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Santa Barbara City Election Roundup

Interviewing the Comings and Goings of a New City Council

Credit: Paul Wellman

Santa Barbara City Council election results are certified this week, marking the official end to what was one of the city’s most unorthodox elections yet. Between a weeklong wait for results, a newbie’s eight-vote lead over an incumbent, and a mild case of vote-by-mail hysteria, it was an election to remember.

Alejandra Gutierrez, the Eastside native who runs the Franklin Service Center, squeaked by with just eight votes over incumbent Jason Dominguez, who is now putting his focus full force toward campaigning for State Assembly. The diminutive margin is a reflection of the city’s hyper-local political focus since it switched from at-large to district elections four years ago.

“District elections are problematic,” said Councilmember Randy Rowse, who is leaving the council after terming out at nine years. “Districts 3 and 6 didn’t have anyone to run against them, and the eight-vote margin might have put Alejandra in the seat but doesn’t make people feel confident.”

And that was particularly true in this election. Anna Marie Gott, one of the city’s loudest watchdog critics, and Sharon Byrne, a community activist, wrote a letter to the city detailing a laundry list of what they believe is voter fraud, which, in an election that close, can make or break it all. They asked for a full investigation into the issues, which the city has reportedly done — the count is official, and Gutierrez ousted Dominguez 963 to 955 votes.

“I am going to put all of my energy toward District 1 [the Eastside], because they are the ones who voted me into office,” Gutierrez said. “I am grateful for the Democratic Party’s endorsement and support, but at the end of the day, I will vote for what’s best for my district.”

Rowse — the only non-dem on the dais — has been on the council the longest and is terming out after nine years. With time comes experience, but his experience seems to clash a bit with Gutierrez, who is starting her role in January with no prior political experience. 

“My advice to anyone new to the council is to vote for what’s right,” Rowse said. “It might not be great for your political career, but it makes it really easy to explain my votes because I don’t vote [along party lines]. … The idea of making a vote just on your district is incorrect. You should vote on what’s in the best interest of all districts.”

Gutierrez has it half right, apparently. Both she and Michael Jordan, the 10-year city planning commissioner who was elected by 1,509 votes to fill Rowse’s District 2 spot, have a busy December ahead of them before they begin in January. They have to meet with all city department directors and decide which boards and commissions they will be liaisons to once they start. 

“I’m chomping at the bit,” Jordan said. “I’m actually kind of sad we have to wait six weeks to start.” Jordan’s readiness is a reflection of his strong foundation working in local bureaucracy. When it comes to picking which boards to be a liaison to, he’s already done it at least once for all of the city’s boards — except the Ordinance Committee and Finance Committee — because of his decade on the Planning Commission. He said the Finance Committee would be his biggest learning curve, which works out since Gutierrez already has her eye on it.

He has a strong idea of what he wants to work on when his term starts. He said maintaining the “look, feel, and vitality” of the Central Business District is vital, because it can strengthen the city’s economy and pay for much-needed resources. “I believe the economic vitality of the city leads to growing social programs, not the other way around,” he said.

Gutierrez, however, is taking a different approach. Her December might be slightly busier because she is planning three separate Eastside community meetings to better understand what issues she will give priority to once she starts. 

“I am meeting with Eastside business leaders, Eastside youth, and the general Eastside community at large,” Gutierrez said. “The three groups have different interests, so separate meetings make more sense. I ran my entire campaign on giving a voice to the Eastside, so I’m keeping to that.”

Dominguez said during his four years on council, he learned that representing the Eastside is important, but the city as a whole should be the highest priority. “You can’t do a good job if you are only focused on your district,” Dominguez said. “If you start trying to push for more than your district deserves, that’s going to cause issues.” 

Dominguez pointed to the 10 percent inclusionary housing ordinance the council adopted as his proudest accomplishment on council. Affordable housing was his main game over the four years, and his deep understanding of land-use laws as an attorney helped him go a long way. 

He was also known for his contrarian attitude on the dais, which frequently resulted in bickering between him and Mayor Cathy Murillo. 

“I’m personally happy we won’t have anyone running for another office or going back and forth against each other on the dais,” Jordan said. “Watching City Council from the sidelines, they focus on the squeaky wheel and then move on to the next. It’s time to look at the bigger picture.”

Meagan Harmon, the council’s newest addition before Gutierrez and Jordan, is looking forward to a new blend of personalities and fresh ideas on the council, but said she learned so much from its present makeup, too.

“Randy leaving is so bittersweet for me,” Harmon said. “He was an amazing mentor to me, but Alejandra is so smart and Mike’s Planning Commission background will be invaluable, too. This past year has been full of challenges and victories for our city. I’m just so looking forward to working with this new team.”

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