The New Year has brought new leadership at the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Gregg Hart is passing the reins of chair over to incoming 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson, a passionate advocate for the district where he was raised.
“Orcutt has its own culture,” Nelson explained about the community in his district. “I’m definitely a conservative guy. I’ve grown up in Orcutt, the most conservative community in the county. Me and my community are farmers, and I represent that. It’s a different world than the South County, but we can all come together at the county level.”
The homegrown Orcutt supervisor wasn’t always into politics. He moved to Orcutt after kindergarten and has spent the rest of his life there. His father was a pastor, and his mother was a Santa Barbara County employee. He graduated from Vanguard University with a business degree, though he wound up getting his teaching credential and becoming a teacher and a coach.
“Coaches, teachers, and my church all came around me when I was 9 years old and my dad died,” he said. “That was part of my motivation for becoming a teacher and coaching.”
It wasn’t until he started a family of his own that he used his business degree to sell insurance. Nelson, a consultant now, has three teenage kids and a wife, Jamie. Nelson also lives with his in-laws in Orcutt. He mostly stayed out of politics until 2010, when he formed and led a committee to defeat a countywide sales-tax initiative, Measure S.
It was when outgoing 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam first ran for office in 2012 that Nelson met him for the first time and asked if he could join him on the campaign trail. He wound up working as his chief of staff.
“I pretty much shadowed him his whole campaign and was his man on the street,” he said. “I knew business, but I didn’t know so much — like land use. It was a whole new world, and I got to learn alongside Peter, who was more experienced than me.”
So how much is Nelson like his former boss? Although they share similar values, Nelson said that he is more of the “policy wonk in the office,” the one always digging in the weeds. Adam had been more general when it came to his process. “We disagreed on how to accomplish things, not what to accomplish,” he said.
Adam was known for being stubborn at times and sticking to his guns when the board was split on an issue. Nelson said he may be one to compromise more than Adam, but he isn’t willing to give up his values either.
Though Supervisor Hart has acted as one of the main pandemic spokespersons over the last 10 months, Nelson said he won’t take on that same role and instead will “leave it to the experts” at Public Health.
“I believe COVID is a significant pandemic; there is no denying it,” Nelson said. “I take it seriously, and I believe in the science of it.… I’m definitely not a scientist; I’m into business, history, math, and economics. I try to trust those around me who are experts.”
This is one of the biggest differences between Nelson and Adam, who has compared the COVID-19 virus to the flu at supervisor meetings. Previous chair Hart shared messages about the virus that were nearly opposite to Adam’s, stressing the severity of the virus every time he spoke to the public about it.
“I began this year with the mindset to focus on emergency preparedness, and I didn’t imagine I would be responding to an emergency of this magnitude,” Hart said about his role of chair of supervisors during 2020.
Hart gave an update at every weekly COVID press conference and worked closely with Public Health for nearly a year to inform the public and connect resources to those in need. Though he didn’t know it at the beginning of 2020, that became his main role as chair. Hart found a way to keep positive in the face of sharing serious, negative messages.
“I have intentionally tried to make sure I’m speaking to every person in Santa Barbara County, and I’ve been very careful with my word choice,” Hart said. “It isn’t effective to lecture people and be negative.”
The press conferences are now taken over by Public Health personnel, and the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday updates will continue on. Because Nelson has decided to leave COVID to the experts, he’s coming in ready with other priorities to tackle.
“Homelessness is a big issue for me,” Nelson said. “I do think it needs the involvement of supervisors. It’s not only a housing issue; it’s case management, enforcement, and more. I don’t believe people should be sleeping in riverbeds and parks; it’s inhumane.”
The new chair of the supervisors proposed that they focus on building the county’s homeless shelter capacity so there are enough beds to get all of the county’s homeless off of the street. He proposed making shelters temporary and periodically rotating them into different areas so property values won’t be affected and residents are less likely to resist shelters near them.
Homelessness is just one issue he’d like to focus on as chair, though. Nelson is also passionate about driving more funding to unincorporated areas of the county, most especially Orcutt.
Nelson’s first Board of Supervisors meeting is Tuesday, January 12, at 9 a.m.
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