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Special Election Showdown: 5 Key Questions

Under Santa Barbara’s Charter, the city council has until Feb. 8 to fill the former seat of new Mayor Cathy Murillo.

By the time Tuesday night’s special session to consider the matter concludes, they may have blown past the deadline.

Those accustomed to an early tuck-in (we name no names) fear an enervating evening looms, as council members convene at 6 p.m. to take up two distinct, but distinctly overlapping, matters concerning the vacancy in District 3:

1) Deciding if Mayor Cathy’s successor will be elected by voters, or appointed by the council itself.

2) Interviewing a batch of applicants who have filed paperwork to be appointed to the post.

For the candidates, it’s a bit like being invited to dinner, then sitting around the living room while the host decides whether to serve chow or not.

A scorecard for tonight. As loyal readers know, the 3rd District opening occurred formally the moment the mayor swore her oath on January 9, two years before the end of the four-year term she won in 2015 to represent the Westside.

Wielding only slightly more words than Marcel Proust, Newsmakers has previously sifted through the politics, personalities and precepts of law extant in the District 3 affair, with all relevant documents posted, on behalf of insomniacs in need of cure , who may find full background and context here, here and here.

All you really need to know to follow tonight’s big game, however, is this:

1-The ancien regime council last December set in motion a process to appoint Murillo’s successor, consistent with past practice.

2-The neighborhood-based District Elections Committee, whose past legal action ushered in the district system that replaced citywide council elections, challenged that move, arguing their settlement with City Hall requires a District 3 special election.

3-The new council two weeks ago voted to hold a full hearing about authorizing a special election– while also proceeding with public interviews of those applying for appointment.

Put another way, the council not so much split the baby, as they co-joined fraternal twins.

Here are five key questions about what happens next:

1-WWAD - What Will Ariel Do?

Since last March, City Attorney Ariel Calonne firmly and consistently has argued that, while council needs to fix the charter to conform to district elections, any opening in the meantime must be filled by appointment, not special election.

Retired Judge Frank Ochoa, who represents the District Election Committee plaintiffs who are challenging the appointment process (and making noises about suing again if they don’t get an election), begs to differ: in a letter to the council (which you can find here) he argues that the charter sections cited by Calonne do not apply because they incontrovertibly were written to govern a citywide election process, not a district system.

Now Calonne has doubled down on his position.

In a just-issued opinion to council in advance of tonight’s meeting, he restates his argument for appointment while ratcheting up his legal rhetoric, suggesting that if council members defy his advice not to call a special election, they’ll be going rogue onto the wrong side of the law.

Council has two options should it wish to call a special election. First, the Council could call a special election… regardless of our opinion. This approach is not advisable because it would increase the risk of a successful challenge to the Council’s action.

Second, Council could call a special election…if it concludes that the Charter appointment process does not conflict with the state law authorization for special elections. We cannot ethically advise this approach, however.

Ouch. Always a bad idea to have a written record of your lawyer advising you not to do what you decided to do anyway.

We expect Learned Hand Ariel will make a forceful argument at the front end of tonight’s hearing in an effort to snuff the special election option once and for all. It will be interesting to see how newly elected district members Kristen Sneddon and Eric Friedman, who led the way for a hearing on an election, react to his sturm und drang.

2-Can special election advocates get four votes?

As a practical matter, any council member who puts forth a motion for a special election proposal will need four votes to move it. With only six members on the dais, a 3-to-3 vote won’t cut it; a tie means that the status quo – i.e. the previous council’s December action favoring an appointment – remains in place.

That’s a high bar.

On Jan. 9, Murillo backed Sneddon’s motion and Friedman’s second for a special election hearing; Gregg Hart, somewhat surprisingly, joined them, casting the crucial fourth vote, with Jason Dominguez and Randy Rowse in a bromance minority.

However, there’s a big difference between public support for a hearing about a special election, and public support for a special election itself, and it’s hard to see four votes for calling one.

If that's the case, the district election folks will have exhausted their political case, and will move on to deciding whether to file a new suit against the city.

3-Will interest groups pick sides?

The influential Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee last week dispatched a letter to council, endorsing the position of the District Elections Committee and urging a special election:

The settlement agreement that was reached after a Voting Rights Act lawsuit states “City Council members are required to be residents of their respective districts and to be nominated and elected by the residents of their respective electoral districts.” Voting is a fundamental right to our democratic process. We believe strongly that the residents of District 3 should not be deprived of their right to select their representative on the City Council.

We’ll be watching to see if any other political or community organizations weigh in during public comment.

With the Democratic central committee formally sitting it out (secret memo to Gail Teton-Landis: Not to decide is to decide), there are a handful of other groups – the Democratic Women of SB County, the County Action Network (SBCAN) or the Chamber, to name a few, – that might matter.

4-What about the Appointment-and-Election Great Compromise?

Mayor Cathy told Newsmakers that Calonne has put the kibosh on a proposed, both-and compromise, in which the council would appoint someone to hold the 3rd District seat until the June 5 primary, and then hold a special district election that day.

“Ariel’s position is that an appointment has to be the full two years” remaining in the term, Murillo told us at the Women’s March on Saturday.

This means that a) if the council votes in favor of a special election, the folks who have applied to be appointed, and told to show up at the meeting, most likely won’t be heard; b) if there’s to be an election, the city’s position apparently would be that the seat would remain open until June.

5-Is anyone stronger than Chelsea, Beebe or Laura?

In the not unlikely event the special election option gets killed, however, the council tonight (Tuesday Jan. 23) will move ahead with interviewing eight candidates who have applied and met the requirements of being registered to vote and living in the district.

You can find the written applications for all the candidates online here. They’re worth a read for political junkies and others with no life, as well as for an indication of the overall high-quaity of citizens interested in serving.

Each of the candidates makes a cogent case for themselves. As a political matter, given the need to get four council votes, the names of three contenders popped out: Chelsea Lancaster, Beebe Longstreet and Laura Smith.

Chelsea, the only Latina applying to replace a Latina member, has a strong resume packed with diverse community service and experience on a range of boards and commissions, many focused on the Westside, not to mention as a single mom.

Beebe, who’s served on the Parks and Rec commission for more than 20 years, has a record of volunteer and local government service that began in the 1980’s, raised her family here and crafted the clearest and tightest pitch letter of the bunch.

Laura, who would be the first openly lesbian council member, is a Democratic central committee member with an impressive blend of political and real-life experience, in campaigns, tech companies, a small business and parenting a public school kid.

There’s no predicting how the council’s internal politics play out if they go the appointment route, but Newsmakers is taking bets the chosen one comes from among that trio.

Carpe noctem.

Images: Sleepy old guy (Flikr); Marcel Proust (Goodreads); Ariel Calonne; Judge Frank Ochoa; SBWPC logo; Roger Sherman and Oliver Elsworth, who forged the Great Compromise that created the framework for a bicameral Congress (Britannica);

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