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A Conversation with Hal Conklin: "I Have Nothing But Gratitude at This Point"

Last summer, former Mayor Hal Conklin endured emergency brain surgery after suddenly collapsing -- and didn't awaken from the ordeal for three weeks.

Today, less than six months after facing down life-threatening illness, Hal amazingly is back doing what he does like no one else -- convening, facilitating and leading community dialogue, brainstorming and debate about the future of Santa Barbara.

"I have re-engaged in a lot of conversations in the community about where the community could go, and I've been asked to head up a lot of conversations about where the community could go," he told Newsmakers this week.

"And in some respects it's like being the mayor without being the mayor," he added with a smile.

First elected as a young environmental activist in 1977, Conklin served some 15 years on City Council, several of them as mayor. Four years ago, he mounted a political comeback, but came up short, finishing second to Cathy Murillo in a five-person field for mayor. He remained intensely engaged in civic affairs, however, from working on the boards of a host of non-profits to leading the ad hoc "Santa Barbara Leadership" group in weekly zoom sessions focused on untangling complex policy issues and forging strategies for the future.

When Newsmakers caught up with Conklin for a far-flung conversation this week, he spoke candidly about his health challenges; his concerns about leadership at City Hall; several of the current projects about which he is most passionate; the candidates and the race for mayor -- and his response to those who keep urging him to run again.

"Believe me I get asked that question a lot," he laughed when we asked about any plans to run, adding that he "is not seeking the job."

"If I stepped in to do the job, do I think I could do the job? Yeah," Conklin said. "I haven't made any decisions -- I probably won't make any decisions for the next 90 days. I haven't totally ruled it out, but it's not high on my priority list."

Some key quotes.

On his illness and his health. "I'm generally, surprisingly, pretty well, considering I didn't even know something had happened to me. I literally woke up in Cottage Hospital in October and said 'where the heck am I,' and the doctor said 'you just had brain surgery.' I thought he was telling me a joke...And he said, 'no, you had a serious serious medical attack and you've been in the hospital for three weeks.' To say it was a shock would be an understatement...

"And as the time has gone on since October, every day I just feel better and my health feels better and my mental acuity feels stronger and it's just been overwhelmingly positive."

On the community's reaction. "To say that I was overwhelmed with the level of support I got, not just from the medical community, but from family and friends -- I mean, people who came and read poetry to me and prayed over my bed and sent me notes -- was truly inspirational and overwhelming...So I have nothing but gratitude at this point."

On what he's up to now. "I have re-engaged in a lot of conversations in the community about where the community should go. And I've been asked to head up a lot of conversations about where the community could go. And in some respects it's like being the mayor without being the mayor.

"You're asked to be a community voice and a community spokesperson And so my wife says 'do you want to run for mayor,' and I say, 'I think I still am,' because I get asked all the time, 'Well, what would you do here, what would you do there?' "

On whether he'll run. "When it comes down to the actual job of being mayor I don't know -- I'm not seeking the job. I know there's a lot of people seeking the job. If I stepped in to do the job, do I think I could do the job? Yeah...

"There are a lot of people out there who could do that job. I haven't made any decisions, I probably won't make any decisions for the next 90 days. I haven't totally ruled it out but it's not high on my priority list."

On the current mayor. "The person who had the front runner position (in 2017), who actually did get elected mayor, with all due respect, kinda disappointed me in the lack of anything to put out there. It's like 'C'mon, you know, just telling me you want to be the first this, or the first that, doesn't impress me ...What is it you're going to do?''

"I feel the same way I felt when I ran against Cathy four years ago, along with...everybody else who ran at the time...

"It's like, 'Okay, inspire me, tell me what it is you want to do. Tell me who you are bringing together, how are you organizing that conversation? What creative ideas have you heard? What ideas don't you like? What do you think is getting in the way? What's City Hall doing that is slowing down making progress happen?

And if you don't have an answer to any of these questions, I would drop out of the race right now and I'd be happy to stand next to you while you do it, because you're going to have to stand up and say 'I have nothing creative and I have no ideas that are new.' And if you do have ideas that are new, then stand up and say it because just standing around not saying anything is not gaining you any traction.

I thought that four years ago. I still think that."

On assessing the field for the mayor's race. "One of the non-profit boards I sit on is the Common Table Foundation board. James Joyce is on that board and he's very creative, so when I look at his talent, I go 'wow this guy's got a huge amount of talent and could he do the job?' No question...He hasn't asked me for an endorsement, not to say that I wouldn't endorse him.

I know Deborah Schwartz, I certainly know Cathy Murillo. And there are other people that have been talked about for running. But yeah, when it comes to James, he's a very creative guy and he would be able to bring great talent to the job."

On a run-off for mayor between the top two finishers in a first round of voting. "The more I think about it the more supportive I am of that idea..."

On the Santa Barbara Leadership group. I call it 'the ad hocracy.'

"The thought (was), let's get some ideas out there to regenerate the economy of Santa Barbara...There were a lot of people out there who wanted to be in the conversation, didn't always know what to do, but wanted to be in the conversation...The only thing I'm going to contribute here is inviting people to the conversation...

"Let's put out 20 or 30 or 40 ideas out there and see what stands at the end of the idea...Some of those ideas have taken root - (the electric bike program), what the restaurants have done and the arts community...

"These are not necessarily brain surgery ideas but they're unique and you could make something unique in Santa Barbara..."

"That's ultimately the mayor's role, is to pull together and have that conversation and give them a chance to speak and then give them the power to do something. And if you're in the city government, make whatever changes you need to in the structure to make sure that it helps people get that done rather than getting in the way of getting it done.

On the economic future of the city. "There are massive forces impacting Santa Barbara, some of which we have control of and some of which we have no control of...In the middle of all that, people are looking for hope, and your voice can be a voice of hope if you're speaking on behalf of the city.

"There's a ton of economic incentives that the city could give to stimulate industries in Santa Barbara, whether it be tourism, whether if be the health industry, whether it be education or whether it be government...Incentives to industries that could succeed in Santa Barbara -- nobody at City Hall is taking it seriously.

"They acknowledge it, 'oh that's interesting, let's go give them a plaque.' But they're not doing anything...Somebody's got to step up and propose what it is."

Watch our full conversation with Hal Conklin via YouTube below or by clicking through this link. The podcast version is here.


Image: Hal Conklin talks in front of a Zoom screen picturing himself in an earlier incarnation.

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