More local agencies are considering an election system overhaul, as a couple cities recently received a legal threat seeking to compel the transition to by-district elections.
City councils in South San Francisco and Half Moon Bay are expected to soon discuss the matter, and the issue is set for consideration Wednesday, March 21, at the Harbor District Board of Commissioners meeting.
The potential transition arrives with letters to the cities from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman instructing officials to voluntarily approve the move away from an at-large system, rewarding highest voter getters in a general election, or take the matter to court. The Harbor District board will consider the matter at the request of commissioners.
Proponents of the by-district system claim it is effective in assuring communities which historically may have been marginalized are adequately represented on elected boards, by subdividing electoral maps into smaller wards.
While acknowledging the merits of the effort’s intent, Harbor Commission President Virginia Chang Kiraly questioned whether the shift makes sense for the district.
“To me, I would think the plaintiff would think this is a low priority compared to other districts,” she said, noting the board’s diverse composition. “That said, we do want to get in front of it.”
Commissioner Sabrina Brennan maintains a different perspective though.
“District elections empower voters to take action when the public trust is violated,” she said in a prepared statement referring to Commissioner Tom Mattusch, who was recently investigated for emailing Brennan inappropriate pictures.
Brennan contends a by-district election shift would more easily allow voters to hold Mattusch accountable than launching an extensive recall campaign. A district investigation report said claims of sexual harassment were largely unfounded. Brennan is a staunch advocate for the shifts, reaching back to her initially suggesting the district consider the issue in 2010.
For her part, Chang Kiraly said she believes the source of Brennan’s advocacy this time around is misguided.
“That should never be the purpose for doing something like this,” she said, regarding the clash between Brennan and Mattusch. Chang Kiraly said she expects the commission to take up the issue, and other matters surrounding the district’s purpose, at the upcoming meeting.
The San Mateo County Harbor District Board of Commissioners is elected countywide but operates two facilities, Pillar Point Harbor north of Half Moon Bay and Oyster Point Marina/Park in South San Francisco.
Recently the Sequoia Union High and Redwood City Elementary school districts and county Board of Supervisors transitioned from at-large systems after being threatened with a similar lawsuit from a social justice group claiming residents from certain communities felt underrepresented in the elections process. The San Mateo County Community College District adopted the by-district system last year too, without being threatened by a lawsuit. The Menlo Park City Council is currently examining the transition as well, making it the first city in San Mateo County to consider such a step.
It has been noted state law favors the move to by-district elections in the case of a legal challenge, as the California Voting Rights Act states at-large systems cannot be upheld should they impair the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.
Often districts or cities will favor adopting the shift instead of battling in court from a disadvantaged position, which can result in lengthy and costly legal processes. The transition process also requires agencies to develop new maps defining voting district boundaries.
Half Moon Bay Mayor Deborah Penrose said she too is prepared to discuss the matter with officials in the coming weeks, in the wake of Shenkman’s letter alleging Latino voters were underrepresented on the City Council.
For her part, Penrose said she favors examining the matter more extensively and would support the shift if research finds it is in the best interest of equal representation.
“I like the idea of district elections. If in fact we are doing any discrimination against the Latino community, I want to stop that right away,” she said.
Penrose said officials are in the process of completing a demographics study, which will more fully illustrate the city’s racial composition, especially as it relates to specific neighborhoods.
She expects the study to become available in the coming weeks, which will help officials decide whether the transition in Half Moon Bay is necessary.
“I don’t think the council in general has any objection to district elections,” she said.
In South San Francisco, Mayor Liza Normandy also acknowledged officials’ willingness to examine the matter more deeply in a prepared statement.
“The city remains deeply committed to ensure all residents can meaningfully participate in elections, and in the governmental process,” said Normandy, in a letter suggesting councilmembers will address the issue more fully next month.
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Note to readers: this article has been amended to reflect the Harbor District's reasoning for considering the change to by-district elections.