Millbrae, as part of its switch to district elections, will need to decide whether to draw five districts with a councilmember to represent each and the title of mayor rotating among them, or four districts with the mayor elected at-large to represent the whole city. 

The decision is a key step in the process kicked off last month to divide the city into sections for the purpose of electing members of the City Council. The city held a hearing on the undertaking this week in which members of the public expressed split views on the future mayoral role, as well other opinions on the districting process.

Currently all councilmembers are elected at-large, and the title of mayor is passed annually among them. If that arrangement were kept with the switch to district elections, the mayor would then also be elected only by a single district. 

“I think it’s very important to have at least one of our elected officials represent the entire city and keep the interests of the entire city in mind,” Nathan Chan, a Millbrae resident who spoke in favor of at-large mayoral elections, said.  

The City Council has yet to weigh in on the subject, but will need to provide direction on the issue by Dec. 8 to allow enough time for maps to be drawn and decided on ahead of the March 1 deadline for adoption. 

Similar to Millbrae, many California cities have or are in the process of converting to district-based election in response to legal exposure relating to the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA, which generally requires cities to make the switch to bolster minority group’s abilities to elect their representatives of choice.

Half Moon Bay in 2018 moved away from the rotating mayor arrangement with its switch to district elections and Belmont is currently eyeing a similar move. Other cities in the county switching to district elections have opted to keep the rotating mayor system, including Burlingame and San Mateo. San Bruno, the only city in the county to not rotate the title prior to 2018, is currently moving to district elections and has contemplated moving to a rotating mayor.

Some members of the public during Wednesday’s hearing said Millbrae’s rotating mayor system, which has been in place for decades, should remain.

“There’s no real reason to make a change,” Millbrae resident Jean Wong said. “By having a rotation process we are able to develop new leadership, develop more experience for future leaders.”

Among other issues discussed during Wednesday’s hearing was the CVRA’s requirement to not divide “communities of interest” between districts. Communities of interest for the sake of the law are generally ethnic groups, but can also be groups with other shared interests or experiences, like those who rent versus own homes.

Callers pointed out that Millbrae, with city limits encompassing roughly three square miles, is integrated in terms of its ethnic makeup and largely does not contain segregated neighborhoods. The city of just more than 22,000 is nearly half Asian, 40% white, 11% “Hispanic or Latino” and 1% Black.

For the city’s purposes, a potential community of interest could be those in low lying areas at risk of being affected by flooding and sea level rise, while another could be residents closer to the hills who face greater risks from fires, a caller pointed out.

Most agreed that districts should avoid dividing neighborhoods as much as possible. The CVRA requires districts to be roughly equal in population size and be contiguous and compact, not meandering or assuming complex shapes. 

Two in-person workshops will be held Dec. 4 and Dec. 18 at 623 Magnolia Ave. in the city’s temporary recreation center. The workshops will provide access to computers with districting software for public use. 

Two more public hearings will be held Jan. 11 and Jan. 25, and the city hopes to adopt a map during a meeting Feb. 22.

Go to configuremillbrae.org for more information on the process or to submit feedback.

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