The push for district elections in Santa Barbara is spearheaded by the same people who fought for the unsuccessful ballot initiative in the 1990s, but they’re taking a different approach this time.
Former Santa Barbara City Councilman Leo Martinez and Zona Seca executive director Frank Banales have partnered up with high-powered trial attorney Barry Cappello to prepare a lawsuit, they said during a community meeting Saturday.
They say it’s not just about getting more Latino representation on the Santa Barbara City Council, but that will be the driving force behind the group’s lawsuit.
“Our hearts are in having neighborhoods be more safe, and that’s all of us,” Banales said.
According to the organizers, the lawsuit will focus on Santa Barbara’s lack of Latino council members, which they say is a conspicuous shortcoming in a city with a population that’s 38 percent Latino or Hispanic.
Cappello said he has no doubt that cities with councils elected by district get a lot more done. He worked on the earlier ballot initiative as well, and said he’s dedicated his law firm’s services to this cause for free.
There have only been a handful of Latino council members in the 40 years since Martinez was on the City Council and Cappello was city attorney in the 1970s.
“That’s a terrible indictment of what the system is,” Cappello said.
Martinez, who moved to New Mexico after the earlier ballot measure failed, is back in town for this fight.
“I guarantee if he goes to court, we will win,” Martinez said of Cappello.
Banales, Martinez and Cappello didn’t offer any details about the lawsuit, which they say is in the “first stages,” but they emphasized that they weren’t pursuing a ballot initiative this time. The group hasn’t decided on a particular district-election model or how specific district maps will be developed.
Santa Barbara has six at-large council members and one at-large mayor representing approximately 90,000 residents. By comparison, former Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County elections employee Larry Herrera described Long Beach’s nine-district election system. Herrera, now Long Beach’s city clerk, said the district election system enables citizens’ voices to be heard. Each elected official is accountable to a certain area within the city of 462,000 residents, he said.
Martinez and Banales thought they would be leaving advocacy to a younger generation by now, but said they can’t stop fighting for a more equitable election system.
“We’re losing our kids to gangs, street lights that should be on streets are not there, bridges torn down by floods were not rebuilt, and so on and so on,” Banales said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are if things that need to get done, get done.”
Martinez said he feels as if he owes something to Santa Barbara, which he called home for 50 years.
They invited questions at the end of the meeting and had comments from both sides.
Cruzito Cruz, an unsuccessful three-time council candidate who has been advocating district elections for years, said the “lawsuit is a tool to create political equity.”
David Pritchett, husband of City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo and a member of various city committees, argued that voter and candidate participation would be boosted by campaign finance reform and moving elections to even-numbered years. Holding off-year elections with ever-increasing campaign costs forces a lot of candidates and voters to opt out of the process, he said.
Mickey Flacks, who helped get Martinez elected, said everyone should work together to find and elect more qualified candidates within the at-large system. She thought the push for district elections was partly motivated to get more conservative Republicans on the City Council.
“I don’t know if I’m enjoying this conversation but I’m glad we’re having it,” Murillo said.
Since the group wants more responsive representatives on the council, regardless of whether they’re Latino, she said they should all work on empowering more to vote and run for office.
Banales put Murillo on the spot and said the council should change its policy on appointing people to commissions right now. He noted there are no Latino representatives on the Planning Commission or the Architectural Board of Review, which are stepping stones to the City Council. A candidate needs a majority vote now, and he pitched having each council member appoint someone.
“I’m not going to hand over this city to my grandchildren in the same condition it’s in today,” Banales said.