Jon Mays with beard

The idea of district elections is to increase participation and make it easier for traditionally underrepresented groups to run for office and win since the geographic area would be smaller.

For too long, the amount of money to win election in some small cities has grown to high, and this is a way to lower the barrier for entry.

One of the drawbacks, however, is that citizens lose their ability to vote for more than one representative on a council since they can only vote for the one seat. In San Mateo, for instance, someone who lives in the Fiesta Gardens neighborhood would only be able to vote for one representative on the council and not your favorite someone who lives in Baywood or North Central. So, in a way, it limits representation.

One way to partially ameliorate this is to have an at-large mayor who represents the entire city. This way, citizens who are used to voting for all five members of the council at different times, can at least have two people for whom to vote — their district representative and the mayor. It would also serve to provide San Mateo with one regional presence, an at-large mayor who could elevate the city in big discussions and would become the go-to person for such matters.

There are potential downsides as well, and I’ll get to those in a bit. But you might be wondering why we are talking about this in the first place. The California Voting Rights Act passed in 2001, and was intended to make it easier for minorities to get representation at local levels of government. Rather than rely on an established timeline, it relies on attorneys to send letters requesting governmental entities begin the process. And that movement has grown in recent years. Put simply, district elections are here and there is little use in fighting it.

Most entities go through a long process in drawing up maps. In Redwood City, one councilmember even supported a map that drew her out of running again. Here in San Mateo, the process began this summer and there will be a discussion again Monday about options. The easiest option is to simply divide up the city by five regions and go from there. Other options include expanding the number of councilmembers and creating smaller districts. Another would be to have an at-large mayor who could serve from any neighborhood, and that person could have term limits based on whatever the council decides and what voters decide since any change would need approval at the ballot.

An at-large mayor would still have one vote on the council but would run the meetings and be known as the top elected official in the city. This person could serve as a facilitator and have the talent to provide support and coalesce divergent viewpoints. An at-large mayor is not the same as what big cities have in which the mayor serves as the executive. Having an appointed city manager to run operations would remain. The mayoral term could be limited.

One downside to an at-large mayor is that the person may come from a neighborhood with an established power base, and that already has sufficient representation. There could be some discussion of campaign finance reform to limit the amount of money needed to run for office. It used to be one could run for city council for about $15,000, now $30,000 is doing it on the cheap and it can easily run into the six figures.

Another downside is that the current system of rotating a mayor allows for diversity of leadership amongst the council. With everyone getting a turn as mayor, the council theoretically gets stronger and more involved. But there have been times someone on the council does a less than stellar job as mayor and that affects how meetings are run and how priorities are established. It also has larger regional implications.

So far, the idea of an at-large mayor doesn’t seem to have a groundswell of support. Change can be difficult. But San Mateo is a growing and dynamic city, which sometimes suffers from not having enough established players on the regional stage. San Mateo County gets overshadowed by its more notable neighbors and having a steady presence from its namesake city can only help in that regard. It is worth discussing the possibility of an at-large mayor and other changes to address any concerns that could arise. After all, it might be a change worth doing.

Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.

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(3) comments


Like the thinking and for me, can not resolve these points:

#1, this would add another layer to our municipal management hierarchy, which can see both adding more contention and delays into too many committees with 'analysis paralysis' cycles.

#2, One should be able to assume (always dangerous) that the current setup for mayor, would have that mayor unbiased to any neighborhood, but be the 'Mayor for the whole city'...but this becomes circular because they are human with opinions based on their values...which has shown to favor certain areas of the city over others

#3, too much to risk for now, if ever and just keep the system we have, but maybe add language to make sure the whole city is the mayors vision


Forgot to add another item and is this new mayor position a volunteer or paid position?

If paid, then how much in order to make it worth someone’s time to take this on full time. How much power will they have vs city manager & council?

If not paid, then how many hours minimum will be required to do the job as described in the job description, which MUST include the powers that position have.

Will they need to go to the city manager for approval? Council for a majority vote?

Bottom line is : what is the decision tree or truth table this new position need to follow in order to get anything done ?

Then staffing…will the city clerk now have two bosses ? Ditto other city staff…

Does this full time mayor now have powers to enter into agreements without the council and city manager involved? If not, then this position is powerless and just a figurehead.


Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue. I think district elections will allow residents access to the levers of control in their community. One important, and so far overlooked problem with the rotating mayor system combined with district elections is that the mayor will have been elected by a small minority of voters.

Personally I think it makes sense to have an At large elected Mayor, with a 2 or 4 year term. I would also prefer they are separate from the city council to provide some checks and balances.



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