“NOTICE! You have been sued.”
It has always surprised me how often we in America feel the starting point of any conflict is not a discussion, or a mediation, but rather, a lawsuit. Regardless of the efforts being made by all parties to address a situation, we apparently prefer to haul people into court to solve our problems.
In this case, plaintiffs Frank Banales, Sebastian Aldana Jr., Jacqueline Inda, Cruzito Herrera Cruz and Benjamin Cheverez argue that the City of Santa Barbara is allowing the continuation of a voting system that all but eliminates the ability for Latinos to get elected to the City Council. In legal terms, that the city’s system allows and promotes racially polarized voting. This is based on one fact, and one fact alone. That the city has a Latino population of 38 percent, but has only one Latina council member, Cathy Murillo.
And that is the only fact offered in the complaint to substantiate the claim. The complaint actually says in its opening paragraph, “The allegations of this complaint stated on information and belief are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery.” In other words, we have no other evidence at this time, but we’re certain we’ll find some.
Which brings me to my point about the proliferation of lawsuits.
You see, the City of Santa Barbara has been working with these plaintiffs to address their claim. An ad hoc committee of the council was formed to meet with them, and a demographer was hired to actually explore the claim and determine whether it has merit. The demographer will be exploring things like whether there is a discrepancy between the voting patterns of Latinos vs. non-Latinos in relation to Latino candidates.
In other words, someone who can explore existing data to determine whether racially polarized voting is actually occurring.
Rather than working with the city to determine the facts and negotiate a solution that will address their potentially legitimate concerns, the plaintiffs have thrown a massive roadblock on the path of cooperation and brought a lawsuit.
NOTICE! We don’t want to work with you to find the truth, we simply want our way.
There is no question that if there has been racial polarization in our city council elections, it needs to be addressed. Every citizen of our community deserves the right to have their voice heard, and to ensure their vote has the exact same value as every other vote.
But until we have the answer to that question, we cannot move forward with the solution the plaintiffs seek, or any other change to our voting system. Such a move away from citywide elections will potentially bring us any number of ills, not the least of which is council members who put the good of their specific neighborhood or voting area ahead of the good of the entire community.
This issue is a concern to Santa Barbara’s business community, and I have communicated those concerns to Mayor Helene Schneider and the members of the City Council. The Chamber Commerce of the Santa Barbara Region is looking at a number of ways to engage in this discussion (not the least of which is the potential of having a third-party demographic review conducted). If violations of the Voting Rights Act are found, there are many ways we can address the issue that will ensure no one is disenfranchised while maintaining the need for elected officials to ensure they are looking out for the good of the entire community.
The Chamber will be at the table, and we will argue for a sensible, legally acceptable solution.
But we also hope our community can learn a lesson from this unfortunate action carried out by the plaintiffs and Mr. Cappello. When members of our community are working together to solve problems, we need to honor that effort, support it and let it run its course. Derailing it with lawsuits before the facts are in and we have a chance at finding a mutually agreeable solution is not how Santa Barbara works.
We’re better than this.
— Ken Oplinger is president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce of the Santa Barbara Region. The opinions expressed are his own.