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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 9:56 am | Fair 55º

 
 
 
 

‘Experience’ Is Focus of First District Supervisor Race in Santa Barbara County

Candidates Jennifer Christensen and Das Williams differ sharply on kind of experience that should be important to voters

Jennifer Christensen and Das Williams both tout their experience as a key reason to elect them to the First District seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, but they differ sharply on the kind of experience that should be important to voters.
Jennifer Christensen and Das Williams both tout their experience as a key reason to elect them to the First District seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, but they differ sharply on the kind of experience that should be important to voters. (Contributed photos)

Both candidates for the First District seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors are touting their experience as a primary reason voters should elect them.

But Jennifer Christensen and Das Williams — who are facing off in the June 7 election to succeed longtime Supervisor Salud Carbajal— differ sharply on the type of experience that should matter to voters in the district, which includes Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito, a large swath of Santa Barbara and the remote Cuyama Valley in the northeastern corner of the county.

Williams, 41, a three-term assemblyman who previously served on the Santa Barbara City Council, holds himself out as a “fixer” and problem-solver whose experience in office will serve the First District and the county well.

“I’ve been battle tested and have a record of accomplishment on all of the issues that people are concerned about in the county today,” he said in a recent interview with Noozhawk.

Williams points to Christensen’s lack of political experience as her greatest weakness in terms of qualifications for the board seat.

“I don’t think anyone really knows how someone without a record will perform,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Christensen, 43, rejects that assessment, dismissing Williams as a “classic career politician,” a short-timer who has his eye on a state Senate seat in four years.

“I’m a career financial professional, with experience and knowledge of county issues and finance,” Christensen said in a recent interview with Noozhawk.

“I have worked with every single department of the county,” she added. “I understand their finances and operations — of all 23 departments.”

Christensen, who has lived in the district and Santa Barbara County since 2001, grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

After some unsettled teen years, she knuckled down, earning her undergraduate degree from UCLA before obtaining an MBA and a law degree at USC.

She and her husband, retired sheriff’s deputy Conn Abel, live in the San Roque area of Santa Barbara. They have no children, but dote on their two Swedish Vallhunds.

Williams grew up locally, in Isla Vista and Ojai, and lives in Carpinteria.

He completed his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, then received a master’s degree in environmental science and management from the Bren School at UC Santa Barbara.

Williams and his wife, Jonnie Reinhold, who is pursuing a career as a licensed psychologist, have a 7-month-old daughter, Ya’Ash.

He said that, if he’s elected, he intends to focus on water, energy and transportation as some of the most critical issues facing the county.

Christensen named infrastructure and the county’s pension burden as areas that would top her priority list as a member of the Board of Supervisors.

On important issues specific to the First District, Christensen cited the long-stalled Highway 101 widening project.

“I think, unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity,” she said.

She is critical of the project’s planning and environmental processes, particularly the lack of attention to the congestion and other negative impacts it may have on surrounding neighborhood roadways.

“We need to admit our mistakes and move forward,” she said.

Williams also cited the Highway 101 widening as a key First District issue.

“I support completing the 101 project,” he said. “But unlike my opponent, I’m not a fan of the project being slowed down by a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuit. Too many people are going to suffer while that freeway work is delayed.”

Williams also expressed concern about “the vulnerability of some of the open space in and around Carpinteria to development,” as well as the oil leaks on Summerland beaches related to old, abandoned wells.

Pension Reform

Christensen asserts that the answer to the county’s infrastructure backlog — estimated at $250 million for roads alone — is tied to how it addresses some $700 million in unfunded pension liabilities.

“We’ve got the resources to do it,” she said. “It’s about how we allocate our resources.”

Doing that, she said, will require hard-nosed negotiations with county employee groups, with the goal of “pension sustainability,” which she defines as having workers and the county share the pension burden equally.

“Right now it looks more like 75-25 for most employees,” she said of the split.

“Elected officials should be representing the public in these negotiations,” she added. “This is going to be very difficult for the elected officials to do, especially those who are very closely aligned with the unions.”

Williams counters that “pension reform has already happened — it was enacted by Democrats in the Legislature who did not want want to get rid of public-employee pensions.”

Public-pension reforms enacted statewide in 2011 placed caps on base salaries for pensions, prevented gaming the system with “spiking,” and required a 50-50 match for pensions for new employees, he said.

“The most important move has already been done,” Williams said, while acknowledging that more progress is necessary.

Drought Response

Both Williams and Christensen say the county should be more aggressive in addressing the multi-year drought that has gripped California.

Williams advocates for the transformation of the Santa Barbara County Water Agency into an entity that pushes for a regional approach to water issues.

“It has not traditionally been a very powerful district,” he said. “However, it is the only one that covers all the others.”

Regional approaches, he said, should include ramping up use of recycled water, pushing for greater conservation measures and developing a system of sustainable groundwater management.

“We should be using our water twice, and developing additional conservation measures,” he said.

Christensen also supports a more regional approach to water, but notes that the county is not a water purveyor.

The county, she said, should be a “facilitator and partner” with local water districts and suppliers.

She also believes the county should explore the possibility of partnering with the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on possible expansion of its desalination plant.

North County Jail

Both candidates voiced support for the proposed 376-bed North County Jail, but said they harbor reservations.

“We have a need for a new jail, based on multiple grand jury reports and judicial decisions,” Christensen said.

But she bemoans the fact that the Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-Entry (STAR) complex — a separate 228-bed facility housing minimum-security inmates and people with mental-health issues that would have mainly been paid for by the state — was dropped from the project by the Board of Supervisors over concerns about operating costs.

“It’s, unfortunately, a missed opportunity,” Christensen said. “We lost a great component.”

Williams calls the jail-planning process “a depressing quagmire,” while applauding the county’s recent efforts to increase services for inmate and other people with mental illness.

“A North County jail ... really needs to be built,” he said. “But it’s really not a pleasant experience to look at what it’s going to cost and what it means for other priorities.

“We need to look for ways to decrease the jail population. There are too many mentally ill and homeless in the jail.”

Public Safety

On the related topic of public safety, Williams said a major challenge is recruiting and retaining sheriff’s deputies and firefighters.

“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “The county doesn’t have unlimited resources, but we need to do more to attract local young people into the Sheriff’s Department.”

Likewise, Christensen believes the county needs to increase its support for public-safety personnel.

“It seems we are really failing from a county perspective,” she said. “Locally, these guys don’t feel they are getting supported. It’s a very strained relationship.”

She added, “Public safety is one of the missions county government provides that is, by definition, an essential service.”

Short-Term Vacation Rentals

Like most local jurisdictions, the county has been grappling with how to regulate short-term vacation rentals.

“I fall on the side that it doesn’t belong in residential zoning,” Christensen said. “This is about land use and zoning. How do people want their communities to look? How do we protect our neighborhoods?”

Williams said he doesn’t believe a complete ban on short-term rentals is needed.

“I don’t see why we need to go from permitting everything to permitting nothing,” he said. “But something has to be done.

“Our rental market is so dismal, with such a low vacancy rate and such a small supply. People are having to pay very high rents, and the entry-level home market also is impacted.”

Political Ambitions

As previously noted, Christensen has pointed to the establishment of the Das Williams for Senate 2020 fundraising committee as evidence that her opponent has a larger goal than serving the First District in Santa Barbara County.

“I think he has a very short-term plan for being here,” Christensen said of Williams. “Clearly he has been fundraising for state Senate in 2020. This job is a holdover, and nothing more.”

Williams, who has served the maximum number of terms allowed in the Assembly, counters that the Senate 2020 committee “was opened so I wouldn’t be using local contributions to help candidates in other parts of the state” — a practice he says is common among state and federal officeholders.

But when asked directly, Williams did not disavow plans to seek higher office.

“I cannot look into the future,” he said. “I want to be useful to my constituents. I want to be useful in whatever capacity that will be helpful.”

Value of Experience

Williams’ record as an office-holder — at both the local and state levels — has been cited by both candidates in support of their own campaigns.

“My record is a really important part of this campaign,” he said. “My opponent has said she got into this race because of my record.”

Williams cites his work with other legislators “in balancing the worst budgeting in the history of the state of California,” and his support of legislation involving alternative energy, oil-safety regulations, Isla Vista and more.

“I have a record of working on the priorities of the people of Santa Barbara County,” he said. “In an election, you can promise whatever you want, but if you have a record ...

“I do have a record of protecting the environment, local schools, public services and a sustainable economy.”

Christensen asserts that Williams’ record is not nearly as rosy as he claims, and labels him a “spendthrift.”

“You can look at his record on the City Council,” she said. “When he got there, the reserves were almost fully funded. When he left, they were nearly depleted.”

She also criticizes Williams for his decision, in 2012, to abstain from a committee vote on legislation — Senate Bill 1530— that would have made it easier for school districts to fire teachers accused of sex crimes against students.

The legislation, which was opposed by the powerful California Teachers Association, arose following a particularly notorious molestation case in Los Angeles. It fell a vote short in committee and therefore was never voted on by the full Assembly.

Tallying Support

Endorsements can tell voters a lot about a candidate, and the tally of those in the First District race is revealing.

Although the race is technically nonpartisan, as is typically the case, the endorsements break mostly along traditional Democratic-Republican and conservative-liberal lines.

Williams has the formal backing of the Democratic Party establishment and many of its leaders and elected officials.

He is endorsed by the county Democratic Party, as well as Carbajal and fellow Supervisors Doreen Farr and Janet Wolf, and state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara. Also in his camp are Santa Barbara City Council members Gregg Hart, Cathy Murillo and Bendy White.

He is supported by numerous unions, including two SEIU locals, the Tri-Counties Building & Construction Trades Council, the Santa Barbara Teachers Association and the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Association.

Christensen has the formal backing of numerous high-profile Republicans and some Democratic and independent community leaders.

They include Brooks Firestone, a former assemblyman and county supervisor; county Supervisor Steve Lavagnino; former supervisors Joe Centeno and David Yager; Santa Barbara City Councilman Randy Rowse (an independent), former Mayor Sheila Lodge (a Democrat), and former council members Dale Francisco and Michael Self; former county sheriffs John Carpenter and Jim Thomas; Santa Maria City Council members Jack Boysen and Etta Waterfield; and former county CEO Mike Brown.

She also is endorsed by 14 past presidents of the Montecito Association, a large contingent of retired senior law enforcement personnel, and has the backing of the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

THE DISTRICT:

The First Supervisorial District strongly favors Democrats in terms of voter registration, which arguably gives Williams an edge in the race.

Some 48 percent of registered voters are Democrats, compared to about 22 percent who are Republicans. The latter are outnumbered by the roughly 24 percent of voters who have no political preference.

Santa Barbara County as a whole also favors the Democratic Party, but not to the same degree.

Some 41 percent of voters countywide are Democrats, while about 29 percent are Republicans and roughly 25 percent have registered with no political preference.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton 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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