After seven years of trying to find an identity, it’s time for the young city of Goleta to get down to the business of being a city, new Mayor Eric Onnen says.
“There’s kind of a pendulum swing when it comes to new cities,” said Onnen, who was elected mayor in a City Council vote Dec. 6 after a year serving as mayor pro tem.
In his consultations with members of the inaugural councils of other new cities, Onnen said, he’s found that the first five years are typically centered around the issues that inspired incorporation. After that, he said, the pendulum swings the other way, as the city continues to find its equilibrium.
After several unsuccessful attempts, Goleta finally incorporated in 2002, with a council of mostly of slow-growth proponents who wanted more local control over planning decisions. Over the years there has been a tug-of-war between those who want to keep Goleta small and slow-growing and local business and development interests who want more housing and fewer restrictions on development.
In 2006, Onnen — president of Santa Barbara Airbus, a transportation company he co-founded more than 20 years ago — and Michael Bennett were elected to the City Council on a platform of more representation for local business, ousting two original slow-growth council members. A third business-backed candidate, Roger Aceves, also was elected in the sweep.
Fast forward to 2009 and the city can point to a record of achievement that includes more than 100 General Plan amendments, a municipal code and a budget barely in the black. Still, there’s unfinished business.
“My priorities are on tying up things in progress,” Onnen told Noozhawk. There are still the matters of a not-yet renegotiated revenue-neutrality agreement with Santa Barbara County and now a potential detachment from the Goleta West Sanitary District, as well as ongoing budget monitoring.
Goleta’s revenue-sharing renegotiations with the cash-strapped county have been slow in coming, said Onnen, mainly because both parties have been preoccupied with other business — the county with its financial struggles and the city with General Plan amendments. As part of the renegotiation process, both sides must agree on a mediator, which has not yet occurred.
The revenue-neutrality agreement, which the city entered into as a condition of incorporation, is a tax-sharing deal that gives the county — in some cases in perpetuity — a percentage of different revenue Goleta collects, like bed and sales taxes. As far as Onnen is concerned, the continual passing of municipal revenue to the county results in Goleta never quite enjoying the full fruits of its labor, which was a goal of incorporation in the first place.
“Revenue sharing really wasn’t understood during the city’s incorporation,” said Onnen.
As if the relationship between city and county over the revenue negotiations weren’t sticky enough, enter Goleta’s proposed detachment from the Goleta West Sanitary District, which has created yet another wrinkle in the RNA negotiations, aside from the contention between the city and the special district. If the Local Agency Formation Commission approves the city’s application for detachment, it will trigger the reopening of RNA discussions with the county. But to move ahead with its push for detachment, the city could really use the county’s assistance in assessing the restructuring of fees and other revenues that are associated with parcels in the Goleta West Sanitary District that are not in the city’s jurisdiction.
Other challenges include the creation of a city zoning ordinance and the continuous assessment of the municipal budget, which barely avoided dipping into the red through the city’s characteristic fiscal conservativism.
“The city’s fine because we’ve been conservative,” said Onnen, who added that a better picture will emerge when the city takes its mid-fiscal year look at the numbers sometime in February or March. Even though Goleta municipal employees escaped the brunt of the furloughs that fell upon other government agencies around the county, there’s no guarantee they won’t be required to take furlough days again in the future.
“It’s likely that we’ll have some tough choices to make,” said Onnen, who believes the city should not have been so quick to spend the surplus it found itself with in the last round of budget discussions.
Still, Onnen is optimistic about Goleta’s financial progress. A diversity of industries — from manufacturing, to retail, high technology and tourism — all keep the city afloat in rough economic waters, he said. Now his goal is to reach out to the small business community.
“I want to make sure they understand that the city is becoming business-friendly,” said Onnen, although he acknowledged there are some policies — signage, for example — that still have to be cleared up.
On the subject of housing, Onnen supports a more diversified range of options to meet the needs of people who may not want to commute from far away, or seniors who want to downsize from a typical single-family home but may be finding too few options to do so.
As he enters his last year as a council member and his first year as mayor — in Goleta, the job of mayor tends to rotate between council members — Onnen is aware that he has his detractors. Critics cite his record of pushing for initiation of changes to the General Plan and his tendency to push for the expedition of the planning process for some development projects.
Now, Onnen hopes that the debate will not be so much about growth vs. no growth. He points out that the city is almost entirely built out, and, according to him, dedications of land for open space, recreation and environment will mostly have to come as a result of developer concessions. Instead, he hopes development discussions will center around what best suits the community.
“There’s been a rebalancing of policies, not a changing of the goals,” said Onnen, who said that the city’s initial policies on development were stifling its economic vitality, even as they tried to achieve the goals of sustainability, environmental friendliness and preservation of quality of life.
“In my mind (those goals) have never been compromised,” he said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.