Joe Centeno served as Santa Barbara County’s 5th District supervisor for two terms. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Joe Centeno, who served two terms as 5th District county supervisor, died of a heart attack late last Thursday at age 86. Though Centeno served at a time when tensions between North and South County were notably intense, he managed to establish warm and collegial working relations with 1st District Supervisor Naomi Schwartz and later her successor, Salud Carbajal, who now represents Santa Barbara in Congress.

Centeno, famously born in a boxcar in Gaviota in 1935, joined the Santa Maria Police Department at age 21, worked as a Santa Maria police chief for eight years, served on the City Council, became mayor for two years, and then served eight years on the Board of Supervisors. 

Salud Carbajal (R) and Joe Centeno | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

On the board, Centeno cut a no-nonsense figure, bordering at times on gruff. As a supervisor, Centeno was a stalwart defender of property rights but also worked with then-supervisor Carbajal to fund a first-time study on the extent of poverty throughout Santa Barbara County. Carbajal would return the favor by securing funding for a new swimming pool in Cuyama — pulverized by the sun in summer months. (Centeno had pushed to name the Naomi Schwartz government office building after Carbajal’s former boss, Supervisor Schwartz, before Schwartz died.) The Joe Centeno swimming pool, however, would be bedeviled by embarrassing construction defects that drove up the cost and significantly reduced available hours in service. 

When Centeno stepped down — and was replaced by incumbent supervisor Steve Lavagnino, now wrapping up his second term — he disappeared from the public scene to an uncommon degree. Lavagnino noted that Centeno lives within spitting distance of a major homeless encampment that he has been wrestling with in Santa Maria but has never heard word one from the former supervisor to step on the gas. 

In a statement released after Centeno’s passing, Congressmember Carbajal stated, “Some of my most fond memories of Joe were working with him to establish the Children’s Health Insurance Initiative (for uninsured children), build the Cuyama pool, and partnering to support our agricultural industry.”

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