A journalist, a publisher, a professor, a community organizer and a stalwart of the UC Santa Barbara and Isla Vista communities, George Thurlow has lived many lives since he graduated from the university in 1973 with a degree in sociology.
In December 2020, he most recently closed the book on a nearly four-year term as the first university-appointed director on the Isla Vista Community Service District’s (I.V. CSD) board of directors. His resignation from the board came in tandem with his departure from his role as UCSB’s assistant vice chancellor of alumni affairs, a position he had held since 2006.
Thurlow’s tenure on the I.V. CSD board of directors was the product of a years-long relationship with UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang, who hired Thurlow in 2015 as his special assistant “to be inside the inner circle to talk about Isla Vista,” Thurlow said in an interview with the Nexus.
Thurlow said Yang was compelled to hire a special assistant after a report from the UCSB Foundation Trustees — produced in the wake of the 2014 I.V. tragedy — recommended that the university needed to “take more responsibility in Isla Vista.”
Through his work as Yang’s special assistant, Thurlow said Yang appointed him to the I.V. CSD board of directors in 2017.
“I think the feeling was at that point that I’d already been participating in all of the community events and actions,” Thurlow said, “and I think [Yang] felt it was natural that I would be the university’s representative.”
His appointment, however, did not come without resistance. Community members and board members alike have long taken issue with having university-appointed and county-appointed seats at the table, arguing that they infringe upon the district’s independence.
“UCSB is critical to the future of Isla Vista as well as the future of self-government,” Thurlow said. “My argument would be that if you want us to speed up and play a greater role, you’ve got to have [us] at the table.”
Thurlow said his role was unique in that he was the only board member who reported directly to Yang as a liaison to the university. In addition to balancing the needs of UCSB with the needs of I.V., Thurlow used his coinciding role in alumni affairs to facilitate the I.V. CSD’s first paid internship program in 2017 by establishing a pipeline through UCSB’s Department of Political Science.
“It was incredibly successful,” he said, “and it was a good way to get labor involved when there was no revenue coming in.”
“The interns that we had all really appreciated the process and everything that they learned,” he continued. “To be involved in the startup of a new government agency was good for them.”
Once the I.V. CSD started receiving revenue through a utility tax in 2018, it began running the internship program exclusively, Thurlow said. At first, getting the I.V. CSD in the green was easier said than done.
“What I worry that history will forget is that the first $200,000 payment [from UCSB] saved the CSD,” he said. “But the politics of the CSD just taking the money and running, and the optics of that, meant the solution had to be clever.”
So, Thurlow said, the I.V. CSD strategically kept 10 to 20% from UCSB’s first payment as overhead, which “kept the doors open and the lights on” during the I.V. CSD’s humble beginnings.
“The university understood this implicitly because it takes up to 50% of all federal grants for overhead,” he added. “Every university does that.”
Throughout his term, Thurlow said he continued to work in a manner more clandestine than his colleagues, in part because his role required attention to the less-visible aspects of self-governance, such as maintaining and facilitating relationships with stakeholders at the university and county level.
“I would never be so presumptuous as to say that I had personal successes regarding the CSD,” Thurlow said. “And if I did, they would [come from] behind the curtain.”
When it came to meetings, however, Thurlow was always there: “I had a pretty damn good attendance record,” he said. The Nexus concurs.
In light of working out of the public’s view, Thurlow said he made efforts during his term to be more transparent about his work, though in some cases it came back to bite him.
“What I came to learn is that on campus, I was viewed as a little bit of a renegade — somebody who was too transparent at times about what the university was doing,” Thurlow said. “There was just a feeling that perhaps I had taken on the job a little bit too robustly and ended up drinking the Isla Vista Kool Aid.”
Thurlow left the board with one regret — not being able to have a hand in the I.V. CSD’s formation of a municipal advisory council (MAC), which is a body of local residents who represent the community’s interests. Since gaining approval from the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) in 2018, the I.V. CSD has had the power to finance a MAC, he said, and it needs to do so “as soon as possible.”
“The MAC is really important now because it’s a vehicle for the community to take control of its future,” he emphasized.
LAFCO’s ability to review the work of the I.V. CSD will ultimately determine if the local government is “doing what [it’s] actually supposed to be doing,” Thurlow said. If LAFCO determines the I.V. CSD is not acting on its powers in a timely manner, which includes the formation of a MAC, it could take them away, the Santa Barbara Independent reported.
In a broad view, Thurlow brought to the I.V. CSD board of directors a wealth of knowledge during his term, and it is undeniable that his familiarity with and ability to render relationships throughout the UCSB and I.V. communities were a boon to the evergreen local government.
After all, this was his wheelhouse.
“The entire board was just perfect,” Thurlow remarked, quick to give credit to his colleagues.
“When a new city is formed, the first five years is nothing but battles between opposing constituent groups. We didn’t go through that,” he said. “We went right into governing.”