Viewpoint - July 21, 2010

Guest opinion: Why county needs district elections

by Maryann Moise Derwin

Here's a message for my friends on the Board of Supervisors in response to the decision to block voters from determining how supervisors are elected: Are you kidding?

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.


Posted by Miss Woodside, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 24, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Hear hear. Watch out for your government or you will get the government you deserve....which is happening RIGHT NOW. Shame on this Board of Supervisors.....Shame on them.

Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

Well said Maryann Moise Derwin.

One other little expense to run for Supervisor is the Candidate statement, in the last election there were 5 of us running the cost for 200 word statement $7960.00 I ran without one.

Shame on:
Mark Church, Rose Gibson, Adrienne Tissier and Carole Groom have consistently voted against what is best for the Voters of San Mateo County.

Mark Church recently violated his OATH to serve 4 year term as Supervisor and now starts his new job that pays $174,000 plus instead of $85,000 plus. He has refused to resign so the voters can fill his position and save $1,600,000. I have reason to believe the Supervisors are going to appoint again they have NO SHAME.

Service League of San Mateo County go to About Us look at the Advisory Board.
Mark, Rose, Adrienne and Carole are on it now go to SMC Website and see what Boards and Committees these 4 Supervisors list........No Service League

Welcome to San Mateo County

Posted by digusted, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 26, 2010 at 7:53 am

I've heard the supervisors' arguments for keeping the status quo, and they are laughable. This system of government by a political machine that chooses our supervisors for us has got to go. Voters should let their anger be known. Write the four supervisors who ignored the recommendation of the task force and tell them they need to reconsider this and do the right thing. Their resistence to a much needed change that supports the democratic process is unacceptable.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 26, 2010 at 8:16 am

disgusted states:"Voters should let their anger be known."

That is why we have elections and NONE of thee current supervisors who voted against giving the citizens the right to decide on district elections should be re-elected. Now is the time to identify GOOD candidates who will serve the citizens and not simply pursue their selfish interests. To be elected Good candidates need to build networks of citizen support and to develop strong name recognition.

Posted by tired of the status quo, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

Yes, Peter, that's why we have elections. But a huge problem right now is that the system is rigged in a way that getting these folks out of office is almost impossible. Even though there are term limits, the power brokers who have controlled the process for decades hand-pick the successors to the termed-out supes, then throw the money behind them to make sure they're elected.

The public should demand that the supervisors put this issue on the agenda for reconsideration, and then demand that they abide by the recommendation of the charter committee and let the voters decide whether to change the system. It is broken and corrupt.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 26, 2010 at 11:24 am

Tired of the status quo states:"The public should demand that the supervisors put this issue on the agenda for reconsideration"

IF the public really cares then they could put this on the ballot by a citizens' initiative.

Posted by Fiscal conservative, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Sadly, the County Supes' decision makes inevitable the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights' lawsuit against San Mateo COunty, as the last county in the State to have at large and not district elections. This is the same group that knocked down a similar practice in Madera Couty which was the second to last to deny district elections.

At a time of severe budget deficits for out County, this decision is an outrage not only to principles of democracy but also to every taxpayer. The Supes who voted to maintain the status quo should be forced to pay for costs related to the lawsuit from their own salaries since they were the ones who could and SHOULD have avoided such costs in the first place.

Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jul 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Mark Church, and Rich Gordon are moving on at the end of this year so what do they care about the taxpayers. That leaves Rose Gibson and Carole Groom who were APPOINTED and Adrienne Tissier who was recently quoted "Democracy is expensive." I think she meant campaigning and mailers are expensive.

Welcome to San Mateo County

Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jul 26, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Board of Supervisor meeting July 27, 2010 9:00 AM

Posted by Gunther Steinberg, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jul 26, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Our vaunted system of "representative government"ha snot been that for a very long time. The two major parties collude in gerrymandering districts for Congress and the local organization are a closed system that selects candidates and backs them with enough funds to keep outsiders away from any position of government power. Congress is controlled by the army of lobbyists and local government is not immune from pressures of business and corporate donors. "The People" are not the power, and government "for the people, by the people" has been an illusion for a long time. - Cynical but true.
Truth in government is usually covered up unless complimentary. Just look at the upset over the Wikileaks on Afghanistan. Embarrassing and reality are never welcomed by those in charge, government or corporate. - Whistleblowers of the world unite and do your stuff.

Posted by Puzzled By All This, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 26, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Will someone please tell me what is wrong with County Supervisors being electe "at large"? Our U.S. President is elected by all the states and our Govornor by all the counties. That's certainly "at large. So why can't our supervisors be elected by all the districts within our county? Actually, it seems to me, this current method prevents some small faction from electing their own supervisor rather than one that would serve the entire county. Maybe that's the rub. Are all the at-large critics eager to inset their own fellow on our board? Let's hear it from the pro-at-large group!

Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 26, 2010 at 9:07 pm


you are comparing apples and oranges. a more apt comparison is that of congress persons. They are elected by district. the governor is the apt comparison for the elction of the president. The governor is not elected by district. But, you knew that.

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