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Santa Barbarans seem to like government

That's one way to interpret the fact that 40 people are vying for one City Council seat.

December 07, 2010|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Santa Barbara — Americans may be viewing government with deep distrust, but that hasn't stopped dozens of Santa Barbara residents from scrambling to fill a vacant seat on the City Council.

With one member — Das Williams — leaving to serve in the state Assembly, the council plans Tuesday night to publicly interview all 40 applicants who hope to replace him. On a statewide level, that would be the equivalent of more than 1,500 people running for governor.

Santa Barbara City Council: An article in the Dec. 7 LATExtra section on the applicants for a council seat misattributed a statement made at a candidates forum. It was Dr. Beverly Brott, not Sharon Byrne, who cited the beating death of a Syrian immigrant and an assault on the owner of a Chinese restaurant as recent examples of criminal activity in the city. —

The massive wave of interest in filling out the final year of Williams' term surprised officials.

"I'm quite pleased with it in some ways," Mayor Helene Schneider said. "It's a symbol that Santa Barbara is very engaged."

Some of the candidates were less complimentary, saying that they were frustrated with a polarized council that hasn't done enough to deal with homelessness and gang violence.

At a forum Sunday, 22 of the candidates made their case.

One told of being threatened by a homeless man sleeping in his business' rear entryway, and others suggested that homeless people are "dumped" in Santa Barbara by agencies elsewhere. At least 31 homeless people have died in the city this year — the most recent from apparent hypothermia.

"You look on the street and it seems worse than it's been," said former council member and current candidate Keith Coffman-Grey. "It's a crime," he said, that so many have died.

Sharon Byrne, an anti-crime activist, cited the recent fatal beating, allegedly by four gang members, of a Syrian immigrant on his way home from work and an assault on a Chinese restaurant owner at her business.

Last month, Byrne led a street march in protest, telling a crowd: "We have had it up to here with 'Let's hug a gangbanger, open another pot dispensary and adopt another homeless person!' "

Many of the candidates boast resumes dotted with civic leadership positions. Former Mayor Sheila Lodge, former council members Brian Barnwell and Gerry DeWitt, two planning commissioners, two physicians, and a number of attorneys, former candidates and neighborhood activists all are vying for the job, which pays $36,000 yearly.

Others would be new to public office. Richard Goodfriend, founder of World Empathy Day, said Sunday that he could help "bring healing" to the fractious council, which is split down the middle on the issue of allowing lower-cost, denser rental housing in the city's downtown.

On his written application, Robert Burke did not take the path of other candidates who described themselves as consensus-seekers and bridge-builders. His entire statement was a Zen-like verse:

We grow beyond insurmountable challenges./We walk through impenetrable barriers./We surrender to incomprehensible serenity.

At Tuesday's public interview, each candidate will have four minutes to make a pitch and may field a question or two from the council. A decision is due Dec. 14. If the council vote is tied, the City Charter does not mandate an appointment, Schneider said.

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