Four candidates are running for two seats on the Solvang City Council in the November election and two candidates are vying for the seat of Councilman Niels “Chris” Djernaes, who faces potential recall.
Council members Karen Waite and Daniel Johnson have opted not to run for reelection, with Waite instead running against Charlie Uhrig for the mayor’s seat as Mayor Ryan Toussaint’s term comes to a close.
Candidates for the pair of four-year council seats include Chris Bowyer, Claudia Orona, Justin Rodriguez and Mark Infanti.
Djernaes still has two years left on his term, but he’s facing a recall in the Nov. 3 election initiated by citizens who, among other things, claim he disregarded the Ralph M. Brown Act — the state law requiring governments to do the public’s business in public — and violated the council’s code of ethics, as well as ignored the will of the voters.
Djernaes has said he is passionate about the causes he believes in and positions he has taken but said he has represented the majority of the city’s residents and looks forward to recampaigning on the platform that got him elected.
According to California Election Code, if a majority of electors vote "yes" on the recall question, Djernaes will be recalled from office and replaced by the top vote-getter in a race between Jim Thomas and Jamie Baker.
If a majority of electors vote “no" on the recall, Djernaes will remain in office to complete his term.
Contract security adviser and consultant Chris Bowyer spent his formative years in Germany and traveled the world before he landed home in Solvang a little over two years ago. Now, he’d like to serve on the City Council with focuses on transparency, accountability, accessibility as well as representation of the service industry working class.
“I am not a (Santa Ynez) Valley native. I’m not someone who’s grown up here my whole life. I’m someone who’s had the good fortune to live in 39 countries on five continents and Solvang is the first place I’ve made a decision to call home. I have nothing but the best interest of the community and neighbors in my heart. I’m truly here to listen to feedback and make sound decisions accordingly,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer, who served two enlistments in the U.S. Marine Corps, volunteers with Santa Barbara Veterans Foundation.
“The Ed St. George development threat to the vets hall hit me to my core. The building was meant to honor guys like the friends I’ve lost and meant to recognize guys from all eras. To threaten it for a massive shopping complex left such a bad taste,” Bowyer said.
He was buoyed by the communities’ strong, swift response in opposition to the initial project proposal, and recognized the property owner’s right to develop. He’s not a fan of the four-story proposal now on the table, nor its circumvention of parking provisions.
“I’m hoping he’ll take to heart the community’s concerns. If he can come up with a plan that addresses those appropriately, keeps the heart and soul of Solvang while addressing affordable housing, I’m all for it,” Bowyer said.
He disagreed with the way the sitting council members and city staff dealt with the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, was concerned about purported Brown Act violations, and the replacement of city staff with contractors.
“There was a right way to do this while adhering to guidelines in employee contracts, but we’re consistently seeing the wrong way applied to these decisions,” Bowyer said.
After talking to business owners along Copenhagen Drive, he supports the council’s decision to close a section of the street to allow businesses to reopen under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“It was absolutely necessary to provide local businesses the opportunity to reengage, but it’s problematic. Still, a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed in two months. I recognize there are difficulties with accessibility, branding and design. It was a bold adjustment that needs minor corrections,” Bowyer said.
He cited, as long-term projects to be addressed, the city’s wastewater treatment plant, infrastructure and expansion of the Santa Ynez River Trail.
“We won’t be able to grow as a town if we don’t take care of our infrastructure problems, and ultimately I’d like to see a more connected Solvang with more secure infrastructure and more diversification in the economy,” Bowyer said.
CLAUDIA “CLAU” ORONA
Claudia Orona, owner and operator of Solvang Trolley Carriage Company and Solvang Trolley Ice Cream Parlor, moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in 2008 and settled in Solvang in 2015. She was driven to run for council, she said, after her family’s business “came under attack” by Djernaes.
“I was appalled that, after 13 years of service doing nothing wrong and having an impeccable record, my family had to beg for their livelihood and deal with the disdain of Chris (Djernaes) who used every avenue he had to keep us out of town for some reason, and no one should be treated that way. I want to preserve and protect the character that Solvang means for its residents, and we can do better at treating the community better as a City Council,” Orona said.
Orona’s parents, Lorena and Sal Orona, took over Solvang’s horse-drawn carriage company, started in 1973, in 2007.
“My family was able to build a business in this community. I live here and I love it and I want to be there for anyone who needs help building their mom-and-pop company and living in this community that millions of people enjoy every year,” Orona said
Orona said she has been involved with the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden, organizing the Solvang Faeriefest from 2011 to 2017. She has volunteered trolley service on special occasions to the city of Solvang, Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, Danish Days Foundation, Solvang Senior Center and provided carriages for a variety of parades over the years. She also has been involved with Santa Barbara’s Solstice Parade, American Dance and Music, and Burning Man Festival, where she was on the crew responsible for keeping 150 firefighters fed.
“I know what it’s like to live and work in Solvang. I’ve been a hospitality worker and a business owner. I understand the struggles of making a living in Solvang, so I can be a voice for people who depend on this town for their livelihood. As a younger Mexican American, I also bring a different voice to the table, but I don’t want to run on the diversity ticket,” Orona said.
While the COVID-19-induced closure of Copenhagen Drive has impacted her business, Orona said she understands the need. She would like the city to address accessibility issues, the resultant reduction in parking, and challenges the closure poses for trucks trying to deliver to local merchants.
“I understand we’re in a tough position with COVID and the fact that revenue has been impacted by COVID, but it’s frustrating that it seems like staff is overwhelmed because we don’t have enough staff, technicians and expertise to address all the things the city has to offer. They often say they’re doing more with less, but you don’t do more for Solvang by outsourcing your technicians and your clerks, because now you have people working out of town addressing Solvang matters when they aren’t familiar with the city. That’s just inefficient,” Orona said.
She said she appreciates the efforts of IDK, the events company with which Solvang contracted after opting to end its longtime contract with Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, but said the job should be performed locally.
“IDK did a very good job producing Julefest and they’re doing a great job promoting the town and keeping Solvang relevant in social media while COVID is going on, but we have the people and resources to have a local agency that does that and takes local businesses into consideration. We have the local talent. I would like to see future administrations make use of it,” Orona said.
She also would like the city to address affordable housing but not with the proposed Old Lumberyard development as currently proposed.
“We should think about how to enhance the Solvang we already have. We need to look at existing owners to improve older buildings and bring them up to modern standards. I’m very against Solvang 2.0 building something that’s modern and competes with the downtown area and adds commercial space in an area where traffic is already an issue,” Orona said.
Mark Infanti first stepped into Solvang more than three decades ago while celebrating his first wedding anniversary. He and his bride made the city their home seven years ago after he retired as a project management consultant with the federal government.
He was later appointed to the Solvang Board of Architectural Review to fill a vacant seat before he completed two more terms on the board. He is a docent at Sedgwick Reserve, on the Elverhøj Museum Grounds Committee, a star patron of Solvang Festival Theatre and member of Wildling Museum of Art & Nature.
“I want to protect Solvang for its residents and that protection is the internal workings of the city and the culture of the city. I don’t want four-story cement block hotels. I don’t want Solvang 2.0. And I want a new wastewater treatment plant. I want to listen to the people. I want the city to be viable and I want the culture to be sustainable,” Infanti said.
Infanti disagrees with the current council’s expenditures on studies and outsourcing, any idea that would make Solvang more like Disneyland, and the use of outside consultants. He said the city “doesn’t have a good budget plan,” “spent a whole lot of money on a lawyer who knows nothing about being a municipal attorney” and “is being mismanaged, spending money it doesn’t have (and) does things like putting the circus in town.”
“Our current City Council has had some reasonably good intentions and made miserable decisions as far as I’m concerned and most of the city is concerned. It drives me nuts what they’ve been doing to the city,” he said.
While he’s enjoyed the “cool factor” of the Copenhagen Drive closure, Infanti said he would like to see the city address further parking issues that have arisen through the loss of more than 50 parking spots along the drive, as well as spread the financial and marketing love throughout the city.
“I don’t know that closing Copenhagen is a good idea. I don’t think it’s a bad idea. But should the city be spending money to help 25 businesses in two blocks? What about the other businesses in the rest of the city and way down the street,” Infanti said.
Ultimately, Infanti said he would like to see Solvang develop “a good economic development committee with business representatives, owners and residents saying what’s good, ‘cause I’ll tell you right now, the local residents don’t want to shop at the Solvang shops ’cause they can’t pull in and park in front of them. They’ll walk 200 yards in the Costco parking lot, but don’t want to cross Alisal to get there. That’s a fact. It’s a funny thing.”
He said he would also like the city to diversify its tax base so it isn’t so dependent on tourism.
Justin Rodriguez, owner of Goleta-based Central Coast Paving, has lived in Solvang since 2015. He served as an appointed member of Solvang Planning Commission two years and as vice president of Santa Ynez Valley Charter School Parent-Teacher-Student Organization.
“My experience provides an inside view of what’s happening with statewide issues like accessory dwelling units. Our community needs that knowledge and guidance. A lot of the other candidates are outsiders; they haven’t been inside of the community. I’ve been there,” Rodriguez said.
He said he believes the current city council has made some positive changes including “restricting city government, downsizing and eliminating a lot of the waste and cutting the fat to make sure the city will be financially viable in the future.” He commended the council for reacting quickly to COVID-19 mandated closures with “programs that helped local businesses adapt.” He also appreciated that the city maintained water rates and continued working on wastewater facility update plans, but he has some additional ideas.
“We don’t need to tear out and rebuild a new facility. We can retrofit what we have so it will last a long time but not be a complete burden right now, especially on people paying taxes right now post-COVID,” Rodriguez said.
As a council member, he also would like to introduce more traffic-calming measures in trouble spots throughout the city, potentially including speed bumps and removing foliage that hides traffic signs.
Rodriguez said he would like to see the Copenhagen Drive closure “investigated more to make sure it’s something everyone wants” adding the move mostly benefited tourism businesses while making it inconvenient for locals to get around the village for daily errands. He said he may be more likely to push for a hybrid plan, which closes the street during weekends and holiday periods while opening it for local traffic during traditionally slow days.
As a council member, Rodriguez said he would push for updating aging infrastructure and further promoting Solvang as a tourist destination while keeping an eye on “measured growth and development that revitalizes the community in a way that will capture tourists for future generations and preserve Solvang as a place people can be proud to call home.”
Jamie Baker first moved to Solvang in 1979 to work for PCPA.
“I experienced the city from the ages of 18 to 23. It was a pretty magical time to be here, so Solvang has always been a pretty special place to me. When it was time to raise my kids, I wanted to bring them back to a place that probably places less stress on them than L.A. or Pasadena,” he said.
They made the move a little over a decade ago, and have opened Space VR, an education entertainment virtual reality business. In January, he joined the Solvang Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
“I want every new person that comes to Solvang to experience the magic and enchantment that I did the first time I came here. I want them to know this is a very special place,” Baker said.
He watched in confusion as the City Council, Chamber and CVB worked through their contract breakup.
“Why aren’t these people working together? Isn’t it our goal to help business and improve business, or are (they) just here as a coded political action committee? I’m not interested in that, either. I find there are ears on the City Council that will listen to you as long as you’re not yelling at them,” Baker said.
He would like to see Solvang return to promoting arts and culture as it did in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“With the expansion of the wine industry and wedding industry and the two-hour, easy-escape industry, we’re just this Thursday-through-Sunday, four-month-out-of-the-year town. We’re ignoring enormous amounts of time to create opportunities,” Baker said.
He supports the closure of Copenhagen, though says it was executed poorly.
“The problem was the lack of revenue and time. If you can address those issues like adults and not panic, it can really make the town shine. Reach out to art directors and scenic directors who know how to build facades that are safe and create magic and enchantment. Get their word. Don’t immediately think you're going to build that from products you find in catalogs,” Baker said.
He added the city’s parking issue could be partially addressed by limiting parking on Mission Drive between Fifth Street and Alisal Road to 15-minute spaces for visitors with long-term parking placards provided only to locals. All government property lots, including the elementary school, should be open for free parking and marked as such. Parking Lot 2, the lot immediately adjacent to the Solvang Visitors Center, should be limited entirely to handicapped placards and electric cars, he said.
He is not a supporter of the Veteran’s Hall at the expense of a project that he said could have a positive impact on the city’s revenue stream.
“Architecturally, I see no historical value to it. Culturally, if we’re a Danish town, it definitely doesn’t fit our design. If we’re a town that wants to make our kids visit when we’re old, then we have to provide things for them,” Baker said.
He didn’t support, in entirety, the initial plan at the Old Lumberyard, but “it’s definitely not what I want now."
“I want something that contributes to the tax base. We’re the jewel of Santa Ynez Valley. Event and wedding traffic is peeling out to neighboring communities and venues. Solvang 2.0 offered a luxury hotel able to compete with the casino and Zaca Mesa Winery and Maddie’s Tavern,” Baker said.
He would also like the city to develop in abandoned spaces projects that would ultimately contribute to city revenue.
“We’re a walking city and museum city. People walk by and look in the windows. If we’re going to be Northern European, Old World, people want to see working businesses. I love the candy-making shop on the corner. I’d like to see a shoemaker in the shoe shop. I’d like to see what we’re really pretending to be presenting,” Baker said.
Retired Santa Barbara County Sheriff Jim Thomas rose through the ranks of law enforcement before winning top spot in a 1990 election. During three years of his 12-year tenure, he also served as the county’s fire chief.
“I went into an organization I didn’t know much about, but I listened to the people on the line and made the decisions. That’s what I do. I don’t have knowledge of everything that goes on in a city, but I know how to read, listen and make decisions,” Thomas said.
In retirement, he branched out, taking jobs as a government affairs consultant for Exxon on Aera Energy's East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Project, serving as consultant to MSNBC, and helping his wife with their wine-and-cheese shop, delivering to local wineries.
In 2002, he ran in a recall election to replace 3rd District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gail Marshall. Although Thomas was the top vote-getter among the challengers, the recall effort failed. He also ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2006.
As a 30-year resident of the Santa Ynez Valley, the past dozen in Solvang, he’s ready to bring his service home.
“I don’t come with a hard, set agenda. I do come in, I think, with a sense of service and maturity and ability to make decisions. I listen to all sides, listen to line staff,” Thomas said.
Thomas is a member of Vikings of Solvang and Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding Center.
“I’ve been involved with the community for some time. I had no interest in getting involved in the political arena, but watching the City Council of late, I saw some actions by one particular council member that I thought was very disturbing, and I came to the opinion that I can do better than that,” Thomas said.
He said that while the council did many of the things they set out to do, he didn’t believe they knew the ramifications of their decisions. Chiefly, he didn’t agree with the council’s decision to lay off employees in favor of contractors, and he’d like to bring regular employees back.
“They know the city, they know the people, and they’re more responsive. I have nothing against IDK, but it seems to me we have a lot of experience here with people who are familiar and perhaps lived here forever,” Thomas said.
The Old Lumberyard development also spurred him to action.
“When I saw what they wanted to do, I thought it was horrendous. I know he has a right to build there. I’d like to see him do something in style with the mission. It’s more in the mission district being across the way, and would make it nice for people coming into town from that direction,” Thomas said.
The closure of Copenhagen Drive, he said, does seem to fit the city’s image and he’d consider making it permanent or seasonal depending up the will of the people served. Thomas said he spoke to every shop owner or manager along that street to hear their feedback, which illuminated the need to address tripping hazards posed by curbs, and convenient parking for elderly residents.
“My biggest concern is infrastructure,” Thomas said, noting the wastewater treatment plant specifically.
He also said the city must continue to advertise itself to its largest market, tourists, to bolster its largest revenue stream: transient occupancy tax and sales tax.
“Solvang will always be a tourist town. I’m willing to listen to any idea that will make this community better and make sure people here have a safe and vibrant environment,” Thomas said.
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