More than 22 years after bowing out of the political arena, former Santa Barbara mayor and four-term councilmember Hal Conklin announced he’s making another run at the city’s top post in the upcoming November election. He kicked off his campaign Monday with a short speech and meet and greet alongside his wife, Haley, at the Mesa Café a few blocks from their home.
The crowd of two dozen or so supporters cheered at his slogan — “Hal Yes” — and called Conklin a longtime community leader with friends on both sides of the aisle who has a knack for getting things done. “When the federal government is paralyzed by saying no to everything and to one another,” said Conklin, “Santa Barbara could become a model of a city that knows how to say yes.”
City Hall lacks both the perspective and the vision to protect Santa Barbara’s history and keep it moving in the right direction, Conklin declared. “The institutional memory of Santa Barbara is disappearing. Leadership really requires having some knowledge not only of what is to come and what is, but what has been before.” And long gone are the days when the city was considered a vanguard of environmental activism, continued Conklin, a former head of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and U.S.A. Green Communities. “The city has been resting on its laurels for years.”
Conklin, 71, said he wants to reinsert that know-how and energy back on the dais, and he wants to do so by channeling the will of the public. “My interest in running really is to give voice to the people,” he said. “They are the leaders of Santa Barbara.” Conklin called for more interaction between elected officials and residents beyond City Council hearings, which he called a misnomer, as too often little listening takes place. He also suggested Santa Barbara’s state representatives participate in the hearings on a monthly basis. Despite its shortcomings, Conklin went on, Santa Barbara should be celebrated for its “clean and healthy” politics. As a former public affairs executive for Southern California Edison and president of the League of California Cities, he said he witnessed many communities where “corruption came easily.”
Conklin outlined his five areas of focus as public safety, economic growth, environmental protection, historic preservation, and support of the arts. He detailed goals to develop sustainable energy platforms, transform Santa Barbara’s transportation system with a possible light rail line between downtown, UCSB, and Goleta, and chair a Chamber of Commerce program to hammer out a 20-year model for sustainable economic development.
Conklin also said he wants to build out Santa Barbara’s cultural district into a global destination, as well as protect the public’s $400 million investment in the downtown corridor. He’s noticed the vacant storefronts and promised to concentrate on ways to fill those buildings. “People will sleep in the doorway if you leave it empty,” he said. To foster better community relations across what he called the many “villages” of Santa Barbara, Conklin pledged to organize block parties. He noted the neighborhood activism on the Mesa, recalling a gathering on his driveway that introduced him to longtime neighbors he had never met. “I want to replicate that across the city,” he said.
On the subject of the housing crisis, Conklin said he supported elements of Santa Barbara’s controversial AUD (Average Unit-size Density) program and its overall goal of incentivizing new rental units, but he criticized its rollout and monitoring methods. City officials should be “holding dozens of individual meetings with stakeholders” instead of relying on the public comment period of council meetings to elicit feedback, he said. And more care should have been taken to ensure that the first AUD project to go online — The Marc, with one-bedroom units starting at $2,900 — did not evoke such sticker shock.
Lending Conklin their support Monday were Todd and Laura Capps, the son and daughter of former Representative Lois Capps. Both said they’d known Conklin since they were children and appreciated both his aspirations for the city and his political tact. Laura lauded his foresight in helping create the CEC. Todd said Conklin “has an ability for drawing people together that’s inspirational.” Real estate broker and former president of the regional NAACP chapter Isaac Garrett said he’ll vote for Conklin because he listens. “People have to know they are heard,” he said. Pastor Rich Sander with the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara agreed. “Hal is highly approachable,” he said. “He cares about everyone.”
Conklin was first elected to the City Council in 1977 and served four terms before being sworn in as mayor in 1993. He was forced to step down about a year later, however, when a court ruled he had violated the city’s term-limit rule. Councilmembers at the time were prohibited from serving a fifth consecutive term, but it had been unclear if the law applied to the mayor’s position.
Joining Conklin in this year’s mayoral race is Councilmember Cathy Murillo. She announced her candidacy earlier this month. Prospective candidates must file a nomination paper signed by at least 100, but no more than 200, registered voters with the City Clerk’s office by August. Conklin said he plans to file his paperwork in July.