Barry Cappello
Paul Wellman (file)

Judge Donna Geck will decide whether Santa Barbara’s voting patterns are, in fact, racially polarized after a trial scheduled to start next April 6, seven months before city voters are slated to decide whether the mayor and councilmembers should be elected by district rather than the city’s current system of at-large elections. Geck set the trial date after a brief legal skirmish between Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne and Barry Cappello, the attorney representing the plaintiffs claiming the city’s at-large elections are racially biased.

Cappello sought a trial date in February, and Calonne countered more time was necessary so that the public could weigh in meaningfully on how the new districts should be crafted. Calonne suggested the drawing of new districts is a complex, time-consuming matter that may require the assistance of a judicially appointed special master. Geck didn’t see it that way and ruled that a trial — estimated to require eight days — would be calendared for April 6. Cappello had argued against such a delay, insisting that to do so would perpetuate a system of elections favoring white candidates at the expense of minority candidates, who are elected in a number disproportionate to their respective representation in the population at large.

Two months ago — in response to the lawsuit Cappello filed earlier this year challenging at-large elections — the City Council voted to place the issue on a city ballot in November 2015. At that meeting, councilmembers were vehement in their assertion that the public should weigh in on so significant a change. Cappello disagreed, stating that the matter should be decided by a judge and expressed skepticism that the white voters who had unfairly benefited from the at-large election system could be relied upon vote against the system that accrued to their benefit.

There is little doubt that Judge Geck will rule that Santa Barbara’s voting patterns reflect racial polarization as defined by the California Voting Rights Act. The City Council voted to place the matter on the ballot only after its own paid expert concluded such polarization, in fact, existed. In the past 20 years, only two Latinos — Cathy Murillo and Gil Garcia — have been elected to the council, one African American — Babatunde Folayemi, and one Asian-Pacific Islander — Das Williams. The city consultant’s report will not be released to the public, stated Calonne, because the results remain too methodologically “coarse” and because it constitutes “attorney-client work product.” Cappello hired an expert of his own, and that expert also concluded the city’s voting results are racially polarized. Cappello likewise has declined to make public his expert’s report. Under the state’s Voting Rights Act, the only legally bullet-proof remedy to such polarization is district elections.

Since the state Voting Rights Act went into effect, no governmental entity that has been sued has successfully defended itself against the charge of racial polarization. The vast majority of such cases, however, settle before going to trial. The terms of such settlements are negotiated by the parties involved. It remains to be seen whether such a settlement is possible here. One thing is certain, however; the losing party — presumably City Hall — will be liable for the legal fees and expenses incurred by the victor. Given that such costs elsewhere have exceeded $8 million, the stakes are significant.


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