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College district considers election changes
October 12, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

District elections could be in the county’s community college district’s future after the board discussed a tentative district map during a study session Wednesday.

Board members of the San Mateo County Community College District are currently elected by voters countywide but there has been recent attention given to the process — including a pending lawsuit against the county for its own at-large rather than district supervisorial elections. Previously, the district was advised by the state chancellors to look at the way local elections are set up. Over the last month, the board held public hearings on the matter. On Wednesday, the board studied the matter and chose a possible district map.

"We have not made any decisions,” said board President Dave Mandelkern.  

At the next meeting Wednesday, Oct. 24, the board will review a finalized map. If it moves forward, the map would then be posted for a 90-day comment period. A vote on the map and changing to district elections could happen in January, at the earliest.

The district oversees three colleges and serves more than 40,000 students annually. Trustees for the five-member board are not required to live within a certain geographic area or district.

The differences in the two systems are primarily how many voters a candidate needs to convince and how much money it will cost to run. At-large elections ask voters to choose board members to represent the entire county instead of just the district from which they are elected. Proponents argue this makes members more accountable to all voters and limits factions on the board. Opponents, however, say the system tends to be more expensive because of the countywide campaigning required.

In district elections, voters only choose a representative from within specific boundaries which cuts down on campaign costs for candidates but which opponents say leave board members with a narrow focus on only the specific concerns of their district.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 prohibits at-large elections if they dilute the voting influence of minority groups. The act is largely the basis of the pending lawsuit against San Mateo County which elects its supervisors countywide to represent individual districts.

In response, county voters in November will be asked whether to keep the status quo or switch to district elections for members of the Board of Supervisors. San Mateo County voters rejected similar proposals to change the system in both 1978 and 1980.

But changing the college district’s system will take more than just a vote to do so. The board will first need to draw district boundaries and decide whether to keep the current five members or expand to nine seats. With five trustees, each district would include 136,000 to 150,000 voters. A seven-member board drops the number of constituents to between 97,000 and 107,000.

A change could happen as soon as November 2013, depending on how long the drawing of boundaries takes. On that timeline, current trustees would finish out their terms but those with terms ending in 2013 would need to live within the new districts to seek re-election.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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