Some Santa Barbara neighborhoods aren’t fairly represented in city government, and as a result, those residents aren’t given the same amount of access, attention or capital improvements, say plaintiffs who are suing the city over the at-large election system.
Both sides, the city and the plaintiffs, are commissioning studies to examine whether racially-polarized voting exists in Santa Barbara.
The lawsuit alleges the current system dilutes Latino votes by having council candidates elected on a citywide basis, and points to the lack of Latino representation on the City Council despite the fact that 38 percent of the city's population is Latino or Hispanic.
Frank Banales, who was born and raised in the Eastside neighborhood, said the push for district elections is all about proper representation and having someone who will “go to bat” for that area.
“I would rather have one council member from my district than the seven up there who don’t return my calls,” he said.
If each district had a council member who was accountable to its residents and advocated for that neighborhood, decisions would be made differently, he said.
Banales pointed to the lack of street lighting — despite the area being considered dangerous and outlined as a “safety zone” in the proposed gang injunction — and the destroyed Cacique Street bridge, which is still closed after being washed away 30-or-so years ago.
If a bridge in the San Roque neighborhood was wrecked, he said, it would be fixed within six months.
“More than anything else, we want this so we can make our neighborhoods safe for all of our children,” Banales said.
Banales and three of the other plaintiffs joined attorney Cappello at a news conference Thursday to discuss the lawsuit filing.
“We don’t have a voice,” said Jacqueline Inda, who works with at-risk youth and vehemently opposed the attempt to get a gang injunction.
Cappello said his firm’s two experts for this case have data to support the claim that Santa Barbara has racially-polarized voting — where voters of a minority vote differently than the majority.
Plaintiffs say the issue of district elections isn’t new, but long overdue.
Banales pointed to a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report from 2007, in which the jury recommended that every city change to a system with district-elected council members and an at-large mayor. No changes were made, and Santa Barbara's response letter said the city liaison positions make council members “tuned into those low income areas” like the Eastside and Westside.
Lawsuits dealing with the California Voting Rights Act have a judge first consider whether racially-polarized voting exists and then, if it does, hold another trial to find a solution, Cappello said.
The City Council has held several public meetings on the subject since Cappello and Banales announced the intent to sue in February. Council members considered, but rejected, putting the issue to voters this November.
Changing the election model can only be done by a majority vote or a court ruling, City Attorney Ariel Calonne said.
Now that the lawsuit was filed, the City Council could take its discussions behind closed doors.
Calonne will be talking to council members about “alternatives and options” at Tuesday’s meeting in closed session only, and the city-funded consultant presentation on demographics and voting patterns could be closed to the public.
Calonne has already spoken to Cappello several times and said the discussions have been cordial.
“I would hope that rather than this being a litigated matter it’s a data-driven process, where depending what the facts show for the voting study, we react based on that,” Calonne said.
The city’s next step is to get information back from its demographic consultant on whether there’s polarized voting in the city, he said.
The City Council expects the consultant, National Demographics Corp., to come back with results in September, based on city precinct data and election results.
National Demographics Corp. has worked with almost 200 California cities on this issue, including Anaheim, Compton and Palmdale. All three of those cities recently faced lawsuits due to their at-large election systems, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Two of those cases were settled, with the cities required to put the issue to voters this year, while a judge ordered Palmdale to impose district elections. The city is fighting that ruling, according to news reports.