About 80 people, described as the largest crowd to attend an election forum, packed the parish hall at Bethania Lutheran Church on Thursday night to hear 10 office seekers debate issues such as annexation and whether the city is business-friendly.
In a surprise announcement during closing statements, one candidate officially bowed out of the race and threw his support behind two others who are running for two open four-year council seats.
“Tonight I learned of better candidates than me,” said Kenny “Esko” Lama, adding he was “stepping back” from the election and throwing his support to Niels “Chris” Djernaes and Robert Clarke.
Clarke and Djernaes, along with Kim Jensen and Denise El Amin, are challenging incumbent Joan Jamieson for her four-year seat and that of Neill Zimmerman, who chose not to seek re-election.
Appointed incumbent Karen Waite is facing off against Edwin Skytt, a former council member, in a bid to retain her two-year seat.
Councilman Ryan Toussaint, whose term is not expiring, is taking on incumbent Jim Richardson for the two-year role of mayor.
All 10 attended the Solvang Chamber of Commerce forum that started with pizza and beverages in an informal meet-and-greet session where the candidates laid out their campaign literature along with trays of cookies, T-shirts and other items on tables along the sides of the parish hall as supporters pressed citizens for their votes.
The candidates then faced the audience to answer four questions about their views of the city and their roles as council members.
Two additional questions were specifically directed at the candidates for mayor, who were asked how the mayor’s role differs from the role of the rest of the council members and which of their duties were most important to residents.
“The mayor is a member of the City Council and has the same power — one vote,” Richardson said.
He said the mayor is responsible for chairing meetings and seeing that they’re run with a quiet decorum and respect to those on the dais and all who come before the council, representing the city at special functions, conferring with staff to set the agendas and serving on behalf of the city on various countywide boards and commissions.
The mayor also seeks consensus among the rest of the council to see that the residents are happy living in the city, Richardson said.
Toussaint said it is most important for the mayor to lead the council to consensus as a guide, restructure policies and make the permit process as simple as possible.
“A strong mayor can help increase revenue … and reduce taxes,” he said, as well as help the city meet state mandates on controlling stormwater and treating wastewater.
Toussaint also made it clear he would work with any incumbent who doesn’t get re-elected.
Candidates were sharply divided on the question, “Is Solvang business-friendly?”
Clarke said he thinks the city is very business-friendly for the small tourist shops but has “a long way to go” to bring in midweek tourists and business conferences.
“Our main focus should be creating a higher level of tourists that will spend money in our hotels and spend money in our restaurants,” he said.
Waite also said the city is business-friendly.
“I feel the city administration could make it easier for businesses to get permits,” she added.
El Amin said she is not a business owner, but she noted at least six of the 10 candidates are.
“When I see a lot of business people running, there must be some problems they see need solving,” she said, adding she hears a lot of friends grumbling they have to go through a lot and wish the city processes were more streamlined.
Richardson answered with “a resounding yes.”
“We want and need businesses to be profitable and successful,” he said. “I believe that we are a mecca for new businesses. However, it must be under our terms. We don’t need businesses that want to change the character of our city.”
Lama, however, said the answer is “no, a big no.”
He said he opened a shop on Copenhagen Drive where the city has started a project that is “destroying our business. No one told us, no one consulted us.”
He asked why the city couldn’t do it after Christmas when business is slow anyway.
“I’ve been punished, humiliated and insulted many times,” he said.
Skytt said the city is “marginally” business-friendly.
“The complaint I have is the permit process is very confusing,” he said, adding it’s uneven and not equally applied — one person may come in with a problem and it’s dealt with immediately, while another with the same problem may not get it resolved for six months.
“You really don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said.
Jensen said it is business-friendly for some, but not for others.
“When you want a sign put in or a window pulled out, it’s not so easy,” he said. “(The process) needs to be simple, it needs to be consistent and it needs to be fair.”
Djernaes said the city is not business-friendly, citing a man who has spent six months trying to open an enchilada shop, a winery that’s been trying to move to the city for 12 months, his company that’s been trying to open a patio for six years, and a real estate developer who’s been working 10 years to get a project approved.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “We can do better than this. We must do better than this. It’s time to change.”
Toussaint also said the city is not business-friendly, particularly citing problems with the plan-check and permit process.
He suggested partnering with Buellton for plan checks, seeking alternatives for providing planning services and offering an amnesty program for businesses operating without permits.
He also said more information should be moved into the cloud where it would be available to everyone, provide instant responses and make the process more transparent.
Jamieson said she understands the frustration, but the city has a General Plan and building code that are unique to Solvang.
“Part of the charm of Solvang is the architecture, the clean streets and the signs,” she said.
Along with county regulations, the documents are there to protect the city and to assure everyone is treated the same and fairly.
She said it’s “difficult but not impossible” to get through the permit process, but business owners must come in with complete applications.
To annex or not to annex?
Candidates also had mixed opinions on annexation, whether and how much the city should expand.
Clarke said it should be studied along with an urban boundary initiative, but he would only consider annexing the area around Buell Flat Rock for a business conference center.
Richardson said he didn’t know because the last study didn’t give the answers he expected, but there could be benefits from more industry and would give the city control over how land is developed.
El Amin said diversification and annexation should be part of an overall strategy to allow the city to grow responsibly, but it’s “imperative to come up with a plan and let the voters decide.”
Waite said it “absolutely must be a ballot initiative” and “absolutely must be something the citizens have a say in” and should be part of updating the General Plan.
Toussaint said he thought the last proposal “put the cart before the horse” because the city first must have a plan to pay for the physical costs involved, and although he admitted there could be advantages in local control, it must show a benefit to residents.
Lama said he would not support annexation for residential use but he would for businesses, because that could increase revenues and lower taxes. He said the city needs a commercial center, high-tech industries and a big parking lot outside of the downtown area.
Djernaes said the entire community would have to be involved to find the best solution, and it should be a ballot referendum.
Jamieson also said the annexation study last spring was not what she thought it would be and needed more vetting and public input, but she said an area already in the city’s sphere of influence that’s zoned for light industrial and served by city water should be investigated.
Skytt said he doesn’t favor annexation because the county would keep most of the property taxes but the city would have to maintain the area, and an urban growth initiative would work if there was a lot of undeveloped land within the city limits, but Solvang has very little open space.
Jensen also doesn’t favor annexation and said the priority should be to examine the General Plan, although he said the city should have greater dialog with the county about property tax allocations, and he pointed out the city hasn’t even decided how to deal with traffic.
The forum was co-sponsored by WE Watch and the Santa Ynez Valley Star.