And supervisor backs ExxonMobil permit, sees pendulum swinging back to being tougher on crime
Editor’s note: This is part of a series on candidates in advance of the June 7 primary.
Steve Lavagnino, who’s running unopposed for re-election for 5th District supervisor in the June 7 primary, is proud of what the Board of Supervisors has achieved in Santa Barbara County.
That includes, according to Mr. Lavagnino, replacing political theater with something better.
“What I am most proud of is getting our board to work together instead of as adversaries,” Mr. Lavagnino told the News-Press. “The history of the board was fighting and name calling. It was political theater.
“Supervisors from the South and North County fought against each other,” said Mr. Lavagnino, whose North County district includes part of Santa Maria “Unfortunately I blame both sides. There are constituents to this day that would rather see us fight than get something done.
“What I have tried to do is build relationships so that the constituents actually benefit. To do that, people have to compromise,” he said. “Now the five of us work as a team to benefit the constituents of Santa Barbara County. We don’t keep score anymore. We work as a team. We all work together on the same side.
“When we disagree, we do it in an agreeable manner,” said Mr. Lavagnino, who, along with Supervisor Bob Nelson, voted for the ExxonMobil trucking permit that the board rejected 3-2. “We have done this in an era where the divide of politics has gotten increasingly worse. The castigation of the other side as evil. We try to find the best possible solution that benefits the most people in the county.”
Mr. Lavagnino, whose North County district includes part of Santa Maria, is running unopposed for the third time. He has not been opposed for the seat since his first race in 2010 when he ran for an open seat against Alice Patino, who is now the mayor of Santa Maria.
As district supervisor, Mr. Lavagnino is responsible to about 85,000 constituents. He sits on several boards, including those for the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. He’s on the county Board of Retirement, which manages a $4.1 billion fund.
Additionally, his job involves hearing from constituents about items they are concerned about, which includes everything from mental health to homelessness. “It’s something new everyday. and that is something that makes the job exciting to me,” Mr. Lavagnino told the News-Press.
“One of the things I am most satisfied about is getting the county in much better financial shape than we ever have been. This is our fourth year in a row with no service level reductions, which means there were no layoffs or service reductions,” said Mr. Lavagnino.
“One thing I am proud of is building the North County jail. That was an idea people knew we needed for 20-30 years, but no one could figure out how to do it,” he said. “I’m proud we were able to pull it off. We had to be disciplined to stick to a funding plan that started seven years before the jail opened.
“The state funded 90% of construction costs, but it costs about $20 million annually to operate,” Mr. Lavignino said. “We created a plan to set aside money out of the annual budget for funding. Now we have a state-of-the-art facility in Santa Maria that sits in stark contrast to the jail in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara jail is an antiquated jail built 60 years ago that has a lot of problems and issues with it.”
The News-Press asked Mr. Lavagnino about his goals for the next term.
“I was an architect of the cannabis ordinance, and I will continue to look at what’s working and what’s not,” he said. “We did our best to write an ordinance to make it work. We are continuing to fine tune the ordinance, limiting the impact that it has on the neighbors of cultivation sites, while maximizing the revenue it generates.”
“We are going through a mental health crisis in the county with the youth and homeless,” Mr. Lavagnino said.
He described a new program called “Co-Response.”
“When there is an issue. we send a mental health professional and a sheriff deputy…We are trying to figure out better ways to deal with this person going through this type of crisis,” Mr. Lavagnino said.
He plans to try to find new ways to address the homelessness problem in his next term.
“If there was an easy fix, it would have already been done,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m going to solve the problem because I know that’s not going to happen. I want to leave my job having improved the issue.”
The News-Press asked Mr. Lavagnino why he voted in favor of the ExxonMobil trucking permit, which the board denied 3-2.
“I know folks in Santa Barbara and South County don’t want to hear this but the reality is, we still use oil,” Mr. Lavagnino said.
“I am totally in favor and am pushing hard for green, renewable energy. I’m all about moving towards green technology,” he said. “But the reality is we still have a transition period we need to get through. If you are going to use oil, we have to get it from somewhere …
“I know people hide behind the shroud of environmentalism to be anti-oil. I don’t see how it’s environmentally friendly to have it drilled in another country and have it shipped here. It’s false environmentalism,” said Mr. Lavagnino. “People don’t want to see it because they’ll feel better about it. If people want to make the huge leap and go fossil fuel-free, I support that, but I don’t see anybody doing that or making that sacrifice. We have a society that wants the benefits of oil but doesn’t want to deal with the production of it.”
“If we don’t get it from Exxon, is it environmentally superior to ship it on a barge? Close to 40% of pollution is from offshore marine vessels,” Mr. Lavagnino said. “Exxon was willing to jump through a lot of hoops, and the permit was still denied. I’m not sure they could have come up with a plan that would have passed in our county due to political reasons.”
Mr. Lavagnino talked about the regulation of cannabis in the county.
“Well,l it’s really interesting, it’s hard to believe it’s been four years since we passed the ordinance,” he said. “What we have really come down to is the only thing people are upset with is the smell. We instituted a cap for cultivation. We made it so it’s a a certain size: 1,500 acres. It’s miniscule in comparison to the size of the county. The people voted strongly in favor at 61%. My job is to figure out how to implement it. It has created revenue for the county.”
“This coincides with the four years of no layoffs or services and reductions, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As you get rid of the oil revenue, you have to have something to replace it, and that was cannabis,” Mr. Lavagnino said.
And he noted the county needs revenue to address issues such as homelessness and mental health.
Mr. Lavagnino also addressed the management of law enforcement in the county. “The sheriff is an independent elected official,” Mr. Lavagnino noted. “While we control his budget, he controls how he spends it. He’s charged with answering to the people on that.
“There is a statewide move to reduce incarceration rates,” Mr. Lavagnino said, explaining it’s counterproductive to lock people up for nonviolent, minor offenses.
“But I think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of soft on crime,” he added, noting the community is tired of acts of shoplifting and vandalism.
“What I see is people getting fed up with crime, and it will cause another swing back,” Mr. Lavagnino said. “There has to be a balance in between where we figure out a way to deal with the criminal element. The criminals are the only ones that haven’t bought into the rehabilitation system yet.”
And Mr. Lavagnino addressed the county’s handling of COVID-19. He said he believes Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county public health officer, and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county public health director, made decisions based on what they thought was the community’s best health option. “At the end of the day I supported them, and it was something that I hope we never have to live through again.”
Mr. Lavagnino also expressed his gratitude to the people of his district. “I might not get everything right, but I’m trying hard and I listen to everybody.
“I am proud that the board serves in a nonpartisan manner, and I am proud to have served with everyone on the board.”