By CHRISTIAN WHITTLE
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
In a fledgling race that has already become dominated by the issue of cannabis, candidates for 1st District Supervisor Laura Capps and Das Williams shifted focus to other policy issues Thursday night in a Q&A forum, where they aired views on housing, climate policy, campaign finance and more.
The event was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara, with each candidate having 90 seconds to answer questions from the League and the audience. The League stressed that the event was not a debate and candidates should refrain from making negative comments about each other and instead speak to their own qualifications.
Nevertheless, there was plenty of back and forth.
Ms. Capps, who went off to Washington D.C. for a career working for the Clinton White House, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore, said that she always knew she wanted to return to the 1st District.
“I know the 1st District, and I don’t believe that things have ever been more challenging here,” said Ms. Capps, citing poverty and the climate.
Offering the example of the crime and dangers of Ancient Rome compared to modern times, Mr. Williams argued that modern governments, whose purpose is public safety, is proof that things have gotten better and went on to explain the ways that the 1st District fulfills that purpose.
“We have the largest fire department in the county. The county provides the largest number of engine companies or fire protection in all incidents, whether or not you’re in the unincorporated zone. We fund the Sheriff’s Department, including the jail, which is one of the most expensive components,” said Mr. Williams
The forum began with questions on climate and emergency preparedness, but the conversation quickly turned to cannabis, although it did not hijack the rest of the event. The questions addressed recent updates, like the recent decision by the County Board of Supervisors to use a merit-based system for cannabis retail storefront permits in the county. The League asked how the candidates would develop the system.
Ms. Capps said the impact on the district’s children should be the highest priority, and that the storefronts should be regulated similar to liquor stores, with significant input from the communities affected.
“I think it’s really important for a new industry that’s starting to not just sort of ‘ready, fire, aim’ and let’s just push stuff in and have everyone else adapt to it. Let’s actually ask what people want. Let’s listen. Let’s do community meetings that are actually well publicized and people know about them,” said Ms. Capps.
Mr. Williams responded that the process does include community input and the criteria for retail is dictated by the interests and benefit of the affected community, which led to the question of campaign contributions and money in politics.
“Counties like ours are not living up to what we should be doing,” said Ms. Capps. “We have no campaign finance limits in this county. I just need to say that again. When I’m at these house parties, people have no idea that you could literally write a check for a million dollars. There’s too much money in our county system, in our city system.”
Mr. Williams said he would be relieved to secure limits on campaign contributions, but said the problem would not go away as long as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is upheld and that public financing of campaigns is a better solution.
“You will not be able to get rid of money in politics because then you just hand over… a large campaign can then just do independent expenditures for or against candidates and they can do as much as they want because of Citizens United,” said Mr. Williams.
Ms. Capps argued that money in politics, specifically from the marijuana lobby, had put the county behind the curve on issues like homelessness, public lands and emergency preparedness.
“I want to raise the leadership, raise the urgency around (emergency preparedness), have more time spent by the board of supervisors on these plans, more funding spent, because we know that it is an investment to our future,” said Ms. Capps.
“Well if it’s purely based on dollars being spent, then we, the county, has the greatest leadership in public safety that has happened in your lifetime, because the amount that we are spending, increased spending in order to assure a greater resilience on flood control, and a greater resilience on our public safety network, is more that has happened any time in the last 30 years,” replied Mr. Williams.
The audience, who submitted questions during an intermission, was most concerned with the issue of homelessness in the county. They asked the candidates how they intended to meet the county’s need for affordable housing, for employee housing and where in the district housing could be developed.
Poverty was the driving force behind the housing crisis, according to Ms. Capps, who said Santa Barbara County has the second highest rate of poverty in the state. Her suggestion is to look around the country at ways that other local governments have dealt with rising housing costs.
“We don’t have to figure out all the answers right here. It’s very much my approach to governing and to my professional life; let’s not feel we have to come up with all the answers ourselves. Let’s harness innovation for the county,” said Ms. Capps.
Quality of life has become a double edged sword in the view of Mr. Williams, who sees rising housing prices as the driving factor of the crisis rather than poverty rates. In attempting to reduce traffic by limiting development in Santa Barbara, the county has now increased traffic due to the lack of affordable housing near the city and places of business, said Mr. Williams.
“The principles of good planning really are simple: we need housing closer to the jobs, and that does mean, often, in the most urbanized areas, parts of the district, but occasionally there are opportunities close to jobs and close to services or close to schools in an unincorporated area,” said Mr. Williams.
As county, state, and federal races continue into 2020, locals will have more opportunities to hear from various candidates at forums hosted by the League of Women Voters.
At 6 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the Carpinteria City Hall, the League will host a forum for the seven candidates running for California’s 37th District State Assembly Seat.
At 6 p.m. on Feb. 6 at the Goleta Valley Community Center, the League will host candidates for District 3 Supervisor, Joan Hartmann and Karen Jones.
Visit my.lwv.org/california/santa-barbara for more information.