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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 4th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 52

Community organizers eye Santa Maria for a possible voting rights lawsuit

By DAVID MINSKY

View a slideshow of opposition to the ICE facility in Santa Maria.

A win last week for plaintiffs in a lawsuit to create voting districts in Santa Barbara has community organizers considering a similar course of action for the city of Santa Maria.

Filed last July, the lawsuit against Santa Barbara alleged that the city’s at-large voting system was violating the California Voting Rights Aact and disenfranchising Latino voters. As a result of the settlement, the city will conduct district elections beginning in 2015, Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Pierre Calonne wrote in a Feb. 24 press release.

Representatives from the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) are now looking at filing a lawsuit against the city of Santa Maria. The group petitioned to get a measure on the 2014 ballot that would require all City Council members to be elected by districts instead of the city as a whole. But the petition was denied by city officials, and then later by a judge, because of technical issues. Hazel Putney-Davalos, CAUSE’s organizing director, said that legal action was considered from the beginning of that process—even before the Santa Barbara settlement.

“We were actually moving forward with district elections in Santa Maria before the Santa Barbara decision,” Putney-Davalos said. “This was an option all along but we wanted to approach it in a democratic way.”

The drive to create voting districts in Santa Maria was motivated partly by the City Council’s 2014 to approve a new Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, Putney-Davalos said. Thousands of residents showed up at the meetings last year to oppose the new facility. After council members approved the facility, it became clear to Putney-Davalos that City Council was not accountable to Santa Maria voters.

She said that district elections would not only create a more representative City Council, but also level the playing field for candidates and eliminate special interests. Putney-Davalos added that it would also cost considerably less to run for office.

Santa Maria city officials did not immediately return calls made by the Sun seeking comment on the matter. But Putney-Davalos said that advocates for district elections have a better chance of winning under the California Voting Rights Act rather then through a federal voting rights lawsuit.

“In the case of the lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, if Latinos aren’t able to elect a candidate of their choice, the judge forces the city to move towards districting elections,” Putney-Davalos said, adding that judges can also look for a history of voting disenfranchisement in a city.

Putney-Davalos said that they could get help from Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an organization that also helped CAUSE with their petition last year. She added that her group has not yet found a lawyer and there is no official timeline for the lawsuit, but is hoping for a change in time for the November 2016 elections. The group also did not notify city officials of any upcoming legal action, Putney-Davalos said.

 




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