District Elections are Good for Democracy
Tonight, the Board of Trustees of the San Mateo County Community College District (SMCCCD) will consider adopting district based elections for its trustees in lieu of the existing at-large model. Their support of district elections would align the SMCCCD with the voters’ decision in November 2012 to elect County supervisors by district and lead the way for other countywide bodies to move to district elections.
Of the 72 California community college districts, 21 elect trustees via at-large elections -as is the case for the SMCCCD. Another 16 use a hybrid model requiring residence in a defined area with at-large elections. Twenty-eight districts elect trustees via district elections and a handful more use other systems. At-large elections have been abandoned by many public agencies as they disadvantage grassroots candidates in favor of the politically connected and well-funded candidates and incumbents.
In San Mateo County, with approximately 391,000 registered voters, a countywide campaign is similar in scope to running for Congress. As a result, many past SMCCCD races have been uncompetitive or uncontested. With district elections, a small, more discreet number of voters could choose their representative.
Why do district elections matter?
District elections bring government closer to home and would provide SMCCCD voters with more say and increased awareness of district issues. The SMCCCD Board of Trustees manages an annual budget of nearly $200 million to serve approximately 45,000 students per year. In addition, since 1999 the SMCCCD board has placed a series of bonds on the ballot which were approved by local voters and totaled over $1.2 billion to rebuild its three campuses. The SMCCCD is a significant public agency with a critical public mission that deserves voters’ attention and involvement which can be enhanced by district elections.
Local voters expressed a preference for district elections by approving Measure B on the November 2012 General Election Ballot altering the San Mateo County Charter so that county supervisors are now elected in one of five districts rather than at-large, or countywide. Since that time there has been one election, in Supervisorial District 5, without a sitting incumbent and that election proved to be highly competitive. In 2016, four sitting city councilmembers hailing from three different communities vied for an open seat in District 5 in the June Primary Election with the top two finishers competing in the November General Election. This was the first time the District 5 supervisorial seat had even been contested since 1992, and first highly contested election in that district since 1980.
Despite concerns that district elections would lead to parochialism, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors continues to function well and adopt policies and budgets that benefit all county residents. In addition, district elections for supervisors have increased local dialogue and community outreach on county issues.
Remaining Countywide Bodies Should Similarly Consider District Elections
There are two other elected bodies in San Mateo County that are also elected at-large: the San Mateo County Harbor District Board and the San Mateo County Board of Education (although the Board of Education does require that trustees reside in one of seven trustee areas). Each of these agencies should also seriously consider altering the means by which their respective officeholders are elected. While it is often challenging for elected officials to willingly make a change that could potentially force them out of office there is a local example. Recently, the Board of Trustees of the Sequoia Union High School District adopted a district based election model that will require at least one incumbent to leave office either voluntarily or as a result of an election due the fact that two incumbents now reside in the same district. That board could have chosen district maps that protected all of the incumbents but instead preferred to craft maps that served the communities’ best interests over their own.
I encourage all San Mateo County residents to examine the proposed district maps for the SMCCCD board (available online http://smccd.edu/boardoftrustees/notice-hearing-by-trustee-area-elections.php) and to support district elections for the SMCCD as well as for the Harbor District Board and the Board of Education.
Dave Pine serves on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors representing District 1.