By Raiza Giorgi
All 10 candidates for Solvang mayor and City Council spoke to an audience of more than 100 people at an election forum Oct. 4 at Bethania Lutheran Church, giving a variety of opinions on economic diversification, future annexations, and whether city government is sufficiently business-friendly.
To start the evening, the walls of the church’s Parish Hall were lined with tables where each candidate could display campaign materials and speak to voters during an hour meet-and-greet reception hosted by the Solvang Chamber of Commerce.
Then the candidates sat in a long row at the front of the room to answer questions posed by a moderator for 90 minutes. As an opening statement, candidates were also asked to list the issues that were important to them.
The forum was sponsored by the Santa Ynez Valley Star, Solvang Chamber of Commerce and W.E. Watch.
The mayoral candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot are incumbent Jim Richardson and challenger Ryan Toussaint, who is a City Council member. Seeking a two-year seat are appointed incumbent Karen Waite and former councilman Ed Skytt. Seeking two four-year seats are Robert Clarke, incumbent Joan Jamieson, Kim Jensen, Chris Djernaes and Denise El Amin.
A 10th candidate, Kenny “Esko” Lama, announced at the end of the forum that he was dropping out and throwing his support to Clarke and Djernaes.
Candidates were asked whether Solvang should expand its borders, and if so by how much and how that should be accomplished. The City Council abandoned a recent sphere of influence study after many residents protested about a lack of public notice and some said that any annexation should be approved by voters, not the council.
Toussaint said an urban growth boundary (UGB) may need to be established and rules put in place to require a vote by citizens on any annexation proposal.
“It takes time for the community to understand the sphere of influence process, and if an urban growth boundary is the way forward then I am in support,” Djernaes said.
Jameson and Skytt also supported a growth boundary.
Clarke, a member of the city Planning Commission, said the only land he would be in favor of annexing is the Buellflat area, where additional light industrial businesses and perhaps a convention center could be placed.
“I am not in favor of expanding north or west, as that is vital green space and agriculture,” Clarke said.
El Amin said that any path to annexation would require many conversations and public education, and voters must decide.
Richardson said he wanted the group Save Our Solvang to come back before the council. Annexation involves a lengthy process, he said.
Skytt said he opposes annexation because Santa Barbara County would keep much of the property tax revenue from the annexed area while the city would have to pay for public services there.
A question about whether Solvang government is business-friendly drew many comments about the city’s permit process and a desire to streamline it.
“The city should be helpful and consistent in their permitting process. Some cases are straightforward and sail through, and others take months or years to get through. There needs to be an easier solution to that,” Jensen said.
Djernaes said a businessman he knows has spent more than six months trying to get a gelato shop open, and a real estate developer has spent 10 years trying to get a project approved.
“That amount of time is unacceptable,” he said.
Jameson defended the city’s process and said it follows a stringent general plan and zoning code that are unique to Solvang. The process is the same for every application, but some businesses are harder to get through various state, county and city regulations, she said.
“As a land use consultant I know the process can be difficult and costly, but every application is treated the same and that is why we have first-class businesses here,” she said.
Waite said the city administration needs to make it easier to get new businesses started.
“Solvang should be building a convention center where we get business tourists mid-week that come for conferences and bring a higher class of visitors spending money in our area,” Clarke said.
The two mayoral candidates where asked how the mayor’s position differed from other council seats and what made the role important to the city’s residents.
Richardson listed the mayor’s duties and said that since he is retired he is able to commit to those extra 10 to 20 hours a week attending various board meetings and city events.
Toussaint said that the role of the mayor is to lead the council and to obtain consensus on difficult issues. He said he would improve city services and streamline permitting processes while reducing unfunded liabilities.
Another question asked whether the city should diversify its economy to make it less dependent on tourism. Most candidates said that without tourism there would be no local business, so tourism must remain a top priority.
“Economic diversification is essential, but during these innovative times of generational change there should be a plan to adapt to changing consumer behavior,” El Amin said.
Jensen said that businesses need to get better at what they do to attract more visitors.
“The lifeblood of this town is tourism but I think we have already diversified a lot since our beginning, as we have become the center of financial, investment, medical care in the valley,” Skytt said.
Clarke reiterated his idea for a convention center to draw in professionals mid-week and said Solvang businesses should work to produce high-quality products locally and to bring in more Danish products or true Danish businesses.
To watch the forum in its entirety, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PL7sRZkikY.