Opportunities for voters to weigh in on this question have been infrequent. The last time was in 1980, when 56.5 percent of voters endorsed the at-large system. Voters had arrived at the same conclusion in 1978, but by a 52 percent vote.
The Board of Supervisors' oversight includes public health, the county jail and parks, child support, care for the aged and infirm, and local government in unincorporated areas.
In 2010, the supervisors named a 16-member Charter Review Committee to study several county matters, including at-large versus by-district election of supervisors. A committee majority voted to keep things as they are, but also recommended that the question be put before the voters in November 2010.
The supervisors rejected that idea in a 4-1 decision on July 13, 2010, with then-Supervisor Rich Gordon dissenting. "The matter really needed to go to the ballot for the citizens to make the decision," Mr. Gordon said at the time.
"The board has the discretion to make decisions to not put a particular matter on the ballot," said then-supervisor Mark Church. "We are elected to make these kinds of decisions."
"Every resident gets five supervisors and I think that's the way it should be," Supervisor Carole Groom said at the time. "The Board of Supervisors decides what goes to the voters and the board has made its decision," she said. "Why clutter the ballot?"
Making the case
Ms. Groom, departing Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, and Sheriff Greg Munks are among the signatories to the ballot argument against Measure B. Congressional representatives Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, and Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, signed a rebuttal to the argument supporting Measure B.
The opponents assert that when supervisors are elected by the entire county, they are accountable to the entire county. "Your influence and ability to have your voice heard will be reduced if we turn to a system where elected representatives are only interested in their district," the ballot argument says. By-district elections, they add, would lead to influence by "special interests" and a shift toward parochial concerns by individual supervisors.
"San Mateo County is different. And we believe that we're better because we're different," they say.
Fifty-seven counties can't all be wrong, Measure B proponents say. "Every other county elects supervisors by district. District elections result in more competition, more accountability, more citizen involvement, and lower costs to taxpayers," says the ballot argument for the measure. Supporters include county Supervisor Dave Pine, Menlo Park Councilman Peter Ohtaki and Menlo Park Fire Protection District board member Virginia Chang Kiraly.
San Mateo County has about 340,000 registered voters, and it takes around $40,000 to reach the likely voters with one direct-mail piece, candidates have told the Almanac. By-district elections would reduce the registered voter pool to about 68,000, opening the door to successful grass-roots campaigns and a more diverse pool of candidates, proponents say.
"A supervisor campaign is a daunting and expensive proposition," the ballot argument says. "As a result, the vast majority of San Mateo County supervisor races are uncontested or uncompetitive."
Since 1982, an incumbent has never lost an election, in about half the candidates ran unopposed, and in elections for open seats, about half have been competitive — margins of victory below 20 percent — according to statistics provided by Measure B proponents.
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