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Too Many Choices?

[whitespace] DeCinzo Cartoon
Steve Decinzo

Vote for me, I'll set you free: Open primary. Faceless candidates. Ballot initiatives from the left and the right. And more campaign spending than you can shake a high-priced political consultant at. Fasten your seat belt--you're in for a bumpy ride at the ballot box.

Democracy out of control: Pity the perplexed voter

Edited by Greg Cahill

AS YOU'RE APPROACHING the half-hour mark in the voter booth on June 2, punching yet another hole on the state's longest and most confusing ballot ever, just remember: The road to voter hell was paved with good intentions. The reforms of the 20th century all started out as neat, direct democracy, let's-give-everybody- and-their-uncle-a-say ideas.

Take the initiative process, for instance. Gov. Hiram Johnson pushed it at a time when railroads practically owned state lawmakers. Via an initiative, the thinking went, regular joes could theoretically tackle special interests and fat cats. Now, the well-financed special interests are the ones who control the initiative process, asking us to decide on their little pet issues like contract bidding and slot machines.

And we all approve of accountability, right? But how many of us really are qualified to make choices for obscure bureaucratic posts like state controller, treasurer, or member of the Board of Equalization?

This year Californians are drowning in a sea of black ink from the newest reform measure, open primaries, approved by voters two years ago. The logic behind this one: Encourage better voter turnout by letting independents vote for Democrats or Republicans (or anybody on the ballot) and, in general, giving people more choices.

And boy, do they have choices. There are more than 100 candidates listed on the ballot for state and federal offices, a whopping 17 of them running for governor; eight state propositions require 76 pages to explain them; and, locally, seven candidates are vying just for the county 2nd Supervisorial District seat.

"This is on a scale beyond what most of us comprehend," acknowledges political science professor Terry Christensen. "I'm a Ph.D. and I don't read through half of the [ballot]. I make guesses like everybody else."

The dizzying amount of choices has left voters shell- shocked and confused. With three weeks to go until the primary, pollsters marveled at the high rate of undecided likely voters--about one in four of those who regularly turn out at the polls--in the election's prime- time feature, the gubernatorial race.

At the same time we insist on giving ourselves more choices, the electorate is lazier and less informed. With fewer Americans reading newspapers, voters are relying on television for their civic information. Unfortunately, TV news is largely ignoring statewide politics because, in the words of Los Angeles Times columnist William Bradley, "the state's TV industry ... is far more interested in profiting from manipulative [political] advertising and promoting the pooled ignorance of its newscasts than in helping Californians make informed decisions."

And if voters don't know what the hell is going on in the high-profile race for governor, how are they supposed to make informed choices about untelevised local contests for city council, judge, and water board? Historical precedent tells us they often don't bother to make a choice at all in minor-league races. According to Christensen, those who do show up at the polls regularly will just cast a vote for the marquis statewide offices or initiatives, while simply ignoring peewee officials like city council members or assessor.

To further demonstrate the pathetic state of the modern electoral process, candidates' placement on the ballot is now randomly selected instead of listed alphabetically. The reason? Because some brilliant voters are apt to vote for the candidate at the top of the ballot. Christensen estimates having the top ballot placement can mean an extra two or three percentage points for a candidate.

"We're big on democratizing the process," observes Professor Larry Gerston, an expert in election analysis, "and we're really good at subverting it."

Old New York Times columnist Walter Lippmann, a champion of representative democracy in which professionals and experts make the complex choices, criticizes the limitations of direct democracy like this: "The capacity of the general public--on which we're dependent for votes-- to take on many problems is very limited... . What public opinion can do in the end is to say yes or no. It can't do anything more complicated than that."

But these days voters often don't even say yes or no, but rather, "Huh?"

2nd State Senate District

Seems nothing goes according to plan. First, term limits force popular incumbent Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, out of the running for the 2nd State Senate District seat, diverting him to the starting gate of the 1st Congressional District race. Then, Thompson's main congressional opponent, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor, backs out to chase a U.S. Senate seat (a race from which he also bailed out of several weeks ago.) North Coast Democrats had expected Assemblywoman Valerie Brown to succeed Thompson (since Democrats have held the 2nd District since 1978), but Brown unexpectedly opted out for personal reasons, clearing the way for an array of candidates to move into the running.

Democrat Timothy Oliver Stoen--who once was the attorney for People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones, and whose 6-year-old child died in the 1978 massacre at Jonestown, Guyana--is still trying to contend with the fact that he was once Jones' associate. "One who has experienced the abuse of power has learned a profound lesson in wisdom and can more likely be trusted with power," says Stoen of his candidacy. Although now a Democrat, Stoen, 60, is a recent convert from the GOP (in his last venture, he was Republican candidate for Congress). Quite a switch. Maybe that explains why his campaign has gathered only $3,300. His main campaign issues include increasing opportunities for working class people to own stocks; crafting tougher academic standards for students; and introducing a corporate version of the Three Strikes law.

Wes Chesbro, who has raised $207,000 for his campaign, is another Democrat hoping to fill Thompson's shoes. The former Humboldt County supervisor and Arcata City Council member is now a member of the state Solid Waste Board (part of a paid full-time panel that seeks to cut the state's waste stream in half by 2000). Chesbro, 46, is also the founder of California's oldest recycling center, located on the North Coast. He cites quality of education as his top priority. His other key campaign issues include performance audits for state agencies, transferring tax revenue to local governments, cutting waste in state government, creating jobs and diversifying the north state economy, and protecting local government. Chesbro has emerged as the leading environmental candidate, garnering endorsements from key green organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Sonoma County Conservation Action Committee, both of which applaud his experience and efficacy.

Republican candidate and winery heir John Jordan (the son of Jordan Winery owner Tom Jordan) is just three years out of college, with deep pockets, and a private plane--but no political experience. That hasn't deterred the 25-year-old ex-banker from pumping more than $750,000 of his own money into a slick campaign operated from a gleaming downtown Santa Rosa office. The junior Jordan owns Kaffe Mocha, a local chain of gourmet coffeehouses, and he lures potential voters with birthday cards and coupons for free latte. Jordan cites as his main campaign issues "protection from judicial meddling" of the Three Strikes law; creating a balance between business and the environment; tax reduction; and introduction of public education reforms.

Staffers say Jordan's former campaign coordinator, Steve Henricksen (who was recently charged with six felony counts in the Petaluma voter fraud scandal-- and likely caused a few red faces), is no longer working with the campaign.

The other Republican in this race, John Pinches, is worlds away from Jordan. His penchant for wearing cowboy hats and silver belt buckles and calling rodeos in his spare time make this 46-year-old Mendocino County supervisor look like a refugee from the defunct TV show Dallas. But, unlike a J. R. Ewing wannabe, Pinches--who actually is a rancher--is operating a grassroots, all-volunteer campaign. Pinches uses hand-painted tires as campaign signs and has pledged not to accept donations of more than $49, tallying up a not-so-grand total of $16,000 so far.

He is the only candidate in the 2nd Senate District race to support the legalization of marijuana. The rancher, who neither smokes nor grows pot, has long been critical of state raids on marijuana plantations. Pinches' other issues are to redirect educational funding into classrooms, to grant local control to school districts, and to reverse the flow of tax dollars from state to local government.

Brian Garay, a Mendocino artist running unopposed for the Peace and Freedom Party, is keeping a low political profile. The Independent left him numerous messages requesting information on his campaign, but he still had not contacted us by press time.
Recommendation: Wes Chesbro

1st State Assembly District

This three-way race looks like a classic general election: one Democrat, one Republican, and one third- party candidate. But in the heavily Democratic 1st District, which reaches from Sebastopol north to Oregon, the likelihood of a partisan surprise come November is considered remote.

Incumbent Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncans Mills, made the leap from elementary school classroom to the statehouse two years ago, and has made good on her promise to concentrate on educational issues. She opposes Prop. 227, but the legislative remedy she worked for was summarily vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. Other legislative concerns from Strom-Martin have been protecting consumers from price hikes as utilities are deregulated and supporting tourism on the North Coast. She also backs rail service throughout the district and protection for the Headwaters Forest.

Republican Sam Crump is a young, ambitious attorney who is looking to move up after a single contentious term on the Sebastopol City Council. He won that term with the strong backing of the city's police union, and reciprocated by giving the Police Department a bigger slice of the beget, while opposing public funds for local non-profits. His role as spokesman for a business coalition pushing for the widening of Highway 101 has connected him with the county's power brokers outside of his hometown, but also angered many in Sebastopol who felt he was slighting the city's needs while carrying the banner for outsiders. Smooth and personable in conversation, he has proved deceptively conservative and combative in office.

He also has earned an environmentalist F grade from Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Injecting some welcome life into this race is Pam Elizondo, a frequent Peace and Freedom candidate who is making her fourth low-budget run for the statehouse since 1986. Her platform rests on two planks: corporate reform to rein in "the rich guys" (along with restructuring of the business tax code to reward good corporate citizenship) and the decriminalization and commercialization of both hemp and marijuana. "Hardly anybody thinks about what I believe in," Elizondo says. Maybe they should.
Recommendation: Virginia Strom-Martin

6th State Assembly District

It remains to be seen whether 6th State Assembly District incumbent Kerry Mazzoni, D-Novato, can hold on to her position for another term. Many think she can. The former member of the Novato Unified School District board of trustees had landslide wins in 1994 and 1996 and continues to maintain her popularity. One sure bet: she'll nail the primary since there's no Democratic challenger.

Since her election to the state Legislature in 1994, Mazzoni's package has focused on educational reform. She chairs the Assembly Education Committee and has played a key role in class-size reduction. Mazzoni has authored bills to expand the beginning-teacher support and assessment program statewide and to require teachers to demonstrate competency in computer use. She has also made transportation, seniors, and the environment key aspects of her legislation.

One of Mazzoni's challengers is Russ Weiner. This buttoned-down 28-year-old travel consultant/events producer is a Sausalito resident and a staunch Republican. He is co-founder of the 4,000-member Paul Revere Society--a conservative educational and fraternal organization "to preserve the borders, language, and culture of America," which he created two years ago with his father, conservative KSFO talk- show host Michael Savage. Weiner is against bilingual education and supports the idea of "one nation, one language." He opposes reducing the simple minority vote needed to approve school bonds. Weiner is also against recent legislative efforts to ban assault weapons.

Republican Peter Romanowsky is a 48-year-old minister and marine salvager. A member of the New Covenant Evangelistic Association, he works as a chaplain for the low-income waterfront community in Sausalito. He lives on a 30-foot houseboat anchored off the town. Romanowsky says education is his main concern and he supports a publicly funded school voucher program. He advocates downsizing prisons by placing non-violent offenders convicted of minor crimes into job-training programs to save money to pay for the school vouchers.

Ed Sullivan of San Anselmo, a 60-year old printing company owner also running in the Republican primary, cites improvements in education as his top priority and supports state standardized testing. Sullivan's goal is to stop "dumbing down our classrooms just to make children feel good." He does not support banning bilingual education. He also wants to eliminate the gasoline additive MTBE.

Perennial Peace and Freedom candidate and self- proclaimed dark horse Coleman C. Persily, 82, doesn't expect to win (this is his fifth election bid) but wants to spread the word on P&F Party issues. His agenda includes building more affordable housing, getting rent control for mobile homes and apartments, abolishing the Three Strikes law, and opposing the proposed ban on bilingual education.
Recommendation: Kerry Mazzoni

Pat Wiggins A vision for the future: Santa Rosa City Councilwoman and state Assembly candidate Pat Wiggins has innovative ideas for the North Bay.

Michael Amsler

7th State Assembly District

Democratic incumbent Valerie Brown may have been forced out of this year's election by state term limits, but she has selected her successor for 7th District State Assembly: John Latimer, 31, who has been Brown's chief of staff since 1992 and recently moved back to Santa Rosa after spending 10 years in Sacramento.

Still, critics grumble he's an outsider, but Latimer counters that he was born and raised in Sonoma County. His three key campaign issues are to increase funding for K-12 schools; to increase investment in streets, highways and mass transit; and to improve health care. Most of his $202,000 campaign funds reportedly hail from outside the district, along with a generous $50,000 from mentor Valerie Brown's reserves.

However, Democrat and Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Pat Wiggins, who also has worked for Brown's campaigns, has thrown her hat into the ring. Wiggins, 58, has clearly demonstrated her commitment to improving the local economy and protecting a strong agricultural base. She championed a successful urban growth boundary measure in Santa Rosa, and is a vocal opponent of the City Council majority's plan to dispose of treated waste water by pumping it into the geothermal Geysers rather than using it for agriculture. Wiggins, a computer systems analyst and 14-year Santa Rosa resident, has raised $99,000 and embraces campaign finance reform via voluntary spending limits. She also ranks education high on her list of priorities and advocates job training for students who are not college bound. Wiggins has racked up an impressive list of endorsers, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, former state Sen. Joseph Rattigan, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Assemblywoman Virginia-Strom-Martin, and Supervisor Mike Reilly.

Democrat Deborah Russell is a Napa real estate agent whose leading benefactor has been the California Association of Realtors, which has contributed $149,000 to her campaign, or roughly half of her total campaign tally thus far. She cites education, health care, and law enforcement as her key issues.

Democrat Ernest Demuth, 72, a retired teacher who lives in American Canyon, says he is especially capable of working in the areas of education, child protection, and welfare. Considered a long shot, Demuth, whose motto is "Let's vote on the issues, not who's got the most money," adds that he has provided his entire campaign fund of $11,500 "from my own personal fortune as a Valley grade-school teacher."

Libertarian Mike Rodrigues, a 45-year-old entrepreneur and Napa resident, has big plans. They include privatization of public schools, repealing California state income tax, returning the California Legislature to part-time volunteer status, eliminating the California car tax, fighting to stop "politically correct" gun laws, removing the additive MTBE from gasoline, and "getting the government out of the Internet and personal communications."

As for the Republican candidate: "No one will be tougher on criminals than Bob Sanchez," states the campaign literature for this tough Napa banker, who was an early supporter of "Three Strikes and You're Out." Sanchez, the sole Republican in this race, wants to introduce legislation making it mandatory that criminals serve their full sentence in jail. He also advocates school choice and an "academics-centered" curriculum.

Peace and Freedom candidate and long-time rabble-rouser Irv Sutley did not return repeated calls for information on his campaign.
Recommendation: Pat Wiggins

Jane Hamilton
Michael Amsler

Up to the task: Petaluma City Councilmember Jane Hamilton.

2nd Supervisorial District

Blaming health problems, longtime county supe Jim Harberson last year unexpectedly withdrew from the supervisorial race after holding the seat for 14 years and cleared the way for a whole crop of candidates who are now vying to represent the South County.

Unfortunately, there is little to distinguish the seven hopefuls, who for the most part are confoundingly clonelike on many of the key issues facing the district.

This year's buzz words: preserving open space and the environment, and widening Highway 101. The candidates themselves have even commented on their lack of diverse viewpoints.

One bright spot is Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton, who is backed by the Petaluma City Council majority and is a favorite of environmentalist groups. Hamilton, 47, a two-term City Council member, gained kudos a couple of years ago for her responsiveness and support of the public during the unpopular Lafferty Ranch swap proposal that eventually resulted in the uncovering of a huge voter-fraud scandal. She supports urban growth boundaries and would like to see the 2nd District grow at a somewhat slower rate.

If elected, Hamilton says she will be accessible to the community and will regularly appear at the Petaluma and Cotati City Council meetings (in the past, critics had accused incumbent Harberson of being "invisible" because he rarely attended city meetings).

Petaluma City Council member Nancy Read, 47, a former staff member for Rep. Lynn Woolsey, also has entered the race--no surprise since Harberson has groomed her to be his successor. Voters may recall that Read was staunchly in favor of the ill-fated Lafferty-Moon ranch swap proposal, despite intense public opposition. Her main campaign pledges are to bring a relief to traffic congestion, beef up public safety, and focus on urban growth.

As a council member, she is a member of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District, and says improving conditions on Highway 101 is her top priority.

The third familiar face is Rohnert Park Mayor Linda Spiro, the only candidate who lives outside Petaluma, where 57 percent of the district's voters reside. She may have a tough time gaining votes. Spiro, 54, serving her third term on the Rohnert Park City Council, is a pro-growth candidate and is under fire by environmentalists for her support of Measure A, a Rohnert Park urban growth boundary initiative that many say is a pro-growth sham.

"Never saw a development proposal she didn't like," notes the Sonoma County Conservation Action election newsletter.

Labor attorney Dave King, 41, although considered a long shot, has made an impressive campaign start by walking neighborhoods and following up his visits with personal notes to community members, making reference to the issues. King, a member of the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee, advocates preserving the environment, curtailing uncontrolled growth, and improving transportation on Highway 101. King says he has a "cynical view"of Sutter Health/CHS (the conglomerate to which the county has leased Community Hospital) and contends that if the hospital is not operating under the contract agreements, as supervisor he would work to terminate the controversial lease.

Touting herself as the business community's candidate, Kathleen Doyle, 47, who owns her own accounting business in Petaluma and is a past president of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, is not concerned that she has less name recognition than other, more high-profile candidates. She says her budget management experience will be an asset to county government. She does not support voter-mandated urban growth boundaries.

Longtime law enforcement officer Gary Johnson, 46, a senior investigator for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is considered a long shot. He has twice been elected to the Old Adobe School District board of trustees. His main issues are improving transportation and traffic and fixing flooding problems. He says he would be "totally against" local creation of a civilian police review board.

Petaluma Police Sgt. Mike Kerns is an amiable 25-year police veteran probably best known for his low-key news briefings when he was department spokesman during the 1993 Polly Klaas kidnap-murder case. Kerns, 51, has been elected twice as a trustee for the Waugh School District. He is known in the community and has served as an instructor for the Police Department's anti-drug programs. His main issues are tougher crime prevention, improved transportation, and the curbing of urban sprawl.

Because of the unlikelihood of a clear majority winner, it is expected that the two top vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
Recommendation: Jane Hamilton

4th Supervisorial District

It's easy to underestimate Paul Kelley. He was never the favorite to win election four years ago, and he has maintained a unusually low profile through most of his first term--and most of the campaign season to date-- giving his three challengers as small a target as possible. At the same time, however, he has quietly consolidated his support among the building and winemaking industries in his district, amassing considerable financial resources for his re-election bid.

Not surprisingly, he is pro-business, wants to expand Highway 101 but is skeptical about commuter rail, and favors the continued exploitation of Russian River resources. His dubious claims as an environmentalist rest primarily in the Open Space District's acquisition of extensive lands in the 4th District during his term in office.

Kelley's conservative positions clearly set him apart from the three other candidates, all of whom give stronger voice to liberal and environmental concerns. Bill Patterson, Bill Smith, and Greg Wonderwheel are all supportive of urban growth boundaries, would like to see Santa Rosa's wastewater used for agriculture, and oppose continued gravel mining in the middle reach of the Russian River. Wonderwheel, a former public employees' union official who in 1996 led the charge against Sutter's takeover of county-owned Community Hospital, has some pointed ideas about the inner workings of county government, and has proposed a "children's budget" that would give priority to funding programs that benefit children.

The two Bills have the most in common, including the strongest environmental credentials among the four. Patterson, a Green Party activist, is more assertive in his support for the commuter rail proposal, while Smith has won the endorsement of Sonoma County Conservation Action. Both also cite their business experience as an additional asset, Patterson as a small business owner and Smith as an attorney for Codding Enterprises.

With three challengers poised to carve up the anti- Kelley vote, instead of a single standard bearer confronting the incumbent, the prospect for change in the North County's representation on the Board of Supervisors is not encouraging.
Recommendation: Bill Smith

DA Mike Mullins
Janet Orsi

None of the above: Withhold your vote from DA Mike Mullins.

Sonoma County Sheriff
Sonoma County District Attorney

The two top law-enforcement officials in the county-- District Attorney Mike Mullins and Sheriff Jim Piccinini--have found their departments at the center of a firestorm of controversy in recent years.

Both are running unopposed.

Is that a vote of confidence or an indication that no right-thinking person would want to step into the mire that has amassed around these offices?

Only time will tell--it's unlikely that this election will offer any answers.

Perhaps, as the old adage goes, we do get the kind of government that we deserve. If that's the case, then these uncontested races--which hold an uncanny resemblance to the old Soviet-style single-candidate political system--bear silent witness to some serious karmic debt, resulting either from our unwillingness to take control of our political lives or from the fact that we feel utterly powerless to change a system that has a knee-deep indifference to the public's concerns.

Mullins took office four years ago, the hand-picked successor of longtime District Attorney Gene Tunney. A scrappy, diminutive ex-boxer with a combative nature, Mullins promised during his first political campaign to beef up prosecution of domestic violence cases. While he has played plenty of lip service to that mission, even some of those in his office point out that Mullins harbors resentment toward reforms and is reluctant to make any real changes in the department's domestic violence policies and procedures--approaches that were criticized by the state Attorney General's Office after the 1996 death of Maria Teresa Macias, a Sonoma housekeeper and mother of three who was gunned down by her estranged husband after the Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office failed to enforce a restraining order or pursue a complaint of stalking.

Mullins instituted some token reforms after a blue- ribbon panel found fatal flaws in the way his department handles domestic violence cases. But there is no indication that he has had a change of heart.

Piccinini came on board last year after Sheriff Mark Ihde and then his replacement, John Scully, suffered health problems. Piccinini assumed command of a department fraught with problems: criticism of the way deputies mishandled the Macias case, as well as other domestic violence reports; numerous sexual harassment complaints filed by female patrol deputies and investigators against fellow deputies and supervisors at a time when Piccinini served as patrol captain; the recent in-custody deaths of several inmates held at the county jail; the escape of two prisoners; and charges that top brass covered up the extent of a recent investigation in which more than two dozen jail guards used the Internet to download pornography while on duty.

Currently, the state Board of Corrections is reviewing policies and procedures at the county jail, thanks to a $35,000 contract awarded by the Board of Supervisors.

A lot of observers are taking a wait-and-see approach toward Piccinini, giving him the benefit of the doubt. But one underreported incident (it was discussed a few months ago during testimony at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Santa Rosa) has led others to question the sincerity of Piccinini's claim that he plans to reform the department. Shortly after being sworn in for his current position, Piccinini called together several female deputies and county jail guards to discuss sexual harassment. Sounds encouraging, except that Piccinini asked them to sign documents swearing that they had not been the victims of sexual harassment-- a situation that could later put their job in jeopardy if they were to file such a complaint. Piccinini has said he was only trying to get to the bottom of the situation, but critics point out that any good law- enforcement official should know that the sensitive nature of sexual harassment and the intimidation felt by victims often preclude the filing of reports for many years. Piccinini's tactic has put the victims to blame.

Not exactly a shining example of the kind of enlightened leadership needed to ferret out deeply entrenched female-bashing staffers who have blemished the name of a department that boasts many competent, hard- working deputies who have been screwed over in past years by administrations more bent on rewarding friends than on building morale.
Recommendation: Withhold your vote for these two candidates as a sign that you expect more of the county's top law-enforcement officials.

Proposition 219

This year, there are initiatives on the ballot that regulate minutiae such as how educators should teach non-English-speaking students, how government contracts should be bid, and how the courts should be run. Once, these were decisions we left to professionals-- the educators in the field, administrators, and legal experts. No longer. In his new book, Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, Peter Schrag points out that ballot initiatives have steadily chipped away at the power of the Legislature, county boards of supervisors, school boards, city councils, and courts. Ballot initiatives have limited elected official's terms in office, capped property tax assessments, abolished affirmative action in public education, and mandated Three Strikes sentencing. The irony is that, in the name of democracy, ballot initiatives usurp power from the people we elect to look at the whole system and shape policy for the state. If the ballot initiative was a response to a feeling that elected officials did not carry out the will of the people, the proliferation of initiatives has thrown power to an initiative industry that runs "astroturf" campaigns that fake grassroots support, pays for signatures, and often gives us poorly written, ill-conceived, and unworkable laws. With this in mind, we has evaluated the initiatives on the ballot this June and recommended a yes vote on only two, Propositions 219 and 220. Prop. 219 at least prevents initiative- framers from penalizing voters who disagree with their propositions, and Prop. 220 uses the initiative process in the way it was meant.
Recommendation: Yes on 219

Proposition 220

This would disintegrate the two-tiered trial court system. And despite our protests, this is one of the few cases in which a proposition is necessary because it requires an amendment to the state constitution. As it now exists, municipal court judges handle the small stuff--misdemeanors, civil suits of less than $20,000, and penny-ante infractions. The superior-court judges handle felonies, family law, and big-bucks civil suits. If Prop. 220 passes, it would consolidate the two courts within a county as long as it's approved by the majority of that county's muni and superior court judges. The merger could break up the logjam of backed-up cases in both courts by keeping the judges' dockets full and the courtrooms occupied. Fiscal effect is unknown, but anything that keeps those folks earning their $90,000-plus salary is OK in our book.
Recommendation: Yes on 220

Proposition 221

Prop 221 would shift the authority for disciplining the state's court commissioners and referees, the so-called "subordinate judicial officers" who serve as judges for such things as traffic cases and some family and small claims matters. Right now, the presiding judge of each local court appoints them and then handles any disciplinary proceedings against them. Prop. 221 would change the law so that the state's Commission on Judicial Performance would be responsible. The commission presently has disciplinary authority over the state's judges. This idea was so popular in the state Legislature--which supported it by a combined 111-1 vote--that one wonders why the members didn't just pass it into law themselves. The answer comes with the name of one of the proposition's chief supporters: state Senate Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Tim Leslie, who happens to be running for lieutenant governor. Maybe he thought that the "Leslie Initiative" would give him free publicity. We hope not. This seems like another misuse of the initiative process. Proponents say that because the CJP does not presently discipline commissioners and referees, we are left with such "horror" stories as commissioners awarding child custody to pedophiles and drug abusers. But when is the last time you ever, ever heard of the CJP disciplining any of the judges over which the commissioners do have authority?
Recommendation: No on 221

Proposition 222

Lock the door and throw away the key. This is the basic tenant of Prop. 222, which promises to wipe out the criminal-justice provision that allows second-degree murderers, whose crime is not premeditated, to trim part of their 15- to 25-year sentences for hard work and good behavior. The proposition also cracks down on cop-killers, upping the sentence for second-degree murder of a police officer from 25 years to life-- to life without parole. California Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, the measure's sponsor, says 222 will sew shut a loophole that has allowed murderers to "manipulate the work-credit system" and reduce their sentences. Duh-- that's the whole idea of the work-credit system. This boils down to a fundamental difference in thinking about prisoners. Its supporters argue that murderers should serve the maximum sentence with no parole-- no matter what. Opponents believe that criminals have the potential for rehabilitation and should be given the opportunity to earn for themselves a second chance. We agree.
Recommendation: No on 222

Proposition 223

This is another one of those chameleon ballot measure that sends out one message and delivers an opposite result. A yes vote means schools get less money. Prop. 223 claims it will trim down bureaucracies at California schools by limiting the dollars a district can spend on administration. Deemed the "95-to-5" initiative, it allows a school to spend only 5 percent of its total state and federal funds on administration. The remaining 95 percent will be reserved exclusively for the classrooms. But since someone still needs to buy cafeteria food, repair buses, and send out teachers' paychecks, this will only force districts to restructure their finances. It would also create additional administrative tasks. First, someone will have to document and classify all of the district's services as either the 95 percent that supports classrooms or the 5 percent that are administrative. Then, districts will need to creatively refinance in order to save important services. These tasks, of course, will fall under the "5 percent," creating one more unneeded administrative cost. Prop. 223 would simply mean still another layer of accounting and reporting.
Recommendation: No on 223

Proposition 224

Anytime the California Labor Federation and the California Republican Party team up against a mutual foe, chances are good the opponent is a creature of curious dimensions. Prop. 224, sponsored by the state's civil engineers' union, would work this way: Anytime the state needed to build a road or a dam or anything else costing more than $50,000, interested companies and the state itself would submit estimates to the state controller to see who could do it cheapest (currently the state picks firms, then discusses money). The first catch is that whereas private companies would have to list all expenses, including the state's project monitoring costs, the state would have to list only direct costs, like materials, the logic being that costs, like administration, are already in place independent of particular projects. The second catch is that the Controller's Office would swell like a diseased gland as hundreds of projects came through for approval each year. Opponents have hinted darkly at the controller becoming a "contract czar." And just imagine the bureaucratic backlog. Opponents of Prop. 224 say it's a rigged system that discourages competitive bidding and would unfairly award most contracts to the state, taking jobs from thousands of unionized construction workers to the benefit of a select group of state employees. And didn't we elect someone to handle this sort of thing, anyway?
Recommendation: No on 224

Proposition 225

There is one really bad thing about Prop. 225, and it has nothing to do with term limits. First off, let's get one thing straight: Prop. 225 is not a direct vote on congressional term limits. That has already been voted on by Californians, and that has already been declared unconstitutional by the courts. Now, term-limit supporters are attempting to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment. Prop. 225 would make support of such an amendment the official position of the state of California, it would require all state and federal legislators from California to work to pass the amendment, and it would require that ballots identify in writing any candidates who refuse to support such a term-limit amendment. Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that this proposition would allow voters in Long Beach and Humboldt County a say in the election of representatives from Silicon Valley and what they must do after they are elected. That's bad enough. Worse yet: If passed, the proposition would open the door for all sorts of "ballot position statements" on all sorts of issues. Supporters of both sides of the abortion issue might want "yes or no" statements on this question from candidates put on the ballot. And what about the death penalty? Or environmental protection vs. economic development? Or affirmative action? Once you open the door for one issue, you pretty much have to open the door for all. Bad idea.
Recommendation: No on 225

Proposition 226

Drafted by a coterie of hardball conservatives, Prop. 226 has been dressed up to look like the gingham- frocked, freckle-faced buddy of working men and women who have no say over where their union dues go. Its architects even called it the "paycheck protection" act for a while. But Prop. 226, which would require all employees to give permission to their labor unions before their dues could be used for political activities, is a thinly veiled attempt to gum up the works and sap the strength behind union political clout. For one thing, union members democratically elect officers to spend their dues wisely. If they don't like their officers' choices, members can vote them out of office. For another thing, California law already allows union members to request that their dues not be used for political purposes. Prop. 226, designed to go into effect July 1, would seriously impede unions' abilities to affect California's November elections, since officials would be rushing to administer and collect a form that hasn't even been developed yet before they could legally spend dues on campaign issues. Similar initiatives already have passed in Washington and Wyoming. Prop. 226 is a national effort to hush the voice of labor--and California is a key state.
Recommendation: No on 226

Proposition 227

Drafted by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, Prop. 227, or the "English for the Children" initiative, proposes to end bilingual education statewide when school starts this fall. Unz believes that students are best served in classes where English is spoken, and English only. Instead of the current system, in which students can be taught in their native language and gradually eased into English-only classes, the Unz initiative would give students a year to get up to speed. After that, they would be placed in regular classes without additional help. Proponents, which include Gov. Pete Wilson, say parents could request waivers allowing their children to stay in bilingual classes. But finding a class will be difficult--the initiative allows for one only if 20 students in each grade have a need for bilingual instruction. Every candidate for governor has opposed Prop. 227, including Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren. And while educators agree that some overhaul of the bilingual system is necessary, they believe that if Prop. 227 passes, the state will be left with an overregulated system forcing children into a rigid English-only environment before they are ready. This could lead to continuing underachievement for non-native speakers on tests. This initiative has politics more in mind than the interests of children. Education should not be regulated by an initiative, but reformed by educational professionals who truly know how to give English to the children.
Recommendation: No on 227

Reporters Cecily Barnes, J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, Will Harper, Paula Harris, Tracy Hukill, Eric Johnson, Michael Learmonth, and Bruce Robinson contributed to this article.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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