Viewpoint - July 28, 2010

Guest opinion: Supervisors accountable to all county residents

By Rose Jacobs Gibson

Whether members of the Board of Supervisors should be elected by district or at large is an issue that many of us have wrestled with for some time. After much thought and consideration, I believe the residents of this county are best served by at-large elections. It is why I voted not to place a measure on our ballot to change the current system.

When members of the board are elected at large, they represent the interests of all residents in the county, not just the interests of the residents in their own district. All five board members are therefore accountable to all voters, not just a subset of voters in their respective districts. This countywide accountability is significant.

Why is this so important? Most board decisions affect residents of the entire county. For example, the board decides how the county should provide healthcare and housing services, transportation improvements, and whether or not there should be a new jail. The board also determines land use in the unincorporated areas throughout the county. Moreover, the board decides how money from all county taxpayers should be spent. These critical decisions affect not just the residents within one district. Each decision has a potential impact upon all residents.

Decisions made by the board are not only diverse in terms of subject matter, but are also complex and layered with competing factors. An at-large election typically attracts candidates who have widespread public service experience and who, consequently, have experience making difficult policy decisions. From my term on the board, I have learned to appreciate that first and foremost, board members must have a complete county perspective to make informed and reasonable decisions.

I respect all of the arguments presented on both sides of the issue, and appreciate the excellent report provided by the Charter Review Committee. In making my decision, I considered them all. I understand some believe that a district system would result in a board member's accountability to the residents of his or her district. The fact is, however, that over the course of my 12 years representing District 4, I have always made myself completely accessible to the residents of District 4. My colleagues have done the same with regard to the residents of their districts. And, we are all open and willing to meet with any resident throughout the county.

I am sensitive to the argument that having elections by district would increase opportunities for persons who wish to run for election. I strongly support expanding opportunities for those who desire to serve in public office. This is why I endorsed the call of the Charter Review Committee for the board to explore public financing and campaign finance reform, and alternative voting systems such as ranked voting.

Some question why I did not vote to place the matter on the ballot, despite my belief that the current system of electing members of the board is the best system. Our county charter amendment process calls for the board to make a determination as to whether or not a measure is placed on the ballot to change the charter. Under this process, it is my responsibility to determine whether a change is needed, and to then act accordingly. I, along with the majority of our board, determined that no change was needed. I believe the current at-large system provides the best representation for San Mateo County and its residents.

Rose Jacobs Gibson is a member of the Board of Supervisors representing District 4, which includes Redwood City and Menlo Park.


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