Given that the provisions of the Voting Rights Act adopted by the State legislature in 2001 result in judicially imposed district elections under almost any circumstances, if a lawsuit is filed, supporting at large elections feels like speaking into the wind. However, the League needs to decide whether or not to keep to its current position. In the interest of good governance and better representation for all citizens, I urge the League to maintain that position.
In addition, if what I hear is currently being discussed in the state legislature is correct, imposition of district elections on all California cities above a certain size, the matter of a position pro or con may be moot.
When the subject of district elections came before the council earlier this year I did a bit of research. As a result of the settlement of a lawsuit, the city of Modesto shifted from at large elections to district elections in 2009. (Modesto’s population is about 204,000. White only is 49%; Latino, 36%; 19% other races.)
Five of the current councilmembers are white and two are Latino. (One is a woman.) I called the mayor’s office to ask if the council had been lily-white before the change.
As a result of explaining why I was calling, I had a chat with the mayor’s very forth-coming secretary. She said that she was a Latina and that she was “disappointed for the city” with the settlement. She believes Latinos now have less influence since they can only vote for one council candidate and cannot affect the other council races. “Why would anyone give up their right to vote for all the council seats to vote for just one?” she asked.
When I spoke with the mayor he told me that the Modesto city councils had been “male, pale and stale”. (He’s male and pale. He didn’t comment on whether he is stale or not.) He supported the change because of the cost of elections.
Santa Barbara’s history is quite different. Its council has not been all male, pale and stale.
In 1968 the voters of the City of Santa Barbara voted to end the then current district system in exchange for election at-large of all City councilmembers.
The League of Women Voters, which strongly supported the change away from the district system, commented:
1. City councilmembers elected at large rather than from separate districts while aware of local problems make their decisions based on the needs of the entire community.
2. The chances are better for well-qualified candidates — and more of them — to seek office when unhampered by artificial district boundaries.
3. Citizens represented at large have access to six members of council rather than one.
4. Under the district system a voter cast a ballot for only one councilmember every four years. A city council elected at-large gives each citizen the opportunity to vote for three members every two years.
5. District representation tends to lead to decisions made not on their merits but on the basis of “swapping support” (“You vote for what I want or I won’t vote for what you want.”)
These comments are still valid.
The worst part of district elections was that except for the mayor there wasn’t anyone much concerned about the city as a whole. The big issues are not just related to individual parts of the city. Planning is citywide, and considers each area in relation to others. Some of the big issues that have come before the city may physically affect only part of the city, such as completion of the freeway and downtown revitalization, but these need to be considered as part of the city as a whole.
By the way, one issue often mentioned as indicating the need for councilmembers elected at large is the missing bridge on Cacique street. The implication is that if there was a councilmember for that district, the vehicle bridge long since would have been replaced. The capital improvement budget was before the Planning Commission last Thursday, and when I saw that a new pedestrian bridge was proposed to replace the existing pedestrian bridge where the vehicle bridge had been on Cacique, I said that I understood that people in the neighborhood wanted the vehicle bridge replaced. Especially given that Cacique now connects directly with Milpas under the freeway this seemed to be something that should be done.