An Evening with Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice, courtesy UCSB Arts & Lectures.

Condoleezza Rice, courtesy UCSB Arts & Lectures.

UCSB Arts & Lectures presents An Evening with Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.

As secretary of state and national security advisor, Rice pioneered a policy of transformational diplomacy and heralded the formation of new global governments based on democratic principles. Her most recent book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (2017), offers a sweeping look at the global struggle for democracy. Dr. Rice will share her unparalleled expertise on global affairs, national security and education.

“Rice as Secretary of State in the second Bush term emerged as the single most influential voice shaping foreign policy,” according to the The New York Times. The Washington Post called Rice, “One of the most powerful individuals on the world stage.”

From January 2005-2009, Rice served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States, the second woman and first African American woman to hold the post. Rice also served as President George W. Bush’s assistant to the President for national security affairs (National Security Advisor) from January 2001-2005, the first woman to hold the position

Rice is currently the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson senior fellow on public policy at the Hoover Institution; and a professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on January 23, 2018.

RFK, California 1968: Never Before Published Photographs by Jesse Alexander

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

Renowned photographer Jesse Alexander says he didn’t even have a press pass when he took a pilgrimage to Delano to see young Robert F. Kennedy on the campaign trail. “I was really a fan of RFK and was very aware of his interest in farm workers and his work with Cesar Chavez,” says Alexander. These never-before publically viewed images were taken on the campaign trail in San Francisco and the Central Valley in California a short time before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Alexander, a legendary motorsports photographer since the early 1950s when he covered the original Mexican Road Race, says that no matter what his subject, a passion for beauty and an interest in people consistently drive his work. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re shooting,” says the 88-year-old. “I’m just a happy snapper.”

Alexander will share these historic images for the first time in an exhibition from Aug. 19-Sept. 16 at Patricia Clarke Studio, 410 Palm Ave. A-18, Carpinteria. Fifty percent of all sale proceeds benefit The Fund for Santa Barbara. In addition, Alexander will give a free artist talk with Clarke at the studio on Sept. 9 from 4-5 p.m.

—Leslie Dinaberg

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.


RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

RFK, California 1968. Photograph by Jesse Alexander.

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

Local Lowdown: Beyond Borders

Image from UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum "The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy and Engagement," the work of Suzanne Lacy & Pablo Helguera. Photo by Suzanne Lacy.

Image from UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum “The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy and Engagement,” the work of Suzanne Lacy & Pablo Helguera. Photo by Suzanne Lacy.

The Latin America-Southern California Connection: Pacific Standard Time

By Leslie Dinaberg

An ambitious artistic celebration of the vibrant cultural linkages between Southern California and Latin America takes place across the state this fall, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, Santa Monica, Palm Springs and beyond.

Backed by more than $16 million in grants from the Getty Foundation, the series of thematically linked exhibitions—Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA—spans more than 70 institutions, including local exhibitions at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Historical Museum and UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum.

“We’re proud that the Getty is once again making it possible for institutions across Southern California to do justice to a vast and complex subject, with this exploration of the vital traditions of Latin American and Latino art,” says Jim Cuno, president of J. Paul Getty Trust, referring to the 2011-2012 iteration of Pacific Standard Time, a Southern California collaboration that focused on art in Los Angeles from 1945-1980. He continues, “Working together, as we did in the first Pacific Standard Time initiative, can we begin to encompass the richness and dynamism of an art created in multiple countries and on two continents.”

Valeska Soares, Any Moment Now… (Spring), 2014, courtesy Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo, on view at Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Among the local Pacific Standard Time highlights is “Valeska Soares: Any Moment Now,” a survey of the New York-based Brazilian artist’s work comprised of unique environmental installations combining sculptures, photography, video, and performances at Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Sept. 17-Dec. 17).

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara breaks new ground with “Guatemala from 33,000 km: Contemporary Art from 1960-Present,” the first survey of modern and contemporary art from Guatemala, exploring a previously unexamined rich period of artistic production that began during the “long civil war” of the late 1950s and extends to the present day. The three-part exhibition is presented at MCASB’s galleries, Santa Barbara Community Arts Workshop (SBCAW) and Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art at Westmont College (Sept. 17-Dec. 17).

Darío Escobar, Untitled, 1998, Cardboard, plastic, gold leaf, and pigments, 7.875 x 3.5in, Courtesy the Artist. On view as part of "Guatemala from 33,000 km: Contemporary Art, 1960 - Present" at MCA Santa Barbara.

Darío Escobar, Untitled, 1998, Cardboard, plastic, gold leaf, and pigments, 7.875
x 3.5in, Courtesy the Artist. On view as part of “Guatemala from 33,000 km: Contemporary Art, 1960 – Present” at MCA Santa Barbara.

Sacred Art in the Age of Contact at Santa Barbara Historical Museum brings together, for the first time, a diverse body of objects from Santa Barbara-area collections exploring the relationship between art and spirituality in both Chumash and Spanish traditions. Also presented at UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum, “Sacred Art” highlights the themes of sacred geography, language, materiality and resistance. It also investigates the mutually transformative interaction between these traditions, which have immediate implications on the ways in which the cultural dynamics of Santa Barbara County are understood today (Sept. 15-Jan. 14).

Also on view at UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum is “The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy and Engagement,” the work of Suzanne Lacy & Pablo Helguera. This exhibition pairs for the first time the work of two leading practitioners of the Social Practice Movement, an art medium that focuses on engagement through human interaction and social discourse. This exhibition juxtaposes key examples of the artists’ works and incorporates installations, photography, drawing and performance, alongside archival documentation that serves to highlight overlapping themes, including immigration, race and social organizing (Sept. 16-Dec. 8).

For more information and a complete list of events and exhibits visit

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

J. Wilkes Wines Served to Global Leaders at the U.S. Department of State

J. Wilkes Wines were served a recent State Department Dinner. Photo courtesy J. Wilkes Wines Facebook Page.

J. Wilkes Wines were served a recent State Department Dinner. Photo courtesy J. Wilkes Wines Facebook Page.

It’s always exciting to hear about a local winery’s success. Santa Barbara County wines are definitely being served in high places.

For the second time this year, Santa Maria Valley’s J.Wilkes wines were selected to be served at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C.  Last month Nordic Leaders from five countries enjoyed J. Wilkes wines at a luncheon hosted by Secretary John Kerry and then proceeded to a meeting with President Barack Obama.

State Department Executive Chef Jason Larkin chose the J.Wilkes 2014 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc and the 2012 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir to serve with a Nordic-themed menu, prepared by Larkin and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef and restaurateur who appears regularly on Top Chef, Chopped and over food-oriented television shows. Guests enjoyed a Spring Salad including pickled shrimp and cured char, followed by a Bourbon Beet-Glazed Salmon.

J. Wilkes winemaker Wes Hagen was there.  “Seeing the leaders of the five Nordic countries toasting peace, the environment and friendship with the wines I represent was a humbling moment for me,” he says.  “Wine was instrumental in the development of Democracy in the ancient Athenian ‘symposia’, and it is still strongly a positive element in diplomacy and open dialog in a free and democratic world.”

J. Wilkes Wines were served a recent State Department Dinner. Photo courtesy J. Wilkes Wines Facebook Page.

J. Wilkes Wines were served a recent State Department Dinner. Photo courtesy J. Wilkes Wines Facebook Page.

A week before, the J. Wilkes 2012 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay and 2012 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir were served at a luncheon on the occasion of the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit, hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and attended by Secretary of State John Kerry. 

The wines were thoroughly enjoyed, so much so that Chef Larkin was inspired to serve them again, according to the J. Wilkes team.   

Hagen says the crew at J. Wilkes is thrilled about this newly established relationship with the U.S. Department of State and Chef Larkin.  “Working with Chef Jason Larkin and his team at the State Department to pair three J. Wilkes Wines in two separate events … has been one of the true pleasures of my 22 years in fine wine,” says Hagen.  “I have confidence that our wines will continue to be used at State functions, and I also expect interest in J. Wilkes Wines to peak as a result.”

 —Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine on June 18, 2016.

Editor’s Pick: Bill Maher

Politically incorrect, consistently funny and thought provoking, Bill Maher has long been a groundbreaker in bringing funny political talk to television. Now he takes his signature winning combination of unflinching honesty and big laughs to the Arlington Theatre on March 14. 1317 State St., 8 p.m. 806/963-4408,

—Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Spring 2015.

Editor’s Pick: Desert Dancer

SBS_BlogPost_Desert Dance

Desert Dancer is the opening night film for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Desert Dancer Productions

Desert Dancer

Opening night of the 30th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival brings the U.S. premiere of the powerful and true story of a self-taught dancer pursuing a dream in the suppressed society of Iran during the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election. Forming an underground dance company, the dancers learn, through banned online videos, from timeless legends like Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly and Rudolf Nureyev. Jan. 27, 8 p.m. Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Winter 2014/15.

Gored by the Truth

Al and Tipper Gore's wedding day, May 19, 1970, at the Washington National Cathedral, courtesy

Al and Tipper Gore’s wedding day, May 19, 1970, at the Washington National Cathedral, courtesy Wikipedia.

“Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, go live with a car battery.”

— Erma Bombeck

I was shocked and sad when I heard about the toppling of Tipper and Al Gore‘s marriage. Talk about an inconvenient truth.

With all of the fawning and fanning and cyber-ink devoted to Barack and Michelle Obama’s wedded bliss, I thought crowning them the king and queen of Washington couples so early in their residency was a bit premature. Al and Tipper, on the other hand, seemed to have gone the distance and come out smiling and holding hands. They had even bought a sunny, retirement estate in Montecito, for gosh sakes.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

After so many years in the political hot seat of D.C., I thought they’d be sailing into the Santa Barbara sunset for their golden years. Getting over the painful loss to George Bush, the Gores seemed to be on a roll. Al won a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar in 2007, and seemed to be well on his way toward distancing himself from his formerly wooden political punch line persona. And Tipper always seemed to be smiling by his side, happy with the role of helpmate.

Of course the news of the Gore’s separation brought back memories of their famous kiss at the 2000 Democratic Convention. Sure, some found it a bit painful to watch, but don’t forget, back in those days it seemed like the sight of a happy political couple was an oxymoron.

Even now, despite the Obamas’ seemingly solid partnership, there aren’t many examples of long-married-happily-married couples in what one astute Washington Post reader called our “national neighborhood,” so any tension in the ranks can make other married couples feel a little nervous. Instead of that momentary feeling of, “Wow, if they’re still happily married, there must be some hope for the rest of us,” like we did after the convention, Al and Tipper’s breakup feels like, “Huh, if these two people can’t make a go of it, what hope do the rest of us have?”

Not that my faith in marriage or your faith in marriage or anyone else’s faith in marriage-except possibly the Gores’ daughter Karenna who announced she was splitting from her husband of 13 years just a week after her parents announced their separation after 40 years of marriage-should have anything to do with anyone else’s wedded bliss. But still, “it’s more threatening to us if we see a couple we thought were happy just drift apart,” as sociologist Andrew Cherlin told the Post. “If even well-behaved people get divorced after 40 years, then some of us will worry about what our own marriages will be like later in life.”

Thankfully, I have yet to experience one of those, “If those two can split up then is the earth still round and will the sun still rise?” uncouplings among my close circle of friends. Still, I’ve experienced enough vicarious break-ups to know one inconvenient truth-you can never really know or understand what’s really going on in another person’s relationship.

Email with your vote on which Gore should get the Santa Barbara mansion if they divorce. For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on June 11, 2010.

A Passion for History Brings Heroic Tale to Life

Refusenik documentary has West Coast Premiere at the Plaza de Oro Theater

Finding a career that combines her interests in art, social justice, history and international politics is a dream come true for filmmaker Laura Bialis. Her documentary, Refusenik, ( which chronicles the thirty-year international movement to free Soviet Jews, opens Friday night at the Plaza de Oro Theater. The movie will run for a week and Bialis will be there on Sunday at the 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. screenings to answer questions about her experiences making the film, which has been described as “a tapestry of first-person accounts of heroism, sacrifice, and ultimately, liberation,” as told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain–many of whom survived punishment in Soviet Gulag labor camps.

The screenings are a coming home of sorts for Bialis, a 1991 San Marcos High graduate, whose parents–Ellen and Gary Bialis–still live in Santa Barbara. She had her first job as an intern, working for Rod Lathim at the now-closed Access Theatre. “It’s interesting because that was a nonprofit, and now I’m running a nonprofit for the arts and Rod is on the board of my nonprofit,” said Bialis.

She’s certainly come full circle.

An avid historian and film buff, Bialis created the Foundation for Documentary Projects ( as a way to fuse her love of history with her passion for filmmaking. Her 1999 film, Tak For Alt– Survival of a Human Spirit, ( told the story of Holocaust survivor turned Civil Rights activist Judy Meisel, a Santa Barbara resident. The film chronicles Meisel’s journey back to Eastern Europe to re-trace her wartime journey: from the Kovno Ghetto through the Stutthof Concentration Camp, and ultimately on to Denmark, where she was liberated and restored to health by an outpouring of Danish compassion.

Tak For Alt enjoyed a brief theatrical distribution, aired on PBS and won many awards–from Anti-Defamation League and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others–and is now being used by teachers in over thirty states, and has been implemented into history curricula in many school districts.

The seeds for the development of “Refusenik” were actually planted at a screening of “Tak For Alt” in Omaha, Nebraska. After every screening, people would come up to me and want me to make a movie about them or their grandmother or someone else they knew, laughed Bialis. ” We were inundated with all these requests, but these people in Omaha were just adamant that I meet this activist, Shirley Goldstein. She actually gave the first seed grant for the movie. We used it to do a trailer which we used to raise the money to make Refusenik.”

While the story of the “Refuseniks” isn’t widely known, it’s a powerful one. In the early 1960s, reports came to the West of blatant anti-Semitism in the Communist-controlled Soviet Union. For example, the government was closing synagogues, the study of Hebrew was forbidden, Soviet Jews were required by law to carry “internal passports” identifying their Jewish heritage, and they were barred from studying at many universities and refused entrance into selected professions. Yet those who asked permission to emigrate were told they could never leave, effectively making the Soviet Jews prisoners in their own country.

Bialis interviewed more than 100 people and shot more than 200 hours of interview footage to tell the story of the “Refuseniks,” who took the unprecedented step of publicly challenging the communist regime. The film chronicles their stories of courageous activism and tales of hardship: the development of an underground Hebrew school; risky smuggling of information to the West; fear of being arrested; shock of being brought to trial on trumped up charges; and suffering in prison or in exile merely for demanding freedom.

“My first degree (she did her undergraduate work at Stanford, followed by USC film school) is in history, so I actually approached it like I was doing some sort of archiving project,” she said. “I started out by asking people about how they were involved … it was such a grassroots movement. The rallies would get hundreds of thousands people involved.”

Eventually, the activists’ incessant demands pushed the issue and legislators enacted a law limiting the amount of business the United States would conduct with countries that violated human rights–the first time the United States placed restrictions on a country for rights abuses of its own population. Nuclear disarmament negotiations with the USSR included American demands for a change in Soviet emigration policies and in 1989, the Soviet Union finally succumbed to international pressure and the gates were opened.

“It might be the most successful human rights movement of all time,” said Bialis. “At the end of the movement 1.5 million Jews got out of the Soviet Union. It was a very inspiring thing.”

She worked on the project for five years, traveling around the world to track down different pieces of the story. “Though it’s about a historical movement, this is a really timely issue because there are still human rights violations going on around the world. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what is possible if you believe that what you’re doing is right.”

Refusenik opens Friday, May 23, 2008 at the Plaza de Oro Theater, 371 South Hitchcock Way, Santa Barbara, 805.963.9503 (

Originally published in Noozhawk on May 20, 2008.

Behind the Scenes at the Election Office

If the seventh and eighth grade students from Anacapa School are any kind of a barometer, then, as the national media predicts, young people are engaged in this presidential election with an extraordinary level of interest.

County Clerk, Recorder and Assessor Joe Holland took the students on a behind-the-scenes tour of the election office on Thursday to demonstrate what happens to the 35,000 absentee ballots that had already been received by that day (he expects that 50,000 of the 183,000 Santa Barbara County registered voters will have voted by mail by election day).

With the increasing numbers of people that vote by mail, “election day is actually 29 days long now,” Holland explained to founding headmaster Gordon Sichi’s American History and Society class.

The first step in the envelope’s journey to being counted is the signature on the outside, explained Holland. “There’s a bar code on there that tells us who you are. So when we receive that envelope back, we send it through a machine that’s called an ASR, automatic signature recognition machine. It goes through and compares your signature with the signature that we have on file for you with your voter registration card, and if it matches then it accepts it. If it doesn’t match, like for me, I’m Joseph E. Holland, if I leave out the ‘E’ it won’t match. So then what we do with the ones that don’t match, we’ll actually have a person pull that up, oh look at it’s the same J and the S and the PH, and accept it. But this machine actually accepts about 80 percent of all the envelopes that are returned,” he said.

If someone sends in an envelope without a signature, the elections office tries to contact him or her in order to have him or her sign the ballot so that it can be counted. Once the signatures are verified, the next step is to open the envelopes. The eighth grade students who had taken the elections office tour the year before were impressed to see that a new automated ballot-opening machine had replaced the tables of people with letter openers.

“How much did the new machine cost?” asked a student.

“We’re leasing it right now, but it’ll cost us about $80,000 to buy,” answered Holland.

“Is it worth it?” asked another student.

Holland thinks it is. The machine, which can open about 5,000 envelopes per hour, cuts them open on three sides to make sure that no ballots are stuck inside. Part of the reason for this security measure, he explained, is that in the 1992 primary there was a really close race for county supervisor (between Willy Chamberlin and Bill Wallace, who eventually won the seat). The recount results found that about ten absentee ballots were still in their envelopes and had not been counted. In addition, there are also privacy issues with having the envelopes opened by hand which are avoided by using the machine.

Once the ballots are opened they unfold them and run them through the tallying machines, which are the same machines found in the county’s 215 precincts on Election Day. The results will not be available until 8:05 p.m. on election night. Until then they are then stored on a computer, which is kept under high security. Only two people have access to the machine, and there are cameras all over the office to make sure no one tries to get in the locked room where it is kept, said Holland.

“What about a hacker getting into the results?” asked a student.

That’s a good question, acknowledged Holland, explaining that there is no Internet access allowed in the room, for that very reason. Another new security measure in place for this year is the secretary of state has given a directive to all counties not to modem results over phone lines, as was done in the past. Instead the results will be driven in to the elections office, which in the case of far away precincts like New Cuayama, may delay the tallying of the final results by as much as two and a half hours.

“If the election is really close, we may not know who won in California until all of the absentee ballots are counted,” said Holland. He has up to 29 days to certify the final results of the election.

The students got to vote in a mock election, where Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt vied for president. Roosevelt and Kennedy tied with only four votes each, but there were 11 write-in votes, which weren’t officially counted.

“I wrote in Barak Obama,” said eighth grader Emily Welkowitz, who wore an “Obama ’08” bumper sticker on her back.

“I think it’s totally interesting,” said eighth grader Jessica DiMizio. “I like all the new machines and stuff. Last year we saw them opening the absentee envelopes and it was just a bunch of people sitting around a big table.”

Part of the philosophy of Anacapa School is to bring the students into the community, said Sichi. “I can go anywhere in this town with a little notice and people will open up their businesses to us. People in Santa Barbara are so generous.” He planned to follow up the field trip with a lesson on voting machines and a discussion of the controversies surrounding them.

When asked if they talked a lot about the presidential primary in class, eighth grader Haley Yuhas said: “Oh yeah, that’s all we talk about. It’s great. It’s really, really interesting.”

Originally published in Noozhawk on February 5, 2008.

Leslie Dinaberg Sits Down With Joe Holland

Joseph E. Holland, courtesy photo

Joseph E. Holland, courtesy photo

With three elections scheduled in Santa Barbara County this year–including the presidential primary on February 5–one would think that the county’s election chief Joseph E. Holland has his hands full. The elections office staff of 12 will ramp up to about 1,200 by Election Day. Luckily, he’s used to multi-tasking. County Clerk, Recorder and Assessor since 2003, Holland manages a $13 million budget and four divisions: Assessor, Elections, Recorder and Information Services.

Leslie Dinaberg: This is a big year for you guys with the early presidential primary, the spring primary and then the presidential election. What does that mean for your office in terms of work?

Joe Holland: …Most people don’t understand how complicated elections really are, which is good, that’s what we strive for. People want to come in, vote their ballot and have their ballot counted…that’s all that they need to worry about or need to think about. But behind the scenes, it starts with voter registration. When you register to vote, you, of course, register by your address and that determines what type of ballot you will have. What jurisdiction you are in. Are you in the city of Santa Barbara, the Goleta Water District, what congressional district are you in? It’s a lot of work just making sure that every one of the 183,000 registered voters gets the proper ballot on election day…that’s where the first level of complexity starts.

Then…you’re designing the ballots…we handle candidate filing. You’re making sure that all the candidates are properly signed up for their office …we have to hire poll workers, we have to calibrate voting machines, we have to deliver polling supplies, and we have to train poll workers…We have 215 precincts at the polling places and so…there’s nine hundred to 1,000 poll workers you have to hire across the county.

LD: Do you try to get the same people for each of the three elections?

JH: Yes we try to and a lot of them will work for all three elections. You know that’s quite a challenge … with these three major elections in 2008 it means we have to do all this work three times and that’s the first time we’ve ever had to do that…. Three major, statewide elections in one calendar year, I think this is the first time in history that’s ever happened…

LD: That’s a big job.

JH: …Most people don’t understand, but we send out ballots 60 days before the election to overseas voters in the military, so really although everybody knows the election is February 5th, it really started for us December 5th.

LD: Speaking of absentee ballots, how many permanent absentee voters are there?

JH: There are 90,000. …

LD: Are there any cost savings when people vote by mail?

JH: No, because we’re running two elections. We’re actually running a poll-based election and a mail ballot election. As long as we’re doing both, it really isn’t saving us any money because I still have 215 precincts and I still have to hire poll workers for all of those precincts. So it really doesn’t save money, it actually costs more money, but it does lead to a higher voter turnout because it makes voting easier.

LD: What is the rate of return of people that register to vote by mail versus the other registered voters?

JH: …If you look on average over the last 13 countywide elections…75 percent of people who receive a ballot in the mail return their ballot. For those people that vote at the polls, on average, 50 percent return. …The more people I can get to vote by mail the higher turnout I’m going to have…the turnout in Santa Barbara County has been going up.

LD: That’s good. I would assume that the presidential election years are typically a much better turnout than the off years.

JH: Yeah. In November 2004 we had an 80.5 percent turnout in Santa Barbara County. That was the highest turnout since 1976. … For this primary election, here we are as of January 11th, we’ve had the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary and it looks like both the Democratic and Republican contests are still very much undecided, wide open.

In March 2004 we had a 55 percent turnout for the presidential primary, but it was pretty much decided by March 2004 who was going to be the nominee for both major parties.

LD: It will be interesting to see how long it takes to come to a consensus.

JH: This ballot doesn’t have senate, congress, state legislature, all that March 2004 did have. So what going to happen on February 5th? My guess is it’s going to be a very big turnout….I’m going to guess it’s definitely going to be higher than 55 percent. It probably won’t be as high as 80 percent but it might approach 70 percent.

LD: When you’re in your crunch time, do you have deputies in the other areas you’re responsible for, that you can delegate more stuff when there’s an election going on?

JH: Yes. I have excellent staff…they do a great job so I spend my time doing this kind of stuff (interviews). And I sit in meetings and have them report to me and make decisions.

You know what’s fun? On Election Day, I actually drive around to all the various precincts, check on all the poll workers, and that’s a lot of fun.

LD: I would imagine you probably have some poll workers that have been doing it for years.

JH: Oh yeah. It’s great to go see them every Election Day. What I like about elections is they are so positive. People are there because they want to be there. Because they want to vote because they want to make a difference. And even the poll workers, they are there because they want to be part of this making a difference, and it’s pretty exciting.

LD: It’s fun. We always like to take our son, who is 8. He loves to go and get the little sticker.

JH: You know that’s the one thing about vote by mail, you don’t get the sticker. I love those stickers.

LD: I love the efficiency of it and the convenience of voting by mail, but there’s something kind of nice about going in there and casting your vote.

JH: I’m not vote by mail, so I vote at the polls. …That way, I get all the candidates materials mailed to me all the way up to Election Day. If you just vote by mail and you turn in your ballot they stop sending you stuff.

LD: That’s efficient data management. You must have really powerful technology to manage all the data.

JH: It starts with the vote registration database, 180,000 registered voters. We anticipate that we’ll probably get a good amount of people registering to vote before January 22nd, which is the last day to register to vote.

If you look back to 2004, we got 25,000 new registrations right before the November 2004 election. So how do you process 25,000 voter registration applications? It’s quite an undertaking. We had a whole bunch of people working late at night trying to get that done by the deadline. Now we’ve got what’s called ICR, intelligent character recognition, so when you fill out your voter registration card, you’ve hand written all of your data in there. We actually can scan that in and this machine will read your handwriting. … We don’t have to do that data entry. So what we’re hoping is that this presidential year if we get a whole bunch of those in, it’s going to go much quicker because all they’re doing is just verifying what’s right.

LD: Sounds pretty high tech.

JH: When you return your absentee ballot you sign the outside of the envelope, and there’s a bar code on there that tells us who you are. So when we receive that envelope back, we send it through a machine that’s called an ASR, automatic signature recognition machine. It goes through, it tells us that we’ve received Leslie’s ballot on this date at this time, and that it compares your signature with the signature that we have on file for you with your voter registration card, and if it matches, then it accepts it.

…(Before June we’ll have a new technology so that) when your ballot is received you’ll be able to go on the Internet and type in your name and it’ll tell you whether or not your ballot was received and on what day. So if you’re voting by mail you can verify that indeed our ballot made it to our office.

…Another machine that we have for the first time this year is we have an automatic envelope opener. … We get all these ballots that are accepted, ready to go. Now we need to open them. We used to hire a whole bunch of extra people to sit around a big table and just open the envelopes.

LD: Sounds like a lot of carpal tunnel.

JH: Yeah. This year we have a machine that actually can do 5,000 envelopes an hour and will open them on three sides, lay out the envelope, and plop the ballot into a bin. And by opening up three sides of the envelope, … the reason why you need to do that is to make sure that you didn’t leave any ballots inside of an envelope.

… The average voter should not be thinking about these things. They don’t need to, we’re thinking about them, because if there was a close race and two or three ballots were stuck in those envelopes, then that’s not good.

LD: When do they start tabulating the vote by mail ballots?

JH: We can start opening and processing them and tabulating them ten days before the election. We have a secure room that’s behind glass walls, with video cameras in there, with security cameras, and the public is welcome to come watch this process. We’ll actually start running ballots through vote tabulation machines and then in another room we have the computer that has place where those results will go. Now no one can look at the results but then on election night we will…. every ballot that we have in our hands prior to Election Day is tabulated and the results go up on the Internet at 8:05 on election night.

LD: That’s definitely a change with the technology. I can remember when they would be counting absentee ballots for days after an election.

JH: It’s a huge change. …

LD: What is the approximate cost to the county for each of the three elections?

JH: Each one will cost roughly a million and half dollars. The primary election, the special primary election that the state legislature added statewide, that’s probably costing $100 million. The estimates have been up to $100 million.

… The governor did say …that the state intends to reimburse the counties for it…however we’ve been looking through the budget and we can’t find where he put the money in.

But remember the statewide special election in 2005; they did not fund that ahead of time. They waited until all the costs came in and then they funded it. So we’re hoping that this will be reimbursed similarly.

LD: But just the February election?

JH: Right.

LD: Do you still like this job?

JH: Oh yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a little scary because we’re only human and you know people are going to make mistakes and there’s not a whole lot of room for mistakes when you’re running elections. We just knock on wood. We have made mistakes but nothing serious and we’re doing everything we can to see that it doesn’t happen, but you know, we’re human.

LD: Can you tell me a little about the other things you do, besides elections?

JH: As recorder we record all official records, grant deeds, trust deeds, when you buy a house. … Birth and death certificates. … I’m the civil marriage commissioner…we issue passports and we do that in three offices, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Lompoc, which is very unique. I don’t know that there are any other counties that do that.

…Then as assessor, which is my other hat, I describe and assess all taxable property in the county of Santa Barbara.

LD: What are the property taxes looking like?

JH: We have a $57 billion assessment right now for the county and with the current foreclosure situation; the increase in the assessment is not as high as it’s been in the last few years. It’ll still be an increase. We may go to three or four percent increase this year. Last year it was seven percent. Two and three years ago it was ten, eleven percent. It you multiply that by $55 billion that’s a lot of money.

The county right now is facing layoffs because the property tax assessment is not going up as high as it was in the previous years. That plus the fact that they had to make some adjustments in retirement that is causing layoffs.

…I lowered the assessment on 7,000 houses last year because of the economy. These are people that bought at the height of the market and their house is no longer worth what it’s assessed at. So I went out and all my staff went out under my direction, and we identified those 7,000 homes and we lowered their assessment to the fair market value as of January 2007. We’re going to do the same thing this year as of January 1, 2008 and my guess is the number of homes we’re going to lower the assessment on may go up to as much as 15,000. It’s mostly in the north county. Places in the south county such as Hope Ranch and Montecito have not gone down in value, at all, they continue to go up.

LD: That’s another tough job. What do you do when you’re not working?

JH: I’m involved with the Courthouse Legacy Foundation … there are some areas of the courthouse where there really has been some severe degradation of the actual structure where it has fallen into disrepair. It’s too beautiful to ignore and have it fall apart. …This courthouse legacy foundation is hopefully a vehicle that can take private and public and mix the two together and try to come up with solutions.

LD: When you do get the time to relax, what do you like to do for fun?

JH: My daughter Michelle plays water polo for Dos Pueblos. …I like to go watch her play sports. That’s a blast.

Vital Stats: Joe Holland

Born: April 24, 1957 in Los Angeles

Family: Wife Kathy and children Scott (21), Bridget (20) and Michelle (14)

Civic Involvement: Courthouse Legacy Foundation, United Way Board of Directors

Professional Accomplishments: Elected to the Office of the Clerk, Recorder, and Assessor in 2002; former Audit Section Supervisor and Real Property Appraiser for Santa Barbara County

Little-Known Fact: Joe met his wife Kathy when he was a student at UCSB and they were both working at Vons on Turnpike Avenue.

Originally published in Noozhawk on January 28, 2008. Read the original story here.