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Jonny Wallis: 1946 - 2013

A Founding Mother of the City of Goleta


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It takes a special kind of person to found a city — someone calm, reasonable, able to respect and mediate differences, with a clear sense of purpose and, above all, the ability to lead and move forward the vision of a new city. Goleta was fortunate to have such a leader in Jonny Wallis. There were many talented individuals in GoletaNow!, but Jonny was the touchstone that kept us on track and moving forward.

Prior to cityhood, she was deeply involved in Goleta, particularly in Old Town, where she lived, an area that she taught many of us to know and appreciate. She chaired the Old Town Project Area Committee, one of the first attempts to comprehensively address its future development.

She taught us that Old Town is, first and foremost, a neighborhood, not that different from the other neighborhoods that make up Goleta. Behind the Hollister streetscape of small, local businesses is a residential neighborhood of diverse people with relatively affordable housing and easily accessible, needed public transportation. Jonny resisted ideas of gentrification and focused instead on how planning for the area could avoid displacing current residents and local businesses, while improving their chances for success. She kept the focus on current Old Towners’ desires for a clean, safe, livable area for workers and their families, with businesses that serve the needs of the residents. She was clear that if you wouldn’t want it in your neighborhood, you should be careful not to wish it on Old Town.

She was involved in Goleta matters for many years before cityhood, active in the Citizens Planning Association Land Use Committee, Common Ground 2000, the Goleta Roundtable, and debates around issues of UCSB growth and Santa Barbara Airport impacts — anything that touched Goleta.

At the start of 1999, there were many community discussions regarding Goleta’s future. From this emerged the activist group GoletaNow!, of which Jonny and the authors of this article were a part, focusing on the practical steps necessary to form a city. We met weekly for two years to develop a proposal for Goleta cityhood and shepherd it through all its stages: gathering signatures, negotiating with the county, raising funds, running the gauntlet of LAFCO hearings, and finally running a campaign. We were an ambitious group of nine with different backgrounds, different reasons to participate, and different styles and temperaments. Each member had important insights and skills to contribute, but looking back, there is little question that Jonny was the one who held that diversity together. She had an uncanny knack for keeping us all moving in the same direction toward our common goals instead of our individual differences. Her methodical and thoughtful analysis kept us focused on solving problems and overcoming barriers, and her calm, good-natured, and usually unflappable presence soothed and calmed the group.

She had a quiet authority that enabled her to highlight what was important. She was trained as a lawyer and guided GoletaNow! through the legal complexities of incorporation. She and her team negotiated a revenue-neutrality agreement with the county, a difficult task requiring give-and-take on both sides. She was a good mediator but could be stubborn when fighting for things that she valued.

Jonny was elected to the first Goleta City Council in 2001 along with three of her GoletaNow! colleagues and Jean Blois, another enthusiastic cityhood supporter. Reelected in 2004, she served as mayor in 2006. She was a strong voice in establishing the structure of the new city, laying out building standards for the new Design Review Board and, along with her fellow councilmembers, guiding the planning function in the early years of the city.

She was instrumental in the development of the city’s first General Plan, most of which has withstood several challenges and changes in council membership over the past 10 years. She retired from the council after two terms but then moved seamlessly into the role of planning commissioner, where her experience and mentoring of new members were key to making it the professional body that it is today. She kept her opinions close to her chest, revealing them quietly when she needed to. She knew and used the value of a pause — and a soft voice. (When Jonny started with “Now, Dan … ” City Manager Dan Singer knew he had to pay attention.) Her decisions were thoughtful and her explanations articulate. Sometimes she could bring us together, sometimes we continued to have different opinions, but in her discourse, there was always respect for differences.

Jonny was a very private person, never seeking the limelight. But on one occasion, the limelight was thrust upon her. Soon after she became mayor, a shooting at the main postal facility in Goleta left a total of eight people dead. Jonny stood before a battery of microphones that represented all the national media and spoke calmly and eloquently of this terrible tragedy. She was the voice of the community expressing our sorrow and compassion for the families of the victims. “A day at the office,” she said, “should not result in death.”

Beyond her public persona, Jonny did enjoy life. She and her spouse, Kitty Bednar, loved to go camping, along with their beloved dogs, at Cachuma Lake, El Capitan State Beach, Davy Brown, and other local sites. After Jonny’s retirement from the council, they took many long trips to national parks such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Yellowstone.

Jonny worked tirelessly to give Goletans the ability to shape the future of their community. She served that goal, from her tenure on the Old Town Project Area Committee to her service on the Planning Commission, right up to the time of her last illness. For all those years, she never took a break from this mission. The community has lost a talented individual and dedicated public servant. Goleta has lost an advocate, and we have lost a wise and trusted friend.