Saturday, February 23, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 51

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 23rd, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 42 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 42

Representation at large: Could Santa Maria benefit from moving to district elections?


The Chicano Civil Rights Movement was in full force in Southern California during the 1970s, and Frank Banales, a born-and-raised Santa Barbara resident, pushed himself into the fray. Before it became a symbol of empowerment, “Chicano” was a derogatory term for the son or daughter of a Mexican immigrant. Banales said the term “Chicano” was adopted as the Mexican American answer to the greater fight for civil rights at a time when underrepresented minority groups began exerting greater political strength within the U.S. population. 

“We called it ‘Chicanos’ because people were active in things that made their communities better,” Banales told the Sun

Frank Banales was the lead plaintiff in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that challenged Santa Barbara’s at-large voting system.

Grass roots organizations sprouted within the movement, forming as parallels to African-American ones. For example, the Brown Berets (or Los Boinas Cafes) emerged in the late 1960s and was similar to the Black Panthers in the sense that the groups were revolutionary nationalist movements. Their missions were similar: organizing against the Vietnam War, providing direct aid such as free breakfast to children, and providing free medical clinics to underserved populations. 

Banales got involved after a series of neighborhood meetings. At the time, he was living in the primarily Latino Eastside district of Santa Barbara. Banales became a part of the Chicano Health Task Force, which had the job of making health services more accessible to Latino residents in the neighborhood. With government funding, the group established public health services such as the Eastside Medical Clinic, which is still in operation to this day. The task force eventually formed the foundation for the drug and alcohol treatment nonprofit Zona Seca, of which Banales serves as its director. 

Now 70 years old, Banales believes the actions of the movement were highly successful, but adds that there is unfinished business in terms of gaining equal representation for Latino voters. 

This year, however, Banales and a group of plaintiffs were able to force the city to change its ways through a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in July 2014. The crux of the lawsuit was that the at-large voting system in place for City Council elections was racially polarizing and that minority Latino voters weren’t adequately represented on the council. Latino citizens make up 42 percent of the city’s population. 

Without going to court, the city settled with the plaintiffs and the result established six voting districts, two of them with a Latino majority, and one with a substantial block of Latino voters. 

Santa Barbara’s old system is one that, some say, resembles what’s currently used in Santa Maria. Those people ask why the largest city in the county with a 70 percent Hispanic population—according to 2010 U.S. Census data—still uses the at-large system. Banales, among others, asks: Could the system be changed with a lawsuit? Would the city be forced to capitulate in the same way Santa Barbara did? And does the city’s demographics make a compelling case for district elections? Even more important: Will district elections empower more voters? 

How at-large works 

The CVRA was established in 2001 and expands on its federal counterpart in the sense that makes it easier for minority groups to challenge at-large voting systems in the state. Unlike district elections, voters in at-large systems don’t choose a candidate to best represent their portion of the city. Instead, all candidates who compete in the at-large system run to represent the entire city. Whoever receives the most votes wins.

For instance, in Santa Maria, there are four City Council seats (not including the mayor) and the top four vote getters win the seats. 

It’s a popular voting system used in many parts of the world and even in some U.S. Congressional districts (states such as Alaska and Montana are considered the “district”), and it’s quite common across California. Lompoc and Guadalupe both have at-large voting.

Yet, such a system came into existence—in many California cities, at least—at the turn of the 20th century by way of white city council members in response to the growing number of minorities in post-World War II America, according to Cal Poly Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Latner—who argues that such a system came as a result of the “progressive” politics at the time. 

“One of the complaints of at-large elections is that it doesn’t represent racial minorities,” Latner told the Sun. “That can be true, but it can be the case that a majority, whether ethnic or ideological, can control all the seats in the at-large system.”

In such a system, all it takes is a simple majority of one block of voters to control the system. Assuming an election with a group of candidates vying for only three seats, as Latner explains, 34 percent of the population who pool all of their votes could technically control the council. 

The plaintiffs in the CVRA lawsuit challenged Santa Barbara’s at-large voting system.

Latner calls it a “parochial” system, where representatives are only representing small groups.

In Santa Maria, with a mostly Latino population, advocates claim that the city has a more compelling case to switch, believing that the City Council lacks diversity on racial grounds. This is not entirely true; at least two of Santa Maria’s city leaders identify themselves as having Mexican heritage. In a previous interview with the Sun, Mayor Alice Patino identified herself as having Mexican heritage. 

“My grandparents came and settled here in 1928,” Patino said. “And they came from Mexico—the Rodriguez family. They were the first Rodriguez family to settle in Santa Maria.”

Councilmember Etta Waterfield didn’t respond to the Sun’s inquiries for this story, but according to Santa Maria Public Information Officer Mark van de Kamp, her family also has a Mexican heritage. 

Still, Banales argues, district elections aren’t simply about the racial makeup of city councils, but also the diversity of ideas and making representatives more accountable to voters.

With districts, Banales said, constituents may find it easier to address more practical issues in their neighborhoods, such as fixing potholes or installing stop signs at dangerous intersections. 

“They still have to be concerned with the overall picture of the city,” Banales said, “but they should be held accountable.” 

What he means is that a district system would make it easier to recall an elected official, if needed. 

The cry for district elections couldn’t have been heard more loudly than in 2014 when the City Council voted, amid massive protests, to approve a permit for a new U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) holding facility.

At that point “it became clear that the City Council is not accountable to Santa Maria voters,” said Hazel Davalos, a Santa Maria resident and community organizer for the nonprofit Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), in a previous interview with the Sun. “Our hope with district elections is to ensure that everybody has a voice.”

Switching to districts would drastically cut the cost of campaigning, Davalos said, adding that it would cost an estimated $16,000 versus the estimated $65,000 it costs to run in Santa Maria’s at-large council race. She bases these numbers on campaign finance reports. It would also eliminate special interests from neighborhoods, she added. 

Banales said such a change doesn’t necessarily have to come from the courts or even the voters.  

How Santa Barbara did it

Before this year, Santa Barbara government elections relied on at-large voting, but it wasn’t always that way. According to Banales, the city was divided into districts until the council switched to at-large in the 1950s. 

Interest in changing Santa Barbara’s at-large system came in the 1990s when a campaign tried to get voters to approve a measure for district elections but narrowly failed, according to Banales. 

CAUSE tried the ballot approach in Santa Maria in 2014. Organizers ventured into neighborhoods and gathered the 2,700 signatures—10 percent of the registered voters—needed to place the measure on the upcoming ballot. 

There was heavy support and it “definitely fired people up,” Davalos said. However, something went awry, and the city rejected the petition. The case was appealed to the courts, but Superior Court Judge James Rigali rejected the petition in June 2014 on the basis that the affidavits signed by the petition’s signature collectors couldn’t confirm that they were at least 18 years old.

Davalos didn’t respond to the Sun’s inquiries for this story before press time. But CAUSE considered filing a CVRA lawsuit against the city shortly after Rigali’s decision. As of the publication of this story, there are no plans for a CVRA challenge from CAUSE.

But a CVRA lawsuit may be necessary, according to Banales. It shouldn’t even have to go that far, he said, since the City Council itself could simply take a vote to make the next election a district race. Banales said the CVRA makes it a no-brainer. 

“Santa Maria is dumb,” Banales told the Sun. “The council ought to hire someone to research what the CVRA is, and then, they should act. They’d be saving a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

Barry Capello, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Santa Barbara case, didn’t respond to specific questions regarding the case before press time. However, Banales was able to provide a brief history of his case. 

Several public meetings were held between voters and city officials who, in the end, rejected the idea. The CVRA lawsuit was filed in July 2014. 

“When you exist year after year and Latino candidates running for city council never get elected, or very few were to get elected, and it would take decades for that to happen, you knew there was something wrong with that,” Banales said. 

At first, the city did a knee-jerk reaction, according to Banales. Both camps hired demographers—those who study characteristics of human populations—who set out to determine district lines and if discrimination was occurring within the system. The city’s demographer couldn’t find any info contrary to this notion, according to Banales, who added that the city sought input directly from the citizens. 

Inevitably, Santa Barbara settled, resulting in the creation of six districts of just fewer than 15,000 residents. Elections were held as soon as Nov. 3 of this year, with voters in the first, second, and third districts casting ballots. 

The objective was achieved, with two districts out of six with majority Latino populations electing their respective representatives. 

The settlement also came with a monetary settlement—$600,000 according to Banales, most of which he said went to attorney fees. That’s a hefty return in contrast to fundraising the $20,000 to pay for the lawsuit, Banales said, adding that such a feat could easily be accomplished in Santa Maria. 

“Any attorney up in Santa Maria who isn’t interested in this lawsuit is a fool,” Banales said. 

Yet, with a complex electorate in Santa Maria, are district elections a suitable replacement for what already stands?

Are districts really the answer?

To classify the issue as struggle between district and at-large elections is a somewhat of a false dilemma, according to Cal Poly politics professor Latner. There are other methods that could be more equitable to voters such as a ranked voting system (in which voters can rank their candidates in order of preference if no candidate wins a majority), which are used by several municipalities in the Bay Area, or a bullet voting system (in which a voter only selects one candidate even though there may be an option to vote for multiple candidates), Latner said. 

One of the problems with a district election, Latner said, is that only one person is representing the majority of voters. It’s a winner-takes-all system.

Representatives for the Santa Maria City Council are elected through an at-large system, which many critics argue is not a very good system of representation.

It’s similar to the way some Congressional districts continually re-elect candidates along party lines. Calling district elections “outdated technology,” Latner describes some districts that are so entrenched in political parties, that there’s little to no change in the electorate. One of the consequences of this is lower levels of participation, or lower voter turnout, Latner said.

“You’re always going to get a minority who doesn’t get represented because of where they live and some say that violates political equality,” Latner said. “What you want is a system that can generate effective minority representation. But you always want to avoid fragmentation that can come with elections.”

Another common problem among district representatives, according to UC Santa Barbara Professor of Political Science Eric Smith, is the lack of accountability when it comes to specific issues. For instance, members of city councils or boards of supervisors will often defer to other members of the board on policy matters specific to their district. It’s not written into law, but rather it tends to be a habit among local boards, Smith said. 

Then there’s the matter of holding elections on odd versus even years. According to Banales, odd years tend to attract fewer voters, since those are held without national elections, which are held in even years. 

Banales says that even-year elections may attract more voters, but voters tend to vote along two-party lines—Democrats and Republicans—and candidates tend to be more beholden to the party rather than voters. 

“If it’s party politics, that’s pretty powerful,” Banales said, who added that voters in city council elections benefit more with odd years. 

But then again, if you’re going to have elections, the system benefits when everyone turns out to vote.  

The problem of voter participation

In a city with more than 103,000 residents, there are a little more than 26,000 registered voters, according to van de Kamp. 

Santa Maria had an impressive voter turnout in 2014, with more than 23,000 voters showing up. In the hypothetical scenario that Santa Maria switches to districts, Banales says more people should register. 

Cities in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties that still use at-large voting systems:
• Santa Maria
• Lompoc
• Guadalupe
• Buellton
• Solvang
• Goleta
• Carpinteria
• Arroyo Grande
• San Luis Obispo
• Pismo Beach
• Atascadero
• Paso Robles
• Morro Bay
• Grover Beach

It’s not clear if a CVRA lawsuit will succeed in Santa Maria. But if it did, district elections are the most likely successor, according to Latner, since courts have historically relied on implementing districts in the wake of the federal Voting Rights Act.

“We think district elections will help, but it’s not the answer to the problems, man,” Banales told the Sun. “Civic duty is a responsibility of the residents.”

Jacqueline Inda, one of the candidates for Santa Barbara’s 1st District and also a plaintiff alongside Banales, said she is communicating with a group in Santa Maria interested in filing a lawsuit. But she couldn’t identify any names, saying that it’s still too early for action. 

Dividing districts in Santa Maria would not be as clear cut as it seems. Many factors come into play: race, population density, socioeconomic status, etc. It’s a mix in Santa Maria, where the majority Hispanic population is very diverse. It would be a demographer’s job to figure out the best way to split things.  

Despite the at-large system, there have been several Latino representatives on the City Council. Former councilmembers Leo Trujillo and Hilda Zacharias and former Mayor Abel Maldonado all come to mind. 

Since the passage of the CVRA, at-large systems in California have been falling one-by-one, some not without a fight. The city of Palmdale stood up to such a challenge, although a state appeals court in 2014 ruled that the city must get rid of the at-large elections, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

Tony Coles, a candidate who lost a bid for Santa Maria City Council last year (he placed fourth, losing to Jack Boysen and Etta Waterfield), campaigned on the issue of changing the way council members are elected. 

He said that effective leadership not only requires a diversity of representation, but also a diversity of ideas.

“Diverse ideas and diverse representation go hand in hand in Santa Maria, and we’re desperate for new ideas,” Coles said. 

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at

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