On July 11, the San Diego City Council reached a near unanimous agreement on a controversial issue: making changes to the city’s election process in order to increase voter participation and engagement. Unfortunately, the Council leadership failed to use the agreement to generate consensus around thoughtful reform. Instead, on a 5-4 vote, it forced through a fundamental change to our electoral process that will prove to be costly, nonsensical and legally tenuous.
The “mandatory run-off” system would force June and November elections even if a candidate wins a primary by an overwhelming majority or is running unopposed. It is worth noting that this system is not used in any large city in California or any large metropolitan area in the nation. Locally, it has not undergone a thorough legal review and will likely take millions of dollars away from streets and public safety while forcing voters to go through a prolonged and taxing election cycle.
Generally, when politicians want to propose fundamental changes to the structure of our democracy, there is a credible, bipartisan and independent process to back it up with. The correct approach would have been to study all of the options, research all facts, engage every community and strive to reach consensus.
Instead, five of our colleagues chose the wrong approach.
Typically, a proposal of this magnitude would be brought up by a City Council member or staff, scheduled to be heard at a committee, studied by the city attorney and the independent budget analyst, and then brought back for further review. Instead, at the last minute, a lobbyist and private issue-advocacy organization introduced a two-page letter to the Rules Committee, and forwarded the proposal directly to Council. This dark money group, calling itself the Independent Voter Project, has not disclosed the donors funding its effort.
At Council, the lobbyist acknowledged that he had not studied alternative voting systems and he made factually inaccurate claims, such as, “several cities across California have adopted this proposal,” when, in fact, of the top 50 cities in California, only Chula Vista uses this type of run-off system.
Most disturbingly, when we requested the city attorney and staff be given adequate time to study the proposal’s ramifications and look into other alternatives, our request was voted down.
Why should such an important issue be rushed through so carelessly? The majority on the Council failed to make a compelling argument as to the urgency of this matter. Even the city attorney’s office agreed it needed more time to fully evaluate the proposal.
The city of Los Angeles recently revised its own election code to increase participation. The process L.A. used was thoughtful, transparent and consensus-oriented. Prior to any vote, L.A. convened an independent commission and held hearings across the city. The commission researched a variety of options, incorporated public input and delivered a thorough report to the City Council and mayor. Those proposals were then discussed and debated openly in widely publicized meetings. Ironically, L.A. ultimately adopted a system nearly exactly the same as San Diego’s current election process. Regardless of the outcome, L.A. handled this important issue the right way.
We invite our San Diego City Council colleagues to join us in revisiting this issue in a collaborative manner that engages the public and studies this issue with the honesty and independence that the public deserves and expects. They will find us to be willing partners open to all options.
Lorie Zapf, Mark Kersey and Chris Cate are members of the San Diego City Council.