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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

SB Mayor Eyes Tax Hike for Homeless; Says Union Donations "Not Pay to Play"; Calls City "Well Run"

As she seeks a five-year second term, Mayor Cathy Murillo said in an interview that her decade of City Council experience merits her re-election, declaring that "everyday people are happy" in Santa Barbara and describing the city as "well run."

As the race for mayor begins to take shape, the incumbent also disclosed in an extensive interview that she favors a possible tax increase -- perhaps a countywide property tax levy -- to finance expanded services for the homeless, while listing several sites she is exploring for a "sanctioned" homeless tent encampment.

Despite the growing problem of homelessness in Santa Barbara, the city's top elected official added, however, that conditions here compare favorably to other Southern California cities.

"I don't know how it sounds if I say it, but if you look at other cities, we're not so bad," Murillo said, noting the proliferation of homeless camps in Venice, near Dodger Stadium and in other areas in of Los Angeles County.

"We have a really great outreach team and we do get some people into housing," she said. "It's hard, it's management -- we have to manage the problem. Until there's another shelter or until there's little apartments to put them in, we're going to have a challenge."

The mayor, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday, was first elected to council in 2011 and now faces at least two major challengers in a bid for a second, and final, term in the only City Hall office still elected citywide. Longtime Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz and anti-racism activist and entrepreneur James Joyce both have announced candidacies; whoever wins will get a five-year term, as part of Santa Barbara's shift of its municipal election schedule, from odd to even years.

Our previous interviews with Schwartz and Joyce are here and here.

Last week Murillo agreed to a one-on-one conversation: originally scheduled for 30 minutes, the interview lasted nearly an hour, as Cathy generously agreed to hang in and answer further questions.

Among the highlights:

  • On policy: The mayor associated herself closely with current city and county efforts to combat homelessness, calling the issue "one of my assignments on the council" and highlighting her position as chair of SB ACT, the organization seeking to coordinate some $40 million in annual services provided by local governments and non-profits -- adding that she also favors a special parcel tax, or increased bed or sales levies, to finance a new homeless "navigation center." She also strongly defended the new, union-friendly Project Labor Agreement policy she championed on council; described the State Street Promenade as "a work in progress" and said that her biggest priority in a new term would be to "make policy decisions that create housing opportunities, (which) would solve a lot of our issues."

  • On politics: Murillo spoke proudly of having raised nearly $80,000 to date for her re-elect campaign. Asked to identify specific accomplishments that warrant her re-election, she pointed to the Project Labor Agreement, the city's enactment of demands by Healing Justice/Black Lives Matter, and a citywide Women's Summit which she convened. She also asserted that a far-flung network of personal working relationships she has forged with what she called "my residents and my businesses," as well as with city staff, homeless people and "gang risk youth" represents a major contrast with her rivals.

"I'm working on (Mike) Jordan and (Eric) Friedman," Cathy said. "Alejandra (Gutierrez), I haven't even broached her about it -- it's like if you're asking your wife for a kind of have to wait for the right moment and, you know, wait until she's in a good mood."

Below is a transcript of key excerpts of Newsmakers' wide-ranging interview with Mayor Cathy Murillo on March 5. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Watch the entire interview via YouTube below or by clicking through on this link. The podcast version is here.



Q: Why do you deserve to be re-elected?

Cathy Murillo: "Basically I'm running to continue my service to the city and to look out for the well being of residents, to protect the natural environment, to protect the health of the economy.

I’ve been on the council for 10 years (and) so I want to build on the work that I did over those 10 years and build on the relationships that I have with city residents, city staff, I have great relationships with city staff. The work that I do regionally, with regional leaders, I serve on regional boards, I’m the chair of a couple of them. I'm really proud of that.

So my focus will be on fiscal health of the city We’ve been hit hard from the pandemic on our revenue sources. I want to provide strong services for our families and make policy decisions that create housing opportunities, that would solve a lot of our issues, is more housing.

So climate resilience is also high on my list of priorities as is criminal justice reform...(T)he wonderful and passionate and painful experience that we went through this summer, the racial reckoning...How do police departments treat black and brown people -- the conversation that’s come out of that is, we need to do more for criminal justice reform., so that’s also on my list of things to do in my second term."


Q: Please identify two or three specific accomplishments of your first term.

CM: "Community wise, I was really proud to organize a Women’s Summit after (Supreme Court Justice) Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the bench, and brought together a lot of women leaders and teenage girls. We ended up with a self-defense training, so it was a real women’s empowerment event.

I am proud of what we did responding to the Healing Justice/Black Lives Matter demands that came out of last summer. We accomplished quite a bit, not just the civilian review process but creating a fund for their Juneteenth (celebration). So there was like a positive cultural uplift for the Black community.

I am proud of the Project Labor Agreement policy that we have at the city. It’s a way for public tax dollars to fund public works projejcts and a way to use unionized workers . And part two of the policy is to create this apprenticeship recruitment program and so I really emphasized that.

Being the mayor during the pandemic we transitioned to these virtual meetings. They’re long and they’re kind of tortuous, but we get city business done -- the city’s well run...It hasn’t been easy, but I have been there for my residents and for my businesses."


Q: Last year you jumped into the race for the state Assembly. What do you say to people who say that showed a lack of commitment to the city?

CM: "I’d been making a lot of phone calls at the end of 2020, when I started calling people and saying ‘hey I'm up for re-election (for mayor) in 2021, can I still count on your support?’ And, as you know, I raised quite a bit of money before the end of the year because I wanted to start 2021 strong, and nobody has asked me that.

Nobody has said, 'hey you ran for Assembly and you didn’t make it maybe you didn’t really care about the city.'

What I would say, if people didn’t really think I care about the city, they can think that if they want, it”s not true. I would have still represented my city residents, more people.

It was a great experience actually. It broadened my knowledge, how the city interacts with the state, to me a bunch of interesting people, I did find Sacramento full of a lot of big egos, you know it’s a high stakes thing, a lot of high stakes issues and I could have done the job but I have to say I really respect Steve Bennett and I honor his victory and I have to say he's doing a good job…

So I’m okay with losing. You don’t run if you don’t expect (to win). Yeah, there’s always a possibility you might not win and you have to be big about it. I certainly don’t have any resentements going forward. You’ve got to let all that go. My motto in politics is to have a short memory."


Q: You recently voted to approve funding for a Business Improvement District on Coast Village Road. But a few years ago you vehemently opposed one for Milpas Street. Why Montecito and not Milpas?

CM: "I had heard about the plan for the Business Improvement District which, on the Eastside, was assessing the businesses, not the properties (unlike Coast Village Road). It was based on the business I originally didn’t start out opposing it.

I wanted to find out how many of the small businesses knew about the proposal. So I went…walking up and down Milpas asking the businesses, 'have you even heard about this?' And they hadn’t. And I think there (were) only one or two that had, and those were the businesses that were really active with the Milpas Community Association – it’s not called that anymore, but that was the organization that was proposing the whole thing.

So then I thought...the hotels which were at the bottom of Milpas, the hotels at East Beach, they had a bigger, more weighty vote because they had a higher assessment, that they could force it on the small Latino businesses on the street. So that’s why it seemed unfair to me."


CM: "I was at the rally at the Sunken Gardens and was really moved by what I heard there. You know, to hear Black people, what it felt like to grow up Black in Santa Barbara, to see families move away, the brutality of the killing of George Floyd, that was powerful.

I didn’t want to march with them because of the pandemic and I didn’t want to be breathing people’s breath, you know, marching around, chanting.

So I missed the kneeling ceremony. The eight nine minutes to honor George Floyd. Otherwise I would have taken a knee, had I marched with them and ended up there on the street with them. And I did maybe three or four demonstrations after that where I took a knee...

Kneeling for eight-and-a-half minutes, imagining that was how long for the gentleman to have the life choked out of him, it was very powerful, very emotional. And so when I went to the organizers of the demonstration, I was there to receive their demands and they didn’t see me as an ally because I came from the location of the police department.

I understand that it was unfortunate, but I had meetings with them after that...and we cleared the air. I apologized I said ‘I am your ally,' you know, I’ve always been someone who works for racial and social justice

And since then the city has totally embraced the demands. The biggest one was the civilian oversight function. And if you look at the Sheriff’s Department, the Sheriff told those same activists to go jump in the lake…It was the same ask it was the same demand, 'what are you going to do Sheriff’s Department so that kind of fatal horrible incident doesn’t happen?

And the Sheriff said, 'we don’t need it.' Our police chief, on the other hand, she immediately banned the chokehold and she herself took the knee...So our city has really embraced the demands…We’re doing what we can and I believe that the voters, in the context of my re-election, that they know what I stand for. I’ve always helped people of color, women of color especially, try to get them into political office.

I teach women how to raise money. I’m very good at raising money, I love calling people and chatting with them and then I just do the ask. So I’m almost up to $80,000, not to change the subject."


Q: The council approved a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis and decrying "systemic and structural racism." Do you believe there is systemic and structural racism in the Santa Barbara Police Department?

CM: "I believe there are individuals who could probably use some training and some enlightenment. I think we all have implicit bias, where you look at somebody and you go, ‘oh that’s a homeless person’ or, you know what I mean, or ‘ that’s a banker’- it works both ways...depending on how they’re presenting...

(Former Police Chief) Lori Luhnow, as soon as she was hired, she did implicit bias training with the police department. I guess what I would say, and somebody told me this, this wasn’t an original thought, so in Minneapolis …the week before George Floyd was brutally murdered, the Minneapolis police officers would say, or their city council, 'oh nothing like that could happen here.' But it did.

So that’s why, it’s wonderful that we’re looking at the processes at the police department, the training...the hiring is super important. So if you can weed out a racist, or somebody who’s on a power trip … or somebody who doesn’t know how to control anger or violent impulses, if you can stop that person from getting hired in the first place, then we’re better off."

Q: To clarify, you're saying that there may be individuals who are racist, but there is not systemic structural racism?

CM: "That’s the thing about racism is that it’s everywhere. And even people who don’t think they’re racist, they do have these built-in ideas that need to be purged. So our police department is undergoing a review right remains to be seen what the (civilian review process) Formation Commission, what they’re going to ferret out."


Q: Why do we need a Project Labor Agreement policy? Have there been problems with non-union contractors?

CM: "The Project Labor Agreement policy gives union workers an opportunity to be part of the project. So if it’s a non-union contractor who gets the job, they do get to use some of their employees, but they have to include union (workers) after a certain amount. It’s not like they’re excluded – they can bid, non-union contractors can bid on the prokjects.

We’re making a change. I think it’s important to have union construction workers on these jobs. They’re trained, have extensive safety training, they’re always compliant with the regulations and then, like I said, when we get our young people into the apprenticeships then we have local people building local projects...

Over time, when we recruit the young people in the apprenticeships, there’ll be more unionized workers living here."


Q: You've taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from unions that directly benefit from the PLA. Do you see how some people would see that as pay-to-play politics at City Hall?

CM: "My grandmother was a garment worker in the Los Angeles garment industry and she helped unionize her shop. It was literally a sweatshop, so when I talk about coming from a union family, I can say the prosperity of my family was borne on her back...She bought a duplex and she lived on one side, and my mom raised us on the other side. So I come from a union family.

So when people wonder about the contributions...I (was) for Project Labor Agreements before I got elected. And so it’s not pay-to-play, it's that we share the same values. And so people, if they don’t like that I take money from the unions, they can make a judgment about that, but I let them know, it’s what my values are.

It's good policy as far as I’m concerned and again I don’t hear those criticisms from people. I think city voters here are pro-labor and they understand the value of the work that unions have done over the years...they created the weeked and the 40-hour work week and breaks and safety conditions.

So I get your point and I’m always careful to make my votes separate (from contributions).

I've been elected, how many times now, three and I’ve always been someone who supports private unions, as well as our public employee unions and people keep voting for me. So I’m hoping that I'll repeat the success in November."


CM: "I always count the votes. I start hearing it during the question period because when (a council member) ask(s) a question, I can kind of tell where people are going. There’s public comment, and then people start making their deliberative comments, and I take notes and I go, 'he thought this about that and this about that,' and I make a little chart and so I was actually apologizing to her when I said, 'I’m sorry the vote’s not going to go your way,' because her questions and comments had...seemed to me like she was going to go (against)...there (were) four things that we were arm wrestling about related to the PLA.

So that’s exactly where I was coming from, and so I’m sorry that she felt that I was pushing her in a direction or making assumptions or something...but I really thought her commentary was leading her to a certain way...

I can tell you right now that Kristen and I get along pretty well, even when we irritate each other, like I’ll tell her in the hallway or text, 'sorry about that' or you know. "


Q: All six of your colleagues endorsed you for state Assembly, but only two have endorsed your re-election. Why is that?

CM: "At this early stage I for sure have Meagan (Harmon) and Oscar (Gutierrez) and I’m working on (Mike) Jordan and (Eric) Friedman. Alejandra (Gutierrez), I haven’t even broached her about it. It’s like if you’re asking your wife for a favor, Jerry, you kind of have to wait for the right moment and, you know, wait until she’s in a good mood

And so it's really early days. What is this, this is March, and so I have some time until it’s the right moment to ask."


Q: There are conversations about raising the bed tax or the sales tax to expand homeless services -- would you support that?

CM: I would...I would actually do a poll asking about a parcel tax. There’s a lot of fine people who own property in this county and this city that would maybe tax themselves to help the less fortunate.

It is so visible now and I watch it carefully because homelessness is one my assignments on the council. I chair the SB ACT, the collaborative on homelessness, and I participate in all the county discussions…

We were really working hard on the tent thing, we cleared out tents that were on the beach, that were actually on the sand, but the way you help someone who’s homeless is you give them a home…

Just yesterday I had a conversation with the City Administrator and I’m like, well, 'what if we did create a place where people could have a tent city, a sanctioned area?' And he said, 'let’s talk about where that would be. So (council member) Oscar (Gutierrez) liked the idea of Earl Warren Showgrounds, but you know, they’re their own state entity and they have their own activities going on there.

People are always saying, 'well what about the Sears building,' well, it's privately owned and they have plans (for) it. (If it) would be...a city park..which one would that be? We have a piece of land down by, almost where Salsipuedes meets the ocean, and it’s where the firefighters train, so it’s kind of open. It has a structure where they go in and, you know, bust through the roof and stuff for training, and I said, 'well, what about there,' and they said, 'where will the fire fighters train,' so we are having discussions about where we can allow people...

People have always lived in...the railway corridor, but they were out of sight, out of mind. But when the pandemic hit,they were smart, they didn’t want to be in a congregate living situation, so they’re out, and they spread out. I think that’s why we’re seeing more people, but yeah, for whatever reason, the economy took a hit, more people are living in their cars and that kind of thing...

But when I look at what’s happening in Venice, and when I was going to Dodgers games in 2019, there (were) tents all over that area. Someone was telling me there’s tents in West Los Angeles, so it’s not even like low-income areas.

"It’s like they’re everywhere so I don’t know how it sounds if I say it, but if you look at other cities, we’re not so bad.

And then we have a really great outreach team and we do get some people into housing. It’s hard, it’s management, we have to manage the problem until there’s another shelter, or until there’s little apartments to put them, in we’re going to have a challenge...

Right now at the county, the discussion is where to locate a new shelter, they call it a navigation center."


Q: Are you happy with the way State Street looks?

CM: "It’s a work in progress and the Historic Landmarks Commission and (Transportation Planning and Parking Manager) Rob Dayton and those guys, they are working on standardizing the look of everything. I know the HLC doesn’t like canopies, they don’t like things on top because it blocks the view of the architecture in the background and its hard to make that look uniform...


Q: You're asking voters to give you a five-year contract extension. What have you learned in your first term that would make them do that?

CM: "I’ve learned to be focused on what really makes the residents happy...

When I go door to door and talk to people, that’s the best face time with everyday people – not you and Nick (Welsh) who are in the inner circle, or the watchers of City Hall who love watching our meetings. These people don’t watch our meetings, right, but they vote and they’re happy.

They love Santa Barbara, the natural beauty, the low crime rate, good schools and they’re happy as long as they have a job and a place to live. It always comes down to a secure income and secure housing. So I’ve learned that. And that’s my vision for the future of Santa Barbara is housing opportunities.

We have a jobs-housing imbalance, we have more jobs than we have housing. I think we could bring in better paying jobs and maybe some of that property downtown...we can bring another Sonos or Amazon type, that level of business to downtown Santa Barbara because retail is, I don’t think it’s going to make a comeback.

Some retail will survive, but that commercial property down there, can use that to bring in better paying jobs?

...Working with gang-risk youth is one of my community projects that I would say that other candidates can’t say that they do that kind of work. And we’ve had the fatalities on the East Side and we’re working on a summer program right now where we target gang risk go into this kickball tournament.

So why people should vote for me is my connection with the families, with the youth-serving organizations that really look out for the most disadvantaged youth in the community.

I do personal outreach to homeless people. I don’t think anyone else can say that, and I’m proud of that. It’s exhausting, but I do want to keep doing the job and I can do it for another five years and it would be an honor actually to get that.

I get what you’re saying, it’s kind of a bonus year, but I’m known for working hard and I’ll continue to do that.

It’s my job – this is my work, my life’s work."

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