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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Revisiting Measure N and Correcting My Own Errors

Up until now I had been neutral on Measure N--the charter city initiative. I have from the beginning however had some trepidations about it. Most recently I have been concerned about the potential for allowing well-financed interests put measures on the ballot and bankroll them to give themselves advantages either in negotiations with the city or in other matters.

The threat of binding arbitration and the plight of San Luis Obispo have weighed heavily on my mind. And while the council put language into the charter to prevent council actions on binding arbitration, they could not prevent voters for putting such language into the charter through an initiative.

However, even then I was willing to overlook this flaw as a remote possibility believing as I did that the council would have to put any major change to the charter before the voters. However, this belief is as it turns out completely inaccurate.

Amendments to the Charter itself do require a vote of the electorate. However, changes in law do not require amendments to the Charter so long as they are not in violation of the Charter. They could be implemented by ordinance.

Thus the City Attorney has suggested that the City Council could adopt Choice Voting by ordinance once the Charter is in place.

The upside is that the Charter would be broader than the current General Law status that we currently operate under in which we are bound by state laws that govern local municipalities. The Charter would free us up from those limitation and allow an entire array of new possibilities for new ordinances--none of which would require a vote by the electorate unless they are in violation of the Charter. And this charter is written so broadly that it allows virtually anything.

I am not comfortable allowing that degree of power to any elected body. Thus you see some of the original supporters of local control have moved against this measure in the last few weeks.

There are several critical errors that occurred in this process. I want to start however with this, I believe that both of the main sponsors of this measure--Stephen Souza and Lamar Heystek have good intentions here, have a sincere commitment to choice voting, however, I think the process was rushed, it was too narrow, and did not sufficiently engage the public. Even if this were a perfect charter, it would have difficulty passing now given the lack of community engagement and uncertainty about both the necessity and the nature of the changes.

However, there are several fatal mistakes that occurred.

The biggest was divorcing the choice voting issue from the charter city proposal. Two years ago, there was a strong and dedicated public movement for choice voting in the city of Davis. I have always had some questions about the need for choice voting and also the impact of it. But it is clear that there was a broad and diverse coalition of supporters for choice voting.

However, Councilmembers Souza and Heystek wanted as broad an agreement as possible from the City Council to place this on the ballot. In order to gain Ruth Asmundson's vote and make it a 4-1 majority, they removed choice voting from the charter. They also drew up the charter very broadly. Both of those decisions in the end killed the possibility of the charter passing for different reasons.

Removing choice voting seemed to sap the entire grassroots movement of their impetus. It also seemed to move the push far afield from its initial intent. Thus originally the focus was on choice voting, now the focus is on a charter for the city which would allow things such as choice voting but also a whole wide array of other new initiatives. On the surface that might not be a problem, but we do not see the grassroots energy that we saw two years ago.

Secondly, by adopting a broad charter, which seems to be the the trend on a state level, it enables the possibility of mischief. There is suddenly a very real possibility of a downside. San Luis Obispo again sees that become reality. They now have to deal with a $4.8 million deficit as a result of the arbitrators decision to award police officers with a 30 percent raise.

In this case, I think Don Saylor, Mayor Pro Tem of Davis has been right from the start. I have agreed with him as he suggsted that this is an solution in search of a problem. I do not see choice voting as solving any kind of problem. There may be problems within the electoral system with regards to the expense of running races, but we can look toward other solutions such as campaign finance reform and possibly district elections that do not require a charter.

I re-post Don Saylor's comments that I posted on Tuesday:

The strongest opponent of the measure is Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor.

Councilmember Saylor told the Sacramento Bee that he thinks the "proposal is too vague and gives voters little idea what their votes would actually do."
"Most charters list some specific services, Saylor said. But this measure, he said, just gives the council broader powers.

A previous provision that talked about choice voting was deleted, he said.

"If it's intended to enact choice voting, we should specify that," he said.

Saylor said he believes moving to choice voting is so important that it should go to a direct vote of the people and not be decided by the City Council."
Councilmember Saylor is also uncomfortable with the broad powers it gives the city council.

He told the Davis Enterprise:
"Someday later, the council could come up with a boutique tax, one that we're not allowed to do in a general law city. Which means the charter is probably premature, and we ought to get our act together before we put it on the ballot."
He continued:
"Saylor said that even if the current council would put choice voting on a future ballot, there are no guarantees that future councils would be so considerate.

"The authority that happens under the charter is the City Council takes on a greater amount of potential authority, and I'm not sure that's such a good idea... I'd like to know specifically - and I think the voters should demand to know - what the charter would do, not what might it do. What, exactly, are we intending to do?"
As I said at the onset of this entry, that the breaking point for me however is that this gives too much power to the city council. I am not comfortable doing that.

I am all for local control and would be willing to look again at a new initiative that vests the power in the voters of Davis (with some safeguards). But I will not support an initiative that allows the council to have the power to pass huge changes not currently allowed under general law status, by ordinance.

But in order for me to support this, it should be much more community driven, with much more community buy-in. This process made me uncomfortable from the start because it was largely led by Mr. Souza and Mr. Heystek. Again, I do not want to disparage them, they had good intentions here, but I think in the end, they were wrong on this issue.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting