FOR, BY, AND OF WHICH PEOPLE? Among the multitude of riddles long eluding my powers of comprehension is that ancient English proverb “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” If true, this raises the more immediate question, “Why the hell would you want to?” Over the years, I’ve scratched my head over this so many times my scalp is bloody. Given the visual blight inflicted, the Santa Barbara City Council is to be thanked for shining a little light on the matter, however inadvertently, at Tuesday’s council meeting. On the table was the pressing issue of district elections, a big hairy fur ball of a conundrum that’s been stuck perpetually in the craw of city government. Over the next many months, that loud, wet hacking sound you’ll be hearing is that of City Hall trying to expel this irritant from the back of its throat.
For those suffering from Perpetual Alienation Syndrome where City Hall is concerned — and who doesn’t — district elections are a combination penicillin, panacea, and magic bullet all rolled into one. Ever since 1968, Santa Barbarians have been electing their mayor and city councilmembers “at large,” meaning all seven represent the entire city at large and all residents get to vote for who they want to occupy all seven seats. In practice, this has generally translated to mean government of the white people, by the white people, and for the white people. (Feel free to substitute the terms cracker, honky, pinche hueros, ofays, peckerwoods, or Caucasian-Americans if you prefer.) To illustrate this point, only six nonwhite people have managed to get elected in the past 44 years. Given Santa Barbara’s obvious demographic realities, this picture is so pathetic that even perfectly rational explanations sound indistinguishable from lame excuses. That might be because, in fact, they are. The only solution, we are told, is district elections, in which councilmembers are elected by residents living in specific geographic districts to represent those areas on the council. Under this scenario, residents would be allowed to vote only for their own district representative as well as for their mayoral candidate, who would still represent all city residents “at large.”
Normally, such election schemes are conversational fodder only for wonky malcontents and perhaps the League of Women Voters. But a couple of things have changed. First, the California Voting Rights Act was modified in recent years, making it exceptionally easy to demonstrate the existence of “racially polarized” voting patterns in cities with at-large elections and sizable Latino populations. To date, the only solution recognized by judges handling such lawsuits — and the numbers are growing — has been the imposition of district elections. Push came to shove earlier this year when attorney Barry Cappello — Santa Barbara’s most iconic legal barracuda — made it clear he intended to sue City Hall for violating the Voting Rights Act. Cappello has agreed to take the case “for free” in part because of his lifelong friendship with Leo Martinez, the curmudgeonly contrarian who was — as he point outs — the first Latino elected to the council in the 20th century. That was 1973. Back then, Cappello was city attorney and Martinez — part of the new wave of reformers then seizing City Hall — declined to fire Cappello as many reformers had wanted. Martinez and the liberal, slow-growth, mushy good-government crowd soon parted ways. One theory is that Martinez balked at being anyone’s puppet. Another is that Martinez was flat-out impossible. I like Leo. But I also recognize if he were locked alone in a room, he’d pick a fight with himself. Ancient history and personality dynamics aside, two things are certain: If Cappello sues, he’ll win. And City Hall will have to pay his legal bills. The price tag I’m hearing hovers in the neighborhood of $1 million.
This Tuesday, Councilmember Cathy Murillo got herself, Mayor Helene Schneider, and Councilmember Randy Rowse appointed to an ad hoc kumbaya committee to sit down with Cappello and his clients to see if anything can be worked out short of outright legal warfare. Their prospects appear slim. A few months ago, Mayor Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White suggested the possibility of a hybrid system in which half the council would be elected at large and half would represent districts. Cappello rejected it out of hand, stating the only good hybrid he knew of was a Prius. It was a nice zinger, but I’m hoping Barry and Leo reconsider. Why? We’ve been down this road before. Every 25 years or so — ever since Santa Barbara incorporated as a city in 1850 — we’ve been switching from at-large to districts and back again. City voters adopted the current at-large system in 1968 to express their disgust with the district-elected councilmembers who voted to rezone what had long been bucolic dairy land to allow the development of what’s now La Cumbre Plaza. This was done over the objections of the councilmember representing that district. Shortly thereafter — under the at-large system — the council was taken over by the slow-growth machine, which enacted broad-sweeping policies designed to bring the city as a whole into environmental balance, while also spending gazillions making downtown a premier retail experience in response to the so-called “La Cumbre threat.” Have certain neighborhoods whose residents don’t vote suffered from less than benign neglect in the meantime? Indubitably.
We’ve already done the all-or-nothing flip-flop. Many times. Why don’t we try something different? The hybrid approach appears to offer the benefits of both systems, while mitigating some of the pick-your-poison corruptions to which either approach is susceptible. I’m betting the hybrid could actually win in an election. By contrast, any measure put to voters’ head by threat of a lawsuit is probably doomed. Should this hunch be borne out, what do Leo and Barry do for an encore? Sue the voters? Before we go down that rat hole, maybe they should sit down with the council’s kumbaya committee to see what can be done. To mark the occasion, maybe someone will bake a cake. Here’s hoping it’s one of those miraculous, mysterious confections that we can eat and have simultaneously. Otherwise, we’ll be seeing each other in court.