As the only one of the state's 58 counties that does not elect its supervisors by district, San Mateo County has been under pressure to reassess its position, which requires supervisors to live in a district but be elected by all county voters.
But last week, supervisors voted 4-1 to turn down a recommendation by a charter committee to place the election issue on the November ballot, thus killing the idea for the foreseeable future.
The problem with this incredibly arrogant decision, which takes away the public's right to weigh in on the matter, is that supervisors have an inescapable and very obvious conflict of interest. If voters decided to support district elections, these sitting supervisors would be much more likely to face spirited local opposition, rather than the often uncontested races that have marked elections for many years.
Only outgoing Supervisor Rich Gordon, who has won the Democratic primary for state Assembly, opposed turning down the vote-by-district measure. He said the "matter really needed to go to the ballot for the citizens to make the decision."
Supervisor Mark Church, who was just elected in an uncontested bid for assessor-clerk-recorder and will take office in January, disagreed. He told the Almanac: "The board has the discretion to make the decisions to not put a particular matter on the ballot. We are elected to make these kinds of decisions."
Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said the charter committee's recommendations are the board's to "accept or reject. I didn't feel the need to change (the election procedures)."
Supervisors must approve any issue that goes on the ballot, but in our view, the charter committee recommendation was different. Its 16 members did yeoman's work, meeting 13 times in a six-month period to study the county's election laws. Its recommendation to put the district election issue to a vote came after its own members voted internally to retain the current system. But despite their own sentiment, the committee urged supervisors to allow voters to make the final decision. The majority on the board would have done well to take its lead from the committee on this matter.
To their credit, the supervisors did agree to put a measure on the ballot that would force an election if a supervisor left office within the first 33 1/2 months of a four-year term. After that, the board could decide to fill the position by an all-mail ballot or by appointment, or to the board could leave the seat vacant until the next election. The process could begin as soon as a resignation letter was submitted.
It is a pity that supervisors did not extend voters the same courtesy to vote on district elections as they did on filling board vacancies. In our view, the public has a right to state its preference on both issues.
One way for supporters of district elections to prevail is to force the question onto the ballot by the initiative process. In our view, the supervisors' action was an incredible affront to the hard-working charter committee, as well as county voters. San Mateo County residents deserve an opportunity to consider electing their supervisors by district. If it's done that way in every other county in the state, the supervisors should investigate why that is and offer the voters a chance to give it serious consideration.