Judge James F. Rigali
Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Maria activists pushing to put district elections before the city’s voters in November suffered a substantial blow this week when a judge ruled against forcing city officials to place the petition on the ballot. After gathering more than 5,300 signatures in two months — about 4,000 were required — from residents saying they supported the idea of electing their four councilmembers by districts (while leaving the mayor’s an at-large position), the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) had its petitions rejected by the city on a technical error.

In the lawsuit that followed, which Superior Court Judge James Rigali heard on Tuesday, though Rigali ruled that the city’s technical issue had no merit, he found instead that CAUSE had erred in not having its signature-gatherers write that they were at least 18 years old, a stipulation that became law earlier this year. He found that omission in the petitions to be a “fatal defect.” Rigali said the group could easily correct the problem by re-submitting a petition with that verification from all of the volunteers. But, in a statement released after the ruling, City Attorney Gilbert Trujillo said the city doesn’t have the “statutory authority” to accept corrected documents.

Hazel Putney-Davalos, of CAUSE, said that the group will attempt to resubmit its petition regardless, but she won’t be holding her breath. “The city could claim victory in this case, but it’s hollow,” she said, adding that the group did have all of its signature-gatherers say they were registered voters in the city. The deadline to get the item on the November ballot is August 8; Davalos said she expects the city to fight a resubmission in court, which could drag the process beyond that date.

Moving to other options, Davalos said that the group — which is being represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — will “most likely” look into suing the city under the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racially polarized voting. Cities across the state have been tied up in court under that state law; the City of Santa Barbara is waiting on a promised lawsuit from attorney Barry Cappello over its own at-large system.

Davalos said MALDEF sued the City of Santa Maria over its at-large system in the 1990s, under the federal Voting Rights Act. But after being tied up in the courts for 10 years — and in the wake of Latinos Abel Maldonado, Joe Centeno, Leo Trujillo, and Alice Patino winning seats on the dais — a judge tossed the case. Santa Maria has used an at-large system since its inception in 1905.

Supporters of district elections in Santa Maria grew in the wake of the city council’s controversial March decision to approve an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in town. Thousands of residents showed up to city meetings on the matter, voicing their opposition and then — in the wake of the approval — vowing to get the councilmembers who supported the building booted from office in November.


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