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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 16th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 45 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 45

New face, new thoughts

Terri Zuniga talks about her role on the Santa Maria City Council

BY AMY ASMAN

Terri Zuniga made headlines this year as the top vote-getter in the race for Santa Maria City Council—after coming in third on election night. She’s worked in the nonprofit and social justice sector for nearly three decades. Now she’s trying her hand at city government.


Part II
The rest of the Sun’s interview with Terri Zuniga will appear in next week’s issue, which hits stands on Jan. 24.

At her first meeting in December, Zuniga and fellow council member Jack Boysen butted heads with mayor Alice Patino and council member Bob Orach over filling Patino’s vacated seat. The Patino-Orach side wanted to appoint Etta Waterfield, who lost the election by two votes. Boysen-Zuniga wanted to accept applications. They ultimately agreed to move the discussion to the next meeting on Jan. 15.

Zuniga sat down with the Sun on Jan. 14 for an in-depth interview about the appointment and her goals for the city.

OK, so first off, congratulations on your win. That probably has to feel pretty good.

Zuniga: It does. It’s very exciting. And, you know, waiting 30 days to get the final word was nail biting, but certainly the outcome is very rewarding.

Can you go over your thought process in those 30 days—how you were feeling?

Zuniga: Sure. On election night, we were disappointed. We looked at [the numbers], and we felt like we had run a good campaign. All the voters we had engaged were very supportive and encouraging, so we were really hopeful. And then, you know, on election night when the numbers came in, it was very disheartening. I had several people point it out to me on election night, “Look, this is just the first thing. It’s not over yet.” They were doing an analysis of the vote-by-mail votes, and then the ballot place votes. [They said], “At the [polls], you’re in the lead. You lost the vote-by-mails.”
... Then, when the first ballot counts came in ... it pushed me into the lead. That was very encouraging, but always with the apprehension that “it’s not done until it’s done.” So I felt a little schizophrenic because I’d have people saying, “Oh, congratulations!” but I’d say, “Oh, but it’s not over yet. I haven’t actually won.” And then other people would be saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry you lost.” And I’d say, “Well, I haven’t actually lost. I’m actually in first place.” So it was a little crazy making. I just kept trying to have faith. ... It was very exciting to get more votes than anyone else in the election. And very humbling to know that that many people in the city have confidence in you. ... It’s an awesome responsibility, and I feel that responsibility very seriously.

So what made you decide to run again? I know you ran for City Council in—was it 2010?

Zuniga: It was.

What made you decide to go for a second round?

Zuniga: You know, I feel like I learned a lot in 2010. I had a group of people who came to me in 2010 and said, “We want you to run.” I wasn’t really interested in politics in that way, but through discussions with people I realized that being part of the political process in the community is actually just a continuation of what I’ve been doing for 30 years: trying to impact my community in really positive ways. I felt like 2010 was a learning process. You really, in some sense, need that name recognition. So between those two things—having the name recognition from 2010 and then everything that I learned—I really developed a passion for what it was that I was doing.

Yes, you have garnered more recognition, but for the people who maybe don’t know you, can you say a little bit about what you do and who you are?

Zuniga: I’ve lived in the community my whole life. I attended grade schools and high school here, and I attended Hancock College. I have seven children and 11 grandchildren. My husband and I have been married for over 32 years. My children attended the same grade school that I attended. So I have a long history here in terms of my personal life. I’m committed to the community. ... I worked 20 years at Domestic Violence Solutions, which was formerly Shelter Services for Women, helping battered women. We started out by opening a shelter, and just 20 years later, when I had left, we had expanded the programs. We had a long-term transitional housing program with a 14-unit complex. We were responding with police, with ... the Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team, to all 911 domestic violence calls. We had worked with both Santa Maria high school [district] and the Santa Maria-Bonita School District and had curriculum-based education in both of the districts. We were doing batterers’ treatment with males, so we were doing counseling for males who were abusers, which was really important for me. It was one of my passions … [because] if we just help women and children, we’re really not going to impact domestic violence. We’re helping women and children get out of it, but we’re not really dealing with the root cause, given that 90 percent of domestic violence is committed by males. A lot of men who are abusers were either abused as children or watched their fathers beat their mothers and are part of that generational cycle. So I’m really proud of that—that we were a part of that as well—because when I got started [in nonprofit work] battered women’s programs did not even want to talk about that issue. The other thing that we did was we had men do the work with us, which was also something that was considered groundbreaking in the movement. ... I think that [being] progressive, thinking outside of the box, looking at the deeper issue is what I bring to the City Council. So I worked there for 20 years, and then it was just time to move on, so I went to the District Attorney’s Office, where I’ve been for six years. [I’m] still working with victims, just a wider array of victims. So now I’m working with victims of all crimes across the board. Obviously my passion is helping people, and I’m committed to that. That’s who I am: Someone who likes to think outside the box, to bring people together to create solutions. I’m hoping to use those skills on the City Council.

Let’s talk about your first big issue as a City Council member. Can you tell me about why you voted the way you did for filling the seat that has been vacated by Alice Patino, who is now mayor?

Zuniga: I can. I think that all of the arguments or all of the discussions have validity. ... For me I feel like we had an election; there was an election and there were two seats available, and the two people who garnered the most votes are now sitting in those two open positions. Now the election is over and now we’re in a different process. I acknowledge that it’s two votes separating Bob [Orach] and Etta [Waterfield]. The whole argument, “My vote doesn’t count,” it’s like, please, this puts that to rest. ... It has nothing to do with whether or not Etta should be in that position; it’s that the election process has ended and now we’re in a different process that, in terms of transparency and inclusion, should be the application process. Certainly Etta should apply; she has lots of experience behind her, she has a lot of support around her. Certainly the fact that she was two votes behind should be part of her conversation before the City Council. But I think we should open it up. ... My job on the council is to make sure that people who have power—and who have had their voices heard in the political process in our community—that they get heard, and that’s important. But just as important are those people who traditionally haven’t had political power in our community and haven’t had their voices heard. ... I believe the best way to make that happen is through the application and interview process.

I imagine that you were aware—and correct me if I’m wrong—that the Santa Barbara County Elections Office sent out three ballots that didn’t have the Santa Maria City Council race on them. Does that influence your thinking at all?

Zuniga: It doesn’t because we don’t know. We could speculate, but we don’t know. The three votes could have pushed Bob ahead five votes. If the elections office was saying something different—other than the election’s been certified—then, yes. But we can only take what’s on the table, and what’s on the table is that the election’s been certified. .... I think we need to have a policy that if you’re a City Council member and you’re going to run mid-term for mayor, you need to give up your seat. If that was our policy, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. We’d have a process. [Zuniga said she’d also like to have a city policy regarding midterm appointments to committees and other political bodies.]

Are you hopeful that that will be part of the discussion at the meeting [on Jan. 15]?

Zuniga: I’m hopeful, at least to have a discussion ... to have an agreement between, for now the four of us, that we do want to develop a policy, and then give some direction to city staff on how to proceed.

It seemed that Bob Orach especially made his stance on the issue very clear, so it could be a very tenuous discussion tomorrow night at the City Council meeting.

Zuniga: The process at City Council meetings isn’t new to me. I’ve made lots of presentations, both in the nonprofit world for [Community Development Block Grants] and as a resident of the city. I don’t want to say that I don’t understand the process, but given it was my first meeting, it was disappointing to say the least. To have both the mayor and Bob Orach indicate at that meeting, “Well, we’ve made up our minds”—where does the discussion go from that, when someone draws the line in the sand like that? ... I’m concerned about where we go from here. I’m concerned about what Tuesday night is going to be like. Is it going to be a rehashing of our last meeting, or are we going to move forward?

What are some other issues that you’d like to address as a City Council member now that you’ve been elected? What issues do you think are the most urgent?

Zuniga: We need to continue looking at public safety. We’ve all touted Measure U as kind of the salvation for some of our public safety issues. One of my concerns—Measure U is for public safety and to reduce gang violence—one of my concerns is we can already see people getting really creative about how that money is going to be spent. The City Council, before I got elected, allocated some of that money [for expanding library hours]. I think in his reasoning for voting [for the expansion], Jack Boysen said it could, at some point down the line, help cut down on gang violence. As much as I respect Jack, gang members and youth who are going to be involved in gangs aren’t going to be hanging out at the library from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. I can see, on the horizon, people getting creative, trying to fit their project or what they want to get money for, into that narrow mode. For me, it was really clear: When I spoke to people they were very clear. They said, “We voted for Measure U because we thought it was going to go to fire, police, and maybe the levee.” I think that’s going to be a hot issue coming up in the future.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at aasman@santamariasun.com.