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News - July 4, 2012

County voters can change how they elect supervisors

by Sandy Brundage

In November, 32 years after San Mateo County voters rejected the idea, today's voters will have a chance to change the way they elect supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on June 26 to add a measure to the ballot that lets voters decide whether to elect supervisors by district instead of the current method, countywide.

San Mateo County is the only county in California that holds at-large (countywide) elections for its supervisors. A lawsuit filed against the board by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights brought the issue back into the spotlight. The suit alleges that at-large elections prevent minorities and lower-income residents from being elected, but there are other reasons to consider the change, according to District 1 Supervisor Dave Pine.

The District 4 election results from June 5 mirror the countywide results, with the two candidates who advanced to the runoff, Warren Slocum and Shelly Masur, with 21 percent and 19 percent of the vote respectively, maintaining their positions in the district they hope to represent.

But those results don't really correlate with how a by-district election may have gone. Supervisor Dave Pine lost within his district by a couple hundred votes during the 2011 special election, but won county-wide. He attributed that to a campaign strategy that focused on other areas of the county. "It was a weird outcome of the at-large system. I'm not the first to have done that; there were a couple cases in the early 70s," he said. "If it had been district only, I would have run a very different campaign."

Mr. Pine, who served on the charter committee that recommended the county let voters choose how supervisors are elected, said he supports by-district elections, although his four colleagues on the Board of Supervisors don't.

In 1978, and again in 1980, the electorate stayed with the at-large system by margins of 52 percent and 56.5 percent respectively, according to Mr. Pine. He said the county demographic is very different now, and more diverse.

However, San Mateo County wasn't always an at-large county, he said. It switched from by-district elections during the 1930s as a reform measure aimed at putting a stop to supervisors awarding lucrative contracts and funding to their own districts. That may not be a problem now, but there are new issues to consider.

The current system makes it impossible to take on an incumbent, Mr. Pine concluded after researching the history of elections in the county, because of the enormity of the undertaking. "That, I think, is not good for a democratic process. We had this pattern emerging where even when the seat was open, no one would run. That did change in May 2011, when I ran, and then in this recent cycle, but my race and this race we just watched are not the norm."

Had Mr. Slocum, a long-time figure in county politics, announced his candidacy a year-and-a-half in advance, as others have done, Mr. Pine said, the field for the current election may have also dwindled as others contemplated the built-in advantages of existing name recognition and institutional support the former county clerk-assessor-recorder carries.

The expense of trying to reach out to voters countywide also creates a significant barrier to entry, according to proponents of the by-district election, which include Mr. Slocum. The tab for countywide campaigns can easily run into the mid-$500,000; lowering the cost would theoretically lead to more competitive elections as more people could afford to run.

The third reason to favor by-district elections, Mr. Pine said, is to build stronger connections between residents and county government. He cited districts with unique needs that could be better represented by the opportunity to elect a supervisor local to those regions.

Some residents of the coastal area of District 3 seemed to agree, speaking in favor of by-district elections at the June 26 meeting.

Board President Adrienne Tissier said during the meeting that she supports the current system, but also agrees with letting the electorate decide. Proponents of at-large elections argue that they ensure supervisors consider the regional impact of issues, and that the entire county gets a say in who represents them.

"They aren't crazy arguments," Mr. Pine said. "I just think my arguments are stronger."


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