Randy Rowse: City Hall Afflicted by Ideology & Partisanship -- SB Needs a "Different Direction"
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
When Randy Rowse first joined the Santa Barbara City Council a decade ago, conservative Republicans were on the rise -- in sharp contrast to the all-Democrat membership of the council today.
Now running for mayor, Rowse says that in both cases, partisan agendas and political "virtue signaling" too often encroached upon common sense, businesslike solutions to everyday, practical problems of city residents and taxpayers.
"When I first got on council, I was along with (former conservative members) Frank Hotchkiss, Michael Self and Dale Francisco," he said in an interview with Newsmakers. "There was a lot of push from the parties to go a certain way or another.
"And I always was kind of insulted by that, because I thought the political parties have business outside of the city, they have agendas outside of the city, they have purposes that are self-driving," Rowse added. "And I always thought it was damaging to city business from either side of the coin...Particularly now, it's so dominantly Democrat that you get things that come up and, all of a sudden, we're talking about Medicare for All as an agenda item.
"I went, well, that's a great item to talk about in some circles -- City Council isn't one of those circles," Rowse said.
In his first full-length interview since announcing his mayoral candidacy several weeks ago (you can find Nick Schou's piece here), the 66-year old longtime small businessman and nine-year veteran of council set forth his basic campaign pitch -- his combination of private and public sector credentials best qualifies him among the field of four contenders, he argues - while answering questions about a host of the city's most pressing problem - from homelessness and housing and to State Street and civilian review of the police.
Throughout, Rowse emphasized his concerns that political posturing at City Hall has become more important than fixing pot holes, as public employee and other unions hold sway over elected officials, enforcing "quid pro quo" decisions on public policies, while municipal government overreaches into affairs of the private sector, from housing developments to landlord-tenant relations.
"I see issues that I don't see being resolved in a way that is the best for the community," he told us. "And I think that a little bit different direction would help, particularly now we're at the crossroads coming out of the entire pandemic.
"And I think my background...being in private business for all those years, along with spending time in the public sector. I've got a little bit of perspective in both. I really think that I could be of assistance right now, moving us towards a really vital reopening."
Here are some key excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and length.
ON WHY HE’S RUNNING FOR MAYOR
“I see issues that I don't see being resolved in a way that is the best for the community (and) I think that a little bit different direction would help, particularly now...coming out of the entire pandemic,…
"And I think my background, being in private business for all those years, along with spending time in the public sector, I've got a little bit of perspective in both. I really think that I could be of assistance right now in moving us towards a really vital reopening…
"This is an amazing community. I have a lot of passion for it and am probably going to be involved in one way or the other. So this came at a time that it seemed like it might be right to try to jump back in and see if I could be a significant help."
ON PARTISANSHIP AND PRAGMATISM AT CITY HALL
"When I first got on council, I was along with Frank Hotchkiss, Michael Self and Dale Francisco… And there was a lot of push from the parties to go a certain way or another.
"And I always was kind of insulted by that because I thought the political parties have business outside of the city. They have agendas outside of the city. They have purposes that are self-driving. And I always thought it was damaging to city business from either side of the coin.
"Particularly now it's so dominantly Democrat that you get things that come up and all of a sudden we're talking about Medicare for All as an agenda item, I went, well, 'that's a great item to talk about in some circles, city councils is not one of those circles…'
"And so when it comes to deciding or talking about how a street should be striped or a what a condo development should look like, or all of the things that you have that are relatively mundane, but are city business…outside ideologies and what I believe in, really shouldn't be a part of the deal. I don't want to carry baggage in with me. I just want to focus on every item, give it its own life, its own respect and, and take things ad hoc as they come."
ON PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNION INFLUENCE
"As mayor, of course, and also as a council member, you are involved in setting salaries and other benefits and so on, and, you know, let's face it, a number of members of council now, you know, take large campaign contributions from some of those same unions, who you're in the, in the business of negotiating with…
"It bothers me a lot. I mean, it's perfectly legal, but it is a quid pro quo. How can I take money from an organization with whom I'm going to be negotiating if I get seated? I've never understood why that was okay.
"I mean, my cynical side… it doesn't make any sense to me."
ON THE PROJECT LABOR AGREEMENT
"There's nothing wrong with unionization (but) this was driven by unions that are not local. When I say local, I mean, city -- and the term in this argument became, ‘well, local means tri-counties, between here and L.A., between here and the Mississippi River. I don't know. It just seemed, there were, there were a lot of folks in that (hearing) room that were, were in union T-shirts from L.A. and Thousand Oaks and San Luis Obispo, making the argument.
"And that's fine, except that we are financing them. Many of our public works projects, large ones with Measure C (funds), which is a city issue. It is not a global, Tri-counties, multi-county issue. And we have a set of jobs that are lined up with that -- the police station, obviously road pavement, all the things that we're doing…
"it was really a slap in the face for all the long-term, major contractors in town that had been here forever, that are great community people… that live in this town and hire young people and do apprenticeships for young people and participate with the schools and training programs. And it was like saying, ‘no, that's not good enough. We're going to go to Thousand Oaks and get the next group of workers.’
"… And yes, some of my colleagues took, took money from the unions."
ON MEASURE C
"I went out and we did this whole song and dance for a lot of groups to talk about Measure C and a lot of people did respond with that cynical answer. (I said), ‘I know this has got nothing to do with the unions, uh, blah, blah…
And we passed it, the public let us know what their priorities were, which was a police station daily…library plaza on down the line. But at that time there was nothing said or anticipated about…a Project Labor Agreement.
"That, to me, that was, that was breaking trust. That was a bait and switch…. People are dying to be cynical about government and for good reason. And I think this has fed that entire feeling."
THE STATE OF STATE STREET
"Full disclosure, anyone that’s ever followed me… knows that I've never been a fan of street closures. And in fact, when we had our three different consultant teams to talk about state street and revitalization, way before the pandemic, the one thing they all had in common was they didn't recommend closing off streets, at least permanently.
"But the move, the City Council made to help the restaurants, I applauded, because they needed to do whatever it took to keep those people going. And because, we were dancing at the end of the strings of higher government powers which said, ‘you're open, you're closed, you're this, you're that.’ And it was whatever it takes to keep these people alive is what you know they needed to do. So I applaud council for doing that.
"But then a lot of people that have been for State Street closure since I got here in the early ’70s, frankly, are saying, ‘Oh, this is our moment. This is our Pearl Chase moment.’
And I'm going, no.
"Santa Barbara, I mean, I was just walking around the other day down across the green bike lanes and all that. I'm thinking, this place is so wonderful still…what it needs to be is uncovered, cleaned up, you know, it needs to have another coming out party, but it doesn't need to be rebuilt, redesigned, reconfigured…"
STATE OF STATE STREET II
"I mean, now it's pedestrians go to the sidewalks, bikes on the street… To answer all the questions it's going to take to really convert this into a promenade, you know, like raising the street, you're going to have to do that. Uh, how do you transition from open streets to closed streets? Do you ramp up and ramp down? What does that money come from? Who maintains it?
I" don't think we need to build more hard structures downtown to make the town attractive and vibrant. I think we need to clean, clean up... And we need to find ways to get the private sector excited about investing again and moving forward and just moving on. And so I don't think rebuilding the whole thing at this time.
"…As you know, I was in the (restaurant) business for years and I had a liquor license and what's going on now with, you know, cocktails to go, parklets out in the middle of the street and the public right of way, people walking around with drinks and whatnot -- none of that's really kosher. It's just being abided by now because everybody wants to stay out of business's way as much as humanly possible.
"When it comes time to revise our design standards, to listen to (the H)istoric Landmarks Commission) again (because)…it looks like a yard sale and you know, the parklets are not built to be permanent, they were built to do what they they're doing, being a temporary, you know, standby.
"What do we do about the public right of way? Do we actually, do we continue to allow that public right of way to be usurped for private enterprise at no revenue, is that fair to everybody else? This is a restaurant parklet that covers up four or five storefronts – is that fair to the little retail shop next door is trying to survive currently? I'd say it's not. So putting the genie back in the bottle…
"And when I say clean up, I'm serious about that. I mean, it's not in a condition that anybody's particularly proud of it at this moment in time."
ON CITY HALL’S PANDEMIC ACTIONS ON LANDLORD-TENANT RELATIONS
"I really think that those are, you know, private business relationships. And I think when government gets involved, it usually doesn't go well. We have a Rental Housing Mediation Task Force, which I've always been a big supporter of, matter of fact, I'd led the charge to get it permanently financed.
"And they're a wonderful organization, both professionals and volunteers, that help the tenant landlord relationship get through problems like this.
"Most private landlords I know went to their tenants proactively and said, ‘how are we going to work this out?’ And people weren't looking to evict people per se. Yeah, there probably some cases, but especially in the commercial and the commercial leases, you're going, how many commercial leases had long lines of people waiting to sign those leases. Just virtually zero. So, you know, landlords went out and worked with their tenants to, to get by.
"The government intervention was, I don't know how necessary it was. It never saw any statistics about who was going to get evicted and who wasn't. I think there's a lot of virtue signaling going on there in my mind. I'm not talking about our local council. I'm just talking about government in general…But I think a lot of damage was done. A lot of banking relationships were strained and maybe some landlords forced out of business as well."
ON BUILDING RENTAL HOUSING
"When it comes to rentals, rentals are done by the market. They're not done by analysis…unless they're somebody like the Housing Authority for whom I have an immense amount of respect…
"But there's limits to that -- when things are built, they're going to be built from markets…The council says, ‘let's do some inclusionary housing. Let's do 10%....No, let's do 20. ‘ I go, ‘well, why don't you just go to 50?’ Because none of them are going to get built anyway.
"Because, you know, you're talking about an investor getting together with a group of investors and maybe getting a four or five percent (return on investment) and that's not going to, if that's the home run, good luck getting that group of investors to chime in.
"You know, it's still risk, it's still money… Can we build 8,000 units by that token that are going to be affordable? I don't think so for a moment. We are a built-out city… we don't have a lot of vacant land to do this. And oftentimes we convert to multiunit developments, we tear up some old rental housing and displace people doing that. And then all of a sudden, it's gentrification. So not an easy solution.
"So I think the best possible thing we do is work with the private sector and say, what is it going to take to make you want to do X? And I think a lot of it's going to be certainty within the permit process, not just cutting permit fees or doing the zoning differently. It's like, what's it going to take to actually make sure that when you say I'm going to have this permit in eight months, that I have a permit?"
ON HIGH DENSITY HOUSING
“You know, people don't come to Santa Barbara or move to Santa Barbara necessarily for the urban experience, where you have kind of a pastoral almost quasi- rural experience.
You have the great outdoors, we have this wonderful environment, mountains and beaches.
"And so you're not coming here to live in an urban, setting per se. Granted we need some of that to make some affordable housing. And that's what the AUD was all about.
But without subsidies, it's going to be really hard to imagine how anybody's going to build something that they're going to call it, you know, workforce housing, unless somehow we attract the kind of jobs that are going to increase the average median income, which would be okay with me as well."
ON THE HOMELESS
"I always kind of bristle at the broad brush term ‘homelessness,’ not only because it's a simplistic term, it's not dynamic enough. And it connotes that the solution to homelessness is a home, simple enough let's warehouse all these people. Well, clearly, you know, anybody that's in the business, in the profession of, of dealing with homelessness will tell you that, you know, you can't house your way out of this."
"There's so many dynamic things you have to do. Granted shelter would help…but a lot of people are shelter resistant. And so how do you deal with that?...Because like I said, if you built a thousand homes and you sheltered a thousand people, I think you'd have a new population on the street. And I actually do…that's the way I think it is…
"We need to focus on taking care of the real problematic people. And when I say that, I mean, the people that have behavior issues, that are not mentally capable of either taking care of themselves or do things that we consider, should a nuisance behavior in the downtown or, you know, extreme crime or whatever.
"I think that's actually a relatively small percentage of number. We have to focus like lasers on those folks and get them taken care of…And I've been working with a couple of folks…that have been involved in this, they're talking about trying to get at more of an outreach that focuses on that and has constant contact with people on the street that doesn't just say it's either police or nobody…
"We need to really go out there proactively with a large non-sworn force, with a large force of people…we have to actually get out there and interface with these people on our very constant basis. And right now, as you see from walking around the street, we're not really doing that, not, not to the level I'd like to see anyway."
ON THE CITY’S RETAIL POT LICENSES
"I was not a fan of doing this in the first place… I lost that argument in a big way. So the design of the selection process was meant to keep a firewall between council and applicants, which I think was absolutely the professional and correct thing to do. Just too much influence, floating around, too much money….
“When we got ready to do the ordinance, I've never seen a council so proactively engaged in trying to get people in business. I've never seen the enthusiasm. ‘We've got to get these people in business. We've got to lessen the fees. We should waive the fees. We should have a tax holiday.’ All these things came out and I was just gobsmacked seeing what is going on.
"I mean, I have my cynical ideas, what might be going on, but once again, I don't know. So here we are now in this thing…they flipped the license. I don't know about the numbers, the numbers, once again are all hearsay. I think there was an asset sale of that entire company to another party. And I think that license was part of the assets. I don't know how they assigned the value…
"And the way I look at it, this guy had it, it's part of the asset. So…the buyer has to be approved and go through whatever vetting they go through But it is an assignable asset now…
"I do not think council should reopen this process. I do not think we should be expanding these facilities even for their own good, for God's sakes. How many do you need?
“I don't like it. I think it hasn't dented the black market one iota. I don't think it will….The exponential growth of anything like that should worry people. And it worries me. And, you know, I also worry about, as I see the THC content and I see kids on the street that are 17 or 18 years old, just baked…just this acceptance, this normalization, I think should give people some pause."
(This is the fourth in a series of interviews with the candidates for Mayor of Santa Barbara. Our talk with incumbent Cathy Murillo is here; Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz is here; and social justice entrepreneur James Joyce is here).