Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz Says She’s ‘All In’ to Seek Santa Barbara Mayoral Seat

By Joshua Molina/Noozhawk Staff Writer
Posted on Jan 30, 2021 in In the News

Originally Published in NoozHawk, January 30, 2021

She says among her top priorities would be to revisit 'the balance of power in government,' including the role of the city administrator.

Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz for Santa Barbara Mayor

Expect changes, from the top down, if Deborah Schwartz is elected mayor of Santa Barbara.

Schwartz, an 11-year planning commissioner, has announced that she will challenge Cathy Murillo on Nov. 2 for the coveted mayor's seat. She has launched her website and has already been raising money and talking to people about her bid.

In an interview with Noozhawk, Schwartz said among her top priorities would be to revisit the power held by the city administrator, Paul Casey.

"There's a cost to the public in having a city employee, a long-standing city employee, you can basically say almost a bureaucrat, but I know that has bad connotations," Schwartz said. "The people who vote in their representatives aren't actually able to have their representatives be as influential in how the city is run as people really expect and want and need them to be."

Santa Barbara has a strong city manager/administrator model. Casey manages the departments directly, as the mayor is largely a symbolic leader. The position holds no formal power separate from the City Council. The council members vote on policy, but Casey is the one who drives the car on a daily basis. The council members have no power over city employees or department heads, other than the ability to hire or fire the city administrator and the city attorney.

"And that's because of the language in the city charter that gives the city administrator outsized authority," Schwartz said. "The kind of power that our city charter has given our city administrator ties the hands of the people's representatives."

It would take a vote of the people to change the city charter.

"I would talk to my colleagues candidly," Schwartz said. "I think we need to revisit — this may sound a bit shocking — but I think it is time for us to revisit the balance of power in government. I think we have seen enough to know that we may need to revisit."

It's one of the talking points for Schwartz and her bid to unseat Murillo, who is running for a second term. Schwartz is running as a moderate Democrat, with support from the business community, and deep knowledge of planning issues. She has a computer-like memory, a thirst for detail and minutiae, and a bold personality, all traits that she believes will land her in the mayor's seat come November.

Murillo is running for re-election. After a rocky 2020, when she faced criticism from Black Lives Matter: Healing Justice members as well as the business and development community, Murillo is looking to turn the ship back in her direction.

In addition to Schwartz, James Joyce, a longtime district director for former state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and founder of Coffee with a Black Guy, is expected to announce his candidacy soon. More candidates are expected to join the crowded field.

Schwartz said she isn't concerned about who else is running. She said she's "all in."

As mayor, Schwartz said she would facilitate open communication and attempt to bring a sense of unity to the board.

"There needs to be time, and an allowance for everyone to express their views, and then you start to put together common denominators," Schwartz said.

The current council often experiences conflict and a lack of cohesion. In the past, and certainly under former Mayor Helene Schneider, the mayor attempted to unite the panel and at least present an outward appearance of cohesion when tackling complex issues. It is not uncommon for the current members of the council to occasionally jab at one another in public, or even criticize how the mayor runs the meeting.

Schwartz said she also wants to de-politicize the position.

"The City Council, including the mayor's seat, has become too political," Schwartz said. "Politics is always there, we know it, but for policymaking, which affects people's lives, it is really important that we try to tamp down and leave at the door personal politics, party politics to do the people's work."

She said politics is "invading the mayor's seat."

Schwartz said she wants to have open communication in the mayor's seat, create a citywide economic development plan, provide balanced housing priorities, be an advocate for businesses, create a strategic plan for addressing homelessness and preserve historic resources.

Schwartz's roots in politics run deep. Her mother, Naomi Schwartz, served as First District Santa Barbara County supervisor. Schwartz has served on the planning commission for 11 years. She also ran unsuccessfully for the Santa Barbara City Council in 2011.

Schwartz plans to hold a listening tour to understand each neighborhood and what they want for the city.

"We're in a scary time," Schwartz said. "I think that makes it a different political landscape. This is not the usual election year for the city. And it's not just about the current mayor. It's about the impact of economic upheaval on everybody's lives. And I think it has caused a lot of people — young people, seniors, middle age, retirees — to say, 'What do I want and what do I expect from local government?'"

Schwartz believes she has the answers.

"I know this whole city," Schwartz said. "Being a planning commissioner for this period of time, policies, projects, working with people from across the city, I feel like I have one of the best perspectives on the whole city."