Newsmakers With Jerry Roberts
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Santa Barbara, CA 93103
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Council Yields on Key District Elxns Demand


Not since Jimmy Dean first shoved pork into plastic casings has there been such a spectacle of sausage-making as the City Council performed on Tuesday, as they made serious headway on reforming SB’s foundational election laws.

Defying Otto von Bismarck’s venerable warning to observe neither laws nor sausage being made, Newsmakers bravely endured a mini-marathon of full frontal legislating at City Hall, watching, mouth agape, as council members wrangled, jockeyed and finessed their way through a tangle of legal landmines and political booby traps, in a noble effort to make a final peace with community activists and their crusade for district elections.

Spoiler alert: A very good day for the neighborhood advocates.

“It’s all about voter engagement,” said district elections warrior Jackie Inda. “We want to pave the way for every single voting opportunity there is.”

How the deal went down. Mayor Cathy Murillo patiently presided over several hours of proceedings, a cross between the 1924 Democratic convention and consensus building during a sit-in at University Hall, before the council voted 6-to-0 to send the whole meshugas back to City Attorney Ariel Calonne.

His assignment: gin up some dulcet legalese and return to council in a couple weeks with two proposed charter amendments that, singly or in combination, would accomplish five key compromise goals:

1-Accede to the basic demand of the District Elections Committee that unexpected vacancies that occur on the council ultimately be filled by popular election, rather than appointment.

2-Smooth out the wrinkles with retired Judge Frank Ochoa, who represents the district election crew, on his proposed compromise, allowing council to appoint an interim member to serve in the period between occurrence of a vacancy and the special election. “I really appreciate you coming up with a solution for this,” Cathy told Frank.

3-Determine the legality and constitutionality of permitting such an interim, appointed member to run in the special election for the seat – while prohibiting them from using the word “incumbent” to describe themselves on their ballot designation.

4-Make clear in the proposed charter amendment that all special elections to fill vacancies are to be held simultaneously with regularly scheduled state elections – keeping costs minimal (ballpark $30K) while avoiding the sticker shock price tag of a standalone city-run affair ($300K and up).

5-Present a second charter amendment, that either can stand alone or be incorporated with the district election measure, to move all municipal balloting from its current, alternating odd-year schedule, to align with the even-year timetable of state balloting.

The odd-even conundrum. In the end, the last issue may prove more confounding than the district elections matter which, beginning in 2015, has transformed the political landscape of City Hall, along with decades of settled election procedures.

These changes have been fueled by the state’s 2001 Voting Rights Act, passed and signed in Sacramento to end the watering down of the power of minority voters, by requiring newly mapped districts designed to increase their influence.

Now, the council is dealing with yet another state election law:

California’s Voter Participation Rights Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, requires local jurisdictions to stop holding municipal elections in odd-numbered years, in favor of even-numbered years, when turnout and participation traditionally are higher.

There are a host of gnarly complications here, including but not limited to: a) whether Santa Barbara, as a charter city, legally has to change its practice at all; b) the need, driven by the laws of arithmetic, to gift some council members with five-year terms instead of four, during the calendar changeover; c) uncertainty of what happens if curmudgeonly voters turn down the switch, leaving taxpayers exposed to a lawsuit based on the Voter Participation Rights Act.

City Attorney Calonne described a nightmare legal scenario in such an event, in which “You can’t win, you can’t lose and you can’t settle.”

Barry makes bank. Throughout the discussion, council members recalled the city’s initial opposition to the district election Voting Rights Act effort, which ended with SB on the hook for north of $800K in legal fees, after plaintiffs attorney and Ace Legal Eagle Barry Cappello charged City Hall $900 an hour, according to the discussion, for his superb service in taking them to the cleaners.

Nonetheless, Chamber of Commerce CEO Ken Oplinger outlined several political dangers in moving to even-year elections.

The change would minimize and subsume discussion of local issues into louder and broader state and national political campaigns debates and “dramatically increase partisanship on the council,” by making partisan, i.e. the Democratic Party,, identification and endorsements more over-arching than ever.

The man makes good points.

Assuming the charter amendments now in the works finally make their way to the November ballot -- more sausage in our future! - it will be fascinating to see if the city’s famously Santa Barbara-centric voters agree.

More work for lawyers!

Images: C&W singer and sausage maker Jimmy Dean holding product (jimmydean.com); Judge Frank Ochoa (l) addresses council and City Attorney Ariel Calonne (r) (Paula Lopez); Jackie Inda.

Clarification: An early edition of this post incorrectly used the Yiddish noun "meshugana" instead of "meshugas" to describe the debated legislation returned to City Attorney Ariel Calonne. Newsmakers regrets the error and apologizes to anyone at City Hall who thought they were the crazy person referenced in the first version.


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