City Hall Aims at District Elections. Again.
SB's City Council is poised to undercut neighborhood voters on Tuesday, when they consider a proposed charter change that would consign to City Hall the decisive power to fill unexpected council vacancies.
The proposal, destined for the November ballot, ostensibly is intended to update obsolete sections of the city charter, by aligning its provisions with the district elections system that replaced citywide council voting in 2015.
Consistent with the abiding sway of self-interested politicians and insider influence at De La Guerra Plaza, however, the suggested measure would subvert district elections in two crucial ways:
When the council seat of an elected member becomes vacant because of unforeseen circumstances – resignation, death or election to another office – the charter amendment, as drafted by the city attorney's office, would maintain the archaic practice of handing control over filling the seat to the other six council members, through appointment of someone from the district who applied to them - instead of investing it in voters allegedly to be represented by the new member.
When an incumbent council member is elected mayor during their term - viz. Cathy Murillo, who represented the Westside’s District 3 before winning last fall – the remaining six council members, under the measure, would have the authority to choose whether to appoint a successor themselves, or to call for a special election.
Inquiring minds cannot imagine which way’d they go on that one.
“The crux of the issue is: Who will be given the power to create incumbency?” said retired Judge Frank Ochoa, who opposes the proposal. “The people of the district - or the elected representatives who remain on council and who represent other districts?”
Ecclesiastes 1:9. Ochoa, who represents the community activists who ushered in district elections, succeeded in convincing a 4-to-2 majority of the council back in January to buck City Attorney Ariel Calonne's advice about appointing a Cathy replacement. Now, an energetic special election campaign is being waged to determine her successor.
Proving once more that there is no new thing under the sun, the issue is before the council again, however, as they prepare to place an amendment before voters, who must approve any changes to the charter.
The judge dissected the issue in depth and detail in a recent Newsmakers op-ed. More importantly, he also proposed an alternative compromise, favoring elections rather than appointments, during a recent meeting of the Ordinance Committee. Here’s hoping council members make use of it this week.
Who's on first. As every school child knows, Smilin' Gregg Hart will resign his District 6 council seat in January, when he ascends, via unopposed coronation (thanks to Susan Epstein famously and abruptly withdrawing for unspecified "personal reasons"), to the 2nd District Board of Supervisors seat (not to be confused with the District 2 council seat) from which Janet Wolf is retiring,
This means that the charter amendment now before council, if passed by voters on Nov. 6, will determine whether Hart's seat is filled by appointment or by special election, a matter of considerable political importance.
On the council, Hart has been a reliable confederate of the local Democratic Party, whose High Sheriffs and their union allies therefore would have keen interest in (and wield intense behind-the-scenes influence upon), the appointment of his replacement.
If the new charter amendment requires a special election, on the other hand, things get less predictable.
Left to their own devices, who knows, District 6 voters might pick someone who, gasp, doesn't pass muster with the party; worse yet, a freely elected council member might turn out to be a downright Free Thinker like, oh say, Jack Ucciferri, the realtor/entrepreneur and novice candidate who ran hard to finish second in the district race last fall, when Hart went through his Kabuki dance of aspiring to the seat, while plotting an immediate pivot to the supes' race once the election niceties were over.
Will Cathy switch her vote? Keep an eye on our mayor, and erstwhile drama major, in this little civic soap opera.
She's voted on behalf of a neighborhood election, and against the insider appointment process, twice previously: In January, she joined Kristen Sneddon, Eric Friedman and Jason Dominguez in rejecting Ariel's legal advice that the council fill her Westside seat by appointment, thus enabling the current June 5 special election; a month earlier, she was on the short end of a 6-to-1 vote of the old council, which moved to start a speedy process to fill the vacancy by appointment.
“The people in a district should pick their leader, their direct representative," pre-mayor Cathy said firmly at the time.
Of late, however, she's seemed a little, um, squishy on the question.
At last month’s Ordinance Committee meeting, according to Josh Molina’s account, she stated that:
a) an appointment process could provide “a greater diversity” of candidates than an election; Wait – there are three Latino men and one millennial woman now running in District 3 - all green office seekers, sure, but isn’t that sort of what district elections is supposed to be about?
b) “We lost all the women” who had applied for appointment to the vacancy, because campaigning for the job was too arduous. Huh? Across the nation, there are more women running for office this year then ever before, and we could have sworn we heard something about Santa Barbara being led by elected women for the past 40 years.
When Newsmakers talked to Cathy about the appointment vs. election issue, after a Westside campaign forum the other night, she was less than forceful in her comments, offering this appraisal: “There are good arguments on both sides."
The plot thickens.