<b>POPPING THE QUESTION: </b> District elections are no longer the subject of academic debate as Barry Cappello (center) sued City Hall, charging the current at-large system of elections is racially polarized. Parties to that suit include Sebastian Aldana (left), Frank Bañales (bottom right), and Cruzito Cruz (right), all of whom have run unsuccessfully for City Council.
Paul Wellman (file)

Whether construed as a promise or threat, prominent Santa Barbara attorney Barry Cappello was good on his word: He filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Barbara this week charging that the city’s method of electing councilmembers at large — as opposed to by specific districts — has effectively disenfranchised Latino voters by diluting the Latino voting block, thus violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Although Latinos make up 38 percent of the city’s population, Cappello noted that only one — Cathy Murillo — has been elected since 2001. Since 1968, not one Latino has been elected mayor. While the cause of such statistical lopsidedness has been much debated by Santa Barbara’s warring political factions over the years, state law is fairly simple; if there’s a significant difference between how Latino voters cast their ballots from how their Anglo counterparts do, that constitutes “racially polarized voting.”

Cappello’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of five individuals, three of whom — Frank Banales, Cruzito Cruz, and Sebastian Aldana — have run unsuccessfully for City Council over the years. “Racially polarized voting consists both of voter cohesion on the part of Latino voters and of bloc voting by the non-Latino electorate against the choices of Latino voters,” Cappello declared in his lawsuit. The only remedy, he said, was the elimination of the at-large voting system and its replacement by district elections.

Among current councilmembers, there’s no strong support for district elections and considerable opposition. In recent weeks, an ad hoc committee of councilmembers has met with district election supporters in hopes of working out an alternative to litigation. The supporters made it clear from the outset they intended to sue. Thus far, no city sued for violating the Voting Rights Act has managed to prevail; many have agreed to switch election schemes as part of a negotiated settlement.

Cappello took the case, in part, as a favor to a longtime friend and former councilmember Leo Martinez, who led the charge for district elections. Should he prevail, he’ll be eligible to collect attorney’s fees from City Hall. Mayor Helene Schneider, a skeptic where district elections are concerned, expressed “disappointment” at what she termed a “premature lawsuit.”

Schneider noted last week that the council voted to authorize demographer Douglas Johnson to conduct a voting study to determine the extent to which — if any — Santa Barbara’s voting patterns are “racially polarized.” In previous conversations, she noted that minority candidates like Murillo or Das Williams successfully garnered votes from all over, while Latino candidates like Cruz — who has never sought to raise the funds necessary to wage a credible campaign — performed poorly throughout the city.

Because Santa Barbara is a charter city, it falls to voters to ratify any change in the voting system. For the matter to be placed before city voters this November — an off-year election for City Hall — the council would have to authorize the vote and refer it to the County Board of Supervisors for inclusion on the ballot no later than August 8. To date, no such effort has taken place, and at City Hall, there’s been considerable resistance to being stampeded into action.

Instead, several councilmembers have expressed interest in voting to place the matter before city voters next November, while engaging the community in the traditional avalanche of public meetings and workshops that attend most, though not all, important policy considerations. The coalition for district elections represents an intriguing cross-section of alienated activists from all political stripes unified by an abiding sense that lower-income neighborhood interests and concerns have been poorly represented by the current system.


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