The crème de la crème rise to the top of the San Mateo County Charter Review
April 7, 2010 Charter Review Committee meeting
The Charter Review Committee is a linchpin committee because it examines potential changes to the county charter through a series of public meeting and sub-committee meetings every 8 to 10 years. The process of evaluating the county charter is the equivalent of a local Constitutional Convention. Of the sixteen committee members, the Board of Supervisors appointed ten. Six members were appointed by: San Mateo County Central Labor Council; SamCEDA; Council of Cities; League of Women Voters; County School Boards Association; and Sustainable San Mateo County.
The agenda of the April 7, 2010 meeting held at the San Mateo Main Library included testimony by three guest speakers. The discussion focused on the issue of at-large elections versus district elections. As the election situation is now and has been from the start, County Supervisors are elected in at-large elections. This means that Supervisors, regardless of where they reside in the County, represent every district in the County. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how unfair this method might be. A Civil-Grand-Jury report, emphasizing the lack of minority representation in County at-large elections will in all likelihood lead to a court suit if the County doesn’t change to district elections. Should such a suit go forward, it will only waste taxpayer revenues and will doubtless end in a court order mandating district elections.
Featured speakers included former supervisor Mike Nevin, Executive Director of the Service League of San Mateo County, former supervisor candidate Jo Chamberlain, Executive Director of Coastside Land Trust, and a former supervisor who lost in his own district John Ward, now a revolving-door lobbyist for developers.
Mike Nevin kicked off the meeting by voicing staunch support for at-large elections. He said, "Of course I’m prejudiced…" towards the status quo and at-large elections. This was an interesting choice of words when you consider that The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a San Francisco-based civil rights legal foundation, sent a letter dated March 24th 2010 informing the County that it is giving serious consideration to filing a lawsuit against the County for possible violations of the California’s Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit will zero in on the County’s use of at-large elections to elect San Mateo County Supervisors.
Charter Review Committee member Dave Pine, asked Nevin why San Mateo County is the only county in California with at-large elections for supervisor. Nevin responded, “San Mateo County needs regional representation.” But why isn’t it obvious to Nevin that district elections are a fairer way of guaranteeing regional representation?? Pine asked Nevin about accountability regarding incumbency advantage. Nevin responded, "Cream comes to the top, people come to the top." Nevin obviously believes himself to be an instance of the crème de la creme, rising to its rightful place in County politics. Pine asked Nevin if he would support putting the issue of district elections before the voters. "Yes, I would support it going to the voters, I believe in democracy," he replied. ??
Next-up, Jo Chamberlain gave testimony favoring electoral reform that would install district elections. While doing an admirable job of making her position clear, she was interrupted by Shelly Kessler, a Charter Review Committee member, who posed an incoherent question, asking Chamberlain to respond to it.
Kessler asked Chamberlain the following hypothetical question, "If you ran and won a State Assembly seat with a population that exceeds your district and you felt competent to represent an assembly district that exceeds a district seat why is it then incompatible that you wouldn’t be able to as a County Supervisor to represent a population that exceeds a district environment."...."My understanding of what you said was, if you ran for your state assembly seat and lets just say you won, that population exceeds what your district is if you ran for a district seat, however because your smart and because you can do this you would feel competent and capable of representing beyond your district for a State Assembly seat so why is it incompatible to have someone run for County Supervisor beyond their own state assembly seat be-able to represent in the larger populations as you would have if you had been in the same State Assembly seat?"
Chamberlain took the question in stride by explaining to Kessler that State Assembly members are elected by district, the exact same district model that has been proposed for County Supervisor elections. 80 State Assembly members are elected, one per district, by 80 districts in California.
One wonders if the impenetrable gobblygook in Kessler’s question was an attempt to derail and obfuscate the overall clarity of Chamberlain’s speech, thus representing an example of scum and not “cream rising to the top,” or an example of scum coating the surface. If so, then how much of that sort of “cream” can the voters of San Mateo County stand before the County festers from too much of a thing that looks good on the surface but hides ugly things beneath? When members of the Charter Review Committee display such blatant bias favoring at-large elections, one can’t help but wonder if the committee will do anything positive to promote district elections as the only pragmatic alternative to at-large elections?
The final guest speaker John Ward, a lobbyist for developers, admitted its easier for candidates to run for district election and said, "I’m biased" when describing his steadfast support for at-large elections. Ward, lacking some of Nevin’s bravado, nevertheless, repeated many of Nevin’s comments. Ward and Nevin both represent more of the same old, same old intrenched, power that has been running roughshod over district needs.
During the session devoted to public comment, Jane Kim, representing the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and Robert Rubin, its Legal Director, described how the current at-large election system dilutes the vote of minority residents. They requested that the County voluntarily change the current at-large system to a district system of election.
The next Charter Review Meeting is Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel Street.