Clearly not happy with the county’s projected cost to conduct this fall’s municipal election, Santa Barbara city councilmembers decided on Tuesday, April 24 that the city will conduct its own election this November, when voters will be asked to approve a change to the city’s future election schedule. City officials estimate a traditional poll would cost the city $296,640, a far cry from the $47,000 the County of Ventura is charging the City of Ventura for a similar election. “We are not being offered a good deal,” Councilmember Das Williams said. Councilmember Helene Schneider called the gap between the figures “very frustrating.”
But County Clerk Joe Holland said the city wasn’t comparing apples to apples in all the costs involved. He estimated the cost of running the stand-alone November election at between $550,000 and $650,000. Various factors have caused the cost to go up, he said, including the growing number of absentee ballots, making ballots available in both English in Spanish, and the Help America Vote Act, which ensures that each polling place has special equipment allowing disabled people to vote without assistance. With such a discrepancy in the cost, Councilmember Iya Falcone said it would be “untenable and irresponsible” to still have the county run the election.
The city is one of only three jurisdictions in the county that still holds its elections in odd-numbered years, meaning the city can’t split the costs with others. Over the years, the rest switched to even-year elections to combat the high costs. In 1985, 22 out of the 24 school districts moved to even years, and in the next four years the other two followed suit.
Every two years, Holland sends a letter to the jurisdictions still running odd-year elections to explain that moving to an even year would save money. If Santa Barbara fell under the umbrella of county-operated even-year elections, the cost to the city would be less than $30,000, Holland estimated. The vote on a city measure on last November’s ballot cost the city only $35,000.
The prospect of cheaper elections has led the city to place a charter amendment on November’s ballot that would give voters the option to switch from a stand-alone odd-year election to rejoin the state, federal, and county elections that always take place in even years. The city has been conducting odd-year elections since 1979, a move initially made to help the election stand out from state and federal elections. But with costs on the rise and with municipal election voter turnout lower than that of state and federal elections, a change is needed, leaders say.
But the proposed change also brings up a dilemma: How would a change in the election schedule impact current and future city councilmembers’ terms? With two options on the table at Tuesday’s meeting, the council voted unanimously to add one year to the terms of Mayor Marty Blum and the three council members voted into office in 2005-Falcone, Roger Horton, and Grant House-and would grant a five-year term to whoever is voted into office this November. Williams, Schneider, and Councilmember Brian Barnwell are up for re-election this November, and all are expected to run again. The second option would have allowed voters-in two future elections-to determine all seven city council members who would be sitting on the dais for an extended year.
The charter amendment is part of a trio of election reforms the city is examining, one of which is a program that would allow candidates time to talk about issues on public access channels and possibly in videos posted on the city’s Web site. Also coming before the council in coming weeks will be a campaign finance disclosure ordinance that aims to change the way financial reporting is conducted. The ordinance would incorporate several electronic filing provisions, including explicit explanation of who is paying for mailings, phone calls, and other mass campaign communications.