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Santa Barbara County Infrastructure Initiative Derailed By Larger Turnout on South Coast

Mission & State Report: Exclusive review of Measure M precinct numbers finds support in 3 of 5 supervisorial districts, but not enough to overcome Santa Barbara-area voter opposition

Fourth District county Supervisor Peter Adam championed Measure M, the infrastructure initiative that was supported by North County voters but ultimately went down to defeat due to opposition on the South Coast. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Measure M — the infrastructure initiative on Santa Barbara County’s June primary election ballot  — was supported by voters in three of the county’s five supervisorial districts.

So why did the controversial ballot measure championed by Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam go down to defeat?

As with so many political questions, the answer lies in whom you ask.

[Click here to read more stories from the Mission & State in-depth journalism project]

Proponents point, among other factors, to the county’s long-standing North County-South Coast divide, a political and cultural abyss that in past years has led to unsuccessful attempts to split the county in two.

Bob Nelson, Adam’s chief of staff and a chief architect of Measure M, asserts that the initiative’s defeat “will continue to create the north-south divide.”

Nelson also accuses Measure M’s opponents of working to confuse voters, and employing a “deliberately dishonest” campaign anchored by the idea that, if approved, the initiative would lead to tax increases.

“There was purposeful confusion on the part of the opposition to make voters believe it was a tax,” he said.

Brian Robinson of Terrain Consulting, who oversaw the anti-Measure M campaign, counters that while there certainly are demographic and other differences between the North County and the South Coast, there’s more to it than that.

“That (North-South) characterization oversimplifies the issue,” he said. “I think it’s a little more complex.”

Voters supported the general concept of maintaining the county’s infrastructure, Robinson said, but had concerns about the details of Measure M.

Robinson also rejected Nelson’s characterization of the anti campaign as dishonest.

“I would categorically deny that,” he said. “We presented the facts as they were presented to us. The impartial analysis of the county, all the way down to the campaign materials we produced, were accurate.”

Measure M was proposed to address the county’s long-standing maintenance backlog, which earlier this year was estimated at $84 million. It would have required the county to maintain all its roads, parks and buildings in the same or better condition than existed at the time the initiative passed.

County Auditor-Controller Bob Geis estimated that an additional $18 million to $21 million annually would have to have been allocated to maintenance to meet the terms of Measure M, had it not been rejected — 51.9 percent no votes vs. 48.1 percent yes.

A precinct-by-precinct review of the vote shows that Measure M was supported by voters in the Fourth and Fifth supervisorial districts, both of which are entirely in the North County. “Yes” votes in those areas totaled 54.4 percent and 51.3 percent, respectively.

Santa Barbara County has an $84 million maintenance backlog, including roads, parks, buildings and other facilities. (Tom Bolton / Mission & State photo)

Meanwhile, South Coast voters in the First and Second districts rejected the measure, with “no” votes totaling 56.2 percent and 56.6 percent, respectively.

The Third District — which extends from Isla Vista on the South Coast into the Santa Ynez Valley and parts of the Lompoc Valley, and traditionally provides the swing vote for county government — also favored the measure, with 52.3 percent voting “yes.”

“To me, the outlier was the city of Santa Barbara,” Nelson said. “Take the city of Santa Barbara out of those numbers, and Measure M wins.”

The precinct breakdown reveals that Measure M failed mainly because South Coast voters turned out in far greater numbers than their North County counterparts.

More than half of voters who cast ballots on Measure M — 51.3 percent — reside in one of the two entirely South Coast districts, according to figures provided by Joe Holland, Santa Barbara County’s election chief.

Although the five supervisorial districts have roughly the same population, “each district has a very different total of voters registered,” Holland noted.

The Fifth District, which falls mainly within Santa Maria city limits, had far fewer registered voters for the June 3 election than the First District, which sits at the opposite end of the county and includes Carpinteria, Montecito and part of the city of Santa Barbara.

The disparity is stark: the Fifth District had 23,706 registered voters, compared to 42,823 for the First District.

The Second District had the largest registration, with 49,031 voters, while the Third District had 41,920 and the Fourth District had 36,420.

The precinct breakdown also shows that Measure M fared considerably better with people who voted earlier, using mail-in ballots; support had declined by the time voters cast ballots at the polls. Presumably that was the end result of the vigorous campaigns waged by both sides.

For example, mail-in ballots in the First District were 45.6 percent in favor and 54.4 percent opposed. But among those who cast ballots in person on Election Day, only 38.3 percent voted for Measure M, while 61.7 percent were opposed.

The same pattern shows up in varying degrees in the other four supervisorial districts.

While Nelson said he believes that happened because voters were misled by opponents of Measure M, Robinson offers a different assessment.

“I just think, with respect to this particular initiative, that the more people learned, the more they moved away from supporting it,” Robinson said.

Another interesting aspect of the vote was the virtual absence of the legendary “Isla Vista bloc vote,” which has had huge impacts in some Third District and countywide races in the past.

Of nearly 17,000 Third District votes on Measure M, only some 1,100, or about 6.5 percent, came from UC Santa Barbara and Isla Vista precincts.

Santa Barbara County elections chief Joe Holland points out that the county's supervisorial districts have about the same number of residents, but very different numbers of registered voters. (Noozhawk file photo)

Holland offers a simple explanation for the lack of the student vote: “They never vote in the primary election.”

On the flip side, the Second District saw the largest number of voters, in large part due to the contested supervisor race between incumbent Janet Wolf and challenger Roger Aceves.

Beyond all the numbers, Nelson and Robinson agree on one thing — that the Measure M campaign succeeded in raising the public’s awareness of the infrastructure issue.

“It’s great the conversation has been had," Nelson said, while adding that he’s not optimistic the Board of Supervisors will truly begin to address the county’s maintenance deficiencies.

“They accomplished what they set out to do,” Robinson said, “which is change the debate.”

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton also serves as editor of the Mission & State in-depth journalism project. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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