It’s been a busy first year on the job for San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon.
After edging incumbent Jan Marx in November 2016 by 47 votes, Harmon has organized about 25 neighborhood walks with constituents, hosted community potlucks and led the charge on policy decisions ranging from a straws-upon-request ordinance and a plastic bottle ban at city government facilities and city-permitted events to her support of the repeal of the controversial Rental Housing Inspection Program.
The former community organizer known for the signature flower she wears with pride as a symbol of femininity and determination who rallied against the Phillips 66 Co. oil-by-rail proposal (denied by the county Board of Supervisors in 2016) said her mayoral duties are a calling that has connected her with the community on a deeper level.
She’s “strongly considering” running for again for mayor at the end her two-year term in 2018, despite the fact that the $1,500 monthly pay hardly matches up with the “sun-up to sundown” role she says she assumes.
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“I haven’t made up my mind officially,” Harmon said.
In a wide-ranging interview (edited for brevity and clarity) The Tribune spoke with Harmon about some of her experiences and policy decisions serving as a progressive leader in the county’s most populated city.
How would you sum up your first year?
I have really enjoyed it. The only real challenge in part are those who are more or less committed to negativity and lack of civility. I am working on myself and really trying to invite other people to understand that we can have differing views and express those in a way that’s respectful and constructive and really solution-oriented and not attack the person but really talk about the issues.
I have noticed that you have been criticized often online. Does that bother you?
I’m actually considering leaving Facebook altogether. I’m not sure that’s exactly what I’ll do. If (online posts are) constructive and informative and respectful, that’s great. There are those, though, who take every opportunity to post something negative, aggressive, disrespectful, personal. And that can be really dangerous and limit others’ speech. It’s hard to create a space that’s constructive without it getting really negative.
Nationally, sexism has been a big topic recently. Have you faced that?
I think there’s a lot of misogyny in our culture in general. I think when people comment on how a woman looks, how I look, as opposed to what I’m saying, instead of the content of my policies, for example, that’s an aspect of misogyny. It can come from women, too. In the campaign we had last year, the challenger (former mayor Jan Marx), for example, calling me flamboyant I think is an aspect of the internalized misogyny that we all have even as women. Seeing a woman in her full authentic self can be hard to accept. But most of the feedback is whatever perception people had of me at first, they’re generally appreciative and impressed with the job we’ve done as a council over the past year.
A lot of people are curious about the flower you routinely wear at council meetings and in public. Is there a reason behind it?
I’m from Pasadena, the city of roses. My great grandmother was in the first Rose Parade. But I think even more than those early influences, I’m really excited about and interested in what might happen if we have more people coming from a feminine perspective in positions of power — be that politics, business or any aspect of life. I’m saying this the day after the president has basically threatened nuclear war by saying his button is bigger than the North Korean president’s button. I think that really has to be the pinnacle of toxic masculinity. What I’m wondering is that if we had more people coming from a feminine perspective what that balance might bring. The rose in many ways is a symbol of not shying away or apologizing for that feminine perspective.
(Note: Harmon said she even received a message from a senior citizen woman who told her to “lose it.”)
Development was a hot topic in your first year. Where do you stand on housing more people in SLO and getting more commuters off the road?
SLO is a special community, and it makes sense people are passionate about this. To me, it doesn’t make sense that some people say, “Because I was born here or lived here a long time, and because my parents were born here years ago, that means that me and mine have a right to be in this space.” We can only build out so much, and that buildout is understood. We need to be mindful of where those projects are and how those projects are implemented while holding developers accountable for (their) fair share of infrastructure. It’s not an easy debate. But there are costs to not developing also. Employers are having trouble hiring. A lot of young people can’t afford to live here. When you look at addressing those things, housing is a key. We also need to hold Cal Poly — and Cuesta, too — accountable. What opportunities does Cal Poly have to house more students on campus? I’m also really interested in encouraging programs such as HomeShareSLO and tiny homes and accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats).
Is there tension between Cal Poly and the city?
There will probably always be a little bit of tension, but it’s a healthy tension. Cal Poly is not in the city limits (it’s on state land), and some people want me to march onto campus and demand this, that and the other. That’s just not just the way it goes. We’re putting together a white paper (expected to be made public by the city at the end of the month) that attempts to explore the best way to get housing that respects the community and the campus. Cal Poly’s Master Plan EIR is out, and housing is a big part of that. Their ultimate goal is to house 65 percent of their student body on campus. There are people who say it’s not timely enough for those who want it right now. I am hoping the city and Cal Poly can have a meaningful dialogue about the urgency of getting more students on campus. The housing implications are challenging. But having Cal Poly here is an extremely positive thing.
The city of SLO hasn’t created marijuana regulations yet. Where do you stand on cannabis?
Our staff has been in deep conversations with communities nationally and locally that have already implemented regulations, and we’re learning and benefiting from them. I’m really grateful for Grover Beach for having the courage or the will to go first. My personal tendency is to roll out a policy that respects the will of the voters (who overwhelming supported marijuana legislation in San Luis Obispo) in a way that starts small with allowance for expansion as opposed to rolling out a really liberal policy that causes a lot of challenges that we then have to roll back. We have the additional responsibility because we are in a university community. It still won’t be allowed on campus, but it will be interesting to learn more about how marijuana has been regulated in university cities elsewhere, maybe in Colorado.
You made environmental conscientiousness a big part of your campaign. How has climate action planning been implemented in SLO?
I am proud of how much we’ve been able to actually accomplish or commit to accomplishing. For the first time in our city’s history, climate action is one of major city goals. We’ve committed to being a net zero city. We’ve committed to pursuing a community choice energy program. We’re hiring a sustainability coordinator position for the first time in our city’s history. Our city manager has a background in sustainability and is very sustainability minded. This is a defining issue of our time. We also have a citizen green team and an inter-staff green team of department heads.
You ran in part to carry on Vermont Senator and former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ message and agenda. Have you been able to apply his message on a local level?
There is a vacuum in leadership at the federal level. I think you’re seeing mayors across the U.S. step into that vacuum and take a leadership role on issues that are national. We’ve seen that here and across the U.S. on climate change. We’ve done what we can to support single-payer health care at the state level. We’ve taken a stand in terms of creating a welcoming city policy. One of the reasons I ran for mayor is not wanting to have all those folks who were inspired by Bernie locally to feel lost and give up, which was happening after the primary.