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District Elections: Placebo or Panacea?

Matter Will Likely Go Before Voters and Judge


Facing imminent legal threat from noted trial attorney Barry Cappello, the Santa Barbara City Council came within inches of putting district elections on the ballot this November for city voters to decide, but it came up just one vote shy and deadlocked 3-3. Had Councilmember Dale Francisco been present ​— ​he was campaigning for Congress ​— ​he said he would have voted to let city residents decide the matter, while at the same time dismissing district elections as “silly” and “a bad idea.” Although none of the current councilmembers supports district elections, it’s almost inevitable that the matter will either go before the voters, before a judge, and very likely both. Based on a host of recent court decisions throughout California, the conviction around City Hall is that if Cappello sues on behalf of the emerging coalition of district election supporters, he will almost certainly win.

Since 1968, only five Latinos, one African American, and one Asian-Pacific Islander have been elected to the council. To prevail, Cappello must demonstrate Santa Barbara voters are polarized along racial lines, meaning that minority voters in general vote differently than their Anglo counterparts. City Attorney Ariel Calonne said with Latinos making up 38 percent of the city’s population, there was a very strong likelihood such polarization exists. That, he added, would have to be demonstrated by an expert demographer. The council voted to hire such a demographer right away to determine the facts. It also voted to form an ad hoc subcommittee to meet with proponents of district elections to see if any meetings of the mind could be achieved without resorting to legal bloodshed.

District-election advocate Frank Bañales, who ran for the council in the 1980s and lost narrowly, said his group ​— ​the District Election Committee of the Community Neighborhood Alliance ​— ​intends to sue City Hall for violating the California Voting Rights Act in the next few weeks. Bañales said district elections have little to do with ethnicity and everything to do with neighborhood representation. If the city is found in violation of the state Voting Rights Act, Calonne said, the only acceptable remedy is the adoption of district elections. Because Santa Barbara is a charter city, this can only be done by city voters. And if voters rejected it, Calonne said, a judge would have to intervene. The latest the council could act to get the matter before voters this November is June 24.

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