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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Josh Molina: 'There's a Lot of Tension at City Hall Right Now' -- Inside SB's Political Turmoil

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Newsmakers just checked in with SB journalist Josh Molina, to talk about two scoopy stories he posted on Tuesday over at Noozhawk: One spotlights a wave of pandemic-era political turmoil at City Hall, while the other reveals that the suits at the Unified School District have cooked up a still-secret plan for grading locked-out students forced to take classes online.

Josh himself is juggling a full load of professional and domestic assignments, he told us in a Zoom Chat, pounding out daily news yarns and teaching 13 units of journalism classes to City College students, while keeping an eye on his two kids, a teenager and a kindergartner, and their adventures in virtual learning.

"There's a lot of tension at City Hall right now," he told us, about his first piece, which explores how executive staff and elected council members are scrambling to cope with a massive whack to the city government budget, while also struggling to jump start a long-overdue economic development strategy that suddenly must take account of the harsh new realities of the age of coronavirus.

City Administrator Paul Casey has swiftly stepped up and volunteered to take a pay cut, a clear signal of the fiscal pain to come when the full scope of the budget disaster becomes clear, a scenario shaped by increased costs and plummeting revenues inflicted by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Mayor Cathy Murillo, up for re-election next year, so far has kept a low profile amid the disaster but now, Josh reports, has assembled a 15-member business task force to be charged with pointing the way out of immediate financial hard times for Santa Barbara's economy, while also setting a course for the future.

Even before the mayor's task force was formally announced, however, councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, an erstwhile close Cathy ally, shared with Josh his outrage at being excluded from the panel and the process; Oscar has grown increasingly close to prominent developers in town, and his cross words for the mayor come as others criticize Cathy for having no representative of State Street commercial interests on her committee, and as former (and future?) Mayor Hal Conklin simultaneously is rolling out a separate economic development project this week.

Smack in the center of the conflict sits the Community Development Department, widely reviled by many businesses and homeowners for its byzantine, many-layered, self-perpetuating bureaucracy and infernal, nit-picking permit operations; a recent big-ticket consultant's report to the council targeted the department as the source of many problems.

Into the middle of the sturm un drang comes newly-hired Economic Development Manager Jason Harris, who took the job before the pandemic shut down Santa Barbara's economy, but who will now be looked to for policy leadership as he tries to navigate the complex political cross-currents into which he's just waded.

Over at SBUSD headquarters, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka who's retiring, cough, cough, in June, a year before his contract is up, meanwhile is offering one more shining example of his chronic inability to understand the meaning of the word transparency.

Josh reports that Cary is playing hide-the-ball on a staff proposal for grading students for their lost semester. There will be a hearing on the plan on Thursday night, after the school board meets in "emergency" secret session to discuss the status of the search for a new superintendent.

Click on the arrow above to hear Josh and Jerry's conversation about all this and more...and the podcast version is here.


Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that the grading proposal would be heard in executive session; in its executive session, the school board will discuss the search for a new SBUSD superintendent.

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