Almanac

News - September 4, 2013

Should Menlo change council elections?

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Park, like most cities of similar size, elects at-large council members — in this case, five — that represent the entire city. But Vice Mayor Ray Mueller, serving his first term on the council, is wondering whether that leaves some areas of the community under-represented.

During a discussion about Belle Haven on Aug. 20, he suggested taking a look at the merits of electing three council members by district and two members at-large.

"If we did a hybrid system, it would give us the opportunity to have the best of both systems," he later told the Almanac. "People would run based on the strength of their relationship with their neighbors and community. There would never be an area that would somehow be able to say, our voice isn't included. From time to time you hear that complaint in Menlo Park — that no one is looking out for (a specific neighborhood), even though the council is, I assure you."

Mr. Mueller also thought it would make it easier for elected officials to stay in touch. "As a newly elected official, I'm learning there's only so much time to get around the city and learn about the issues. It's much easier to reach an individual in your district and talk to them about what's going on."

He emphasized that he wasn't proposing a change, only that the city consider the idea.

It's not a new thought for some of his colleagues on the dais. Councilman Rich Cline said he had campaigned on the idea six years ago, thinking that Belle Haven would never get a representative until the city broke the elections down into districts.

"I also thought seven council members would make the districting easier. But that requires more lifting," Mr. Cline said. "The idea to have a district is interesting, but I am not sure it is completely fair after further review. You either district the city or you don't. You don't district one area and then leave the rest at large. It just creates pockets where representation will be starved elsewhere."

He said he was all for breaking Menlo Park into districts, with perhaps some larger than others and needing two elected representatives.

The latest discussion about districting Menlo Park arose during the Aug. 20 council meeting as city officials discussed the results of the Belle Haven visioning process; the consultants' report indicated that community members would like to see a seat on the council reserved for a Belle Haven representative.

When Carolyn Clarke ran in 2012, she was the first council candidate from Belle Haven since Billy Ray White about 25 years ago.

While Mr. Mueller thought that the neighborhood may not be large enough to constitute a district by itself, Belle Haven could be incorporated into one of three districts, he said.

Campaigning within a district rather than city-wide "empowers people to run. That makes it attainable. It's a lot less expensive," Mr. Mueller noted.

According to City Attorney Bill McClure, changing Menlo Park's election landscape would require an ordinance approved by voters.

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