Residents of Santa Maria turned out at the City Council meeting Thursday night to give their views on how the city should pursue a shift to district elections. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Maria residents offered plenty of ideas Thursday night on how they think the city should be divided to create new districts for electing council members, with many favoring using Main Street and Broadway to create four quadrants.

The meeting at the Veterans Memorial Community Center attracted approximately 75 people to share their thoughts on the details for crafting zones as the City Council switches to district-based elections.

Mayor Alice Patino was absent due to prior plans and Councilwoman Etta Waterfield left early due to illness.

Ideas have spanned from splitting the city using the intersection of Main Street and Broadway or dividing it into four long strips. Others advised considering school boundaries and neighborhoods connected by parks.

“The intersection of Broadway and Main forms the natural and historic heart of our city,” said resident David Dennis. “And it’s often how we, and I’ve even heard it tonight, describe our city.”

Consultant Justin Levitt from National Demographics Corporation said the key rules in crafting districts include keeping communities of interest together and making sure the areas have a similar number of residents. 

Each district must have roughly the same population with a 10-percent difference allowed between the largest and and smallest districts, Levitt said.

Some districts may have fewer voters than others due to a high number of children and non-citizens.

Renee Bischoff, chief deputy registrar of voters for Santa Barbara County, suggested the city use special district and school district boundaries for its election districts as her office does to create voting precincts.

Former councilman Bob Orach said Santa Maria should consider expanding the council from five members to ensure neighborhoods have representation.

Former councilman Bob Orach said Santa Maria should consider expanding the council from five members to ensure neighborhoods have representation. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“What we would like to do is eliminate the number of ballot types we have per precinct,” she said. “That creates confusion for our poll workers at the polls. When a voter comes in and they need to issue that ballot, we really want to ensure the voter gets the correct ballot.”

In additional to drawing districts, council members must decide whether to have four or five districts. Also to be decided is whether to directly elect the mayor at large or rotate the job among the five members.

The Santa Barbara City Council implemented district-based elections for its six members and kept the job of mayor as an at-large slot.

Former councilman Bob Orach said Santa Maria should consider expanding the council from five members to ensure neighborhoods have representation. 

But Councilman Jack Boysen said adding council members seemed like a challenge the city shouldn’t tackle now.

“I am intrigued by the idea of having five districts and a rotating mayor,” Boysen said. “I’d kind of like to see what the map looks like.”

Some speakers said at least two out of four districts should have a Latino majority to ensure proper representation for the city.

“The other thing I would say is regardless if you do four or six districts, whatever it may be, to save the city trouble and to avoid any further legal actions you should definitely have 50 percent of the districts … that are majority voting Latino to avoid any further issues in the future,” said Abraham Melendrez from CAUSE.

Not everyone supported moving to a district-based system, with one women objecting to the CAUSE flier that talked about the need to “defend the reputation of our Latino neighborhood.”

“I find that racist, I find it offensive,” a woman said.

The process to switch to district-based elections, instead of at-large, came after the threat of a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, prompting the City Council to kick off the process in February.

After receiving input from residents, the city consultant will draw proposed maps, with options including four and five districts, for the public’s consideration and council’s ultimate approval in May.

“I agree with everyone who said the most normal split would be Main and Broadway,” Councilman Mike Cordero said. “That would be normal to me.”

He questioned how the city will meet the criteria in the California Voter Rights Act, including population requirements, ethnic composition and contiguous borders..

“It’s going to be very difficult and I’m here to think that not everybody’s going to get their way and I think that some of us need to start preparing ourselves for that very issue,” Cordero said. 

The first council members will be elected under the new system in 2018 when terms held by Boysen and Waterfield will expire. 

Community suggestions are available on the city website focused on the conversion to district-based elections.

Other hearings are planned for: 

» 6 p.m. April 20, at the Edwards Community Center, 809 Panther Drive.

» 6:30 p.m. May 2 at the Minami Center, 600 W. Enos Drive.

» 6 p.m. May 16 at the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center, 600 South McClelland St.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.