Mayor Helene Schneider came for college, stayed, and served

Mayor Helene Schneider came for college, stayed, and served

By Raiza Giorgi

Like a lot of people who come for college and end up staying, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider grew to love the community. But she ended up getting so involved that she became one of its leaders.

Photo by Daniel Dreifuss

“As I became involved in civic organizations — and I remember the day I stood before the City Council advocating for a group — and I thought, ‘I can make more of a difference on the other side,’ and decided to run for office,” Schneider said.

She will be one of the women honored at the 10th annual Women of Achievement Awards on Friday, June 9, by the Santa Barbara chapter of the Association for Women in Communications.

Born and raised in New York City, Schneider says she misses the incredible food and her family members who still reside there. However, she adds, her heart is in Santa Barbara and she is happy for the opportunity she had to meet people of all walks of life during her eight years in office.

“Living in a place where people can work together on so many different causes and issues and still get along has been the most rewarding,” she said.

Schneider’s rise to the top began when she was working as human resources director for Planned Parenthood and she was appointed as a commissioner for the Housing Authority of Santa Barbara.

“Being a part of the Housing Authority was eye-opening. We covered a range of topics from policy to affordable housing … this has always been a hot topic since we do live in a beautiful place, albeit expensive,” she said.

That experience was the push she needed to run for City Council, and she was elected in 2003. She was elected mayor in 2009 and re-elected in 2013.

“When I first became mayor was when the recession was really beginning to hit hard in Santa Barbara. We had to work with our political colleagues of all sides to ensure there was constructive dialogue and get through the financial drought,” she said.

Event though there were furloughs of city personnel, Schneider said sustaining public safety and keeping after-school programs were vital.

“The council was even able to pass budgets unanimously, which was a testament to all of us working cohesively. When you put policy over politics is when everyone wins,” Schneider added.

Another key issue is water, and as the city moved from a financial drought to an actual drought it was imperative that Santa Barbara start conserving water and finding alternative sources.

“By adding back the desalination plant and being transparent and engaging the public in coming up with ideas, I believe we are getting closer but we still aren’t out of the woods yet,” she said.

Another topic that Schneider has become passionate about is homelessness.

“Getting government and faith-based organizations to work together to build partnerships and strengthen how we help those less fortunate has been amazing and worthwhile,” she added.

The perks of being mayor have been life-changing because of the opportunities to meet influential world leaders and traveling to far-off places.

“I would say the highlight of my career was meeting Maya Angelou. She was a true hero and I was honored to meet her,” Schneider said.

Angelou, who died in 2014, was an American poet and civil rights activist most famous for her 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

Schneider was also honored to meet Crown Prince Felipe of Spain, now the king of Spain, when he visited in late 2013.

“Visiting our sister cities has also been fascinating, as I had never even heard of some of these places like Kotor in Montenegro. I’ve been there twice now and it’s absolutely stunning. We play a global role of connecting our cities, and creating peace should be the answer,” Schneider said.

“It’s the little details that might seem ridiculous to some people that make a difference in the long run. Like when we went through the general plan and updating news-rack ordinances or lighting schemes, colors of street furniture and placement, that in the end make our city so beautiful,” she said.

In November, Schneider ran unsuccessfully for the 24th Congressional District seat, but she wants to remain in a leadership role after her city term of office expires at the end of this year. Until then she will continue her mayoral duties and her human resources consulting job on the side.

“There are so many topics in Santa Barbara that I want to help with, from healthcare to arts and culture, environmental aspects, I am working on that plan of what comes next,” Schneider said.

For more information about the awards dinner or to purchase tickets, to log onto


More information

To get more information or buy tickets to the 10th annual Women of Achievement Awards on Friday, June 9, log onto

Five Things to Know about Mayor Helene Schneider

  1. Her favorite novel is “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley.
  2. Singing is one of her favorite activities, either karaoke with friends or performing for local causes.
  3. Another favorite is eating at local restaurants, particularly Intermezzo, Pickle Room, Your Place, Edelasa Sushi, and Jane.
  4. She loves exploring new places and meeting people from all around the world.
  5. Her favorite place to visit in New York City is the High Line park.