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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 5:19 pm | Fair 62º


Mayoral Candidates Field Questions About City Issues

The forum, sponsored by the Lodging & Restaurant Association and Chamber of Commerce, includes a 'crossfire round' of candidate-to-candidate debate

A crowd at the Four Seasons Biltmore got a glimpse Monday of Santa Barbara’s next mayor — but who that will be remains to be seen.

About 80 people attended the mayoral forum, sponsored by the Greater Santa Barbara Lodging & Restaurant Association and the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, and were privy to a lengthy and engaging session with all five candidates.

Helene Schneider, Dale Francisco, Isaac Garrett, Bob Hansen and Steve Cushman fielded questions from event moderator Steve Amerikaner. They were asked to talk about Santa Barbara’s business and tourism industry, but they also spoke on a plethora of other issues.

The GSBLRA board of directors prepared questions for the candidates, but audience questions also were accepted.

One of the first questions the panel was asked was whether the city should increase its funding to the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau.

“It’s a good thing to do, but we’ve got a lot of good things right now that we can’t afford,” Francisco said, adding that the budget would have to be the first priority.

Hansen suggested that Santa Barbara could learn from Las Vegas by offering discounted flights and coupons to entice more travelers.

The topic of panhandling also was broached, and the candidates were asked about a recent city ordinance passed to prohibit aggressive panhandling.

Hansen noted that only five tickets have been written for aggressive panhandling in the past five years, and called the city’s relationship with the homeless a “witch hunt.”

“A law is no good if it’s not enforced,” Garrett said. He said he didn’t have a specific answer on aggressive panhandling, but that he would engage the community to find a solution.

Schneider said the ordinance should be enacted quickly and that she would like to see more detox beds available on the South Coast.

Steve Amerikaner was the moderator for Monday's candidate forum
Steve Amerikaner was the moderator. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Another question posed to the candidates said that a number of local businesses report a strain on their employees because of the high cost of housing and asked if the city has a role in addressing the problem.

Garrett said he would like to see employers chip in to a central fund to assist workers with housing. Cushman said Santa Barbara had one of the highest percentages of city-owned housing in the country, and that developing new ordinances to encourage granny units and building a high-speed bus lane would encourage workers coming in from the north and south, he said.

Francisco had other ideas about the issue, however.

“I don’t believe that people who are struggling to buy a condo should have to pay for other people’s housing,” Francisco said. The best thing the city could do to reduce costs for housing would be to streamline the planning process at the city, which tacks on costs to projects, he said.

The candidates voted no against raising the Transient Occupancy Tax, except Hansen, who abstained, and Schneider, who said everything should be on the table in the long run, although she wouldn’t have approved it for this fiscal year.

When asked if the city should do more to encourage businesses, Garrett said rules and regulations should be in place for businesses, but after that, the council should “get the hell out of the way and let businessmen and investors do what they want to do.”

All of the candidates were asked what they would change about the city if elected — a question that yielded some surprising answers.

Cushman and Francisco took issue with the drawn-out time lines of the city’s Planning Department, and Francisco called the department one of the biggest in the state.

After talking with several friends in the process of rebuilding after the Tea Fire, Francisco said the process had gotten too unwieldy. “If they’re not even looking at the slightest change, they’re looking at two years,” he said.

Garrett said he would eliminate inclusionary housing zones, and Hansen and Schneider focused on gang violence.

The discussion then turned to Measure B. Francisco said he supports the measure, while Cushman and Garrett said they oppose it. Hansen and Schneider abstained.

Schneider’s abstention didn’t go unnoticed by Francisco and Garrett.

She said she wasn’t taking a public stance on Measure B. “If it fails, there are still some major issues related to the zoning of Santa Barbara that the new council will have to address, and as mayor, I’m going to need to work with everyone involved and getting five votes to make any changes,” she said.

Francisco responded: “I don’t understand how anyone who claims to be able to lead a city cannot take a position on the most important ballot measure in this election.”

The high point of the forum came when the candidates were allowed a “crossfire round,” providing them the opportunity to ask another candidate a question and then be allowed a rebuttal.

Cushman asked Schneider why she thought the public was so angry about city salaries and pensions.

She responded that budget negotiations happen in closed sessions, which can lead to a muddled message, and that the city is doing its best behind closed doors.

“I think a lot of people have been hurt by this financial crisis ... they look at the City Council and their actions towards their employees and they don’t see any layoffs, they don’t see any pension reform and they see raises granted from reserves,” he said in his rebuttal.

Schneider took a jab at Francisco, questioning why he would tell the public he wouldn’t accept money from developers, but was the recipient of thousands of dollars from Texas developer Randall Van Wolfswinkel.

Francisco denied receiving any money from the developer, but acknowledged that Van Wolfswinkel had contributed to the Measure B campaign, an issue Francisco supports.

In her rebuttal, Schneider said she had concerns with an outside contributor giving money to candidates.

“You say you’re not a recipient, and yet tens of thousands of dollars have been given on your behalf. ... I can’t imagine that if there’s a change of heart and this person has a project that comes before the council, that you might feel like you owe him something,” she said.

Francisco asked Amerikaner if he could respond, but was told no.

“I would advise the two of you to take it outside,” Amerikaner told them, prompting laughter from the the audience, as well as Schneider and Francisco.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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