For the first time in the race, the three leading challengers to Mayor Cathy Murillo met face-to-face on Wednesday (virtually anyway), as James Joyce, Randy Rowse and Deborah Schwartz joined in a civil, substantive and fast-paced discussion about the most consequential matter facing City Hall: the hiring of a new City Administrator to replace the retiring Paul Casey.
"Santa Barbara (now) has a reputation for dysfunction," former council member Rowse said on the Newsmakers TV event, citing widespread media reports detailing political mayhem over the last year as a potential obstacle in attracting top candidates from outside the city.
Job One for a new Administrator and the next mayor, Planning Commissioner Schwartz said repeatedly, is to mitigate a "toxic culture" that now permeates City Hall and reconnect city government to the neighborhoods through political and policy "bridge-building."
The city's new, non-elected chief executive, said entrepreneur and former state legislative aide Joyce, should be "a leader, not a boss," who improves communications and boosts accountability in the bureaucracy so it acts in alignment, not opposition, to goals established by city council.
Incumbent Cathy Murillo informed us earlier this week that she was "booked for Wednesday morning" and would be unable to join her rivals in the recorded Zoom conversation. Mayor Cathy instead emailed a list of 13 bullet points which she described as "important qualities in a city administrator."
"Thanks for understanding," she wrote.
Although the moderator wove several of the mayor's emailed priorities into the discussion ("an appreciation of the changing nature of law enforcement" and "understanding challenges that may arise from a district-based council"), Murillo's absence from the event, as a political matter, left her in the free fire zone.
Schwartz and Rowse both pointedly criticized her over matters of substance and tone, and for allegedly allowing personal, political and ideological conflicts to blunt efforts to build consensus with her council colleagues and seek unity in the community.
Having invited the challengers to drop by our Zoom call at their convenience, it was somewhat of a surprise when they all appeared in the virtual "waiting room" almost simultaneously, and hung in for the entire discussion.
Consider it spring (mid-summer?) training for the packed schedule of mayoral and council candidate forums that lie ahead.