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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Council Spars Over Charter City and Choice Voting

In November of 2006, Davis voters passed Measure L by a 55.4 to 44.6 margin. Measure L was an advisory vote that asked citizens whether the city should choose choice voting.
Should the City of Davis consider adopting choice voting, also known as instant runoff or preference voting, as the system to elect City Council members?
The voters instead of voting for the same number of candidates as seats would rank order their preferences regardless of the number of candidates. The votes are then counted and transfered until a winner is declared.

In one method, the first place votes for all candidates would be be counted. The candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and those votes would be transferred to voters' second choices. The process would continue until the number of remaining candidates is equal to the number of open seats. There are some other more complicated methods as well.

Since it was an advisory vote, and therefore non-binding, there was no organized opposition against it. There was no ballot statement against nor did anyone run a campaign against it. I was a bit concerned given those facts, that Councilmember Lamar Heystek, a strong proponent of the measure and choice voting, would cite public support as a reason to go forward. I do not think the public has really had the kind of informed debate needed to make a decision. Nor do I think that the council has had that kind of discussion or research. Nevertheless, they appear to be moving forward with this proposal with the goal of implementing it.

While I am not necessarily opposed to it in concept, I have a lot of concerns about how it would run and whether the average voter would be able to know understand what it was they were doing while in the ballot and casting their vote and how their votes would be tallied.

Some have suggested that this would aid smaller candidates, I would like to see some of the research about how many of the "smaller" candidates or "underdogs" have won under a choice voting system versus a more traditional system.

Moreover, I would like to see based on existing systems, a full discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of choice voting.

In short, I think despite of the election, I do not feel very well informed on the issue of choice voting and whether its professed strengths actually exist when we examine them empirically. Moreover, I have a number of concerns about both the application of and the effect of implementing this system.

Finally, I have a question as to why we should prefer a new system of voting over this one? Are we looking for different outcomes? More competitive elections? To advantage one type of candidate over others? Lots of questions, and in my mind, very few answers given the dynamics of an advisory vote.

The issue of choice voting aside, in order to even get to choice voting, the city of Davis has to become a charter city--although there is a longshot measure in the Assembly that would enable cities to enact choice voting without becoming charter cities.

The process of just selecting the mechanism to become a charter city became very heated last night at the city council meeting. The Mayor first tried to remove the issue from a subcommittee and place it in the body as a whole. The proposed subcommittee for a charter city was going to be Councilmembers Stephen Souza and Lamar Heystek, both of whom were the strongest proponents for choice voting.

Mayor Greenwald however tried to switch Councilmember Heystek with herself on the committee with the logic being that while Heystek was an expert on choice voting, she was more familiar with how to draw up a city charter. Given the course of the debate, the council majority rejected this move.

The meeting as a whole was marred by a large amount of petty bickering between councilmembers over small procedural items. Mayor Greenwald also had very strong objection to a proposed meeting over the operations of the city council. She refused to participate without some sort of professional facilitator.

Overall the tone of the meeting was bitter and contentious--largely unnecessarily so. There are legitimate concerns over this council majority redrawing the city's charter. The fear being that the council would help institutionalize and further its own majority. One of the items that has drawn that fear would be having a direct election of the mayor every two years. One city of Davis' size that I am very familiar has just such a system, San Luis Obispo. It is not clear to me that this is an incredible disadvantage to slow growthers and progressives. In San Luis Obispo there seems to be a relatively even split between the more development friendly mayors and the more slow growth and environmentally friendly mayors.

Nevertheless this is a situation that progressives should be watching very carefully to see the progress of the charter. Mayor Greenwald has some legitimate concerns about this process, but I think any attempt to blatantly advantage the other side would be fairly transparent and if that is the case, could easily be noted and defeated one way or another. Becoming a charter city would also give some advantages to those of us who are interested in stronger police reform.

I remain skeptical on the issue of choice voting, though many people that I support are strong proponents of it. I would like to see an real open debate on the strengths and the weaknesses before we simply ratify what it is that we think the voters supported.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting