Arguing that legal action is the only way to implement a district election system and create a city council more representative of Santa Barbara’s population, attorney Barry Cappello invited reporters to his office last week to make his case. With the news of his voting discrimination lawsuit hot off the presses, Cappello, accompanied by four of the suit’s plaintiffs, claimed that the racial makeup of the current council violates 13-year-old California voting rights laws.
An air of frustration filled the room for the entirety of the 30-minute conversation as Cappello stood at the head of a large table and the several attendees hovered behind the conference room chairs. Defending his lawsuit, Cappello took issue with the charge that it is “premature” and explained he hired an expert to study voting patterns over time before he took legal action.
Racially polarized voting exists “without any question” in Santa Barbara, Cappello said, though the results of the study conducted by history professor Morgan Kousser — who worked on similar cases in Compton and Palmdale — are not yet public. Seven years ago, the Grand Jury recommended the city consider district elections, but nothing materialized, and councils have continuously failed to evenly spread resources to all neighborhoods, activists contend.
For instance, the Cacique Street Bridge has not been repaired for 30 years, said plaintiff Frank Bañales, and the Eastside neighborhood is in need of more lighting and other basic improvements. A lifelong resident of the Eastside, Bañales ran for city council in 1991 — then as a Republican — and lost to Marty Blum, who served two terms on the council and as mayor. Now he’s a Democrat. Bañales also ran for mayor in the late 1970s, when he was admittedly “young” and “naïve.” Plaintiffs Sebastian Aldana and Cruzito Cruz also unsuccessfully ran for council seats.
Standing in the back of the room was former councilmember Leo Martinez, who moved to New Mexico in the 1990s. Martinez, a longtime friend of Cappello, has recently been traveling back and forth to support the cause. Rumors recently circulated that he is coming back to Santa Barbara to run for city council, but Martinez flatly denied it.
Skeptics argue district elections are not the appropriate way to remedy the fact that very few Latinos have held a spot on the dais in a city where they make up 38 percent of the population. No current councilmembers have joined the movement, and they have urged activists to wait until Doug Johnson — a demographer hired by the city to conduct a voting study — finishes his research in September.
The fact that Santa Barbara is a charter city has emerged as a possible roadblock to implementing district elections because voters would have to ratify such a change. Not so, said Cappello, who likened the logic to a city in Alabama that tries to outlaw black kids from going to school. “You can’t do that,” he said. According to City Attorney Ariel Calonne, the issue of voter ratification is still an “open question” because Palmdale is petitioning the issue in the California Supreme Court.
In the past few years, a handful of other cities have made the shift from at-large to district elections. Compton is the only place where district elections have been implemented long enough to be successful, activists say. The first Latino was elected from one of the redrawn districts last year after voters passed the initiative in 2012. In Anaheim, an initiative will be placed on the November ballot after the city settled with the activists.
But in Palmdale, the court battle could cost the city more than $3 million in legal fees if the city loses. A judge recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and invalidated the last November election, which gave a seat on the council to Fred Thompson, the first African American to win in a city with a population that is 14 percent African American. The case is still tied up in appeals in the Supreme Court.
Several dozen community colleges — including Santa Barbara City College — have also made the move to district elections. District elections have worked just fine for the college, Trustee Marty Blum said, but she expressed some doubt for the city. She said, “It can get neighborhood against neighborhood” and lead to backdoor deals. Bañales’s response to such concerns is simply, “You don’t think that goes on now?”