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Mental Health – Into the Vortex

Column by By Sharon Byrne, as featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in May in Isla Vista. Nicolas Holzer murdered his parents and two young sons in August. Severely mentally ill individuals wander Santa Barbara streets, sometimes shouting loudly at passersby. One could start wondering if we’ve become the next Waco around here, and not be thought mad.

Prop 63, the Mental Health Services Act, passed in 2004, was supposed to deal with the most acutely mentally ill. The MHSA has come under fire from critics charging that it’s been a boondoggle for mental health insiders. Instead of funding critical care for the acutely mentally ill, critics contend it’s been used to fund conferences and glossy brochures. Counties get to propose the programs they will offer under MHSA, some critics say, and many don’t want to take on these difficult cases. So they don’t, leaving a huge gap in services for those most in need of mental health care.

The State Auditor’s office audited the MHSA in August of 2013, covering 2006-2011, when almost $7.4 billion was spent on mental health through Prop 63. The audit found that each county was using different approaches, and that the state’s entities “have provided little oversight of county implementation of MHSA programs and their effectiveness. We expected that Mental Health and the Accountability Commission would have used a process to monitor, guide, and evaluate county implementation that built on their broad and specific MHSA oversight responsibilities and also incorporated best practices in doing so, but that is not what we found.”

Law enforcement is often the first point of contact in these cases. Our sheriff, Bill Brown, perhaps more than anyone else in our county, has been on the frontlines on mental health issues recently.

Sheriff Brown also serves on the Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission. He says Prop 63 “is a great tool to try to bridge the gap from the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1970’s”, and feels some of the funds go to good programs. He listed the Mental Health Association of Long Beach as an example. They are a “one-stop shop: mentally ill individuals can do laundry, get medical services, bank, get vocational assistance – it’s very impressive, with a lot of partners working together to make it work, including the police department. Additionally, they have a strong peer-counseling element available, working with mental health professionals to address mental illness. This is particularly helpful with the homeless because the peer counselor might have navigated that system and can help more than a professional with a degree on the wall, but who might not be able to relate to that world as well.”

The oversight commission reviews and approves requests for funding, and ‘some of those are hard, particularly when services are really remote from the folks needing them’, Brown said, citing the concern of more rural counties. There has long been a movement in government funding to allow programs to be driven by the local needs. This is the case for mental health as well. But the problem arises when Kern County has a particularly robust set of programs, while another county’s might be lagging.

Brown is hard at work building the new jail, and mental health is very much on his mind. “Jails have become the de-facto mental institutions for communities because there’s often nowhere else. PHF (the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility) has 16 beds, far too few for a county our size, and we end up having to take people out of county. People in crisis don’t have resources, commit some kind of crime, and end up in jail. The new jail is being designed in such a way that there’s a health wing being custom designed as a better way for us to manage people who have severe mental illness.’ Brown was quick to note this wouldn’t be a mental health hospital. But jails now clearly need to have some ability to deal with the mentally ill that wind up in their facilities, bringing up the key question of why Prop 63 isn’t addressing more of those cases.

Psychology and psychiatry are relatively juvenile sciences, when compared to, say, physics and chemistry. Newton’s achievements in the 17th century led to us putting a man on the moon. In contrast, Freud and Jung achieved their breakthroughs a little more than a century ago. The dark days of female hysteria, forced institutionalization and lobotomies to create more compliant housewives are still fairly recent history. Pharma-psychology is all the rage now – there’s a pill for that, whatever ailment that is.

We’re just still pretty new at treating mental illness.

Brown also worries that recent high profile instances make mentally ill individuals seem dangerous, and violent, when this is the exception, rather than the norm. “It’s unfortunate we had two back-to-back like this, here, but most mentally ill people do not commit violent crime. These instances do drive home the point that we need to be collectively behind getting people treatment, to help them and the rest of the community.”

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Turning Trashcans into Art? Yes We Can! on Milpas

Milpas on the Move, by Sharon Byrne

When you’re working on urban revitalization, you often hit those pesky problems for which traditional answers just don’t work. In a town of lovely stucco white walls, mandated for a continuity of never-ending Mission Revival rooftops, graffiti is a persistent plague. Apparently, vandals see those lovely white walls not so much as planning standards, but as wonderful canvasses, just waiting to be splattered.

blighted can on Milpas

blighted can on Milpas

We’ve hit that same problem with our public trash cans. They just seem to be blight magnets, darn it.

Even more vexing is the trash we find scattered along the sidewalks, often achingly close to the trash bins. We have some great block captains on Milpas that make it a point to get out there and pick up trash. We even have a homeless guy that does it. Mental note to pay that guy…

But the majority of the problem is sandwiched between Haley and Canon Perdido, which also happens to be the major corridor for the junior high and high school kids. Little wonder then that what we find on the sidewalks is candy wrappers, empty potato chip packages, and the like.

So we’re taking a creative approach here on Milpas, and are asking the city to let us do something kinda’ crazy cool: how about we get our area kids to do artwork on themes around a healthy, clean community? How about we buy them art supplies to do it? And when they produce that art, what if we photograph it or scan it at high resolution, enlarge it, and print it to vinyl banner that fits the circumference and height of the cans? And how about we do all that, on our nickel as a community, at no cost to the city? Replacing those cans is darned expensive, up to $2,000 per can. With 42 of them on Milpas, that’s a hefty bill, right? So why not let the community step up to address the problem, and provide a solution?

We’d fix our littering problem with positive messaging, on the cans, by youth, for youth. We’d give Milpas an instant facelift. We’d turn our street into an instant art gallery for all the great art programs for kids in this community, and there are some serious rock stars on that front.

So we asked the neighborhood, what do you think? Should we do it? The answer was resoundingly YES! So we got right on it.

We’ve been pretty cautious in our approach, because we’re not a bunch of artists. We’re neighborhood folks, businesses and residents, looking to make improvements here. We expected to learn things on the journey.

We approached Casa de la Raza about doing a prototype for us, and they were totally enthused to produce the first wave of art through their summer youth program.

asa de la Raza youth team producing yes we can! Prototype art

Casa de la Raza youth team producing yes we can! Prototype

Stellar volunteer Ben Stafford photographed their art, at high resolution, and assembled it into a banner using photoshop.


Ben photographs the art for the prototype

Here’s the prototype proof before printing:


Then it was time to print and test the prototype on the cans. Pretty good!

MCA Board Member Paul Gifford tests the prototype on a Milpas trash can

MCA Board Member Paul Gifford tests the prototype on a Milpas
trash can

We’ve had terrific support and advice from Ginny Brush of the County Arts Commission, and they provided one of the grants for this project. Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara is producing the first round of art for the cans. Franklin Elementary ICAN, the Visual Arts and Design Academy at the high school, the Jr. High arts program, and Adalente will also be tapped for art. Businesses are getting excited about the project. The city is working out the details with us of how we mount the banners on the cans, maintain them, and replace if needed, as it is a temporary art project.

Now it’s time to present it before the Architectural Board of Review, and hope they say yes to the Yes We Can! turn our trashcans into art project. Here’s hoping!

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Through a Door Darkly…California’s Con Game of Mental Health

Part II: The Bait and Switch
By Sharon Byrne

It can happen to you.
It can happen to me.
It can happen to everyone eventually.
There’s a crazy world outside
We’re not about to lose our pride.
It Can Happen. Written by Yes, Released on the album 90125 in 1983.

Untreated mental illness is the leading cause of disability and suicide and imposes high costs on state and local government . . . . State and county governments are forced to pay billions of dollars each year in emergency medical care, long-term nursing home care, unemployment, housing, and law enforcement, including juvenile justice, jail and prison costs.” From the California Mental Health Services Act, passed in 2004.

Prop 63 Logo TransparentA decade after the Mental Health Services Act’s passage, I saw a homeless man wandering my street, screaming to no one about media lies. I walked my dog that night with a neighbor. As we passed by Chapala One, I saw this same homeless fellow sleeping in the garage entry. He raised his head as my dog approached him. He was intoxicated. My dog accepted a pat on the head and moved on to resume processing the evening’s peemails.

I wondered again why this man was in my neighborhood, obviously in need of mental health assistance. And what should I do? For the second time that day I questioned whether I should call the police. The guy is trespassing, and I am pretty big on the neighborhood watch thing.

But what’s this going to accomplish, really? What would the police do with him? Cite and release? Book him into jail? Relocate him to some other neighborhood?

None of those are a solution.

From the Mental Health Services Act:

(d)In a cost cutting move 30 years ago, California drastically cut back its services in state hospitals for people with severe mental illness. Thousands ended up on the streets homeless and incapable of caring for themselves. Today thousands of suffering people remain on our streets because they are afflicted with untreated severe mental illness. We can and should offer these people the care they need to lead more productive lives.
(e)With effective treatment and support, recovery from mental illness is feasible for most people.
(f)By expanding programs that have demonstrated their effectiveness, California can save lives and money. Early diagnosis and adequate treatment provided in an integrated service system is very effective; and by preventing disability, it also saves money. Cutting mental health services wastes lives and costs more. California can do a better job saving lives and saving money by making a firm commitment to providing timely, adequate mental health services.

Sounds good, doesn’t? The voters in 2004 thought so too….

So if we have the ability to provide ‘timely, adequate mental health services’ from taxing millionaires in this state, then why is that homeless man shouting the odds in my street, clearly in need of mental health services?

The act provides for oversight with a committee comprised of 16 individuals including a small business rep, large business, county sheriff, labor union, 2 persons with severe mental illness, a mental health professional, a school superintendent, a physician specializing in alcohol and drug treatment, and a rep with a heath services insurer.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown sits on this oversight committee.

In 2009 Rose King, an author of the original act, filed a complaint against the state Department of Mental Health. Moving far away from the promise of acute mental health care, MHSA spending was turning into a boondoggle for mental health service providers. King says, ‘They produce films, PSA’s, fund lots of conferences, and distribute grants to every interest group, which succeeded in getting them all on board with program: NAMI CA, Children and Family Advocates, Mental Health Associations, of course. And they all conduct conferences, trainings, promotional campaigns, etc. Lots of money spent on “planning.”

Services to be provided under the MHSA are at the counties’ discretion to plan and execute. The state’s Department of Mental Health (Mental Health) and the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (Accountability Commission) were supposed to provide oversight and direction of county implementations of the MHSA. So how did counties move from funding acute mental health to putting on conferences and de-stigmatization campaigns?

The act was further weakened legislatively. On March 24, 2011, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 100 (AB 100) into law. Changes to the MHSA included the elimination of review and approval of county MHSA plans by the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the MHSOAC. So there went oversight. Open season! Come all takers!

The Department of Mental Health was then eliminated by Governor Brown as part of his budget reforms in 2012-2013. Their services were transferred to other departments, mainly the Department of Health Care Services.

We’re still collecting money for Prop 63. Oversight has been weakened. So who’s in charge, and where is all the money going?

The answer in Part III.

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Sal’s Pizza: An American Story on the Eastside

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne, featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

salIf you’re looking to try some authentic Italian pizza with terrific ingredients, stop in and see Sal. Across from the iconic cow on Milpas, Sal’s is celebrating 10 years in business. “It’s been a roller coaster at times, but you have to roll with the changes,” Sal grins. As the only Italian eatery on Milpas’ Eat Street, he is sitting quite comfortably in his own niche.

Sal arrived in Santa Barbara 28 years ago from Mexico. He’s a Salvador, but acts more like a Salvatore. Various cooking jobs brought him into contact with an Italian chef in Montecito, where Sal discovered a love of Italian food, and found his inner genius. Mexican guy becomes American and cooks Italian – a truly American story.

One of the lures of Sal’s is the array of fresh ingredients at the disposal of the modern pizza constructionist: fresh basil, roasted red pepper, eggplant, artichoke hearts, and gorgonzola, to name a few. Crusts are thin, the Italian way. “Thick crusts tend to bland out the pizza,” says Sal. “You want to taste the full flavor of the pizza, so keep it thin.”

For those that have spent time in the Northeastern US, the Pizza Bianca will be a welcome treat. Known as White Pizza from Boston to New Jersey, it’s made with Alfredo sauce. Sal’s Alfredo recipe was recently featured in Pizza Today, a pizza industry magazine.

sal2An Italian exchange student came in with a Swede once. Sal sees quite a bit of the international student traffic. The Swede asked the Italian, ‘what are you doing? You’re from Italy! Why eat here?’ The Italian said wistfully, “I am far from home. I just want to taste something like it.” He told Sal afterward that it was the best Italian pizza he’d had in Santa Barbara, and was quite close to what he ate in his small Italian hometown. Sal also sees a lot of English tourists (!). Apparently they tell each other where to go and what to eat when visiting Santa Barbara, and Sal’s is clearly on their hot list.

Popular dishes may raise some eyebrows, like the Cajun Chicken Fettuccini. Who doesn’t like a little Nawlin’s in your Italian, and more of that unique American penchant for mixing it all up in one big melting pot?

Sal has a reputation for being one of the nicest guys on Milpas. He’s long been involved in our community activities, and iss a strong supporter of efforts to revitalize the area. Like most of the Milpas merchants, he loves kids. Munching on one of his fabulous pies one day, I asked him about it. He’s got three wonderful kids and a wife helping in the business – it’s a true family enterprise. But why step up so much for the neighborhood?

He smiled as his eyes twinkled. “We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in coming together as a community. How could I resist?”

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Through a Door Darkly…California’s Con Game of Mental Health

Part I: Heard on the Street
By Sharon Byrne

I heard a man shouting the odds outside my bedroom window Tuesday morning.

Living close to the bar zone vibrant Night Life District, one gets attuned to noise on the street. It’s the noises that don’t belong that warrant investigation. These can turn out to be drunken carousing, domestic arguments that have moved outdoors, gang fights, etc.

Our man in the street was screaming about TV – don’t watch it! Don’t listen to the radio! Don’t read the news! It’s all lies and propaganda!

There are days when this view sadly approaches truth. But it’s one thing to question whether media outlets truly provide anything objective anymore in the way of news reporting, and another altogether to preach it wildly in the street to a silent choir of sidewalks, barrier fences, and trash bins.

He was disheveled, dirty, eyes darting back and forth, lips curled. Not. Tethered. To. Reality.

I wondered if I should call 911. But what can they do? Yeah, he’s disturbing the peace, but he’s clearly mentally ill. They can remove him from the neighborhood…but to where? Jail? That’s no answer. Ask Rodger Dodge of the Scanner Report – lots of 5150 calls come in daily. But last I checked, the police aren’t mental health workers. It’s really not their purview.

Except that increasingly, in California, it is. There are reams of news stories and studies declaring that within the ranks of the homeless, a significantly large number are mentally ill. Many of us have had the experience of encountering someone homeless nattering to themselves, gesticulating wildly. If you haven’t…well, you must not get out much.

Citizens and police get the first contact, and we’re little equipped to deal with them.

On the Milpas Outreach Project, where we’re working to help chronically homeless individuals leave life on the street, some team members felt strongly that a couple of our cases were seriously mentally ill. It seems intuitive – if you’ve become an addict living on the street, you might not have had the greatest mental health to start with. It’s probably gotten worse through addiction. But surprisingly, or maybe not, when one of them completely sobered, his repeat drunken violence dwindled to a small anger management issue. Alcoholism had acted as a massive amplifier for a very manageable mental health problem.

Advocates have been ratcheting up the call for mental health spending in this state, but maybe what we need is more funding to the counties for drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment. That could help make acute mental health issues associated with homelessness more manageable in each locality, where the problem is experienced.

Speaking of locality, back to our man in the street: so what should you do in a situation like this? Drunk or not, the guy is clearly not in a state where he’s functioning well. Why don’t we have something for people like this?

Prop 63 Logo TransparentTurns out we do. Thanks to those helpful online commenters who keep pointing me to Prop 63 – that was supposed to help with these problems.

The good people of California passed Prop 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), in 2004. This tax on the wealthiest 0.1% of California taxpayers, about 30,000 people, is one of only four tax increase initiatives passed in this state. If you are one of these high earners, you pay an additional 1% tax on every dollar you make over the $1 million mark annually into the MHSA, billed as the way to transform California’s public mental health system, with a focus on promoting recovery-oriented programs. Some of the funds were supposed to go to providing direct services to severely mentally ill individuals, and provide new approaches and access to underserved communities. So here’s the help for our man on the street, right?

Er, no. A decade after passage, the state has raked in billions for mental health…and we still have seriously mentally ill homeless people wandering about, unable to get help. Our county’s ADMHS department recently had a rather large…pardon the pun….breakdown. Our sheriff is trying to allocate a wing of the new jail to deal with the fact we have a measly 16 beds in the entire county for acute mental health care. The police have little choice but to book serious cases into jail for a few days or hours to prevent them from being a danger to themselves or others. If we’re going to keep incarcerating the mentally ill, Sheriff Brown wants to at least try to plan adequately for it.

What the heck happened to the Mental Health Services Act??? Where did all the money for the seriously mentally ill from Prop 63 go?

The answer in Part II.

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Broken Window Breaks Code of Silence In West Downtown

By Sharon Byrne

In the course of working on improving neighborhoods, I continually run into hesitation around involving the police. The communities I work in are predominantly Hispanic, where there is understandably some fear regarding exposure of citizenship status. A code of silence regarding police is the norm, egging on criminal activity. No need for would-be perpetrators to sweat because engaging the police might actually turn out worse for crime victims than being robbed, for example. At least, that’s the thinking…

My best friend is first-generation American, as am I. His parents are Mexican. Mine are British. As children, we both experienced our parents’ heightened concern over engaging with US authority figures, like police. When you are an immigrant seeking citizenship, you never want to bring negative attention to yourself because you can be deported. His parents entered the country illegally in the 1970’s. They’re citizens now. Mine came here in 1967. It took 8 long years to get their citizenship, and they prize it. My father jokes he’s more American than I’ll ever be because he sought US citizenship, while mine is just a happy accident of birth.

sbpdMy friend was taught to keep his head down and his mouth shut. Never call the police – we could get deported. Never throw rat (by reporting crime). The perpetrator might live nearby, or know who your family is. When the police let him go, he’ll pay you back. Sometimes when my friend sees me engage in neighborhood watch activities, he experiences notable consternation.

On the closing day of Fiesta, we decided to go see a movie at Metro 4. Walking down Haley towards State, I saw a young teen, jerking a bit as he walked past the Holiday Inn, shouting randomly. I watched as he paused before a car parked on the street, and proceeded to kick in the passenger window, in broad daylight.

My friend turned, hearing the explosion of glass, and yelped, ‘what was that?!?!’

I shouted, “STOP! Citizens’ arrest!”

“Fuck you!” the kid yelled, booking down Haley, turning south on Chapala.

I whipped out my phone. My friend said, “you’re not going to call the police!’ Then he groaned. “We’ll miss the movie.”

I stared at him. Hard.

He sighed. He knows me.

The Holiday Inn valet hurried over and asked if we’d seen what happened. I gave the police the kids’ description, the direction he was headed, and my location. Dispatch asked me to wait there for an officer.

My friend sighed loudly, frustrated, and then his eyes widened. He said, “what if he’s headed to our neighborhood?!?” Our area, at the dead-end of De La Vina and Gutierrez, has encampments used often by the young transient set. This kid was clearly jacked on something. My friend wondered if he should tail him, in case the kid busts out more windows on his rampage?

Wow. He instantly moved from ‘don’t call the cops’ to ‘I’m going to go keep eyes on him until they get here.’ Very cool.

The next 10 minutes passed in a flurry of phone calls with dispatch, the responding officer, and my friend, who tracked the kid as he busily continued his vandalism spree. When he saw my friend on the phone, he started threatening, so my friend backed away. He took off near Lily’s Tacos, and my friend lost sight of him. He asked people on the street if they’d seen him. Not everyone wanted to be a good citizen, but when he told a group of Hispanic men in Spanish that the kid was busting out car windows, they pointed down an alley. The kid jumped the fence to the freeway, but came back over into the parking area by the Roasting Company.

Two female officers arrested him while he shrieked epithets and resisted fiercely. My friend watched to make sure the officers had him safely because, you know…they were lady cops and all.

I suspect he secretly wanted to be their back-up.

Our neighbors saw us giving the police our statements, and one chided my friend in Spanish about being a rat. My friend let him have it, long overdue, as this neighbor is not a particularly stellar guest of the US. What if it had been his windows that got smashed? Would he want us to protect the perpetrator from police then?

Doubt it.

My friend shredded the old code of silence – a welcome turn of events. I hugged him for it.

A democratic society depends on its citizens to help determine its laws, and assist in ensuring that they are upheld. See criminal behavior? Report it. You know you’d want your fellow citizens to stand up and do it, if you were the victim.

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Drought, Smought, What’s it all About?

Column by Sharon Byrne

I’m trying to follow this issue diligently, really I am, but it’s very hard to figure out what’s really going on. Are we in a terrible drought… or not? Reading news stories…it’s all a bit confusing.

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake

The city of Santa Barbara has declared a Stage 2 drought. This sounds pretty dire, but Stage 2 is not that severe. There are restrictions on landscape watering. You should only wash your car at a commercial facility that recycles the water. Water is to be served on request only at dining establishments, gyms should limit shower times, etc. Not the end of the world, clearly. The city is letting its park lawns go brown. Stage 2 restricts golf course watering to nights, so the municipal golf course can stay green a little longer.

Though the city hasn’t declared a water emergency to the point where we need to exhale into plastic bags (banned) to recapture water vapor expended through our breathing, some of us are becoming drought-hawks, and maybe we should. A bit of chastening been circulating locally on the (still) emerald qualities of the lawns of the Fess Parker and Oprah’s estate. Fess’s lawn is actually browning at the edges, and they were quick to implement water-saving procedures early in the year, so leave off with chastising them. Peabody Charter installed a brand new lawn, raising eyebrows. City fountains have gone dry. Others, not so dry. But that’s allowed in Stage 2 – you can have a fountain. You just can’t replenish it with fresh water.

However, not everyone moved so rapidly into drought-hawk mode. Goleta made the local news for not imposing any water restrictions, with no plans to do so until September. And they just approved a big housing project. Hmmm… did they not get the drought memo?

Palm Springs plans to put some restrictions in place by August 1st. The Coachella Valley Water District hopes to have something in place by August 12th.

Aren’t they in the desert? Shouldn’t the drought have hit them long ago?

These planned restrictions are in response to the State Water Resources Control Board’s announcement July 15th that it will enforce state conservation rules with limits on washing cars, watering lawns and golf courses only overnight, and serving water at restaurants only on request.

Wait, that sounds like the Stage 2 drought the city of Santa Barbara already declared.

Ahhh, so some communities just haven’t declared drought restrictions yet for themselves, depending on their particular water situation. The state thinks things are pretty bad, though, on the water front, no matter how flush with water resources a particular community may be at present. That’s why the State Water Resources Control Board is moving to impose $500 fines on water wasters. Our city just beat everyone to the punch because the State Water Project refused to deliver any water this year, and Cachuma shrunk to pond size, inducing panic, appropriately. Communities with more ample water resources are making their own calls, and some are late to the drought table here, even those in the desert. Got it.

Given that each community water agency seems to have its own rules for when to kick into panic mode, as a whole, we’re not moving as a state to respond very aggressively to drought conditions. Didn’t Governor Brown declare a drought State of Emergency in January? How long does it take for that to take effect? Heck, the state hired Lady Gaga to do public service announcements to encourage Californians to take extraordinary measures to conserve water. You can see the PSA at
Gaga stumbles through a teleprompter to send you to, which re-directs you right back to Not the best marketing strategy ever. There you can find handy tips on saving water, including the clever tag line “brown is the new green.” It doesn’t seem to be subliminal plugging for Governor Brown…

I listen to commercial radio in the car, watch a little cable TV, and read a lot of California news stories. However, I have yet to be hit with that particular PSA.

Summing up: the state has declared a drought state of emergency and rolled out a PSA campaign probably only seen at this point by those who crafted it. The state is setting water restrictions at stage 2, and declared intent to issue fines for those not in compliance. Water districts are figuring it out one-at-a-time, with disparate rules regarding drought declaration and water restrictions, depending on their local water resources. Santa Barbara is willingly parching itself, while the desert seems amply supplied via aquifers, with time to spare in declaring a drought.

Maybe everyone doing their own thing is why we struggle so hard as a state every time a drought rolls around.

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Wins and Setbacks: Solving Chronic Homelessness Is About As Hard As We Thought

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne

I wrote about the Milpas Outreach Project back in January, when it was just cranking up. With the changes at Casa Esperanza, increased patrolling in the area, and removal of environmental cues that enabled loitering, the majority of transients left Milpas. Some long-term homeless remained in the area, and most don’t cause issues, though we would prefer to see them off the street, of course. But there are a few that create continual problems. When the street had a larger transient population, they blended in. Now they stick out, occupying the same bus stop or parking area daily, often intoxicated or passed out. They require repeat police and fire responses, and after carting them off in ambulances multiple times, we’d had enough.

We connected with Jeff Shaffer of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H), the group responsible for reducing homelessness across the county. We crafted the Milpas Outreach Project to get our 5 highest flyers off Milpas into a sustainable living situation in 6 months or less. That’s a very ambitious goal, given some of these characters have been on the streets for decades.

We meet weekly at Casa Esperanza, and determine next steps with each individual. We’ve roped in Mental Health, outreach volunteers from Common Ground, Legal Aid, Restorative Police, the Veterans Administration (they drive up weekly from Los Angeles for this meeting, as some of our high flyers are vets), shelter staff, and the business community. Two formerly chronically homeless individuals round out the team. They know every hiding spot and excuse in the book.

HomelessMilpasThis is the first time businesses have been at this table, and it creates quite a tension of opposites. The outreach team wants to establish relationships with the homeless. They’re interested in case history, what facilities the person has been in, medical and mental health issues. Their priority is compassion and treatment. The business community tends to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. The litmus test for us is whether reality on the street corner has changed. If he’s still there, day after day, it’s not a success. So we tend to provide a ‘shove’ and organizing framework to drive for progress. The team also has the grueling job of working through the maze of bureaucracy entailed in getting someone off the street. There are tons of forms to be filled out, mental health assessments, and other seemingly infinite minutiae required to queue someone for housing. Turns out you have to apply at each housing facility in the city, something I didn’t know before attempting this project.

We’ve also stumbled into an old problem for this town: Santa Barbara is non-profit rich, and coordination-poor. It’s hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction at the same time – they’re used to being in their silo, serving what they feel is the need, and partnerships are few, scattered and not coordinated. We’ve made some big strides in that area.

Of course, setbacks happen…often. These individuals are chronically homeless for a reason. A business paid for detox for an individual, who then went back to drinking, suspicious that we were carrying out some vast conspiracy against him. You get one into shelter…. and they check themselves out to return to their old haunt on the street days later. It can be very disheartening, so the wins are very sweet. One of our worst repeat offenders is now housed, sober, and doing well. Another is employed by a Milpas business, getting help with his veterans benefits, and applying for housing.

One is on the fence. We got him into detox through the VA. He checked himself out and came back. He’s in shelter now, but we’ve caught him panhandling and drinking – both no-no’s. It could go either way with this one.

One is stonewalling the outreach team. He’s quite amenable, willing to go to appointments…and then balks on taking any big steps that would change his life.

Our final case is determined to stay intoxicated and raise hell on Milpas. The path forward here is incarceration or Housing First… a tough sell. How can we justify giving housing to someone like this? It’s like we’re rewarding them for wreaking havoc. Yet evidence shows Housing First does work in these cases. You house them first, and then provide services to help them get their lives together. They tend to stay housed, and off the street. It also turns out to be cheaper than the repeat police / fire / jail / hospital circuit. But philosophically, it’s hard to digest.

At the conclusion of the six months, we decided to keep going, because it’s the only thing that’s worked. It’s also as hard as we thought it would be. It truly takes the community to solve this problem. But every success saves a lot of taxpayer dollars currently spent on emergency services. Once we thoroughly nail this process, it can be replicated to other neighborhoods. That would be a win for our city.

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Need Help From The City? Here’s Where To Get It!

Milpas on the Move by Sharon Byrne

In the process of working to improve Milpas, we’ve engaged with the city of Santa Barbara repeatedly. One of our first lessons we learned in urban renewal was to find all the services the city provides that can help you to help your community. We’re pretty fortunate around here that our city has several helpful numbers you can call for various concerns. To get the list, call (805) 897-2526.Call list f

Post it up on your fridge, and start dialing!

See an abandoned shopping cart? Call the Shopping Cart Hotline at 1 (800) 252-4613. They’ll come retrieve it and return it to the store of origin.

photo[3]FHow about dumping on the sidewalk? The first of the month always produces a plethora of mattresses, TVs and other urban flotsam on our sidewalks.

Yes, it’s irritating, but there is something you can do. First, there is a Junk On The Sidewalk hotline. Call (805) 564-5413 to report dumping, and they will come pick it up. Second, if you happen to catch someone in the act of dumping, Sue Sadler in Code Enforcement is your new best friend. For Sue to be able to prosecute an illegal dumper, she needs an eyewitness, a photo (whip out that cell phone), or other proof of the identity of the dumper. I once found a dump pile on the sidewalk with the dumper’s mail conveniently included, so I turned it in to Sue to pursue. She told me they catch a lot of folks that way! Sue is at (805) 564-5669.

We pride ourselves on being very walkable as a city, but some of our sidewalks are in need of repair. If you see uneven pavement, cracking, rupturing, or other sidewalk issues, call the Pothole and Sidewalk hotline at (805) 897-2630. They will take your sidewalk complaint, and put it into a queue of repairs, so don’t get miffed when a city truck doesn’t immediately pull up to start repair work. They will eventually get to it.

There’s also the ever-popular Graffiti Hotline. Caveat emptor here: the city removes graffiti from public property only. So if you find it on a bridge, city building, public trash can, park property, road sign, or other public place, call it in. If your property was vandalized, you should report it to SBPD so they can photograph it for their graffiti database. When they catch vandals, they search through their photo database for similar tags, and prosecute for all matches. So it’s worth reporting. And if they catch the vandals, the District Attorney’s office has a restitution program – very good reasons to report graffiti.

One number on the list reflects Santa Barbara’s rather unique set of problems – the Leaf Blower hotline. If someone fires up a noisy gas-powered blower nearby, call PD Dispatch at 897-2410.

Finally, if you want to be active in making our city a cleaner place, you can participate in the Giant Annual Community Clean Up Day! Looking Good Santa Barbara, run by Lorraine Cruz-Carpinter, puts this on with a huge assist from Marborg. Over 500 volunteers come out for 3 hours on a Saturday morning to scrub off graffiti, pick up trash, remove dumped items, corral shopping carts, plant trees, and more, all in service to a cleaner community. It’s a wonderful activity for families, and creates a great sense of ownership and pride in our city. The first 200 volunteers to sign up online will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card at the event. Sign up at


So quit whining, make some phone calls when you see problems, and come to the clean up! If we all do just a little, it can add up to making a huge difference!

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Milpas on the Move, Part II

Column by Sharon Byrne

World Cup Extravaganza at Pro Garden Supply

pgs sharonThanks to John Palminteri, I discovered Nat “Nathalio” Waller intended to provide 4,000 tacos for the Brazil V Mexico game at Pro Garden Supply on Milpas.

No, you don’t need to get your eyes checked. You read that right. 4,000 free tacos.

I immediately hustled over to find out if Nat was open to inviting the neighborhood? He enthusiastically said yes, because he’s just an all-around great guy. I sent out the invite immediately to the Milpaserenos. Turnout was huge. The tacos were amazing! The setting was awesome because Pro Garden Supply is loaded with gorgeous plants, flowers, and trees. The match was electrifying. Milpas is THE perfect place for World Cup action. Mental note to self: make Milpas into World Cup HQ Santa Barbara in 2018, if I’m still kicking.

Thank you Nat!


We’re Moving On Milpas!
We’re three months into the Milpas 1000 Challenge to drop 1000 pounds collectively, and get fitter around here. This month’s Milpas Moves! – our free community workout – came from Esteban Ortiz, who teaches a butt-kicker of a Zumba class at Casa De La Raza at 6:00 PM Mondays and Wednesdays for the bargain price of $5.

If you’ve never tried Zumba, it’s a blast. Think Salsa dance meets aerobics. A cardio workout that’s sexy. You actually feel good while burning massive amounts of calories. About 10 minutes in, you’re convinced you’re at least part Latino, as this is clearly in your blood. Plus you can’t stop smiling even though you’re sweating. In public.

Pushy Shovels grows incredible organic produce in the Eastside Community Garden, just a few blocks off Milpas. Marcos Olivarez turned up to give away free organic, locally grown goodies to the community! Maybe organic produce costs more, but we can all afford FREE.

Yes We Can!
Big win this week: we scored grants and a nod of enthusiastic approval from the Visual Art in Public Places Committee for a project near and dear to our hearts on Milpas: Yes We Can! turn our public trashcans into art.

IMG_4322Our trashcans are… well, eclectic, as we have multiple styles, and they’re not always in the best shape.

They’re expensive to repair and ridiculous to replace: like $2000+ per can. So rather than pester the city to spend a bunch of taxpayer dollars, we wondered if WE could take ownership of them by turning them into public art pieces?

We need to clear the Architectural Board of Review, but things are progressing. We’ll create some prototypes, with the Casa De La Raza youth arts team preparing the art. They’ll work up colorful pieces depicting a clean, healthy Milpas community. We’ll capture the art with a high res camera, print it to outdoor vinyl banner, and ‘wrap’ the cans. It gives Milpas an instant facelift, provides a public gallery for our youth to display their artwork, and gives kids (our most prolific litterers) a vehicle to educate each other on creating a better place for us all.

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The Congressional Race That SHOULD Happen

Opinion Journalism by Sharon Byrne

Primary election results are certified, and Chris Mitchum will be taking on Lois Capps this fall for the 24th Congressional District.


While projecting anything off the miserable primary turnout is risky at best, it is worth nothing that the redistricted 24th is theoretically supposed to be more competitive. From


Registration alone won’t determine this race, obviously. Lois comes in with enormous advantages. However, we the voting populace should push the envelope here, and demand some serious conversations during the campaign. Candidates, please don’t trot out the usual: environment, women’s rights, and Tea Party sound bytes. Debates, if there are any, will no doubt be thoroughly peppered with them. The voters with pulses already know them all. By heart.

Instead, let’s start having a serious conversation about the Big Issues in this country, and there at least a few hot ones at present that these candidates should address:

  1. The IRS Scandal. And that’s what it is, plain and simple. Aside from the Massive Conglomerate of TSA / NSA / DOJ / CIA / FBI and Homeland Security, no agency in the federal government strikes greater fear into the hearts of Americans than the IRS. They possess awesome powers of intimidation, scrutiny, and confiscation. Americans are required to keep 7 years of tax returns handy in case the IRS wants to rescrutinize them. As citizens, we must be able to prove what we earned, what we paid to the government in taxes, and justify all of it to the nano-level of detail. It’s therefore utterly preposterous that this same agency is capable of losing their own emails in house when those are demanded for a bit of scrutinizing. It strains incredulity that our entire Congressional body and President are not screaming in unison for heads to roll, ordering up special prosecutors and thorough investigations, and rendering operations in the IRS openly transparent to the taxpayers.
  2. The VA Scandal. It’s a very dark day when Sarah Palin starts looking like she was on to something re government-provided healthcare. Although the American people have chosen to provide top quality care for our veterans, what has transpired is a national disgrace. Paying out bonuses to VA top dogs while they cooked the books to massage their stats, while they shuffled veterans desperately needing care further and further out on the calendar to the point of death …it’s a terrible national disgrace. Again, our congressional body and president should be properly appalled, and immediately take firm, decisive action, starting with rolling some heads. Electeds come and go, but bureaucrats remain, and actually run the show. This batch of VA Bureaucrats have now openly shown themselves to be focused on perpetuating the income, comfort, and longevity of…themselves. Quality of care for our veterans is clearly far from their minds. It’s time to flip that dynamic, and force some serious accountability and transparency into the VA.
  3. The Student Loan Bubble, and Impending Shrinkage of the Economy. This is a huge problem just breaking into mainstream consciousness. Something has gone horribly wrong when college graduates are working as barristas, living with Mom and Dad, and paying down loans that approach mortgage size. Something fundamental has shifted in our economy. Gone are the days of lifetime, secure employment with a retirement pension. Those jobs only exist in government now. The current economy is more uncertain and less stable. With high debt loads, even the more successful graduates aren’t going to be in the housing market anytime soon, or will find they’re severely constrained in how much house they can buy…by their student loans. Those loan payments are for services already rendered, and thus won’t be stimulating the economy, so expect that effect to start kicking in at some point. Others are defaulting. Expect to feel that too. Maybe the US could learn something from China about where to place strategic bets in expanding one’s economy, and getting those to pay off (rather than just paying off corporations for feel-good stuff or subsidizing them because they got you elected).

There are no cute, pat answers for these problems. And this is just three of them.

I wait eagerly to hear what our candidates propose to do. I long for some fresh thinking, sharp strategizing, and some brilliant proposals to move this country forward again. Where’s the coalition-builder capable of getting things done? I want to see some real leadership talent, and get an up-close look at the highest powers of creativity these two are capable of bringing to the table. That’s the campaign that SHOULD happen.

We have to demand that, en masse, or we’ll just get the usual well-trod and market-tested talking points, followed by a high dose of mudslinging.

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Political Thoughts: What Does The Primary Tell Us?

By Sharon Byrne, as featured in the Santa Barbara Sentinel

This one had some seriously strange outcomes, which are actually fairly normal for California. The primary has not yet been certified by the Santa Barbara County Elections Office, so things might still be in flux, but as of print time, here’s how it looks.

First, I am a little surprised at the unintentional (hopefully) truncating of the governor’s name in the SB County Elections website display:


‘Jerry Bro’ seems headed to victory this fall, but that might not be the best campaign moniker ever invented.

Secretary of State: Mostly considered a snore in state politics, this is perhaps the most interesting election ever for this seat. The Secretary of State is responsible for voter registration, election administration, and the granting of business licenses to LLCs, to name a few key responsibilities. Currently, registration and elections are administered mainly at the county level, which leads to patchwork outcomes. Get voter registration data from 2 different counties, and you’ll get really different formats, for example. A statewide central voter registration database has been in the works for over a decade, and we still haven’t managed to get it done.

We charge $800 annually for a business license for LLCs in this state. Nevada charges $200, Texas $300. We take up to 6 months to grant new business licenses, adding to our reputation as a very business-unfriendly state.

The current Secretary, Deborah Bowen, is termed out, so some Good Government reformers slugged it out with termed-out state legislators who clearly need to win some seat to keep earning a living. Pete Peterson, head of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdyne University, a civic-engagement think-tank, got the most votes. Right behind him is Alex Padilla, current state senator termed out this year. Oddly enough, when we passed the ’12 years total’ term limits initiative in 2012, it only covers those elected AFTER June 2012. Now legislators can serve 12 years total in the Senate, Assembly, or some combination. Previously one could serve 3 terms of 2 years each in the Assembly, and/or 2 terms of 4 years each in the state senate. Those approaching their grandfathered term limits, like Padilla, need to figure out what they’re going to do, clearly.

I expected Dan Schnur, former head of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and Derek Cressman, former VP of Common Cause, to do better than they did. I especially expected them to beat Leland Yee, who dropped out due to his indictment for illegal arms racketeering. His name was still on the ballot, though – clearly an election reform that needs to happen. Some media outlets have run apologist stories on Yee’s 3rd place finish, hoping to deflect the only possible conclusion here: California voters are just not very informed…

Congressional District 24, or Republicans ‘Bungle in the Jungle’ primary. Could they possibly have run any more candidates??? In Santa Barbara style, the candidates, though perhaps ‘normal’ for this area, would not have stood a chance in a more cosmopolitan or (oddly) more rural American district. In the end, it boiled down to the Conservative Sophisticate (Francisco) vs the Kid (Fareed) vs the Soft-Porn Star (Mitchum). The winner? Capps, who looks to get her wish granted in choice of opponent. Mitchum will be Taking One For The (Republican) Team this time.

Footnote: San Luis Obispo holds onto its title as the place moderate Republicans go to die. Just ask Abel Maldonado. I bet Boehner pops a TUMS every time he thinks of the 24th…

Assembly District 35: Das gets 58% of the vote, doesn’t campaign, and neither does the other guy. Kind of like Yee, you gotta’ wonder, after Das squirmed on CNN over abstaining from removing sexual predators from the classroom…can we just not do any better here?

Sheriff: Brown vs Brown, and the winner was…Brown. I’ve worked with Sheriff Brown on various things over the years, and have been impressed every time. He did a good job representing the office on national TV during Isla Vista. Strangely, for a town that views itself as highly sophisticated, Santa Barbara often comes off sounding utterly provincial when thrust under the unflattering glare of national media spotlight. I was watching Isla Vista on CNN while I was still up in Eugene, and even the ATF guys were impressed by SBSO’s response time in that terrible tragedy. Good job, Bill.

2nd District Supervisor: Wolf beats back Aceves. Money sometimes just can’t buy you (enough) love here.

Measure M: CLOSE. Every public official came against it, except for the one sponsoring it. It was tempting to immediately support it just because all the electeds were so vehemently against it. Peter Adam is either the crazy outlier, or the lone sane guy. The fact that it was so close suggests that there is something a little deeper at work here than potholes. Would it have forced the county into a maintenance discipline lacking at present? The first Supervisor meeting post-election quickly devolved into maintenance issues. Hmmm. Would the county have to scramble for new revenues to pay for all the stuff M would have kicked to the curb? Would they have been forced to consider wild, crazy ideas like opening up oil drilling in the north county area? Hmmm. I suspect this is not the last time we’re going to visit this particular set of questions.

Government as lifetime employment: Some county officials have really safe jobs. Really, no one else wants to run for Superintendent of Schools, Auditor-Controller, etc? Anyone?


Finally…a note on democracy. One wonders, if one were sitting in the nosebleed seats of the Ukraine, for example, if democracy is ultimately a wasted exercise. 25% turnout, criminals on the ballot, entrenched mediocrity in office, and ridiculous over-regulation…is this the ultimate future you get to after shedding blood for the right to self-govern?

Something to ponder…

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Sharon’s Take: Elliot Rodger’s Rampage

by Sharon Byrne

Narcissism Unbounded

The morning of May 24, I watched on CNN the horror of Elliot Rodger’s rampage unfold. I cried openly for the beautiful young lives taken for no apparent reason, and for the searing, visceral wound our community received, a deep wound that will take years to heal. How could this terrible thing have happened here?

More information about Rodger will undoubtedly come out, and psychologists will be studying him for years to come, trying to find answers.

In “My Twisted World,” he provides a chillingly lucid account as to why he committed these horrible acts. We know so far that he legally owned his guns in one of the toughest states on gun control. His therapist(s) did not detect how dangerous he was, and he wrote often in “Twisted” that he resisted therapy. He planned this out well in advance, first looking at Halloween, then Deltopia, both discarded because of heavy police presence. He settled on April 26, and began posting some of his darkest videos up on YouTube in late April.

His mother asked the sheriffs to do a welfare check on him after seeing some of that material. He might be suicidal. The sheriffs checked on him, so Elliot reassured them he wasn’t suicidal and naturally didn’t inform them of his plans. He took down his YouTube videos after their visit. In “Twisted”, he writes that he was relieved not to be diverted from his path. He knew exactly how to deflect them. Sheriffs aren’t psychic and we don’t live in the pre-crime world of Minority Report.

This is a case where a lot of people did what they were supposed to do, but the dreadful outcome was ultimately in the hands of one individual.

He had hints that he was on the wrong path: a terrible cold, when he never gets those, on April 24. He questioned briefly if this was a sign from destiny that he was on the wrong path? Why didn’t he spend more time on that thought, rather than deciding to continue with his terrible course, and pushing the new day of Retribution to May 23?

He was 22, an adult. His parents made mistakes in subsidizing an adult who didn’t have a job and never seemed to sign up for more than two classes. He volunteered once. Giving him a BMW to boost his confidence was foolish. The way to build confidence is to push against your edges and succeed. He should have jumped out of a plane, signed up to drive an ambulance in some war-torn province, or dug wells in Africa. He needed to find out what he was really made of and build a life of meaning.

Instead, his whole life was an endless navel-gazing whine about what he lacked, which was sex and success on the party scene.

I watched his Retribution video before it was stripped off YouTube and was stunned at his vapid spiel. Chills ran up my spine. How does one constellate a worldview, as Rodger did, that the world is here simply to serve his pleasure? And when the world doesn’t serve up satisfactorily, he’s entitled to exact a brutal revenge on it?


He was brought up on the fringe of Hollywood. It’s not hard to imagine the pretty, plastic people there sidling up to him, batting eyelashes, eyeing a hopeful gig on Daddy’s next film. In a shallow mind brought up in a shallow world, this early attention probably rooted as an anchor. He was owed fawning. People living in a bubble tend to believe the rest of the world operates just like their bubble.

As he went through puberty, he shifted to a fixation on sex. His entire existence was reduced to one aim: get laid.

Online Fuel

Having moved outside his bubble to Isla Vista, and finding that world not so acquiescent to his desires, Rodger entered an online world catering to his ‘get laid’ ambition: Pick-Up Artists (PUA) sites. And in this world, he was introduced to ‘Harem control’, 7’s, 8’s and 9’s (ratings for women you should aim to pick up), Alpha Males, Beta Males (the ones who feminism-indoctrinated women shun in favor of Alphas), Game (how one gets women into bed), and other frankly misogynistic nonsense that continually presents women as opponents to be conquered.

Elliot Rodger spent quite a bit of time percolating in online cauldrons of this thinking. Most people are perfectly capable of looking at hyperbolic, even vitriolic, Internet content, whatever the subject, set their BS filter to ‘high’ and not get incited by it. For some reason, Rodger seems to have sucked it up through a straw, unfiltered, and adopted it as mantra.

But instead of developing game, “Twisted” reveals repeated incidents of Rodger going to social events, and expecting others to approach him. He seemed to have no sense of his obligation to interact socially to develop relationships. It was as though others were supposed to provide his desires by reading his mind.

When this didn’t happen, he got more and more angry, particularly toward men of color, for being able to land hot blonde chicks, when he himself was such a miserable failure.

Spiraling Downward

His psychological maneuver in the face of failure was not to question his social style, but rather to move into serious ego inflation, elevating himself to god status repeatedly in “Twisted” and fantasizing about world domination, with him as Supreme Leader.

He also moved over to anti-PUA sites. The anti-PUA crowd doesn’t disagree with PUA philosophy that women are opponents to be conquered. They’re just pissed that the PUA sites sell stuff to desperate guys… stuff that doesn’t work. They also indulge in a fair amount of self-loathing. Rodger was a prolific poster on, taken down after the murders.

Even these websites ran out of psychological gas eventually for Rodger. Had he turned inward and explored what he was contributing to his problem, it could have led to a reckoning with the self, a Dark Night of the Soul, so to speak, that could have perhaps generated a psychological breakthrough: he was the one who needed to change. This is the path many people take after divorce, job loss, or other major life-altering events. It is the path of being able to confront yourself and be totally honest.

Narcissism Takes Over: It’s Not Him. It’s Them.

From “If you are still not getting anywhere with women, the problem is very likely got nothing to do with you and primarily with your environment and the chicks around you.”

Could this type of thinking be what planted the seed of the Day of Retribution in Rodger’s mind? It echoes in “Twisted” and the YouTube Retribution video: those who have failed to serve his wants (women, and men who are having sex with them) are the problem. Therefore, they must be destroyed.

There’s no easy answer for how to stop an individual devoid of any meaning in his life from spiraling into an absolutely poisoned, insular, narcissistic mindset that destroys lives as Elliot Rodger did. He is 100 percent responsible for his actions. Do not seek to lay blame elsewhere. This one rests with the individual.

There are some very dark corners in the human heart. The anonymous capability of the Internet renders them more visible, but sadly less rectifiable at the same time. I wish we viewed posting comments as public discourse, deserving of decorum, rather than as an open mic for rants that some may internalize as mandate. Does anyone really want a psychiatrist monitoring their posts to see if they’re possibly dangerous, and signaling enforcement to follow up on them? Be cautious before heading down that path.

Thankfully, the Alpha Phi women did not open their door that night. Rodger’s plan collapsed on itself but not before he served up every parent’s ultimate nightmare: utter powerlessness to prevent the murder of one’s child. University neighborhoods are supposed to host students engaged in higher learning, not provide stalking grounds for maniacal individuals.

I asked my daughter, a junior at Santa Barbara High, how she feels. She no longer wants to go to a large school. Maybe not any school in California. When I was a student in the 90s, one just had to be watchful about stepping out into a dangerous neighborhood next to campus. Drive-by shootings there weren’t uncommon, but seldom affected any college student.

For this college-age generation, a new normal is now in play, and it’s pretty dark and scary.

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Milpas Wins Neighborhoods USA’s Neighborhood of the Year Competition!

By Sharon Byrne

shar1Folks will urge me to write about something I played a role in, and I hesitate. While I am all about promoting the Milpas community, and highlighting the cool things we get up to, I have this inner resistance to tooting my own horn, so to speak. Which then prods goading: Girl, you gotta’ tell them what you did!

Ok, fine, I will. This once. Because it’s really cool, and even though I made the presentation, it’s our community that won the gold.

So here it is.

Neighborhoods USA is an organization that promotes stronger communities and neighborhoods. They host an annual conference that neighborhoods across the country attend. I was stunned by the size of the delegations from Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham, and Seattle. These people are serious about neighborhoods! They put on workshops on neighborhood topics: sustainability, matching neighborhood grant funds (yes, some cities do provide these!) organizing, involving youth in the community, and more. It’s very inspiring to see what other communities are doing.

Some neighborhoods, Milpas included, compete in the Neighborhood of the Year competition. We were beaten out last year by Eugene, OR, host of this year’s conference. Editor Matt Mazza smelled a fixed contest, and I suspect the Mayor did too, but our team was very energized by placing second nationwide, as all the entrants had done amazing things. The Mayor, District Attorney, Sheriff, Senator Jackson and First District Supervisor Carbajal all commended Milpas for being the first neighborhood in Santa Barbara to step up and compete, and then to take 2nd nationally.

So the Milpasarenos dispatched me to Eugene to compete this year, with an order not to come back without that first place prize. I sweated the presentation. I put us in for the Taste of Milpas because it brought our whole community together to produce. We got everyone to taste fabulous food and wine available in our area, hosted art galleries in our empty buildings, put on live music, funded 8 non-profits out of half the proceeds, and put the remaining funds to the 60th Holiday Parade, first Milpas Neighborhood Holiday Party, and first-ever solar-powered community holiday tree in Santa Barbara.

I thought we had a pretty good case, and the judges did too. We can now proudly wear the title of Neighborhood of the Year 2014. A $500 cash prize means we’ll be throwing a celebration soon!

I saw some very cool things in Eugene, like great bike lanes. Sadly, they too have the bike / car / pedestrian conflict, and point to bicyclists as the most egregious offenders of the lot. Sigh.

I could see this being useful in some land-use fights around Santa Barbara:

Eugene has a fair amount of the traveling vagabond set downtown, so we’re not alone, folks.

Their pedestrian signals ‘talk’, verbally counting down how many seconds you have left to cross the (named) intersection. That must be very useful to the blind.

I also loved this:shar2And this: much cooler for bus stops than Municipal Green:


And this: a way to make an empty building look vibrant. Paint it like people are walking by on the sidewalk:


I found myself feeling a lot of sympathy for ‘the Whitaker’ neighborhood, as residents called it. A funky, rundown area young families started moving into, planting their sidewalk strip gardens, living alongside some nefarious elements. Over time, they developed neighborliness, and the area picked up.

  Mural wall in the Whitaker neighborhood. Note the planter boxes – they plant veggies in their sidewalk strips. Sustainability and local food growing is very big in Oregon.

Mural wall in the Whitaker neighborhood. Note the planter boxes – they plant veggies in their sidewalk strips. Sustainability and local food growing is very big in Oregon.

Then the craft breweries moved in (beer is really big in Oregon, along with granola, sustainability, and ‘back to the land’ sentiment). Now their little funky ‘hood is getting commercialized, which will be followed shortly with gentrification and sanitization suitable for Starbucks, and thereafter, a newly unaffordable neighborhood. Milpas has been nervous about that fate, and of course the Funk Zone is living it. These things have to be navigated carefully, as I was reminded in Eugene.

I also met a cool crew from Long Beach and Pasadena doing some interesting gang intervention work. They’re up for a field trip to visit us, which would be cool.

It’s a great conference – I encourage any neighborhood to attend. Check them out at Maybe we can be the host city one year, and get everyone to come here! (I’ve been nudging the Mayor…she seems up for it!)

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Measure M: Is Maintenance Really That Hard?

By Sharon Byrne


Measure M: Check Yes or No

You’ve got your ballot, hot in hand.

You’re reading through it and realizing a) you don’t know who half these people on your ballot are, but jeez there are an awful lot of them running for office. Does this pay well or something?; b) there are a lot of elected offices just in this county….Auditor-Controller? Treasurer-Tax Collector? Clerk-Recorder Assessor? How is that guy different than the Auditor Controller and Tax guy? Hmmm…

Then there are the measures. Most people dread measures. Sometimes they sound good and catchy, like more money for the schools. Who’s gonna’ vote against that? It’s for the kids, man! Until you find out your property tax goes up, and the initiative is backed by teachers’ unions. Thus, California voters have learned to scrutinize initiatives better. And it’s always easier to rest on status quo than it is to risk changing something, and possibly get a poor outcome. Many initiatives go down because NO is just easier.

This election, we have measure M, put on the ballot by County Supervisor Peter Adam, after getting 15,000 signatures to do it. The arguments out there are pretty simplistic:

YES: let’s maintain our county roads, facilities and parks at current levels, or better.

So…that doesn’t seem like rocket science. Isn’t government supposed to just do that? How come it’s on the ballot, if that’s the case?

Enter the NO camp. And there are a lot of arguments here. Measure M forces a reprioritization of county spending (true that – Adam intended to do that), and since only $200 million of our $800 million annual county budget is discretionary, and since 60% of that is for public safety, and we need a new north county jail that costs millions…. this is bad because it will gut public safety. It will raise new taxes. Terrible things will happen.

A lot of voters at this point will read that argument, and flash back instantly to childhood memories of math tests that caused them to break out into a sweat…on the inside. Remember those? They go like this: Susie is 8. Her brother Johnny was born 4 years before her brother Fred, who is 1.3 years older than Susie on her last birthday, which occurs 6 months before her other brother Jack’s birthday, and 21 day and 2 hours after Johnny’s birthday.

Solve for X:
What was Susie’s grandmother’s name?


The easy answer to Measure M is no. Stay at status quo. Whatever that is. As long as I don’t have to figure out what percentage of the discretionary budget needs to be allocated to do basic maintenance and all that…

But Adam is doing something really important here. He is attempting to force the county to attend to basic maintenance before things really slide and get too expensive to patch and repair. It’s the difference between doing basic maintenance to a building now vs letting it devolve to the point of demolition and rebuild in the future, which costs way more taxpayer dollars.

So then Measure M is a good thing. Why commitment to basic maintenance is not happening today is what needs some serious ‘splaining. Measure M does not raise taxes, but what it will do is force a decision to siphon off funds from some other dearly beloved budget items. The discussion of which of those sacred cows goes on the chopping block could prove very interesting to the general public.

Will Measure M pass? Probably not. Status quo (NO) is easier. We know what that looks like. But Adam should be applauded for putting it on the ballot for two reasons:

1.    It turned a spotlight on the question of county maintenance, and made it clear that it’s sliding. Eventually, potholes could become a huge election item. Think Koch’s New York. When infrastructure gets bad enough, voters demand change, and those who let it get so bad are the first ones thrown out.

2.    Regular people are actually talking about county maintenance, which has got to be the most unglamorous, unsexy and decidedly boring topic ever…unless you’re listening a golf tournament in Mandarin or a physics lecture led by a professor resembling a fossil with a perm droning on about wingtip velocity of a bee in an oscillating plane…snore!

If Measure M passes, it’s likely not going to be the end of the world.

If it doesn’t pass, it’s not going to be the end of the world either.

Just a bumpier ride when you hit those potholes…

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