A forced overhaul of Santa Cruz government: How we got into this districting ‘mess’ & what happens from here

One of six draft districting maps proposed by the city of Santa Cruz. For an interactive version of all the maps, go here.
One of six draft districting maps proposed by the city of Santa Cruz. For an interactive version of all the maps, go here.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

The city of Santa Cruz has been known for its “weak mayor” system for years. Now that a major overhaul of local governance is in order come November with district-by-district representation, some suggest there has never been more of a need for strong leadership from the mayor’s seat. While a vote to create a more nuanced role for a four-year mayor in June still won’t result in what cities call a “strong mayor” system, local political veterans hope it will elicit the type of strong leader needed for the difficult road ahead.

The system of government Santa Cruzans have known since 1948 will be completely blown up in November.

Why? The city of Santa Cruz, like numerous California cities before it, is being strong-armed into changing the way it chooses its elected officials and the roles they play. That will happen in June, and no one is happy about how it’s going down.

“It’s corrupt,” says Mike Rotkin, who served 26 years on the city council. “It’s a scandal.”

The city’s catalyst to change its long-held “at-large” system of voting for multiple councilmembers who represent the whole city to a neighborhood representative “district voting” system: the threat of a costly lawsuit that would be tough to win.

The adoption of districted voting means that city voters will get to choose between two possible districting models, one of which will appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Whatever they choose means a fundamental change in the city’s 74-year-old charter.

A view of Santa Cruz from above.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

If more than half of voters say yes to a six-district system with a newly empowered at-large mayor, serving a four-year-term, that will be the new system of governance.

If fewer than 50% vote for that, the city will implement a seven-district system with the same rotating, one-year, largely ceremonial mayor system that currently exists. Voters could still decide to create an at-large mayor position in the future.

Either way, each districted councilmember will soon represent a small pocket of roughly 10,000 residents rather than all seven members collectively representing the city’s overall population of roughly 64,000. That much has been decided.

All of the positions are still treated as part-time, at least in terms of compensation. City councilmembers now are paid $2,050 per month while the mayor makes $3,750. Neither figure is expected to change and neither will the city’s self-designation as a “weak mayor” structure that places far more day-to-day decision-making in the hands of the city manager and staff.

The only question for voters: Do they believe it’s important to have a strong mayor in character, if not official designation, managing what that unknown change will look like?

“I’m not sure people know how important that decision is,” said former mayor Hilary Bryant. “But I hope they do.”

West Cliff Drive view from a drone.
West Cliff Drive view from a drone.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz )

How we got to this point

These districting scenarios are guaranteed to abruptly, but unpredictably, change Santa Cruz politics. Unless the city of Santa Monica wins a Hail Mary victory at the state Supreme Court. Santa Monica has spent at least $8 million, and by some estimates significantly more, to fight a now-six-year-old case all the way to that court. A win there seems to be the only thing that could change the decision-making here.

“If (Santa Monica) ultimately prevailed in the Supreme Court, then we would certainly take that into serious consideration,” said Santa Cruz City Attorney Tony Condotti, noting that the uncertainty on timing doesn’t allow the city to delay its district elections planning. “We’re getting down to the wire.”

WHERE THE MAPPING STANDS
  • General
    How six- & seven-district zones could break down
    The city has an interactive version of the current working maps that shows the different ways the city of Santa Cruz could be sliced into either six or seven different districts.

Which is why, to many, the process ahead is feeling like both a foregone conclusion and a fire drill combined with a sprint.

The pressures created by the lawsuit, and the city’s response to it, have compressed a timeline for planning Santa Cruz’s electoral future. That’s why many involved in and around the process have termed it “a mess.” The substantial messy list includes:

  • Uncertainty that the original intent of such legal challenges — to create racially equitable districts that empower minority voices — will work as intended in Santa Cruz.
  • A hurried time frame in which to put the charter amendment first on the June primary ballot for voters to choose what system they want, then to implement it by November’s general election, as required by a “settlement” with those who brought the lawsuit.
  • A process further complicated by the decision to introduce the choice of a new mayoral system in with district elections.
  • The heightened economic challenges presented to potential candidates who are renters in Santa Cruz’s volatile market — and how that could play further into divisive politics.
  • The belief by some that district maps aggregating UC Santa Cruz’s population together intentionally weaken the voice of students in local politics.
  • The need, assuming a mayoral system is chosen in June, for an experienced candidate to lead what would be a major overhaul of city governance.

That’s a combination of complex mechanics — and of politics with perhaps profound policy implications.

To try to better understand those complicated issues and what the process ahead will look like, Lookout spoke with elected officials past and present. Here’s what we learned.

Former Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What is this lawsuit and why has it driven this?

Since the California Voters Rights Act passed in 2002, cities have been pressured by lawsuits to make the switch to district voting. The idea is that underrepresented areas of cities can be served better by drawing maps that place them in a single district, bettering the chances, for instance, of Latino representation in government.

Critics, though, have likened these cases filed by several law firms across the state to ambulance-chasing.

Their interest was not in voting equity — it was opportunistic.

— Cynthia Mathews

“Their interest was not in voting equity — it was opportunistic,” said longtime Santa Cruz politician Cynthia Mathews.

A Claremont-McKenna study found that the number of cities moving to districting has roughly doubled between 2002 and 2016, from 29 to 58. In total, California counts about 500 cities.

While the intent of the 2002 law might have been good, local officials say they have felt backed into an uncomfortable corner by a lawsuit threat by Gabriela Joseph, then a Santa Cruz resident, in 2020. The council, like other California municipalities, ultimately decided on a settlement agreement, “adopting a resolution of intention to transition to district elections by the November 2022 election,” Condotti said.

Why?

“The track record of the cities that have attempted to defend these cases,” he added, “they’re literally batting zero.”

No one seems to disagree that Santa Cruz can’t afford the type of litigation costs Santa Monica is incurring.

“It’s unfortunate that we got swept into this corrupt process,” Rotkin said.

Mike Rotkin
Former Santa Cruz City Councilmember Mike Rotkin.
(Via Mike Rotkin)

Why is there skepticism about it working to increase diverse representation in Santa Cruz?

Veteran observers say moving to districts in 1989 has served the city of Watsonville well. That’s because clear neighborhood lines could to be drawn between Latino and white voter blocks, increasing Latino representation over time. The distribution of the population in Santa Cruz, though, is far muddier.

“I challenge someone to draw those lines — I’ve tried it,” Rotkin said. “Here, Latinos are scattered on the Eastside, the Westside and other places. They have a huge percentage of the residents in the Beach Flats neighborhood, but not of the voters. There are a lot of undocumented workers there, but not enough citizens to actually make a difference in an election.”

Others point out that the current council is the city’s most diverse ever, with three Black members, one gay member and six women.

But despite a population of more than 20% Latino residents, Santa Cruz has elected just two Latino councilmembers in the past quarter-century: Michael Hernandez served one term beginning in 1996, and David Terrazas served two beginning in 2010.

How is the rush to do this going to impact voters and the process in general?

Veteran local and state politician Fred Keeley emphasizes the challenges of launching such a large overhaul in November considering there won’t be a primary election and half the council will remain intact.

That means the three new councilmembers who would represent districts will join four remaining at-large members — and potentially a new mayor. Those four at-large members would need to run, if they go for re-election, as districted candidates when the terms expire in 2024.

This hybrid beginning to a new form of governance will create a “difficult, transitional two years” that will require a very skilled person to help manage it. Which is why Keeley is in favor of adding a four-year mayor, but he warns “this better be a really skilled, accomplished person who is going to be our first mayor.”

“I guess there’s no perfect way to do it, but closer to perfect would be putting the whole thing off,” he said. “Have this (June vote) in November, amend the charter and then go to this in 2024.”

That approach would be reasonable if not for the lawsuit threat.

It’s unfortunate we got swept into this corrupt process because if we’re going to do this, we should’ve taken more time and had more debate.

— Mike Rotkin

“It’s unfortunate we got swept into this corrupt process because if we’re going to do this, we should’ve taken more time and had more debate and thoughtful examples in seeing what the districts might look like,” Rotkin said. “There should have been a year of looking at districts and having hearings and drawing lines in a way that wouldn’t be perfect, but would be better than what we’re going to have. There’s going to be some problems with these districts, and once they’re established, don’t try and change them. It’s going to be impossible.”

Still, as one of the area’s most grizzled politicians, Rotkin knows the city can deal only with the hand it was dealt. Keeley, too, said he believes how we got here is moot and can relate to how the city council came to this conclusion.

“Elected officials have to deal with this all the time,” he said. “ Doing what you have to do instead of what you want to do.”

Longtime local and state politician Fred Keeley
Longtime local and state politician Fred Keeley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How will a city governed by individual districts differ from at-large? What are the pros and cons?

Neighborhood activists, perhaps even those leading conversations on the website Nextdoor, could emerge as leading contenders for office. Going door-to-door in an area of roughly 10,000 people and making personal connections becomes more achievable than having to do that citywide.

Constituents who live on the Eastside of town, for instance, might feel better representation for things going on in their area. Right now, three councilmembers live within a few blocks of each other on the Westside, so those dynamics will change.

There’s this feeling that people who live on the Eastside are always the poor stepchild and the Westside rules.

— Don Lane

“There’s this feeling that people who live on the Eastside are always the poor stepchild and the Westside rules,” said former mayor Don Lane. “I think it’s a little overstated, but it’s a dynamic here that’s real. How does this change that?”

Some wonder whether sectoring off a city of 60,000 people is an ideal way to go. Will it lead to polarization and infighting on key citywide issues like homelessness, development and crime?

“I’m not always a fan of district elections in smaller cities because I think it’s good for everybody to represent every part,” said state senator John Laird. “If you have a directly elected mayor and directly elected councilmembers, there’s a real potential for institutional conflict.”

The city of Santa Cruz’s aim to remove RVs and trailers from city streets still hasn’t become reality. The planning...

How would a full-time mayoral change factor into the switch to districts? What are the pros and cons?

Those who formerly held seats in the council chambers on Center Street agree that a politically savvy, consensus-building mayor will become an immediate must for the district system to have a chance.

“They’re going to need to be able to tie a more fragmented council together,” Lane said.

And if you don’t have a mayor because voters don’t approve that in June, “your councilmember will essentially be your mayor,” said Bryant. “This is so different from what we’ve done in the past, and I hope people really understand the choice in front of them.”

Hilary Bryant
(Via The Community Foundation)

For Keeley, it’s an easy choice what type of mayor is needed for this treacherous role: someone with the political acumen of Bryant. He’s unsure, but hopeful, that the one-term councilmember will jump in. Bryant herself, who works in donor services for the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, said she has no current plans to throw her hat in the ring but did add, “Never say never.”

Bryant knows it’s a big job for whoever takes it, given the complete overhaul of governing structure.

“I think it’s an incredibly important role, and there will be a lot that goes into making it work for everybody,” she said. “You’d hate to have somebody want the role just to have the title. It’s got to be about what’s in the best interest of Santa Cruz as a whole. Somebody has to be constantly thinking what’s best for the entire community. That’s what I really worry about.”

What are the key politics at play here?

Two big affordability gap issues have been brought up. First, there’s the question of who can take on a full-time mayor role, given the position is outlined to be paid only $40,000 per year. Second, can renters commit to the council for four years, given that the new districting model requires them to live in the district within which they elected and to stay in it for their full term?

“Given what the economic reality of living in Santa Cruz is, it’s hard to imagine that it’s going to be a role that’s open to everyone,” Bryant said.

Downtown Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Current councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown voted against moving forward with the charter amendment, in part, both said, because they are tenants, who themselves have seen the challenges of maintaining rented housing over time. Within the new framework, they say, they would’ve been forced to give up their seats.

Cummings, who will term out in December and is running for Ryan Coonerty’s 3rd District county supervisor seat, is blunt about the fissures that already exist on a seven-person council made up of just two renters: “It’s sad there are people who are on the council who were able to move here a long time ago and able to get access to housing that was affordable. Now that it’s not affordable, it’s like, ‘Well, sorry, that’s your problem,’ versus trying to have some compassion around the fact that we’re trying to make this place livable for everyone.”

Justin Cummings
(Via Justin Cummings)

The other issue longtime observers cite involves UC Santa Cruz and its potential voting block of 20,000-plus students and faculty. District elections will divide that sector and perhaps weaken its strength as a whole.

“The whole university angle is troubling to me, that’s it sinister or something,” said Lane, who lectures at the school. “The reality is you have these individuals who are a fixture. That their interests would be strongly represented in the community seems to make a lot of sense to me. But for some people, it’s an abomination. It’s like these people who are just here for a short time and don’t really live here. … They face housing, transportation, water issues. They’re in the same boat as a lot of longtime residents. I think there’s a lot of false line drawing between their interests and ours. To think they shouldn’t have a role in how our city and our community looks, I just don’t agree with that.”

HOW TO STAY INFORMED
  • Education
    Where can I find the project maps?
    There are three different working maps for a six-district alignment and three for a seven-district alignment.
  • Event
    What public meetings are coming up?
    The city is holding several public hearings before the June 7 primary election: The first on March 29 and the second on April 19.
  • General
    Can I give feedback on the mapping?
    Yes, you can. The city has set up feedback surveys on both district systems.
  • Education
    Which state and local seats are up this year?
    Here’s a look at what seats are on the Nov. 8 ballot.

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