Archive » April 7, 2011
THE BALANCING ACT OF THE COUNTY
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
The Board of Supervisors will soon begin the contentious once-every-decade process of redrawing district boundaries to come up with an even number of voters in each of its five districts without a political slant.
But the board will find it difficult to escape partisan pressure because the ultimate result of the redistricting process could undermine the board’s Democratic majority.
Since 2000, Santa Barbara County’s population grew by 6.1% to 423,895 people, according to U.S. Census numbers released last month. The county’s primary objective is to ensure that each district will represent roughly 84,779 people apiece.
The latest census data is encouraging for those who want Isla Vista– or at least portions of it –removed from the 3rd District. Described as mostly a bedroom community for young students, Isla Vista provides a strong base of political support for 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who could lose a re-election bid if her district is stripped of the sea-side village.
Farr defeated her opponent, Steve Pappas, in the last election by fewer than 1,000 votes and some of her critics say the student community tilted the results in her favor.
The district faces an uncertain future because of a dramatic increase in the population of the 5th District, which comprises the northern edge of the county including Santa Maria, the small towns of Garey and Sisquoc, and the Cuyama Valley.
Every district except the 1st – which shrank by 5% – saw a slight increase in population, but the 5th far outstripped the others in growth with a 27% jump, to 101,531 people. The 2nd District’s population grew by 2%, the third’s increased by 3%, and the fourth’s jumped by 4%.
Because of this change, the 5th District will have to shed nearly 17,000 people. Some supervisors speculate that the 3rd District will have to absorb most of these people and drop a portion or all of Isla Vista.
The 3rd District encompasses Isla Vista in the southeast, Santa Ynez Valley in the north, Gaviota in the south, Hollister Ranch, and parts of the Lompoc Valley, including Vandenberg Village and the southwest portion of Lompoc, and Vandenberg Air Force Base to the west. It straddles what many believe is the cultural and political divide between the more conservative voting community of the North County and the left-leaning stronghold of Isla Vista and UCSB, which are seen by some as incompatible with the shared social and political interests of the rest of the district.
“I’m actually surprised we didn’t grow more,” 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. “We’re an area where the local government and the people are more interested in seeing growth and development. Unfortunately, you have pro-growth people in no-growth areas, particularly in the South County.”
First District Salud Carbajal chalked up the 5th District’s growth to an explosion in affordable houses, many of which have been foreclosed upon during the mortgage meltdown. “I would say 70 to 80% of all foreclosures occurred in Lompoc and Santa Maria,” he said. “During the housing boom, they built, and now there’s no one to fill the vacant homes.”
What the 3rd district will look like and what the political implications of its new shape will mean depend on how the other districts are reconfigured. The county’s guidelines for redistricting state that a district should: be equal in population to other districts; share a community of interest, namely social, political, and economic ones; keep districts reasonably compact; and respect existing political and geographical boundaries; and have one continuous boundary.
Lavagnino said the board will receive a presentation of the census data on April 12 and decide whether to let county staff draw five tentative maps and present them to the community for feedback, or go to the community first and then draw some maps. He emphasized that the county wants to keep the redistricting process transparent and ensure voices across the political spectrum are heard.
A look at census figures highlights why district boundaries are expected to be pulled further west. The 1st district, which snakes from Carpinteria in the east to Santa Barbara in the west, faces the opposite predicament of the 5th and must add 8,873 constituents.
Because the district neighbors the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th districts, it must draw from one or all, and from areas that share a community of interest. However, Carbajal’s district is separated from the municipalities in the 3rd and 5th districts by the Los Padres National Forest, and some contend that it would be unfitting to move his district into others because of the natural barrier.
“I think one of the primary prerequisites when they start drawing their districts is that you should be able to travel into your district without having to drive into somebody else’s,” former Solvang city councilman Ed Skytt said. “They need to make the supervisorial districts as compact as possible.”
Carbajal said it would be premature to speculate on how his district could change.
Dennis Bozanich, assistant to the county executive officer, said even if the 1st District took Cuyama and New Cuyama (both claim a total of 574 residents) and areas west of Camino Cielo in the 3rd District, it would only capture a fraction of the nearly 9,000 residents it needs to reach its target population.
“The challenge is going to be how to rebalance the population without completely turning things upside-down,” he noted. “If there are natural barriers within a district, it could lose its sense of cohesion. I’m not saying the 1st can’t take from the 3rd and 5th districts, but it would probably cause more angst. You’d have to ask what Cuyama has in common with Carpinteria to justify that type of connection.”
In one scenario, the political landscape would look like a line of dominoes had just toppled in a chain reaction from east to west. The 1st district would stretch farther into Santa Barbara, forcing Janet Wolf’s 2nd district to swallow 11,954 people from the 3rd district that would in turn need to pull 14,785 individuals from the North County.
“However we draw the lines, the North County is going to have a little more sway because there are 20,000 more people north of Gaviota than there are in the county’s southern portion,” Lavagnino stated.
Farr said it was premature to talk about what the 3rd District might look like, but she did say, “As far as I know, Isla Vista has been in the 3rd District for 100 years,” she said.
She also rejected the notion that district is more conservative.
“I think if you look at the elections in the 3rd District, we’ve had Bill Wallace, Gail Marshall and Willy Chamberlin (and Brooks Firestone), so I don’t see Isla Vista dominating the outcomes,” Farr contended. “Isla Vista is very evenly balanced in regard to political registration. They’ve elected liberal and conservative candidates, and I think they will into the future.”
UCSB geography professor Daniel Montello, who studies regions, electoral districts, redistricting and gerrymandering, said students in Isla Vista “hold unusual power in the county.”
“The numbers are not always the same, but the story pretty much is,” he said of the 3rd Districts interplay in county politics. “Many voters in the Valley resent the political power of the Isla Vista voters. I definitely believe the outcome in the last election was influenced by the Isla Vista/UCSB student vote, and I am confident it is not the first time it has happened.”
If Isla Vista is moved into the 2nd District, “the lifetime county standoff would become a consistent pro-business, pro-development, low-regulation majority,” he said. He added that demographic changes in Santa Maria, particularly increases in the Hispanic population, will likely shift the city to the Left.
Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray, whose district includes the cities of Guadalupe, Lompoc, and Orcutt and must gain 1,967 people, said that she expects the 3rd District to pick up the constituents ejected from the 5th.
She said he wants to avoid splitting communities but sees Santa Maria, which accounted for 90% of the county’s growth, being divided between her district and Farr’s. “That would be a huge re-definition of the city of Lompoc to suddenly not be in the 4th District,” she said. “There is a way it can stay in the 4th District without being split. That way is if the 3rd District moves east of Highway 101 and took the 16,000.”
Although county supervisors must consider only population and other criteria in drawing the map and not the homes of incumbents or partisan balance, Gray said the redistricting process – whether it’s at the congressional, state, or county level – is without exception a political chess game. “Yes, there are guiding principles that are supposed to be followed. But districts get drawn all over the place, depending on who has what to gain, and it becomes a political game,” she added. “People are trying to figure out how to move population around to best affect their areas of their district.”
She noted that this is no less true in the case of the 3rd District. “In the past, the 3rd District has attempted to retain Isla Vista and UCSB because they have such a strong, strong voter base for the liberal candidate,” she explained. “And that has happened because the board majority was leaning in that direction. I’m not sure which direction the board majority is leaning in now.”
Valley resident Lammy Johnstone knows how contentious the redistricting process is. A decade ago when the district boundaries were being reshaped, she was among a chorus of critics who clamored for a plan to eliminate the community of Isla Vista because they thought it was socially and politically dissimilar from the rest of the 3rd District.
Johnstone helped gather nearly 5,000 signatures in the Valley to support removing Isla Vista. She said she heard from two dozen signatories that 3rd District supervisor Gail Marshall and her executive assistant, John Buttny, had called them to persuade them to take their names off the petition. She said Marshall hadn’t adequately explained why she was clinging to Isla Vista. She also said she worries that much of the redistricting process is already taking shape in back-room deals motivated by politics.
She said it’s unfair for a student community to decide important issues like land-use planning and spending priorities, and she’s prepared to spearhead another petition if the supervisors play politics with the redistricting process.
“The vast majority of the people in this Valley are relatively conservative,” she stated. “We know our business and just want to move forward. We want to support our farmers and support our ranchers.”