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Why It Matters Who's Elected SB's Next Mayor

Former Mayor Sheila Lodge

A feminist prelude. There are two critical points worth noting within the 201 words of Section 504 of Santa Barbara’s City Charter, which defines the office, duties and powers of its Mayor:

“He shall be the official head of the city for ceremonial purposes,” reads one clause of the 1967 charter section, using the male gender pronoun that pops up five times in six sentences.

This in a town where women have held the mayor’s office for 35 of the last 36 years.

“Reading this section gave me a curious feeling,” former Mayor Sheila Lodge recalled, archly.

Some actual facts. The second item about the office of mayor is even more noteworthy: the gig comes with not much overt power.

In our weak mayor system, the City Administrator runs things day-to-day (ever mindful, of course, of the mayor and council’s prerogative to fire him. Or, who knows, someday, maybe her).

Here is a complete list of the SB’s mayor’s charter-mandated duties:

  1. Preside over City Council meetings.

  2. Cast her own vote - but no veto power.

  3. “Official head of the City for all ceremonial purposes."

  4. “Primary but not exclusive responsibility for interpreting the policies, programs and needs of the city government to the people."

  5. ”May inform the people of any change in policy or program.”

“Does anybody really believe that the day-to-day life of the average person in Santa Barbara is dependent on who is elected mayor?” Bill Clausen, a prolific presence on local comment boards and social media, groused over at an interesting discussion on the Indy’s site one day last week.

"Dependent?" No. "Impacted, influenced and changed?" Yes, yes and yes.

What’s at stake. The 2017 municipal election may be the most consequential in years for three key reasons: the state of the economy, the cacophony of conflict over housing policy, and seismic shifts in political power.

At a time when the city’s political landscape and demographics are changing dramatically, the next mayor and council face huge challenges in shaping and ensuring the stability of the local economy for the next several decades.

“It actually matters more who’s Mayor now than before district elections,” said Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the (all rise) Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region (which recently endorsed Angel Martinez in the mayor’s race).

“The mayor is the only elected official who represents the city as a whole, setting aside petty inner-district issues for what is going to benefit our community in general.”

As a practical matter, anyone who uses or pays for streets, roads, police officers, firefighters, public schools, parks, water or indoor plumbing has a direct stake in the outcome of the campaign.

From Amazon to Uber, technology has undermined and sapped a retail business model that has helped sustain Santa Barbara since Paseo Nuevo was constructed in the 1980s, through decades when La Cumbre Plaza's now failing anchor tenants Sears and Macy’s (aka. J. W. Robinson’s) actually thrived.

The Funk Zone may represent a small, if happy and charming, business success story, but the city still struggles with a retrograde and short-sighted approach to the fast-advancing sharing economy, and managing the local impact of global economic change. Ban Airbnb! Next up: City Hall declares Sundowner winds illegal.

Gimme shelter. The astonishing cost of housing, here and throughout coastal California, restricts the ability of local businesses to recruit employees, while forcing long commutes on nurses, first responders, teachers, students and tourist industry service workers, among others in a priced-out middle class.

Santa Barbara’s endless and intractable debate about housing – how much to build, for how much and where to put it, while preserving cherished neighborhoods and venerated architectural character - is a simmering stew of rights and responsibilities in conflict.

A raft of legislation just passed in Sacramento to mandate thousands of new units of “affordable” housing is certain to bring new complications, and new passion, to the discussion.

None of this is to mention other far-reaching issues: Trump-inflamed disquiet over race and immigration; the city treasury’s $250 million in unfunded pension liability; a disputed proposed sales tax increase on the ballot, or a backlog of public works maintenance and infrastructure improvement projects.

For starters.

Hyper-local idiosyncrasies. Come January, the new mayor will be the only official elected across the whole city; the other six council members all will have been chosen by districts, slivers of adjoining neighborhoods with roughly 14,000 residents each (the number of registered voters varies widely).

Mayor Helene Schneider and her council colleagues got squeezed into changing the city’s longtime at-large election system into a six-district arrangement back in 2015, under threat of litigation, owing to the stark underrepresentation of Latinos in city government (a problem that this year’s three district contests won’t improve a whit).

Every district council member doubtless will delight to tell you that she or he, naturally, has the best interests of the entire city at heart.

It’s a plain, cold political fact, however, that each one of the six also will be besieged by hyper-local and idiosyncratic demands and needs that increasingly will infuse debate at City Hall – precisely at a time when Santa Barbara urgently needs to move forward based on communitarian, not parochial, values.

The meeting will come to order. The next mayor should possess, not only policy knowledge, but also the political and collaborative skills necessary to shape consensus in identifying crucial priorities for the future. A big dollop of leadership to help craft a strategy and tactics for achieving these goals wouldn’t hurt, either.

The challenges start with the mayor’s first charter-mandated duty: presiding over council meetings.

It’s a deceptively simple assignment, in an historic town with more contending interests, red tape, rules, regulations, policies, procedures , NIMBY neighbors and bureaucratic protocols to be found anywhere outside the sovereign nation of Italy.

“Most importantly the mayor needs to know how to run a meeting.” said Oplinger of the Chamber of Commerce. “In a city as process-driven as Santa Barbara is, the person with the gavel needs to be able to conduct a meeting in a way that is both efficient and inclusive, a skill few possess.”

A brief Helene interlude. Incumbent Mayor Schneider, who’s backing Bendy White, has 177 well-chosen words to underscore the importance of this subject:

“Running the meeting doesn’t just happen. It takes focus and it takes work."

"I think people who’ve been in office before, especially in city government, know how the process works; you try to walk that tightrope. But if you haven’t been part of the process, it’s going to be an eye opener.”

“You try to listen to what everyone else is saying and, if there’s a difference of opinion on an issue, then try to consolidate the thought and come up with a suggestion or a motion that will pass.

“You can lead the discussion that way, and you have to do it in a way that's respectful, even if you might disagree with the members on the issue. You’re still one of seven votes, so if you want to try to push an argument one particular way, or win an argument one particular way, you have that role to play. But at the end of the day, I find that the mayor’s really the person who tries to get something to happen.

And setting that tone’s important."

Bottom line. Beyond council chairing, the charter’s loosely drawn duties for the mayor (see above, numbers 4 & 5, especially) in fact offer plenty of running room for a smart, ambitious, energetic politician, with strong communication skills and the public interest at heart, to exercise strong leadership.

“Because the role of the mayor carries with it a certain aura, the mayor can use her position to lead and educate the community, to successfully advocate for what is best for the city as a whole,” former Mayor Lodge told me.

“When I was first elected mayor I was surprised to find that people thought this gave me a lot more power, although I still had just one vote and no veto power,” she added.

“This belief in effect gave me power.”

So there’s that.


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Images: Former Mayor Sheila Lodge (Paul Wellman, SB Independent); Ken Oplinger, SB Chamber of Commerce; Cartoon people arguing; Map of Santa Barbara City Council districts; Mayor Helene Schneider (Paul Wellman, SB Independent); Seal of the City of Santa Barbara.

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