San Mateo has declared its intention to move away from at-large to district elections, with the council citing the high cost of potential lawsuits if it doesn’t begin the transition.

Councilmember Joe Goethals said San Mateo had a diverse council representative of the community but noted a lawsuit citing California Voting Rights Act violations could cost the city millions and result in staff job losses, a risk he was unwilling to take.

“I think that San Mateo, in our current form, we are doing a good job to represent our constituents very well, but the way that this law is written makes it very difficult for us to go up against this lawsuit,” Goethals said.

The city May 24 received a letter from attorney Scott Rafferty alleging that the city’s current at-large election system violations the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA, with the letter citing concern about a lack of diverse candidates in council elections. A previous staff report noted the letter could be a precursor to an outside lawsuit alleging a CVRA violation. Many cities and agencies sued under the CVR have lost legal challenges and have paid millions in litigation fees.

The costs of a potential lawsuit drove several councilmembers’ decision-making in deciding to pass a resolution to pursue district elections at its June 21 meeting.

Councilmember Diane Papan said the council was making a business decision, noting a part of its job is to be fiscal stewards.

“I think that this decision has to be made to adopt a resolution because of how difficult it would be to fight something like this, how expensive it would be,” Papan said.

Mayor Eric Rodriguez said the prudent course of action was passing the resolution and thought now was as good a time as ever to have a conversation on elections.

“Our city is not in the state to take a chance on millions of dollars worth of lawsuits,” Rodriguez said.

Cities that have begun discussing changes to district elections include Half Moon Bay, Menlo Park, Pacifica, Redwood City, San Bruno, Millbrae and South San Francisco. Education districts include Redwood City School District, San Mateo Union High School District, Sequoia Union High School District, and the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.

Under the current system, all voters in San Mateo elect the five councilmembers. District elections would see the city divided into districts. Residents would be assigned a district and would pick one councilmember to represent it. The resolution now starts a 90-day process to adopt an ordinance approving a new district election map.

While the process lasts 90 days, under CVRA “safe harbor” procedure, another 90-day extension can be granted if Rafferty agrees to it. The city will request an extension from Rafferty. Both sides have previously indicated a willingness to extend to allow for more public input and to incorporate the 2020 census demographic data released later this year.

Rafferty spoke and thought the process could be a positive experience. When asked about an extension, he indicated his willingness, provided there were some negotiations.

“I am very well disposed to it,” Rafferty said.

Deputy Mayor Rick Bonilla wanted to see an extension agreed upon between the two sides.

“I am very intent on pressing Mr. Rafferty for the extension that was discussed earlier. We will need that because we do need to work with the very newest census data that we can possibly get,” Bonilla said.

Councilmember Amourence Lee praised the council’s diversity and thought it had done a good job representing all of the community. She proposed an ad-hoc committee to help drive public participation across stakeholder groups. She supported adopting the resolution and was uncomfortable gambling potential jobs and city services on a lawsuit.

“I think it would be a fool’s errand,” Lee said.

Bonilla concurred with the council on moving forward with district elections.

“I’m not interested in losing more money fighting something that’s really clear the chances of us prevailing are not good. So [I’m] not interested in hoping for a miracle,” Bonilla said.

Goethals noted San Bruno had an at-large mayor, which is a mayor elected by the whole city. He put forth the idea at the meeting.

“An at-large mayor may be something that we consider in order to better represent our constituents, which I think is part of the purpose here, and that would also allow every resident in San Mateo to vote for at least two of their councilmembers,” Goethals said.

The total cost for the process is around $150,000 to be taken from the general fund. The discussion will continue at the July 6 and Aug. 2 council meetings. If five councilmembers are maintained in district elections, three districts could vote in the November 2022 election. Two districts could then vote in the November 2024 election, called sequencing the elections.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

Note to readers: This story has been changed. It had previously incorrectly listed several Peninsula cities that had received letters. The cities had begun discussing changes to district elections.  

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for visiting the Daily Journal.

Please purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading. To continue, please log in, or sign up for a new account.

We offer one free story view per month. If you register for an account, you will get two additional story views. After those three total views, we ask that you support us with a subscription.

A subscription to our digital content is so much more than just access to our valuable content. It means you’re helping to support a local community institution that has, from its very start, supported the betterment of our society. Thank you very much!