She’s back. Goleta Councilwoman Margaret Connell took the helm Tuesday evening as the city’s new mayor.
It marks the second term as mayor for Connell, who was one of the city’s original founders. The city’s mayorship rotates each year among the elected members of the Goleta council.
“It’s more like being first among equals; the position of mayor doesn’t give you any additional powers,” said Connell, who served as mayor pro tempore until Tuesday night. Councilman Ed Easton now will take on that role for the next year.
Connell took up her new post shortly after Mayor Eric Onnen stepped down after four years on the City Council, and after a heartfelt exchange of appreciation between him and the community.
“Thank you so much for allowing me to be mayor last year,” Onnen said Tuesday evening. “I had no idea how special that is.”
But Connell does have something of an advantage: experience. She was Goleta’s first mayor upon its incorporation in 2002, and as part of the council, she has seen Goleta through the first shaky stages of cityhood.
“When I was mayor before, the first thing I did was to rent a P.O. box so the city would have a mailing address,” she told Noozhawk.
She dropped out of public life in 2006 as the city’s leadership changed hands, and she returned in 2008.
Some things have changed for Connell this time around, and some things haven’t. When the city was formed, politics were arranged around attitudes toward development, with the local business community calling for an easing of development restrictions, and the environmentally keen community members urging slow growth with strict protections. It was a fight carried out through the writing of the General Plan, and it defined a deep split between council members.
Connell was in the slow growth majority, favoring tighter environmental protections and projects such as Bishop Ranch, a proposed conversion of farm land from agricultural use to residential development. The project’s developers have come to the city time and again to present plans for development of the 240-acre parcel.
“I still believe we should not be voting to convert agricultural land,” Connell said.
However, where once the slow-growthers of the City Council were constantly at odds with the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, butting heads over regulations and rules, Connell’s stance has softened quite a bit, with the hindsight that several years of a maturing city brings.
“I do recognize, perhaps even more so than the beginning, that we do need to encourage successful businesses here,” she said.
The budget is among the top priorities Connell looks forward to dealing with in her term as mayor. While Goleta fared decently amid all the budget worries of the South Coast and the county, she said the economy is still turning very slowly.
Tied to the budget is the city’s revenue neutrality agreement with the county. It’s a tax-sharing pact that passes a percentage of revenue from certain taxes levied within the city. While some of it is due to taper off in the coming years, percentages of property and sales taxes — to the tune of about $8 million — continue to be passed on to the county.
“If you look at the original fiscal analysis which was done before incorporation, they were not projecting $8 million,” she said, adding that the number the new city parents had in mind when they agreed to the RNA was closer to $5 million. The city and county are in talks to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
On the brighter side, infrastructure improvements are on their way to Old Town Goleta, a thought that puts a smile on the new mayor’s face. San Jose Creek, a thorn in the side of Old Town for the flooding that runs over the banks and directly into the streets, may get some work done, as well as the Hollister Avenue Redesign, meant to spruce up the community’s oldest neighborhood.
“I think it’s possible that we may finally get working on the San Jose Creek upgrade,” she said.
The project is aimed at both improving the channelized creek’s flood capacity and providing upstream passage for the steelhead trout that have historically run through it.
Also in her hopes for Old Town is a park and, though this may not be the year for it, the establishment of a Recreation and Parks Commission.
Looking to the future, Connell said other items on her list include the decommissioning of oil facilities in the western part of the city. Goleta and oil company Venoco Inc. have been playing something of a chess game for years, with the oil company’s plans to develop extended-reach drilling failing to materialize. Water is another looming issue, given UCSB’s plans to increase its student population.
“Right now, we have a system where water is allocated on a first-come and first-serve basis,” Connell said. “I don’t think that’s good planning.”
And, if she had her druthers, she said she also would try to get some work in to put together an ordinance to allow overnight parking for people living in their vehicles.