Oscar Gutierrez, the Uncommon Elected Official Who Connects with Every Constituent

by | Oct 28, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

Oscar Gutierrez always knew he wanted to serve his community, but he never dreamed that shifts in the election process and his unique connection with people would propel him to the dais as a member of the Santa Barbara City Council.

Gutierrez was born and raised on the Westside of Santa Barbara, which he describes as eclectic and diverse. Historically populated by minorities and people who want to start families because of its affordability, the Westside is home to mostly Latino families, shops and restaurants.

“Many people who live on the Westside thought the government didn’t care about them. So, I wanted to help,” Gutierrez said. “The language barrier makes communication tough for them.”

In November 2017, Kathy Murillo’s seat on City Council was vacant because she was voted in as Mayor. Gutierrez had the idea of running for her open seat so he could better serve the people in his community.

It was about this time that the voters approved changing the citywide elections to a six-district model.

The timing and circumstances were perfect for Gutierrez to throw his hat in. At 33 years old, he became the first millennial elected to the Santa Barbara City Council. This past July marks five years that Gutierrez has served as a member of City Council.

Gutierrez frequently attends nonprofit fundraising events. People are always been impressed by his friendly, approachable nature. He sees these events as a way of getting to know nonprofit executives and supporters on a more personal level.

This article will  shine a light on this unlikely public servant to find out more about his philosophy and motives for service.

“I make it a priority to be accessible to everyone,” Gutierrez explained. “I am on most social media platforms, like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, Nextdoor, and Reddit, because I want to be accessible and responsive.”

He says he answers every message he receives because he wants people to know he is there to serve them. On any given day, that means at least 100 emails. Sometimes more if there is a controversial topic.

A long background in communication.

Gutierrez’s history with media began when he graduated with honors from San Marcos High School Majors Program in Arts and Media. He then graduated with three national awards from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges (J.A.C.C.) for his work in Broadcast Journalism at the School of Media Arts, Santa Barbara City College.

Gutierrez’s LinkedIn page tells us that he graduated at the top of his class from University California Santa Barbara with some of the highest honors their Film Department had to offer, along with UCLA’s Best Documentary award for his senior film project.

During his 17-year career he has worked for some of the nation’s top educational institutions like SBCC and UCSB in the fields of Journalism and Videography as well as conglomerates such as ABC, Warner Brothers, and Univision.

He also worked at TVSB for several years. His work has been nominated and awarded over 30 times for national and regional awards in the fields of Journalism, Film, and Television.

“I can’t shake the desire to inform and reach out to people,” Gutierrez said. “It’s one of my priorities in life in general. As I walk down the street and meet people I’ve responded to, I can see it’s worth it. I always want to be accessible and responsive.

“I hope I’m changing the opinion of the general public about communicating with elected officials. Everything is so fast in 2023 and when we reach out to the people who make our laws, it should be as quick as dialing a friend.”

Gutierrez would like to make some changes.

If Gutierrez had a magic wand and unlimited resources, he would like to make some changes in Santa Barbara.

“I would make Santa Barbara more affordable,” Gutierrez replied. “So many of our friends and family have had to move away because of the high cost of living.”

He pointed out that City Council is trying to raise the minimum wage and improve housing ordinances, like rent control, but it’s proving to be complicated because there are always unintended consequences.

Next, Gutierrez turned his attention to the lack of open spaces. “I am a fan of parks,” Gutierrez said. “But many of our parks are being remodeled by erecting fencing which makes some community members feel shut out.”

He acknowledged that the Parks and Recreation Department wants to protect the longevity of our parks as well as safeguard the people in the parks. But he thinks that, psychologically, fencing sends out the message to stay out.

Gutierrez wonders how we can navigate this issue. “Parks are over 100 years old,” he said. “So why put fences up now?” He pointed out that school campuses used to be open, and kids could go play on the school grounds.

But over the years school districts have shut down in off hours, resulting in the public feeling excluded. As a result of Gutierrez’s requests, two campuses, Harding Elementary School and La Cumbre Junior High School, will be open on weekends and holidays.

Still clutching his magic wand, Gutierrez turned his attention to the beautiful views from the Santa Barbara hills.

“If I had a magic wand, I would purchase the property on TV hill and make it into a park so everyone can go up to see the view,” Gutierrez said. “Jeff Shelton, a Santa Barbara architect, is actually working on this dream right now.

“I want people to really appreciate where they live, so access is a big deal for me. I want the public to have access to schools, access to media, access to open spaces, and access to the government through elected officials.”

Gutierrez added that some of our elected officials are working with Cox to give TVSB access to HD (High Definition).

The topic of bicycling is getting divisive.

Gutierrez has been surprised that something as common as riding a bicycle has become contentious, especially cycling on State Street.

“Some people love being able to ride their bikes downtown,” Gutierrez said. “Others say the city is favoring bikes over cars.”

Gutierrez grew up riding a bike and has embraced the new technology of electric bikes for his own enjoyment.

But cycling on State Street, especially on electric bikes, is causing challenges for many cities and lawmakers. It appears several cities are watching to see how Santa Barbara handles this issue.

The City Council is trying to figure out a middle ground that is safe but accessible. Gutierrez says the Council appreciates everyone’s input, whether they want bikes on State Street banned outright, no restrictions at all, or something in between.

“This challenge has given me a new understanding of how cycling on State Street impacts various populations — the elderly, the disabled, and the children,” Gutierrez said.

“It seems to me that to be a truly equitable city, we must ban the irresponsible bike riders, so they don’t make all bike riders look bad.”

We have a diverse City Council.

 “I am proud to be part of a very diverse council in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity,” Gutierrez said. “We work well together even though we don’t agree all the time.”

He is also gratified by the way Santa Barbara responded to the pandemic challenges by closing State Street, a move that was better than most cities.

He is also proud of the way our city responds so quickly to natural disasters.

“I am also proud of how our city provides so much information in a multicultural and bilingual format with accessibility via internet and television,” Gutierrez said. “We all pushed for this since I’ve been on Council and the community appreciates it.”

 “I feel like I have raised the bar,” Gutierrez said. “Eric Friedman and I try to see who can be the quickest to respond and who is the most accessible.

“If I started a trend, I’m happy. It’s important to be accessible and responsive to have a healthy democracy.”