Opinion - Democracy at Risk in Elk Grove

By Lynn Wheat | December 14, 2015 |

There was a discussion item on the December 9th Elk Grove City Council agenda regarding the method of electing our city council members. Currently, city council candidates must reside in the district from which they run, but are elected by votes cast throughout the entire city (from, or "at-large"). The discussion was to determine the merits of changing the current at-large method to a "by-district" method of election, whereby district candidates are voted upon solely by registered voters residing in that candidate's respective district.

The City Council decided for the time being to retain the current election method and not place the by-district alternative on the ballot for the voters to decide. This decision maintains the current barriers that make it unnecessarily difficult for new candidates to fund a serious campaign, or at a minimum, succeed at providing voters an alternative choice on the ballot.

The City Council has a long track record of not placing major policy issues on the ballot for voters to ultimately decide. For example, the decision to file an application to allow the city to expand its boundaries by 8,000 acres was decided by five council members. The decision to spend $4.4 million to purchase 100-acres outside of the city-limits for a soccer stadium/fairground, and to add 460 acres for future industrial/commercial use was decided upon by five council members. The decision to withdraw from participation in the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) after spending roughly $1 million of taxpayers money was decided by five council members. And in this recent discussion of at-large elections or by-district elections, the cost to place on the ballot was cited as one justification to instead let the five council members decide. The cost to place this measure on the June 2016 primary ballot would have only cost approximately $65,000. Deferring this measure to the November 2016 General Election ballot would have only cost an additional $5,000 above the current general election costs to the city.

These are but a few examples of when the five council members have unilaterally decided that they know our intent on how the city should proceed on these major policy issues. But do they? We will never know will we? As a former mayoral candidate and 28-year resident who regularly attends city council meetings, I more than ever support a “by” district election after witnessing the discussions regarding saving taxpayer dollars by filling the two vacated council seats by appointment from the remaining three council members. Not surprisingly, this emphasis on saving taxpayer dollars is not carried consistently by their decisions, and many people have remarked to me that the City appears to be on a spending spree and drawing down its budget reserve in the process.

In our city there seems to be this growing trend of elected school board and city council officials leaving their current positions mid-term. Elk Grove residents were not able to elect their replacements, instead, those positions were filled by appointments made by the remaining electeds. We must ask ourselves if our democratic principles are weakened when elected officials perpetually appoint new members instead of the voters deciding. The decisions by our elected leaders to determine who is best able to represent us takes away our right to vote and this compromises the integrity of our democratic process.

It seems that our local elected leaders are ambitious individuals who desire to further their “careers” in politics through higher office and are unable to complete, or are unwilling to step down from their currently-held elected positions to pursue higher office. If saving taxpayer's dollars and preserving our democratic principles was truly in the heart of our leaders, then a district election to fill a vacant position is way more economical than holding a city-wide election (which was the justification used in the past for appointing replacements).

During my mayoral campaign, I spoke out against the high cost of campaigning and spoke in favor of campaign finance reform to lower the costs of campaigning so other qualified individuals without the financial resources of developers would be encouraged to run for an elected position. The cost to run an effective campaign for school board or city council in our city is enormous ($100,000-$200,000). At last week’s meeting even Mayor Davis noted that the cost of one campaigner flyer alone can run about $20,000. Throw in billboard signs at every major intersection, lawn signs, potholders, web page, potted plants, campaign consultants, robo-calls, and social events, and you are erecting barriers that effectively keep out new members and fresh ideas from being introduced into the political landscape of the city. Elections by district would significantly reduce the "price of admission." In justifying preserving the status-quo, one council member remarked that "boots on the ground" is all it takes to run an effective campaign.

From my campaigning experience, I can personally attest to the challenge of walking all the neighborhoods within the city. I spent two to eight hours every day between August and election day in November, and it was nowhere near enough time for myself or my other volunteers to cover all the neighborhoods within the City of Elk Grove. During my travels, I actually knocked on the doors and spoke to the citizens about the issues, as opposed to other candidates who merely had volunteers drop off the materials on the porch. Most of the recent candidates have hired consultants who have arranged for paid walkers to drop off their materials and/or found businesses offering to give free goods in exchange for walkers.

It is time for our City Council and Mayor to let the registered voters of Elk Grove decide whether we vote for individual council members from our district of residence instead of the city at large. A ballot measure at the cost of $5,000 in November 2016 gives the choice to the voters.

What are the councilmen so afraid of?

Let’s not forget this council and mayor recently paid a consultant $47,000 to determine if placing a sales tax initiative on the ballot is something a majority of voters would support now. Our city council has spent millions of dollars on feasibility studies and plans (civic center, aquatics center, soccer fields, Old Town Plaza, animal shelter, Sphere of Influence, South East Policy Area, Habitat Conservation Plan), and yet now they decide to be fiscally responsible by not holding special elections to replace vacancies on council? Do they understand the meaning of hypocrisy?

Ask our council this question: What keeps them from proactively placing this measure on the ballot? What does the city council fear if this should pass? Democracy: By the people and for the People. The measure needs to be placed on the November ballot and give the voters the power to decide. Do you agree? If so, contact the mayor and council members and let your voice be heard. Better yet, attend a city council meeting and use your three minutes of public comment.

  • Mayor Gary Davis - dgavis@elkgrovecity.org
  • Council Member Patrick Hume - phume@elkgrovecity.org
  • Council Member Steve Detrick - sdetrick@elkgrovecity.org
  • Council Member Steve Ly - sly@elkgrovecity.org
  • Council Member Darren Suen - dsuen@elkgrovecity.org

Post a Comment Default Comments


Ice rink said...

Giving lip service to democracy in the name of being fiscally prudent! This game is as rigged as the milk jug toss at a carny sideshow.

Silent Dogood said...

Why shouldn't I be allowed to have a say in who is elected to the Council? Currently I have a vote for each Council Member and the more.

Lynn, why do you want to silence my vote and take away my ability to elect the leaders of my city?

You say that this will lower the amount that is needed to run a campaign? Get real! The money will be there to ensure that whoever is chosen will have the resources to win.

Oh, let's add in campaign finance reform too? So now you are going to limit my first amendment rights to express my self through contributions? Do you honestly think that limiting the size of contributions will make a difference? Look at what happened to campaign finance at the higher levels of government. All it did was shift the money to PACs where the reporting requirement is not as strict.

Do you honestly think that those big bad developers are just going to go away because you limit who gets to vote and how much they can contribute?

To quote a great American, Marty Huggins, "I don't want to live in Rainbow Land and you can't make me!!"

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