The City of Goleta is the latest to receive a notice calling for district elections because of racially polarized voting patterns, signed in part by a young woman whose social and political interests were encouraged by Jonny Wallis, who long worked toward cityhood for Goleta.
Santa Maria’s City Council last week opted for district elections after catching a similar letter. Santa Barbara chose district elections in 2015, the notice points out, after incurring nearly $600,000 in attorney’s fees. Invoking the Voting Rights Act, such actions have had a 100 percent win rate in California, leaving municipalities the choice of switching to districts or paying steep legal fees to fight the proposal before the inevitable loss.
Wallis, who died in 2013 after serving as Goleta mayor and city councilmember, lived around the corner from Lindsey Rojas, frequently coming by to discuss what was going on in the city. Along with Hector Mendez, also an Old Town resident, Rojas is now demanding the chance for equal representation for Latinos in Goleta. Tony Vallejo’s city council loss in particular, she said, raised a concern that Old Town does not have a voice in city government. The lack of sidewalk access for wheelchairs or people with disabilities is one of the unaddressed issues that face the area, she said.
When Rojas presented her plea to City Hall during a public comment session earlier this month, she listened to the council discussing a mural for the bridge coming into Old Town. She had not heard about it before. “Have they talked to other people who live in Old Town,” she asked. “Is that a priority?” She’s familiar with beautification efforts in other places she’s lived, she said, and “they asked residents and gave them a voice for feedback.”
Rojas works for the nonprofit Computer and Communications Association, coordinating free tax-assistance events in Southern California. She’s also a Zumba instructor and knew Vallejo from the gym. They aren’t social friends, she said, but she’d seen him in Old Town during a neighborhood cleanup.
The Goleta letter included a packet of information assembled by the District Elections Committee, which originally formed in the fight to change Santa Barbara’s election process, spokesperson Jacqueline Inda said. She’d been a plaintiff in that suit and had run for council for District One, the Milpas area, losing to Jason Dominguez. Writing as the California Voting Rights Project, the group outlined a pattern in which Old Town Goleta — a largely Hispanic residential area — voted one way and the rest of the town voted another. Among the evidence presented were the City Council losses of Reynaldo Ybarra in 2001 and Vallejo in 2016, a school bond measure loss in 2014, as well as the defeat of a district elections measure itself when the city incorporated in 2001.
[Ed Note: County election records show district elections narrowly passed in 2001 by 50.85 to 49.15 percent.]
“We understand that some folks in our county are not happy with the concept of lawsuits to form districts,” Inda told The Independent “Instead, they would rather have [by-district] voting rights be placed on ballot measures for citizens to have the opportunity to vote on. … But the truth is that social justice and civil liberty laws were created to be the voice of the people and the protection of all citizens when ballot measures fail to protect the most vulnerable citizens of this country.”
Of the three Latino candidates for city council fielded among 26 total, the report stated, only Roger Aceves has achieved office. The former sheriff’s deputy and Santa Barbara city police officer has been elected to the council three times since 2006, though he lost a county supervisor bid in 2014 in which the majority of Old Town voted for him, the report said. Aceves lives in the Los Carneros area.
Kyle Richards, newly elected in November to Goleta’s council, lives in Old Town Goleta. (Vallejo does not, though a number of merchants there are clients of his CPA practice.) “I’m concerned that we may have racially polarized voting,” Richards said. “A goal of mine is to have as much participation and engagement by all residents in the city.” He added that with a direct election for the mayor’s seat to be decided in 2018, four council districts would be drawn for Goleta, should district elections become the rule. “I am eager to see what moving to district elections might mean,” he said in anticipation of a forthcoming council meeting. The issue will likely come before the council in March, according to the city’s spokesperson, Valerie Kushnerov.
In the November election, 17,808 people were registered to vote in Goleta, Kushnerov said. An ethnic breakout was unavailable, but according to the U.S. Census of July 2015, the city of 30,944 is about 33 percent Latino, 54 percent non-Hispanic white, 9 percent Asian, 1.6 percent black, and about 4.6 percent people of two races.