Where the implementation of district elections is concerned, the City of Santa Barbara does not have time to learn how to walk before it starts to run. In fact, the deadlines — imposed by this Friday’s all-but-final legal settlement over a lawsuit filed late last year — are so compressed and accelerated that city officials and voters alike find themselves forced into a full sprint before they’ve begun to crawl.
In this spirit, about 100 political and civic activists jammed into the Faulkner Gallery on Saturday morning to learn how they can best weigh in on the shape, size, and dimension of the six new City Council districts. They have to act fast. The eventual plan needs to be finalized by the council and approved by Judge Donna Geck no later than April 6.
Doug Johnson, the professional demographer hired by City Hall to lead this complex and unwieldy undertaking, said the typical public process for adopting district boundaries takes five to seven months. Members of the public seeking to submit their two cents’ worth have until March 12. That’s 13 days.
Johnson unveiled his interactive website designed for just this purpose. The final details, he said, were completed only the night before. Viewers will be asked to log in with a name and password. Depending on patience and navigational skills, they can then create new and different district maps totally of their own creation or make suggestions on how best to modify the three already up.
Johnson showed how would-be mapmakers can access information about age, housing status, and a host of demographic details so they can devise “communities of interest,” a key consideration in drawing legally defensible district lines. To be on the safe side, Johnson cautioned, interested citizens should seek to protect existing neighborhood boundaries. That, he added, is easier said than done. “A neighborhood is what people who live there say it is,” he explained. “And they often disagree.” Each district must also have pretty much the same number of people living there, Johnson said. That’s occupants, not voters. While some variation in numbers is allowed, the courts frown on any differences greater than 5 percent.
Perhaps even more importantly, Johnson went on, federal law requires that great care be taken so that voters belonging to protected classes of underrepresented populations — in this case, Latinos — not be diluted or compressed to minimize their political representation and impact. That’s paramount given the settlement that arose out of a lawsuit filed last year alleging the City of Santa Barbara’s voting results are “racially polarized” as defined by the California Voting Rights Act.
While City Attorney Ariel Calonne took pains to insist City Hall was making no such admission in settling the lawsuit this week, he and the City Council did agree that two of the six districts would have a majority of Latino voters. One of those two districts would be from the lower Eastside. The other would encompass in some fashion the Westside.
Under the terms of the settlement, district elections will be phased in over a two-year period beginning this fall. Of the three districts up for grabs this November, two will be the agreed-upon “majority-minority” districts. The other one will involve the Mesa. That’s because Councilmember Randy Rowse — a Mesa resident — is running for re-election in November. The other three districts will come up for their first election in 2017. Under the new deal, only the mayor would still be elected at large by all voters throughout the city.
The shift to district elections will involve changes both massive and subtle. City voters have been electing their mayors and councilmembers at-large since 1969, when district elections were rejected by a vote of the people. In Santa Barbara, the at-large system allowed every voter to select three council candidates ever two years. Candidates were not bound to any geographical district, nor were the voters. Under the new system, candidates can run only for districts in which they reside and be elected by voters who reside in that same district. Given that the council term of office is four years, that means every voter can vote for their council candidate of choice every four years.
At Saturday’s public forum, there was notably little squawking about district elections in general or the process by which they were forced on the city. Many speakers lamented the speed involved and expressed bewilderment more time was not allowed for a decision of such import. Attorney Barry Cappello responded that Latino voters had been delayed access to electoral power for too long. “It’s not being rushed,” he said. “We’re not taking the time to deliberate about it anymore. It’s a call to action.”
The major complaint — echoed loudly and repeatedly by speakers with organizations like the League of Women Voters, CAUSE, and SBCAN, not to mention the administrative assistants of two county supervisors — was that the settlement did not include language to change elections from odd years to even years. Santa Barbara is the only municipal government within 50 miles to hold off-year elections, when voter turnout is notably lower. If the purpose was to increase voter turnout and achieve a more robust civic democracy, the speakers argued, even-year elections qualified as “a no-brainer.”
As for the process unveiled Saturday, Cappello said it was “very impressive.” But he took exception to one of the three maps, noting that the proposed Westside district had only 45 percent Latino voters, not 50 percent. He objected to the inclusion of neighborhoods now teeming with City College students, and to the inclusion of the Pilgrim Terrace neighborhood by Modoc Road. The only point to including these areas, he charged, was to dilute the Latino vote.
While Cappello and the plaintiffs have taken a hands-off attitude about the mapping as long as they get two Latino districts, they do reserve the right to challenge anything approved by the council in court come April 6.