The city of Santa Maria narrowly escaped entering a costly legal battle with the federal government Tuesday, when the City Council agreed in a split 3-2 vote to repeal a controversial H-2A ordinance.

"We are being punished for doing what I think was a good job on the part of this council," said Councilman Mike Cordero, referencing the months spent creating the 2019 H-2A housing ordinance that requires agricultural employers to obtain discretionary permits to house H-2A workers in single-family areas. "But we don't have much of a choice in this matter."

H-2A employees — temporary nonimmigrant workers brought to the United States to fulfill seasonal labor needs — are a protected class of individuals based on national origin that cannot be specifically regulated by local governments, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary in August.

Had members not chosen to repeal the ordinance and implement provisions such as increased fair housing resources, they would have faced a $400,000 fine and potential litigation. 

Cordero voted along with Councilman Carlos Escobedo and Councilwoman Gloria Soto to repeal, while Councilwoman Etta Waterfield and Mayor Alice Patino voted against the repeal. Tuesday marked the second discussion on the issue after members failed to repeal the ordinance in a 2-2 vote, with Soto absent, on June 1. 

Since May 2020, the department's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity has been investigating possible discrimination related to the city's H-2A ordinance, ultimately providing the city with a voluntary compliance agreement that laid out consequences including the $400,000 fine and threat of legal action. 

During Tuesday's meeting, Waterfield and Patino criticized the federal government for getting involved in local decision-making and denied implications of discrimination on the part of the council.

"I assume they would have to prove that we were discriminatory or racist. I look around us and we’re all of Mexican descent sitting up here," Waterfield said. "I don’t want to have to pay someone $400,000 just for them to not call me that anymore, or to [get rid of] an ordinance just so we’re not labeled with that."

Former City Attorney Phil Sinco, who was the principal author of the ordinance and oversaw various community meetings in the process, said during Tuesday's public comment period that he did not believe the ordinance was discriminatory, and that the government's position affected him personally.

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"I spent a great deal of time researching the law before bringing it to you," said Sinco, now city attorney in Guadalupe. "The ordinance only applies to employers who provide housing to their employees, and … does not actually discriminate against any persons based on a protected class."

He added that the ordinance would have no effect on H-2A workers who moved into a single-family home without the assistance of an employer. However, he acknowledged that the scenario is unlikely, since for the majority of H-2A workers, free employer-provided housing is the only option they have.

Soto reminded her fellow council members that while their intent was not to single out any group of people, that may have ended up being the effect of the ordinance. 

"Intent doesn’t always matter. We really need to focus more on the impact and implications that our actions and decision-making have. We try and we learn … and I hope moving forward that we can take the lessons learned from this and be better," she said.

City Attorney Thomas Watson said staff can consult with HUD about creating a new ordinance that does not risk violating the Fair Housing Act, if further concerns arise about an overflow of H-2A workers in single-family areas.

"I do believe there’s a pathway, but until we engage with HUD and identify there is a specific problem to solve, then I think that would be a part of ongoing discussion," Watson said.

In the meantime, the city will accept HUD's requirements including a mandatory fair housing training for all city staff involved in the ordinance, hiring a designated housing resource employee and improving language accessibility services, according to a proposed consent order. 

The employee housing resource officer must be hired within 30 days and will serve as a point of contact for residents, owners and operators of employee housing, field complaints related to housing conditions or alleged discrimination, and submit a three-year strategic plan to HUD for their work.

City Manager Jason Stilwell said the officer will likely be an existing city employee who will be given the responsibility of serving as a point of contact.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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