Nina Johnson, the 25-year Santa Barbara city employee and current senior assistant to the City Administrator, pulled papers Wednesday and is running against Meagan Harmon for the District 6 City Council seat.
“I think I would be more effective as a council member working with the community than in my current role within the organization,” Johnson told Noozhawk in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I think I can be of more value and move the needle.”
The decision to run for the seat dramatically shakes up the race on the Nov. 2 ballot, one that many observers believed that Harmon would face unopposed.
Johnson is well-liked, admired and respected among many business owners and representatives. She led the effort in 2019 to close the State Street underpass and a few blocks of State Street, for a pedestrian and events day, that proved to be a successful model for when the city in 2020 closed much of State Street to vehicles and created the promenade.
“I have over 25 years now built so many relationships in the community,” Johnson said. “I want to use those connections to be of the highest service to the community.”
Johnson, 45, said City Hall would benefit from having more experienced leadership.
“I want to protect what Santa Barbara is, but make really thoughtful changes,” Johnson said.
Johnson also serves as the city’s de facto public information officer. She is, in many ways, the face of the city, and has worked in the trenches on a variety of City Hall initiatives.
“I want to spend more time focused on the design of our public spaces and how they are done in an inclusive way,” Johnson said.
She said would give up her job, which pays about $140,000 annually, if elected.
“This is a big risk,” Johnson said. “To really help the community in the way that I want to I need to take this leap of faith.”
She said she plans to work in a positive way and bring more ideas than what is currently offered.
“I am a hands-on type of person,” Johnson said. “I think Meagan has done a lot, but she has only been here a few years and what the council needs is experienced leadership. My style will be more collaborative leadership.”
Harmon has quickly ascended politically since she was appointed to the seat in 2019.
She was named by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the California Coastal Commission earlier this year. She has been widely embraced by the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party and worked as the defacto political power-broker on the Council. She has not yet faced an opponent in an election.
Harmon responded to Noozhawk’s request for comment about Johnson’s candidacy.
“Elections are key to a healthy democracy,” Harmon said. “Campaigns based on the issues create healthy dialogue and bring forth good ideas. I am looking forward to running a positive campaign on my record of accomplishment on City Council.”
Johnson, who applied for the economic development manager job that Jason Harris got, said experience matters.
“I love the city,” said Johnson, who moved to District 6 from the Mesa neighborhood a year ago. “I have a passion for the city. The community is my family.”
Other declared candidates in District 6 include Jason Carlton and Zachary Pike.
If Johnson wins she would be the latest departure from the City Administrator’s Office. City Administrator Paul Casey announced he is resigning in September. Pam Antil, assistant city administator, left the city two years ago.
Other recent department head departures at the city include Police Chief Lori Luhnow, Community Development Director George Buell, and Finance Director Bob Samario.
The candidate nomination period ends Aug. 6 for the seats: mayor, District 4 council member, District 5 council member, and District 6 council member.