Menlo Park voters to decide charter question in November | June 27, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - June 27, 2018

Menlo Park voters to decide charter question in November

by Kate Bradshaw

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.

Last August, the city was threatened with a lawsuit unless it switched to district elections. Advocates from nonpartisan election reform groups, such as Jennifer Pae from FairVote California and Steve Chessin from Californians for Election Reform, in past months also 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.

Charter committee

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, each ideally with 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.

Term limits

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.

According to McClure, "This would probably be the most limited charter that any city has adopted that we've seen. ... This is really pretty minimal."

Comments

There are no comments yet for this post

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

 

Race is tomorrow!

On Friday, September 21, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run, or—for the first time—half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More