For the first time, Goleta voters will be voting directly for their mayor this November 6. The two-year term is barely enough time to learn the ropes of city government and then handle them adroitly, but the two running have served as city councilmembers for a collective couple of decades. To provide its mayor with a living wage, the lack of which is seen as an obstacle to greater diversity among the council, the city’s Measure W would raise the mayor’s compensation from $7,000 a year to $50,000. There’s a little daylight between Bennett’s and Perotte’s enthusiasm for their city, but, tellingly, Bennett’s campaign contributions have come from the business sector and firefighters, while Perotte is endorsed by the Democratic machine and the Goodland Coalition. The big dog in the room is development.
But, a little history first.
Michael Bennett remembers well the day politics became meaningful for him. It was the day John F. Kennedy was killed: a Friday, he recalled. During the subsequent classes he took to become a firefighter, he became interested in the connection between fire districts and city governments and the rules that bound and divided them. He was involved in nearly all the attempts at cityhood for Goleta after taking up residence in 1970 as a county firefighter. After retiring, Bennett won a seat on the council in 2006, helping to form a governing body elected as an antidote to what many saw as an overly slow- or no-growth council. At the time, the second story he’d added to his house became a “McMansion” campaign issue; after some financial setbacks, Bennett’s house went into foreclosure in 2015 after his lender refused to modify the adjustable-rate mortgage. He’s been fighting them in court ever since.
Paula Perotte rose to public notice by lying down. It was summertime, and she was seeing crosswalks being painted out at Goleta’s elementary schools, apparently a misguided attempt by Public Works to route all kids to one crosswalk per school. She was already trying to eliminate the long lines of cars at schools — caused by parents’ concern that everyone else drove too fast for their kids’ safety — by working with state legislators to slow traffic in school zones. But the paint crew refused to hear her explanation that eliminating crosswalks first required a public hearing. Instead of arguing further, she simply lay in the street to stop them, while her friend, Eva Inbar, called Public Works. “I don’t know what she’s doing!” Inbar recalled exclaiming on the phone, “but she’s here, in the street!” Perotte laughed while remembering that the painter finally told her, “I don’t know who you are, lady, but we just got told to stop.”
When Perotte ran for City Council in 2010, large, previously approved development projects were beginning to break ground. Westar/Hollister Village was the straw that broke the public’s back, an immense construction project on Hollister that followed hard on the heels of several hotels, Sumida Gardens apartments, and the houses built at the Hideaway and the Bluffs. Like the last two, Westar is near the Hollister and Storke Road intersection, which was and is a magnet for traffic to the big box stores at Camino Real Marketplace, as well as to Isla Vista. Westar was also the beginning of the end of Goleta’s mountain views on the south side of the highway.
The Westar project’s traffic experts left Perotte in disbelief. She was certain the intersection at Storke and Hollister would suffer from the 266 apartments and new shopping center. Bennett voted in favor, calling the current redesign “more natural” and saying the project filled a critical housing need. Perotte was the sole “no” vote among a council that included slow-growther Margaret Connell and Roger Aceves. The intersection’s backup sometimes reaches northbound Highway 101; a new highway overpass just north of there exists in concept only.
By the time the council heard Old Town Village in 2015 — a 175-unit project on South Kellogg now called The Willows — Bennett and Perotte were in equal opposition to the required General Plan revisions, but for different reasons. Bennett objected to losing the hotel tax the city would have received had the property remained a convention center, as zoned. Perotte believed the pace of construction in the city was outstripping the citizens’ patience, a situation caused by a previous change to the General Plan that removed the city’s growth management ordinance.
Aside from their views on growth, the two have very different styles. Bennett has a prodigious memory for dates and obscure facts, and he generally opens a conversation by reaching back into years past. This gives him traction when he weighs in on lengthy projects like Fire Station 10 (first mapped out in 1963, according to Bennett) and the new train station. His votes on the council have tended to be with the majority on any issue.
Perotte, who’s taking her turn as mayor this year (Goleta’s council had rotated the position among themselves), said she preferred to work behind the scenes on the issues. As mayor, she wields her gavel both pleasantly and firmly — traits she likely honed while waiting dinner tables at Joe’s Café for two years — as when she convinced State Lands to add a hydrogen sulfide monitor to the latest plan to deal with Venoco’s remains. Perotte also prefers consensus votes at the council, but her comments generally review both sides of an issue. When she votes against the majority, which she often did before the current slower-growth council, she does so with conviction.
Looked at only through the lens of development, the most glaring difference between the candidates is Measure G, Goleta’s answer to losing ag lands to concrete and asphalt. Passed in 2012, Measure G requires any development on an ag parcel larger than 10 acres to be put to a public vote. Perotte supported Measure G. Bennett signed the opposition to it. He explained recently that he was concerned that UCSB, which purchased its North Campus from Bishop’s owners in 1995, might also buy the ranch, putting it under state regulation and beyond the city’s permit control. He said that he’s proud of his vote against developing Bishop, which was a unanimous vote the year before Measure G.
For the future, Bennett hopes as mayor to advocate for long-term projects, like the new train station and La Patera underpass. “I’m very proud to be part of that process,” he said, “to have convinced my colleagues at SBCAG (Santa Barbara County Association of Governments) to get the grants to build the multi-modal transportation center. It’s a real win,” one he’d like to see to completion as mayor.
Perotte’s view of the future is colored with concern that Goleta retain its small-town feel. “People are so kind here,” she said, “even when they don’t agree with you.” She said she’s in favor of development; it just has to be the right kind. “That Old Town feel, agricultural land, those are obviously so important to so many people in this area,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re listening to our residents.”