District 3 Candidates Go Toe-to-Toe in Debate

The Election Games Begin in Race to Represent the Westside

From left to right: Oscar Gutierrez, Elizabeth Hunter, Ken Rivas, and Michael Vidal

Paul Wellman

From left to right: Oscar Gutierrez, Elizabeth Hunter, Ken Rivas, and Michael Vidal

A healthy mix of six dozen curious Westside residents and seasoned City Hall insiders attended a District 3 debate Tuesday evening hosted by the League of Women Voters in the Harding Elementary School cafeteria. Candidates Oscar Gutierrez, Michael Vidal, Ken Rivas, and Elizabeth Hunter (pictured above) fielded questions on how they would balance the interests of District 3 with the rest of the city, how they would help Santa Barbara confront the effects of climate change, what they would do to protect students from school shootings, and what ideas they had for balancing City Hall’s budget as well as improving parking and street lighting on the Westside.

As a financial planner, Vidal pounced on the budget question. While Santa Barbara is in relatively decent shape, he acknowledged, its leaders often obfuscate a grim truth ​— ​the city’s $350 million budget is weighed down by nearly a billion dollars in unfunded pension liability and deferred infrastructure maintenance. “It’s financial malpractice where I’m from to have this much liability and say we’re doing great,” he said. On the subject of revitalizing State Street, Vidal said it’s unfair to lay the blame of downtown’s problems on homeless people. He called them an easy scapegoat for bigger problems in commercial real estate, noting few homeless people panhandle at La Cumbre Plaza but that the shopping center still struggles to fill its vacant storefronts. And on the topic of protecting students from violence, Vidal called for stricter firearm regulations, not armed teachers. “Teachers need pencils, pens, and paper,” he said, “but they don’t need guns.”

Gutierrez stressed his lifelong ties to the neighborhood. “I learned to walk on these streets,” he intoned. “I learned how to ride a bike on these streets. I learned to drive on these streets. I learned how to fight on these streets.” Gutierrez sought to contrast himself with Vidal ​— ​polished and measured in his delivery ​— ​as the race’s two front-runners. “I might not be a smooth talker, but I am a doer,” Gutierrez said, promising to always make himself available to constituents. He also vowed to fight for environmental protections, reshape the city’s AUD (Average Unit-Size Density) program, and strive to create more affordable housing for the city’s workforce and first responders, many of whom live in Ventura and struggled to reach Montecito after Highway 101 was flooded. “That was a wakeup call,” he said.

In his responses, Rivas emphasized his experience in community activism and close connections with his neighbors. With regard to the Westside’s parking problems, he suggested a permitting program might be part of the solution. The AUD incentive program was a fine idea, he said, but the rental housing it’s created is out of reach for most residents. “Affordable to who?” he asked. If elected, Rivas said he would ensure city spending served “the needs of the community,” and as a longtime campus security officer, he would ensure schools trained for active shooter situations. “I’m the most qualified for that,” he said.

Hunter was similarly adamant about keeping guns out of schools, suggesting adults follow the lead of Parkland student activists and pressure federal regulators to take action. “We need to let the politicians know that our voice won’t be drowned out by NRA lobbyists,” she said. As a member of the council, Hunter pledged to improve street lighting and therefore public safety, focus on regional environmental protections, and permit the development of medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries as steady providers of city tax revenue.

The vote-by-mail election takes place June 5. The winner will take the council seat left open when Cathy Murillo was elected mayor last November, and they’ll serve an 18-month term until the 2019 general election. So far, Gutierrez ​— ​who secured the endorsement of the Democratic Central Committee, with all its financial and people power ​— ​leads the pack in campaign contributions with $14,700. His donors include Murillo ($5,000), Councilmember Gregg Hart ($2,000), and Alex Mack ($1,500), a star NFL center and longtime friend. Vidal has taken in just over $6,500, with $1,000 contributions from Jim and Sharon Westby ​— ​regular boosters of business-friendly candidates ​— ​and $500 from Theo Kracke, the owner of a short-term vacation-rental company. Rivas has received $50, and Hunter hasn’t reported raising any money.