BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER
Nearly all of the candidates for Santa Barbara City Council took part in the first forum of the election season held this morning at the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, focusing on development, emergency preparedness and campaign financing.
Although never technically addressed in any questions, the current housing crunch in Santa Barbara rose to the forefront of the discussion at many points. Candidates also fielded questions on what areas of the city budget they would scale back if cuts were necessary and how they feel about public employee unions contributing to their campaign coffers.
Before they delved into specifics, however, each candidate gave a short spiel about their background and campaign platform.
Proceeding in the order they were seated, Dale Francisco went first, describing his main concerns as public safety, responsiveness of city government and neighborhood preservation. Francisco said he wants to bring more diversity of opinion and leadership skills to City Hall.
Michelle Giddens told the audience she wants to focus on the General Plan Update, provide a voice for the underrepresented, and develop stronger leadership on the Council.
Current Councilmember Helene Schneider spoke her piece next, breaking her plan for the next four years, if elected, into three areas: passing ordinances to meet the needs of neighborhoods, appointing qualified people to fill city boards and commissions, and dealing with homelessness and transportation issues.
Frank Hotchkiss used his three-minute opener to discuss the lack of business experience on the Council and also described the gang problem as a Santa Barbara problem rather than an Eastside/Westside problem.
Incumbent Das Williams started off by passing out campaign door hangers to the audience and telling them he keeps his promises, pointing to a balanced budget and increased funding for teen programs as examples. He called environmental protection a “foundation for economic growth,” and said the biggest challenge facing Santa Barbara is “housing, housing, housing.”
Council challenger Robert Hansen discussed the need to take climate change seriously and make small changes on an individual level. He also brought up converting the National Guard Armory into a trade tech school for teens and called for improved relations between police and the community.
Dan Litten, who is focusing his campaign on environmental issues, did not attend due to work obligations. Current Councilmember Brian Barnwell showed up late after dropping his kids off at school and had a chance to deliver a belated introductory speech.
Barnwell discussed the need for more youth activities, suggesting the use of Redevelopment Agency money to expand park facilities. He also touched on housing and the environment as key areas for improvement, as well as the beachfront, which he described as neglected.
Steve Cushman, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, launched the forum by asking each candidate how they plan to address the inevitable drought cycle and its inherent water supply issues.
Living within our means is key to that question, Francisco responded, explaining that “massive overdevelopment” in the city will stretch the water supply beyond the breaking point.
“We need to realize there are limits to how much housing we can build in Santa Barbara,” Francisco said.
Giddens agreed with Francisco to a degree, saying population and density growth along city corridors is not necessary. She focused her answer largely on conservation efforts, saying “I favor strengthening our existing policies on the environment and going beyond that.”
Schneider also stressed living within the city’s resources and said water supply issues need to be addressed in the General Plan Update. Continuing to plant drought-resistant vegetation and use recycled water in city parks is key to water conservation, she said, as well as building community awareness through outreach.
Hotchkiss said until a drought becomes imminent, nobody will make any changes. He warned against panicking and creating “draconian measures.”
Siltation due to the Zaca Fire and aging infrastructure are two current threats to the water supply Williams touched on in his answer, explaining that the need to create redundancy in the supply system is a serious concern. He said bringing the desalination plant back online is too costly and would “give us an artificial sense of security,” calling it a last resort.
Hansen’s response focused largely on issues with flooding and bacteria levels on local beaches he described as too lax. He also expressed worry about water quality and mercury levels in the food chain.
An audience member took a stab at asking the next question, querying the candidates on what programs they would cut first if faced with a budget crunch.
Schneider answered first, stating that public health and safety along with infrastructure should go untouched in such a scenario. RDA improvements and large condo developments are the initial areas she would focus on if forced to streamline the budget.
Community arts, library funding and Parks and Recreation would likely take a hit, Barnwell said, agreeing with Schneider that police, fire, water and streets are absolutely essential. Williams said he would cut General Fund subsidies of Enterprise Fund projects, such as the parking lots along Cabrillo Boulevard.
Francisco and Hotchkiss both focused on reducing staff, although both stressed that police and fire services should not be affected by any workforce cuts. Giddens said increasing efficiency and cutting art projects and recently approved traffic calming devices would be her way of trimming the budget.
Campaign finance issues came to the forefront next as the candidates were asked how they reconcile the fact that city worker unions donate to Council candidates, who will eventually set their working wages.
Calling it an inevitable conflict of interest, Francisco said the Council should always take a balanced view and consider the general welfare of the city on any decision, an answer echoed largely by Giddens.
“It’s reality,” Schneider said. “Until we have huge changes in how campaigns are financed, we are always going to have these issues.”
She said her consistency and best judgment outweigh any sense of obligation to her campaign contributors.
Bringing the cost of running a campaign under the control of the city is the best way to eliminate that issue, Barnwell said. He pointed out the candidate video program going into effect this election — giving each candidate a three-minute spot on local cable access channels — as a step forward. As far as setting union wages, he said using similar cities as a benchmark is a fair way to approach the situation.
Largely disagreeing with Barnwell, Hotchkiss said he believes in a free market, explaining that city government should not control campaigns or exposure levels for candidates.
Williams said he didn’t receive support from the police or fire unions four years ago, but that hasn’t affected his decisions involving those groups. He said he bases his vote on his own values and what he feels is good public policy.
Hansen responded by saying political party endorsements, campaign contributions and the political machine is the only way people can get elected.
With time running short, Cushman asked the candidates to give a final summation of their platform and areas they hope to focus on if elected this November.
“I have a dream that Santa Barbara will become a great city through the environmental movement,” Hansen said, explaining that he expects a rebirth and revitalization of the city during the next five years.
Setting the bar high in terms of affordability for future housing will allow less development, but will provide the greatest public good, Williams said. He also cited comparisons between Santa Barbara and other cities, saying, “We are providing more services with less money than many of those other cities.”
“I think government should be as unobtrusive and efficient as possible,” Hotchkiss said. “It shouldn’t tell us how to adopt certain environmental protections.” He added that he hopes to create a framework upon which the business community can thrive.
Barnwell focused on housing during his closing statement, saying “We all want to provide the housing, but it’s really difficult when you try to do it.” Hoping to find a way to allow people who work here to live here, he said housing provided for employees by employers may be the key.
“We can still keep the community feel and the small-town feel,” Schneider said, but that needs to be balanced with creating workforce housing. She emphasized community input in the Plan Santa Barbara process as essential to creating policies that reflect what the people want.
Giddens said she was glad to see the Council take action by providing afterschool activities for local youth. As far as the many issues facing the city, from housing to transportation to public safety, she said addressing them through the General Plan update is the best way forward.
Rather than summing up his platform, Francisco said he wants to hear from the public on the issues they are worried about, telling the audience to get in touch with him. “I’d love to sit down and chat some time,” he said.
Today's forum served as one of the first major events of the 2007 municipal election, which will culminate when voters head to the polls on November 6.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
BY ERIC LINDBERG