The complaint was filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Tuesday, according to a statement from the law firm of Cappello & Noel.
Cappello, a former city attorney for Santa Barbara, partnered with former councilman Leo Martinez and Zona Seca excecutive director Frank Banales to prepare the lawsuit, which aims to force Santa Barbara into implementing district elections.
At a community meeting announcing their intentions, they pointed to the lack of Latino representation on the City Council, despite the fact 38 percent of the city’s population is Latino or Hispanic.
The lawsuit alleges the current system dilutes Latino votes by having council candidates elected on a citywide basis.
[Scroll down to read a copy of the complaint]
“City Council members are in no hurry to see a change to the at-large election system,” Cappello said in a statement.
“Under the current system, they know that they can control elections, and keep getting re-elected, by preventing neighborhoods from voting for candidates that truly represent the neighborhood’s interests. It’s an old trick and it’s illegal.”
Councilwoman Cathy Murillo, elected in 2011, was the first Latino/Latina candidate to be elected since 1997, according to the complaint.
The complaint suggests there are different voting patterns, with Latinos more in favor of minority candidates than non-Latino voters.
If polarized voting can be proven, courts often impose district elections, City Attorney Ariel Calonne has said.
Santa Barbara’s City Council held several public meetings about different election models in response to the threat of a lawsuit, and recently hired a consultant to look into demographic voting data.
“I am very disappointed to see this premature lawsuit filed since the council has been studying the issue of whether the city of Santa Barbara in fact has any racially polarized voting, and just last week authorized funds to a demographer to conduct such a study,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “We expect to have those results in September.”
The next city election is November 2015, when three council seats are on the ballot.
Council members have discussed a hybrid system with four districts, two at-large council members and an at-large mayor, but there wasn’t support for putting that on this year’s ballot, which was an option.
They will also consider moving city elections to even-numbered years, when there is naturally higher turnout.
The complaint names Banales, Sebastian Aldana, Jr., Jacqueline Inda, Cruzito Herrera Cruz and Benjamin Cheverez as plaintiffs, along with all registered voters.
Aldana is co-founder of the Milpas Community Association and a member of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council. He has also served on the Franklin Center Advisory Committee and ran for council in 2011 along with MCA co-founder Sharon Byrne.
Neither was elected.
Inda, the founder of nonprofit Movimiento Esperanza, works with at-risk youth, and is a vocal opponent of the proposed gang injunction, which was denied by a Superior Court judge last week.
Cruz ran for council in three consecutive elections, most recently in 2013, and has long advocated for district elections. He has never received more than 4 percent of the vote.
Cheverez runs the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara Alumni Association, a nonprofit that supports the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.