With the promise of a lawsuit on the way, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday decided to hold a workshop to talk about district elections, a hybrid system and other options to improve representation for people who feel disenfranchised under the at-large system.
Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilman Bendy White brought the item to the full council on Tuesday even though they’re both skeptical that district elections would work here. They proposed a hybrid system with four districts, two at-large council members and an at-large mayor, but there was no support for putting that on November’s ballot, which is an option.
The council reached consensus to take time examining all of the elections options, including a move to even-numbered years when turnout is higher, and voted to schedule a workshop in May.
Councilman Gregg Hart said the discussion will take more than a few months, and the community can’t go through engagement and rich debate by the end of June.
White said he wants the city to be leading the discussion, but it’s hard to believe Tuesday’s agenda item was anything but a response to the impending litigation by a group of district election advocates.
They have a problem with the historically monochromatic council and believe Santa Barbara has polarized voting, with Latinos being underrepresented. There have been only a handful of Latino council members in the past 50 years while 38 percent of the city’s population is Latino, they said in a public forum this February.
Cappello, who served as city attorney in the 1970s, said the city changed from district elections to an at-large system just before his tenure. Since then, many citizens feel their voices aren’t being heard and what their neighborhoods want — street lighting, fixed bridges and sidewalks — isn’t being delivered.
He argued that courts have thrown out hybrid systems in favor of district elections. He said the city can decide whether to fight the lawsuit or take a district-election model to the voters.
“That’s not a threat, that’s just good advice,” Cappello said.
Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said it’s a “moot claim” to say some areas are underrepresented. Only the Eastside has its own library and police substation, and he said the council has approved capital projects in every neighborhood.
“I don’t think any part of the city is underrepresented at all,” Hotchkiss said.
Cappello asked if the Montecito Bridge project and others were brought forward because this issue has been percolating in the community, and Hotchkiss said no, which is when Schneider cut in to stop them from arguing.
Activists Mickey and Richard Flacks asked the council to look at all ways to increase engagement and participation. The voter turnout is much lower for areas with minority and low-income residents than the city overall, Mickey Flacks pointed out.
Sebastian Aldana Jr., an active resident of the Eastside and a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, pointed to bridge replacement projects in different parts of the city. One on Chapala Street near West Beach is “beautiful” with new landscaping, trash cans and lights, while the Punta Gorda bridge is “demolished, blocked off and abandoned,” he said. The Cacique Street bridge was washed away and only got a pedestrian walkway added recently.
“In my opinion, with proper representation the two bridges on the Eastside would not be in that situation,” he said.
Schneider countered that the city has put in dozens of curb cuts in the last few years and that the lower Mission Creek bridge replacement project has been in the works for 50 years.
City Attorney Ariel Calonne said Cappello “didn’t threaten a lawsuit — he promised one.”
State law stacks the deck against at-large election systems and if polarized voting can be proven, courts often impose district elections, he said.
At the end of the meeting, Murillo asked Cappello to set the lawsuit aside.
“You made your point,” she said. “You have our attention.”