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Paul Wellman

District Elections Lawsuit Could Hit Santa Maria

Legal Action Suggested After Santa Barbara Settlement


A decisive win for Santa Barbara district elections advocates this week has Santa Maria activists envisioning victory of their own, with one organization hinting that a lawsuit against the city could come soon. Last year, Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), rallied to get a district elections measure on the November ballot but were ultimately unsuccessful. Representatives for CAUSE they originally wanted to enact district elections via a ballot measure — they gathered 5,300 signatures in support — but the news out of Santa Barbara could lead them to take a different tack.

“The Santa Barbara City Council and City Attorney realized the writing was on the wall, and they had slim-to-no chance of winning a California Voting Rights Act case if it went to court. Their quick settlement of the lawsuit shows the need for Santa Maria to move to district elections immediately,” said CAUSE organizing director Hazel Putney-Davalos, who noted the city’s 70 percent Latino population. “The City of Santa Maria wouldn’t stand a chance under a voting rights lawsuit.”

Putney-Davalos and CAUSE community organizer Lucas Zucker said the group’s previous efforts to get a measure on the ballot were met by an “obstructionist” City Hall. Last year, city officials rejected the petition on a technical error, a decision the organization challenged in court. A judge later dismissed the city’s issue with the petition but stated that CAUSE erred in not abiding by a new requirement that all signature-gatherers verify that they were at least 18 years old. The judge suggested that CAUSE do that and resubmit its papers, but city officials maintained they didn’t have the “statutory authority” to accept corrected documents.

Zucker said the group doesn’t have a hard timeline for when or if it would file lawsuit but said the goal would be to affect the next council race in 2016. (Santa Maria, unlike Santa Barbara, only has even-year elections.) The system would likely involve four districts and an at-large mayor, Zucker said. He added that CAUSE hasn’t yet chosen an attorney — they haven’t spoken to Barry Cappello, the hard-hitting lawyer who waged the swift and successful lawsuit in Santa Barbara — but that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) could be a contender. MALDEF represented the group with their 2014 petition, and also waged a prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful pitch for district elections in the 1990s under the federal Voting Rights Act.

If CAUSE takes legal action, the group would have to prove that the city’s current at-large system — in place since the city’s start in 1905 — has yielded “racially polarized” outcomes as defined by the state law. In Santa Maria, 70 percent of the population and 40 percent of the registered voters are Latino. (In Santa Barbara, Latinos comprise 38 percent of the population and 24 percent of the eligible voters.)

Santa Maria activists’ push for district elections gained momentum last March, when the City Council gave the go-ahead for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center to be built in town, replacing the center at the Lompoc prison. ICE officials repeatedly said they wouldn’t conduct raids, and Police Chief Ralph Martin said the immigration status of witnesses to and victims of crimes were “not a concern” of his department.

Opponents argued the building would negatively affect residents’ health, safety, and property values, but took some comfort in the recently passed Trust Act, which limits the types of inmates who can be held. Still, Zucker said, the “fear and wariness” of the community members who attended meetings on the issue — 5,000 at a Planning Commission hearing, 1,400 at a City Council meeting — remains. CAUSE has since distributed 1,000 informational pamphlets across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, he said, ahead of the building’s upcoming opening. An ICE spokesperson said the facility should be operational by late spring or early summer.



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