Belmont is interested in an at-large directly elected mayor and four districts should it switch to district elections from its current at-large elections system, wanting a position to unify the council and city and have a stronger regional presence.
“In order to ensure we don’t have a council of five people who just want what’s best for their small district or the few blocks that they represent in their neighborhood, I do think it is best to have an at-large mayor and four districts,” Vice Mayor Julia Mates said, noting it could provide a unifying voice and the ability to keep an eye on the regional level.
The council discussed switching to a directly elected mayor from its current rotating system at its Nov. 2 special meeting, with a council majority favoring the switch. A directly elected mayor would see the city have four districts and one spot for the mayor position. If it kept the current mayoral system, it would draw five districts.
Belmont is considering switching to district-based elections after receiving a July 30 letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project alleging violations under the California Voting Rights Act due to using an at-large election system. Under the current system, voters elect all five members, and councilmembers can live anywhere. A district-based election would divide the city into districts, with one councilmember living in the district chosen by voters residing in that area.
Shenkman alleges the at-large voting system resulted in minority vote dilution. Shenkman cited the absence of Latino representation and near lack of Asian representation on the city’s governing board, in contrast to the Asian and Latino proportions of residents. According to the most recent 2019 census data, Asians accounted for 27.5% of Belmont’s population, while Latinos were 12.1%. Shenkman also stated that if Belmont did not switch, he would seek legal assistance from the court systems. Belmont said the threshold of proof to establish a violation is low and does not require discriminatory intent.
Benefits of a directly elected mayor include Belmont residents getting to vote for two positions of mayor and councilmember in their district. It would also ensure one member of the council would represent all interests and areas as a whole. The mayor position would be similar to the current appointed mayor position that switches every year, although the directly elected mayor could make committee appointments and have a greater regional voice. However, the council could decide beforehand to limit that power.
The city needed to know if the council wanted an at-large directly elected mayor or not by the end of the year. City Attorney Scott Rennie said the city anticipates starting formal public hearings on the map processes early to mid-January. The council will discuss the larger district election issue further at its Nov. 9 meeting.
Councilmember Warren Lieberman favored a directly elected mayor, given future councilmembers could have parochial attitudes when representing their districts. He supported having the mayor election in 2022 instead of 2024.
“I tend to prefer having the at-large directly elected mayor and then having four districts for the councilmember elections,” Lieberman said.
Mayor Charles Stone echoed previous council points that district elections will not help overall, indicating he believed it would not increase diversity and would instead increase parochialism. He did not want to gamble with taxpayer dollars on a likely futile attempt to fight any lawsuits. He favored a two-year term for the at-large mayor and starting in 2024. He thought it could be a regional voice to represent the smaller city.
“There is obviously an advantage to having one policymaker who has to keep the entire city’s viewpoint in mind when they are making decisions, and that person can also serve as a consensus builder,” Stone said.
However, Councilmember Tom McCune favored having a rotating mayor system back into their status as councilmembers can help them in their positions. He also was worried about future litigation if Belmont used a directly elected mayor, something city staff said was possible but unlikely.
“After hearing the arguments and thinking about this, I would be inclined to stick with the five-member council, mayor rotating among the councilmembers and not do the directly elected mayor,” Councilmember Tom McCune said.
Councilmember Davina Hurt was attending the U.N. climate conference in Scotland representing the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and was absent from the meeting. However, in written comments, she said she could favor a directly elected mayor if there were two-year terms.
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