Viewpoint - March 17, 2010

Guest opinion: Supervisor election model fine the way it is

by Nita Spangler

In the belief that the election of San Mateo County supervisors would be improved — less expensive and more enervated with more office seekers — an appeal is being made to the 2010 Charter Review Committee to change the present at-large election of five county supervisors to election by district. The Almanac in an editorial has already joined the call for changes to district elections, even though the Review Committee has not met beyond organizing itself.

Changing voting and representation would be a big decision — divisive and contentious. If it happens, every voter in San Mateo County will lose his/her vote for four of the supervisors. You now vote for all five and they are all accountable to you and everyone. In the district plan, you vote for one supervisor who is the only one of the Board of Supervisors accountable to you. No supervisor would be accountable to every voter. Is disenfranchisement a good thing?

This matter recalls 75 years ago when San Mateo County had a reputation as one of the most corrupt. Any three supervisors could corner countywide control. Each supervisor was a road commissioner, with road superintendent, road foreman and five equipment yards. With patronage, friendships brought free driveways.

District elections were eliminated after citizens in 1931 used state enabling legislation to write a charter, organizing as Freeholders. They acquired new working offices in a courthouse built by the federal Public Works Administration with funds that paid for Depression-era jobs. They also approved the position of county manager that would bring experience and skills to departments with job descriptions and qualified staffing.

After several false starts, the new charter was adopted in 1934. When the new courthouse annex was ready, an IBM Hollarith machine, a pre-Silicon Valley pioneer, was rolled in for efficiencies. A recently retired army engineer became county engineer and was ready for work when more federal funds were available for the Bayshore Freeway and Woodside Road.

Reformed government with the right man for county manager was in place for the great growth explosion that came after the end of World War II.

Experienced managers have served the county through prosperous and lean years. They deserve much credit. The public expects and watches, sometimes volunteering with help. Elected and appointed officials assume responsibility prescribed by law. The county manager is usually the one to organize and see that things work, and that most everyone is somewhat satisfied or may even happy about the results of everything that the county does, from overseeing hospitals to pothole repair.

Now is a bad time to think about changing the stressed but still well-run San Mateo County government. Electing supervisors by district would certainly bring more disputes, more contentiousness, more costs and new alignments. Without a massive change, minor repairs are available for legitimate complaints.

Supervisor Richard S. Gordon, who is retiring due to term limits, has already told the Charter Review Committee of the wide range of business before county government. This past weekend, a San Francisco newspaper described its city-county government with district elections in that city in an article headlined: "We need a better way to run the city." It said, in part:

"The district [election] magnifies the neighborhood and tight-knit interest groups to produce officeholders with little stake in citywide questions." Calling the 11 supervisors, "small-time politicos, the writer continues, "...The system is producing too much small-time drama and not enough big-picture results."

That is good advice from the county from which we were split in 1854. San Mateo County, with its 447 square miles, needs to keep its eye on the big picture. Our boundaries are in oceanfront, San Francisco Bay and two of the state's most populated cities. Our government is working well. It's a good government even if our money is going to Sacramento.

Best yet, now you can vote for everything.

Nita Spangler, a journalist and longtime observer of county government, lives in Redwood City.


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