In response to protracted criticism about City Hall’s complicated, cumbersome, and expensive development review process, Santa Barbara City Administrator Paul Casey just appointed longtime Public Works chief Rebecca Bjork as interim director of the city’s Community Development Department. Bjork will fill the vacancy created by the recent resignation of George Buell, the embattled department head whom critics — notably those in the business and development community — faulted for failing to tame the city’s regulatory beast.
Among City Hall insiders, Bjork is regarded as a member of the city’s A team, a no-nonsense, highly competent, get-stuff-done professional who doesn’t waste much time on small talk. Bjork has worked for City Hall since 1989 but has run Public Works for the past six years. She will oversee the Community Development Department long enough to allow an executive search committee to beat the bushes for national candidates.
With the decline of the city’s downtown retail core over the past several years, the Community Development Department has been increasingly blamed for exacerbating a nationwide problem — the evaporation of brick-and-mortar retail — caused by internet sales and a profound shift in buying habits. With the advent of the COVID crisis and the economic devastation that inflicted, the pressure on City Administrator Casey to make some high-profile changes became irresistible.
One developer in particular, Ed St. George, had threatened to launch a recall campaign against Casey. While others in the development and business communities has second thoughts about so brash an attack, they shared St. George’s exasperation over the slow rate of change taking place, nor were they moved by arguments that many of the problems they complained of originated with state and federal mandates far outside the control of City Hall. Members of the City Council had grown increasingly restive, and several had made clear—some privately and others loudly—they thought it was time for Buell to go.
As Public Works czar, Bjork and her department have had to undergo the rigors of environmental review and know the difficulties involved. But compared to Community Development, Public Works does not find itself so squarely in the crosshairs of so many irreconcilable interests, nor does it have to navigate the contradictory agendas of so many different board and commission members. Filling in for Bjork while she runs Community Development is Brian D’Amour, the city engineer.
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