Opinion - Elk Grove’s Voting Structure: Is This What We Meant By Local Control?

By Connie Conley | November 15, 2014 | Something needs to be done regarding how we elect members to the Elk Grove City Council.   W...

By Connie Conley | November 15, 2014 |

Something needs to be done regarding how we elect members to the Elk Grove City Council.   We hear the phrase “unintended consequences” all the time for decisions that come back to bite us in the backside.  Over the last two years, we have been bitten big time and it will only continue if we don’t make some necessary changes.  This is just one of them.

We need to have a discussion once again about making a change in our voting system; that being single member districts or SMDs.  [To clarify, currently the four Elk Grove City Council members must reside in the district they represent; however they are elected by voters citywide.] 

Revisiting the concept of single member districts won’t be a popular one with some folks who were very active when our city’s governance was under the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.   However, Elk Grove can no longer be compared to the county of Sacramento.  SMDs are the most common voting system in the United States.   The majority of cities in California have single member districts, and there are very good reasons why.

To quickly address a current hot topic: The city of Sacramento now has a vacancy because a midterm council member was just elected to the CA State Assembly.  Sound familiar?  Because the city of Sacramento has single member districts, the cost for a special election is only $200,000 compared to the medium cost of $500,000 for the city of Elk Grove for the exact same predicament.  If we had SMDs, the cost for a special election would be well under $200,000 because our district voting population is much smaller than Sacramento's. 

With our current election system, and the potential of an appointment to the city council every two years, a single district special election would ensure that the democratic process would not be in jeopardy as it is now. We could ask that a line-item be put in odd years' budget for a special election.  If the money was not used, it could fund other projects or be put in reserves. 

Additionally, the argument that a council member would only care about his or her district would not be the same as it was with the county of Sacramento. Our city is 14 years old now and we have established our own governance history and evolution. For example, our city’s election history is dismal. 

The number of voters who cast their ballots but don’t bother to vote in city council races is deplorable.  For example, in the last election alone, over 30,000 votes could have been cast.  This speaks directly to the voters in our city that appear to be so disenfranchised, they thought it a waste of their time to have a democratic say so in who represents them. Would voter apathy change if the voter actually had a more noticeable relationship with his or her council member? Studies say SMDs are easier for the voters to understand.
As we have seen, three of the council seats, as well as the mayoral seat, have all run unopposed in the last two election cycles.  The only reason qualified candidates don’t run comes down to the almighty dollar.  We need to level the playing field.  Single member districts would accomplish just that for the council seats.  The mayoral seat election would, of course, remain as it is currently.

Because we are facing yet another appointment process, how we are currently electing, or aren’t electing, our city council members, is not working.  Time to ensure other very qualified people have a fighting chance to run for office and win!

In revisiting single member districts, there are benefits we should consider.  Think about it?  Could a long-time community activist have a fighting chance to unseat an incumbent if they only have to campaign in their respective district?  And to be very clear, I am not talking about myself.  Or for that matter, could a newcomer who in a short time is now very well respected, coming forth some with great ideas that have been well received by the community be able to defeat a three-term council member who has overstayed their welcome because they have a war chest?

Does the Elk Grove City Council foster a strong and stable government as it stands now?  One of the strengths of single member districts rests in the close ties between that district’s elected council member and his/her constituents, there is more accountability to your neighbors and to the voters, and certainly there would be more constituency service as the council member would have more time to devote to his/her district.

Additionally, since we don’t have term limits here in Elk Grove, we could maximize accountability because a single council member can be held responsible and can be re-elected or defeated in the next election.

As it stands, with a second appointment process in our very near city’s future, once again the voters don’t have any voice in who represents us citywide.  However, if you had control over your own district’s representative that you could focus on, wouldn’t you be more apt to ensure your vote really mattered before you cast it?

Will we be voting for the new District 1 council member who will make decisions for us over the next two years, including the probability of bringing back the sphere of influence application (SOI)?  No, we will not.  [As a reminder, the first SOI application cost the taxpayers over a million dollars.]

And finally, when we talk about local control, have we really established democratic equality with our current at-large citywide system of voting?

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Anonymous said...

Thank you, EGN, so much for this piece, a very important clarification regarding our city governance and that of Sacramento.

Now, I understand why the special election in Sac will cost so much less. And, now I understand one of the ways we must change our own governance.

If we fail to do so, we will be looking at endless decades of appointments and subversion of directly electing our council members.

How does this change come about?

In the meantime, we must pressure, pressure, pressure those running for higher office to resign before running.

Ly and Cooper, you showed no cojones, and back to you, Davis.

See the pattern???
And, see the cowardice.

We must remember this!!!

Lynn said...

Is it cowardice or self interest?

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I remember seeing on here or EGO that someone thought they couldn't vote in the district 4 race since they didn't live in district 4. Only votes counting that came from the district would be a huge difference. It could take a lot less money to get elected. And taking money out of politics is always a good idea.

SteveB6509 said...

A very well stated piece. I might extend this slightly to have one or two at large City Council members. If one of them is elected to higher office (or resigns), one of the local Councillors becomes an at-large Councillor.

I do not agree about the need to resign if someone is running for another office. I wouldn't want to lose a good, experienced person because they are looking towards another office.

Anonymous said...

@1942 -

I was that person. I wonder how many other voters misunderstand how our EG system works, and I have lived here since the beginning of time.

How confusing that a candidate can run for a 'district', but that the entire city can vote for that candidate. Really counter-intuitive. Sounds like a rather big glitch in the system.

How does a change come about? What is the process?

Anonymous said...

I agree completely Ms. Conley and as stated above, would like to know how does this change come about? Anyone...Connie??

How did the city notify the voters in District 1 that there was to be an Appointment to the City Council? I didn't receive a notice and I see nothing on the cities web site related to that either. Now I am aware that person has most likely already been chosen by 3 of our electeds and filing an application would just be a waste of my time, but still....

EGN said...

Anon 18:20. EGN simply posted the information researched and the opinion conveyed by Connie Conley. Credit goes to her, but thanks for the kind words.

Connie said...

First up, the dialogue is very much appreciated.

There are several ways to change from “from district” to “by district,” which the standard way of putting it.

However, that terminology confused many people when we hosted two town hall meetings for the city of Elk Grove's Charter Commission when we were considering the change to become a charter city.

The easiest way to establish single member districts in which each of four council seat would be elected “by district,” would be for the Elk Grove City Council to vote for the change and have it put on the next ballot for the voters to approve or not.

Another way is the petition route via a ballot measure. If enough signatures were received to qualify for the ballot, again it would be placed on the ballot for a vote.

And then there is the lawsuit route. Here what two California cities did, one being the once very conservative Whittier.



And here is where I need some help with research and I have asked Dan and others. The city of Elk Grove is a general law city. Can we establish single member districts and still remain a general law city or do we have to vote to become a charter city before doing so?

SteveB6509 said...

We can elect Council-members "by District" under our existing structure:


Anonymous said...

This has been beat around for decades.

IMO, it is better for the candidates to run by districts and it is better for the residents for candidates to be run from a district and elected at large from the entire city to make sure the candidates that are elected give equal representaion to the entire city and not only look out for the issues in thier district.

Anonymous said...

By staying with an at large voting system, it would take at least $100,000 to remove an incumbent, if not more. And of course, the developers who are supporting the SOI and their interests in the SEPA would form independent expenditure committees with funding upwards to another $100K. No challenger would stand a chance.

So Anon at 12:25, your comment staying as is is music to the incumbents’ ears unless you have a plan as to how a challenger stands a chance here?

Anonymous said...

It is completely meaningless to run a campaign 'by district' and then be elected citywide. That is essentially the same as running 'citywide', as it is now. Living in the district has very little significance, if any, if you are elected by the entire city.

In addition, if a candidate runs 'by district', but is elected citywide, how will the rest of the city really know the character of the candidate? Drive over to 'town hall' meetings in another district??? Makes no sense.

Our current system is inefficient and wasteful and breeds insider deals.

Connie said...

Thanks Steve. Great info!

Campaign Worker said...

Your point on costing less to run by district is not true. The candidate may save some money on mail pieces but do you really think the special interests both the unions and the developers will spend less to keep their select incumbents in office? Do you think the candidates will only put campaign signs in their district? No, the voters drive to work and shop and play so you will still have thousands of signs causing blight on our city.

Let me remind your short term memories of 2008. CSD actually had a run by district initiative on the ballot and aggressively sent out information to all voters to inform them of what it meant. The voters soundly rejected it.

When will you all admit what we already know, VOTERS do not care, they go by the glossiest, hardest biting mail piece and when they actually take the time to vote, they usually vote for the incumbent.

Don't hate the player, Hate the Game.

Warren Buffet said...

The sitting incumbents have no incentive to reform the system that put them in. Imagine a cyclone fence around the council camp with a padlock on the gate. It creaks open only to let in the anointed appointee, then the gate slams shut again. Developers are advised to throw money bags over the fence or through other creative funding means such as through non-profits, purchases of products, etc.

If people want change, they will have to petition for it and force a ballot vote.

Anonymous said...

Plus we can always hope that Mr. Fiscal Responsibility somehow slips through the cracks and gives us taxpayers a break for a change.

Anonymous said...

I moved here a couple of years ago and do not know the history of how the current elected city council members were elected. Did the current elected city council members have to run by the same rules and regulations that the candidates now are required to?

Anonymous said...

The city just posted a Press Release on their web site yesterday, November 17th..."City Seeks Applicants for Elk Grove City Council, District 1" The deadline is November 26th, so that would be giving those interested in applying 9 days to do so, when the city council said there would be 14 days notice. How are the voters in District 1 being notified of this upcoming appointment...anyone? I would imagine few read the cities web site on a regular basis, if at all.

Connie said...

To Anon at 21:33:

A bit of election history as I recall it: Elk Grove incorporated in 2000 after several failed attempts. When incorporation passed, there were over a dozen or so people who ran for city council. The top five won with Jim Cooper getting the most votes.

Because all five couldn't run for re-election at the same time, and to stagger the voting, Districts 2 and 4 were up for again in 2002, and then continued to be elected every four years.

Since then it was Districts 1, 3 and 5 in 2004, 2008, 2012 [District 5 was eliminated in 2012 when the voters voted to elect a mayor every two years and reduce the number of districts to four. The other options were to increase the number of districts to six and elect a mayor every 4 fours.]

Except for Cooper who for sheriff in 2010, and Gary Davis who explored a run for Congress in 2010, none of the other council members, past or present, have sought higher office.

With the election of Davis as mayor in 2012, the Council was faced with a vacancy as Davis did not resign his council seat with two years remaining; nor was he legally required to do so as with other governmental agencies.

Hence, the vacancy dilemma and how to fill it? In 2012, the Council opted for the appointment process; appointing Robert Trigg.

And now that Cooper has been elected to the Assembly mid-Council term, the same is currently true.

There is a possibility we could face this same appointment scenario every two years. A council member runs midterm for a higher office and wins without resigning first, or a midterm council member runs for mayor and wins.

Quite frankly, and maybe I am wrong here, but I don’t foresee a sitting council member up for reelection opting not to run for his/her district seat to run for mayor. Basically, it would be, “If I don’t win, I go back to being a council member.”

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the update. Maybe my question was not clear.

To keep it simple, did all the past and present elected city council members run from a district and voted on by the entire city the way that the recent candidates ran?

If they all ran with the same obstacles as the current candidates, why would it be fair to lower the standards?

From what I have gathered, three of the Council members ran and we're elected one incumbents.

Maybe I am missing something ? If it has been fair for as long as the city has been around, it seems to be and has been the same rules for everyone.

Anonymous said...

In a sprawling city like Elk Grove, a switch to single member voting districts may be what it takes to open up the candidate pool. The reduced size of the area involved should make it less costly to run a campaign and easier to make contact with a smaller more concentrated number of voters.

Because of current voter disconnect, a more direct, personal style of campaigning might prove to be the best way to increase voter turnout.

Though it seems regionalism in a single member district might promote office holders to become embedded, the cost of challenging an incumbent in our current citywide process has the same effect by restricting the potential candidates to the very well connected.

Anonymous said...

It matters now, and it is causing a problem now, because the cost of a special election for the entire city is so high.

If a special election is held only for a district, then it is affordable. This is how the city of Sacramento manages to hold a special election, but our council say, "No, the cost is too high".

The reason why this situation has arisen since the last election and including this one is because now council members are vacating their seats mid-term in order to 'move up' to a higher elected office.

Davis did that when he ran for mayor, and Cooper just did that when he ran for and won an Assembly seat.

This should be changed, or our council will be composed of 'appointees' rather than elected members.

Anonymous said...

Representing a district is actually the most traditional form of representation in government, particularly in the 'lower house' in state legislatures and our federal government where the House is composed of Representatives from each home district.

It is actually a very good idea and promotes enhanced loyalty to district constituents and a deeper knowledge and understanding of a smaller area.

Then, the entire council comes together in a greater intimacy of who they represent in order to reach consensus, hopefully.

Anonymous said...

Curious when the city will announce the candidates from District 1. Why not as applications are filed with the city?

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