SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Emotions ran high at Tuesday night's Santa Maria City Council meeting amid a controversial decision over how the city elects the Mayor and the City Council.
The City of Santa Maria was facing a costly lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act if it failed to change its current election system from at-large to district elections.
Those behind the threatened lawsuit, notably Hector Sanchez who lost a recent attempt to win a City Council seat in last year's election, claim Latinos and some, poorer neighborhoods in Santa Maria are unfairly unrepresented on the City Council through citywide, at-large elections.
They say that's "racial polarized voting" and a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
The current City Council, which has a majority of Latinos, was told by city staff a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit forcing district elections could cost the city at least one million dollars to fight and win, which no other city in the state has been able to do since the law was passed in 2003.
"Its not a financial decision like this gentleman had said earlier", Sanchez told the Council Tuesday night, "the context is really about making a better, democratic Santa Maria."
Others who spoke in favor of district-based elections over the current at-large system say its about equal representation on the City Council and not just about ethnicity.
"We don't care if you're Latino or not", LULAC's Mary Jacka told the Council Tuesday night, "we care if you represent us."
"I think we would really appreciate having people in our neighborhoods who were elected to City Council", added local resident Vivian Savedra.
"No one of you council people can represent all 110-thousand people", said local resident Gail McNeely, "but an individual who lives in the neighborhood and is accountable to us the voter, they can represent our needs, so its not a criticism of you its a criticism of the system."
There was an emotional response from the audience at the City Council meeting to comments against district elections from Andy Caldwell with the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business or COLAB.
A large number of those in the audience in favor of district elections walked out together in a show of solidarity as Caldwell warned of unintended consequences with the change of election systems.
"If you were to craft these districts you have to look at the number of eligible voters", Caldwell said, "you may divide the city into five parts but Santa Maria has the lowest number of eligible voters than any other district in the county."
The City Council voted 3-2 to begin a transition to district elections with Mayor Alice Patino and Councilwoman Etta Waterfield voting no.
The City will now move forward with two public hearings in the next 30 days to allow residents to comment on proposed boundaries for the new districts.