Once again, or at last, depending on your perspective, the Board of Supervisors is going to allow voters to decide whether we should continue our tradition of at-large elections or elect supervisors by district, as is done in all other California counties. County voters rejected a change twice in the past, in 1978 and 1980. A citizens charter review committee had recommended putting this issue before the voters last year but the supes, with one exception, did not accept the recommendation. The board’s newest member, Dave Pine, has been campaigning for district elections for years. But in June, the Board of Supervisors changed its mind and decided to put the issue on the November ballot. A civil rights lawsuit against the county and a move by the community college district to also consider district versus at-large elections was the impetus. Now it will be the voters’ turn to decide.
For a long time, I have believed that at-large elections exemplified good government practices. It has been a goal of reformers for many years. District elections were once seen as a vehicle for corruption and cronyism. Countywide elections create better governing because people are elected to represent the greater good rather than just parochial interests. However, the new push for district elections resonates after the poor showing of two Latino candidates in the last board election.
I think we were all surprised when Memo Morantes, member of the San Mateo County Board of Education, and Carlos Romero, East Palo Alto councilman, garnered so few votes even after an endorsement by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo. Romero received 8.7 percent of the vote; Morantes 7.92 percent. They came in fourth and fifth in a six-person race. Neither won in the fourth district they hoped to represent. In our present countywide system, candidates must still reside in the district up for grabs even though the vote is countywide. And District Four is the one district where a Latino and an African-American have previously served — Ruben Barrales and the current occupant Rose Jacobs-Gibson, who is termed out. It is a district with a substantial Latino population. Many thought Morantes, especially, had a good chance of surviving the primary. But even the combined votes of Morantes and Romero were not enough. As a result, some feel the only way a minority candidate can win today is to compete in just his or her own district and not the more expensive countywide process. Maybe. Maybe better known candidates like Mayor Sal Torres of Daly City or Mayor Alicia Aguirre of Redwood City could win a countywide race.
After watching U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, from Florida, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro give stellar speeches at the Republican (Rubio) and Democratic (Castro) conventions you could easily envision a future race for president between the two. Times are changing. And voters may now feel it’s time for a change in how we elect our supervisors.
The two candidates for the board who were the top two vote getters in June and are on the ballot this November are Warren Slocum and Shelly Masur. In some ways this is a contest between the old and the new. Slocum has been a county administrator for the past 24 years serving as assessor-county-clerk recorder and elections chief. Masur has been on the Redwood City Elementary School Board for seven years. Each has a long list of endorsements which you can check on line. If you don’t know the candidates and are not sure how to vote, the best thing to do is to attend a candidates night and make your own decision based on their performance. The League of Women Voters will be holding such a candidates event on Thursday evening, Oct. 4, at the San Mateo Main Library at 7 p.m.
The League of Women Voters takes positions on state and local issues after its members study and vote on whether to say yes or no or not take a position at all. The League has had an ongoing study of country government but is not taking a position on district elections. President Jackie Jacobberger says League members are divided on the issue. So it may be confusing to see former League president Ruth Nagler signing the argument against district elections as a former member of the San Mateo League. Nagler was president in 1959-61 and at that time most League members were probably against district elections. But times have changed.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs in the Monday edition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.