Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

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Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum
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By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers

Amazing but true, Meagan Harmon has served on SB City Council for two-and-a-half years but - before Wednesday night -- never before had been forced to grub for votes at a candidate forum.

Harmon, appointed by council in early 2019 to a vacant District 6 seat, did not draw an opponent in the city election later that year, when she was slated to be on the ballot. So in the current campaign, she is facing voters for the first time ever, albeit running as a veteran, instead of a rookie.

"I'm going to give myself an 'A'," she said during this week's first District 6 forum, when asked to grade her own performance to date. "I'm proud of the work I've done."

The event, sponsored by Newsmakers, SB Talks and TVSB, also marked the first campaign appearance for Nina Johnson, a longtime City Hall executive considered the incumbent's chief rival, as well as for grassroots candidates Jason Carlton and Zak Pike, with all the contenders appearing via Zoom because: Covid.

The four candidates offered their views on a host of tough problems confronting the city and District 6's downtown neighborhoods, from homelessness and housing to the State Street promenade and selection of a new City Administrator.

You can watch the debate via YouTube below or by clicking through this link; the audio version is here.

Six takeaways from the event:

Meagan brought the fastball

From the first question, Harmon burst forth with a high-energy, smart take performance that not only displayed her command of substance and nuance on complicated policies (discussing the future of Paseo Nuevo mall, she became the first candidate in political history to use the phrase "Reciprocal Easement Agreement" in a campaign talk) but also demonstrated the passionate style that has made her a rising star in local Democratic circles. She got a little too slick at several points, wielding piffle and politic-speak in trying to evade a straight answer about building height limits, for example, but when pressed, at least produced an unequivocal answer as to ruling out a run for higher office if she wins the five year council term at stake on Nov. 2: "Absolutely," she said. Keep that one in the memory bank.

Nina: The personal is political

Johnson has worked behind-the-scenes for more than 20 years as a City Hall manager, most recently as assistant City Administrator, and her language in her first forum reflected that experience, as she addressed many issues by focusing on changing or improving the process of local government (i.e., "We need a different culture," "data-driven approach," "focus on outcomes"). Her best moments came when she spoke in personal terms about facing sexist discrimination that she said had held her back from promotion, citing it as one of the reasons she decided to run for office after decades as a staffer: "I'm taking a different path," she said. "I don't want to complain...I want to help resolve the problem for others."

Small business owner vs insiders

Jason Carlton is a union electrician who runs his own small business, a a serious, down-to-earth guy who has mounted a long shot grassroots campaign because he believes City Hall is too insular and disconnected from the people it is supposed to serve. At one point, he pointed to the city raising permit fees by 25 percent during the pandemic, at a time when businesses like his already were struggling to hang on, as an example of ciity government cluelessness, but he missed a clear opportunity when he demurred on a question asking him to make the case for why Meagan should not be returned to office: "If we want to stay on the same path, we'll pick insiders," was as far as he would go.

The blue collar Santa Barbara guy. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Zachary Pike has a day job as a soils analyst, running lab tests on samples for environmental reviews, but the pandemic cut into his preferred line of work as a musician and a DJ. Earnest and caring of the community where he grew up, Pike said one of his biggest assets is his "history as a local," saying it's "time for a change" as he decried the rise of "so much dissonance in the city," which he stated he would help "take down a notch" by bringing fresh eyes and an open mind to civic ills. Discussing homelessness, his most notable idea was the suggestion to slap a moratorium on liquor licenses: "There's so many places where you can get your hands on vices in District 6," he said.

Is there a solution for homelessness?

In the first round of the forum, Zak didn't hesitate when asked to identify the number one concern he hears from neighbors: "Homelessness - top of the list." The substantive discussion of the issue that followed, however, featured few new ideas and was far more resigned than hopeful: Pike ventured that employers should pay higher wages, Johnson called for more "mental health outreach workers, and while Harmon claimed "we are moving forward with tangible programs" (e.g. paying for homeless campers to stay in a cheap hotel for four months) even she had to acknowledge that it "in many ways is an intractable problem." It was left to Carlton to say the quiet part out loud: "I don't think homeless is solvable."

Room rater

It was a rough night for Newsmakers' Department of Virtual Backdrops and Videoconferencing Aesthetics, as the team found little to like in the Zoom backgrounds used by the District 6 quartet. In the final Room Rater scores, based on a 1-10 scale, Meagan finished first, with a nothing-to-be-proud of 4 ("two heavy wood doors and plain white walls gave the impression she was locked in a wine cellar," our judges said); Nina earned a 3 ("mercifully her head didn't melt into the stock SB waterfront virtual backdrop, like Randy's did in the mayoral forum"); Zak got a 2 ("maybe next time he'll push the bookcase all the way behind him, instead of just giving us a six inch glimpse") and Jason got the dreaded 1 ("the guy sounded pretty good -- too bad he looked like he was speaking from a hostage video").

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SBTownie Sep 03, 2021 02:25 PM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

Thank you for putting this on. This was so helpful for me, a District 6 voter. I was blown away by Meagan Harmon and although I have previously called her too "woke" (and still believe she is on some topics), it was clear she was the star of the bunch. I was curious to learn more about Nina Johnson and I think she has some good ideas (as did Carlton, frankly) and a wealth of experience, but Harmon was for me the clear winner. She came across as incredible likable (even if you disagree with her, which is very hard to accomplish so kudos to Ms. Harmon - this is a rare talent), very focused, immensely capable and fully knowledgeable about the topics that are really the most pressing to our city - land use, etc. I am now very enthusiastic about voting for her.

Byzantium Sep 03, 2021 04:13 PM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

District 6 is a tough district since it contains our worst local issues: the State Street mess and loss of a main retail sales tax generating district, and health and safety peril caused by the 101/Mission Creek vagrant camps - for which Harmon deserves and F, not an A. Judge her by her deeds; not her alleged high style. We need defined goals that get results, and at least some depth of understanding of one's own district and how it fits into the larger issues for the city. Tell us why the fruits of the past few decades of chronic mismanagement ended up mainly in this one district. District 6 is full of renters and low voter turn out, which means it takes little to win this district, yet it represents the city's biggest problems. Do take another look at Nina Johnson - length and depth of municipal management experience -she is in the best position to know what realistically can be done, not just making promisies what she would like to do. This should be a key vote determinant - well-honed pragmatism. Johnson is not insider status quo, just the opposite - she is pragmatic and knows the most efficient paths to get were we need to go. Johnson would be able to hit the ground running with no learning curve. This can immensely help this mainly inexperienced city council on a far more seasoned path to set achievable goals and get started meeting them; instead of just talking and talking and talking about them.

SBTownie Sep 04, 2021 07:18 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

I don't disagree with you on this topic, Byz. I think Nina Johnson needs to do a lot more to distinguish herself from Harmon and spell out exactly why she is different and why voters should elect her. I found her a bit sheepish (admittedly, it's an awkward situation to be put into and requires big cahones to explicitly say these things) and avoidant of outlining the specific policies which make her a "better" choice than Harmon. I was initially interested in voting for her, but after watching the debate, I sort of had no idea what she actually stood for or what exactly she will bring that will be effective. In Harmon's defense, unfortunately there is little local representatives can do when hands are proverbially tied (in most ways) by court rulings and state laws. For example, we can't just round homeless people up and tell them they can't sleep outdoors or to move on. The 9th circuit made this impossible, and Harmon is working within the framework she has. Even if you don't agree with her, you have to admit that these constraints are going to make it very hard for anyone to effectively address homelessness in SB, regardless of their personal plan to do so. My partner and I were verbally accosted yesterday by a homeless guy on State St. who screamed at us that God had sent him a vision and we were going to die very soon. So trust me, I am as sick of this crap as anyone.

a-1630726686 Sep 03, 2021 08:38 PM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

That's amazing, SB Townie! I did not have that impression at all. I found Harmon arrogant, her campaign smile predictable and her responses what one would expect from a council candidate who's already had more than two years on the council, compared with the other three who've not been there at all. This afternoon on the jammed 101 through SB, I thought of her comments supporting the growth of SB to 150,000 or more, compared with those of Johnson who wanted the size to remain the same and who spoke of involving the community in decisions rather than what seemed to be Harmon's I-know-best-top-down style. I thought it telling that when Jerry asked her how she would grade the present council she said she's "an A student" and so would give herself an A, cleverly lawyer-like way of not answering the question asked but the one she wanted to answer. Johnson, unlike Harmon, a longtime Santa Barbara city resident, was the only one who noted the historic qualities of downtown SB and wanting to keep the height limits of new development within the present 45-48'. I didn't believe for a second Harmon's pledge to not run for another office: her client was herself and she did a capable job but this member of the jury did not buy her sales pitch for herself.

SBTownie Sep 04, 2021 07:31 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

Calling Harmon arrogant is very odd. Even people who have very different politics than her like Rowse find her charming and are friends with her. She's sort of impossible not to like, which I think makes her a very effective politician. (And I did not go into it thinking I would like her.) I agree that I do not want Santa Barbara to grow. CA's population shrunk last year, yet the state mandates we build more housing (I believe it's around 10k units in the next 10 years - absurd). Our Senator and Assemblyman are responsible largely for pushing back against these ridiculous laws coming down from on high. There is little a councilperson can do to oppose them without opening the city up to be sued by the state, which is already happening in many other cities. I suppose you could argue, and I'm not against it, that we should do that. But I also think we CAN build some more housing here or repurpose failing architecture (I've been promoting the Paseo Nuevo housing conversion idea that is gaining traction) for housing. Unfortunately Harmon is right that the constitution means we cannot limit the number of people moving into Santa Barbara. We can't have a law or a guardgate where only those already here are allowed entry as much as we'd all like it. Nina Johnson took her one hardline on this topic (she needs to do this more, because after watching the debate and initially having enthusiasm for her, I still have no idea exactly what she stands for besides "change") and said she'd like to keep the population exactly where it stands. I, and probably most Edhatters, agree with this, but how is that possible given the rulings from on high including the horrifying new bill coming down which will eliminate single family zoning and turn quiet neighborhoods into packed, loud, places. I believe Harmon genuinely wants to concentrate our development downtown - which if we have to have it - is where most locals want to see it go. Unfortunately doing that just got even harder considering the new bills (which by the way state that SFH lots can now turn into fourplexes, but given ADU law, I'm not sure how it can't actually end up being 8 units, or at least 6, which is horrifying). This is a scary time for Santa Barbara and those committed to preserving the parts of it that make it so unique, endearing, and a wonderful place to live. If Johnson wants votes, she needs to explain exactly how she is going to oppose these onerous laws from on high and keep Santa Barbara as it is. Harmon has the upper hand - she's a real estate attorney with a firm grasp on land use - and Johnson would do herself a favor if she started speaking explicitly on important topics and laying out policy she'd promote. Maybe after this first debate she will feel more confident in doing this, otherwise she is going to lose.

Bird Sep 04, 2021 07:59 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

We'll see whether Harmon is an effective politician or not. This is her first election, but, although a relatively new Santa Barbaran, she does have a history of getting what she wants. The one in the city government who IS an effective politician is Cathy Murillo. Politicians and lawyers, including New York-trained ones, are probably about equally liked and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in this election.

Voice of Reason Sep 04, 2021 09:28 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

We don’t need a “politician” on city council, especially one who openly using this as a stepping stone for a run towards higher office. That tells you how she’ll make decisions - what’s going to look good for her next campaign rather than what’s going to do the most go for the people and businesses in her district. Nina, on the other hand, seems to be genuinely interested in delivering real results for her future constituents.

SBTownie Sep 04, 2021 10:29 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

VOR, do you know something I don't? Jerry asked her about this in the debate and she said explicitly she is "all in for Santa Barbara" and (I thought) devoted to the term as councilmember. Nina needs to sharpen her platform with specifics and distinctly spell out exactly what she would do differently from Meagan. The debate did not prohibit them from specifically mentioning other candidates, so she should have done better. I went into the debate thinking I'd want to vote for NJ and came out thinking MH was much stronger. At least with MH I feel like I know exactly what I'm getting. NJ was afraid to disparage MH (like I said, it's an awkward situation) but she could have gained points and distinguished herself if she specifically spoke against votes MH has taken that she would not have voted for.

allears Sep 07, 2021 08:17 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

I agree.
It causes me to think about how Ms. Harmon got here and on the council. Do you recall when Gregg Hart ran for re-election to city council and won and then turned right around and ran for the 2nd Supervisors seat and won - leaving his city council seat vacant for appointment by the council - not an election by the voters? Then - who gets appointed? Ms. Megan Harmon - a new person to Santa Barbara that few of us know! The whole Hart / Harmon gig was a shock - that Mr. Hart would do that and that someone from outside SB would be selected through a controlled appointment process. Appointment is not appropriate for officials who are supposed to be elected by citizens they represent (electeds). This undemocratic process to control power must stop.
And - we need long time locals to be running and influencing Santa Barbara moving forward to preserve our unique qualities and history. New people to town are welcome - but they need to live here and spend a long time learning and getting to know the community before being put in any kind of leadership role.

a-1630766856 Sep 04, 2021 07:47 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

If Harmon thinks adding 50K to the city is a good idea ,vote her out. I’d like to know where they will live and what roads they will be using? Or I supposed everyone in this new SB will be riding bikes , no parking will be needed because no one will own a car. Suddenly SB will have a magical transit system that doesn’t take 45 minutes to go 7 miles. They will be living in 300 square foot apartments that cost 4K a month and hanging their bikes from the ceiling. SB will never be affordable again and that’s including the City owning or subsidizing 20% of the housing. Clean up your existing crap before you add 50K more people.

SBTownie Sep 04, 2021 07:54 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

Did you actually watch this? Harmon did not say she is in favor of adding 50k people. She said the constitution (not to mention other current laws from state, etc.) means we cannot openly limit the number of people moving here. She specifically said she would prefer to see the population stay exactly where it is today. This kind of lazy and crude disinfo is so irredeemable. If you want to disagree with her, disagree with something she actually said. And she specifically said she wanted to focus on housing for people who are ALREADY HERE.

fitz Sep 04, 2021 08:08 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

I am concerned about Harmon's position regarding growth. SB at 150,000? She is no Pearl Chase who never would just acquiesce to State mandates. I don't think Harmon would fight for strong local control. I have seen Harmon come unprepared to a few committee meetings, especially when state housing mandates were being discussed. (Sneddon, representing another district, came to the same meetings armed with pertinent questions and a firm grasp of the issues.)

Johnson is a life long Democrat and a long time resident of SB. Harmon lived in SB less than a year when she put her name in the first time and was appointed by a pretty fractured council. I watched that hearing and was stunned by the council's machinations that resulted in Harmon's shocking appointment. I prefer Johnson's position on growth, more measured and more reflective of the residents of the whole city.

Byzantium Sep 04, 2021 09:02 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

Anyone, like Harmon, who claims we must passively be victims to what "the state" in Sacramento dictates should not be in public office. The "state" is nothing more than the collective voices those we ourselves elect to Sacramento (the state) who in turn craft these ill-founded ideological dictates that they thrust upon us at the local level. We unfortunately have a long history of electing the exact same machine politics that have done this to us, which Harmon is now endorsing to continue This makes her a very unreliable choice. Not guts no glory. Just one more cog in the state's dysfunctional political machine. To change this thing called " the state", voters must those who represent us in Sacramento. This means finally ending the streams of the (D) Hannah-Beth Jacksons, (D) Das Williams, (D) Monique Limons, (D)Michael Bennetts. And now the newly emerging machine politics wannabes like (D) Meaghan Harmon. These people are the ones who collectively become the "state". Harmon inadvertently told us she has no intention to rock the boat, no matter how badly "the state" is serving our city. No wonder Jerry Roberts was wary about Harmon's denial that she has no future political ambitions. We don't need more party machine politicians in this town on the city council level who refuse to stand up to "the state". Harmon just exposed she is not the one for this job.

allears Sep 06, 2021 06:16 PM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

The SB City Hall "spin" of smiles, self-congratulation, and a grade of "A" is disheartening and wishful thinking. If only it were true. Santa Barbara is in need of sweeping changes in attitude and process.
I believe that Nina Johnson has the attitude, ability, passion, and knowledge that Santa Barbara needs right now. I also appreciated Jason Carlton's comments around unions and construction issues.

allears Sep 07, 2021 06:44 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

The moderators should simply ask the questions and monitor the response time. No other commentary is needed or wanted. The listeners can decide what they think of the answers given, and all the candidates should be given the exact same questions to answer as they choose within the 1 minute.

Byzantium Sep 07, 2021 08:54 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

AllEars: It was pretty well known for anyone with an ear to local politics that Gregg Hart would be doing exactly what he did - run for city council once the dust of district elections settled and choosing an easy rotten-borough to win, then ditch this newly elected city council seat in order to move on to the better paid county supervisor seat, but not before dumping that reprehensible Pro-Union city contract demand on city taxpayers, just to curry favor with the unions for his next political run for county supervisor. We do have very closed system of party-politic musical chairs in this town, which voters keep supporting. (D) replaces (D) replaces (D) for what are officially non-partisan offices. For the record, Meaghan Harmon did have to stand for election within the first year of her appointment to city council, as required by law. But since no one chose to run against her, she did get a free pass and never had to face the voters or earn her right to hold this seat. This lack of prior campaigning now works against her now as she only demonstrates a sense of entitlement for this seat; not the necessary civic-minded energy needed in a first campaign foray to earn in an election. Her biggest error however was immediately seeking the position on the Calif Coastal Commission before she had done anything of any substance for the city, let along her own very troubled district. No fan of Das Williams but if anyone had earned the credentials to sit on the Coastal Commission it was Das if it had to be a flame-throwing environmental liberal. Harmon immediately jumping into that race for the Coastal Commissions seat may well be her political undoing. And I think it should be. Another old political truism: pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered. Much like Das in his early days when he had to face defeat after over-reaching too; and became labeled as the young man in a hurry. Voters told him to slow down, And it was good lesson. Term limits sets up these internecine battlegrounds as the state senate seat openings require multiple political career jugglings, among this power hungry crew of younger and not not so young Democrats.

Byzantium Sep 07, 2021 09:01 AM
Six Takeaways from First District 6 City Council Candidate Forum

Noozhawk headline today pretty much says it all, and why playing party politics for our non-partisan offices has led to so much local dysfunction and on-going budget distress. If you vote (D) you do know are voting for giving up local decision making autonomy and handing over decision making to the political demands of this thing called "labor" (city employee unions and public construction industry unions):.......... Noozhawk: "Santa Barbara County Democrats Gather for Annual Labor Day Picnic at Tucker’s Grove.
Speakers blast effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, show support for City Council candidates and organized labor.".......

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