The Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously at an Aug. 13 emergency meeting to reverse its earlier position in support of placing a charter city measure on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would have converted Menlo Park to a charter city, and given it more flexibility in the areas of elections and term limits.
Despite discussing the topic for months, council members voiced concerns that the initiative had the appearance of being "half-baked," to use the words of Mayor Peter Ohtaki.
Council members confirmed their interest in pursuing the charter city option, but agreed to take more time to involve and educate the community. Come fall, they plan to work on appointing a charter committee to explore the topic further.
"Make no mistake. I absolutely believe we should become a charter city," said Councilwoman Catherine Carlton. "My only concern is the process and the timing."
The measure would also have required voters to quickly get up to speed on some arcane election laws, without offering a clear plan for what the city could achieve if it passed.
During the meeting, members of the public gave a mix of reasons for supporting and opposing the charter measure. City Council candidate Ron Shepherd, former Planning Commissioner John Kadvany and East Palo Alto resident Andrew Boone spoke in favor of going forward with the measure, arguing that there are few if any downsides to converting to a charter city because it allows greater local control, and could bolster voters' say in electing whom they want.
"Our districts were foisted upon the city for good reasons – there was an imbalance in who was appearing on the City Council," Kadvany said. "Having done that, our voting process is not one which came from the voting public."
Belle Haven resident Pam Jones said the reconsideration was an "intelligent decision" to broaden public participation on the topic, and Library Commissioner Lynne Bramlett said she felt the process was rushed and based on a "flawed premise."
Bramlett said she felt it was misleading to tie term limits to becoming a charter city; the city can implement them without being a charter – but the matter would have to go before voters, Councilman Ray Mueller clarified.
Why a charter?
Part of the difficulty with the measure is that no one on the City Council or staff had been able to clearly articulate what a legally compliant voting system – either an alternative to or a hybrid with district elections – might look like.
The city received a lawsuit threat about a year ago warning that Menlo Park could be in violation of the California Voting Rights Act, which makes it easier for voters from minority groups to prove that at-large election systems dilute their voting power. The threat Menlo Park received from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman on behalf of an unnamed plaintiff or plaintiffs pointed out that the city's Belle Haven neighborhood has more black and Hispanic people than the rest of Menlo Park at large, and its residents haven't had a representative on the City Council for about 30 years.
In response, Menlo Park followed a prescribed, strict process to convert from at-large to district elections. The city established a nonpartisan, randomly selected districting advisory committee, which drew up district boundaries.
The City Council then accepted and finalized those boundaries in March.
During the districting process, however, some raised concerns about the downsides of district-based voting. Since council members representing a district are elected by only the residents of their neighborhood district, some claimed that the process could "balkanize" the city, leading council members to prioritize the interests of their districts rather than the city's overall best interests. And because the districts cover fairly small territories, there's a chance that a council member might not even be permitted to vote on important matters in his or her district because that council member lives too close. (State political ethics laws say that council members should recuse themselves from voting on matters that take place within 500 or fewer feet from property they own.)
Some advocates proposed implementing an alternative voting system, like ranked-choice or cumulative voting, that takes into account people's second- and third- choice candidate preferences in races where multiple seats are open. FairVote, an election reform nonprofit, cites data indicating that ranked-choice voting systems may help women and people of color attain elective offices. However, only charter cities can consider such alternative voting systems, and all cities whether a charter city or a general law city like Menlo Park must comply with the California Voting Rights Act.
One potential model for a voting system that could both comply with the law and use one of these alternative systems was proposed in the city of Santa Clara, in which ranked-choice voting would occur in two districts across the city, each with multiple seats. But voters defeated the measure in June.
According to Cara Silver, assistant city attorney, it might be possible to devise a system in Menlo Park that could both comply with the voting rights act and offer cumulative or ranked choice voting, so long as the protected class still has a fair bloc of voting power, but added that such a system would have to be very nuanced and carefully analyzed.
There are also other reasons to consider becoming a charter city, several council members pointed out. Councilman Rich Cline said he's worked for newspapers that covered charter cities and felt that those cities had more local control and flexibility on some matters.
Council member Kirsten Keith said: "For years, we've received emails from former mayors, asking to look at a charter. We're familiar with a lot of those (charter) cities, and they run very well. ... Right now, it's too rushed."
"I still think there are advantages to becoming a charter city," Ohtaki said, noting the potential opportunities for greater local control. However, the charter that would have gone before voters restricted opportunities for more local control to potential changes to term limits and elections.
All of these considerations dance around an unspoken acknowledgment that Menlo Park is, under the California Voting Rights Act, essentially stuck with districts as long as Belle Haven continues to have the demographics it has. Looking ahead, though, there is little guarantee that black and Hispanic voters in Belle Haven will continue to enjoy the protection that the district system will offer those voters for the first time.
District 1, the district that includes Belle Haven, is reported to have a current population that is 69 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 4 percent white and 3 percent Asian American, while the other districts range between 72 and 80 percent white. However, these statistics draw on demographic information collected during the 2010 census, which could already be outdated.
Demographic change could occur through displacement, a loss of black and Hispanic residents from the neighborhood; dilution, an influx of racially different new residents to District 1; or dispersion, an increase of black and Hispanic residents in other parts of the city. Future census findings will determine if such changes would eliminate the legal need for districts. In any case, the city is expected to redraw district boundaries after the 2020 census.
"There is no benefit to the city to even look at this issue until after the 2020 census," said Mueller. "It is possible you'd see an influx of residents of a different protected class composition that would affect those numbers."
Dilution of the area's Hispanic and black voters could happen if the residents of the substantial amount of new housing being built and proposed for development surrounding Belle Haven don't also come from protected classes.
"Frankly, that could happen even without displacement," Mueller said. "I'm not advocating that that should happen."
Menlo Park has zoned for 4,500 new housing units to be built east of U.S. 101, the area currently covered by District 1, and development proposals are currently pending for 1,594 housing units, 1,500 of which would be on Facebook property. Plus, several high-end housing developments have already been built in eastern Menlo Park since 2010.
Displacement of people of color from Belle Haven has been reported anecdotally to have been occurring as housing prices escalate, though little data is being collected to verify how widely or frequently this displacement occurs.
Editor's Note: This story has been revised for clarity.