Former Councilmember and Paradise Café Owner Randy Rowse Joins Mayoral Race

By Nick Schou   |   April 1, 2021
“Instead of telling people how we want them to live, we need to ask people how they want to live and then figure out how to make that work,” says mayoral candidate Randy Rowse

As a 66-year-old downtown businessman Randy Rowse is no stranger to Santa Barbara city politics. In 1983, Rowse opened the Paradise Café across the street from the Santa Barbara News-Press; last year he sold the joint, which has now been re-christened La Paloma Café. A longtime Democrat, Rowse dropped his party affiliation in the 1990s, turned off by the increasing partisan politics on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Despite that, Rowse never grew disinterested in politics. Having admittedly grown tired of wagging his finger at City Hall about various issues concerning Santa Barbara’s economy and in particular, the viability of State Street, he ran for a City Council seat in 2010, a position he held for the next nine years, following an initial one-year appointment and a successful 2015 reelection bid.

The same urge to help Santa Barbara address critical issues facing the city, Rowse says, is exactly what led him to enter the mayor’s race this month. And yet, despite what he sees as a city beset by existential economic issues, the race, in his view, is being overwhelmed with ideological conflict.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of ancillary ideological and party influence over an office that needs to be strictly about serving Santa Barbara,” Rowse told the Montecito Journal on March 23. “You can own your own ideology to the race, but once you reach City Hall, you don’t bring it indoor, in my book. If we can just focus on the city, we should simply do that.”

A perfect example, says Rowse, is the debate over how to revitalize State Street, the future of which he feels is being subjected to endless planning debates that are only stalling a much needed and strictly pragmatic economic recovery plan. 

“We have basic business to do,” he says. “We need to reopen it, simplify the permitting processes to get businesses to reopen, and get these businesses back in.”

Rowse grew up in West Covina and didn’t move to Santa Barbara until the early 1970s, but his experience with State Street goes back that far.

“Ever since I got here, there’s been discussion about closing State Street to vehicular traffic,” he says. “When La Cumbre Plaza opened in 1967, there used to be angled parking and the idea was to make this large promenade, so they built these wonderful, wide sidewalks and of course it got design happy with fountains and planters and all that. But State Street became one of the best walking boulevards in the whole world, and all the elements are still there.”

As he sees it, while State Street has never fully recovered from the global depression of 2008, which severely impacted retail shopping in town, City Hall has yet to come up with a coherent policy on how to recover from the drop in downtown street-shopping and the concomitant rise of the Funk Zone. Too much of the problem, he feels, is the inertia that comes with too much partisan politics.

“By nature, the mayor is a non-partisan office,” Rowse says. “People have served as Democrats or Republicans and nobody cared. I was a registered Democrat for most of my life and later became a registered Independent, but I have never really paid attention to party politics or voted along party lines.”

Despite the fact that many people view Rowse as somewhat to the right of Santa Barbara’s traditionally Democratic political center, socially liberal but fiscally conservative, Rowse resists any attempt at labeling him. 

“I just have really strong opinions on a whole bunch of stuff,” he says. “I’ve voted for things that didn’t necessarily fit my ideology but were best for the city.”

As mayor, Rowse says he would first and foremost set about trying to ask all the questions that so far haven’t really been asked, especially when it comes to how to save State Street. This includes which specific blocks should be closed to traffic, why that is and how would that impact crosstown traffic. And how exactly is the city going to balance car traffic with the safety needs of both pedestrians and cyclists?

“Where is money going to come from first of all,” he wonders. “You can’t have normal street curbs and all that if it is going to be ADA compliant.

“Normally you do what you can to keep bikes and pedestrians separate, but if we are trying to encourage bikes, including e-bikes that go up to 20 miles per hour, how do we do that safely? And what about parades? How is all this going to work?”

Rowse says he supports the city’s decision to grant emergency-basis public right-of-way, which has allowed restaurant owners to create outdoor seating parklets along State Street, but he’s not sold on the long-term financial implications of the arrangement. 

“That decision is obviously right for now,” he says. “But is that fair to the city? No, it’s not. We have to charge some kind of rent. And these parklets often cover more width than the storefront itself so what about the retailers we’re trying to keep in business?”

One thing is clear: Rowse is intimately familiar with Santa Barbara’s shifting political winds as well as its ultimate economic struggles. At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the News-Press was a behemoth with hundreds of employees, Rowse’s popular Paradise Café was a mainstay of local journalists and politicos. 

“It was a boom time,” he remembers. “The bar and restaurant were cheek-to-cheek on Fridays and we had great runs all through the 1990s, but then the great depression of 2008 hit, and the Funk Zone opened and people’s habits changed.” 

Although he recognizes that COVID-19 has dealt State Street a severe blow, Rowse says he hopes to help avoid falling into what he sees as a time-consuming trap in which civic leaders try to impose a new vision on how the city’s economy should be run, how businesses should operate, and how people should interact in public spaces.

“With State Street, we see all these people calling for it to be closed for good, or who want to completely reinvent it, and change it, when really, it’s always been a vital part of the city and it’s already starting to come back,” Rowse concludes. “It’s going to take some leadership and experience to make this work, but we’ve done it before. Instead of telling people how we want them to live, we need to ask people how they want to live and then figure out how to make that work. That’s my vision of leadership for Santa Barbara.”

Amid Fallout, L.A. Magazine Drops Key Charge in Cannabis Exposé

Just over a week ago, Los Angeles Magazine published a 4,000-word story that leveled numerous corruption charges involving Santa Barbara’s City Hall and its 2018 handling of a cannabis dispensary license. The piece, authored by former Journal contributor Mitchell Kriegman, specifically accused Anthony Wagner, a police department public information officer, of awarding a dispensary permit to a pair of former business partners.

Last week, Wagner’s boss, Barney Melekian, the city’s interim police chief, placed Wagner on leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation into Wagner’s relationship to both Adam Knopf, a former business contact of Wagner’s who won a city dispensary permit only to flip it to a Florida-based cannabis concern, and Micah Anderson, a former partner of Wagner’s whom Kriegman alleged was also involved in Knopf’s Santa Barbara cannabis deal.

Despite Melekian’s swift move to probe the allegations, it didn’t take long for key components in Kriegman’s story to fall apart under closer scrutiny by local journalists, however. Following a YouTube interview of Kriegman over the weekend by Jerry Roberts, as well as articles that appeared last week in Noozhawk, the Independent, and the Journal, L.A. Magazine printed a brief, yet awkward update to the story.

“A prior version of this story incorrectly identified Micah Anderson as one of the owners that applied for a cannabis dispensary license . . . in Santa Barbara,” the editor’s note, attached to the bottom of Kriegman’s story, stated. “The information we have been provided since the article was published shows that Mr. Anderson was neither an owner . . . nor involved in the application process in Santa Barbara. We apologize for any confusion.” (The note also acknowledged that “several minor adjustments” were made to the story “after publication” but didn’t specify what those were.)

By the time L.A. Magazine ran that key retraction, Wagner, the key player in Kriegman’s piece, who spoke to the Journal last week, had already sent a letter to the magazine outlining some 30 errors in the story, some of which were apparently corrected by the paper in its unspecified post-publication content alterations.

Meanwhile, on March 23, Melekian, who previously said Wagner was cooperating with the city’s probe, part of which is also being carried out by the City Attorney’s office, announced that he’d chosen an independent investigator to dig into Kriegman’s charges.

“The Santa Barbara Police Department has retained the Sintra Group to conduct the investigation into the allegations against a police department employee raised in the L.A. Magazine article,” Melekian stated, referencing Wagner.

“Sintra Group Professional Investigations was founded in 2002 and specializes in public safety administrative and pre-employment background investigations. The firm is owned by Steve Bowman, a retired Assistant Police Chief and attorney at law, and staffed by honorably retired law enforcement personnel with years of investigative experience. During this time the firm has assisted dozens of governmental agencies throughout California in personnel and workplace investigations. The Department will have no further comment on the investigation until it is completed.”

Melekian estimated the probe should be finished in six weeks. 

“At that time, we will release the maximum amount of information allowed,” he promised, “barring any unforeseen complications.”

Stay tuned.

 

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