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Op-Ed: Why Santa Barbara County Is in Store for Far-Reaching Political Transformation

By Lanny Ebenstein

Santa Barbara County is in the midst of a political revolution.

The all-but-certain approval of the recent redrawing of county supervisorial district lines on Monday (Dec.13 will be the most significant change in the political structure of the county in many decades.

However, this is not the only, or even necessarily the most, significant political change now taking place. At least 20 county government agencies are in the process of changing district election lines, or shift to a district system, which will have much influence on county politics in the coming years.

Together, county supervisorial redistricting and implementation of district elections will combine with other political changes likely to occur as elected officials seek other offices to bring new issues to the fore in county politics.

Here is an overview of Santa Barbara County's political changes.

County Supervisorial Redistricting.Fully 30% of county residents will find themselves in a new county supervisor's district as a result of the new lines. Major boundary shifts include:

  • Isla Vista and UCSB are moved from the 3rd to the 2nd District

  • Lompoc is moved from the 4th to the 3rd District

  • Goleta is mostly moved from the 2nd to the 3rd District

  • Vandenberg, Mission Hills, and Los Alamos are moved from the 3rd to the 4th District

  • Guadalupe is moved from the 3rd to the 5th District

  • Southern Santa Maria is moved from the 5th to the 4th District

The 3rd is the most changed of any district.

About 54,000 of the new 3rd District's population of 92,000 will be new to the district starting in 2022 --.almost 60% of the new 3rd District's population!

Will district continue to be represented by residents from the Santa Ynez Valley, who comprise only about one-fifth of 3rd District residents, or will the two most under-represented communities in the county--Lompoc and Goleta--on the Board of Supervisors demand a seat at the table?

Implementation of District Elections. If redistricting 30% of county residents from one supervisorial district to another starting in 2022 were not enough, almost all major county government agency will implement district elections in place of at-large elections.

The cities of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Lompoc previously implemented this process -- with have marked changes in the composition of their city councils. Other government agencies that have agreed to implement district elections starting in 2022 include:

  • Cities: Buellton, Carpinteria, Goleta.

  • School Districts: Carpinteria Unified, Goleta Union, Guadalupe Union, Lompoc Unified, Orcutt Union, Santa Barbara Unified, Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria Joint Union High, Santa Ynez Union High.

  • Special Districts: Carpinteria Valley Water, Goleta Sanitary, Goleta Water, Santa Maria Municipal Airport.

In addition, the Goleta West Sanitary District will shift to district elections in 2024 and the Santa Barbara Unified School District--in addition to moving to district elections in 2022--is considering a proposal to increase the size of its board of education from 5 to 7 members.

If the latter proposal, stemming from a California Voting Rights Act notice, is implemented, then two more members of the Santa Barbara Board of Education will be elected in 2022.

The 20 government agencies that have decided to implement, or are already in the process of implementing, district elections, constitute more than 100 elected officials in Santa Barbara County.

If experience elsewhere is any guide, this almost complete transition to district elections in almost every significant government agency in the county will be accompanied by greater diversity of all sorts on elected bodies--in ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, and geography. It is likely that by 2024, about one-half of elected officials in the county will be new.

Political Changes. Supervisor Gregg Hart is the linchpin here.

Should he seek reelection to the 2nd District on the Board of Supervisors, there will be a battle for the new Assembly District expected to encompass all of Santa Barbara County and southern San Luis Obispo County.

On the other hand, should Hart seek election to the new Assembly District, then there will be an opening on the Board of Supervisors. Steve Lavagnino, now that he has been redistricted back into the 5th District, is expected to seek reelection as supervisor. Santa Barbara City College Trustee Jonathan Abboud is the only announced candidate for Assembly.

If Hart runs for the Assembly, possible candidates for the 2nd Supervisorial District include Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Eric Friedman and Meagan Harmon (both of whom who would, though, apparently have to move into the new 2nd District) and Goleta City Councilmember Roger Aceves, who received more than 44% of the vote for 2nd District Supervisor in 2014 in a campaign against incumbent Janet Wolf.

Friedman, Harmon, and Aceves all are Democrats. If either Friedman or Harmon were elected, there would be a special election in their City Council district to choose a replacement.

New Issues. As a result of county supervisorial redistricting, implementation of district elections, and political changes, it is likely that new issues will come to the fore in the county, including:

  • Isla Vista cityhood. With Isla Vista is no longer in the 3rd Supervisorial District, expect a major effort for incorporation in 2024 or 2026.

  • *Renegotiation of Goleta Revenue Neutrality Agreement -- One of the interesting aspects of the supervisorial redistricting process was that the city of Goleta sought to be in two districts in order to have more influence on the Board of Supervisors. According to one estimate, Goleta has lost $126 million since cityhood in 2001 as a result of the existing revenue neutrality agreement with the county. Watch for a major effort by Goleta to renegotiate this agreement.

  • Establishment of a Regional Airport District. If Isla Vista becomes a city and borders on the airport, then, by state law, a regional airport district will be established in place of the existing municipal airport, since if three cities border an airport it is required that it become a regional airport.

  • Consolidation and reorganization of Special Districts. As a result of the vast turnover of elected officials on special district boards in the county following implementation of district elections, consolidation and reorganization of special districts will become politically feasible.

  • Greater summer school opportunities. With the turnover in school board seats as a result of district elections and the possible increase to 7 seats in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, watch for a push for greatly expanded summer school in school districts countywide, as a way to overcome in-school instruction that was lost due to COVID, and as a way to narrow the achievement gap.

  • Enterprise Zone in Guadalupe -- As proposed by Joe Armendariz, an enterprise zone in Guadalupe is likely as it becomes part of the 5th Supervisorial District.

All of these process changes in the next year are likely to reshape the county's politics and public policy agenda more than at any time during the past half-century.

Lanny Ebenstein, who has been involved in Santa Barbara politics since 1973, is a frequent contributor to Newsmakers. He is the author of 10 books on economic and political thought,

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