Viewpoint - July 28, 2010

Guest opinion: County ignores voting rights act

by Henry Organ

As a member of the county's charter review committee, I am very familiar with the job the Board of Supervisors asked us to consider during our deliberations, which began in January of this year and was completed June 23.

From my perspective, our charge from the supervisors was centered heavily on two letters to the board from the county's Civil Grand Jury of 2008-2009. One letter pertained to the county's election system for supervisors and the second to filling vacancies.

What was not adequately addressed by the charter review committee in recommendations to the supervisors is this pivotal question: Is the county's "at large" election system in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001?

(The public is urged to read the 2008-2009 Civil Grand Jury's letter to the supervisors, dated June 20, 2009, entitled: "Grand Jury support for district elections for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors." It may be found on the county's website for the Charter Review Committee under "Charter Review Committee Materials," tab 5C.)

Supporters of the "at large" system in use today have noted that this system has been endorsed by a majority of the county's voters in 1978, and again in 1980. Obviously, much has changed in the last 30 years, particularly ethnic demographics, and passage of the voting rights act just nine years ago.

In its letter, the grand jury requests the supervisors to take into account a court case that pertains to the legality/constitutionality of "at large" elections. This case was filed in 2008 on behalf of three Latino citizens against a California school district that had "at large" elections. Of this school district's seven trustees, only one was Latino; and, only one Latino had been elected to the board in the last quarter-century. (Over 40 percent of the voting population was Latino.) The plaintiffs stated that the "at large" system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The judge ordered the school district to implement a "by district" election system, and the school sought not to appeal.

According to 2000 census data, over 20 percent of the population in San Mateo County were Latino, and the same percentage for Asians. It is reasonable to project that these percentages have increased in the last 10 years, and in the same three districts. Yet, the election of Asians and Latinos to the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County is disappointingly similar to the school district cited above while under an "at large" voting system. A review of nine elections in the 1990s in San Mateo County shows that two districts account for approximately half or more of the voter turnout; and these districts are not where there is the highest representation of Latinos and Asians.

Just as disturbing, the problem extends beyond the Board of Supervisors in this county. During the deliberations of the charter review committee, elected, former elected and appointed county-wide officials were invited to make presentations. Not one of the elected and former elected county officials who appeared were people of color; the only person of color who was invited to appear was in a county appointed position. This parade of county officials was ironic and embarrassing evidence of possible voting rights infractions in San Mateo County's "at large" system.

As further apparent evidence of the board's insensitivity or negligence on issues of representation and diversity was a lack of diversity in the composition of the charter committee. Each supervisor was able to appoint two individuals. I was privileged to be one. However, I was the only person of color out of the 10. In addition, six organizations were selected by the supervisors to have a representative on the committee. There were no organizations among the six in which their corporate mission is serving Latino or Asian communities, two major communities in the county. Thus, from my perspective, the charter review committee was not instructed, or constructed, by the supervisors to address the fundamental and pivotal voting rights issues presented by the grand jury over a year ago.

Nevertheless, I would extend the highest praise to the 2008-2009 Civil Grand Jury for its effort to serve and alert the county to these important voting rights issues. The supervisors' rejection of the charter committee's recommendation to place the election system on the ballot in November does not remove the cancer. While some may boast of the current "at large" system, and interests in "regionalism," neither should be at the expense of voting rights of individual citizens.

Henry Organ is a Menlo Park resident.


Posted by Steve Schmidt, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 31, 2010 at 7:36 am

Abundant thanks to Henry Organ for criticizing the San Mateo County Supervisors for their recent decision not to put the district election issue on the November ballot. Once again he has managed to cut through the blather of self congratulation by the four supervisors who have never had to run a competitive contest for their seats on the Board.

They apparently do not have much confidence in the County's voters to pick qualified representatives, preferring instead the unions, political consultants, developers and the North County machine to perpetuate their careers.

Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2010 at 9:29 am

Thank You, Henry Organ for your time served and saying it like it is.
I attended several meetings including the first where I said " This is the whitest group of people I've seen." "This group does not represent the San Mateo County I know." I was talking about the handpicked 16 member Charter Review Committee.

Thank You, Henry for being the only member of the committee to speak up and remind the committee about the Grand Jury Report as they were being lead down a different path.

There is a small group of SMC people who don't seem to care what the Grand Jury thinks, They just happen to be our Supervisors.

Short List: Mark Church, Rose J. Gibson, Adrienne Tissier, Carole Groom, don't forget Jerry Hill

Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2010 at 3:22 pm

This was published 7/30/2010 on the SMDJ website version of the paper but not in print version for some unknown reason, maybe not enough space, I waited to see if it was print version today it was not.

Not to be trusted
July 30, 2010, 02:52 AM By Sean Foote

Voters cannot be trusted, according to the Board of Supervisors. Voters will not decide how to hire our Board of Supervisors. Voters will not be asked how to hire an investor for our $2.8 billion county investment fund. Contrary to the recommendations of both the civil grand jury and the 2010 San Mateo Charter Review Committee, the supervisors have decided for us.
Voters are prohibited from deciding whether supervisors should be elected "at-large" or "by district." Through six months, 13 meetings, 600 document pages and 75 public speakers, the charter committee debated and analyzed the relative merits of at-large elections versus district elections. Let me save your eyes 30 hours of meeting video: neither system is perfect. District advocates claim better local representation. At-large advocates claim better governing for the common good. Both are right. From city council to the U.S. Congress, this is the tension of representative democracy. Regardless of which system you favor, your opinion doesn't matter. The issue will not be on the ballot this November. Despite being trusted with the decision in 1978 and 1980, modern voters are perhaps perceived as not responsible enough to decide how best to hire the Board of Supervisors. Your Board of Supervisors knows best how to hire themselves. Voters are also prohibited from deciding whether to appoint a professional or elect a politician to manage the $2.8 billion investment account of San Mateo County. The charter committee and grand jury both recommended that financial positions be appointed, similar to other technical positions like county counsel and county manager.
The county's $2.8 billion in investments is $11,000 per county household and more investments than some Fortune 500 companies. You wouldn't hire money managers based on campaign mailers and stump speeches. Neither would the Fortune 500. Our elected money managers lost $155 million last year versus the $1 million lost by the appointed treasurer in Santa Clara County. Whether you prefer election or appointment of the county's financial heads, it doesn't matter. Your opinion will not be asked. The supervisor's lack of trust in voters, the grand jury, and the charter committee, should be enough to invoke action in us, to demand our votes be counted. If not, if we do nothing, then the Board of Supervisors might be right. Maybe we aren't to be trusted.

Sean Foote is the chairman of the 2010 San Mateo County Charter Review Committee.

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