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Sharon Byrne Steps Up to Challenge Cathy Murillo for Santa Barbara Council Seat

Clash over the proposed Eastside Business Improvement District turns to the Westside, where the MCA executive says residents' needs haven't been met

Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Milpas Community Association, has decided to challenge incumbent Cathy Murillo for a seat on the Santa Barbara City Council.
Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Milpas Community Association, has decided to challenge incumbent Cathy Murillo for a seat on the Santa Barbara City Council. (Josh Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara City Council incumbent Cathy Murillo will face a challenge from Sharon Byrne, a former candidate in 2011 and current rival over the proposed Eastside Business Improvement District.

Murillo and Byrne will inaugurate district elections in Santa Barbara this November, after a lawsuit forced Santa Barbara to switch from electing council members at large to smaller districts throughout the city.

Two of the city's districts were drawn up so that a majority of voters would be Hispanic. Murillo, the first Latina elected to the City Council, lives on the Westside, in the majority-Hispanic District 3. 

The Murillo-Byrne clash might be one of the most intriguing, high-profile campaigns this November. Murillo shocked many in 2011, rising from underdog status to a polished candidate who connected with voters, from the Riviera and San Roque to the Mesa and the Westside. 

Byrne touts herself as an independent, free from special interest influence. Although she lost a bid for the council seat in 2011, she has developed a name and reputation as a pro-business advocate in her role as a paid executive director of the Milpas Community Association.

Byrne, who lives on the lower Westside, is a former employee of California Common Cause, a government watchdog group. She said she is running for the council because Murillo has not represented Westside residents. 

"I see an opportunity to make a difference on the Westside," Byrne said. "Those residents' needs have not been met."

Ironically, even though they are running for a seat on the Westside, Byrne and Murillo have clashed on a major issue facing the Eastside, the proposed Business Improvement District.

Byrne supports a plan to have businesses tax themselves to pay for overall services in their neighborhood. Murillo says that Byrne's MCA has forced the issue, rather than the idea originating from businesses. Murillo said many Eastside business were not contacted about the proposed business district.

But now the quarrel turns to the Westside, where Byrne says she first learned how to organize a neighborhood. She said she rallied for more lights and police officers after a teenager was killed on her street; that she worked to transform a mural out of a graffiti wall; and that she is an overall advocate for better services in her neighborhood.

She wants to register new voters and make a personal connection with everyone she meets. She said her strength is her independence. 

"I don't see the world as good vs. evil," Byrne said. "I am more pragmatic."

Murillo, a former news reporter who also speaks Spanish, said she is not worried about Byrne's challenge. 

"No matter who is running against me, I will stand on my years of experience served on the council during a time when the city has offered our residents a low crime rate, revenues on the rise and restored services in every department but especially, parks and libraries," Murillo said. "Santa Barbara is a desirable place to work and live, and I'm proud of that."

Murillo is known in the neighborhoods and around City Hall as a hard worker who meets with everyone who wants an appointment, and advocates for the working class. 

"I am proud to be the first Latina on the council," she said.

Two other districts will be on the ballot in November.

Andria Martinez Cohen, Sebastian Aldana and Jacqueline Inda have filed papers intending to run for the District 1 Eastside council seat. Aldana and Inda were both plaintiffs in the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that forced district elections

Council incumbent Randy Rowse will run against Lenie Ford and Wallace Ronchietto for the District 2 Mesa seat.

The nomination period, when candidates must gather signatures to get on the ballot, begins July 13. The deadline to file is Aug. 7. Election Day is Nov. 3.

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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