Twenty unopened ballots sit under lock and key at the Santa Barbara County Elections Office, a cloud of voter fraud allegations surrounding them. They may be the tipping point in a nearly decade-old battle to convert the 72 homes along Rincon Point from a septic to a sewer system. Less than six months ago, the controversial conversion plan being carried out in the name of cleaner ocean water seemed all but guaranteed after regulatory agencies and a majority of Rincon Point residents approved it. But now, after a major bumble by Santa Barbara’s LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) opened the doors to a revote by area homeowners early last month, the opposition appears to have found enough voting power to potentially derail the project. This development not only has both Ventura County voting officials and District Attorney staffers alike investigating, but also indicates that the debate will most likely find its resolution in the courts.
A 1999 DNA test showed signs of human fecal matter in Rincon Creek and consequently launched a grassroots effort spearheaded by S.B.-based nonprofit Heal the Ocean to implement a sewer. These efforts seemed to bear fruit last year, at least until the legal team for the Rincon Point Foundation-the official name of the area’s anti-sewer residents-discovered that LAFCO had failed to give proper notice of an October 3 protest hearing. Consequently, that hearing had to be held again in early December and several newly registered voters got involved thanks to the opposition’s redoubled organizing efforts. The result: this month’s special election.
As of press time, county elections officials said this new vote-which included residents of both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, as Rincon straddles the county line-currently stands with 73 people in favor of the conversion, 59 opposed. Twenty ballots remain uncounted-all of which are believed to be in opposition, all from Ventura County residents, and 19 currently being challenged by Heal the Ocean for alleged voter fraud (the 20th was identified by Ventura officials).
To Heal the Ocean counsel Fred Woocher, who specializes in voting-related legal quandaries, 20 previously unregistered voters putting their names on the Ventura County rolls in the days leading up to the December vote-including 12 at one residence-caused concern. “It’s pretty obvious that they decided, ‘Well, we lost the first election so we better register more people so we can win the appeal,’” Woocher said. Though that practice is legal, Woocher went on to claim that, based on his investigation and the testimony of area residents, 19 of these voters don’t actually live at Rincon. “Voter fraud is a felony. You can only legally have one domicile,” he said. “These people are seriously putting themselves in jeopardy. : I haven’t seen anything this blatant in 20 years of doing election law.” (Calls were not returned from the Donelan residence, a Rincon Point address whose number of voting occupants grew from two to 14.)
According to Bily Taylor, the head of the Rincon Point Foundation, the influx of new “no” votes resulted from the “community waking up and growing its opposition” to a plan that he feels, at an approximate cost of $80,000 to each household, will not definitely clean up Rincon’s waters. “I know all my neighbors” Taylor said, “and the majority of Rincon Point residents oppose this annexation.” As for the accusations of voter fraud, Taylor pointed out that “probably 75 percent” of all the homes at the point are second homes and, as such, just as many supporting votes could have been challenged.
Santa Barbara must certify the April 22 vote no later than May 20, though Ventura officials must first rule on the challenges-something that Assistant County Clerk Jim Becker said will happen within the next week. Regardless of this outcome, both Heal the Ocean and the Rincon Point Foundation have pledged to keep fighting for their respective causes. With no further appeal process other than a lawsuit available, it seems the fate of the Rincon fight will ultimately be decided not by the people who live along the point or surf upon its waves, but rather by high-priced legal teams and a judge to be determined later.