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Listen: Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider discusses run for Congress

Helene Schneider for Congress

From the moment Central Coast Congresswoman Lois Capps announced her plans to retire at the end of this term, candidates looking to fill her spot began to announce their intentions to run. 

KCBX is inviting each registered candidate onto Issues and Ideas in order to share their visions for the 24th Congressional District, which includes all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, as well as a portion of Ventura County in the Los Padres National Forest.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider was among the first to announce a run for the seat. She has received endorsements from several influential women's organizations, local unions and members of the LGBTQ community.

Randol White: Welcome to Issues and Ideas.

Helene Schneider: Great to be here – thank you.

RW: It’s nice to have you in the studio.

HS: Yeah!

RW: You recently announced an endorsement from the National Organization for Women, or NOW. You are also getting support from prominent members of the local LGBTQ community. Can you talk a little bit about your vision for equal rights legislation should you make it into Washington.

HS: Thanks for that question. Actually, the issues related to full equality and freedom from harassment and discrimination have been issues that I’ve been focusing on my entire adult life, not only as mayor and council member of Santa Barbara, but beforehand when I was the Human Resources Director for the local Planned Parenthood affiliate and a past president of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, working on a volunteer basis on issues related to LGBT and women’s rights. Even going way back to the year 2000, I was a co-chair of the No on Prop 22 Coalition in south Santa Barbara County. That was another version of an anti-LGBT statewide initiative. Unfortunately it passed in the state, but it failed in our part of the county. And now, seeing the Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage equality, we need to make sure that in Congress, we don’t fall backwards. Especially when it’s been coming to women’s rights and access to reproductive health care, there has been one attack after another based on false information or just really based on trying to figure out how to chip away at women’s rights. I have been and will continue to be a very strong advocate to make sure that access to health care is between the woman and her family and her doctor. And really, government intrusion is not a place for that.

RW: In terms of the LGBTQ community, is there specific legislation you might try to move forward in terms of employment – or what’s the next step?

HS: Well, there is the Employment Non-discrimination Act that’s going through Congress. What’s been interesting, there has been a recent ruling that due to the recent Supreme Court decision, should discrimination based on sexual orientation already be unconstitutional? So we need to move that forward. You know, people should feel that wherever they work, they should be able to focus on getting the job done as opposed to being afraid of harassment and discrimination. Part of my role as a human resources professional - and I still do this in some of my spare time – is go into communities and talk with employers about how to prevent harassment and discrimination from happening in the workplace, particularly sexual harassment. I think that people might think things they say or do might be funny or not as inappropriate as it would seem – it just takes some training in a lot of cases to reduce that type of harassment or discrimination from happening. But also, when people are intentionally using sexual orientation or gender or religion or whatever the protected category is, in halting someone’s progress in the workplace, we need to put our foot down and stop that.

RW: You recently voted in favor of spending $55 million dollars for upgrades to get Santa Barbara’s desalination plant back online after twenty years of sitting idle. How would you respond to those in the community who feel desal is too much of an energy hog and has negative impacts for the local marine environment?

HS: There was a big vote recently, the unanimous vote of the City Council to move forward with re- commissioning the desalination plant. And we have spent the last two years focused every single month, having public hearings on the drought. We understand that desalination is not the end- all, be-all of our drought response. It is one component – it is actually a last resort in our water supply management plan. And, given the drought – it’s been the four driest years on record in our area. We’ve gone through so many different other options available to us to have water supply. At the same time, when we’ve been looking at this desalination plant, we found, using better technology, the energy use is forty percent less than the one that was built twenty-five years ago. As well as the cost associated, we were able to get a low-interest state loan that actually is going to reduce our operating costs by half. It’s still expensive, there are still issues to address, but we’re doing everything we can to minimize those impacts while providing a really essential water supply. I really have to hand it to the residents of the City of Santa Barbara – we’re in the top four in the State of California in terms of water conservation. Even with that amazing record, if the drought continues the way it does for the next year, we will need desalination for about thirty percent of our water supply.

RW: Initially Goleta and Montecito were on board with the plant, right? But that won’t be the case moving forward?

HS: So – back in 1996, the other water agencies said, “We don’t want to continue paying in to keep the permit active,” and so they opted out, and the City of Santa Barbara kept its permit active. Right now this desalination plant is for immediate drought response for City of Santa Barbara residents only. I think it’s time, and we’ve started to have the conversation of, “What is the role of desalination into the future?” This drought will end one day, and in the future there will be another drought. These things are cyclical, and we shouldn’t be in a panic mode whenever there is a drought that is imminent or on our horizon. And we need to work on a regional basis to figure out what can we do to supply water that we need – and maybe desalination is a key component of that – on a regional level. You know, the Montecito area should not have to look at spending tens of millions of dollars on a new desalination plant. We would rather work with the state regulatory agencies and the region in seeing what the role of the current plant that we have can be used on a regional level.

RW: In terms of regulatory agencies, the California Coastal Commission is on board with all this?

HS: We have all our permits. In fact, we couldn’t issue the contract that we did without the permits from both the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board and the Coastal Commission. You know, we are also monitoring the operation of the plant when it goes online. We are doing some half a million dollars of some flue restoration, and Devereux Flue is part of this project. You know, the new technology here, like I said, not only are there energy savings, but one of the things I know people were concerned about is the open water intake valve. The new screening that’s there is a vast difference from twenty-five years ago. This screening is about a millimeter thick, so you’re not going to see massive wildlife or marine life go into the pumps. And the strength of the water being brought into the pipeline is going to be less than the current in the area. Of course, we’ll be monitoring this when it goes online and making sure that we are minimizing any impacts that may occur.

RW: You just had a major spill in your backyard. What changes would you like to see, if any, when it comes to drilling and then transporting oil along the Central Coast?

HS: You know, we have to figure out a way to get off of fossil fuels anyway. And we have to figure out a way that’s economically viable as well – that people are able to move into a job arena that’s going to provide for them and still provide the energy that we need. We need to invest in more clean and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. And at the same time, while we are still working and using fossil fuels, we need to transport it in the most safe way possible. Even though this particular horrendous spill in Refugio Beach on the Gaviota coast happened due to a burst pipeline, pipelines are still actually the safest way to transport oil. To make sure that it stays safe, the oversight of the process needs to be really thoroughly examined. Obviously whatever happened at the pipeline at Refugio, it was not well maintained and it wasn’t well looked over. The pictures of the corrosion were quite astonishing. And I also find it astonishing that federal oversight of this pipeline does not include safety issues such as an automatic shut-off valve. Those are things in Congress that I believe we need to look at in terms of safety response, not only at Gaviota, but throughout the country, of how do you absolutely make sure that disasters like this don’t happen ever again.

RW: Phillips 66 is proposing a rail spur to the company’s Santa Maria refinery, which is just west of Nipomo. Communities all along the Southern Pacific rail line are expressing concern over an increase in oil trains that would create. Can you share with us your thoughts on whether this project should move forward?

HS: Well, our council is going to have a public hearing at our next council meeting, which will probably be over by the time people listen to this show. But I personally have some very big concerns about the public safety aspect of oil being transported by train. We’ve seen one disaster after another. The blast zone is huge! And if you look at the City of Santa Barbara, our train station is right in the heart of where tourists come, where millions of people, right nearby to the dolphin fountain, visit the City of Santa Barbara. It’s a residential area (that it) goes through, not to mention the ecological disaster that could occur through our creeks and on our ocean. So there are some major concerns. Back in March, I did write a letter to Secretary Fox about oil train safety in general, that was asked for when the Department of Transportation was looking into the issue on a macro level. This particular project, I think raises some serious concerns about the public safety all along the rail corridor.

RW: The dolphin fountain just celebrated thirty years, is that right?

HS: Thirty years! Yeah! It was fantastic! It was a beautiful ceremony and a very symbolic part, not only of the heritage of the City of Santa Barbara and what came before the city – you know, the Chumash heritage there, but also that dolphin fountain – the placement of it and design of it changed the nature of Stearns Wharf from a more industrial area in ways that trucks would get in to transport oil or lumber to more of a tourist, ocean-friendly, family-friendly mecca. It’s been a beautiful restoration, and the fountain part is not flowing water. Instead, we have succulent plants in there, and it looks absolutely gorgeous.

RW: A la the drought. HS: That’s right! RW: PG&E is currently asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew its operating permits for the two reactors at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Are you more in the camp with those who stand behind studies that support PG&E’s assertion that the plant is seismically safe; or with those who are expressing concern, including current 24th District Representative Lois Capps and former State Senator Sam Blakeslee, who is an earthquake scientist?

HS: You know, we need to look at this report very, very carefully. I recognize that Diablo Canyon is a major employer, that it’s a major source of energy for PG&E in providing electricity and power to residents here, and it’s a major force in our community in that sense. We have to absolutely make sure that what’s in play is safe. Looking at the seismic faults, you know if anything even remotely like what happened in Fukushima, happened here, with a tsunami and earthquake, are we really safe? And I think this study needs to look into the details and make absolutely sure because, if there’s an accident of any type, I think the dramatic impacts will be huge – not only for people in San Luis Obispo, but throughout the whole region.

RW: Santa Barbara Mayor Helen Schneider, running for the 24th Congressional District, thank you so much for being on Issues and Ideas.

HS: My pleasure – it’s great to be here.

RW: And you are listening to KCBX Central Coast Public Radio – I’m Randol White.