Isla Vista – a square mile of land dually known for its activism and its daygers, a community neither Goleta or Santa Barbara will claim as its own – has been fighting for a form of self-governance for decades.
But it wasn’t until Election Day 2016 that those efforts came to fruition, when Isla Vistans voted into existence the Isla Vista Community Service District (I.V. CSD). Its seven-member Board of Directors would, over the next few years, give the community its first official representation in the larger county government sphere.
As it approaches nearly three years since that November election and just over a year since the district gained a permanent funding source, the district has begun to land on its feet following a rocky first few years.
“We were just reflecting the other day about how it was three years ago when law enforcement came in and said ‘We need to do a new noise ordinance for Isla Vista,’ and now today they’re doing sort of the reverse of that and saying ‘We’re gonna do a restorative justice program for people who have noise tickets,’” Board President Spencer Brandt said.
“And so that’s sort of indicative of the culture change that I’ve always wanted to bring.”
But when the district first formed, there was no framework for what Ethan Bertrand, former board president and current director, referred to as “probably the most unique local government in California.”
“We were just so excited to hit the ground running,” Bertrand said. “But before we did that, there was so much administrative work to do.”
The first few meetings were spent figuring out the logistics of how a local government could exist without any funding; they also received feedback from community members on what Isla Vistans wanted to see from the district.
THE I.V. CSD IN ITS FIRST DAYS:
While the I.V. CSD was voted into existence in November 2016, it wasn’t until March 2017 that the board actually held its first meeting.
And right from the get go, the public came to the district. The board’s first meeting saw the I.V. community room filled nearly to capacity and lasted nearly six hours.
“At that first meeting, I really remember the feeling of the weight of 50 years of activism on our shoulders,” Bertrand said. “People had fought for this for so long, and there had been so many efforts and so much love for this community that went into this long-term movement to create a local government.”
The inaugural board was composed of seven members: Bertrand, Vice President Natalie Jordan, Secretary Brandt and Directors Jay Freeman, Robert Geis, Father Jon Hedges and George Thurlow.
Of the board’s seven members, five are elected. The other two seats are appointed by UCSB and Santa Barbara County to represent their respective interests.
When the district first formed, Bertrand was a student at Santa Barbara City College, while Brandt ‘19 and Jordan ‘18 were students at UCSB. Two long-term I.V. residents, entrepreneur Jay Freeman ‘03 and local reverend Father Jon Hedges, also won elected seats.
Geis, a retired county official, and Thurlow ‘73, a university administrator, hold the appointed positions. Both are long-term Santa Barbara residents.
Bertrand and Brandt both said the different generations represented on the board, specifically the “diversity of viewpoints,” formed a more cohesive board, with Brandt pointing specifically to Geis’ years of previous experience in local government as an advantage the board would not have had otherwise.
“One of the big disadvantages of being young in local government spaces, which are predominantly older and whiter and more traditional, is that you don’t really have the context for a lot of things and why certain things are set up the way that they are and how to best go about things to achieve the outcome that you want,” Brandt said.
Jonathan Abboud ‘14, former Associated Students President and SBCC Board Trustee, took over as the district’s interim general manager in October 2017 and as the permanent general manager in December 2018. The position of interim general manager was created to account for the district’s unexpectedly small budget.
The district faced several crippling impediments at its formation, but none more so than one that loomed for nearly two years after its creation: a lack of funds.
While the board theoretically had the power to implement programs and make changes around I.V., it didn’t have the funding to do so. An eight percent utility tax on I.V. residents failed in the 2016 election, with only 62% of residents voting yes. It needed 66.66% of the vote to pass.
Darcél Elliott had managed the campaigns for both the district and its accompanying tax. When the district passed but the funding failed, Elliott pointed to campaigns by I.V. property owners who had vocally opposed the tax.
“In this election, fear won over hope,” Elliott said on election night.
The district’s funds would come from a yearly $200,000 grant from UCSB, but the money could only be spent on services the university agreed were useful.
And if the district failed to secure a tax by 2023, it would cease to exist, a deadline that haunted the newly formed district. So when the board placed a new tax on the June 2018 ballot, local campaigners ramped up their efforts to win voter approval.
More than 80% of Isla Vistans would vote to provide the district funding through Measure R, a measure that was nearly identical to its failed predecessor, Measure F. Measure R promised improvements to parking, public safety, lighting and sidewalks.
Across the 10 precincts, 638 I.V. residents voted yes on the measure while 133 residents voted no, according to Santa Barbara County semi-official election night results: 82.75% vs. 17.25%.
The eight percent tax has brought an influx of cash into the district. The district ended its 2018-2019 fiscal year with nearly half a million in spending compared to over $800,000 in income – a far cry from what it started out with.
For the next fiscal year, the district expects a $200,000 increase in funding, rounding up to more than $1 million, according to numbers released by the district in May.
THE CSD’S FIRST SERVICES:
Without consistent revenue, the district spent its first year setting up as many services as possible with its limited resources, which involved “lots of strong partnerships with other government agencies and non-profit service providers,” Bertrand said.
The board’s first project was expanding community policing efforts. Community Service Organization (CSO) safety officers have always escorted students home on weekend nights, but the district worked with UCSB to set up in-person stations at streetside locations for students to seek help.
CSOs — who almost always are UCSB students themselves — worked over 3,000 hours and provided over 300 escorts during the last academic year, according to numbers released in July.
“They’re there not to enforce, but to help people, to give out water, to help people charge their phones, to give people an escort home and when there is a safety concern, they’re there to call it into the police,” Bertrand said.
The I.V. CSD has also focused on sexual violence-related issues, hiring the first interpersonal violence investigator to work within the UCPD and partnering with Standing Together Against Sexual Assault (STESA) to set up a survivor resource center in I.V.
One of the district’s most recent initiatives is a community-led beautification program, where I.V. residents can report graffiti, trash, vandalism or lighting issues to the district. The district will then either send out workers — houseless community members they hired to tackle these issues — or forward the requests to the county if necessary.
“What we aim to do with this program is to solve those problems, through graffiti abatement and other sorts of cleaning, in a way that includes all of our community in the conversation and recognizes that folks experiencing homelessness are members of our community and are valued members of our community,” Brandt said at the program’s launch in April.
WHERE THE CSD HAS STRUGGLED:
The directors have acknowledged that the board, in its first iteration, struggled to reflect the demographics of I.V.’s population – six of the seven board members are male, and Bertrand was the only person of color on the board until Nguyen replaced Jordan.
Nguyen is still the only woman on the board, and Bertrand is the only member that identifies as LGBTQ+.
“I say this as a straight white guy – it’s a huge problem that it’s only people who look like me who feel most empowered to get involved in local government,” Brandt said.
“We benefit so much from the perspective and the leadership of women and people of color, and it is really something that we, speaking for myself and for all of us, really try to encourage the next generation of leaders to reflect that and would like to see a more diverse board in the future.”
Bertrand emphasized that the board did vote a “gay man of color” as its first president and a woman as its vice president.
The district has also stalled on its promise of a low-income exception to the tax, which it campaigned on ahead of the June 2018 election.
Last fall, more than four months after the tax had passed, the directors were still split on whether or not to implement the exemption, with some directors arguing that residents could expose loopholes to avoid the tax. The board has still not addressed implementing the promised exemption.
“[Isla Vista] is a poverty hotspot, and as we all know, there is a large student population here that is not exactly rolling in money,” Bertrand said during the district’s Oct. 9, 2018 meeting. “It’s hard to grant exemptions to anyone.”
So far, the district has also failed to substantively address the issue of parking in I.V. — an issue it was formed to tackle. Parking in I.V. remains one of the biggest downsides to living in the tightly-packed neighborhood, with limited parking attached to houses and even fewer open spots available on the street.
Street parking in I.V. can also be dangerous; numerous students have posted on social media about windows being smashed and mirrors removed by drunk cyclists or a baseball bat.
During larger events like Deltopia or Halloween, the university actively encourages students to purchase parking passes to move their cars out of I.V. and remove valuables from their cars.
“On the broader parking issue, I think that’s been one of those issues where everyone has made it very clear to us that it’s a difficult problem to solve, and that if we’re gonna do anything on it, we need to have the internal staff capacity to be able to put something together that actually works,” Brandt said.
“In the future, we really need to have a professional come in and assess the situation and make some strong recommendations.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The I.V. CSD is tackling what is probably its biggest project yet – the revival of the Isla Vista Community Center (IVCC), a center that many I.V. residents thought would never exist. The center is set to have a soft opening in October and a grand opening in January or February 2020.
Bertrand noted that even before the I.V. CSD was created, he and Brandt attended meetings for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to express the need for I.V.’s own community center.
At their board retreat a few weeks ago, the directors talked about their goals, both short-term and long-term, for the district.
“Whether it’s cityhood or not, all of us want there to be the strongest local government for Isla Vista,” Bertrand said. “I think our overarching goal was for I.V. to be a community where people can live comfortably, where someone can come to college here but doesn’t have to leave when they graduate.”
“Right now, this is a place where people come for a few years for school and there’s some people who’ve made their lives here. But in between, there’s not many people,” he continued.
“People come and go, and our job, I think our biggest job is to just make it a community where people want to stay.”