After hearing a presentation Tuesday about district elections, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to hire a consultant to investigate the issue further.
It remains to be seen how the council will move forward, but the city has been guaranteed a lawsuit if it does not pursue district elections, due to concerns about a lack of Latino representation in city government.
The council had a consultant present information Tuesday about how district elections could work in the city and what the voting landscape across the state looks like currently.
Consultant Doug Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation, said that his company has worked with school districts and other agencies across the state as they examine districts and voting processes.
Santa Barbara has an at-large voting system, which allows all city residents to vote for council candidates that live in city limits.
A district election would allow for districts to be drawn up — which would have to be based on neighborhood, Johnson said — and people would run for and vote for council seats based on what district they live in.
"As a charter city, the world is open to you," he told the council of their options.
Johnson said that the overwhelming majority of California cities are still at large, but the 15 largest cities use some version of district elections.
"Around 275,000 people, districts start coming up" as a topic to consider, he said.
Cities with populations less than that host almost exclusively at-large elections, with the exception of cities with a rapidly growing Latino population, like Watsonville or Salinas, he said.
Santa Barbara, which has insignificant population growth in general, is not one of those cities seeing a large increase in their minority populations, he said.
The law surrounding the voting law in California is extremely murky, and cities often face multi-million-dollar lawsuits if the details get hashed out in the courts.
"When we do these analyses, they're almost always grey," Johnson said.
Latinos make up about 38 percent of the Santa Barbara's population, compared to 55 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the city, according to U.S. Census Data from 2010.
Santa Barbara as a city has seen slight growth of its Latino population, from 35 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2010, and Latino people of voting age has increased to 19 percent from 14 percent.
"You do have some (Latinos) running (for council), but you have a lot more losing, which does raise some concern," he said.
Adding to the complicated situation is that ethnicity is very "subjective," Johnson said.
A handful of public speakers spoke during public comment and they all supported district elections and more consideration of the issue.
Isaac Garrett, an African-American resident who ran for mayor in 2009, said the system in place not does not serve the city effectively.
"The at-large system might serve a small portion of the city very well, but it does not reflect the majority," he said, adding that the large amount of money required for to run for council keeps many people out of the race altogether, even if they might represent the neighborhoods better.
The council unanimously voted to hire Johnson to come back with more data, including how polarized voting is in the city.
During the meeting, councilmember Cathy Murillo reiterated her frustration with the possible litigation.
"I don't appreciate being threatened with a lawsuit and looking at spending millions of dollars of the public treasury," Murillo said.