Our View: The Case for a Special in District 3
There is no item on Tuesday’s City Council agenda that provides a procedural opening to derail the ram-it-through effort by outgoing council to fill a vacant seat in District 3 by City Hall appointment, rather than by neighborhood election.
That does not bode well for efforts by grassroots activists and district advocates to stage a special election for the seat that will open the moment Cathy Murillo is sworn in as mayor. The alternative to an election: having the matter decided by council members sitting in regal judgment of the wants and needs of the Westside citizens of District 3.
As a political matter, it’s a fascinating first act for the new council, one that pits traditional, Your-Betters-Know-Best way of doing business at De La Guerra Plaza against the ways and means of populist street democracy uncorked when the city, under threat of litigation, adopted the district system in 2015.
Sad but true, a majority of the council is unlikely to embrace the election option; that would require them not only to buck the advice of City Attorney Ariel Callone, but also to resist behind-the-scenes pressure from the Democratic machine which, our sources say, wants to put its stamp on an appointee who fills out the final two years of Cathy's term to embrace the election option.
All of which makes for a lost opportunity, because there’s an easy, win-win compromise to be found here, one that would avoid the litigation, political resentment and cultural tensions that may arise if the council refuses pleas for an election.
The opinion monger's hat: You can find our two earlier reported pieces on the subject – here and here – that explore in depth and detail the political and legal issues at stake in the first political controversy to confront the new council.
We don our editorial writer hat today, to express our belief that council should find a way to make a special election happen, rather than going along with the hurry-up process and schedule put in place by their predecessors, for at least four key reasons:.
1-There is no governing legal authority that requires an appointment. City Attorney Callone has done yeoman’s work -- and also wielded a bit of nothing-up-my sleeve conjuring -- to make the case that Section 503 of the city charter clearly requires and authorizes the council to fill the vacancy by appointment.
Uh, not exactly.
That section of the charter, last amended in the 1980s, establishes a process for filling a vacancy that occurs in a citywide election, The plain fact is, there is no legal precedent or guideline that applies specifically to a district election system, simply because the outgoing council did not consider and pass one (which also would require voter approval) to make the charter conform to the radical change ushered in by district elections.
Read the brief submitted to the city by retired Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, which you can find here, writing on behalf of the advocates for an election; the judge knocks down the Calonne argument with close reasoning and simple language:
"Plaintiffs assert that the council is in uncharted waters. Attempting to fit the process for filling the impending vacancy in District 3 of the Santa Barbara City Council into the processes set forth in…the Santa Barbara City Charter, which can only reasonably be applied to citywide elections and not district elections, is akin to the proverbial effort to fit the round peg into a square hole. It is reaching into a barrel which contains only apples in an effort to find an orange. It is a "fruitless" endeavor. It cannot be done."
2-It’s the principle of the thing. For better or for worse, district elections is with us, now and for the foreseeable future, underpinned by a crucial good government idea: an at-large election scheme requires big bucks to compete, favors the well-connected and well-heeled and leaves behind communities of interest that have long have had no voice.
They are empowered by a system of neighborhood elections, however, which gives anyone with the energy, smarts and perseverance to knock on doors, introduce themselves to the neighbors and pit their ideas against the competition, at a low cost, except wearing out a couple pairs of shoes.
Three members of the new council – Jason Dominguez, Eric Friedman and Kristen Sneddon - owe their elections to the new system, and perhaps would not be sitting on the dais Tuesday were it not for district elections (Cathy, Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart all previously were elected citywide and won their district races as incumbents).
As local, local, local neighborhood representatives, do they truly believe they know better than the folks who live and work on the Westside who should speak for them?
Keep in mind that the 3rd is not just any district. By far it holds the largest minority majority population in the city; the litigation that brought about districts rested on the California Voting Rights Act, and was filed on behalf of Latino plaintiffs whose community has long been effectively shut out at City Hall.
Simply put, it’s a plain bad look for a half dozen pols sitting around in cushy chairs down at City Hall to make the decision about who acts on behalf of the merchants and workers on San Andres Street.
3-The cost of an election is minimal. When the council voted back in December to set up an appointment process, they were told that the cost of a special would be $300,000.
Judge Ochoa again casts a gimlet eye on a City Hall claim; he unearthed internal email correspondence showing that the $300,000 figure was for a standalone election in April; there’s no reason for the election to be held then, however; holding it concurrently with the June 5 primary reduces the cost to $30,000, couch change in the city’s budget.
As the good judge put it at a neighborhood meeting about this matter last week, “What is the cost of democracy?”
4-There’s a win-win available. Under the current schedule, put together by the outgoing council, the deadline for applying for an appointment is Jan. 16; members then are to interview applicants on the 23rd and vote on their decision on the 30th.
(Update shocker: Josh is reporting over at Noozhawk that no one has yet applied to be appointed to the seat, eight days before the deadline, an intriguing twist in this developing story).
There’s nothing sacrosanct about that schedule, however, so it’s possible to slow down the train to revisit the appointment process and find an alternative.
Here’s one good idea that’s bouncing around: to avoid operating with only six members for months (and leave the 3rd without a representative), the council could appoint a district member now to serve temporarily – during the six months between now and June, and then fold a special election into the primary. Everybody's happy.
They could make it a condition of the temporary appointment that the person agrees not to run, but there’s no reason to do so. Of course, incumbents always have an advantage in any election, but a six-month incumbency would not be inordinate, let alone determinative, and it would leave the ultimate decision in the hands of voters.
The political calculus. It’s very hard to see where the votes for a special election would come from, however.
A quick rundown:
Newcomer Sneddon, from District 4, is the only right-thinking member who’s said publicly there ought to be an election.
Jason Dominguez from District 1 is nothing if not flexible, but he voted for the appointment process back in December and said in an email his position hasn’t changed, while Rowse from District 2 seems firmly in favor of making an appointment, which is how he originally got on council.
Mayor-elect Murillo, who previously represented District 3, voted in favor of a special last December, but that was an easy move for her, because six of her colleagues voted for an appointment process, allowing her to grandstand as a grassroots champion, without consequences. With Cathy, who ran with the Democratic endorsement, you never know what you’re going to get, so don’t be surprised if she switches her position and also toes the party line (update: in an interview with Molina, pulling a switcheroo is exactly what Cathy now appears to be doing).
New District 5 representative Eric Friedman has made a few noises, not very loud ones, in favor of an election, but recall he also is a party man, having run with the Democratic endorsement.
That leaves Gregg Hart from District 6; more than any other member he is a creature of the Democratic party, which makes it impossible to imagine him switching his December vote for an appointment process rather than an election, although he said in an email he would "take it one step at a time."
For the record: local party chair Gail Teton-Landis denied the party is trying to influence the appointment of a candidate, saying, "we have taken no position on this whole issue - we're waiting to see whether the council decides if it's an election or an appointment."
Bottom line. One key factor in the controversy could be how many people show up to speak on behalf of an election during Tuesday’s public comment period.
“We need to move the council to a different track,” district elections advocate Jacqueline Inda told several dozen people at a Westside community meeting last week, pleading for them to turn out for the meeting, “The end goal is getting you guys the power that you so desperately need.”
In the end, the most likely outcome is that the council members regress to playing City Hall insider games and stick with the appointment process, selecting someone to fill out the last two years of Cathy’s term.
That will leave district election advocates to decide whether to sue the city over the issue, once again invoking the Voting Rights Act.
Oh good, more work for lawyers.
Images: Retired Judge Frank Ochoa; City Attorney Ariel Calonne; politics and money from BillMoyers.com; British guitarist Norman Hore found more than 100 bucks in his sofa (Daily Mail); Kristen Sneddon; Jacquline Inda.
(Clarification: An earlier version of this piece, posted Monday, reported that Democratic party chair Gail Teton-Landis did not respond to a request for comment. Gail called us back (thanks!) after our deadline; her comment above was added on Tuesday morning).