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New Santa Barbara City Council Takes a Left Turn, But How It Will Govern Is an Open Question

With departure of last conservative in January, speculation abounds about leadership and culture among solid liberal majority

Come January, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, second from left, will be missing from the City Council picture, along with Councilman Frank Hotchkiss. Mayor-elect Cathy Murillo, right, and, from left, Councilmen Jason Dominguez, Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart will be joined by new council members Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon. Click to view larger
Come January, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, second from left, will be missing from the City Council picture, along with Councilman Frank Hotchkiss. Mayor-elect Cathy Murillo, right, and, from left, Councilmen Jason Dominguez, Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart will be joined by new council members Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon. (Noozhawk file photo)

Not since the early 2000s has the Santa Barbara City Council ever been so liberal.

Last month’s election of Councilwoman Cathy Murillo as mayor, as well as the term-limited departure of Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, marks a shift back to the days before the council took an unexpected turn to the right in 2007.

Although the council is nonpartisan, the ideologies of its members shape city tone and direction. When the new council is sworn in on Jan. 5, six of the seven council members will be registered Democrats, a makeup not seen in more than a decade.

“Losing Frank Hotchkiss is a tremendous loss,” said Tom Widroe, president of Santa Barbara City Watch, a conservative City Hall watchdog organization. “This is a true loss to the council.”

He described Hotchkiss as witty, clever and “a man of few words.” Hotchkiss, the lone Republican on the council, is completing his second term after running unsuccessfully for mayor. Voter-approved term limits bar council members from serving more than two terms.

Widroe said the upcoming departure of Mayor Helene Schneider also will be a blow to the council. Despite their differences in political perspectives, he said Schneider was a good listener who was logical in her decision-making and who ran meetings fairly.

“While we were different politically, I think she managed city issues really well,”​ Widroe told Noozhawk. “I think it is a loss to the community.”

In the 2000s, the council was dominated by liberal Democrats, with only the late Dr. Dan Secord serving as a conservative voice.

The 2007 election of Dale Francisco ushered in a new conservative era, however. A registered Republican, he won as a backlash to city transportation staff decisions to install roundabouts, speed humps and bulb-outs in the neighborhoods, a move widely seen as government overreach.

Two years later, voters elected Hotchkiss and another Republican, Michael Self, to join him.

Self lost her re-election bid in 2011, Francisco was term-limited off the council in 2015 and Hotchkiss will be gone next month.

Joining the next council will be two newcomers, Democrats Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon, who won open seats in the Nov. 7 election. Since Murillo was elected mayor with two years left in her council term, the council will only have six members until it appoints a seventh or holds a special election to fill the vacancy.

Cory Bantilan, a conservative political consultant, said Schneider was a good meeting manager and that Murillo probably will be fine in that role too. At the end of the day, he noted, the mayor’s seat is largely ceremonial.

“While people perceive mayor as very important, in Santa Barbara it is not,” he said. “No one else on council has to curry favor or follow their lead. There’s just not much explicit power given to the mayor of Santa Barbara.”

Santa Barbara, a charter city, has what’s known as a “weak mayor” system. City Administrator Paul Casey manages the municipality, presenting the council with two-year-budgets and recommending fiscal policy.

As the symbolic leader of the city council, the mayor gets to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies, reads official resolutions and proclamations, and controls the length of time people can speak during public comment periods at council meetings. But she — or he, although there has not been a male mayor in years — wields the same voting power as the rest of the council.

“I personally like the strong mayor system and dislike strong administrator cities,”​ Bantilan said. “As it stands, someone else could easily have more power than Murillo on the dais, but not more than Paul Casey.

“Given the multiple cliques on the previous council, I’m not sure any single faction will emerge dominant.”

Bantilan agreed with Widroe that Hotchkiss’ exit is unfortunate.

“Frank’s voice will be a loss because he was blunt and unafraid to say what he thought, regardless of political consequences,”​ he said. “Too often in politics there is more theater than substance, but with Frank, what you see is what you get.”

Councilman Randy Rowse, a moderate, will be the strongest conservative voice on the council once Hotchkiss leaves. Bantilan said Rowse could play an effective role by representing such interests, but he expressed concern that the small businessman also could “get tired of seeing the rest of the council trip over each other to go further left and simply check out.”

The council member with the most institutional memory is Gregg Hart, who served in the late 1990s and early 2000s before term limits were in place. The Democrat successfully campaigned to return to the council five years ago and was re-elected last month.

Hart said the election of Friedman and Sneddon will be good for the council because they are both “fact-driven” and will do their homework.

Since Murillo’s seat will remain vacant until an appointment or special election, Hart said the public will find out right away if the council will be able to work together or get tied up in 3-3 votes.

“Every council is unique, and it will take time to develop a culture,” he said. “We’ll find out if we are collaborators or if we are camps. I hope we are collaborators.”

Schneider said it’s too early to know if the culture and tone of the council will change. Much of it also depends on whom the council appoints to Murillo’s seat, representing District 3 on the Westside.

“I expect that the new council will want to follow through quickly on two main issues brought up during the campaign: allowing for some form of housing on State Street and creating fiscal policies that will prioritize the new Measure C sales tax revenue directly to street repairs and a new police headquarters,” she said.

Schneider also said it will take time to determine how a Mayor Murillo will affect the council.

“Every mayor has her own style and tone running meetings and interacting with her colleagues,” she said. “Mayor-Elect Murillo will bring her unique perspective to the position.”

Equally important, Schneider added, is the natural shift to a more collaborative role as mayor from an advocacy-related approach as a council member.

“I saw that play out with Mayors (Harriet) Miller, (Marty) Blum and myself, as we all sat on the dais as city council members before being elected mayor,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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