San Mateo County needs district elections

San Mateo County is the only California county that elects its Board of Supervisors in countywide elections. All other counties elect supervisors within individual districts. Voters have an opportunity to replace countywide elections with district elections by approving Measure B this November.

District elections are the better choice as they lower taxpayer costs and promote more competition, accountability and citizen involvement.

Countywide elections favor incumbents and politically connected and well-funded candidates. In San Mateo County, with more than 330,000 voters, a supervisorial campaign is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking similar in scope to running for Congress. Given the obstacles, the vast majority of supervisorial races are uncontested or uncompetitive.

With district elections, approximately 66,000 voters in each of the five districts would choose their own representative. This creates more competitive elections by attracting more candidates and enabling them to communicate with voters through grass-roots campaigns without costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. District elections also would increase the likelihood that the county’s diversity will be better reflected on the board.

District elections let voters hold incumbents accountable. With countywide elections, that is all but impossible. Over the past 30 years, no incumbent supervisor has ever lost a bid for re-election. Only once has an incumbent even faced a credible challenger.

District elections also would bring government and democracy closer to home and increase awareness of county issues. Today, county government is largely invisible to the public despite its $1.8 billion budget and responsibility for a multitude of critical services.

District elections also would save taxpayers money. When a special election is held to fill a vacant seat — as has occurred three times since 1993 — hundreds of thousands of dollars would be saved.

The benefits of district elections were outlined by the San Mateo County civil grand jury in 2009 when it advocated that the board put this proposal on the ballot.

Opponents say such elections will result in parochialism and in-fighting among supervisors. But few issues addressed by supervisors pit areas of the county against each other. For example, providing access to health care and ensuring public safety — county government’s primary focus — are of countywide importance. And district elections would rarely lead to differences of opinion based solely on where supervisors live.

Moreover, in the event of an occasional decision in which one district might be affected disproportionately, it is appropriate for a supervisor to advocate vigorously on behalf of district residents. That is the essence of representative democracy.

Opponents also say district elections will increase the influence of “special interests,” but the opposite is true.

District elections offer voters a greater voice in electing their representatives by giving grass-roots candidates the opportunity to compete. Voters are not a “special interest” — they are the only interest that matters.

Finally, opponents argue that every voter now plays a role in electing every supervisor, thereby increasing accountability. But with so many uncompetitive or uncontested supervisorial elections, voters today have few chances to determine who represents them.

San Mateo County is overdue in joining all other California counties in adopting district elections. Empower voters. Vote yes on Measure B.

City Councilman Michael Brownrigg, Burlingame; Vice Mayor Pedro Gonzalez, South San Francisco; Mayor Matt Grocott, San Carlos; former San Mateo County civil grand jury forewoman Virginia Chang Kiraly; Vice Mayor David Lim, San Mateo; Mayor Laura Martinez, East Palo Alto; Vice Mayor Peter I. Ohtaki, Menlo Park; Supervisor Dave Pine; Jefferson Union High School District board member Kalimah Salahuddin; and Mayor Dave Warden, Belmont.

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