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Friday, April 11, 2008

Council Candidates on Choice Voting and Home Rule

In November of 2006, the voters of Davis passed an advisory vote to ask the city to look into creating choice voting. Choice voting, otherwise known as instant runoff asks voters to rank their preferences of candidates and office holders in order to determine the winner.

However, in order for a city in California to enact a choice voting system, the city must go from a general law city to a charter city. A charter gives the city more flexibility to enact any number of laws--depending on what is contained within the charter.

In late February, the Davis City Council by a 4-1 vote directed city staff and the City Attorney Harriet Steiner to complete an analysis of a draft charter and to return to the City Council.

A charter city does not automatically create the choice voting. In fact, the charter committee intentionally chose not to write the choice voting system into directly into the charter.

Moreover, the particular charter is brief and broad. It kept all other laws the same except for the possibility of creating a future choice voting system by vote of the city council.

The purpose of this article is largely to examine the views of the city council candidates with regards to this issue. But in order to do so, I am going to expand subject slightly and talk not only about choice voting, but also about the very concept of home rule itself. The choice voting system is but a very small component of what could be a very progressive and very innovative system of home rule. The charter city gives the city more local authority over municipal affairs in areas that are not considered to be purely statewide matters.

It is on this point of home rule and what it should mean that we begin to see some differentiation of viewpoint from what is a system that really transcends lines. For example, Ruth Asmundson was the only dissenting vote in February on the Charter City. That comes from her opposition to choice voting. In fact, she stated that she would not vote for a charter that specifically allowed choice voting.
"I've never really been a fan of choice voting, and I've never really understood what it's all about. I have some issues about including it."
Don Saylor both in February and at the recent candidates forum is a clear skeptic of the system. Two candidates were asked about Choice Voting by the Chamber of Commerce, Rob Roy came out in favor of choice voting as a means to enhance democracy. But Don Saylor had a very nuanced view.

At the February meeting, Don Saylor was skeptical:
"Why aren't more cities considering charters; are there some drawbacks that we should know about?"
Saylor said that he supported advisory measure on the ballot. He felt like the city hadn't really explored the idea and ramifications very much. Then in a very revealing moment he stated it was a "solution looking for a problem." Most people don’t understand what it is and there will be problems the first time there is change of outcome due to choice voting. Places where Choice Voting has been in place, the process is actually being challenged.

To me that suggests that Don Saylor has not quite come out against Choice Voting, but he is close to doing so and it would not surprise me if he opposed it in future votes once the system itself is enumerated during discussion.

Stephen Souza has been among the leading proponents along with Lamar Heystek for choice voting. Despite this support, the question that many proponents of home rule raise is why have we narrowed the charter merely to choice voting.

Proponents of home rule such as Nancy Price want a broader discussion on what should be in the charter.

Ms. Price writes in a December 17, 2007 Davis Enterprise Op-ed:
"Writing a city charter is a way to implement home rule. It provides a city with a level of greatly enhanced local authority and control over municipal affairs that is not available to general law cities that must operate under more restrictive state control and statutory law.

So, in writing a charter, the City Council's goal could be more than just implementing Measure L. Shouldn't we hold a communitywide discussion about what home rule might entail?"
However, it seems that the council led by Stephen Souza want to limit the charter to a very broader charter--believing that additional details within the charter are limiting.

Stephen Souza at the most reason meeting explained their decision:
"We decided on a very simple, broad charter. We did not want it overburdened in a way that created, right from the get-go, opposition. We tried to get it down to one page, but our city attorney didn't quite let us get there."
Nancy Price on the other hand suggests:
"So, in writing a charter, the City Council's goal could be more than just implementing Measure L. Shouldn't we hold a communitywide discussion about what home rule might entail? For a start, let's remember that the Declaration of Independence declares that people are born with certain unalienable rights and that governments are instituted among people to secure those rights as elaborated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We might discuss how as a bitter irony after the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1886 recognized corporations to be persons under the terms of the 14th Amendment. As a result, corporations have protections and powers under the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments that were intended by the founders to apply only to living people.

We might discuss whether we should rely on government to regulate how much pollution we breathe, how many jobs we lose to free trade, how large the big-box store should be, or how often our elected representatives sell their votes to big time, deep-pocket special interests protected by claims of free speech and First Amendment rights.

Our challenge is how to assert our community's right to define its future and to end both the grip that corporate money has over our elected officials and the corporate harms that result."
Nancy Price goes on to suggest the following:
"As Souza is quoted, a short charter could be put right on the ballot with little problem. Nothing could be simpler, he said.

But, to the contrary, good governance would entail a more robust charter that would provide for choice voting and also grapple with the role of corporations in Davis. A simple charter now will mean real change may evade us, as later amendments would take time and money.

Yet, other communities are having these discussions. Some have passed ordinances that assert the rights of people and communities over the rights of corporations and abolish the illegitimate rights and legal privileges of corporations. This work is highlighted in Communities Take Power, the cover story of Yes! magazine (fall 2007), which may be read online at

Local communities have passed ordinances addressing the storage, use and disposal of toxic materials; public health and environmental pollution; big-box and corporate development that prevents a community from realizing a vision of sustainable land use and local economic development; protection of ground water; factory farming; genetically modified organisms; application of wastewater treatment sludge to land; protection of ecosystems; and a limit on outside corporate money in local elections.

Other communities are writing more inclusive and detailed home rule charters that go beyond the single issue. As Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund states, home rule has not been fully tested as a tool to revolutionize local democratic decision-making, but it has the potential to open up a path to real community democracy.

This is the path that residents of Spokane, Wash., a city many times the population of Davis, are following. Starting at the neighborhood level and including many different interest groups, they are embarking on a process to amend the city charter to assert people's rights over corporate rights and create a truly sustainable community and thriving local economy.

What if, here in Davis, we took the opportunity to have this kind of communitywide discussion before the decision is made by a few on the City Council that a short, narrow charter is best for us?"
This is an overall problem--we had a choice voting advisory vote that had no opposition--which means there was limited discussion. We had no public workshops on the possibilities of home rule or what the charter could actually do.

I present this as a possible counterpoint to the viewpoint expressed by Mr. Souza which is in support of choice voting but also in support of very limited change in terms of a charter city.

Sue Greenwald at the meeting in February examined whether having a charter city would enable the city to better control its growth. She was told by the City Attorney that it would not. However, it appears that the City Attorney too was limited in her viewpoint. Home rule and the charter city may not enable the city to control growth better, but as Nancy Price points out there are other features that it would allow the city to do, if the council was so inclined. With better support staff, there is little doubt that the Mayor would be able to see the possibilities of such a document rather than merely the limitations.

I was unable to find a viewpoint for Sydney Vergis on this issue.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald spoke up at the February meeting to ensure that any charter proposal would enable workers to be to engage in collective bargaining and not enable the city to impose contracts on city workers outside of the normal state laws. Overall however she supports both the charter city concept and choice voting. And would likely be willing to expand the concept of home rule to more innovative and progressive means.

The possibilities for home rule and a charter city are indeed exciting and worth exploring. From the literature I have seen, we have really limited the possibilities. I have always considered myself somewhat of a skeptic of choice voting, but I think the possibilities for both choice voting and a charter city are well worth exploring. I think we have too narrowed the inquiry at this point. This is an historic chance--why not take it? Stephen Souza fears opposition, but really unless we explore possibilities, we are closing doors.

In addition, I am always concerned about lack of community discussion. Major changes are concerning and sometimes frightening to people. We need to have a full debate. There is some myth that we have to operate without dissent--we may all agree on one aspect of this but why not risk looking at the possibilities and how far we can go? Why do we so fear disagreement on the margins of issues? By doing so, we have too limited the focus of this debate and have failed to bring the community in to really see the possibilities that could add to our already great community.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting