Just as Santa Barbara voters elected all six councilmembers by district — for the first time in nearly 30 years — they will soon be looking at another major change in the process by which the city chooses its leaders. Next year, voters will be asked if they wish to change to even-year elections. Currently, councilmembers are elected in odd-numbered years, also known as off years. Propelling the change, as always, is the fear of bounty hunter litigation. A new state law going into effect in January requires cities to make the change if even-year elections — Senate, Congress, presidential —generate voter turnouts 25 percent higher or more than off-year races. A legal opinion released by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued that higher voter turnouts constituted a pressing state interest.
Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne argued that Becerra’s reasoning was legally flawed and indicated City Hall would have a strong defense if sued. But if City Hall wanted to inoculate itself against possible legal consequences — councilmembers are still smarting over the $800,000 they paid in legal fees to settle the lawsuit that gave rise to district elections — the time to start moving is now. Councilmembers were evenly split on the merits of off-year versus on-year elections. Councilmembers Cathy Murillo, Gregg Hart, and Jason Dominguez cited the strikingly higher turnout that takes place in on-year elections. Councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss, Bendy White, and Randy Rowse expressed concern that local races would not get the focus they now receive if they were held the same years as gubernatorial and presidential contests. But only Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss voted against putting the matter to city voters next November. Hotchkiss is the council’s sole Republican; even-year elections are strongly favored by Democratic Party activists. With the city’s voter registration tilting overwhelmingly Democrat, party activists believe even-year races will guarantee them a lock on City Hall.
Also discussed but hardly resolved this Tuesday were issues of succession when Councilmember Murillo is sworn in as mayor next January, leaving vacant the city’s Westside district seat. Supporters of district elections contend the vacancy should be filled via special election and have hinted at litigation if the council does not agree. Calonne, however, insists the vacancy can be filled only by council appointment. Anyone appointed has to reside in the Westside district. Longtime Parks Commissioner Beebe Longstreet, one of the many names mentioned as a possible applicant, said she’s not sure if she’s going to apply. She did suggest, partially in jest, that possible applicants might soon be moving to the district in droves.