Saturday, July 4, 2009

San Mateo County supervisor elections need reform

July 02, 2009, By Bill Silverfarb

District elections should replace the current system of countywide elections for the Board of Supervisors, according to a report released yesterday by the San Mateo County civil grand jury.

The report comes on the heels of another civil grand jury recommendation to hold special elections rather than appoint a supervisor, such as the board did with Carole Groom after now Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, vacated his supervisor’s seat last year.

The civil grand jury’s call for election reform follows closely with what Dave Pine, an elected board member of the San Mateo Union High School District, has been calling for in a recent series of meetings in the county.

“It’s long past time that San Mateo County join the other 57 counties in California and elect supervisors through district elections. With the current countywide election system, a supervisor candidate must appeal to more voters than a candidate running for congress. Such a system makes it extremely costly to run for supervisor and stifles competition,” Pine said.

Pine spoke out last week to the Coastside Democratic Club in Half Moon Bay calling for district-wide elections.

The current system, Pine said, is flawed because incumbents do not have to answer to the voters.

Both supervisors Rich Gordon and Mark Church agree it’s time for the elections process to be reexamined.

“These recommendations will be forwarded to the County Charter Review committee when it convenes in 2010,” Church said.

Church did point out, however, that voters rejected district-wide elections in two separate votes in 1978 and 1980.

“It’s been 30 years,” Church said. “It’s time to take another look at the charter.”

The civil grand jury is requesting the county’s Charter Review Committee consider that San Mateo County is the only county in the state to have countywide elections to elect its Board of Supervisors. During the past 40 years, only one supervisor was elected from the coastal area of the county; and on two occasions, elected supervisors did not win in the district in which they resided.

The board should also place a ballot measure for the next available election giving voters a choice on whether to amend the County Charter so elections will be held to fill a vacated supervisor’s seat if the term remaining is one year or more, according to a civil grand jury report released June 24.

Gordon called for a special election last November to fill Hill’s vacated supervisor seat. But he also favored appointment in a previous election. Regarding representation on the coast, Gordon is not convinced a district-wide election would actually secure a place on the board for a coastal resident.

“The district lines are drawn by population,” Gordon said. “No matter how you draw the line, the coast would still have to be a part of the Bayside.”

The grand jury believes district elections may encourage competitive elections by lowering the cost barrier to entry so new candidates will consider running for election; publicly airing and debating issues that cannot be effectively challenged without a competitive election; and providing the opportunity for a higher number of candidates to run due to the reduced cost of campaigning in a district rather than the entire county.

The County Charter can only be amended by a vote of the people, Church said.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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