With a 3-1 vote on June 19, the Menlo Park City Council agreed to bring the following yes-or-no question to city voters in November:
"Shall the charter be adopted making the City of Menlo Park a charter city so that the laws of the City of Menlo Park shall prevail over state law only with respect to two municipal affairs: elections and term limits?"
Making Menlo Park a charter city would give it flexibility, where now it has none, to pursue an alternative voting system.
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith spoke in favor of a charter measure, saying it was an appropriate step to better enable local government control.
Councilman Rich Cline was absent.
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller voted against the motion not because he opposes the city becoming a charter city, he said, but because he prefers to start the charter process with a more public process, and bring a more fully fledged charter before voters.
"There's no reason to do it now," he said.
He also withheld support because he believes the question to be misleading, he said.
"Municipal law for a Charter City doesn't trump the California Voters Rights Act," Mueller said in a written statement.
Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver argued that there are some aspects of elections that cities can control over the state, though. Other neighboring charter cities are Redwood City, San Mateo and Palo Alto.
Adding the measure to the ballot is expected to cost the city between $19,900 and $23,800, according to a staff report.
What's the plan?
The specifics of changing the city's election system are complex, and more than twice, the exculpatory refrain "I'm no lawyer, but..." was heard over the public-comment mike and from the dais. (And even the lawyers in the room agreed that the regulations are confusing.)
The biggest point of confusion during the discussion was that there appears to be no sense for how the city's election system would change if Menlo Park does become a charter city.
Since last August, when the city was threatened with a lawsuit unless it switched to district elections, there have been public discussions about what other reforms to the city's election system might make sense.
Advocates from nonpartisan election reform groups, such as Jennifer Pae from FairVote California and Steve Chessin from Californians for Election Reform, in past months spoke publicly in Menlo Park informing residents about the potential benefits of alternative voting systems, like ranked-choice or cumulative voting.
Those options, however, are available only to charter cities. Menlo Park is currently what's called a "general law" city, which means it's governed by a more standard, inflexible municipal constitution. Becoming a charter city would give it more flexibility to pursue alternative voting systems.
At one point, there was discussion of potentially creating a "hybrid" voting system, in which the city's historically underrepresented area, Belle Haven, would be guaranteed a council member, while the rest of the city would be elected at-large. But that would reopen the city to potential litigation under the California Voting Rights Act, because residents would get different voting opportunities depending on where they live, City Attorney Bill McClure explained. Belle Haven residents would get to vote only on one council person, while other city residents would get to vote on the remaining four council members – which would hardly be fair, he pointed out.
If Menlo Park voters pass the measure in November, the City Council would then create a charter review committee, according to stipulations the council also approved June 19.
The committee would be an 11-member body appointed by the council, made up of two residents from each city district, with one at-large member. The council also expressed a preference that committee members have experience serving the city in some capacity.
Once a committee is appointed, it could then work through potential changes to the city's charter. Changes would have to be adopted by voters in a general municipal election, meaning during even-year November elections only.
As part of this measure, Menlo Park voters will also be asked to weigh in on term limits.
Under the proposed term restrictions, people would be eligible to sit on the City Council for up to three consecutive four-year terms. Terms of two or more years would count as full terms.
There would be no lifetime limit – if a resident were to sit out a term after maxing out with three terms, he or she would be eligible to run again. And people would not be able to move to different districts to circumvent the term limits.
Since 2000, Menlo Park council members' average length of time in office has been 6.25 years.
Pam Jones and Lynne Bramlett, members of the public who have attentively followed the city's election reform process, expressed reservations that the proposed charter was not specific enough in how it limited the city's powers to shape election policy.
McClure rebutted the assertion, arguing: "This would probably be the most limited charter that any city has adopted that we've seen ... This is really pretty minimal."
Previous Almanac coverage:
● February 21: Menlo Park: City charter measure wins council support