Anthony Wagner
Anthony Wagner speaks during a 2019 town hall meeting at Santa Barbara City Hall.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo )

Less than a month ago, Santa Barbara City Administrator Paul Casey pulled Police Department spokesman Anthony Wagner over to City Hall to help with public relations.

On Friday, Casey sent him back.  

Casey informed Wagner of the shift Friday, in the wake of a Noozhawk report about public relations problems at City Hall, according to multiple City Hall sources.

City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez spoke with Casey on Friday and told him she was uncomfortable with Wagner providing public relations services at a time when many members of the community have raised questions about funding for the Police Department. 

“I am happy he is going back,” Gutierrez told Noozhawk. “He didn’t help the situation. I think he hurt Cathy’s (Murillo) image. Anthony was supposed to help, and I think he made it even worse. It reflects on the leadership, on the administration of the city.”

Casey brought Wagner over to craft a narrative about how the city was responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to help Murillo communicate to the public.

Wagner, who has a total compensation package of about $190,000, created sleek video messages featuring Murillo talking about her response to the pandemic. At times she sat at her desk and others she stood inside the council chamber.

He was supposed to create five videos, but stopped after three. 

“Mr. Wagner was on loan to help us with the pandemic information,” Murillo said. “When the public discussion turned to police brutality, it did not feel right to have a police public information officer working at City Hall, when we are working hard to win the public’s trust that we are sincere about making reforms at our Police Department, and creating a civilian review board. So he returned to his original assignment.”

Initially, Wagner was supposed to assist Murillo and the city in assuaging the business community, which had voiced frustration with what they perceive as a lack of leadership advocating for businesses during the stay-at-home order.

But Wagner and Murillo walked into a public relations mess during a protest May 31.

At the end of the march and protest, Murillo approached the Black Lives Matter SB organizers, Krystle Sieghart and Simone Ruskamp, and tried to speak during their event, in front of thousands of people.

Wagner said that Murillo was invited to publicly accept the Black Lives Matter SB demands, but the mayor took it a step further and tried to speak.

Many in the crowd urged her to take a knee at the event, which she did not (she has taken a knee at four subsequent events). 

The large crowd of people had marched from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden to the corner of Figueroa and Santa Barbara streets, near the city police station.

However, Murillo did not march with the protesters because she had concerns about COVID-19. Instead, she traveled in a vehicle with Wagner from City Hall to the police station.

The two watched the protest from the sidewalk — on the side of police officers in riot gear.

Sieghart told Murillo not to interrupt a black woman, and Murillo then pulled off her mask and told her that she should listen to the mayor. Murillo ended up walking back to Wagner and the two left the scene.

“My primary responsibility has always been to serve the Santa Barbara Police Department,” Wagner told Noozhawk. “I am grateful for the leadership of the city administrator to call on me to help with the COVID-related communications. It was a positive experience that I could share my talent, passion and enthusiasm toward the greater good.

“I’m always happy to serve the city in whatever capacity is most helpful.”

Gutierrez told Noozhawk that she questions whether the city should have non-sworn public information officers in the Police Department. Police Chief Lori Luhnow, shortly after she was hired in 2017, eliminated a deputy chief position to hire Wagner

“What kind of image is he going to give the Police Department, especially with this Black Lives Matter movement?” Gutierrez asked. “Maybe he needs some coaching on the culture of Santa Barbara and what it means to live here.”

Wagner was recruited by Luhnow, whom he knew from her tenure in San Diego. 

Casey said in a statement to Noozhawk: “Anthony was brought over to my office on a temporary assignment to assist with COVID-19 response. With the governor and the county’s move to re-open the economy, that temporary assignment to my office has come to an end.”

The city of Santa Barbara does not have a dedicated public information officer. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.