Harwood “Bendy” White has seen it all in his more than 30 years of public service for both the City of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County. “My emphasis has always been on local government,” he says. “I love it. I still love it.” (Josh Molina / Noozhawk photo)

If there’s a guy who could honestly say he’s “been there, done that,” it’s Harwood “Bendy” White.

Even in this time of extreme drought, the Santa Barbara city councilman has been through it. As a member of Santa Barbara’s Water Commission in 1992, he was part of the team that reactivated the $35 million desalination plant, only to see the heavens pour down rain shortly afterward. Now, we’re in the same situation. White and the council need to pull the trigger on the desalination plant, even as speculation swirls about the the return of El Niño next winter.

Whether it’s despair over the drought or heartache over the homeless, White has seen it all — multiple times — in his more than 30 years of public service for both the city and the county.

White, 68, has emerged as both the elder statesman and the conscience of the council. Although he’s a registered Democrat, he’s not a party darling, largely over the independent voice and votes he sometimes displays. Privately, some political insiders consider his independent voice to be more of an example of  indecisiveness or sometimes wavering approach on issues.

Earlier this year he broke a council tie to privatize maintenance services at the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Course, siding with conservatives on a philosophy that privatizing some government services saves taxpayer dollars in the long run.

In this case, it put 11 unionized city employees out of a job, although many had opportunities to transfer positions. The move could save the city as much as $400,000 annually. White’s vote earned him praise from Republican council colleague Dale Francisco, who acknowledged the good work of the “fiscally conservative Democrat.”

His vote, however, irked others who have endorsed him in the past.

“That was a disappointment,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party

Now, White is assuming a higher profile on the council in 2015 — pushing a proposed tax initiative to fund infrastructure improvements — in what is likely a stage-setter for a mayoral bid in 2017. 

He’s pushing a half-cent sales tax increase to generate $11 million a year to help pay for repairs to streets and roads, and the big ticket item — a new police station, which is seismically unsafe, and former holding cells have been converted into offices. The city estimates that unfunded infrastructure needs will top $400 million over the next 20 years. 

“This is a very big year for me,” White told Noozhawk. “We live in a magnificent community, but we are not taking care of it the way that we should.”

White will face an uphill battle convincing a majority of his colleagues to place the sales tax measure on the ballot, although if there’s a moderate who could pull it off, it would be him.

“He’s an independent vote,” Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said. “He’s not someone who is just going to vote lockstep with what one special interest group says.”

Schneider said she has heard “rumors” of White possibly running for mayor.

“He has a longstanding background and ties to this community,” Schneider said. “He knows people from very different constituencies. He works hard. He is genuine in his approach to city government. He would certainly be a formidable candidate.”

White, who lives on the Riviera, began his political career more than 30 years ago, serving as a member of the county’s Planning Commission. He joined the city’s Water Commission before jumping to the Planning Commission, in the days when the Planning Commission served as a springboard to the City Council for people such as him, Brian Barnwell, Grant House and Dr. Dan Secord. 

His election to the City Council in 2009 seemed inevitable, as does his mayoral run. 

“I might be able to make a difference,” he said. “I am intent on taking care of this place.”

White works as a land-use consultant and is self-employed, mostly taking jobs these days in Goleta.

White is proud that he is a “lifelong Democrat.” He said he doesn’t like conflict and wants to solve problems. He said he also doesn’t like to play “gotcha” on the council and works to find middle ground. 

“I really like to keep things civil,” White said. “I will back off myself when I touch a nerve.”

White touched a few nerves behind the scenes — not for his public votes, but for his early private endorsement of Mayor Schneider in her attempt to replace Rep. Lois Capps for the 24th congressional district seat. Schneider is running against another formidable Democrat, Salud Carbajal. White is the only member of the City Council who has endorsed Schneider. It’s a move that may complicate his mayoral run and initiatives going forward.

White said Schneider has been “a really strong advisor, supporter and friend.”

“We have two good candidates running,” said White, who has shared a political consultant, Jeremy Lindaman, with Schneider in previous council campaigns. “It was not easy for me. I am a big fan of Salud’s as well.”

While said he will continue to plod forward in support of a sales tax increase to fund infrastructure repairs. He’s hoping the council will vote to place something on the November ballot. 

“My emphasis has always been on local government,” White said. “I love it. I still love it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.