San Mateo County has been the state’s last holdout for electing supervisors countywide instead of by individual districts but that could change next month when voters will weigh in on whether to change the county charter governing the election.
Measure B, one of three measures on the Nov. 6 ballot, asks voters if they want to switch from the status quo of at-large elections or move to district contests. Proponents argue doing so will bring down the cost and burden of running in every corner of the county and encourage more worthy candidates to throw their hat in the ring for races that historically have seen little competition. Opponents counter that supervisors elected by all voters better represent the entire county instead of just a slice and point to San Francisco as an example where district elections have created narrow governance influenced by special interests.
What both sides do agree on are that voters deserve — for a third time — to decide and that the outcome’s effect on a pending lawsuit over at-large elections remains unclear. The suit filed in April 2011 by six residents contends the existing voting system is inequitable to minorities and "dilutes the votes of Latinos and Asians.” But voters have twice defeated a charter change measure in 1978 and 1980.
Currently, running countywide is "equivalent in scope to running for Congress,” said Supervisor Dave Pine who favors a change and sat on the Charter Review Committee two years ago when it recommended the question be put to voters.
The current process, he said, favors those already in the system and with name recognition or those with quite a bit of money. District elections will lower the vote threshold to roughly 66,000 and let candidates concentrate on their individual electorate, he said.
"We can improve the conversation between supervisors and their constituents,” Pine said. "Right now we try to be everywhere.”
Supervisor Carole Groom disagrees, arguing that countywide campaigning and representation leaves the county better governed.
"Everybody has to know everything,” she said.
Groom represents a district that largely includes incorporated San Mateo but said she spends substantial time on the coast and responding to inquiries from residents in other districts. If the measure passes, she said, that could change. She worries the coast and other unincorporated areas will receive short-shrift if residents only have one representative on which to call.
Both Groom and Pine agree that the Board of Supervisors’ primary issues cut across district lines — health, public safety and social services.
For Pine, this means the supervisors will have to consider the entire county’s needs instead of just one district. Groom sees it as reason why all voters should be able to choose all supervisors.
Redwood City Councilwoman Rosanne Foust, who also sat on the Charter Review Committee, also opposes a switch and said it could move San Mateo County closer to acting like its neighbor to the north.
"Who’s to say there wouldn’t be fringe candidates?” Foust asked.
Foust called San Mateo County a parochial place where candidates are expected to pay their dues and show a proven track record rather than any "flavor of the month” being elected in part due to a lower vote threshold.
She agrees there may be worthy candidates who aren’t running but believes a better way to ease the road is campaign finance reform and voter participation rather than changing the election system.
Minority candidate possibilities are also being groomed now for future roles, Groom said.
The number of Asian and Hispanic residents sitting on local boards and commissions, for example, has increased and those are usually the stepping stones for elected office, she said.
Pine and former civil grand jury forewoman Virginia Chang Kiraly look to the past, though, to predict the future if voters don’t favor Measure A. According to data they provided the Daily Journal, since 1982 the county has had 44 supervisor elections of which 30 had an incumbent on the ballot and 18 went unchallenged. Eleven had "token” competition and only the 1996 race between Mary Griffin and Janet Fogarty for District One was really competitive, they said.
In the last 30 years, an incumbent supervisor has never been unseated and are certain to remain in office until resigning or being termed out after 12 years, say Kiraly and Pine.
The last three supervisor races, including Pine’s own special election, drew several candidates but he and Kiraly say that is not the norm and point out that three sitting supervisors took office without a race — Groom and Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson were appointed and Board President Adrienne Tissier ran unopposed.
Pine said he personally knows people who considered running for the District Three seat ultimately won by former sheriff Don Horsley but his name recognition countywide was too daunting.
Pine dismisses the notion that district elections strip voters of a say in their representation.
"When there are no competitive elections, they don’t have a voice anyway,” he said.
Kiraly likewise disagrees with opponents always looking to San Francisco because it is a city and county, instead saying Santa Clara County is a better comparison.
Kiraly has no qualms the system needs a change but said residents can always vote to change it back if it fails to improve the process.
"I know it sounds like a copout but that is the beauty of a charter city,” she said.
Michelle Durand can be reached by email: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.