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.