Tempers Flare over District Elections

Council Opts to Put Issue to Voters Next Year

<b>RACIALLY POLARIZED:</b> With changing demographics, attorney Barry Cappello argued that white voters will soon need district elections for white candidates to get elected. For now, he argues the change in voting schemes is mandated by state law to rectify lack of Latinos on the council.
Paul Wellman

Facing all-but-certain legal annihilation in the courts, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously ​— ​though unhappily ​— ​to put the question of district elections before city voters next November. To the extent this declaration of surrender was made in hopes of appeasing former city attorney Barry Cappello, who represents the handful of Latino advocates now suing City Hall to change from at-large elections to district elections, it failed miserably.

On Sunday afternoon, Cappello emailed a scorching missive to current city attorney Ariel Calonne, charging that Calonne’s written recommendation to the council “is no different than the former Soviet Union recreating and re-writing history.” He lambasted Calonne’s recitation of recent council actions taken, regarding district elections as “a carefully crafted pack of lies,” not to mention a “calculated subterfuge done to deny Latino voters their lawful rights.”

Such rhetorical histrionics notwithstanding, Cappello and his clients clearly hold the winning hand. By that, it appears City Hall’s own experts have concluded that the disparity between white and Latino voters over the past 10 years constitutes “racially polarized voting.” Under California’s Voting Rights Act, the only legal remedy to such polarization is for cities with at-large electoral systems, like Santa Barbara’s, to change to district elections. Since 1968, when at-large elections were last adopted by city voters, only five Latino candidates have been elected to the City Council. Currently, Latinos make up 38 percent of the city’s population and 19 percent of its voting-age adults. The only Mexican American to be elected in the past 20 years is Cathy Murillo.

Stylistically, Cappello objected that Calonne’s council report greatly exaggerated the degree of openness, engagement, and initiative the current councilmembers have shown toward district elections. “We’ve dragged you kicking and screaming to this issue,” he said. “And you don’t like it.” Certainly, Cappello is correct that the councilmembers could have placed the matter on this November’s ballot had they heeded district-election supporters. Given that there are no district-election supporters on the council, that deadline was allowed to lapse after the council deadlocked 3-3 over the issue. Councilmembers blamed their not pursuing the matter further on deadlines imposed by county elections, but county supervisors insisted no one from City Hall ever approached them to see if any accommodations could be made.

More crucially, Cappello has insisted City Hall need not place the matter before city voters at all, and that by doing so, the council is merely dragging its feet in an effort to forestall the inevitable. “We are not going to pass this off on the voters,” he hectored. But Calonne countered that, legally, the council could not adopt district elections without first going to a vote of the residents. The only other option would be for the council to do nothing and allow a judge to issue such an order. And no one on the council was willing to go that route. “I’m not really interested in what a judge tells me. I’m interested in what the people of Santa Barbara think,” said Councilmember Dale Francisco. “That’s not because I’m a racist. It’s because I believe in democracy.”

Even more outspoken was Councilmember Murillo, who urged Cappello to be more gracious in victory. “Take it down a notch, okay?” she pointedly implored the legendary litigator. Although Murillo is the councilmember most open to district elections, she hurled many pointed remarks directly at Cappello — about the attorneys’ fees he stands to be awarded under state law — who responded from his seat in the audience. Schneider admonished Cappello not to speak while the councilmembers were deliberating. “It’s to the council,” she told him.

Murillo insisted the voters should be given first crack at the issue. In the 1990 race, district elections narrowly lost by just 400 votes. She speculated Cappello was worried about losing at the ballot box and then having to pursue the matter in court. “You don’t want to be the bad guy, but maybe you’re going to have to own it,” she said, adding, “You sued us; okay, I’m trying to be cool about it.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected: It was Barry Cappello whom Mayor Helene Schneider admonished not to speak while the council was deliberating, not Councilmember Cathy Murillo, as was stated in the original story.


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