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2011 Santa Barbara City Council Q&A with Sharon Byrne

[Noozhawk’s note: There are 10 candidates running for three Santa Barbara City Council seats in the Nov. 8 election. Over the next five days, Noozhawk will be posting two candidate Q&As each day, based on the order in which the questionnaires were returned.]

                              |  2011 Election Coverage |  Complete Series Index  |

NOOZHAWK: What experiences from your professional or personal life make you uniquely qualified to be a Santa Barbara City Council member?

Sharon Byrne
Sharon Byrne

SHARON BYRNE: I worked in leadership roles for 15 years in very large Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T and Verizon. My undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech is in management and engineering. I learned a great deal about how to navigate bureaucracy and move things forward through large organizations.

I managed a $15 million product for a company here in Santa Barbara in the high-tech industry, where I learned a great deal about managing budgets, working under high-stress conditions and delivering results. In graduate school, I picked up research and critical-thinking skills, to understand broader policy implications and frame issues.

While I’ve long paid close attention to current events and government policies at the national and state level, I became keenly aware and interested in local government when my West Downtown neighborhood experienced violence and crime, and I realized that some poor policy decisions had collided to produce conditions that led to crime in the area. From working to make our area safe, I began a relationship with the police, as partners in helping the neighbors reclaim the area for families and children. Our area, along with the Eastside and Upper State Street, were then zoned for marijuana dispensaries. This seemed to be a decision that would further take these neighborhoods down, and I began researching the state and local policy decisions behind it. In the process, I gained a lot of insight about ballot initiatives, how state laws filter down into local interpretation, and how zoning can seriously hurt or help a neighborhood. A former city planner I worked with on this issue gave me a thorough grounding in zoning and land use decision-making.

I’ve served on the Franklin Neighborhood Advisory Committee and now the Neighborhood Advisory Council, where I’ve participated in setting priorities for Redevelopment Agency and Community Development Block Grant funding for capital improvement projects. We advocated for the fencing of the dugouts at Cabrillo Ball Field, 800 E. Cabrillo Blvd., and that project was completed in January.

In August 2010, I moderated a contentious neighborhood meeting at the Franklin Neighborhood Center that I helped organize. Out of that meeting, the Milpas Community Association was born. I’ve enjoyed organizing the area, working with neighbors and businesses to clean it up, and make it safe. We’ve tackled large social issues, and approached it with a research-based mindset. I organized a trip to Oxnard last year, with a bipartisan coalition from the City Council, to study effective gang intervention methodologies. In March, we organized a trip to Santa Monica for council members to study that city’s approach to reducing the number of homeless living on their streets.

Finally, I worked for California Common Cause, a government watchdog organization that advocates for redistricting reform, fair elections and open, transparent government. I feel these experiences provide me with a broad background and solid skill set with which to serve on City Council.

NOOZHAWK: Most of Santa Barbara’s labor concession agreements expire in 2012 and 2013, and CalPERS costs are expected to increase by millions of dollars. Would you support restructuring the city’s retirement or benefit plans?

SB: Like many people in this country, I was rather hopeful that what erupted in Wisconsin earlier this year would produce a meaningful conversation on this subject. If the current system is not sustainable, or capable of weathering a severe recession, then let’s have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with the stakeholders involved, and find a model that is. That didn’t happen in Wisconsin, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Until it does, I am cautious about latching on to any of the solutions currently in vogue in various jurisdictions.

First, let’s be absolutely certain about our financial situation. The police have done a great deal of investigation into the city’s financing, and what they’ve found is certainly worth further exploration. Fire offered very creative collaboration to reduce the city’s financial burden, which is admirable. So at least these two stakeholders are willing to come to that proverbial table and have a frank dialogue on what the situation truly is, and look at what can be done. That’s the conversation that needs to happen before we land on a solution that may or may not be the right one for the long term.

Having said that, I know the importance of organized labor. My grandfather was a labor organizer in Liverpool, England, during the 1930s, when men were ordered by foremen to fight each other on the street for a day’s work. I know the history of organized labor, and the necessity of it. We would not have standard workdays, retirement, worker safety and other reforms had it not been for organized labor.

I look forward to these discussions and an outcome that is most beneficial to the city, while fair to our workforce.

NOOZHAWK: There have been several violent attacks on Santa Barbara’s Eastside and in the Milpas area within the last three years, and residents have called for more police protection. With the limited budget, how would you realistically address that community’s concerns?

SB: I currently serve this community as executive director of the Milpas Community Association, and we’ve taken several approaches to reduce crime. We partnered with police to increase patrols in the area and direct them to trouble spots. Neighbors are in the best position to provide the police with good insight on an area’s issues, and the police have been very responsive.

Second, we started a neighborhood watch with a group of active and concerned neighbors on the Lower Eastside. They have experienced a murder and two stabbings within the past year, and it’s a residential area with many families living in close proximity. We helped them organize, raised funds to buy watch signs, and brought volunteers into the area to support the neighbors in cleaning up the streets and keeping them safe. I worked with the city to trim the trees away from the streetlights, to increase the night-time visibility and safety of the area. The police increased patrols in the area, and neighbors report that it feels a lot safer now.

While police are excellent resources at increasing neighborhood safety, I strongly believe in empowering neighbors to feel a sense of ownership and pride on their street, in their neighborhood and in the city overall. All of us have the ability to pull together, work with the city and make things better for everyone.

NOOZHAWK: What do you think of the General Plan’s direction?

SB: I am glad that so many people have participated in it, and voiced their concerns. Democracy is messy, as the saying goes, but when planning our city’s future, the more participation, the better. It’s clear from some of the dialogue that the plan, as developed, moved the city in a direction many felt was too much of a departure from the trajectory of its historic origins to this point. I, too, have concerns over the transportation element and high-density zoning, particularly because my neighborhood and Milpas were both zoned with this designation initially.

I have yet to see economic or jobs data that proves that companies are trying to open shop here, if only we had enough housing. We don’t make planes or cars, and I don’t believe Google has called, looking to relocate its offices here. UCSB, SBCC, health care and government are the main employers here, and the salary ranges that they provide vary widely.

In today’s economy and in Santa Barbara’s housing market, the housing that exists can fill the needs for higher- and upper middle-income earners. But if you’re not one of those employees, there is not yet a way to build housing that the rest of the workforce can afford at a rate and cost that the developers are willing to develop it for.

When we talk about building high density, I am concerned that we will drive long-term families out of the remaining free-standing homes in these rezoned neighborhoods. If we build high density along Milpas Street, what happens to the small family-owned businesses that have been there for years? I appreciate the experimental approach, but my sense is that absent neighborhood markets, families aren’t going to move into small condos with no yards, no pets and no parking. Therefore, we must ask, who are these units for? Vacation rentals already occur in residential areas, which means people aren’t living in those homes. Add to that Santa Barbara’s incredible inventory of historic homes in need of repair and renovation, mostly occupied by low- and middle-income families.

It seems to me we’d be better focusing our efforts at increasing renovation projects, which produce higher wage, local jobs in construction, and more of them over the long term, while raising property values over time. High-density zoning raises property values immediately, giving owners an incentive to sell out, and displacing families currently residing in these homes.

NOOZHAWK: If elected, what is the one issue on which you would focus to improve Santa Barbara’s quality of life?

SB: Restoring the police force back to 2000 levels: 150 officers. This means voting to approve the officers as well as the necessary funding. We’re currently at 138 police officers. Citizens are concerned about public safety downtown, along Milpas and at the beach. But they also are concerned about graffiti, speeding and transient-related crime.

The police are stretched thin at present, and must focus on the most violent crime and highest-priority calls. There aren’t enough officers to handle the nuisance or lower-level crime issues. Yet, compiled together, these lower-level offenses degrade our overall quality of life and encourage escalation of crime perpetration. If we want to turn that around, we have to make the streets safe, clean and healthy. Enforcement is a major component, and we’re under-manned at present.

NOOZHAWK: What is Santa Barbara’s most neglected neighborhood?

SB: It used to be mine, in lower West Downtown! But that’s turned around quite a bit due to our neighborhood’s efforts, and partnering with the city.

I would say now it’s the Lower Eastside/Milpas corridor. There are a lot of contributing factors, some directly thrust on the area by the city, with which the area is struggling to cope. While we’re working to turn that around as organized neighbors, the city needs to put some resources and effort into the area.

NOOZHAWK: What would you do to make city government more accessible to the Spanish-speaking community?

SB: Good question! Meetings held during the working day really limit participation. There are translation services available at City Council meetings, but even so, few workers can skip off the job at 2 p.m. and hang about for two hours to submit two minutes of public comment. Their employers likely wouldn’t tolerate it. Financially, it would be difficult for them, and kids need to be picked up from school right around that time. Hosting meetings after working hours and in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods would help. I’d also partner with Latino community advocacy organizations to increase attendance and participation.

NOOZHAWK: What is your position on funding a new Santa Barbara police station in the current fiscal environment?

SB: $50 million is a very steep price tag to pay for this project, especially in these economic times. I’d put out a request for proposal for competitive bids to see if this couldn’t be accomplished for far less cost. The police are not pushing for an updated station, although they really need one. With technology today, there are greater opportunities for working in dispersed conditions than ever before. We could look at substations, like in the vacant storefront on Milpas below Highway 101, as temporary housing for 9-1-1 operations while we build the new station. In tough times, we need to look at creative options rather than sign the voters up for a tax in the future to pay for part of this project, as the plan currently stands.

NOOZHAWK: Do you support the city’s attempt to get a gang injunction, limiting the activities of identified Eastside and Westside gang members? What are some other anti-gang efforts you would pursue?

SB: Yes I do. The injunction is limited in scope to 30 individuals, some of whom have already gone through the opt-out process. There are some issues with it, but the city attorney is working these with youth organizations and other stakeholders. I live in West Downtown, and when I moved here, Eastsider presence in the area was very strong. Westsiders would not tolerate that, so our neighborhood was in the middle of a war zone. Neighbors were terrified. We had a shooting, followed by a murder, and then we organized and stood up against violence on our streets. Just doing that changed the dynamic here. When we put in a neighborhood watch, it drove a lot of criminal activity out of the area.

I’ve also researched gang intervention techniques from other jurisdictions, and we’re working at the neighborhood level with some of these. The single most effective way to curb gang recruitment and violence is for neighbors to not be tolerant of it. Law enforcement is certainly incredibly helpful in this, and partnering with them is very effective, but neighbors themselves have the power to say no, not on our streets. I’ve worked in West Downtown and on the Lower Eastside to empower neighbors to band together against intimidation tactics.

In West Downtown, I have approached gang members and requested they respect the safety of the families in this area, and they have assented. They then usually move on, because this is a watched area with active neighbors. What if every area was an empowered, watched area? Just like speeders slow down when they see a California Highway Patrol car, would-be criminals are hesitant in an area where it’s clear such activities are not tolerated. A group of young males on a Lower Eastside street glared at me as I posted neighborhood watch meeting signs. I approached, and talked to them about what we were doing, to make the area safe for families, and they pointed me to a dark area in need of lighting. They, too, saw the need for more safety.

I’ve worked with gang intervention teams in the area, to focus efforts on troubled streets, and they’ve reached out to youth to recruit them out and to provide activities to give them other opportunities, and reduce their risk. These three strategies together: prevention, intervention and enforcement, along with neighbors standing up and not tolerating violence, are all required to reduce gang violence here.

NOOZHAWK: Many community policing resources have dried up, including the full-time DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and beat coordinator positions at the Santa Barbara Police Department, the Santa Barbara County truancy program and school resource officers. What low-cost solutions would you pursue to provide prevention and intervention services to the community’s young people?

SB: Although the City Council does not have direct jurisdiction on this, I think partnering with schools is the way to go. John Becchio, the principal at Santa Barbara Junior High (now the principal at Santa Barbara High School), was incredibly effective at both prevention and intervention. He welcomed parent and neighborhood feedback, and acted on it quickly. He always wants to be where the kids are, and we’ve partnered with him in the community to alert him to where (gang) recruitment and fighting takes place on North Milpas Street during school lunch hours. He is effectively addressing it.

We enlisted the police to assist, too. Police patrol routinely at lunch, and now that problem is really reduced.

Over and over again, I see that partnering of various stakeholder groups is the path to addressing some of these problems. Schools, youth nonprofits and neighborhood-based organizations like Casa de la Raza, Palabra, the Dyslexia Foundation, the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara and yStrive for Youth are invaluable in stepping up and assisting as partners, as well. They all have something to offer.

It takes reaching out and coordinating with as many of these groups in a position to help as possible, to gain their understanding and support to address these issues.

NOOZHAWK: Noozhawk’s Prescription for Abuse series has been exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in our community. What Santa Barbara issue do you think Noozhawk should tackle next?

SB: Where do I start? I’d, of course, welcome an in-depth look at life on the Milpas corridor — the challenges, the struggles and how the city plays a role in the conditions in the area. The Milpas Community Association has worked hard to mount a voice for the area at City Hall, but it’s a struggle because of the way we get construed in some of the media.

I would also welcome a series that looks closely, in an objective and unbiased manner, at the situation with homelessness in our city. I am concerned that we tend to flatten the homeless into one small category of economic hardship and state of despair. That limited lens does not reflect the diversity present in this situation. Some homeless who want to get back into a home and a life they recognize can’t get help to do so. Navigating the various agencies and departments to get help for even one homeless individual is incredibly difficult. Some homeless work full time. Some of our long-term local homeless do not panhandle. Some people who panhandle on our streets are housed. Some homeless will defend being homeless as a way of life, and refuse housing or treatment programs. Some homeless travel among various cities year-round, and Santa Barbara is part of their itinerary. Some homeless do not have drug, alcohol or mental health issues, but they cannot connect to needed resources to assist them. Some homeless have physical disabilities, but are not able to get prioritized to move to housing. Some homeless have outstanding warrants from other states. Some commit crimes here. Some nonlocal homeless are high users of first-responder resources. Some local homeless have never had contact with police or fire because their only issue is they just lack housing. In short, there is tremendous diversity among the homeless, and some of our media coverage does not reflect it, nor open our eyes to the best ways to address that wide array of needs. Good investigative journalism could make a serious difference here.

                              |  2011 Election Coverage |  Complete Series Index  |

Additional Resources

» Click here for Sharon Byrne’s campaign Web site, or call 805.491.4074.

» Click here for more information on the city of Santa Barbara’s Nov. 8 election.

Larry Nimmer’s “Touring with the Candidates” video (www.nimmer.net)

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