Toni Navarro | Credit: Gina DePinto

Among the many chess pieces on the County of Santa Barbara’s jurisdictional chess board, few are as consequential as the Department of Behavioral Wellness, which provides mental-health services and substance-abuse treatment to about 10,000 patients, most of whom qualify as low-income. With precious little fanfare, the county supervisors announced the appointment of Antonette “Toni” Navarro as this high-profile department’s new director. 

Navarro grew up in Santa Barbara, attended Santa Barbara High, and got her master’s degree in education at UCSB. She reportedly returns to Santa Barbara every year to celebrate Día de los Muertos with her family. But for the past 15 years, Navarro, a marriage and family therapist by education, worked in leadership positions for the Tri-Cities Mental Health, an unusual joint-powers authority that provides mental-health services to low-income residents of Pomona, La Verne, and Claremont. There she served as clinical director and then as chief director for an agency that not long before her arrival found itself $25 million in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy. Her executive predecessor there is credited with stabilizing things, but it was on Navarro’s watch that the debt was finally paid off. 

She assumes control of a department that was once likened to Afghanistan by a former county supervisor, by which he meant ungovernable. That, however, was before outgoing director Alice Gleghorn, who announced her retirement this April, took the reins of the Santa Barbara department, stabilized it, and changed its name to Behavioral Wellness. Famously no-nonsense in style and demeanor, Gleghorn got a lot done but just as famously did not get along with Santa Barbara’s cadre of mental-health advocates. 

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Lynne Gibbs, head of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), expressed cautious optimism, saying of Navarro, “I am impressed with her clinical background,” adding, “We look forward to working with her in a supportive partnership.”

Far more exuberant in his excitement over Navarro’s arrival is Supervisor Das Williams, who exclaimed that Navarro “was hitting doubles, triples, and home runs” during her interview. Navarro was one of 29 applicants for the position, one of 12 who were interviewed, and one of four interviewed more than once. Williams heaped praise on Gleghorn for fixing many of the “nuts and bolts” of an ailing department and adding significantly to the infrastructure of treatment options. For all that, however, the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility — for people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others — still only has 16 beds, a number that has not increased at all in 45 years. 

Navarro takes over a department with a $143-million-a-year department with 403 full-time workers. It provides mental-health services to 7,476 clients and drug and alcohol treatment for another 3,106. Currently, 149 clients are on conservatorships, 88 of whom are in locked facilities and 12 in state hospitals. No matter what the hot-button issue — homelessness to criminal-justice reform — Behavioral Wellness invariably finds itself inextricably involved. 

“We want a department where there’s no wrong door,” Supervisor Williams stated. “We’re not there yet.”

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