The Watsonville City Council meets on June 11. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

WATSONVILLE >> Watsonville voters in November will decide whether non-citizens can serve on city advisory commissions. 

The Watsonville City Council Tuesday night voted 5-2 to approve a question for the Nov. 5 ballot that would remove the city charter’s requirement for commission members to be registered voters.

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Residents, nonprofit representatives and most council members said removing the requirement would create opportunities for Watsonville residents who aren’t U.S. citizens to have a voice in city politics.

“People do want to get involved,” said Karina Moreno, a Watsonville resident who sits on multiple Santa Cruz County commissions. “It’s knowing how and having access.”

City commissions

The commissions are advisory bodies that make recommendations to the city council.

Watsonville has four commissions: 

  • Planning Commission.
  • Personnel Commission. 
  • Parks and Recreation Commission.
  • Board of Library Trustees.

Commissioners are appointed by city council members. Many residents and nonprofit representatives argued that Watsonville’s non-citizen residents should be represented in city politics. About 22% of Watsonville residents are not citizens and ineligible to vote, according to 2022 American Community Survey census data.

 “We work with thousands of Watsonville residents, all taxpayers, and many are small business owners who are unable to vote due to circumstances beyond their control,” said Brandon Sencion, a program director at Santa Cruz Community Ventures and a Watsonville planning commissioner. “Including their voices can only strengthen our policies and improve our local government’s ability to meet the needs of the entire community.”

The city council in April considered a version of the ballot question that would have extended non-citizen participation to the Library Board of Trustees and Parks and Recreation Commission, but not the personnel and planning commissions. Sencion said the compromise would create “second-class commissioners with limited participation.”

In 2021, Ventures reports for the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County found that Latinos, renters and other groups are underrepresented in advisory bodies and commissions. The city and county have since made efforts to attract a greater diversity of commissioners.

Watsonville Mayor Vanessa Quiroz-Carter on June 11. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

Council opinions

Watsonville Mayor Vanessa Quiroz-Carter said that the prolonged debate about restricting non-voters from certain commissions is “absolutely ridiculous.”

“There are people that do not register to vote for one reason or another,” Quiroz-Carter said. “They own businesses, they spend tax dollars, they live here. They should be able to make decisions as well.”

Councilmember Kristal Salcido said Watsonville’s policy should align with the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County, both of which allow non-citizen residents to serve on boards and commissions. “I serve everyone in my district, not just my registered voters,” Salcido said. “In many ways, it’s even more important for me to think about the people who may not have a traditional vote.”

Watsonville City Councilmember Ari Parker on June 11. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

Councilmembers Ari Parker and Casey Clark said the ballot question should only ask whether non-citizens could be on the Library Board and Parks and Recreation Commission. 

Clark questioned the potential process for assuring city residency for non-voters, and said documents like utility bills would not prove that applicants live in Watsonville. “I could live in New York, and I could still have some sort of way to prove that I’m a resident of the city, even though I’m not,” he said. If the ballot measure passed, the city council could craft any policy to confirm an applicant’s residency, said Watsonville City Clerk Irwin Ortiz.

Watsonville City Clerk Irwin Ortiz on June 11. (Marcello Hutchinson-Trujillo — Santa Cruz Local)

Parker said the Planning Commission, which makes some decisions about developments without city council approval, should only include registered voters.

Parker said that the nonprofit leaders who wanted non-citizens on boards may not “represent the larger community.”

“I also don’t see the people that you say you’re representing attending any of our meetings to make comment,” Parker said. “It’s a general apathy that’s going on.”

Quiroz-Carter and Councilmember Eduardo Montesino said many people in their districts do not attend public meetings because they work long hours. Some people are also unfamiliar with and intimidated by public meetings, or are unable to read untranslated city documents, Montesino said.

The council voted 5-2 to allow a question on the Nov. 5 ballot on whether non-citizens could participate on all city commissions. The council also voted for the charter review subcommittee to author an official voter guide argument for the measure. 

Quiroz-Carter, Salcido, Montesino, Mayor Pro Tempore Maria Orozco and Councilmember Jimmy Dutra voted to put the measure on the ballot. Parker and Clark voted against it.

Parker requested that a separate committee draft an official voter guide argument against the measure. The suggestion was not supported by other council members. Parker could author an argument against the measure as an individual, said Interim Watsonville City Manager Tamara Vides.

Second ballot question

A separate ballot question approved by the city council would propose more than a dozen minor changes to the city’s charter. Those changes would include:

  • Deleting outdated sections that are no longer relevant.
  • Changing some language to align with state law.
  • Allowing city council members to receive employment benefits.
  • Allowing the council to consider paid stipends for planning commissioners.
  • Changing the qualifications for city manager candidates to allow candidates with one year’s experience as a city manager, two as an assistant city manager or five years as a city or county department manager. The position now requires one year’s experience as a city manager or three years as an assistant city manager.

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.