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CAUSE has launched a multi-year effort to improve fair representation and accountability in local governments throughout the Central Coast region. Despite widespread demographic shifts in recent decades, much of the Central Coast’s local politics is dominated by conservative old boys’ networks who fail to reflect the increasingly diverse electorate. This is often due to structural barriers to the political voice of working-class and immigrant neighborhoods like at-large and even-year city council and school board elections.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Santa Maria, where despite a 75% Latino population, not one of the four city councilmembers is Latino. Santa Maria residents overwhelmingly feel a lack of representation from the current city council, with a decision two years ago to allow fracking in a residential neighborhood, the approval of an ICE detention center against the outcry of thousands of residents, and a consistent disregard for requests from residents of low-income neighborhoods to provide basic city services like street lighting.
In response, CAUSE members and ally organizations collected over 5,000 signatures rain or shine for months outside of storefronts, churches and little leagues and door-to-door in underrepresented neighborhoods to put a measure on the November ballot which would guarantee a voice for all neighborhoods in the city. The initiative would create four neighborhood city council districts which would each elect a representative from their area to a seat on the council, ensuring diverse representation from throughout the city. Thanks to a dedicated core of volunteers and overwhelming support from business, community, faith, environmental, labor and student groups, we quickly gathered thousands of signatures but when we turned in our petition, the city rejected it on a trivial and irrelevant formatting technicality. The city shamelessly interfered with democracy by grasping at straws to prevent reform from going to the voters. Our legal representation with MALDEF is now taking the issue to court to get a writ of mandate from a judge to place the measure on the ballot.
Whether or not the courts force the city of Santa Maria to listen to community members calling for reform, we know this movement cannot be stopped. The city government silencing the voices of thousands of voters shines a glaring spotlight on exactly why Santa Maria needs real representation.
Meanwhile in the cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara, working-class and Latino neighborhoods have long been underrepresented. Both cities elect their city councils on odd-numbered years, when voters are least engaged and voter turnout in low-income and Latino neighborhoods is dismal. In fact, despite a third of the population of Ventura being Latino, not a single Latino has ever been elected to city council. CAUSE is pushing to allow voters to choose this November to move city elections to even-numbered years, which would likely double voter turnout, give voice to underrepresented communities, and result in huge cost savings.