Maybe the fate of Western Civilization doesn’t hang in the balance. But for the 91,000 people who call the City of Santa Barbara home, it seems that way.
On November 2, city voters will choose which of the six candidates now running to be our next mayor. That’s a big deal.
Plus, voters from two districts — 4 and 6 — will determine which of the six candidates (two incumbents) now vying for a seat on the council dais will represent them in City Hall. Another incumbent, Eric Friedman, has no opponent.
The issues are the same as they ever are: housing, homelessness, and the economic vitality of our downtown. Then, there’s Santa Barbara’s response to the great racial reckoning taking place nationwide. And beyond that is the global threat of climate change.
In other words, it’s about everything.
Suffusing it all is a disquieting sense that the hubcaps may be flying off the wheels at City Hall. The rate of turnover in high-ranking leadership positions is enough to induce whiplash. The word “leadership” — always invoked come election season — has transitioned from mere campaign slogan to mantra.
Like many of you, we at the Independent have struggled to come to terms with the candidates before us. Few choices were easy, but we take our work seriously. We hope you find the fruit of our agitation helpful.
But whatever you decide, please vote.
James Joyce III for Mayor of Santa Barbara
To read our endorsement for Joyce, click here.
Kristen Sneddon for District 4
Kristen Sneddon has not merely represented the values of voters in District 4 during her first four years on the council; to a remarkable extent, she’s embodied them. Sneddon, a geologist who teaches at Santa Barbara City College, is an archetypical citizen politician who has championed a seemingly conflicting mix of Santa Barbara priorities: social justice and historic preservation. She is determined that the city can embrace both.
To her credit and our relief, Sneddon does not believe in the trickle-up theory of new housing. We’ve all learned the hard way that just because they build it doesn’t mean the middle class can afford it. When City Hall provides private developers incentives and subsidies, Sneddon has argued, the community must reap the maximum number of affordable units possible. She’s voted against high-density housing proposals that offer only a handful of below-market-rate units. By contrast, she has voted — enthusiastically — in favor of quasi-subsidized housing proposals that promise large numbers of below-market rental units within reach of Santa Barbara’s “missing middle” income earners.
Sneddon moved to Santa Barbara when she was still a teenager; she’s lived and breathed the changes that have overwhelmed our downtown since. When the pandemic struck, Sneddon acted quickly to push through the big changes needed to keep downtown alive — most notably, the promenade — while at the same time maintaining fidelity to the city’s historic traditions and mountain views. It’s been a tough row to hoe, and Sneddon bumped heads with high-ranking city administrators along the way.
Sneddon was spooked into political life by Donald Trump; she came out of nowhere to run as a scientist in 2016 in response to Trump’s contemptuous belittling of climate change. On the council, Sneddon has emerged as one of the most knowledgeable members on such complex issues as drought; water supply; sea-level rise; and newer, cleaner energy initiatives. As the city must adapt to these conditions, Sneddon, who has earned the trust of design review committees, will be able to help guide the transitions while honoring our iconic aesthetic.
Lastly, Sneddon is prepared — sometimes, admittedly, to a fault. At council meetings, Sneddon always has questions. And then a few more. But no one works harder for the people living in her district, answering phone calls, showing up for meetings, and raising Cain behind the scenes, if need be.
Sneddon’s opponent — challenger and Planning Commissioner Barrett Reed — is intelligent, shrewd, creative, and insightful. As a private developer, he has demonstrated an ability to figure out how to repurpose and reconfigure existing properties and make them work as places where people want to congregate. But after only two years on the planning commission, we think he needs more seasoning.
At this time in history, Sneddon reflects and represents an essential element in Santa Barbara’s long-festering debate over how much new growth development we want or need. Without her on the dais, that viewpoint would be would be dangerously absent.
Eric Friedman for District 5
This one would have been easy, no matter what. That no one bothered to run against Councilmember Eric Friedman, a first-term incumbent now seeking a second term, made the decision easier still. Friedman has been an exemplary member of the city council, representing a district that includes everything west of Las Positas Road and south of Foothill. On policy matters, he’s a level-headed policy wonk — thoughtful and candid — with a predisposition to dive deep into the details. When it comes to constituent service, Friedman’s been an absolute beast.
None of this should come as a surprise. For years, Friedman worked as an assistant to former County Supervisor (now Congressmember) Salud Carbajal; before that, he worked for Carbajal’s former boss, former First District Supervisor Naomi Schwartz. He comes steeped in government experience and service. Friedman has been all about protecting the city’s water supplies in times of drought, serving on an alphabet soup of agencies designed to keep our spigots spouting. You could do a lot worse than reelecting Eric Friedman for a second term; you’d be hard-pressed to do much better.
Meagan Harmon for District 6
There is much to like about each of the four candidates now running to represent downtown’s District 6 on the Santa Barbara City Council; of the four, however, we believe Meagan Harmon offers to put the best foot forward into the future. Harmon appeared on the local political scene — and in Santa Barbara itself — just a few years ago. In very short order, she distinguished herself on the council for her obvious intelligence, political acumen, legislative creativity, and an ability to get things done.
When she first sought appointment to fill a vacancy on the council, Harmon came across as a moderate business-friendly attorney who happened to speak four languages and who specialized in real estate finance law. Since then, she’s emerged as one of the council’s most outspoken progressives. She has been focused on Santa Barbara’s astronomical housing costs.
Harmon represents a district in which 80 percent of residents also rent. So does she. An ardent supporter of relocation assistance for tenants displaced through no fault of their own, she has also supported the push for higher inclusionary requirements for rental housing developments built with city subsidies of bonus densities. Harmon played a significant behind-the-scenes role getting these plans to the starting gate.
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in the wake of last year’s George Floyd killing, Harmon was instrumental in pushing for the creation of a civilian review board in Santa Barbara.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Harmon led the charge to make pharmaceutical chains pay their workers “Hero Pay” — $5 an hour more than usual for 60 days — because their essential jobs exposed them to great risk. These workers had deserved it, and because of Harmon, the council delivered.
That Harmon managed to beat Das Williams, who is more experienced and knowledgeable about coastal protection, for an appointment to the California Coastal Commission is clear evidence that she is a political athlete. However, we would suggest caution when it comes to biting off more than she can chew. This is especially the case when it comes to balancing the irrefutable need for housing against such seeming ephemera as “quality of life” and “neighborhood compatibility,” long the touchstones of Santa Barbara’s environmental sensibilities.
While challengers Jason Carlton and Zach Pike both added significant nutrient content to candidates’ debates, Harmon’s chief rival in this race is Nina Johnson, an assistant administrator in City Hall, where she’s worked the past 25 years.
There is much to admire about Nina Johnson. Through the years, she’s been the go-to person for business owners and downtown landlords, and she’s also been an able and creative advocate for local arts, leading the charge to convert the State Street underpass into an adventurous and animated art space.
Well before the pandemic struck, State Street was struggling to stay afloat. Johnson lobbied commercial landlords to endure the inconvenience of renting to temporary pop-up tenants rather than allowing their storefronts to go dark. As she is quick to point out, 13 pop-up businesses sprouted downtown. Some have made the transition to permanent.
However, Johnson has rejected the idea of imposing a vacancy tax on commercial landlords who allow their properties to lie dark for extended periods. We strongly disagree, and Harmon, by contrast, said she supported the idea.
Giving us pause as well is Johnson’s reluctance to require all city employees to either get vaccinated or get tested. Mayor Cathy Murillo and mayoral challenger Randy Rowse hold the same belief. For us, vaccinations are basic in preventing the spread of COVID and restoring the local economy. By contrast, Harmon was unequivocal in her support.
Not sure where your district is? Enter your address into the city’s interactive district map.
For more information on the November 2 vote-by-mail election, including official ballot drop box locations, see the City of Santa Barbara’s election page. Register to vote by October 18 here. To track that status of your ballot, sign up at WheresMyBallot.sos.ca.gov.