At its regular meeting on Tuesday, February 21, 2017, the Santa Maria City Council will consider initiating steps toward a district-based voting system to replace the current at-large voting system for City Council elections which has been in place since the City’s incorporation in 1905.
The Council is considering taking this action after receipt of a letter on December 16, 2016 containing unsubstantiated allegations that the City’s at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The letter was written by Santa Barbara-based attorney Jason Dominguez, on behalf of his client, Hector Sanchez, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Santa Maria City Council in 2016. The letter alleged that there is evidence of “polarized voting” in the City of Santa Maria electorate. Under the CVRA, any evidence of racially polarized voting is sufficient to require a court to order a change from at-large voting to district-based voting, even without actual evidence of an electoral injury such as the inability of a protected class to elect a candidate of its choice. Racially polarized voting occurs when there is a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class and the choice of candidates preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.
Approximately 70 percent of Santa Maria residents are Latino, and unlike other cities where at-large elections have prevented Latinos from electing candidates of their choice, the election history for the City Council of the City of Santa Maria demonstrates that Latino candidates have been regularly elected. Since 1996, at least one Latino has been elected to the City Council in each election except the November 2012 election. In all, 10 Latinos have been elected to the City Council in the last 20 years. In addition, partly because of appointments made by the City Council to fill unexpired terms, the City Council has been represented by a Latino majority from 2002 until 2010 and the current City Council is a Latino elected majority.
“City staff is recommending that the City Council adopt the proposed resolution to initiate the procedures to implement district elections because it believes the public interest is better served by avoiding a costly lawsuit and spending significant amounts of tax payers dollars, which would likely result if the Council did not adopt the resolution,” City Manager Rick Haydon said.
Such a lawsuit would be very costly, whether or not the City was able to successfully defend against it or not. Even cities that have obtained a dismissal of or settled (without conceding the merits) of lawsuits brought under the CVRA have incurred significant expenses not only to pay their own attorneys’ fees, but to pay the attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs. For example, in February 2015, the City of Santa Barbara reportedly paid $800,000 in attorneys’ fees and expert costs to settle its CVRA lawsuit. However, the costs are much higher for those cities that have not prevailed in these cases. For example, the City of Palmdale incurred expenses in excess of $4.5 million in its unsuccessful attempt to defend against a lawsuit brought under the CVRA. Moreover, what is most concerning is that staff is unaware of any city that has prevailed in defending its “at-large” system of election under a claim filed by any individual or group under the CVRA.
In a district-based election system, a candidate must live in the district he or she wishes to represent. In some situations, the Mayor may be elected at-large, but all other members of the City Council must reside in the district they represent. The decision whether to establish four voting districts with the Mayor elected at-large, or five voting districts is one of the topics that will be decided upon by the City Council as a result of the minimum of five (5) public hearings that will be held as required by California Elections Code section 10010 should it adopt the proposed resolution.
Department: City Manager’s Office or City Attorney’s Office
Contact Person: Rick Haydon, City Manager or Gilbert Trujillo, City Attorney
Telephone Number: (805) 925-0951 ext. 2200 or ext. 2310