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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 1st, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 52

Democracy 2.0

By DAVID MINSKY

In 2015, Santa Barbara made the historic move of ditching at-large elections for City Council members and implementing a district election system instead.

Now, Santa Maria—Santa Barbara County’s largest and most populous city—is taking the first steps to get rid of the at-large system it’s used since incorporating in 1905 and implement district elections before the end of this year.

Under the current at-large system, those who receive the most votes win the seats on an elected body, regardless of where they live in a jurisdiction. The move to district elections would split Santa Maria into voting blocks, and only residents from each block would be eligible to run as council members for their respective districts.

Get there
Santa Maria is holding public hearings during the March 7 and 21 City Council meetings to discuss the process of transitioning to district elections. The meetings start at 6:30 p.m. in City Council Chambers at 110 E. Cook St. A total of five public hearings will be held on the matter. For more information, visit cityofsantamaria.org/districtelections.

The formal transition began with a 3-2 Santa Maria City Council vote on Feb. 21. Councilmember Etta Waterfield and Mayor Alice Patino both objected.

But the City Council had little choice in the matter. The city received a letter last December from attorney and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Jason Dominguez, threatening litigation with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) if the city didn’t move to district elections. Dominguez sent the letter on behalf of unsuccessful Santa Maria City Council candidate Hector Sanchez.

Had the city resisted, it could have faced a losing case and been on the hook for millions of taxpayer dollars. No city has been able to successfully defend itself against a CVRA lawsuit since the law was enacted, according to City Attorney Gil Trujillo.

Passed in 2001, the CVRA is modeled off the federal Voting Rights Act. As opposed to the federal law, a candidate doesn’t need to prove causation with the CVRA, Trujillo said. For a CVRA violation to occur, according to Trujillo, a plaintiff simply needs to show that one racial group voted differently than another racial group.

Demonstrating that one racial group voted differently might not seem that complicated, but Trujillo said it’s proven with a statistical technique known as regression analysis that analyzes at least three past elections.

The CVRA was motivated in part by plaintiffs losing such challenges against cities in federal courts, including a case in Santa Maria. Four plaintiffs sued the city in 1992 for its at-large system under the federal Voting Rights Act. The case took 10 years to resolve and cost at least $1 million to defend, according to Trujillo, but the city prevailed.

More than a decade later, in 2014, Santa Maria’s at-large system became the focus of controversy once more. Groups such as Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) initiated a petition drive, collecting more than 5,000 signatures from residents for a ballot measure that called for district elections. The city rejected the petition, saying it failed to meet state election code requirements. CAUSE took the city to court, but a Superior Court judge upheld the city’s rejection of the petition.

Groups like CAUSE champion a district system for several reasons, namely arguing that it’s a more representative democracy and therefore holds elected officials more accountable to the public.

“They reduce the amount of money for political campaigns, allowing more grassroots, everyday people to run for office without major financial backing,” said Hazel Davalos, a community organizer for CAUSE, at the Feb. 21 Santa Maria City Council meeting.

Other speakers called the move to district elections “fiscally responsible” and a “natural evolution.”

Andy Caldwell, who represents the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business and is an outspoken critic of CAUSE, was the only person at the meeting who spoke in opposition of district elections. At least one person was ejected from the City Council chambers as Caldwell spoke, and many others walked out in solidarity.

Under districts, Caldwell noted that they would have an uneven number of “ineligible voters,” or undocumented immigrants, and that a voter could only reach out to one council member rather than all of them.

“Santa Maria has a record of voting and electing Hispanics more than any other city on the Central Coast with maybe the exception of Guadalupe,” he told the Sun, noting that former California Lieutenant Governor, state representative, and City Councilmember Abel Maldonaldo began his political career in Santa Maria. “Santa Maria already has three Hispanic City Council members.”

To date, approximately 20 cities in California have dropped their at-large systems in favor of district elections, Trujillo said at the meeting. All of those cities settled lawsuits and paid large sums of money—ranging from $350,000 to more than $4.5 million—mostly going toward attorneys’ fees and expert costs. The city of Santa Barbara settled for more than $800,000 in 2015.

In Santa Maria, the litigation money would come out of the city’s general fund and not be covered by insurance, although a recent law enacted on Jan. 1 caps attorneys’ fees for CVRA lawsuits to $30,000.

City Manager Rick Haydon said the threat of a lawsuit couldn’t have come at a worse time, since the city is facing a multimillion dollar budget deficit.

The resolution reflects the intention of the city to begin the move toward district elections, but the city has 45 days to adopt a formal resolution. Santa Maria asked for two extensions, which Sanchez agreed to, meaning he won’t file a lawsuit against the city before May 22.

Two districts will be created by June 1, Trujillo said, because two seats will be up for re-election a year from that date in 2018. Three more districts will be added by 2020.

A series of public meetings will be scheduled in the coming months to determine the makeup and geography of the districts.

Sanchez, who also spoke at the meeting, thanked the City Council for its future decision and said that Santa Maria will be forever altered by it.

“Leaders need to look at what’s needed in the community and step aside from politics and aside from their positions,” Sanchez said. “I look forward to your decision because frankly, I don’t want to have to see you in 95 days.”

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at dminsky@santamariasun.com.




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