Almanac

Viewpoint - September 11, 2013

Editorial: Menlo election districts deserve a look

Is the largely minority community of Belle Haven in eastern Menlo Park represented fairly by a city council that is elected at large and has not included a Belle Haven resident since Billy Ray White served and was mayor about 25 years ago?

Although a good case can be made that Belle Haven has hardly been shortchanged when it comes to city spending, the neighborhood has not had a locally elected council member to advocate on its behalf for many years.

Forming districts to elect Menlo Park City Council members could change that. The idea was kicked around for a few minutes last month while the council was discussing the results of the recently completed Belle Haven visioning process. Consultants reported that a survey of residents found that some community members want to have a Belle Haven seat on the council. During the November election Belle Haven resident Carolyn Clarke ran for a council seat, but she was solidly defeated by Sharon Heights resident Catherine Carlton and Ray Mueller, who lives on Santa Cruz Avenue.

The issue of minority representation was front and center in the November decision by San Mateo County voters; they approved Measure B, which finally throws out the at-large process that has been used for years to elect the five supervisors. Supervisors have always had to live in the district they represent, and now, with the new law, residents will be able to vote only for the supervisor running in their own district. It is a huge change but a major step toward giving voters an opportunity to elect the supervisor who will represent their own district. Now county voters will see more locally oriented campaigns, and candidates will find it less expensive and more convenient to campaign in a much smaller area.

The at-large elections for Menlo Park City Council could be challenged for the same reason — that minority residents are unable to elect a candidate who could represent them on the council. Currently, all council members except Mayor Peter Ohtaki are white, and all five live west of Highway 101.

During the Belle Haven discussion, council member Mueller mused that one way to get the benefit of both at-large and geographical election districts would be to use a hybrid system, with three members elected by district and two at large.

"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," Mr. Mueller said.

It is not difficult to see how district elections would bring city government much closer to constituents, and not only in Belle Haven. The Willows, west Menlo Park and Sharon Heights all have their issues and sometimes they can be overlooked by council members who are more focused on the big picture. And as Mr. Mueller said, "campaigning in a district rather than at-large "empowers people to run. That makes it attainable. It's a lot less expensive," he said.

This concept deserves more study. The council should appoint a subcommittee to take a serious look at the pros and cons of district council elections. City Attorney Bill McClure said a district election plan would have to be approved by voters.

In our view, district elections would sharpen interest in all neighborhoods about the direction of the city. More candidates would emerge who otherwise would not be electable in outlying districts. And if a Belle Haven district were created, it would almost guarantee that a person from that community would become a member of the council.

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