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.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 105

Note to readers: this article has been amended to reflect the Harbor District's reasoning for considering the change to by-district elections. 

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(7) comments

Sabrina Brennan

Press Release: Tuesday, February 27, 2018


SAN MATEO COUNTY— Harbor Commissioners Larenas and Brennan are calling for district elections to save millions in property tax funds currently being wasted on a countywide at-large election system. The Harbor District paid the County $752,490 for the Nov 2017 countywide at-large election. Switching to district elections would improve accountability; increase citizen participation including marginalized communities and lower taxpayer costs.

“It is time to change the Harbor District’s election system to the much more equitable
District Elections.”
—Edmundo Larenas, SMC Harbor Commissioner

“The current countywide at-large system for electing Harbor Commissioners prevents voters from holding incumbents accountable. In Feb 2018, Commissioner Tom Mattusch admitted to sexual misconduct. A countywide recall initiative would
require a staggering number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. The at-large
system blocks the path for removing a commissioner. District elections empower
voters to take action when the public trust is violated.”
—Sabrina Brennan, SMC Harbor Commissioner

At-large elections have been abandoned by many local agencies because they favor
candidates with deep pockets and politically connected incumbents, making it prohibitive for lower-income people and people of color to run successful campaigns. In 2009, the benefits of district elections were supported by the SMC Civil Grand Jury, which issued a formal recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors in favor of district elections. In Nov 2012, the voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to dismantle the at-large elections system for county supervisors. In Oct 2017, the Menlo Park City Council adopted a resolution declaring the intent to transition to district-based elections.

In 2010, Sabrina Brennan first proposed district elections as a way to reduce election costs.

Half Moon Bay Review – July 12, 2010
Resident suggests new format for harbor elections

According to Brennan, lowering the cost would not only relieve the burden on taxpayers but also encourage more qualified candidates to run for board positions.

"I'm concerned about the fact that for people who want to run, like myself … it costs a lot of money," she said, citing it would cost $7,000 for a candidate to place an optional statement onto the voter pamphlet.

It’s time to eliminate at-large elections and comply with the California Voting Rights Act.

Local agencies that have switched to district as a result of CVRA challenges:

• At least 169 school districts
• 32 community college districts
• Over 78 cities including the City of Menlo Park
• San Mateo County Board of Supervisors
• 10 water and other special districts

Due to the significant costs of defending against CVRA lawsuits, the vast majority of local agencies approved voluntarily transitions to district elections.

Examples of settlements:

• Palmdale - $4.7 million
• Anaheim - $1.1 million
• Hanford Joint Union Schools - $118,000
• Madera Unified - about $170,000
• Merced City - $42,000
• Modesto - $3 million plaintiff's attorney fees and $1.7 million for its own lawyers
• Placentia - $20,000
• Santa Barbara - $600,000
• Tulare Hospital - $500,000
• West Covina - $220,000
• Whittier - $1 million

Bringing SMC Harbor District government closer to home would increase countywide awareness about the following:

• Public Harbors and Marinas
• California Coastal Trail and Bay Trail Access
• Wildlife and Marine Environment Education
• Water Quality and Environmental Protection
• Public Transportation to and from District facilities
• Human Powered Vessel Rental and Launch Opportunities
• Commercial Fishing Industry and Sports Fishing
• Ocean and Bay Safety
• Sea Rise Preparedness
• Tsunami Inundation Evacuation Routes

Michael Stogner

This is a No Brainer Vote by District levels the playing field.

SMC citizen

Why do we need a Harbor District at all? get rid of it, let the Mayors take control. reduce costs, downsize Government. who's paying the Malibu attorney? district voting instead of singular voting, whatever benefits the needs of "the people."
How about the US Presidential election? district(electoral) or singular?

John Charles Ullom

We don't need a harbor district. After decades of lousy governance, dumping the district is the best option. Kiraly, Mattusch, and Bernardo vote as they are told by SSF Manager Mike Futrell. Just as did Tucker, Holsinger, Paravano, and all the rest. The SMCHD has been subsidizing the marina at Oyster Point for decades. Go check the place out folks. Docks need replacement. Fuel system is ancient. Parking lots are crumbling. The whole place is built on top of dump that is sinking as the ocean rises.

Unfortunately we are stuck with the SMCHD. Maybe district elections will provide better leadership. Things can hardly be worse.

Christopher Conway

Kevin Shenkman is an out of town carpetbagger who is single handedly robbing us of our voting power. If these agencies fold under the pressure of litigation it will be another win for these liberal attorneys using the threat of a lawsuit. Get a backbone and fight this litigious rat. You will have the support of your community. Just like Robert Rubin suing our county over district elections, I ask that some of our elected officials fight back against these extortionists before giving away the store without a fight.

John Charles Ullom

How would district elections rob you of your voting power? Do have any thoughts on why District Elections would be bad or do you just not like Liberal Rats?

Christopher Conway

I will explain how I was robbed of my voting power John. If you take how we elect our county supervisors, we used to be able to vote for all 5 supervisors. Under district elections, I can now only vote for 1 out of the 5 supervisors. The supervisor in my district. A clear dilution of my voting power wouldn't you agree. Divide and conquer, the San Francisco way.

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