Friday, March 23 , 2018, 11:25 am | Fair 59º


Local News

Buellton Resident Takes on Santa Barbara City Hall with Good Government Approach

Tom Widroe launches City Watch in effort to bring common-sense solutions to infrastructure, budgeting and the homeless

Tom Widroe, founder of a new watchdog organization called City Watch, has been attending Santa Barbara City Council meetings and meeting with council members individually. “I have seen some problems that have been pernicious and persistent,”​ he says. “City Watch wants to be a constant voice.” Click to view larger
Tom Widroe, founder of a new watchdog organization called City Watch, has been attending Santa Barbara City Council meetings and meeting with council members individually. “I have seen some problems that have been pernicious and persistent,”​ he says. “City Watch wants to be a constant voice.” (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

About a year ago at this time, Tom Widroe had his name in lights, so to speak, embroiled in a battle over a controversial sign in Buellton.

He was a candidate for the Buellton City Council, and an opponent of a proposal to erect a billboard off Highway 246 intended to bring more tourists to the Santa Ynez Valley.

Caught in a political battle with the Buellton Chamber of Commerce over how to best spend taxpayer funds, Widroe not only lost the election, he finished way down the ballot in fifth place.

It was a big blow to Widroe, who had once served as deputy district director for then-Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Simi Valley Republican whose district included part of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Now Widroe has decided to trade Buellton’s pea soup for Santa Barbara’s palm trees, the Avenue of the Flags for the Funk Zone, and Highway 246 for the homeless.

Widroe recently launched City Watch, somewhat of a Judicial Watch for the city of Santa Barbara. He promises to be a voice for businesses, to speak loud and proud for the city to fix its infrastructure, and tackle the “homeless and criminal vagrant problems” on State Street.

“I have seen some problems that have been pernicious and persistent,”​ he told Noozhawk. “City Watch wants to be a constant voice.”

Widroe wants to be that voice, although he still lives in Buellton. He has been popping up at City Council meetings on Tuesdays and meeting with council members one-on-one.

Council members said they appreciate his soft style, and willingness to talk the issues without being reflexively adversarial or rude.

“I have come to appreciate his approach,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “He’s willing to ask questions about past decision-making without jumping to conclusions.”

She said Widroe listens to both sides.

“He has a nice balance,” she said. “It’s not just all negative.

“I welcome any watchdog group as long as what they are doing is coming from a place of fact. We are a better city due to the strong civic engagement we have.”

Widroe — unlike the fiery preaching-from-the-pulpit style of Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, or COLAB — fashions himself as somewhat of a level-headed pragmatist. He says the Santa Barbara council does a good job.

“The current council is a functional body,” he said. “City Watch respects them.”

The concern is really about what’s to come, Widroe said.

“With term limits and district elections, however, there is anxiety,”​ he said. “There’s trepidation.”

The son of a psychiatrist, Widroe said he knows that “not everyone loves a watchdog group,” but that the city must be reminded that it should focus on its infrastructure first and foremost.

He said the city’s streets are falling apart while the council spends money on nonessential items such as research polls. He questions whether the city needs to spend $700,000 annually on human services.

Santa Barbara, he said, should focus on public safety, and keeping its downtown free of the homeless to promote tourism.

A solution must be found for the homeless problem, he said.

“In California, people have come to accept this as the norm, but State Street is for everyone — the elderly, kids, families,”​ Widroe said. 

He also believes a third lane on Highway 101 through Montecito is long overdue. Parents have been forced to sit in traffic jams, unable to pick up or get home to their kids because of the lack of action on the freeway widening, he said.

“We have punished people,” said Widroe, a father of four, including a set of triplets.

Widroe said he’s been working hard to set up City Watch this year, meeting with businesses and elected officials, but he declined to identify any members of his group, or who sits on his advisory board. He said many people don’t want to publicly come out against the city.

He asks people to contribute money to become members. In return, he said they will receive weekly email briefings on City Council agenda items, “an attentive, articulate, vigorous advocate working on your behalf,” and “access to extensive staff-level expertise pertaining to your rights and the city’s obligations.”

The donations also pay for Widroe’s time to compose radio, newspaper and television commentaries. He also will hold free quarterly luncheon meetings.

Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region, said he met with Widroe and told him that the chamber of commerce has and will continue to be the voice for businesses in Santa Barbara, but that he welcomes anyone who wants to work on behalf of business interests.

“He’s out there and does have some supporters in the community,”​ Oplinger said. “We wish him well.”

Widroe, a former executive with the American Heart Association and Bargain Network, is now an executive recruiter and management consultant for clients throughout Santa Barbara County.

Widroe said he hopes City Watch will develop a strong following. He wants to “stand up for good government.”

“There are common-sense issues that should bring us all together,”​ Widroe 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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