Viewpoint - September 22, 2010

Guest opinion: County's Measure U has fatal flaw

by Henry Organ

The Board of Supervisors has posted measures for the November election. One of them, Measure U, is on a proposed charter amendment. This is of interest to me because I was honored to serve on the 2010 County Charter Review Committee.

Measure U asks voters: "Shall the San Mateo County Charter be amended to require filling of vacancies on the Board of Supervisors by election for vacancies occurring on or before October 15 of the third year of the term, and by election or appointment for vacancies after October 15; and to authorize for vacancies in any county elected office, an all-mailed ballot election, and commencement of the process to fill the vacancy on the date a resignation letter is filed?"

The Board of Supervisors and the Charter Review Committee were asked by the 2008-09 civil grand jury to correct the procedures for filling vacancies on the board. The request is discussed extensively in a memorandum from the grand jury. It is titled: "Appointment vs. Election: How Should the Vacated Board of Supervisor Seats Be Filled?" Measure U is the supervisors' response to the grand jury.

The devil is submerged in what Measure U proposes for filling vacancies occurring "after October 15." Note that Measure U allows for "appointment" to these vacancies. An appointee has the power of incumbency on the ballot, if he or she opts to run in the next election. The grand jury memorandum had concluded that "The power of incumbency is demonstrable and should not be bestowed by an appointment." And, the grand jury noted in its findings that "Since 1980, incumbents seeking re-election have been re-elected 100 percent of the time." Thus, appointees, in effect, become the future office holder in the next election, courtesy of the supervisors. Measure U, if approved, would continue this violation of democratic principles.

If it is necessary for an appointment to be made to fill a vacancy during this short period, the grand jury recommended that the supervisors consider "provisional appointments." Specifically, the grand jury recommended the following:

"If the term for the vacated seat is less than one year, a provisional appointment should be made in which the appointee is prohibited from running for the seat to which she or he was appointed during the next election cycle."

The grand jury's recommendation for vacancies after October 15 has considerable merit; however, it was not accepted by a majority of the Charter Review Committee members. An acceptable alternative to fill a "short-term" vacancy would be someone who has been elected to the position; a "supervisor-elect." Semantically, such a person would not be an appointee, but be requested to begin serving as soon as possible after the vacancy is in effect.

The nation is suffering significant societal harm as a result of irresponsible deregulation of financial institutions. Similarly, political appointments, unless eliminated or tightly regulated, will render significant harm to political institutions nationally, and locally.

The Charter Review Committee did a good job of election chartering for vacancies occurring during the period on or before October 15. Measure U's proposal for filling vacancies by appointment after October 15, however, invites "political incest." As political observers can verify, resignations and appointments can be cleverly timed and orchestrated for appointments. Such appointments give "backdoor" advantages to election for "the anointed." This is a disservice to voters, and to other candidates and possible candidates.

Some supporters of this troublesome appointment provision assert that it grants the supervisors "flexibility," which it is claimed they need. The supervisors have been offered the flexibility they need by the grand jury via provisional appointments, and all-mail balloting.

Measure U is unsatisfactory, undemocratic, unacceptable and undeserving of voter support. San Mateo County can do better than this measure.

Henry Organ was a member of the Charter Review Commission and is a resident of Menlo Park.


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