Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino has managed to live minimally, having learned some of his most important lessons living in a single-wide trailer in Idaho with his mother and sisters.
“My sisters shared one bedroom, and I lived on other end,” Lavagnino said. “I didn’t realize that my mom slept on the couch for years. She really sacrificed.”
Lavanigno spent his early years in Santa Maria until his parents divorced and he, along with his mother and sisters, moved to a friend’s ranch in northern Idaho when he was 9. They called a 12-foot-by-69 foot trailer home.
“There are limited resources, and when people are in need they are often in a bad situation,” said Lavagnino, recalling a time when his mother and sisters used the $4 they had left to buy ice cream. “I’ve been in that situation, growing up with single mom who was cleaning hotel rooms.”
That situation inspired the supervisor to direct the government’s assistance to those who need it and reprimand those who abuse it. He said one of the best parts of the job is the Board of Supervisors’ ability to enact immediate action with the public’s direct feedback.
“The federal process is much slower ... that’s just not my style,” he said. “Here at the county, three votes dictate the direction you’re going to go.”
The son of Larry Lavagnino, Santa Maria’s mayor for the past nine years, Lavagnino remembered people recognizing his father everywhere they went, asking about city legislation. He strives to emulate his father’s mindset to do what’s best for the county, despite the possibility of alienating friends and community members, he said.
“You can’t make decisions based on if people will like you or not,” Lavagnino said. “My father uses a singular decision-making process: ‘Is this going to make city a better place?’”
Lavagnino’s main form of communication with his father was by letter; he would have to go to the neighbor’s trailer to use a phone. But when they did talk, he said, they picked up right where they left off.
“It was weird because when I would talk to my dad, it would be like were never separated,” Steve Lavagnino said.
Larry Lavagnino agreed, adding that he wouldn’t change a thing because those experiences brought them to the positions they are today.
“We have a close relationship. We’re on the phone two or three times a day, and I never hang up without telling him I love him,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of what he’s accomplished.”
After graduating from boarding school, Maria Regina Academy in Spokane, Wash., Steve Lavagnino picked up and left for Phoenix, Ariz., to pursue higher education.
“I had to work two jobs to stay afloat and dropped out of school to support myself,” he said. “I did it the hard way.”
He then “got lucky” after responding to an advertisement of an opening at Allied-Signal Aerospace. He got the job — operating a forklift in the warehouse in 110-degree heat.
“I worked my way up through the company. I would get off at noon and stay for an hour after and then learn the job ahead of me,” Lavagnino said. “I think I became the youngest senior buyer.”
He knew the company inside out because he started on the ground level, and he said he tries to replicate that mentality on the Board of Supervisors.
“I’ve taken some of that to the board, getting on the ground floor and finding out where they work,” he said. “The only way to do that is to talk to front line people and feel what it’s like in the trenches.”
Although his career was progressing, his personal life wasn’t faring as well. Lavagnino married his first wife when he was 21 and had two children, but he said it may have been too early. Ten years into the relationship, he had to make the toughest decision in his life — something he vowed he wouldn’t do after he had kids.
“We were married for 10 years. It was an interior struggle knowing it wasn’t working but worrying what (a divorce) would do to my kids,” Steve Lavagnino said. “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, but it was the best decision, because now I understand what a relationship is supposed to be like.”
After spending 15 years as a senior buyer and later meeting his current wife, Marian, Lavagnino started his own consulting group, negotiating contracts between aerospace companies. But after his father’s health was in question, Lavagnino headed back home, eventually landing a gig with the future Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.
Lavagnino said he spent 12 years as a staffer, but decided he wanted to call the shots.
“He’s very articulate. He comes right out and says what he thinks and what he wants to do,” Larry Lavagnino said. “He has a tremendous sense of humor, very cordial and cognizant of other people’s feelings. I’ve always told him, there are two ways to get things done, you can do more with honey than you can do with vinegar.”
Now, Steve Lavagnino is calling the shots. The most pressing issues facing the board are the California Coastal Commission’s land-use modifications and handling public employees’ scheduled raises while looking at a $90 million county deficit.
“I agree with people that want to make sure we’re handling onshore oil in the safest manner, but we need to balance that with the 700 jobs provided in North County,” Steve Lavagnino said.
The federal standard for a minor environmental hazard is a spill of up to 25 barrels. At the board’s last meeting, the supervisors voted that five unauthorized releases of oil or produced water of at least one barrel is harmful to the environment. Yet, Lavagnino thinks the legislation left out a key part — where the oil or produced water spills and how that impacts the environment.
“If you spill right into creek that poses a problem, but if you spill three barrels of produced water in the middle of a cattle pasture that doesn’t affect groundwater, what’s the environmental impact?” he said.
Regarding the budget, if public-sector employees don’t take concessions the only alternative is to lose employees, Lavagnino said.
“There are scheduled raises due; it basically comes down to either grant raises and lay more people off or negotiate and work out something better for everybody,” he said. “The last thing we need is for more people looking for jobs.”
While Lavagnino wished he came into a better situation, he said county employees will need to step up and react accordingly to the “worst downturn since the Great Depression.”
Ultimately, Lavagnino said he will follow his passion: protecting those who need the government’s aid to get by and punishing those who abuse it.
“I know what it’s like to do without, and that’s why it upsets at the county level when people are manipulating the system and accessing benefits they are not entitled to,” he said.