Though November is still a month away, Oscar Gutierrez and Meagan Harmon have already won reelection to the Santa Barbara City Council for lack of any challengers.
Both have been on the dais only a short time. Gutierrez, representing District 3, the city’s Westside, won a special election in 2018. Harmon, representing District 6, the Oak Park area and downtown, was appointed last February. But they’ve packed a lot in, casting critical votes on where to site a new police station, how to address homelessness, and what protections to give renters.
And while both are progressives proudly representing the Millennial generation, they come from very different personal and political backgrounds. While Gutierrez — a lifelong city resident, TV Santa Barbara producer, and close ally of Mayor Cathy Murillo — has supported and been supported by the Democratic party machine for some time, Harmon — a Harvard-educated real estate finance attorney who grew up in Lompoc and a self-proclaimed “feminist with a to-do list” — came seemingly out of left field to secure her position.
As residents cast their votes in the races for Districts 1 and 2, the Independent asked Gutierrez and Harmon by email about their time on the council thus far and what’s coming next. Affordable housing and downtown revitalization were very much on their minds.
What are District 3’s most pressing issues? How are you going to address them this term? Oscar Gutierrez: Affordable housing. We have been addressing this issue by passing ordinances like the just-cause eviction ordinance to help prevent mass evictions, and inclusionary affordable housing for new [Average Unit-size Density] developments. In my upcoming term, it is my goal to increase the percentage of affordable housing.
Street safety and wellbeing. I’ve been consistently meeting and walking the district with Public Works to increase the lighting on the Westside and improve the sidewalks, walkability, and intersections so it is safer for our families to get around. In my upcoming term, I want to plant more trees throughout the Westside, especially bordering the train tracks, to increase the atmosphere of the neighborhood and reduce noise and CO2 pollution.
Parking is another issue. Since we are so densely populated, a lot of residents have been asking about parking regulations and enforcement, so I am currently speaking with city staff about holding community meetings to get public input on how that would be possible and how it could be enforced.
Meagan Harmon: There are two issues I hear about from my neighbors over and over again. First, the need to ease the housing burden on working families, and second, the desire for a revitalized downtown.
In my view, ameliorating the housing crisis requires thoughtful commitment to building sustainable housing. We can no longer afford to stop the development of rental units if we want to strengthen and maintain the fabric of our middle class. That said, we have to build housing in a way that protects Santa Barbara’s beautiful and unique character. I believe it is possible to do both. However, development for development’s sake doesn’t solve our problems either; we need to build housing that truly meets the needs of our working families. A significant opportunity to address this issue will come soon, as we are entering the Phase II revisions to the AUD program.
The importance of downtown revitalization efforts to District 6 — and, indeed, to the whole city ― cannot be understated. It is one of my top priorities. Through streamlined permitting, creative use of space, and encouraging new and ongoing events downtown, we will bolster our local economy and breathe new life into our downtown core. Along with those efforts, I am working to move us toward true mixed-use downtown, particularly by encouraging the development of housing on State Street.
What are the most important issues for the city as a whole?
OG: The revitalization of State Street is an issue that has me thinking it’s time we do things we’ve never done before. I’m currently speaking to city staff about whether it is possible to fine State Street property owners for leaving their properties vacant for more than six months, and in turn using the fine revenue to help fund homeless advocacy efforts.
MH: The two issues described above, along with a few other related and vitally important items, like homelessness and public safety. They are key conversations in my district, but they matter to all of us equally.
What lessons have you learned from your time on the council thus far, and how have you applied them?
OG: It’s often better to talk less and listen more. I’ve had people say to me that I should speak more while on the dais, but I feel it’s important to hear as many points of view as possible before commenting on the subject. Another lesson I’ve learned is that previous councils have been criticized for “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to making decisions. I take this into account and work hard to be proactive in my decision-making.
MH: I had never held public office before coming on the council in February and in many ways, it has been a very steep learning curve. The most important lesson I’ve learned is how best to communicate difficult news or unfavorable decisions. On the dais, I strive to find creative solutions that speak to all our neighbors’ needs and concerns, but sometimes that isn’t possible, and folks walk away disappointed. I’ve learned the incredible importance of speaking clearly and honestly about my decision-making process; truly, I see effective communication as one of the central tenants of my job as an elected official.
What’s been your proudest moment on the council? Your most regretful?
OG: My proudest moment was helping pass the desperately needed 10 percent inclusionary ordinance for the Average Unit Density program. Many of my constituents have been asking me to help with the production of more affordable housing, and this will accomplish that. On the same note, my most regretful moment is not being able to get a higher percentage passed. We argued and delayed the decision for too long and decided to settle on 10 percent, but I have confidence that we will be able to raise it in the future.
MH: My proudest moment was our vote to incorporate an inclusionary housing requirement into the AUD ordinance. Though it was only one step on the long road to crafting housing solutions in Santa Barbara, it was a necessary and incredibly meaningful one.
My regrets are the times that I have failed to effectively communicate my perspective on a given issue. The park closure ordinance is one such item. I voted, in the minority, against closing the parks early, though I successfully brought forward revisions to decriminalize the ordinance. I am so grateful that I was able to work with my colleagues to revise the ordinance, but I learned a lot about the importance of clear communication and messaging through this particular vote.
What do you see as your biggest personal accomplishment so far? The council’s biggest?
OG: One of my biggest personal accomplishments was that I partnered with our State Assembly representative Monique Limón and helped set up a satellite office in order to help residents get street-vending licenses so they can legally sell confetti eggs during Fiesta, which upholds tradition, culture, and encourages local entrepreneurship. Also, as the liaison to the Youth Council, I encouraged and taught the teens to produce a series of public service announcements against gun violence and vaping. The biggest accomplishment of the council was passing the inclusionary housing ordinance.
MH: It has been incredibly meaningful for me to represent our city while being a working mom to a toddler. It hasn’t always been easy balancing it all, but it has meant so much to me to be on council during this phase of my life. Everyone has been so generous and welcoming. (Thank you to the many folks who didn’t bat an eye when Maura joined our meetings or danced to “Baby Shark” while we discussed policy.) I’ve had many conversations with other working moms who didn’t think it was feasible to run for office but who are now considering it. I hope my experience shows them that it is possible, that their voices are so important and so welcomed, and that parents can and should have a seat at the table.
In terms of my legislative efforts, I worked closely with our neighbors in the 6th District, the Housing Authority, and city staff to formally initiate a conversation about workforce housing development on the Carrillo-Castillo lot. We are still at the initial stages, and much work remains to be done to determine whether this project can come to fruition, but I was extremely proud when council voted unanimously to move forward.
What major items will be coming before you in the next few months? What are your early thoughts on them?
OG: Due to the possibility of potentially violating the Brown Act, I will refrain from commenting on this question.
MH: I believe that the most important item will be the set of reforms to the AUD program. One of the flash points will almost certainly be whether or not to lift the test period (i.e., whether to extend the program indefinitely). Our local families are struggling, and housing is one of our top concerns: We don’t need to get rid of AUD, we need to get it right.