At-Large BOS Elections Lead to Lack of Representation for Midcoast


By on Sun, October 4, 2009

The unincorporated segments of San Mateo County are dependent on the district 3 supervisor for local representation.  At-Large elections prevent the unincorporated segments on the county from choosing a district 3 representative.

District elections for County Board of Supervisors would benefit all unincorporated Midcoast residents. 

In July Bruce Balshone published the following article in the San Francisco Examiner.

Time has come for District elections in San Mateo County

The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury has issued an advisory letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors directing the five-member board to change the system under which supervisors are elected from an at-large system to a district based system.

San Mateo County is the only county is the State of California that elects supervisors at-large – or countywide. Tehama County in the Sierra Mountains also maintained such a system until voters overwhelmingly approved a county charter amendment to impose a district-based system in November of 2008.

The issue is not a new one and has been discussed and even voted on in the past, but the issue is coming to a head now as elections for the powerful and remote county board of supervisors have become selections rather than elections.

In fact, two of the five sitting supervisors were actually appointed by their colleagues, the most recent of which was former San Mateo City Councilwoman Carol Groome who was appointed mid-term to the seat formerly occupied by Jerry Hill who was elected to the State Assembly last November.

Groom’s appointment to the board was roundly criticized in local newspaper editorials and formally opposed by organizations such as the San Mateo County Democratic Party, the county’s Republican Party, the Sierra Club and even the League of Women Voters. Despite the firestorm of opposition, Groom was appointed by the Supervisors with only Supervisor Rich Gordon calling for a special election instead.

That action touched a nerve and again reminded many of the machine politics that continue to dominate San Mateo County.
In its letter, the Grand Jury cited many reasons for making the change.

First an foremost, the Grand Jury opined that the task of running for the board in a county with a population topping 700,000 is daunting at best. The cost to run such an election without major support from entrenched political interests is all but impossible. Running in such an election would even dwarf the size of a U.S. Congressional district.

Secondly, the representation for defined districts would improve and provide for more opportunities for a diverse range of candidates to both run and perhaps get elected. The simple benefit of having more legitimate candidates run will also invigorate the democratic process by forcing discussion of pertinent county issues.

It has been 12 years since there was a hotly contested Supervisorial race when Supervisor Gordon actually had to earn his seat in a special election without an incumbent.

But such a contest is rare. Most Supervisorial elections are exercises in the inevitable where candidates blessed by the county’s political machine simply walk into office or are appointed to their seats.
More startling is the fact that an incumbent San Mateo County Supervisor has not been unseated since 1980 when now Congresswoman Jackie Speier unseated James Fitzgerald.

Over the same period of time, according to county records, when incumbent supervisors run, approximately 50 percent of the time they are not even challenged. Worse yet, 86 percent of the time when incumbent supervisors run they face no competition or only token competition from protest candidates who rarely even mount a hint of a political campaign.

The Grand Jury also warned the county that it may be edging close to a violation of the Voting Rights Act in referencing a ruling in September by Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley, who invalidated, in advance, the results of the November school board election for the Madera Madera Unified School District. Judge Oakley said Madera’s at-large voting system in which all voters in the district cast ballots for all board members rather than for a candidate representing their section of town violated the Voting Rights Act.

That case focused exclusively on the lack of access of Latinos to political office within the district. The case was brought by the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights which has launched many lawsuits throughout the state for similar reasons. In San Mateo County, the Board of Supervisors has had only one Latino member and one African American members in 153 years.

The Grand Jury has formally requested that the issue be reviewed by the County’s Charter Review Commission which is empanelled every eight years – the last being 2002 – which is charged with the task of reviewing and suggesting changes to the San Mateo County Charter – a local version of a Constitution.

In response to the letter, San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church stated in the local press that he plans to reconvene a Charter Review Commission to look at the issue and that "It is probably time to look at the issue again."

In fact, It is past time that San Mateo County enter the 21st Century and elect county Supervisors by district to open the process beyond those approved by the entrenched and powerful interests that have dominated county politics for far too long.

San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury has issued an advisory letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors directing the five-member board to change the system under which supervisors are elected from an at-large system to a district based system.

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