Measure E: Santa Cruz City District Elections explained

The proposed map for a six-district system should Measure E pass.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Some see the potential change as a means for leadership that represents the whole community in a four-year mayor; others are too worried about the implications of the chosen redistricting maps to approve of the measure.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, Santa Cruz’s mayor has acted more as a super city councilmember than the political leader of the city.

In this “weak mayor” system, the mayor assumes a role whose policymaking influence is limited due to the largely collective style of governance that puts most of the decision-making power in the hands of the city council.

Historically, the mayor position has rotated within the city council. Each year, council members vote on who will take over as mayor for the next year, traditionally on the grounds designating as vice-mayor whichever newly elected councilor received the most votes in the previous election.

If Measure E passes, this selection process would become an artifact of history. Voters will choose between two new districting — as districting one way or the other becomes the new format for city elections — models for the city of Santa Cruz.

A “yes” vote will see the city enact a new system of governance that divides the city into six districts and introduces a directly elected at-large mayor who serves a four-year term.

A “no” vote will see the city implement a seven-district system and retain the current one-year rotating mayor.

Though the mayor’s term length will change, the position’s powers — on paper — will not change.

What does the measure do?

The city council approved the measure for the June 7 ballot by a 5-2 vote. Pressure to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and elect leadership that considers diverse interests within the community drove the change.

Since the California Voting Rights Act became law in 2002, lawsuits have pushed cities to shift to a district voting system. In response to a 2020 lawsuit threat, the council decided on a settlement agreement committing to transition to district elections by November 2022. Now, voters will decide how the city should go about this change.

Regardless of Measure E’s outcome, the districts will be changed and the mayor’s official power will remain the same.

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Who supports the measure?

Those in support of Measure E say a directly elected mayor would be accountable to all of the city’s residents and, although the person would not gain more power, would have more time to both develop an all-encompassing view of the city’s needs and provide steady leadership over time.

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David Terrazas, a former Santa Cruz mayor, signed the argument for Measure E and says this is a rare opportunity that should not be taken for granted.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the voters of Santa Cruz. Having a single representative will consider the interests of all districts,” he said. “They’ll have the opportunity to work directly with other jurisdictions throughout the county, and look at issues that have been challenging for past councils to address like homelessness, drug addiction and mental health.”

Further, Terrazas says the directly elected mayor would provide a sense of where the city stands politically.

“Since it would be an at-large election, it would provide a sense of the direction that the entire city would like to see moving forward,” he said. “It also provides a sense of continuity, leadership, and accountability for the results in office.”

With regard to the proposed six-district maps, Terrazas is not terribly concerned, because the districts aren’t permanent.

“Every 10 years, the maps will be changed and there will be an opportunity to revisit any of the maps and work out the issues that may become apparent over the course of the next two election cycles,” he said.

Former mayor Donna Meyers — who also signed the argument for Measure E — stressed that the maps were not created by the council.

“The maps were all done by the demographer, and they were not specially preferred maps. I think that has been misrepresented, and it needs to be clear that those were not a directive,” she said, adding that she disagrees with the argument that the maps underrepresent certain populations. “We have data showing that students and people of diverse ethnicities live all over town, so I’m not really understanding what these accusations are.”

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Meyers said that over time, she has become supportive of an at-large mayor.

“When you have a mayor for a year, and you’re looking at public policy questions that we have before us, whether it’s university growth, housing, COVID recovery or homelessness, it’s hard to tackle them,” she said. “I think longer-term leadership is making a lot of sense to me, and I think it’s a good time to do it.”

During her 2021 term, Meyers noted some interest in the directly elected mayor model.

“We did not do specific public meetings or hearings on this, but there was discussion at several of the staff-led public meetings about the idea,” she said. “I don’t remember our staff reporting that there was much engagement around the issue.”

At the end of the day, Meyers says that the town has many complex issues, and a good mayor can make a world of difference.

“Here, you have a person that does have a pretty significant role in any given year. Mardi Wormhoudt was appointed by the council in 1988, and then the 1989 earthquake hit, and she’s having to put this town back together after it literally fell down,” she said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re in that position, and we’ve seen mayors step up and do amazing things to take care of their communities in ways we never imagined.”

Who is against the measure?

Opponents point to the question of fair representation.

Stacey Falls, a Santa Cruz High School teacher and a leader of No on E, says the measure is undemocratic and disproportionately represents one district with each new mayor.

“If Measure E passes, we’ll have six districts and one of those will essentially always have two representatives in the city councilmember and the mayor, since the mayor has to hail from one of the districts,” she said. “At-large elections tend to favor wealthy, usually whiter neighborhoods, and so we feel that the person elected at-large will probably come from a district that has donors with deep pockets.”

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Falls also thinks that the fact that the mayor does not gain any new official authority in the proposed new system makes the measure misleading.

“Personally, if this was a measure to get rid of the city manager and have a strong mayor position and give them a full-time job, my position might change,” she said. “What worries me about the measure is that people will think that we should have the ability to elect our mayor, but fail to understand that it’s kind of an honorary term.”

“Because they’ll likely be working part-time, they’re not going to have the time to get to know all the staff and department heads or to oversee the different parts of city government,” she said. “They won’t have the time to campaign around the whole city, they won’t have time to get to know all of the people in different departments. They’re gonna facilitate the meetings and set the agenda like they always did.”

The proposed map sealed the deal for Falls.

“I feel like it really exacerbates all of the inequities. I live in Lower Ocean and feel that my district has been completely lumped off into a different district,” she said, explaining that Lower Ocean would be in a district with Seabright. “I know a lot of great people in that district, but I feel like they have really different concerns than I do. I was so excited about the possibility of lower-income working people or someone from the Latinx community running and winning, and I feel like that would not happen with this map.”

Former mayor and 3rd District County Supervisor candidate Justin Cummings — who voted against putting the measure on the ballot — cites the map as his biggest concern, as he did last week at the Lookout-moderated candidates forum, agreeing with Falls on that point.

Further, Cummings says there was not enough public outreach about the measure and that there are too many loose ends for comfort regarding the four-year mayor’s role.

“It would have been ideal for the council to have established certain specifics about the position. Term lengths, responsibilities, compensation, roles and responsibilities are still unclear,” he said. “We also didn’t discuss the timing of when the mayor would be elected, and as it stands, should the measure move forward, the mayor would be selected during primary years, which often have the lowest voter turnout.”

Councilmember Sandy Brown — who also voted against putting the measure on the ballot — agrees, saying the council didn’t listen to public critique of the districting plan it chose.

“The no vote was an attempt to encourage the council to follow through with what they said, which was to create a process and talk to the community about what kinds of changes they’d like to see rather than something hooked up with some of their close political allies behind the scenes, which is what appears to have happened,” she said.

“What I saw is a gerrymandering to parcel out the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of low-income, working-class residents, and on top of that, neighborhoods with high Latinx concentration,” she said. “So now you’ve got Lower Ocean with Seabright, Beach Flats with the Upper Westside, and part of the Eastside with Prospect Heights, and those are all very different.”