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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Politics of Place: SCAN member Pete Shanks thinks district elections are a bad idea, but that even if they pass it won't change the philosophical composition of the council.

Boundary Issues

Should Santa Cruz abandon citywide voting for City Council in favor of district elections? Some say yes, some say no but everyone says it won't make a damn bit of difference.

By John Yewell

THE MAY 31 membership meeting of the Santa Cruz Action Network was running way behind schedule. A pandemonium-filled debate had broken out, degenerating into a shouting match between the SCAN-backed mayor of Santa Cruz, Keith Sugar, and the soon-to-be SCAN-backed residents of the Dolphin and Lee apartments in Beach Flats.

At issue were the city's plans for providing new housing for the residents of the substandard apartments, but all anyone heard was name-calling. This was no mere lapse in decorum: Personal attacks ricocheted off the walls, and progressive credentials were questioned as the participants seemed determined to demonstrate that democracy can be a messy business.

Through it all, Norm Lezin just smiled.

The Salz Leather exec, former mayor and 50-year county resident had come to speak on behalf of his cause: district elections for the Santa Cruz City Council. Along with former council candidate Rod Quartararo and Santa Cruz County Republican Party Central Committee Chair Vic Marani (who was not there representing the party), the affable Lezin waited to make his appeal. Later, after the dust had settled, Lezin looked back at the chaos and held it up as an example of what is wrong with politics in Santa Cruz. As an object lesson in how not to run a meeting--or by extension, in some minds, a city--this night would be hard to top.

"When they see that vote," Lezin says, "it will only support the conclusion that we need district elections."

That vote, when it finally came, was 47-to-2 ("sounds like a Reed College basketball score," says Lezin, in a reference to his alma mater) against district elections. But Lezin hardly seemed disappointed. "This is going to help us," Lezin said with a smile. "A lot of folks are suspicious of SCAN, for good reason. People are ready for a change."

To Lezin, Quartararo and the other members of Neighborhoods 2000, the group that organized the successful petition drive that put the charter amendment on the November ballot, the issue of district elections is more than a vote on how to choose a municipal government: It is, says Lezin, "a repudiation of this City Council."

It is also, he says, a referendum on SCAN.

Does It Really Matter?

LEZIN'S APPROACH concerns Pete Shanks. Shanks is on the SCAN election committee and one of the organization's more thoughtful members. It was Shanks who wrote the in-depth study on the potential impact of district elections that was the basis for the membership's vote opposing the ballot measure. But he understands the pitfalls of allowing the issue to degenerate into a battle of personalities--as happens so often in the small world of Santa Cruz politics.

"It shouldn't be a lot of people in the progressive wing feeling biased against it because of who is proposing it. And the reverse is true: those who don't like [Mayor Keith] Sugar are in favor of it," Shanks says. "This is shaping up as a left-right referendum. This kind of issue shouldn't have to go that way. It's a process issue."

Shanks' study concludes that the negatives of district elections outweigh the positives, but the route to that conclusion is not a straight line. Along the way, Shanks debunks some of the assumptions that many SCAN supporters have made about the initiative's impact. For one thing, Shanks casts doubt on the most common conclusion of those opposed to district elections: that it's a stealth effort to throw future council majorities to the moderates by marginalizing the university vote.

If it was the intention of the organizers to gerrymander the districts to that end, writes Shanks, they did a poor job of it.

"Essentially, this is an incompetent rather than an abusive form of districting," Shanks writes. "The proof lies in the fact that it could have been gerrymandered and that it really wasn't."

By comparing recent election results by candidates and proposed districts, Shanks concludes that if voting patterns repeat themselves--a big if, in some minds--progressives of the type that currently form the council majority should be able to stay in the majority under the district system. Sugar won in every hypothetical district except for what would be the conservative District 1.

"Progressives ... should be able to rely on a council majority, and can hope for five of the seven seats consistently."

"Heck," he concludes with a narrative wink, "maybe we should even campaign for it."

The funny thing is, almost everyone who has studied the ballot question agrees on the one thing: that district elections won't have much of an impact on the philosophical makeup of the council, at least in the near term. The fears on the political left of a moderate takeover, both sides say, are simply unfounded.

"If this measure passes, it won't make a bit of difference to the majority stronghold on the council," says Nora Hochman, longtime trade unionist and SCAN member.

Lezin agrees. "In the short run I don't think it will make a lot of difference." The point to the initiative, in his view, is that "it changes the relationship and accountability to a constituency."

One major concern for opponents is the requirement that candidates get at least 50 percent of the vote on the November ballot or face a run-off a month later. According to the League of California Cities, only four of 31 cities known to the League to conduct elections by district had a run-off system.

And Shanks points out that, despite the fears of opponents, it's just as likely that a run-off could be result in a progressive victory as not.

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Retail Politics: The Mechanics of Districts.

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Whys and Wherefores

THE ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR of district elections are, in a way, easier to make, because they are philosophical and sidestep practical political considerations.

The two reasons most frequently mentioned by supporters are that districts create more direct access and therefore greater accountability. Candidates have to target a smaller voter pool with more defined, common interests.

In theory, campaigns in a smaller area would also be cheaper, although there is no way to assure that. One thing seems certain: the small geographical areas would make door-to-door campaigning easier, which tends to change political dynamics. This might, according to some, result in greater voter participation.

Many voters would feel less intimidated in approaching the council if they knew who represented them, and there would also likely be higher expectations as a result. It is hard to minimize the attraction of people having their own councilmember to call on.

Besides, say promoters, district elections work in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose and Watsonville, so what's all the fuss about?

All this is open to interpretation. For example, even though it has a much smaller population than Santa Cruz, district elections were forced on Watsonville in 1989 by the Supreme Court for the specific purpose of encouraging more minority representation--a problem that doesn't exist to nearly the same extent in Santa Cruz. As for larger cities, they usually institute district elections for two reasons, also neither of which apply to Santa Cruz: (1) because the cities are too big to make citywide campaigns feasible and (2) to negate the influence of big-money interests that usually control City Hall through downtown development.

But it is the proposed district lines themselves that come in for the most criticism among initiative opponents. First, they say, the city is already too small to carve up into districts.

In his study, Shanks argues that Santa Cruz is physically too small and its populace too mobile, both for jobs and new homes, to make districts workable. "These districts are too big to be neighborhoods and too small to reflect people's lives."

And although the measure purports to empower neighborhoods, the lines as drawn would actually sever in two some well-defined neighborhoods. The Westside circles, Beach Flats and the Seabright neighborhoods would each be split. District 2, by contrast, twists and turns from upper Ocean Street south to the north end of the Yacht Harbor.

Quartararo says the lines--which were the same used in a failed 1995 signature-gathering attempt to put district elections on the ballot--"weren't drawn with any prior intent. There was no analysis of voting patterns." Indeed, there seems to have been little analysis at all, apart from achieving numerical balance.

Perhaps the strongest argument against district elections is one that is often overlooked.

According to a 1998 study of voter rolls by former Santa Cruz Mayor Bruce Van Allen, 75 percent of registered voters in the city are renters, up from 53 percent in 1992. Renters tend to move frequently, but district-election rules require a councilmember to give up the seat if he or she moves out of the district. The council would also be required to redraw the lines every 10 year after the census, but the new lines would have to remain as faithful as possible to the original--and would be drawn by the very people who were elected under the old system and therefore would have a stake in maintaining the status quo.


Courtesy of Santa Cruz Neighborhoods 2000

Vote by Numbers: Opponents say district elections fix a problem that doesn't exist. Supporters say they will bring much-needed accountability to a discredited City Council.

Political Calculus

SHOULD DISTRICT ELECTIONS pass in November, the repercussions would be felt for at least two election cycles. None of the councilmembers who would be up for re-election in 2002 would be able to run without moving. That year, Districts 5, 6 and 7 would be on the ballot, but incumbents Sugar and Christopher Krohn both live in what would be District 3, while the third incumbent, Tim Fitzmaurice, lives in what would be District 4.

Another intriguing dynamic is set up for 2004, when councilmembers elected in this year's citywide vote would be up for re-election. If district elections pass on the same ballot, Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 would be on the ballot as designated by the proposed charter amendment.

But none of the three most often mentioned as candidates this year could run for reelection in 2004 without moving: not Scott Kennedy, who lives in District 5; nor Celia Scott or Emily Reilly, both of whom live in District 6.

Regarding Scott, SCAN election committee member Fred Geiger says his group has developed a list of four potential candidates, and although he would not reveal the names, he did confirm that Scott's name is not on it. Scott could not be reached for comment on her intentions regarding the November City Council election.

Current councilmember Michael Hernandez, who lives in what would be District 3, is likely to run for re-election this year, but he would be ineligible to run for re-election in 2004 due to the two-consecutive-terms limit on councilmembers.

Shanks says that in its search for candidates SCAN has not considered where candidates live in the event district elections pass. "No one has sat down and done that."

But the search for candidates highlights another issue that one side sees as a flaw and the other sees as a plus.

Opponents like Shanks say that it is hard enough to find good candidates and that having to choose from a limited pool within a district will make it that much harder--effectively eliminating good candidates who live in other districts. Supporters see that as a plus, since it encourages greater citizen involvement in government.

At the same time, this raises the issue of just who represents whom and whether district representation is fundamentally in the best interests of democracy.

Opponents argue that neighborhoods and their issues would actually suffer from district representation. With only one representative to make your case, you're out of luck if your councilmember doesn't side with you. Districts tend to create fiefdoms, and it can be difficult to approach a councilmember who
doesn't need your vote to carry water for you if your councilmember won't.

With citywide elections, voters can usually find one of the seven councilmembers to help. With that in mind, opponents argue, why would anyone give up his or her right to have a say in electing all seven councilmembers in favor of being able to vote for only one--and only every four years, instead of every two?

There is another potential problem with districts: fiefdoms encourage grandstanding. It's not unusual for councilmembers in cities with districts to pontificate against a problem in their district--to placate a squeaky wheel--while giving a wink to their colleagues in the back room to ignore them.

You rarely hear these arguments against district elections applied to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. Supporters of districts argue that the county system is proof that the only guarantee of fair representation is to have someone whose first priority is a neighborhood and its issues.

Ironically, each side points to MetroBase to support its view that it is the best guarantor of neighborhood interests. Opponents of districts argue that the proposal for a consolidated bus yard on the Westside is dead or dying because of citywide voting. Had there been districts, they say, six of the seven councilmembers would have had less political incentive to oppose the plan. Supporters of districts argue that the issue might have been resolved much earlier had there been a single councilmember elected from the area looking out for the neighborhood.

Currently there is no councilmember from what would be District 7, where the proposed bus yard would be located.

Taking Stock

THE LEADERS OF THE latest movement to amend the charter to create district elections admit that they are motivated in part out of antipathy for the current majority on the City Council. In that regard, the ballot measure is a symptom of the polarization of Santa Cruz politics. That's probably a lousy reason to vote for it, which is not to say there aren't good reasons to vote for it.

Meanwhile, the debate over districting has spawned a parallel discussion over alternatives. Some have suggested the City Council put its own district election proposal on the ballot to compete with Neighborhoods 2000.

Others have put forward the idea of proportional voting, which would weight individual votes for candidates by order of selection according to the number of open seats.

Still others have suggested a council elected by districts with a mayor elected city-wide--or perhaps some combination of systems.

According to the League of California Cities, Downey has one councilmember elected at-large but the rest by districts.

There are also a half dozen cities, including San Leandro and Woodside in Northern California, that nominate council candidates from districts but elect them at-large.

As a charter amendment, the consequences of this election will endure, because it cannot be changed by passage of an ordinance by a future council.

But whatever the outcome of this November's referendum, it seems the debate is not likely to end soon.

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From the June 7-14, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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