Eric Onnen
Paul Wellman

There’s an election this November to fill three open seats on the Goleta City Council, but so far, only two candidates — incumbents Roger Aceves and Michael Bennett — are in the running. That leaves the seat of Eric Onnen, who is stepping away from politics to focus on his Santa Barbara Airbus business, open for the taking, and the city’s politicos are starting to wonder why no one is stepping up to the plate.

“With a race like this, you’ve got to be starting early, and now it’s getting late,” said Nels Henderson, campaign manager for Aceves and longtime political consultant in the Santa Barbara region, who said June 1 would be the latest he would ever advise a serious candidate to declare. “Goleta is big enough that you really need to do that. There are a lot of doors to knock and a lot of money to raise.”

Roger Aceves
Paul Wellman (file)

Onnen, who said that the typical Goleta council campaign costs about $30,000 to $40,000, is also surprised. “I got the word out early because I wanted to make it fair for someone else in the community to plan for it,” said Onnen, who would like to see another small business owner replace him. “You have to plan for the actual campaign, but you also have to look at life for the next four years and see how it fits in.” Onnen said that he’s offered to speak with anyone interested, but no one’s taken him up on that yet.

If Onnen represents the council’s pro-business bloc, then councilmember Margaret Connell is the face of environmental protection, but that camp is also lacking in a candidate. “Some of us are asking around for candidates who might be of our persuasion, but we don’t have a name to put forward at this time,” said Connell, who recalled the hard time that Bennett had in filling a Planning Commission post recently. “He eventually made an appointment, but it was several months before he was able to do that. You would think that there would be a number of people who are eager, especially because it’s seen as a stepping stone to the council.”

Margaret Connell
Paul Wellman

As to why no on has stepped forward, all three believe that it might just be because Goleta residents are currently satisfied with the existing direction of the council. “We don’t have the level of tension in the community that has existed the last couple elections, when there was a perceived need for change and interested constituencies that really desired to have their views represented,” said Onnen. “We’ve been working together pretty well. We’ve certainly looked to solutions that have more balance.”

There is also less civic engagement that other jurisdictions, largely because Goleta is still a young city without many committees to serve on. “We don’t have a lot of opportunities for citizens to participate in city government,” said Connell, who has advocated for more, including a parks and recreation commission. “We don’t have the kind of training ground that the county or City of Santa Barbara has yet.” She also realizes that Goletans aren’t naturally political animals, explaining that she was a co-founder of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, but that Goleta membership was always “pretty thin.” Connell explained, “It’s about making people realize that there are important issues here where citizens should be involved. For awhile, that was the case, but now I don’t know. We don’t have a lot of people coming to our meetings anymore”

And it just might be demographics. “Goleta is a community where there are lots of people working hard every day, taking care of their families, and don’t have time for a $400 a month job,” said Henderson, who said he might even be interested, except that he lives in Noleta.

Technically, since the filing period does not open until mid-July, there isn’t really a missing candidate yet, and all remain optimistic that someone will step up to the task. “I’m hopeful that we have some good candidates come forward, because it’s healthy for the process,” said Onnen. “I like there to be choice, because this is an opportunity for the public to evaluate the folks who are running for reelection.”

If there’s not, no one seems to know what will happen, but anyone who’s followed politics for any length of time knows that there is always a cast of characters ready to throw their hats in at the last minute. Or as Henderson put it, “Someone will at least do a Hail Mary.”


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