Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino stands near a framed newspaper article about his dad’s role as an aide to a county supervisor decades ago. Credit: Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo

Months before beginning his fourth term on the Santa Barbara County Board of  Supervisors, Steve Lavagnino declared it would be his final four years.

Lavagnino, now the panel’s longest-serving member, announced his plan not to run for re-election during the Santa Barbara County Veterans Stand Down in October. By the end, he will have racked up 16 years on the board. 

“Everybody’s ideas have a shelf life,” he said, noting that as a big sports fan he recognized that teams get tired of hearing the same message from the best coaches. 

After his 16th year, he will be the second-longest-serving Fifth District representative behind only Charles Preisker, who served for 28 years. That district has included most of Santa Maria and, because of redistricting, now includes Guadalupe. 

“If I haven’t gotten done what I want to get done and left my mark at that point, there’s no reason to keep going,” he said.

He’s not coasting into retirement. Joining forces with Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson, they backed a proposal to create a temporary village for homeless residents at the Betteravia Government Center to transition into permanent housing.

“All of these things, whether it’s roads or homelessness or mental health or changing the way we deal with the jail, I always … just want to leave them better than when I got here,” he said. 

One project he said he wants to see completed is the Highway 101 widening project on the South Coast from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara. Traffic restrictions occur regularly as part of the construction for the 17-mile corridor. 

“When it’s done, it’s going to be amazing,” he said. 

The Northern Branch Jail’s completion leaves decisions about the next step — and a lament about one vote he lost. 

“To me, the biggest mistake we’ve made since I’ve been here is not building the STAR facility,” he said of the Sheriff’s Treatment and Re-entry Complex, or STAR, which would have been built mostly with state funding.  

Now, the county has started wrestling with what to do with the 60-year-old Main Jail facility.

“It is a horrible facility. It’s terrible, it’s in disrepair, it’s ancient, and we need to upgrade it,” Lavagnino said.

County leaders now have “a Solomon’s decision” — invest millions of dollars to upgrade the Main Jail, “which just seems like you’re pouring good money,” or downsize that facility and add on to the Northern Branch Jail.

“But somehow we have to get to a number of beds that make sense and it’s still in a condition that meets all of the requirements for the state and federal government for how we’re housing individuals,” he said.

At the same time, a number of his colleagues have pushed for jailing fewer people.

“I have that same hope, but unfortunately, we haven’t convinced people to not commit crimes,” Lavagnino said, adding that many criminals recognize they won’t face incarceration for certain low-level crimes. 

“I think there’s a role in there that you’ve got to punish people and hold them accountable or we end up with a situation that we’re in right now where basically the pendulum has swung very far the other way,” he said. 

Lavagnino is a self-described budget hawk, which he said explains his support of the cannabis industry. The county faced spending cuts, revenue increases or tax boosts, and cannabis revenues raise millions of dollars each year. 

“I never went into cannabis because I like cannabis,” he said, noting that local voters supported legalizing cannabis in the county.

His only regret is that cannabis didn’t earn the county more money.

Lavagnino won the supervisor job after besting Mayor Alice Patino in 2010, and he never faced a challenger in the next three elections. 

One of the hallmark events of his time on the board has been the Veterans Stand Down, which marked its 10th event in 2022 and has helped hundreds of former military members, especially the most vulnerable, get help of all sorts. 

He said he’s committed to continuing the event through his final term, but added that the event’s future will be up to others. 

Lavagnino’s life as a politician included working for former Assemblyman Abel Maldonado and former Congressman Elton Gallegly.

Despite his longtime Republican roots, Lavagnino changed his voter registration, now listed as “decline to state.”

“I don’t regret that at all,” he said, adding that it became easy once he knew he didn’t intended to seek higher office. 

His 87-year-old dad, Larry, a former mayor of Santa Maria, remains his sounding board, reminding him to stay true to what he thinks is right.

However, he’s also a tough constituent — “He’s my No. 1 complainer.”

When the supervisor told Larry Lavagnino about his plans to wrap up his stint on the Board of Supervisors in 2026, his dad had a simple if humbling comment. 

“Well, the cemetery is full of indispensable people, so don’t think that you leaving is going to put the county in any kind of hurt,” the supervisor recalled with a laugh.