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Judge Dismisses Initiative Petition Challenge to Santa Maria Election System

A judge has rejected a request to force the City of Santa Maria to put an initiative on the November ballot asking voters to switch the way they pick City Council members, but the group seeking the change vowed not to give up on its goal.

In a Santa Maria courtroom Tuesday, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Rigali dismissed a petition for a writ of mandate in the case filed by Hazel Putney and the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

Earlier this year, CAUSE gathered signatures on a petition seeking to place the initiative on the ballot to force the city to elect City Council members by district, rather than at-large.

Chief Deputy City Clerk Rhonda Garietz rejected the petition for the initiative for failing to comply with the technical requirements of the State of California's Elections Code.

The case was Putney v. Garietz. Lead proponent Putney, aka Hazel Davalos, was represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

"It is unfortunate that the petitioners did not receive the appropriate guidance about the Elections Code requirements before it submitted the petition for the initiative," City Attorney Gilbert Trujillo said in a written statement. "By law, the city does not have the authority to accept a defective affidavit of petition circulators. If they would have complied with the Election Code, the city would have accepted their petition and processed them accordingly.”

City officials contend the ruling effectively voids the effort to place an initiative measure on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

“The city could claim a victory, but it’s an awfully hollow victory,” Putney, community organizer from CAUSE, said Wednesday.

The judge left open a small window by refusing to address the issue of whether the court could order the city to accept supplemental affidavits on the grounds that this issue was not a part of the administrative record before the court.

"This means that, hypothetically, the proponents of the initiative could file a new petition with the court and ask the court for such an order; however, this lawsuit would be highly unlikely to succeed,” Trujillo said. "There is an appellate decision that ruled that a city clerk does not have statutory authority to accept supplemental affidavits from petitions circulators to correct a defect in the original affidavits.”

Putney said her group will resubmit the fixed affidavits to the city clerk.

“We expect the city to try to run out the clock on this petition,” she said. “They have shown a willingness to do everything in their power to block reform. The judge ruled that the affidavits could be corrected and resubmitted, but it the city decides to fight that in a second round of court hearings, they could delay accepting the petition until past the deadline to place new measures on the ballot.”

City officials said they rejected the petition because the header did not have the required words "Initiative Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters.” However, the court ruled against the city on these grounds.  

But, the judge found that the affidavits of the petition circulators failed to include the required reference to the circulators being 18 years of age or older, and determined this was a critical defect. This was a new requirement enacted by the Legislature that took effect on Jan. 1, city officials said.

Instead, the affidavit said those gathering signatures were registered voters.

Putney said her group chose to try the democratic process to get council members elected by district rather than taking the same route as other communities where lawsuits have been filed under the California Voting Rights Act.

That may be an avenue CAUSE explores for Santa Maria, she said, adding “we’re going to fight this to the end.”

“Cities across California are moving to district elections under civil rights lawsuits,” she said. “Here in Santa Maria we wanted to follow a more grassroots community-based process by collecting signatures, but if the city makes that democratic process impossible, a California Voting Rights lawsuit could mandate the City Council switch to district elections anyway.”

This isn’t the first time MALDEF was involved in a federal lawsuit against the city over district elections to increase the number of Hispanics on the council. In the early 1990s, MALDEF unsuccessful sued the city, claiming the at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act. A decade later, a judge sided with the city.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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