Mayors from Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria reflected on the switch to district elections for City Council seats during a panel discussion Tuesday night and generally agreed that the move has been successful, but not without some challenges.
Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse, Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte, Carpinteria Mayor Wade Nomura, and County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido talked about new system during an event hosted by the League of Women Voters Santa Barbara.
At-large elections have citywide voters pick all council members. District elections split cities into geographic districts and each district’s voters select one representative on the City Council.
Rowse expressed concerns about the change.
“It tends to balkanize a city that is something that you really want to pull together, not separate,” Rowse said. “All the work we do as councilmembers, every issue we have, is an at-large issue.”
He also noted that finding candidates to run has been difficult, mentioning that some of the council members were re-appointed to their seats without challengers in their districts.
Rowse said all the councilmembers should be meeting with constituents citywide. When projects come up it’s important that the councilmembers are knowledgeable about what’s happening in other district, he said.
“I think the unfamiliarity is a little bit of a disservice, in my way of thinking,” Rowse said.
He said, “There’s two things we do in government at this level, infrastructure and we do public safety,” and those issues know no boundaries.
A 2014 lawsuit alleged the city of Santa Barbara violated the California Voting Rights Act, and the at-large election system diluted Latino residents’ votes. The city settled the lawsuit and switched to district-based elections for the six City Council seats in 2015.
Noozhawk investigated the impact of the city’s switch to district elections in a 2020 series of stories. Read the series here.
Prior to Santa Barbara’s move to district election, with few exceptions, the at-large voting system elected a steady stream of older, retired, white men and women to make decisions about Santa Barbara’s way of life.
About four in 10 city residents identify as Latino and/or Hispanic, but at the time only one person on the seven-member City Council was Latina: then-Councilwoman Cathy Murillo. The lawsuit alleged that the at-large voting system diluted Latino votes, and impaired residents’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.
Santa Barbara has two Mexican-Americans who are now on the council representing District 1 and District 3, where the majority of the residents identify as Latino.
Goleta is holding its first district elections in November. Perotte said the city has worked hard on engagement and helping people run for office.
“It’s easier for residents to meet representatives,” Perotte said. “There tends to be less influence of money and better minority representation.”
She acknowledged some problems too, including low voter turnout, and multiple skilled and qualified candidates competing for one district seat, instead of multiple seats citywide. Candidates can only run for a council seat in the district where they live.
Goleta’s current districts are “fair and representative” of the population, she said.
Carpinteria Mayor Nomura said the coastal city has always had great representation on the council. November will also be Carpinteria’s first district elections.
Even though Carpinteria has about 13,000 residents, the community suggested more than 100 potential maps for district elections. Nomura said one of the positive elements of district elections is the potential for better representation of the interest groups that had been previously overlooked.
“I see the potential of actually being able to identify those specific needs that we may have missed,” Nomura said.
One of his concerns, he said, is the potential of dividing the city.
“No matter how it is districted out, the representation and the actions of the City Council have to be for the greater good,” Nomura said.
Salcido, who was recently re-elected to the County Superintendent of Schools seat, said most of the 20 public school districts within the county are also moving toward district elections for school board members.
“Right now, schools, we have been through a lot,” Salcido said. “There’s lot of opinions around public education, how things are going in schools, how well we are serving our students.”
“What could happen, when you parcel out by trustee area, and the trustee areas are very, very small, is to find individuals from that area who really want to serve,” Salcido said. “That I think may be the ultimate challenge.”
The Nov. 8 election will have many local City Council, school board, and special district seats on the ballot, as well as local ballot measures. It’s also the general election for some state and federal offices including governor, State Senate, State Assembly, Congressional representatives, and Senators.