Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez spoke with former Mayor Hal Conklin on Wednesday afternoon in the latest of his weekly conversations with city leaders.
Gutierrez, who was elected to the City Council in November 2019, grew up in the Eastside District 1 that she represents.
“I am an open book,” Gutierrez said. “I want to see this community better. I am a local. I love this community. This is why I am doing the work that I do.”
Gutierrez in less than a year has crafted an image as a good listener as well as a curious and fiercely independent councilwoman. She frequently asks tough questions during council meetings, and she’s not afraid to put top officials on the spot — whether it’s Police Chief Lori Luhnow, Mayor Cathy Murillo or officials in the Community Development Department. She’s also gone hard in the paint advocating for more affordable housing and services for her Eastside District.
About 50 people attended the weekly conversation that is part of Conklin’s Santa Barbara Leadership Team. Gutierrez met privately with some key downtown property owners, such as Richard Berti and Jim Knell, after the public conversation.
Conklin asked Gutierrez about the 82-unit housing project at 711 Milpas St. that the council recently supported. The council took the rare step of creating a development agreement with the property’s owners, Jay Bjorndahl, Ed St. George and Alan Bleeker.
Gutierrez said the housing will help teachers, police officers and firefighters live in the community where they work.
“When you have an officer who is going to 911 calls who lives in the area, not only are they going to know the neighborhoods, they are going to understand the culture and the people there,” Gutierrez said. “Their response is going to be very different. Teachers are going to be able to stay after school and not rush out of their classrooms because they want to beat traffic.”
She said that during the mudslide in Montecito, people had to travel into the county by airplane and boat because they did not live in the area.
“Now with everything that is happening, with the attention we are putting on the police, have we forgotten that our police department has become a commuter department because of the housing issue,” Gutierrez said. “Do I want more of these professionals living in the community? Of course.”
She said she hopes that other developers pursue development agreements with the city.
She also pushed the need for design guidelines for Milpas and Haley streets so that the area could have a sleeker look.
Gutierrez said she hopes that the next community development director comes from the area. Rebecca Bjork is serving as the interim director.
“When we hire from the outside, there’s months of educating the person about Santa Barbara,” Gutierrez said. “I have always said Santa Barbara is not like every city in California. It is a very unique city. I would like to see a visionary.”
She stressed the importance of listening and being responsive to commmunity needs.
“I am very transparent,” Gutierrez said. “What you see is what you get. I am someone who likes to learn from mistakes. How are we supposed to change things if we can’t come into a room and have difficult conversatons? But that’s how you are going to grow.”