Sit-Down with Steve Lavagnino

Supervisor Talks Chumash, Energy, Mental Health, and the Year Ahead

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino
Paul Wellman

The Board of Supervisors kicked off the New Year and performed its annual changing of the guard on Tuesday, not in the Santa Barbara or Santa Maria boardrooms, but in the courthouse’s Mural Room, where the supervisors met from 1928 through 1965. The switch of scenery came at the suggestion of 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who became the board’s new chair and whose seat was once held by Charles Leo Preisker, a key figure in the courthouse’s post-1925-earthquake construction. First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who served as the chair in 2013, thanked his colleagues for their work the past year and handed the gavel over to Lavagnino — who is also known for his stand-up comedy — saying, “I am certain you’ll like his jokes a lot better than mine.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Lavagnino sat down the The Santa Barbara Independent to talk about his new role, his upcoming election (he was first elected in 2010), and his thoughts on what the board has in store. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

What does being chair mean to you? It’s the added responsibility of keeping the meetings flowing. Salud’s done a really good job of that. I’m not looking to change anything. It’s about making sure that everyone’s opinion gets heard, doing it in a timely manner, and keeping the trains running on time.

What do you expect from this year? I think it’s going to be a pretty controversial year again. It’s Santa Barbara County politics. The Chumash issue hasn’t been resolved. We saw what happened with Santa Maria Energy. I think there’s a list of onshore oil producers that are coming to us with additional projects. As always, there are budget issues. I’m sure there are myriad other issues that will end up coming before us. One thing I’m working on is a proposal with Marian Medical Center to bring mental health beds to northern Santa Barbara County. We’re trying to figure out a way to open that back up as a mental health facility instead of spending outrageous amounts of dollars to send our mentally ill to Ventura. We’re working with them and have been working with them for almost a year. That might come to fruition this year.

It was your idea to have the meeting in the mural room — why? It’s a great building. It’s a historic landmark and probably the crown jewel of Santa Barbara County in terms of architecture. I thought it would connect our past with our future.

How is the re-election campaign going? No one has filed to run against you yet. I’m working just as if somebody is going to run. We’re doing all the things that we normally do. We’ll be starting the walk program pretty soon, to see where I’m doing a good job and where I need to improve. I don’t remember too many people who have run unopposed.

How has your first term as supervisor gone? It was everything I expected and then some. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been involved in the political world at the state and federal level. This is where you can actually make something happen. The county’s so interesting because every Tuesday we go in and it’s something new. I’m really looking forward to working with our new CEO [Mona Miyasato]. I think Chandra [Wallar, the previous CEO] did a great job guiding us through some difficult financial times. I think it’s important to get another perspective. I really want our employees to feel that they’re a big part of the success of what we do as a county.

What would you hope to see happen in your next term? I would like to see everybody getting along. While I enjoy the differences, I just want to make sure that we do it in a respectful manner. We all get along personally, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that the board’s been a little more fractured over the last few months.

Best moment as supervisor and most disappointing moment? Working with the county on the “Stand Down” project has been the most rewarding. To look at veterans who have felt like their lives have taken a turn for the worse, with mental health issues or addiction problems, and that county departments have come together and made people’s lives better. The most disappointing? Redistricting. I didn’t like the way redistricting went down. It’s when you feel that politics take over policy. Also, the Santa Maria Energy project. People say that it did get approved, but it’s just bad policy to set a standard that dwarfed what the state requirements are and went above and beyond what the Planning Commission had established.

What should people know about the board? A lot of the votes are 5-0 votes. Everybody has a view of the world, and we’re all trying to do the same thing: maximum services for the least amount of money. I think we’ve done a good job as a team of facing the economic challenges we’ve had over the last few years. There are going to be myriad issues that are going to come up that are going to divide us. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles


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