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Santa Maria Moves Toward District-Based Voting; Could Santa Monica Be Next?  

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

February 27, 2017 -- While the effort to change how Santa Monica’s City Council is elected from at-large races to district-based contests is being argued in court, a similarly sized city in Santa Barbara County has decided to make the shift.

By a vote of 3-2 the Santa Maria City Council passed a resolution to begin the process toward district-based elections, according to the Santa Maria Times.

The move came, according to the newspaper, following an allegation that the at-large system violated the California Voting Rights Act.

That same argument has been made by the Pico Neighborhood Association and activist Maria Loya in their lawsuit against Santa Monica to force district-based elections (“Santa Monica Facing Lawsuit Over At-Large Council Elections,” April 13, 2016).

A trial for that lawsuit is scheduled to begin October 30, according to the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s website.

Political observers do not expect any Santa Monica council member to propose a resolution similar to the one in Santa Maria prior to the trial.

Arguments made in Santa Maria and Santa Monica are similar.

The plaintiffs in the Santa Monica suit allege that at-large voting was introduced many years ago specifically to disenfranchise minority voters, many of whom live in the Pico Neighborhood.

“The current at-large election system is illegal and has led to a lack of representation in local government, which in turn has led to neglect of our community,” Loya told The Lookout last April when the suit was filed.

Loya unsuccessfully ran for council in 2004. Her husband, Oscar de la Torre, lost in the 2016 council election. However, de la Torre sits on the school board and has won elections for that seat every four years since 2002.

The Santa Monica council currently features one Pico Neighborhood resident (Terry O’Day) and one person of color (Tony Vazquez).

De la Torre told the Lookout Sunday that the at-large system in Santa Monica is "discriminatory" and "unfair" to minority residents.

"How can a system be fair when not one person of color residing in the Pico Neighborhood has been elected to the City Council?" he said, referring to the City's poorest and most diverse neighborhood.

"How can so called liberals protect a system that is unconstitutional and results in marginalizing the poorest residents of our City? These contradictions must be confronted."

While activists in Santa Maria and Santa Monica made similar arguments, the two cities have some major differences.

Both cities have population between 90,000 and 100,000. Santa Maria’s population is about 70 percent Latino, according to the Santa Maria Times. In Santa Monica, the population is about 70 percent non-Latino white, according to the 2010 census.

Also, Santa Maria has three Latinos on its council, which made the allegation of disenfranchisement curious for some people, according to the Santa Maria Times.

This is not the first time that district-based elections have been proposed in Santa Monica. A measure calling for them was included on a crowded November 2002 ballot and defeated easily with more than 64 percent of voters rejecting it.

Called the Voters Election Reform Initiative for a True Accountability System (VERITAS), the proposal reached the 2002 ballot as Measure HH after enough signatures were collected on a petition.

VERITAS would have created seven districts in Santa Monica, each represented by a council member. A city-wide elected mayor would not have a vote on the council, but could veto measures in the same way the mayor of Los Angeles can.

Some political observers look to the so-called strong mayor feature as a reason VERITAS was not more popular among Santa Monica voters.

Staff writer Niki Cervantes contributed to this report.

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