Friday, November 9, 2007

A few election after thoughts

What if they held an election and no challengers ran? Just a few months ago, City Hall pondered the possibility that the incumbents would run unopposed in our municipal election, and cakewalk to another four years in office. But they failed to realize that private citizens had decided, for many different reasons, it was time to take matters into their own hands and run for office.

For Dan Litten the issue was non-enforcement of a City ordinance banning gasoline-powered leaf-blowers. For Michele Giddens, the issue was dissatisfaction with the provisions of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. For Frank Hotchkiss, the issue was how the light blue line project was pushed through without regard for its economic consequences. For Dale Francisco, the motivation came from the cumulative effects of gang violence, overdevelopment and a concern about the lack of proper analysis in decision-making.
Each of these individuals is an accomplished professional—none of them had previously considered running for office. Without benefit of party backing, huge campaign war chests or high-powered endorsements, each citizen was motivated to spend time, treasure and talent to challenge incumbents, raise issues and make a difference. In a triumph of participatory democracy, private citizens took on politicians.
And voters paid attention.
Improbably, one of those challengers, Dale Francisco, managed to win a seat on City Council. Unseating an incumbent is tough enough for a veteran politico; for a private citizen to mount a campaign strong enough to win is impressive indeed. What was likely even more of an upset to conventional thinking was challenger Michele Giddens’ finish ahead of incumbent Brian Barnwell.
But these are not conventional times in Santa Barbara.
The tipping point came last spring when a group of neighborhood activists and concerned citizens, led by Dale Francisco, appealed the ABR’s approval of the traffic calming devices for the St. Francis neighborhood. Anyone in attendance at the hearing witnessed a highly professional presentation by Francisco’s group that brought up many troubling questions about safety, a fair and open process, and a groupthink mentality that pushed an agenda without seriously considering its consequences.
In his impressive performance, Francisco proved he was reasonable, intelligent and in full possession of the facts. When he and his concerns were summarily dismissed and treated as irrelevant by the Council—with the exception of Iya Falcone who supported the appeal—a spark of outrage was ignited in many neighborhood advocates and longtime citizens who identified strongly. It wasn’t the first time a group of clear-thinking citizens who have spoken out on a variety of issues ranging from overdevelopment to neighborhood preservation have been treated in such a manner—it was just the most blatant example that their input no longer mattered.
Note to the ruling elite: that’s no way to treat your constituents.
Francisco’s leadership and grace at that moment crystallized his credibility with this committed group of supporters who in turn, worked tirelessly during his bid for elected office. His victory sends a clear message to City Hall: if you refuse to hear the message of mere citizens when they speak at the podium in the hearing room, you could end up seated next to one—or more—for an entire term, when they make their case to the electorate.
Similarly, the resounding defeat of Measure A can be seen as a repudiation of business as usual at City Hall. Endorsed by every single member of City Council, all of them failed to persuade voters it was the cure-all for Santa Barbara’s need for election reform. No one doubts that increased voter participation is a good thing, but the many questions raised by Measure A led every local newspaper, a wide range of opponents from all political persuasions, and even the police and fire departments to recommend against its passage. And the voters strongly agreed.
The election results remind me of the classic quote by Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In this case, small and thoughtful won the race—and their efforts will change Santa Barbara.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at


Anonymous said...

You're right, Cheri, Dale Francisco did a terrific job.

However, lots of folks and groups have mastered an issue, presented it, and been trashed by the uncaring City and/or County staff just as thoroughly as Francisco's was. With no consequences, ever, period.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Measure A,
do you suppose that it would have passed if it provided that the incumbents up for election when it was instituted would serve a 3 year term versus a 5 year term?

jqb said...

"all of them failed to persuade voters it was the cure-all for Santa Barbara’s need for election reform"

That's quite a strawman; no one ever claimed it was any such thing. As Marty Blum said, there is only one reason the council approved it -- money.

"every local newspaper"

Uh, no mention of the quality of their -- differing -- arguments against it? The NP opposing something is now taken at face value? Frank Hotchkiss called it the "Hugo Chavez measure" because Chavez has made himself dictator for life (actually he has done no such thing) -- do you suppose that such misrepresentation had anything to do with the measure's defeat? It's odd that you don't address the actual merits of the measure.

I think Dale Francisco will be surprised at how quickly the ugly anti-council sentiment that the NP, Jerry Beaver, and other factions have drummed up engulfs him as well when he finds that governing is harder than he realized and all his sweeping promises fail to materialize.

Anonymous said...

Very good article. And great question about the 3 vs 5 year term question.

Anonymous said...

Good article. And great question about Measure A passing if it were a 3 year vs. 5 year term!