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2009 Mayoral Q&A with Helene Schneider
NOOZHAWK: What experiences from your professional or personal life make you uniquely qualified to be mayor of Santa Barbara?
HELENE SCHNEIDER: I am a current Santa Barbara city councilwoman with a background in human resources management who understands how city government works and how to improve current day-to-day operations. I have a strong record on environmental protection and sustainability, public safety, comprehensive land-use planning, affordable housing, neighborhood compatibility, and regional transportation policies. I’ve used my position on the City Council to successfully create new partnerships countywide on complex issues such as homelessness, mental health, recycling efforts and reducing youth violence. I have served in leadership roles for a variety of local nonprofits and associations, such as the Santa Barbara Human Resources Association (I was president in 2001) and as a member of Santa Barbara Foundation’s Human Services Grant committee and as a commissioner for the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara.
NOOZHAWK: With all of the city’s fiscal challenges, why are you running now?
HS: Even with all the city’s fiscal challenges, being the next Santa Barbara mayor will be an honor. One should not run for public office only when times are good, and my love of this city and our residents makes me even more motivated to work with various community and public leaders to move us away fiscal crisis toward economic recovery. Where there are challenges, there are also opportunities, and the mayor is in a unique and vital position to seize these opportunities throughout the city and the region. The mayor’s role, in particular, can work toward creating new partnerships among public agencies, private businesses and nonprofit organizations toward common goals. I have already started working in this manner on complex issues such as homelessness, recycling and regional transportation. Especially with today’s unprecedented financial challenges resulting from our nation’s economic downturn, it’s important that the mayor work with the community toward economic recovery while also staying aligned with our community’s values. This has been my guiding philosophy in my five-plus years as a Santa Barbara city council member, and I will follow it with strength and determination as mayor.
NOOZHAWK: What three steps would you take first to resolve Santa Barbara’s financial crisis?
HS: First, when considering various options to resolve Santa Barbara’s financial crisis, I have to make sure our decisions are aligned with our community’s values. This means there are some expenses that should not be reduced at all. They are:
» Firefighter and sworn police officer positions
» Successful city recreational programs focusing on at-risk youth
» Human services funding used for contracts with nonprofit agencies that provide safety-net services, such as food, emergency shelter and violence prevention.
Second, with salaries and benefits comprising approximately 75 percent of General Fund expenses, the city will have to become a smaller organization. We must review the staffing levels of each department and work with the city’s bargaining units to determine savings in future salaries and benefits. I hope we are able to accomplish this without sending people to the unemployment line, furthering exacerbating our local economy.
Third, there are opportunities where the city can create new or enhance existing partnerships with other agencies that can save costs while also preserving services. For example, the city Parks Department can coordinate volunteer park cleanup days with Looking Good Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Beautiful and Pesticide Awareness & Alternatives Coalition, thus ensuring that our parks stay toxic pesticide-free.
And I’ll include one more on the revenue side. The city of Santa Barbara can lead the way toward implementing new state legislation that provides the upfront capital for residential and commercial property owners who want to install solar panels. Known as AB 811, this opportunity will provide local jobs and enhanced sales-tax revenue while also reducing our energy costs. I am already working with Santa Barbara County to implement this program in 2010.
NOOZHAWK: Public safety accounts for more than 50 percent of the city’s operating budget. With more spending cuts likely, how much would you trim from fire and police services?
HS: Very little, if any. The reason public safety takes up more than half of the General Fund budget is because ensuring our public health and safety is the top city priority. Fire station “brownouts” or reducing sworn police or firefighter staffing is a non-negotiable option in my book. With more than 75 percent of expenses in the General Fund coming from salaries and benefits, the next mayor and council must meet and confer with all seven bargaining units to see what kind of salary and benefit savings are possible, thus reducing layoffs and reduction in the services our residents deserve and expect.
NOOZHAWK: Would you support increasing or adding new municipal taxes as a revenue source?
HS: This is something that the voters will have to decide. It think it’s worth exploring the possibility of voter support in taxing medicinal marijuana sales and also a special assessment on nightclubs in the Entertainment District (i.e. 400 and 500 blocks of State Street) to recover the additional public safety costs on weekends and during major events, such as Halloween and Fiesta.
NOOZHAWK: Why do you support or oppose Measure B, the ballot measure that would restrict downtown building heights to 40 feet?
HS: I am not taking a public position on Measure B and will respect what the voters decide in November. This measure will be decided at the same time as we select a new mayor, and was placed on the ballot by more than 11,500 registered voters, not the council, and there is a great and very important debate on this issue among us. I believe my job as mayor will be to work with the entire Santa Barbara community in reaching consensus on some key issues that will still have to be addressed whether the measure passes or not. If Measure B passes, it will require the next City Council to define how to measure building heights in the Santa Barbara Municipal Code. That will take five votes of the council and creating consensus in the community. Whether it passes or fails, we still need to work on other important issues related to open-space requirements, setbacks, maximum unit sizes, and the size, bulk and scale of buildings. All these items will require leadership from a mayor who will not be perceived as having a bias or agenda through their public stance on Measure B.
NOOZHAWK: Do you feel the direction of the General Plan update is consistent with your vision? What kind of city will Santa Barbara be in 30 years?
HS: Santa Barbara’s General Plan update is a necessary blueprint for our city’s future. It is unfortunate that the process has taken longer than many people had hoped, but I would rather have a fully complete document with corresponding analysis than rushing something through the process. This is the first time public health and land-use planning have been directly linked, which is a very positive aspect of the General Plan. The Environmental Impact Review analysis has not yet been completed, so it is difficult to determine at this point whether all the recommended policy statements have the expected and desired effects in terms of preserving the city’s small-town character while also providing needed opportunities for affordable housing and transit options. I appreciate the emphasis on environmental sustainability practices throughout the document.
My vision for the city of Santa Barbara in 30 years is that it will be a place renowned by locals and visitors alike for its beauty, cultural and recreational activities, clean environment, safe neighborhoods and innovative business climate, and where its diverse community participates in thinking globally and acting locally.
NOOZHAWK: Santa Barbara’s General Plan update will have consequences for housing, transportation and other key issues in the region. Does the city have a responsibility to think regionally when it makes policy decisions? How would you rate the city’s record?
HS: Absolutely the city of Santa Barbara has a responsibility to think regionally in its policy decisions, and has been taking the lead on various issues during my tenure on the City Council. For example, the city led the charge toward increasing funding to the Metropolitan Transit District for enhanced bus service throughout the South Coast, resulting in an immediate increase in transit use and less traffic on our streets. I also serve on the council Subcommittee on Commuter Rail, where our On-Trac program has picked up support from public agencies from Goleta down through the city and county of Ventura. I have strongly advocated working on a regional transfer of development rights program that would protect the Gaviota coast. I also co-chaired the Leadership Council of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness that had more than 100 community leaders countywide devise a plan that has produced significant results in getting people off our streets. As chairwoman of the council Sustainability Sub-Committee, I promoted the city’s participation in the Green Business Program of Santa Barbara County and the city is working with other jurisdictional leaders on increasing recycling and studying a conversion technology at Tajiguas Landfill. The city also has an impressive 14 percent of its housing stock dedicated to low- and very low-income seniors, families and people with disabilities; thus certainly providing our fair share of providing a wide range of affordable housing.
NOOZHAWK: If elected, what is the one issue on which you would focus to improve Santa Barbara’s quality of life?
HS: Reduce youth and gang violence in our community.
The current level of gang-related violence, especially among our youth, is unacceptable and creates fear and tension for residents and visitors.
We must fight gang violence with a balanced combination of enforcement, intervention and prevention. Accomplishing this requires a coordinated effort between city departments, local district and county schools, probation and Sheriff’s Departments, and a variety of social-service agencies that focus on at-risk youth. The city and the mayor’s position in particular, can and should lead the way, serving as the “hub” where all stakeholders can coordinate their efforts.
First, we must ensure that our Police Department has the necessary staffing and tools required to fight crime and combat gang violence. Last October’s “Operation Gator Roll,” where more than 400 law-enforcement officers from 18 local, state and federal agencies cracked down on Eastside neighborhood gang activity, resulting in 28 federal indictments, is just one example. I have been a consistent advocate ensuring our sworn police force is fully staffed, even directing the department to over-hire when we know of upcoming vacancies.
The most effective way to reduce gang activity is to prevent it. One way to accomplish this is by strengthening the connections between City Hall and neighborhood groups. For example, by working with West Downtown neighborhood leaders, we’ve added street lights along a dark alley, conducted neighborhood cleanups, enforced code violations and are including permanent street lights along with the upcoming bridge replacement project at Haley and De la Vina streets. The good work happening here can be looked at as a model for other areas throughout the city.
Finally, we must focus our attention on our at-risk youth and provide opportunities that help them make healthy choices, away from gangs. There is no one method that will help every person; success requires working with their parents and figuring out each individual’s needs. Options include job apprenticeships, after-school sports, mental-health services, parenting classes, the arts, and academic tutoring.
Leadership from the next mayor is imperative to sustain this broad-based regional effort over time, and this will be a top priority for me if elected.
NOOZHAWK: What is Santa Barbara’s most neglected neighborhood?
HS: The Lower Westside, from Montecito Street to West Carrillo Street and from Highway 101 to Loma Alta Drive. This is a lower-income area and the most densely populated neighborhood with very little park space and community services. Things are slowly improving, however, with increased bus transit, the new underground water pipes to reduce flooding and a new sidewalk that will be installed along Loma Alta.
NOOZHAWK: How would you control aggressive panhandling?
HS: Controlling aggressive panhandling requires a combination of enforcement, intervention and prevention methods. As a member of the Sub-Committee on Homelessness and Community Relations, I proposed 12 points that deal with this complex issue.
One of those recommendations is the implementation of an anti-panhandling ordinance that is coupled with an alternative giving campaign. Success in deterring aggressive panhandling, however, does not work via enforcement alone, and so the other 10 points must also follow. Some have already been successfully implemented, such as bringing retired police Officer Bob Casey back to patrol State Street, which increases police presence in the downtown core, and increased coordination between our Police Department and the various homeless street outreach teams that already exist. As many people who panhandle also have some form of substance abuse and/or mental illness, there is an acute need for additional detox beds somewhere on the South Coast (there are currently only 12 detox beds available). Since these 12 points have been adopted by the City Council last spring, we are already seeing measured positive results and a reduction of aggressive panhandling.
NOOZHAWK: Santa Barbara has a plethora of medical-marijuana dispensaries, relative to other tri-county cities of similar size, but has yet to reject a single application. Why? Is that in the public’s interest?
HS: A plethora of dispensaries is both not in the public’s interest, nor would I think it be in the interest of the other dispensaries. The best option would be for our local pharmacies to be able to fill prescriptions for the people who have a legal medical prescription. This would make dispensaries unnecessary. Unfortunately, due to the contradictory state and federal laws concerning the use of medical marijuana, this is not an option because the pharmacies would lose their federal license if they filled these prescriptions.
The updated ordinance must move through the process and get to a council vote quickly. I am interested in seeing the ordinance include a small total cap of the number of dispensaries in the city, extend the distance of dispensaries from a school and more clearly define our intent of what the council originally meant by a “school” facility when it adopted the current ordinance (for example, an after-school facility such as Girls Inc.).
Finally, and perhaps most important, the city needs to immediately cite and enforce the closure of the illegal dispensaries that are not allowed under the current code.
NOOZHAWK: In the last year, two catastrophic wildfires have devastated foothill neighborhoods. Are stricter building codes needed or should development even be restricted in brush areas?
HS: Development in high fire-risk zones should be very carefully scrutinized. Even with the tragic loss of so many homes in the Tea and Jesusita fires, we are very fortunate that people did not die in the infernos. Wildland fires will continue to happen, so our planning must consider safe access routes, strong defensible space landscaping requirements and the implementation of strong fire-safe building design and construction. I would not support up-zoning (i.e. allowing for more density) in the high fire areas and would also scrutinize very carefully proposals to split current lots into smaller parcels.
NOOZHAWK: A grocery clerk asks you, “Paper or plastic?” You say:
HS: I have my own bag, thanks.
NOOZHAWK: When’s the last time you rode public transportation?
HS: Sept. 29.
NOOZHAWK: What Santa Barbara historical figure do you admire most, and why?
HS: Pearl Chase. Everywhere you look in Santa Barbara, you see her legacy. The more I learn about her, the more impressed I am. Not only is she credited with creating the look and charm of our city and El Pueblo Viejo, her community work in other arenas is also commendable. She helped organize the county Public Health Department; founded the local Red Cross; helped establish the Community Arts Association; and successfully advocated to keep the waterfront area accessible to residents and visitors and away from development (where Chase Palm Park is now), as well as thwarted the development proposal where Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens is located. A remarkable woman with great tenacity and vision.
NOOZHAWK: What is Santa Barbara’s most precious asset?
HS: Our community.
NOOZHAWK: What’s your favorite street?
HS: Plaza Rubio, overlooking the Mission Rose Garden (A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden), Santa Barbara Mission and the mountains.
NOOZHAWK: Health care is all over the news these days. What do you do to stay fit?
HS: Walking door-to-door meeting voters. Otherwise, I have a membership at 24-Hour Fitness and use the elliptical machine. Beach walks are also fantastic for the body and soul.
NOOZHAWK: Gaveling a City Council meeting to order or to adjournment is boring. Would you use a hawk scream, sponsored by Noozhawk, instead?
HS: Don’t think so. Nice try, though.
Click here for Helene Schneider’s campaign Web site
Click here for Noozhawk’s candidate interview
Larry Nimmer’s “Touring with the Candidates” video (www.nimmer.net)
Click here for SBCityVote.org’s candidate statement video
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