Church, State, and ‘Taking Back’ Santa Barbara

Chief Transportation Planner Reportedly Wants $500,000 to Not File Religious Discrimination Lawsuit

Believer's Edge provided coffee, snacks, and support for those released from County Jail in the middle of the night through the Lights On program. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The video begins with Rob Dayton introducing himself to the Believer’s Edge congregation as the City of Santa Barbara’s senior transportation planner and a founding member of their all-male Christian ministry. It’s 2014 and the group, operating with a self-described “calling and destiny” to “influence” local government, businesses, media, and education, had accomplished much to be proud of in its seven years of service, Dayton says.

With trademark enthusiasm, he walks the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation of his “Life Mastery” program before inviting Steve Wagner, at the time Goleta’s director of Public Works, to the stage to talk about his faith and how it intersects with his professional ambitions. A few months earlier, then-Police Chief Cam Sanchez had spoken to the congregation about how Jesus had figured prominently in his law enforcement career.

Once Wagner hands the mic back, Dayton grows serious. “Guys,” he says, lowering his voice, “what I’d like to see is a city takeover. … Give me 50 men and we can take back Santa Barbara.” He commends Muslims for not hiding their intent to conquer the globe; Christians, he says, shouldn’t be ashamed of their same goal. “We have been given a kingdom to manage,” he intones, “and this is about taking over the world.”

Rob Dayton | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

“I want us to start by taking this region, this coastal plane,” Dayton continues, his energy rising. “I want it to be known internationally that the City of Santa Barbara is alive with God.” That this is where people go to be healed in Jesus’s name, where the church makes the economy work, where there isn’t homelessness or drug addiction because residents are so blessed. “That’s my vision,” Dayton says. “Do you want to be part of that, guys? C’mon!”

The video and more recent statements and actions by Santa Barbara’s longtime transportation chief ​— ​including allegedly providing a secularized version of his “Life Mastery” curriculum to city staff ​— ​were the subject of an inquiry made this spring by three members of City Council concerned about Dayton’s involvement with Believer’s Edge and whether it blurred the line between his personal religiosity and his duties as a public official. 

That inquiry caused Dayton, who earns approximately $190,000 a year and has been on paid leave since May, to file a complaint with the city’s Human Resources department that alleges he is being discriminated against and that he has been passed over for prior promotions because of his Christian convictions. 

This Tuesday, the council met in closed session with city attorneys to discuss Dayton’s complaint, as well as the threat of a lawsuit. Dayton, City Hall sources say, is demanding a $500,000 payment to avoid litigation, though that number could not be independently verified. Because of the legal and political sensitivities involved, no one with knowledge of the matter has been willing to speak about it on the record. 

As the name “Believer’s Edge” enters the public discourse, with lingering questions over City Council candidate Barrett Reed’s past involvement with the ministry, cofounder John Mullen answered questions from the Independent this week about its guiding principles and the impact it has had on the Santa Barbara community.

Believer’s Edge came together in 2007 when Dayton, Mullen ​— ​a former developer and healthcare industry executive ​— ​and several members of Calvary Chapel created an offshoot group from across a dozen area churches who wanted to partner their religious beliefs with their professional goals. The fellowship, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, grew to include more than 100 men who met every Tuesday at downtown’s Christ Presbyterian Church to sing hymns, say prayers, and seek career guidance from each other and guest lecturers. At the time, Dayton and Mullen also co-owned and operated the former Brat Haus restaurant at Paseo Nuevo.

“There was no paid staff, dues, or membership,” said Mullen of the ministry. “It was just many volunteers giving time and energy as needed. The simple idea was to encourage one another to take responsibility to be godly husbands and fathers, to honor others in the workplace, and to quietly serve our neighborhoods and community in a positive manner.”

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One example of those efforts was the creation of the successful Lights On program that provides coffee, snacks, and general support for those released from County Jail in the dark of the night, Mullen explained. The program was vetted and approved by the County Board of Supervisors and continues to this day. Dayton declined to be interviewed for this story but did cite the Independent’s 2014 cover story on the program as an example of the group’s good deeds.

Believer’s Edge also hosted a 500-attendee event that honored local teachers, Mullen said, and on two other occasions put on lunches for 100 business people to “share best leadership practices.”

Other ministry members moved beyond Santa Barbara’s borders and started an international charity, HOW International, that provides prosthetic limbs to landmine victims in Mozambique, Mullen said. The organization frequently attracts interns from Cal Poly and Santa Barbara High School’s MAD Academy, and in 2017, it was invited by the United Nations to speak about the challenges of assisting landmine victims in developing countries.

Mullen was asked about the crusade-heavy rhetoric and branding of Believer’s Edge, which included a sword in its logo and a message on its website to “link our shields to take back this city.” Take it back from whom? “Our charge for one another,” Mullen responded, “was to get involved, to take action in our own way and rise up to take back homelessness, addiction from drugs and alcohol, to take back failed marriages and absentee fathers as well as inequality and discrimination in our homes, neighborhoods, and larger community.”

Believer’s Edge cofounder John Mullen speaks to the service attendees. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Believer’s Edge disbanded in 2019 after fulfilling its goal to push men to lead, Mullen said. “We therefore encouraged each to go back and make a difference in their own churches.” Its last tax filing in 2018 showed the nonprofit collected $138,240 in revenue that year and gave out the same amount in contributions and grants. “While Believer’s Edge did not solicit funds, many members donated to important causes without attention or fanfare,” Mullen said.

Over the last few months, as Rob Dayton and City Hall started battening down their respective hatches, Believer’s Edge began winnowing its online presence. First by removing a handful of Tuesday service videos from their homepage ​— ​including, somewhat conspicuously, those that featured Barrett Reed ​— ​and then this week abruptly scrubbing their entire existence from the Internet, including their website, Facebook page, and Vimeo account. By way of explanation, Mullen said the group decided “not to renew our web services and these services have now just expired.” 

Reed maintains he interacted only briefly with the congregation by giving a talk about his real estate development firm and, as a volunteer chaplain, working alongside Mullen at the jail. He may have attended another Tuesday service but can’t remember, he said. In one of the deleted videos, Reed discussed his close personal relationship with Mullen, including a recent falling-out and reconciliation between the two of them and their families. In another video, he talked about how they used prayer to heal inmates of various medical conditions.

Reed, running to represent District 4, resists the suggestion he’s now trying to distance himself from the ministry, explaining he has no reason to do so and no reason to be critical of Believer’s Edge, describing them as a “good group of guys looking to get better in all that they do.” “As a society,” he said, “I think what they set out to do is what we want men to do: continue to work to be better and better at home with their families and the same where they live and work to hold one another accountable.”

As Dayton’s administrative leave drags on, his absence at the city is acutely felt, especially as Santa Barbara grapples with other top leadership vacuums and the uncertain fate of State Street. Dayton was instrumental in converting the downtown business district to a pedestrian promenade ​— ​the Independent made him a Local Hero in 2020 because of it ​— ​and throughout a nearly 30-year career has been an effective voice for alternative transportation and bicycling projects, some of which are still ongoing and would benefit from his continued guidance.

Dayton does have his critics, though, and some of them have suggested that the promotions he didn’t receive ​— ​one for Community Development Director, the other for Economic Development Director ​— ​had everything to do with a lack of qualifications and experience and nothing to do with his religious beliefs. There were also reportedly concerns raised about his hard-charging and at times high-handed leadership style, evidenced by a recent end-run around the Historic Landmarks Commission for approval of the new Sola Street bike lane. Moreover, the sources said, Dayton has been promoted many times throughout his lengthy career.

Nick Welsh contributed to this report. 

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