By Richard Riehl
Two years ago Carlsbad’s city Council voted unanimously to let a billionaire L.A. developer bring a traffic-laden supermall nightmare to the unsullied shores of the city’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
The Council could have allowed 30 days for citizen feedback before approving the project, or schedule a special election to determine its fate. But all five council members chose to ignore the pleas of outspoken opponents at the August 25, 2015 Council meeting. Mayor Matt Hall claimed naysayers were led by outside interests.
He was wrong. Citizen action launched an initiative drive leading to the defeat of Measure A, a special election that stopped the developer in his tracks, wrangled an apology from the mayor, and replaced a hapless council member with the election of Cori Schumacher, a leader in the “No on A” campaign.
Fast-forward to this year’s May 9 meeting, where city leaders, on a 3 to 2 vote, bowed to the threat of a lawsuit charging the city with violating the California Voting Rights Act with its at-large elections.
Three council members, responsible enough to recognize the city’s risk of losing millions in a lawsuit, voted to adopt by-district elections. But Mayor Hall and Councilmember Mark Packard chose the politically popular path. They voted against the change, claiming abandoning at-large elections would destroy the city’s famous leadership accord. After the city collapsed in community divisiveness they could say, “We told you so.”
It came as no surprise to learn the two longest serving beneficiaries of at-large elections were the ones most threatened by change. They were unable, or unwilling, to recognize it was their cozy group-think that pitted neighbor against neighbor in the unnecessary and costly community confrontation leading to the vote on Measure A.
As it turns out, the process for creating maps of the four voting districts has been largely responsible for restoring civility to Council meetings.
It began with the hiring of a consultant, Douglas Johnson, President and Founder of the National Demographics Corporation, to draft voting district maps that comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act. Johnson, a nationally recognized expert in demographics and mapping voting districts, created three maps, dividing voters into four districts.
What was most impressive was the response to the city’s call for citizen involvement. The invitation to submit recommendations, together with detailed demographic data, made readily available on the city’s website, resulted in eight maps from nine city residents.
At its July 18 meeting the Council adopted a map drawn by two individuals who were on opposite sides of Measure A. Arnie Cohen had supported the developer’s project. Brian Flock opposed it. They came together to draw up two maps for consideration.
Notably absent from the July 18 meeting was the angry vitriol present at so many council meetings over the last two years. All public speakers who explained their preferences that night based their opinions on data, rather than self-interest.
Will district elections destroy Carlsbad’s community spirit, as Hall and Packard claim?
Before voting on the districting map, Packard, as if on cue, quoted the mayor. “The Mayor last time pointed out the history that whenever you go to a district…the elected officials quickly go to seeking only the interests of the district, opposed to the interests of the overall community and history has proven that…”
Before casting his vote, Mayor Hall echoed his fellow old guard member. “What’s made Carlsbad really great is that you’ve each had five people in the past who represent you. So, if our views choose to differ today you’ve got four others to try to align yourself with.”
Without giving their sources, Hall and Packard claim history shows district elections are invariably divisive to communities. Not according to the National League of Cities, which lists on their website the disadvantages of at-large elections, as well as the advantages of district elections, both ignored by Carlsbad’s two longtime council members.
According to the NLC, “At-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific area. District council members are more sensitive to the small but important problems of their constituents, like waste disposal. District elections may improve citizen participation because a council member who represents a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.”
In Carlsbad’s 2006 election Hall won election to the council with 35% of the vote, Packard with 30%. Each was expected to represent the best interests of 100% of voters.
At-large elections may lead to collaboration among council members, since they know it takes only a plurality of voters to keep them in office. It explains why at-large incumbents are rarely defeated.
In addition to giving more power to smaller communities in less politically influential neighborhoods, district elections open the door to candidates who are not members of the city’s old guard political network, or do not have pockets deep enough to self-fund citywide campaigns.
Take the position of mayor, for example, which will remain at-large. Matt Hall has already begun raising money to fund his campaign for reelection next year. According to his campaign committee’s latest financial disclosure statement, he’s already raised $51,000. Half of that amount came from five donors. Add another $50,000, unspent and carried over from his 2014 campaign to 15 more months of fundraising, and it should come as no surprise if he winds up running unopposed.
As for council member campaigns, the four winning candidates in the last two elections raised a total of $150,000. The cost to campaign in districts one-fourth the size of the city might be expected to fall below $10,000.
It will take more than district elections alone to keep big money developers and old guard cronyism at bay in Carlsbad. To do that will take limits on campaign contributions and terms of office.
Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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