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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 3:55 pm | Overcast 60º


Santa Barbara Will Put District Election Question to Voters Next Year

The discussion around district elections got heated Tuesday night before the Santa Barbara City Council ultimately voted to put the issue on the ballot next fall. 

The council unanimously decided to ask voters whether they'd approve district elections for six council seats and an at-large election for mayor on the November 2015 ballot.

Santa Barbara currently has an at-large voting system, which allows all city residents to vote for council candidates who live within city limits.

A district election would allow for districts to be drawn up, and people would run for and vote for council seats based on what district they live in. 

The city began actively looking at the issue in April after it was threatened with a lawsuit expressing concerns about a lack of Latino representation in city government. 

City officials have said the voting law in California is murky, and cities often face multimillion-dollar lawsuits if the details get hashed out in the courts.

If the voters approve the ballot measure, district elections would commence during the November 2017 election.

Tuesday's decision came after an intense exchange between attorney Barry Cappello and Councilwoman Cathy Murillo.

Cappello is representing several local residents who have sued the city in a lawsuit alleging there is racially-polarized voting and that the city is violating the California Voting Rights Act.

Cappello said the issue is one of "grave importance" to the city, and that the council has delayed dealing with the issue.

"We don't want to do this litigation, but you are forcing us to do it," he said, adding that he isn't in the case to make money, but "we are doing this for the voters that are racially polarized."

Murillo told Cappello and the plaintiffs of the lawsuit that the law was on their side, but asked them to act respectfully and dial down the rhetoric.

"Just take it down a notch," she said to Cappello, who could be heard arguing with the councilwoman out of turn during Tuesday's meeting.

"I'm a Mexican-American, and I got elected in an at-large system," she said. "I think the public deserves to hear why district elections are the best thing for the city."

Murillo said more is needed to engage people of color in the electoral process, including leadership training, even-year elections and more voter registration efforts.

"I want to get some more people of color up here and gender balance, by the way," she said. "You've sued us. ... I'm trying to be cool about it. Don't make it so hard."

Councilman Dale Francisco said he supported the ballot measure and that the city should decide on the issue, not a judge.

"That's not because I'm a racist," he said, "it's because I believe in our democracy."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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