For the last several years, the five members of the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors have enjoyed a congenial relationship despite their differences, whether they’re from North or South County, or are liberal or conservative. The pleasant relationship has had much to do with the work of Joe Centeno, a former Santa Maria police chief who recently retired from the supes after eight years as a representative of the county’s 5th District, to make it that way.
Centeno, usually conservative on land-use and fiscal issues but fairly liberal when it came to social issues, often teamed with his South County counterparts in developing social policy. Even when they disagreed, the tone remained civil.
Centeno was conspicuously absent Tuesday for the swearing-in of his successor, Steve Lavagnino, son of Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino and former staff member to Abel Maldonado and Elton Gallegly. Traditionally, outgoing supervisors attend the swearing-in ceremony. Centeno never endorsed Lavagnino in the June primary (which Lavagnino won handily over Santa Maria City Councilmember Alice Patino), and Lavagnino believed Centeno didn’t “want anything to do with him,” according to one county insider. Lavagnino essentially admitted as much in an interview prior to being sworn in. “We never really had a relationship,” explained Lavagnino, who said he’s had no communication with Centeno’s office during the transition time.
Their relationship aside, it appears Lavagnino will be offering a much more conservative approach than Centeno did, and many are looking with caution to the newcomer to the board, as he has been outspoken in his conservative social views. He’s mentioned ending the Children’s Health Initiative, the yearly $1-million funding of a health insurance program for thousands of county children who weren’t covered by state programs, and one of Centeno’s passions and legacies on the board. “It’s basically $1 million aimed at kids here illegally or whose parents are here illegally,” Lavagnino said. “I want to take care of taxpaying citizens who are here legally.” Along those lines, Lavagnino has also alluded to implementing a verification system to halt benefits given by the county to illegal immigrants. Other conservative members of the board — like 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray and former 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone — have never broached those subjects, and the idea is not likely to go over well with the South County crew.
As with all boards, this one is going to have differences of opinions, and that comes as a surprise to no one. What remains to be seen is the way in which these disagreements are handled. “The tone of the board could change, or it could stay the same,” said 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, “and it’s up to Mr. Lavagnino.” The two enjoyed a moment after Lavagnino took the dais, when Carbajal nominated Gray as board chair for the upcoming year, and Lavagnino seconded the motion. “It’s the start of something right,” 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf remarked to laughter.
While Tuesday’s events were filled mostly with pomp and circumstance, the members of the 161st rendering of the Board of Supervisors have their work cut out for them. The five supes made frequent mention of the looming budget cuts that will move to front-and-center in the weeks and months ahead. The county faces an $80-million to $90-million budget deficit which will lead to employee and service cuts. When Lavagnino won the election, he said, “I was excited for about 10 minutes, and then started understanding what we’re facing,” he said.
Already, county staff is looking at where departments can be trimmed, and County CEO Chandra Wallar — going through her first budget cycle at the helm — is encouraging departments with similar missions to see where they can eliminate overlaps and increase efficiencies. As part of the deficit, the board will be dealing with a $30-million increase in county contributions to the retirement system. The board is expected to receive an update on the second-quarter financial numbers on February 1. “It’s time to get on with the work,” Gray said.
As for Lavagnino, he plans to have his chief of staff, Cory Bantilan — Mike Stoker’s campaign manager and former aide to Tony Strickland — based in the South County administration building to keep engaged with what is happening, while also holding an office in the North County.
Also sworn in Tuesday were incumbents Auditor-Controller Bob Geis, Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Joe Holland, Superior Court Judge Jean Dandona, schools Superintendent Bill Cirone, Sheriff Bill Brown, and Wolf, as well as Treasurer-Tax Collector-Public Administrator Harry Hagen and District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who are serving their first four-year terms at the helms of their departments.