I'm referring to the Charter Review Committee's recommendation, stemming from a 2009 grand jury report, to place an amendment on the November ballot changing the system of electing supervisors from countywide to district.
The recommendation failed by a vote of 4-1, with Rich Gordon dissenting, the majority giving the metaphoric finger to two independent review boards and effectively closing the door on the people's right to choose their representative. This, with full knowledge that San Mateo County is the only county in the state that does not elect supervisors by district, and by failing to do so, may wind up in court charged with a violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 2001, as did the Madera Unified School District last September. The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights has already put the county on notice.
With 712,000 county residents, a supervisorial candidate must cover a region that surpasses that of a Congressional candidate. To reach a third of the 357,000 registered voters with one mailer costs $60,000. In terms of retail politicking, a candidate must pop up at gatherings from the Daly City Filipino American Friendship Celebration to Portola Valley's Blues & BBQ and everything in between. If this isn't enough to discourage the most determined fresh face for a chance at the plum six-figure-plus-benefits position, the candidate must also grease the skids of the county political power structure, an old boy/girl network not easily accessed by those without deep pockets or good connections.
How much does it cost to run for supervisor? In the current race for the third district seat, front-runner and former county sheriff Don Horsley raised more than $250,000 before the June primary and his runoff opponent, April Vargas, $65,000. Factoring in the upcoming November election, it's anyone's guess as to how high the dollars will go. One thing for sure: the expense of running a countywide campaign severely limits the candidate pool and a grass-roots hopeful, no matter how smart, innovative and capable she may be, faces an uphill battle.
Unlike the current system that benefits incumbents and discourages newcomers (an incumbent has been unseated only once in the past 30 years), district elections, easier to manage and one-fifth of the cost, encourage a more diverse range of candidates, a more focused debate about real local issues, and actual contested elections. (The Horsley-Vargas race is the first competitive contest since 1997. The last five seats were filled without an election.) Facing the voters every four years better assures a supervisor's accountability.
Down here in the hinterlands of South County where, for example, transportation dollars never seem to trickle, district elections might encourage a dark horse to run, giving us a voice at the table. As it is, absent a cache of early Google stock options, a day job in investment banking or entree into the political elite, that candidate will likely remain in the dark. And critical decisions such as the district election question will continue to be made in a manner more reminiscent of 20th century Chicago politics than the open, transparent government we desperately need.
Maryann Moise Derwin is a Portola Valley council member.