The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) submitted a petition last Friday calling for a district elections process for the Santa Maria City Council, instead of the current “at-large” system.
The City Clerk’s Office denied the initiative — and its 5,300 signatures — on the same day, citing technical deficiencies that it said violated the election code, mostly concerning formatting and lack of certain header text on each page.
On Thursday, CAUSE announced that its legal representatives at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund would be seeking a writ of mandate from a judge to compel the city to validate the petition.
“We’re just so disappointed that the city is basically trying to interfere with democracy,” said Hazel Davalos, a CAUSE community organizer and Santa Maria resident. “We really feel like the city is grasping at straws.
“District elections, in our eyes, really would create a better government. It bubbled up as a result of a number of issues we’ve had with the city over the years.”
Davalos said the city historically has ignored neighborhood concerns, which is why CAUSE took up the effort last year and began collecting signatures two months ago.
She said CAUSE had hoped to put the measure on the ballot in November, when a majority of Santa Maria residents would have to vote in favor of changing the city charter.
The mayor and council members are currently elected from an “at-large” process, meaning they can live anywhere in the city.
An election by district would divide the city into four areas containing a comparable number of residents, and each would elect its own council member from within those districts. The mayor would continue to be elected under the “at-large” system.
City officials decided that “close enough” was not enough when it voided the petition for not including a header with the words “Initiative Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters” and for failing to include a required reference to the circulators being 18 or older.
CAUSE’s petition cited circulators who were registered to vote, a right earned at 18.
CAUSE’s action marks the second time the city has gone up against district elections.
In the early 1990s, MALDEF unsuccessful sued the city, claiming the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act.
A judge eventually sided with the city about 10 years later in 2003, said Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco, who added that the decision to fight the ruling wasn’t unexpected.
Davalos is worried the delay will prevent the measure from reaching a ballot this fall. The initiative would have called for two districts to elect a council member in 2016, with the two remaining districts electing representatives in 2018.
She pointed to the number of excess signatures — only about 2,700, or 10 percent of the population, were required — as an indicator that residents desire change.
“There’s kind of an old boys’ club right now,” Devalos said. “I think they really feel that this is an attack on the status quo. The rejection shines spotlight on exactly what we think is wrong with city government.”