Meet three candidates vying to represent District 6 and Santa Barbara’s downtown in this November’s election ― incumbent councilmember Meagan Harmon and challengers Nina Johnson and Jason Carlton. And catch them in a Zoom discussion hosted by the Independent on Thursday, October 7. Register at independent.com/discussions.
Meagan Harmon may be a fast-rising star of Santa Barbara’s Democratic establishment, but she’s most proud of her work for fellow tenants: specifically, the adoption of a tenant protection ordinance against predatory landlords and new discussions around rent stabilization. “We had many, many years without a renter on the council,” said Harmon. “I’m a renter ― around 83 percent of District 6 residents are ― and utilizing the political power that’s come through district elections to serve people who have historically never been represented has been an incredible thing.”
Harmon, a real estate finance lawyer married to a deputy district attorney, is careful not to demean property owners ― “I’m not unaware of the business realities and recognize we live in a capitalist society,” she said ― but insists the inherently asymmetrical power dynamic between landlords and tenants is especially out of whack here. Luckily, she said, touting her endorsement from the S.B. Association of Realtors, owners are realizing that the unsustainable housing situation is bad for everyone and have been more willing to engage with her in difficult conversations about ever-rising rent prices. “Because we’re all leaving,” she said of working families fleeing town. “We’re just leaving.”
While Harmon’s opponents talk frequently about downtown’s homeless problem, she said the topic rarely comes up with constituents. “For most people, we have so much on our plates that we’re just preoccupied with keeping our families afloat,” she said, noting a new joint effort she helped launch between Santa Barbara and Goleta to study how municipalities might prop up childcare services.
Nevertheless, Harmon was quick to acknowledge, homelessness is a major issue for State Street. “This is a shame on us,” she said. “I want to help solve [homelessness] because, on a human level, it’s just a massive failure.” To that end, Harmon, whose uncle has lived on the streets for many years, wants to continue with the successful bridge housing program at the Rose Garden Inn and work with the county to site 70 tiny homes somewhere in the city. “I think that’ll make a massive difference,” she predicted. “More importantly, I think people will get the help that they need and live dignified lives.”
If reelected, Harmon said she’d focus on serving on the newly formed State Street Advisory Committee, which is tasked with planning the pedestrian promenade’s future. She’s in favor of keeping the route closed to traffic, incorporating a trolley system, and installing traffic-controlling stanchions that can drop below ground for events and parades. The planning effort will require patching frayed relations between business owners and the city, Harmon admitted, but she’s hopeful. “We have a long way to go to rebuild trust, but we’re already making progress,” she said.
Nina Johnson is the consummate City Hall insider, having worked in our government’s trenches for more than two decades. Some may count that against her, but Johnson and her many supporters see that experience as a major advantage to getting things done should she be elected. As an assistant administrator, she’s become the go-to person at City Hall for businesspeople, property owners, and arts organizations attempting to wade through Santa Barbara’s tangled bureaucracy. “I already have those relationships,” she said. “People already trust me.”
Making the jump from employee to candidate wasn’t easy, but it was necessary for both her personal growth and the city’s future, Johnson said. “I want to be a decision maker,” she explained. “I work so closely with so many people in the community, and I keep seeing them disappointed that they’re not being heard or understood by the council. Finally, I realized I just need to get up there and be the change we all want to see.”
One of Johnson’s first orders of business, she said, would be to streamline the city’s permitting and approval process, a familiar refrain from many candidates over many years. But Johnson insists she knows how to make it happen, starting with working directly with members of the Historic Landmarks Commission and Architectural Board of Review to make improvements. “Many of the members themselves aren’t happy with the process,” she said. “They feel stuck in their roles.”
Improving communication among city staff and managers — something she has struggled with personally — would be another top agenda item, Johnson said. “People inside the organization don’t feel like they have a way to contribute their ideas,” she said. “It can be very demoralizing.” The same goes for creating meaningful connections between community stakeholders and City Hall. “I want to actually collaborate with different groups across the spectrum and give them time and attention to really come up with innovative projects,” she said. “I’m not seeing that happen right now.”
To that point, Johnson wants to bring public art into the downtown picture in a meaningful way. “I’d like the city to be known for its art and culture,” she said, “and for us to integrate it into our daily life.” That means “more contemporary elements to complement our historic character” as well as more performances and festivals. Right now, the city must rely on the county’s arts commission for funding and programming. It ought to take the lead, partner with existing museums and galleries, and curate its own shows, she said.
As election day approaches, Johnson said she’s at peace with her decision to run, no matter the outcome. But make no mistake, Johnson said. She’s in it to win it. Of Harmon, she said simply: “She’s good, but I’m better.”
Jason Carlton is an everyman and an idea man all at once, so passionate about the problems and potential of Santa Barbara that he couldn’t help but run for council. At the top of his frustration list is the city’s homelessness issue and what he sees as a lack of action by the council to address it. Take the Loma Fire, he said. “It took TV Hill being turned into an ashtray before we actually started seeing some movement,” he said. “But there was warning after warning before that, fire after fire.” Then there are the needles and feces he sees on the street on a regular basis, Carlton said, and safety concerns so pronounced he doesn’t let his 15-year-old son downtown unless he’s with friends. “Enough is enough,” he said.
Carlton, an electrical contractor who grew up a U.S. Navy brat and in Davis before settling in Santa Barbara, sees solutions in mental-health and addiction intervention as well as the creation of tent cities for temporary housing. He suggested the former Elephant Bar property by the airport as a possible location, where wrap-around services could be offered before more permanent spaces are found. “I don’t like the idea of pushing people aside ― we want to be able to help them with dignity and humanity ― but I don’t want them on State Street yelling at little kids,” he said. “I’ve seen that happen too many times.”
If elected, Carlton also said he would dig into Santa Barbara’s increasingly high cost of living ― “I pay Disneyland prices to live here,” he said, “so when I walk outside, I want to see Disneyland” ― and take a hard look at public employee salaries, especially at the top of the pay scale. On the housing front, he’d like to see the State Street Macy’s building converted into affordable mini-studios, and Nordstrom repurposed into a retirement home.
If the election doesn’t go his way, Carlton said he would continue advocating for small business and work on making State Street friendlier to customers. “I don’t need this job,” he said. “I’m doing this purely out of passion and love. I want my kid to have pride in his city.”
Join Santa Barbara Independent reporters as they sit down with the Santa Barbara City mayoral, District 6, and District 4 candidates. All discussions will be held live on Zoom. Register at independent.com/discussions-