Sharon Byrne
Paul Wellman (file)

Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Milpas Community Association (MCA), is running for the Santa Barbara City Council. Suddenly, what was already an interesting election is now more intriguing and more complicated. Up for grabs are three incumbent seats currently held by conservative councilmembers who hold the majority. They’re also the ones who’ve been Byrne’s closest allies in city government — and they are none too pleased by the announcement.

As for the homeless and their advocates, they view Byrne as wanting to run them out of town or into jail. Though Byrne insists she is not anti-homeless, the fact that she heads the group singularly responsible for beefing up police enforcement of illegal-lodging, open-container, and drunk-in-public offenses — laws typically aimed at the homeless — means that, in their minds, she couldn’t be more so.

Byrne says she’s running because she’s frustrated with a decline in the city’s quality of life. She points to, among other things, the recent spate of burglaries in San Roque and a lackadaisical attitude toward homeless camps along the freeway. Though the City Council’s conservative majority has been responsive to the MCA’s concerns, Byrne says it hasn’t acted strongly enough or quickly enough. Take, for example, the field trip to Santa Monica that the MCA arranged for city officials. Byrne wonders what effect it had. “We looked at some effective policies [toward homelessness down there]. What movement have you seen on that?” she asked. “It’s been four months.”

Byrne was one of 46 residents who applied for appointment to the council seat vacated by Assemblymember Das Williams in January. In that process, she received votes from councilmembers Dale Francisco, Frank Hotchkiss, and Michael Self — the entire conservative flank minus Randy Rowse (who was subsequently appointed). Now, she’s running against Francisco and Self.

Does she feel guilty? “Yes, I do,” she said. “But I think what’s more important is to focus on the community and its needs. Plus, I am turned off by partisan politics, rites of ascension, payback, and anointing candidates. I don’t like the division created by ‘our side should be in power’ tactics.”

“I confess I was disappointed when I learned that Sharon had decided to run for City Council this fall,” said Hotchkiss in an email. “She had been a staunch supporter of our team, even volunteering to walk precincts at one point for the incumbent candidates, so it was a real surprise to realize that she wanted to replace one of the people she formerly supported.” Joining Byrne in the City Council bid is fellow MCA cofounder and boardmember Sebastian Aldana. Aldana, who has similarly expressed concern that City Hall is quick to forget the needs of Milpas Street residents and business owners, said the two will be running separate campaigns.

However, some see a council that has been quite responsive to more than just the MCA’s concerns. Additional police officers have been hired and the department’s Restorative Policing program has been greatly enhanced by personnel to deal with the problem of street homelessness. Enforcement has also increased, a fence was erected around the Cabrillo Ball Field’s bleachers, and there have been council hearings on “offensive” transient behavior. Byrne believes none of that would have happened without MCA’s aggressive advocacy.

“Sharon has been involved with three things politically in the city,” said Francisco recently. “Marijuana dispensaries, homelessness, and gangs. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between her position on those issues and the incumbents’.” As for the Santa Monica trip, Francisco said, “I’m grateful to Sharon for organizing that trip. It’s obvious that not only did we learn things from Santa Monica, but we’re implementing them.”

And as far as the homeless are concerned, Byrne maintains she is not anti-homeless — that saying so is like saying you’re anti-puppies. Everybody wants to help the homeless, she said. But she wants policies that are effective, not just compassionate. “Where can I get the most return on that investment [of city dollars]? I think that’s what it comes down to.”

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