In a recent letter, Lanny Ebenstein celebrates the fact that we now have three city councilmembers with Spanish surnames. In that, I join him; it has been a long time coming and is long overdue. However, I cannot share nor understand my friend’s enthusiasm for a voting system that allows any candidate in a city of close to 100,000 to win a seat on the Council by getting only 500 votes more than his closest opponent. That is only 10 percent of even the registered voters even within the Third District!If you cannot see the potential for corruption under such a system, consider: The council has been split 3-3 on several key issues since the vacancy was created last year. The largest single contributor to Oscar Gutierrez’s campaign was the mayor herself — and her contribution amounted to almost $10 per winning vote received. How much would an outside special interest have to spend to essentially buy the seat, and with it the council majority?
There is no logical or rational justification for district voting in a City of Santa Barbara’s size. Public safety and pothole repair needs are no different from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the need to oversee the public budget is citywide. Moreover, district elections guarantee that councilmembers will never have to face voters in any neighborhood but theirs. That sure makes it easy for the others to dump high-density developments with inadequate parking into certain neighborhoods!
And district elections have not been in place long enough for the “horse trading” to begin. That’s where councilmembers start trading votes for pet projects within each other’s district to help each other look good in their neighborhoods before elections. The city as a whole suffers under such narrow deal making, and that was why voters overwhelmingly tossed out the old ward (district) system back in the ’60s.
Finally, in giving all the credit for positive social change to a bad court decision, Dr. Ebenstein ignores the fact that we also now have Spanish-surnamed representatives in both the State Assembly and the U.S. Congress — and both happened without a perversion of the electoral system by a misguided and short-sighted, if well-intentioned, court. (Any notion that non-Hispanic voters are unwilling to support Hispanic candidates has been proven very wrong.)
He further ignores the fact that Mayor Murillo, one of the Spanish-surnamed councilmembers whose victory he infers was due to district elections, was elected citywide — not by district. Contrary to Ebenstein’s conclusion, it is more than likely that the increased diversity on the council is simply the result of changing times — not district elections.
And while we can all celebrate those changing times, we are now stuck with an election system bound to result in abuse and corruption (if history means anything at all), and one which voters will not even be able to overthrow. “District elections success,” indeed.