Supervisor District vs. Countywide elections.
In what may turn out to be a shot heard round the county, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a San Francisco-based civil rights legal foundation, has announced that it will send representatives to the next meeting of the San Mateo County Charter Review Committee.
The appearance of the Lawyers’ Committee representatives is not likely a coincidence as the County’s Charter Review Committee is set discuss the options for and possibility of changing the way members of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors are elected from an at-large or countywide system to a district based system.
The Charter Review Committee is the ad hoc board, empanelled every eight years, charged with reviewing and making recommendations for revising and updating the County’s Charter—a document akin to a local constitution that governs San Mateo County’s governmental structure and a variety of major policies.
The appearance of the Lawyers’ Committee may send shockwaves through the ranks of the County’s political elite as the Lawyers’ Committee has built a reputation in California for the vigorous enforcement via lawsuits against many local jurisdictions of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, among many civil rights pursuits.
Most famously, the Lawyers’ Committee successfully sued the Madera Unified School District in 2008. In that ruling, Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley invalidated, in advance, the results of the November 2008 school board election based on the fact that the 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.
Since that ruling, according to a Los Angeles Times article, many California school districts and cities have abandoned at-large voting systems and have adopted district based systems.
The issue of district elections for San Mateo County Supervisors has surfaced a few times in the past four decades but has never gained the traction necessary to change the County’s election system. The issue went to the ballot twice, once in 1978 and once in 1980, but both efforts failed. Since then, the issue has slowly simmered under the surface.
But in late 2008, the issue was raised again following the appointment of former San Mateo City Councilmember Carole Groom to the supervisorial seat left vacant by former Supervisor Jerry Hill, who had been elected to the State Assembly that 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.
The appointment touched a nerve and again reminded many of the machine politics that continue to dominate San Mateo County. In fact, in the months following Groom’s appointment, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury took up the issue for review. Last summer, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury 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.
According to the Civil Grand Jury’s report, San Mateo County is the only county in 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 Grand Jury also warned the county that it may be edging close to a violation of the Voting Rights Act and referenced the Madera ruling as only two minorities have ever been elected to the County Board of Supervisors.
The civil Grand Jury added 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 an U.S. Congressional district.
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.
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.
While the Madera case focused exclusively on the lack of access of Latinos to political office within the district, the Lawyers’ Committee could easily make a similar case in San Mateo County as the Board of Supervisors has had only one Latino member and one African American member in 154 years.
The San Mateo County Charter Review Committee will hold its next meeting on April 7 at the San Mateo Main Library, Oak Room, 55 West Third Avenue, San Mateo at 5:30 P.M.
If representatives of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights are in attendance, county voters may want to be there to possibly hear the shot that may start a revolution.
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