For decades, Santa Barbara’s mayor and six council members have been chosen through at-large voting, in which they’re elected to represent the entire city rather than specific districts. Several groups have begun advocating for district elections or a hybrid system, however, asserting that some neighborhoods are under-represented.
Because of the debate, Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilman Bendy White want to discuss putting a measure on the November ballot to change the way officials are elected. They propose having four council members elected from geographically defined districts, with the mayor and two additional council members elected at-large.
Changing the system would take a City Charter amendment approved by a majority of Santa Barbara voters, Schneider said.
“There’s no way on Tuesday we can say this will go on,” she told Noozhawk, referring to Tuesday’s council meeting. “It’s a question of whether the majority is willing to work on details to put it on the ballot.”
It will have to be a very fast process to get the measure qualified in time for the Nov. 4 election, since ballot arguments and analysis are due to the Santa Barbara County Elections Office by July.
After this fall, the next municipal election is November 2015.
Schneider said she and White want to discuss district elections or a hybrid system because of similar conversations going on all over California and specific changes in Modesto, Palmdale and a few other cities.
Modesto changed to district elections in 2009, with a mayor elected at-large.
Last year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found that Palmdale’s at-large elections violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered the entire City Council to leave office by July. The court decision created four districts but kept the mayor’s position at-large. The city is appealing the decision, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Bendy and I thought we should be in front of the debate instead of behind it,” Schneider said. “We should have that discussion, and if we want to do something for this year, we need to get cracking.”
Under the hybrid system the pair is proposing as a starting point, all Santa Barbara residents would have a council majority representing them: the district representative, the two at-large council members and the at-large mayor.
There is already pushback on the at-large election system and former Councilman Leo Martinez and Zona Seca executive director Frank Banales have partnered up with high-powered trial attorney Barry Cappello to prepare a lawsuit against it. The three have said their suit will focus on the city’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, a former city attorney, believes cities with district elections get a lot more done. He’s said the trio isn’t pursuing a ballot initiative of its own.
As of Friday, no lawsuit has been filed against the city.
Santa Maria recently rejected a petition to put a district elections measure on the ballot. The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy submitted 5,300 signatures but the City Clerk’s Office said the documents were formatted incorrectly and violated the state Elections Code.
The group plans to challenge that denial in court.
Tuesday’s City Council meeting starts at 2 p.m. in City Hall at 735 Anacapa St.