Girding for District Elections

In anticipation of a trial slated to take place in less than three months to determine whether Santa Barbara’s at-large elections system is “racially polarized,” the Santa Barbara City Council voted to spend up to $400,000 to hire Marguerite Leoni, a legal specialist in Voting Rights Act challenges and redistricting disputes. She is partner with the firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrello Gross & Leoni, one of the most politically entrenched firms in Sacramento statehouse matters. (After voters in Butte County passed a fracking ban last November, the energy industry hired Leoni’s firm to overturn the initiative.)

Leoni represented Palmdale and Whittier when they were sued by Latino activists seeking a change from at-large to district elections. Both cities lost. Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne said Leoni brings extensive experience dealing with the federal Voting Rights Act, which governs how district lines are drawn, assuming the City of Santa Barbara loses too. No city has yet prevailed in Voting Rights Act challenges to at-large elections.

Calonne dismissed the notion that district lines could be drawn via private negotiations absent public input as “abhorrent.” The first of at least three public workshops on district lines will take place February 28. He estimated the public process would take three-to-six months. Calonne had been in negotiations with Barry Cappello, attorney for the Committee for District Elections, to see if a settlement could be negotiated. The status of those talks remains unclear; neither Calonne nor Cappello will comment.

City officials are eager to avoid a prolonged legal battle; defeat seems pre-ordained and Cappello would be entitled to attorney’s fees. In the meantime, activists with the group CAUSE — as well as County Supervisor Salud Carbajal and school boardmembers Monique Limon and Pedro Paz — are pushing the City Council to switch from odd-year elections to even-year races. This, they claim, would have far greater impact in increasing voter turnout than electing councilmembers to represent distinct geographical districts. This change, they argue, should be included in any settlement City Hall and the Committee for District Elections reach.

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