A revolution in small city elections is sitting right now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk waiting for his signature. Brown has until Oct. 11 to make decisions about a long list of items ranging from Veterans to electric vehicles, marijuana to telecommunications, tow trucks to parking spots — a host of bills that our booming economy and the Internet age have hatched. But it’s the small city election laws awaiting his signature that have the greatest potential to update and perhaps revolutionize our local government representation.
A long overdue simplification of the voting schedule, better oversight of small city elections by the Secretary of State, more opportunities for participation at the county level and more direct representation in smaller cities with populations under 100,000 –- these are the big changes in the bills awaiting Gov. Brown’s approval. Each of the bills was written and passed by our Democratic Party-controlled Assembly and Senate. They received an “aye” (yes) vote from our representatives — Assemblymember Richard Bloom and Senator Fran Pavley (although Bloom did not vote on AB 254.)
Here are brief descriptions of the bills (thank you to the California League of Cites for the research). You can find more about the status of each of them online.
SB 493 (Cannella): Elections in Cities: By or from districts
SB 493 would authorize a city council of a city with a population less than 100,000 to adopt an ordinance to switch the election system from at-large to a district system. West Hollywood currently has an at-large City Council.
AB 1301 (Jones-Sawyer): Voting rights: preclearance
AB 1301 would establish a statewide preclearance system, requiring that voting-related laws, regulations and policies be submitted to the Secretary of State for approval.
Bill AB 347 (Chang): Los Angeles County City Selection Committee.
Streamlines the Los Angeles County City Selection Committee quorum process by specifying that if the mayor is not present at the City Selection Committee, then another member of that city council can vote, based on seniority. The City Selection Committee appoints city representatives to boards, commissions and agencies such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Los Angeles County Hazardous Waste Management Advisory Committee and nominates for appointment members to the California Coastal Commission.
Bill AB 254 (Hernández): Consolidated election dates.
Beginning in 2020, this bill would move the date of local elections such as that for the West Hollywood City Council, which typically take places in March, to the date of gubernatorial and presidential elections, which take place in November of even years.
These bills all reflect a future of open voting and direct representation that the Internet has been calling for. Social media has encouraged more direct contact between people and institutions. All those tweets and posts about babies and cats and issues and opportunities are the new normal. Elected officials now operate at the Internet speed of light and do their best when they have unfiltered access to those they represent.
All of these bills will result in higher levels of voter participation and better representation of voters and issues in local government. Many of us have long hoped for such a day. For example, Mayor Horvath and I worked to support AB 254 (the election consolidation bill) as it worked its way through the legislature. I personally hope that the governor signs all of these bills, especially SB 493 (district elections) and AB 254 (election consolidation).
SB 493 would let West Hollywood establish separate voting districts for each City Council seat. That means the city would have five separate voting districts that are based on neighborhood characteristics and issues. Perhaps there would be an Eastside District, a Central City District, a Sunset Strip District, a West Hollywood West District and a Santa Monica Boulevard West District. That’s five districts – each responsive to the needs of its neighborhoods and committed to the overall success of the city.
Residents of a neighborhood could elect a representative who understands their neighborhood best. More careful understanding of neighbors and neighborhood issues would mean better communication about issues at City Hall. It also means each Council member would represent about 7,500 people — a much more feasible task for a part –time elected representative. Of course it would take time to establish these districts. To identify and name them would require input from residents and voters. But that process also offers an opportunity for us to understand how our city can work best.
If AB 254 is signed, moving city elections to the same date as gubernatorial and presidential elections, which take place in November in even-numbered years, the number of people voting for West Hollywood councilmembers would likely more than triple. (In statewide and federal elections approximately 17,000 West Hollywood residents vote. In the March City Council elections only about 5,000 voters turned out.)
Combining district voting with city elections that are held on the general election date means each district candidate would have to reach perhaps 4,000 potential voters rather than the 20,000 that would have to be reached in a citywide general election. That means people who understand their neighborhoods can find their voice, get elected and represent their neighbors in a dynamic and careful way. These bills are the one-two punch that our city’s election system has been missing for 30 years.
A combination of these bills also would help to wring some of the money out of our city’s elections. Sure, some of the old holdover ideas about how to win an election will persist, but district elections with community candidates will more evenly modulate the relationship between donations (including those from unregulated PACs) and candidates. The other bills, SB 493 and AB 1301, are thoughtful political daylight bills that regulate and open up for more scrutiny and better participation election rules and appointments to county boards and commissions. As our world becomes simultaneously more connected and more complicated, it is bills like these that make openness and participation easier.
Residents of small cities like West Hollywood deserve part-time elected officials who can be as effective as possible. I believe these four bills set us up to do just that. I encourage everyone, whatever your position on these bills, to write a quick note to Governor Brown letting him know your thoughts about our democracy. You can reach his office here.
John D’Amico is a West Hollywood City Council member.