SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Hazel Davalos of the non-profit community advocacy group CAUSE in Santa Maria helped organize and collect signatures in a two-month long petition drive to get a November ballot measure that would allow city voters to decide how they want to elect their City Council members.
"We were outside of churches, grocery stores, Little League games, walking door to door", Davalos says, "most of the residents signing were very receptive."
Davalos says petition organizers collected 5,300 signatures of registered voters in Santa Maria, they needed only 2,700 to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
CAUSE and its supporters want to amend the Santa Maria City Charter to allow for "district elections" instead of the current "at large" election system.
City Council candidates would represent four, equally-populated "districts" in the city with only the mayor remaining elected "at-large".
"The idea of this district elections petition actually began over a year ago", Davalos says, "we've continued to see the City disregard the concerns of neighborhoods and residents here in Santa Maria and so we pursued this in an attempt to have a more accountable local government."
But the City of Santa Maria has rejected the group's 5,300 signature petitions saying they do not conform with state elections code.
This is a portion of the statement released by the City of Santa Maria regarding its decision:
"On Friday, April 11, 2014, a proponent of the initiative measure for district elections in Santa Maria submitted their organization's signed petitions to the City Clerk's Office. An elections official is instructed by statute to look at the four corners of the document and render an objective determination whether or not a petition complies with the Elections Code. The elections official has a duty to reject a Petition that does not "substantially conform" to the formal requirements of the Elections Code. There is no statute that informs an elections official to ignore technical defects on a petition because it is close enough.
On April 11, 2014, the City regrettably informed the proponent that their petition did not substantially conform to the requirements of the Elections Code; therefore, the City had no alternative than to return the petition to the proponent.
Specifically, the petition did not follow the correct formatting as indicated in the Elections Code, and the header of the petition did not have the words "Initiative Measure to be Submitted Directly to the Voters." In addition, the Declaration pages (of the petitions) omitted the required reference to the circulators being 18 years of age or older. This is a new requirement enacted by the Legislature that took effect on January 1, 2014."
Davalos says CAUSE and its attorneys have filed a Writ of Mandate seeking a judge's intervention and order allowing the election reform measure to be on the November ballot.
Here is the response from CAUSE to the City's decision:
When local organizations turned in over 5,300 voter signatures to create more accountable city government, the Santa Maria city attorney rejected the petition, citing improper formatting. The campaign's legal representation will seek a writ of mandate from a judge requiring the city to put the issue before Santa Maria voters.
"The City of Santa Maria is shamelessly interfering with the democratic process and silencing the voices of thousands of Santa Maria voters calling for reform by refusing to count the petition based on trivial and irrelevant technicalities," said Hazel Davalos, community organizer for CAUSE. "The city is supposed to work for the people of Santa Maria, not against us. If they continue to stand in the way of reforms to improve accountability, it will only shine a spotlight on exactly what is wrong with the city government."
The city claimed that the petition was invalid because the words "initiative measure to be submitted directly to the voters" and "petition for submission to the voters" weren't placed in the correct place on the page. They also asserted that the petition's Declaration of Circulator, a document signed by the volunteer collecting signatures, was invalid because it declared that the circulator was a registered voter rather than stating that they were at least 18.
"It's common knowledge that you have to be 18 to vote," said Davalos. "This is a blatant case of the city grasping at straws to avoid putting reform before the voters."
The coalition collected thousands of signatures from registered Santa Maria voters for two months to put a measure before city voters in November that would switch the current "at-large" system of electing city council members to a district election system, which campaign organizers say would provide a voice for every neighborhood on city issues.
Community organization members and volunteers talked to voters outside storefronts, churches and little leagues, and canvassed door-to-door in several neighborhoods historically lacking representation on the city council.
Although only 2,700 valid signatures from Santa Maria registered voters were required to qualify the initiative, the campaign collected 5,300 to ensure its success and quickly gathered well above the needed signatures due to overwhelming support from community members.
We collected signatures every day, rain or shine and on the weekends because this matters so much to us" said Estela Cortez, CAUSE Leader and Santa Maria voter, "I can't believe my city council members are trying to throw out all the work I did to make my city a better place."
Petition organizers hops to have their court date with the judge sooner rather than later because the deadline for measures to make it for the November ballot is in June.