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<b>BACKING THE WARD SYSTEM:</b> Leo Martinez, pictured here from a visit in February, is a former city councilmember who favors district elections.

Peter Vandenbelt

BACKING THE WARD SYSTEM: Leo Martinez, pictured here from a visit in February, is a former city councilmember who favors district elections.


S.B. Corrupt? Say It Ain’t So

Leo Martinez and Barry Cappello Take On City Hall over District Elections


NEVER HAPPEN: There are some things that aren’t going to happen very soon. The Chicago Cubs will not win the pennant. Congress will not vote Vlad the Impaler Putin “Mr. World Democracy.”

And Santa Barbarans are not going to approve City Council district elections, at least not in my lifetime. It’s more likely to rain for a month.

Never mind that our present at-large voting system is profoundly unfair, undemocratic, and “corrupt” to boot, according to former city attorney Barry Cappello.

Barney Brantingham

What? The good citizens of St. Barbara, so proud of their imagined good-government nobility, are unheedingly perpetrating some Chicago-ese crime against its citizenry?

So it seems, and Cappello’s preparing the groundwork for a lawsuit against the city, citing the California Voting Rights Act.

Councilmembers, however, are not only opposed to district elections but declined in a recent tie vote to even let the public decide. I had a long phone conversation on the subject the other day with bombastic former councilmember Leo Martinez (it’s impossible to have a short one with Leo).

Voters would “never” okay district elections if it got to the ballot, predicted Leo, now a resident of Ruidoso, New Mexico, but taking a keen interest in the issue and visiting often. “It’s headed for court.”

While the Voting Rights Act provides the legal foundation for a lawsuit based on the longstanding lack of Latino representation on the City Council, Leo said, “I don’t care who gets elected under a neighborhood district system, Latino, black, white, or whatever, as long as it’s someone who represents the residents.”

It may come as a surprise that although liberal Democrats have held the majority of City Council seats in recent years, some Republicans see district voting as a way to get elected in conservative neighborhoods.

Some on the council have backed a hybrid system, with half the councilmembers and the mayor elected at-large and half by district. Cappello knocked that down in a damning recent letter to The Santa Barbara Independent.

In effect, he said, “the city winds up with the same corrupt system: an at-large one, dominated by the same power elite, election after election, denying minority areas favorable representatives.

“How? By making at-large elections too expensive and by forcing candidates to toe the party line and join a ‘block of three candidates’ to convince voters that the ‘block’ will be the best for the city. In fact, the block is just good for the power elite, and the minority areas get no lighting, policing, sidewalks, storm drains, etc.”

A City Council committee is expected to meet with Cappello this month to see what, if anything, can be resolved. But as far as he’s concerned, a hybrid plan not only won’t fly but is a nonstarter.

I covered the Santa Barbara City Council back in the 1960s when the ward district system was in place. It was a disaster. For starters, the councilmembers, by and large, were duds, with horizons about as low as the potholes they made sure were filled.

One councilmember claimed he’d played in the great Boston Red Sox outfield of the 1920s. Challenged by reporters, he had to back down, but he didn’t resign.

The complaint was that councilmembers were so fixed on their fiefdoms that they never looked at the big picture, the city’s overall needs. When a board of freeholders came up with modernization proposals in 1968, they opted for at-large elections, and voters bought it. But that was then, and now is now. It’s a different, more diverse, and better educated city. It’s also 38 percent Latino.

Back in 1973, when Leo took office, he says he was the first Latino elected to the council in the 20th century. Back then, he was a hot-blooded Democratic social activist running a drywall installation business.

After moving to rural New Mexico, where Republicans run things, Leo joined the GOP. “They threw me out five years ago. I didn’t toe the line.” Now he’s a Democrat again. “I was too liberal for the Republicans here and too conservative for the Santa Barbara Democrats.”

He rages against what he considers the Santa Barbara Democratic Central Committee’s excessive power in getting its picks elected.

Leo, now a feisty 71, built a home on a hill not far from Ruidoso, near a river, and plays golf and rides horses. He was seriously injured when one bucked him off.

But no horse bucks as hard as the district election battle, and so far he’s staying in the saddle.

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