Paul Casey, the City of Santa Barbara’s ever-smiling but increasingly embattled city administrator, announced this Friday that he’s stepping down effective September 10, bringing to an end his seven-year reign as City Hall’s top dog, his 24-year career with the city, and the 31 years he spent working in the halls of government. “Sometimes, it’s just time,” Casey stated.
The last four years have been rough, with drought, fires, and debris flows wreaking the catastrophic havoc that only natural disasters can. As Santa Barbara’s central business district — State Street — found itself up against the ropes, Casey came under intense fire for failing to provide the decisive leadership necessary to turn the ship around. The last 18 months, however, have been especially brutal, with COVID laying waste to Santa Barbara’s tourist-based economy at a time when personal relations among city councilmembers hit 40-year new lows. “This job’s a big job. Sometimes you get a little worn down,” Casey acknowledged.
In public, Casey has consistently projected a calm aplomb coupled with a congenial competence. But the rate of change demanded of a leader in a city so steeped in tradition and continuity has accelerated as Santa Barbara’s political landscape — like the nation’s — has become more fractured and more polarized. In this context, Casey seemed more inclined to look for consensus from a council whose members represent individual districts rather than the city as a whole. Privately, some councilmembers have expressed frustration that Casey did not interject more of his own ideas than he did.
For all the criticism about his putative lack of leadership, Casey was quick to point out how quick City Hall was in responding to the COVID crisis. “We were one of the first cities anywhere to open up our State Street to outdoor business,” Casey stated. “We acted fast and decisively on that. Other cities are calling us up asking how we did it.”
Casey stressed that he’s leaving on his own steam and his own initiative. “I need to take a sabbatical,” he said, but has no plans on taking an administrative position with any other city. “If I wanted that, I’d stay right here,” he said. “There’s no one issue. It’s just time to move on.”
Despite the challenges and increasing political turbulence, Casey said, many aspects of the job have been “super fun.” He expressed pride in having helped get Measure C passed a few years ago, a sales tax increase approved by voters that will allow City Hall to attack a backlog of critical capital needs worth in excess of $100 million. “That’s something I helped get over the goal line,” he said. “That’s a legacy effort there.”
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High on the list of Measure C priorities is the construction of a new police station, loosely budgeted at $80 million, to replace a station that’s too small and not seismically safe. The new station — to be located at the site of the Saturday farmers’ market — has not been without its critics. And in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the emergence of a local Black Lives Matters movement, some have questioned the need or wisdom of the new station.
Casey noted that Santa Barbara had managed to make it through the worst drought in recorded state history, due in large measure to his administration’s ability to re-permit and reconstruct the city’s long mothballed desalination plant. Thanks to the desalination plant, city water managers boast, Santa Barbara has enough water to make it through the next three years. Casey also expressed pride in overseeing the construction of a new, modern, seismically retrofitted Cottage Hospital. Alluding to the intense demand COVID has placed on Santa Barbara’s medical infrastructure, Casey commented, “I think everyone is enjoying having a modern Cottage Hospital over the past 18 months.”
Casey started out in the city’s planning department and worked his way to head of Community Development, the bureaucratic ground zero for all high-octane land-use battles over housing, growth, development, red tape, and the economic vitality of downtown Santa Barbara. Since Casey took over as city administrator, the state legislature did away with redevelopment agencies, the single most potent magic wand in any municipal government’s bag of tricks to create affordable housing or to promote downtown development. More recently, the state legislature has been moving to strip local governments of their discretionary land-use authority on the grounds that such restrictions have limited the production of new housing, affordable or otherwise.
These growing structural challenges lie outside the control of any City administrator. But Casey, his critics have been quick to point out, was slow to take advantage of some tools still within his grasp. He was reluctant, for example, about creating a new cabinet-level position for an economic development czar. Ultimately, the position was created — and assigned to Jason Harris — but only after frustrated downtown merchants and property owners packed the council chambers. Likewise, Casey was reluctant to get rid of former community development director George Buell, deemed too incremental and too slow when it came to taming the red tape so many downtown business owners complained of. Ultimately Buell did resign — and has been replaced — but the time it took came with a political price.
Along the way, Casey got seriously sideways with many in the downtown business community, most notably Ed St. George and Ray Mahboob, heavyweight property owners and developers who played a big-city brand of politics in what had been small-town Santa Barbara. St. George went so far as to launch a recall campaign against Casey at one point, collecting signatures before finally backing off. City administrators — not being elected — are not legally subject to political recall campaigns. But that was never the point.
What impact did that have on Casey’s decision to resign? “Not much,” he said. “Is it fun? No, of course not.”
City Hall had grown less cohesive and more fractious long before COVID hit. District elections changed the political geometry in fundamental ways. Eighteen months of Zoom meetings made relations between councilmembers notably more remote. Running the ship in this context became much more challenging.
Casey said he’s stepping down now so the new council — four seats are up for election this November — can pick a successor that reflects their needs and values. He leaves at a time just as a new ad hoc committee on the future of State Street reconfigures the DNA for what kind of downtown Santa Barbara wants in the next 100 years. How much housing? Where? And with what price restrictions? He also leaves just as a new community development director takes the helm and as a former high-ranking finance officer is suing for sexual harassment at the hands of Robert Samario, former finance czar. On the flip side, Casey expressed a sense of excitement about the new community choice energy program City Hall was about to embark upon and satisfaction at the work being done to address the seemingly impossible problem of sea-level rise caused by climate change.
Casey said he intends to stay in Santa Barbara. “It’s where my family is. It’s where my mom lives,” he said. “I live here. It’s my home.” He then added, “But I do look forward to being a little more anonymous in the future.”
As to what he might do in that future, Casey said it remains a big question mark. “I really don’t know,” he said. “That’s what makes it so exciting and so unnerving.”