faces. These include the perennial problems of affordable housing, density, and traffic congestion, as well as those that proliferate during times of economic downturn, such as public safety, gang violence, and the homeless. It is always possible that a change of views will bring fresh solutions to seemingly intractable problems. We were disappointed in the results.
Instead of forward motion, City Hall has been seized by the politics of paralysis. Did we really need to endure 37 meetings to pass a temporary version of an updated General Plan? Was it really necessary to suffer through 25 equally agonizing meetings on medical marijuana dispensaries to pass a new — and legally indefensible — ordinance? It soon became clear that this new majority could easily vote “no” on any number of new proposals — except spending more money for more cops. But far less clear was on what, if anything, they were willing to vote “yes.”
As the economy collapsed, not surprisingly the political pendulum swung right. Impatience with the homeless grew; concern about gang violence mounted; and hostility to public- employee unions was on the rise. Always better at framing their messages, conservatives took aim at such inflammatory issues as bulb-outs and the Light Blue Line. Framing is the political art of drawing lines in the sand; it’s good for mobilizing angry voters. It isn’t so good for finding middle ground. The candidates we’re endorsing will return City Hall to the proverbial mushy middle. As rhetorically unappetizing as that sounds, it’s where the council needs to be.
We’ve been dismayed by the lack of respect for Santa Barbara’s rich environmental heritage that this current council majority has so painfully demonstrated. While we acknowledge that there are many differing points of view about what can and should be done about climate change, we don’t think there is any plausible scientific evidence to refute the fact that climate change is occurring and that human activity is partially responsible. That is the part that we humans can do something about.
On a seemingly small matter, it was, nevertheless, offensive to watch a governing council purporting to represent this community not pass a tax on plastic bags, let alone enact an outright ban. This was not a symbolic gesture. Plastic bags and water bottles inflict major pollution to the aquatic environment; they inflict serious hurt upon a wide array of living creatures. This damage is utterly avoidable. To reduce our harm, we must be willing to absorb the minor inconvenience of changing our personal habits. While a new ordinance by itself is hardly the answer, it’s definitely part of the solution. Or more to the point, it should have been.
Our chief concern with the conservative majority is its complete lack of the give-and-take necessary to govern. Based on that, we cannot endorse any of the incumbent councilmembers — Dale Francisco, Michael Self, or Randy Rowse.
Ironically, it was this attitude of intractability that dominated the last, more liberal council of 2010. Then, a coalition of moderates and liberals remained fractured over issues of densities and housing affordability. And, more stupidly, they succumbed to petty infighting and personal animosities. We believe that with these three candidates — Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone, and Deborah Schwartz — these problems will not reappear. They are not campaigning on No, No, No. All three are putting forward positive solutions and pledging to maintain a progressive, forward-moving City Hall. And we can rely on the fine political skills of Mayor Helene Schneider to see that will happen.
Candidate Cathy Murillo comes to the campaign with a long and solid background as an activist-reporter. (She has worked for The Santa Barbara Independent as well as the Los Angeles Times and KCSB.) Though she has never served on any of the city’s myriad boards and commissions, Murillo has covered almost all of them in her day. She knows how government works. She knows how to ask tough questions in a nonconfrontational way. And she works extremely hard.
Based on her own life experience, Murillo cares most about representing those who’ve gotten the short end of the stick, economically and politically: renters, bus riders, low-wage workers, at-risk teens, and, yes, even pit bulls. We’d bet money Murillo is the only candidate in the field who spent three nights at the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter researching what the actual conditions were. When it comes to homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health, all of which require regional cooperation, we’re confident that, though Murillo will be moved first by her compassion, she will vote based upon what gets results.
Likewise, Murillo’s brand of environmentalism is not something she read in any book. To a degree not articulated by other candidates, she understands how a healthy system of urban creeks can benefit the entire city, and she is willing to stick her nose out to ensure there’s room in Santa Barbara’s future to allow for steelhead trout, now endangered, to return. In years past, Murillo has not been shy about expressing her activist enthusiasms. More recently, she’s learned to temper her more impetuous impulses but without stifling her essential spirit. We’re optimistic that spirit could energize the council in positive ways.
Of our three endorsees, we know the least about Deborah Schwartz. Although she grew up in Santa Barbara — the daughter of Democratic Party warhorse and environmental champion retired 1st District supervisor Naomi Schwartz — she moved to San Francisco 20 years ago, where she worked in corporate communications for such giants as AT&T. Since returning to town six years ago, she’s served on the county’s Historic Landmarks Advisory Committee and the city’s Planning Commission, where reviews of her service have been somewhat mixed. That’s in part because Schwartz presents herself as an egghead, über-wonk and tends to communicate in terms of intricate bureaucratic constructs that serve to mask her driving passions and concerns. That’s unfortunate.
Of all our endorsees, Schwartz is the most intimately knowledgeable about the details of the General Plan update process, and how understanding that arcane planning language can make a huge difference when it comes to how much affordable housing is likely to be developed — and under what conditions. Schwartz doesn’t just pay lip service to the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots; she’s mastered the unpalatable planning minutiae necessary to translate good intentions into tangible results. Given that the next council will give legislative teeth to the vaguely amorphous General Plan just approved, we feel such skills — in the service of expanding affordable housing opportunities — will more than offset Schwartz’s obvious limitations in formulating easily digestible sound bites.
By contrast, Iya Falcone — with eight years on the council under her belt — is a seasoned pro. During her tenure, Falcone — a bread-and-butter Democrat equally at home with public safety unions and downtown business interests — adhered to a moderate, middle-of-the-road course. Much to the chagrin of her more left-leaning counterparts, she shied away from rhetorically charged symbolic gestures about the war in Iraq, focusing instead on less flashy programs designed to reduce pesticide use in city parks, increase recycling, and expand affordable housing opportunities citywide. During her terms on the council, Falcone frequently found herself on the outs with more liberal Democratic Party activists. But she was hardly the only one responsible for all the intrigue; we’ve been impressed by how she’s managed to kiss and make up with some of the players most out to get her in the past. We believe that spirit of pragmatic cooperation will prevail should she be reelected. Though Falcone has a track record of vigorous support for the police union, and we worried that given the budget constraints, her support might be a problem, she has convinced us that her notions of “public safety” are not defined solely by the number of cops on the city’s payroll.
All of these issues inevitably lead to the budget. And while the City of Santa Barbara’s coffers remain much healthier than other local governments, shortfalls remain a chronic fact of life. As councilmembers struggle to apportion funds throughout the city, a careful understanding of the whole community is critical. Every time one department benefits, other important governmental services suffer. Murillo, Falcone, and Schwartz represent a broad cross section of the community; when weighing such competing interests, we feel their divergent backgrounds will serve the city well.
We urge a vote for Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone, and Deborah Schwartz.