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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 9th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 44 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 44

Meet the mayor

Alice Patino made history when she was elected as the first woman mayor of Santa Maria

BY RYAN MILLER

Though the first woman to get elected to the Santa Maria City Council did so in 1930, such a victory wasn’t repeated until 1999, when Alice Patino secured enough votes to do the same.

On Dec. 18, 2012, Patino made an even larger mark on local history when she was sworn in as Santa Maria’s first-ever woman mayor.

The Sun sat down with the new mayor on Jan. 3 to talk milestones and money, safety and the city, business and being mayor. (The Sun’s questions are in bold; her responses follow.)


THE ARRIVAL:
Alice Patino’s mayoral status was just a couple weeks old—she was sworn in on Dec. 18—when this photo was taken on Jan. 3.
PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER

First of all, how do you like to be addressed? Are you going by mayor? Do you like madam mayor? ...

When my husband addresses me, I say … “You’re supposed to say madam mayor.” Oh, I really don’t care. I’m still not even used to being called mayor. … I was driving around two days ago, and I thought, “I really got elected mayor.” You know, I’m whispering it to myself.

That’s really funny. … So what does it feel like to be Santa Maria’s first woman mayor? … When I first saw that, I thought, “Oh no, that’s got to be wrong.” … It’s pretty amazing it’s taken this long …

You know, I’m very proud of being the first woman mayor, but at the same time I just still think of myself as the mayor—and the responsibilities that come along with it and the things that you have to do transcend gender, so it really doesn’t matter. But I do see when women talk to me … women are really excited about it. … I think individually we put limits on ourselves and we shouldn’t, and … I’m not saying at age 10 or 8 that I said, “Ooh, I want to be mayor of Santa Maria.” I think we just sort of grow along different paths, and people limit themselves, their growth in many, many ways. You need to try things out and see if it fits and continue and go on in whatever role that you want to play. I like to cook. Cooking’s the same thing. You experiment with a lot of things. You make a lot of bad mistakes. You try them out on your family, but you don’t try them out on guests, you know. So it all works the same.

At the recent City Council meeting, you talked a little bit about your family. Could you tell our readers maybe a little bit more about where you come from and your background?

My grandparents came and settled here in 1928. And they came from Mexico—the Rodriguez family. They were the first Rodriguez family to settle in Santa Maria. They raised eight [children], there were eight siblings, my mother being right in the middle. My dad came here from the Midwest and was stationed at Camp Cook. My parents met and got married. And at one time we had a large family here—very, very large. In my family, it’s just my sister and I, but I had lots of cousins to grow up with and an extended family, so that was really, really nice. And then I married my husband, who was born and raised in Santa Maria—sees no reason to leave, other than to go hunting and fishing—and he also had a large family and extended family. We had two boys, two fine young men. They went all through school here, as my husband did. … I was raised in the military, so we went and came back, and we went and came back. So I lived in Germany, I lived in Japan, I lived in Alaska before statehood … Ft. Bragg, N.C., Salt Lake City, Utah. We were able to move around a lot and enjoyed other cultures. Diversity doesn’t bother me as much as maybe it bothers other people, because I find there’s so much color in other cultures, in their food and their music and the way they live. So I enjoy the diversity.

It’s boring otherwise.

Oh gosh, I know. Well, you know, in the Mexican culture, for instance, we learn how to dance at a very young age. I could never understand how these people didn’t know how to dance by the time they got to high school. “I mean, what? You don’t dance? What do you mean you don’t dance?” … Because in the Mexican culture, you know, you eat, you drink, you dance.

Jumping a little more into the specific mayor side of stuff: Being the mayor, you’re kind of the face of Santa Maria, but not everyone knows what the job actually entails, so … what are your responsibilities or duties as mayor?


THE CHANGE-OVER:
When Alice Patino took the seat from outgoing mayor Larry Lavagnino, she became the first woman to hold the title in Santa Maria.

You run the meeting.

The City Council meeting?

The City Council meeting. You help put the agenda together. … I make appointments to boards and commissions, like the Parks Commission, like the Planning Commission, like [Community Development Block Grant]. And then we also serve on different boards and commissions, like I’ll be serving on [Santa Barbara County Association of Governments] and [Air Pollution Control District]. And we have quarterly meetings with the schools; we have quarterly meetings with the airport district. We meet with all these entities in Santa Maria so ... we know what’s going on here. And, like in the school meetings, we meet with the superintendents and a couple of board members. And we do that with the airport district so that we know what’s going on in our community.

Do you have any meetings with larger bodies, like supervisors at the county or the APCD that would involve …

SBCAG does. That’s SBCAG.

Oh yeah. Thank you.

That’s OK. SBCAG, yeah.

Yes, the council of governments, right?

Uh huh.

So how is being mayor different, or is it different greatly from being a city council member?

I think people look at you differently … because they want to know what your goals and objectives are. They want to know what you’re going to do; they want to know what you’re going to do for the city. And I think it’s a greater responsibility because you need to provide direction, you need to provide leadership.

Do you feel like your time on the council kind of led to this being mayor? Did that inform it? I mean, obviously you got the experience from that, but …

Yes, because it gives you a better background. You see areas that maybe you would like to improve upon—and that’s not taking anything away from Mayor [Larry] Lavagnino, because I think he was a very good mayor, and it’s going to be difficult to—if you want to, you know, how about a cliché—fill those shoes, but with Mayor Lavagnino … and with Mayor Centeno, there was a great deal of infrastructure put together in the city. And we have a city that has a great infrastructure. We’ve got the water lines, the wastewater, the landfill, the purchase of new land for a landfill. We have the way the streets are taken care of in Santa Maria. Go to Napa, Calif., and you can see the big difference. It’s like you can’t drive down the street in Napa without hitting 10 million potholes, and Napa’s a wealthy community. We have the Maldonado center, we have fire stations, we have all these things that provide services for the city of Santa Maria—as I feel they should. I think that’s the first thing you do is you provide services to the citizens. And we have the new regional hospital, which we weren’t responsible for as a city, but we certainly did help with the permitting, and we were partners in it. But there are areas … where we need to start cleaning up neighborhoods. I think we need to get code compliance more involved. A woman said to me today at a luncheon I went to, “Who do I call about my neighbor’s yard? Nobody lives there, and the weeds are just growing out of hand and they’re growing into my yard, and the place looks a mess.” So I told her who to call. I need to be a resource, a conduit so people can get things done, because they are the eyes and the ears for all of us that sit on the council. It’s amazing what bothers some people and what doesn’t bother some people. But people want their neighborhoods cleaned up, they want the alleyways cleaned up. They want lighting. They want their neighborhoods safe. All of this came out of the town hall meeting, and it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic group, what area of town you live in—people pretty much want the same.

You know, that sounds kind of glove-in-hand with some of the stuff that [Police] Chief [Ralph] Martin was saying.

Absolutely.

Was that coordinated at all, or do you guys just have a similar philosophy?

Probably similar philosophy. When he first got here, I did speak to him about, what is the common thread with some of these shootings that have gone on, and answers that I didn’t have. … I know that if I have questions, people out there also have questions. And then you also have people who think, well, things should have been handled differently or could have been handled differently, and those things I don’t second guess on our police department. Because I think we have hard-working young men and women in our police department, and they want to do the best job they can, as any of us do. But you’ve got these milliseconds where you have to make a decision. How many of us can make these decisions in a millisecond when someone’s life is at stake? Probably not too many of us. So I don’t criticize them for the job they do. I do want to be supportive of our police department and make sure that they have the kind of vests they need, or the apparel they need—any kind of technology that’s going to make their job easier and better and more effective and be very supportive. From talking to Chief Martin, policing today isn’t done like it was, say, 10 years ago. Some of those methods are outmoded. I think he’s going to be bringing us up into this century with updated policing technology, and I think that’s important—anything that’s going to make our city safer, make people feel better about their neighborhoods. I think it’s extremely important, and I think he can do it. … I’ve always liked the community-based policing, but of course we had budget cuts that we needed to make, and unfortunately, that was a victim of the budget cuts. But with the Measure U—not that it’s the panacea, and I keep telling people, “It’s not going to cure everything”—but we’re going to get a lot done, I think, with Measure U.


THE OFFICE:
Alice Patino is stepping into the mayor’s office after serving as a city councilwoman since 1999.

People can be jaded when there’s … the idea of just having government being this sort of “they-take-our-money-and-what-do-we-have-to-show-for-it?” But I get the feeling that right now we’re really seeing the results of some of that already. Referring again to the Chief Martin interview, he talked about being able to fill some positions that had been vacant [and] we have the new building that’s on the way. There’s some very tangible and tactile things that [are] cropping up now in Santa Maria to show this is actually what this money is going toward. It feels almost like there’s a little bit of a corner being turned.

Yes.

Is that kind of vibe permeating the city?

I think so. Have you been in the old building?

Yes.

Have you seen all the wires across and everything? That looks like spaghetti ... and nobody knows where they go to or where they’re going or where they’ve come from or anything else. I just think, oh my gosh, that’s scary to me. Or going down into the basement, where the communication system is … . We need a police station, and we need a communications system that is top notch. Just like we have in everything else—in our fire, in our library, in our hospital—we need that communication system, because it’s not all about catching the criminals. It’s about being able to communicate public safety in the city.

Safety is one thing that Amy Asman, our managing editor … had brought up a lot with Chief Martin as well. … The police department obviously last year came under a lot of scrutiny and faced some criticism. And there was a change in leadership, but we’re talking about turning a corner, and there’s still people in the community who … don’t necessarily feel safe. What would you like them to know in terms of the direction we’re going now, in terms of the city and the police?

Maybe they need to learn more about what the police are doing. Because knowing what the police are doing … meeting with them, I feel Santa Maria is a very safe city. It doesn’t scare me to go out and walk around in Santa Maria. I have people come up and talk to me, and they won’t go any further than Macy’s and they won’t go on the west side of town. I live on the northwest side of town. I shop on the northwest side of town. And I don’t find Santa Maria scary. … And I know bad things happen in all cities. I just heard on the news about all the murders they had up in Oakland, and I think, Oh my gosh. You know? Hundreds in Oakland. And even Chief Martin said Santa Maria’s really a safe city.


THE JOB:
The new mayor is ready to tackle several aspects of life in Santa Maria, including the city’s business climate.

Earlier in the year you talked to the City Council about the possibility of a … citizen’s review board, and ultimately the council decided not to move forward with that, but is that something that’s still on your—

Yeah, I would like to see it. I just really feel like that board could be real ambassadors for the city of Santa Maria. I think they could bring a lot of, maybe, issues to the attention of the City Council and deal with them at that level. … Even after some of the shootings we had, people were making … uneducated comments. And I think on a citizens’ review board, if they heard a group of citizens—or even some of those questions asked—they would probably feel more comfortable about the answers. And think it gives more transparency to the police department.

So is that something that you’re looking at pursuing this year?

I would like to pursue it, yes. … I even questioned, “What is the common thread here?”—and to find out there isn’t any common thread, and these were bad guys pulling guns, you know a lot of it is [AB 109], with the … early release of criminals … . They’re going to come back into communities, they’re going to have problems … and I think those are things that we need to address. It’s a whole new wrinkle in social issues that we need to address. In the time I’ve been on the City Council, there’s been a rise in domestic violence. I get the report from the weekend. It used to be zero. Every now and then, you’d have one, two. I mean, it gets up to 11 and 14 a weekend … and we know not all of them are being reported. … That really concerns me. Those are issues we really need to deal with in the city. We’ve seen a lot of the … school shootings, the shooting in the theater; we know these are a lot of mental health issues. We don’t have mental health beds for people here to speak of. How do we deal with all the mental health issues in our community to make it a healthier community? We’re limited in money to deal with some of these things, but I want to keep in good communication with our state senator and with our state assemblyman to see what’s available out there. We can identify our issues, we can identify our problems, but I also need help from the county and from the state to get these things done. And I think it’s an important thing to do, and I will be meeting regularly with both my state senator and with my state assemblyman.

Now the district’s redrawn, it’s Capps and Achadjian, right?

It’s Hannah-Beth Jackson and Achadjian. She’s the senator.

Oh she’s the—right. Because Capps is Congress. I know these things. I really do know these things. (laughs)

I know you do. (laughs)

SBCAG and—

I know you do. So we need to have more connectivity, and they need to know what’s going on in Santa Maria, and we need to tell them what our needs are. And then Capps is our congresswoman.

Right.

And so, I think I’ve built a relationship with her office and, as the new mayor, I will build a relationship with Sen. Jackson and with Assemblyman Achadjian. I think it’s important for our city. And I think they want that also.

What are your thoughts on transparency and local government? You’ve talked a lot about that already, but do you have any—

You know, I think our City Council has always been transparent. There’s always accusations. … Probably the further you get up, like in the Assembly and in the Senate, there’s a lot less transparency. We have the Brown Act that we have to go to. The Brown Act does not pertain to the Assembly or the Senate, so they can do all the backroom deals. We don’t, since I’ve been on the City Council, we don’t get together and scheme how we’re going to do things. And most people on the council are pretty like-minded and care about Santa Maria and the future of Santa Maria.

Money is on everybody’s mind these days. What are your thoughts on job creation, furloughs? It seems like pretty regularly we get something from [city spokesman] Mark Van de Kamp saying … there’s another city furlough. How do you plan to address the city’s current financial situation going into your—

We’re going to go into urban forestry and plant money trees (laughs). Yeah, we’ve been a pay-as-you-go city, and so we don’t spend what we don’t have, and I don’t believe we can spend anything that we don’t have. So, with Measure U there, it helps us, but we’re still going into a deficit in the next year. The state comes down and is taking money from the [Redevelopment Agency], the state comes down and takes money from us and cities and counties, and we’re left there going, “Why?”—wringing our hands—and they’ll give us some phony explanation. And then people even … pass initiatives thinking, “OK, the state can’t get us anymore.” We’re just going to have to address those fiscal responsibilities as we continue to go on, and that means … you know, our bargaining groups have been so good at giving concessions because they know the problems that we’re having to deal with. And until we can ride this out, this economic storm … part of it is to be able to create a business atmosphere. And I think sometimes people have a difficult time because in order to pay for services, you have to have taxes, and you have to have businesses coming in and providing that. And every now and then we have people objecting to certain businesses that come in, and that’s not being business-friendly. We may not like that business personally, but there are people out in the community that do like it, and we have our parameters, we have our permitting process, we have all of the restrictions that come from the state and from the county, and by the time it comes to the city, I don’t think there’s any need for any more restrictions or any more fees or taxes on these businesses. And that’s why I think it’s really important that I meet regularly with [our] state senator and our state assemblyman to say, “Hey, when you’ve got these bills that are job killers, I want you to know what you’re doing to us as your constituents, because I don’t want that to continue to happen.” And I can give them instances where it’s been very, very difficult doing business in Santa Barbara County, as well as doing business in the state of California. They need to be hearing from me on a regular basis … .

Do you think—like, realistically, I know you’re just stepping into this mayoral role, and you’re going to be forging some relationships with them—do you think that they’re willing to listen? ... What kind of impact do you think you can have on that?

Right now, in speaking and knowing Hannah-Beth Jackson and knowing Katcho, I think I’m going to have a good reception, and I’m looking forward to that. When I have dealt with Lois Capps … you need to inform them about the issues, what the problems are and what the needs are for you and what they can help you with. So that you’ve got this whole thing solved and all you need is their yes vote on it or you need the money from them. But I think you need to go in not just with the problems, but with the solutions, and that they’ve been thought through. And I think they’re going to be real receptive to us. I do want to see us working together. I see what’s going on in Sacramento and I see what’s going on at the federal level … everyone does, and we just shake our heads at how dysfunctional they are. …

So that’s one thing you’re excited about tackling. What are some other things you’re excited to tackle as mayor?

I’m excited to tackle the neighborhoods and the cleaning up of neighborhoods and working with code compliance. … I want to make sure our permitting process is streamlined. I plan to get together a group of businesspeople who’ve had to deal with this in Santa Maria [and staff] and say … how to get from point A to point B and not make it so onerous. What can we do? I don’t want to just say, “OK, we need money for this and we’re going to raise the fees here, we’re going to raise the fees there,” and making businesses do things that are unreasonable to do, whether it’s the landscaping, whether it’s the parking.

Signage.

Whether it’s signage. We passed [regulations saying] no one could have boa flags up. Do we ever enforce it? No. We said you can’t have sandwich board signs out there. And as a business person, if this helps my business, then why aren’t you going to let me have it? “Oh, we have three people who don’t like sandwich board signs. We had three people who didn’t like boas.” To me, it was a real personal thing with them. It didn’t make business sense, necessarily. Say you can have sandwich board signs, then you can regulate them and you can say, “OK, you know it can’t look like a third-grader did it and put up poster boards and stuff.” Business are changing, and they are having to be very competitive, and they have to do what they think is best for their business. I don’t know their business, necessarily. I don’t know how a tire business runs. We were in the dry cleaning business for years. I know how a dry cleaning business runs and I know what you need to do, but I don’t know your business, I don’t know different businesses, small businesses around here, and I think that we have to be very, very supportive of the small business man, small business person, because they have a difficult time. Very difficult. And when they come to the City Council and they say, “Please don’t do whatever it is you’re going to do,” and then we do it anyway, we’re not listening to them. And at the same time, we have to have expectations of them, too: that they keep up their property, they don’t have stuff stashed back there, that they have the right signage, they don’t have all the windows covered with, you know, all kinds of signs ... so that Santa Maria looks like the kind of All-America City it should look like.

What are your thoughts on the open seat [on the City Council] right now? Do you have any leanings?

Oh sure, I have leanings (laugh). We just came off of an election. It has nothing to do with personalities; it has to do with fairness that the third-place—and we’ve done this before, we’ve appointed the third-place vote getter.

When was the last time that happened, do you know? I don’t need a date, but did that happen while you were on the council?

Yeah, that happened with Marty Mariscal. Yeah. And I think it’s very appropriate that when you have ... 9,217 votes, that person has a constituency—just as the 9,000-some that voted for me, the 9,000-some that voted for Mr. Orach. I don’t care if it was Ms. Zuniga, Mr. Orach, or Ms. Waterfield. It’s just the honest and right thing to do.

I think that just about wraps it up. I’ve heard your phone buzz several times, [but] what is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now … ?

Probably getting organized and prioritizing and figuring out my office hours and how I’m going to address issues and—you know … people send me e-mails or letters and how I answer them, how I respond, because it’s important to respond to people. And I also want to get going on the businesses in our community. And I’ve done that in the past, where I’ll walk the streets and go into businesses and introduce myself. … People are surprised. They don’t even know what to say, so they usually don’t even answer me negatively. “What can the city of Santa Maria do to help you with your business? What little thing? I mean, empty the trash better, give you bigger bins? You know, all this.” (falsetto voice) “No, I think everything’s going fine!” You know, like who is she? But I want to hear from businesses and their challenges. Businesspeople are too busy to come to these meetings that we hold. They’re busy running a business, and their businesses don’t go from 9 to 5, and so I think it’s important for me to go to them and find out what we can do better in the city of Santa Maria. We can see what Parks and Recreation does because we can drive by the parks, we can drive by the gyms. The schools are a completely different entity in their own. But we can certainly drive through our business areas and we can drive through our neighborhoods and see what needs to be done.

One question I did forget—this is kind of jumping back a little bit—but when we were talking about money as well, that’s also a major thing that Rick Hayden works with … in terms of being the city manager. What’s the mayor’s relationship to the city manager? … A lot of people hear “mayor” and they think, “Oh the mayor runs the city,” but there’s also the person who manages the city, so what’s the relationship there?

It’s got to be a good relationship. I just don’t depend on him, [it’s] all the department heads I work with also, so I have to have that working relationship with the city manager, because the city manager is going to do what the city council wants done, and I have to be able show some leadership and responsibility in that: what we need to do and how we need to do it.

He has been around for less than a year, correct?

Mn-nn.

Is it a little more than a year? Well, about a year. … And you’re here for two weeks now. And Chief Martin has been interim here for several months and now just recently [was hired]. … All the top spots, it feels like, at the city are people new to that particular position. Is that coloring, at all, how the city is running, do you think? What’s the vibe … ?

I think the vibe is excitement, positive, growth, we’re going to move forwards. We probably all have these fresh ideas that we want to inculcate in the city. I just think that it’s a real positive thing. I know Rick has got ideas on how he wants to do things. I certainly do. And the chief has ideas. … He’s seen how things are successful and can work here, things we can take advantage of and the knowledge of other people he knows. You don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel. I think it’s really positive. … There isn’t anything I feel negative about, you know? And I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think together we can put together good answers. And people out in the community aren’t afraid to tell me what they think the answers are, and that’s good. Whether it’s at church, whether it’s in the grocery store or walking to the library or to the bank—any place I go, people will stop and tell me how they think I should do different things. And I think that’s important.

Well, what do you have next on your schedule today? What are you rushing off to next? Or is this the end of your day?

I think, I don’t know. I’ve had several phone calls. This may not be the end of my day. I never know.

Send comments to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.