Matthew Owen / @ 8:40 a.m. / In the Middle, Op-Ed

MATTHEW IN THE MIDDLE: Voting, Eureka-Style


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Cities have one of three types of elections, either “at large”, a “ward or district system” or a “hybrid” of both. “At-large” is where anyone living anywhere in that city can run for office and every voter in that city gets to vote for all offices. The “true ward” (or district) system is where only a candidate living in that specific ward can run for office and only the voters within that specific ward can vote for their specific ward candidate. And finally the “hybrid” or “mixed”, which is some combination of both.

There are pros and cons to each type of voting.

Only 14% of the cities use a ward or district voting. Ward or district (which is used by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors) voting method typically represents large urban cities or a geographic base (think ocean/mountains, rural/urban, etc.) which are looking for representation of their specific needs.

The National League of Cities recommends ward voting when a city’s population is greater than 200,000. A quick Google search shows Eureka’s population at 26,913, a tad bit less than 200,000. They also recommend ward voting when a minority (ethnic, religious or racial) voting bloc is being excluded from political representation by running for office and losing as it may violate the California Voting Rights Act. Let’s see, Jim Howard, an African-American was elected to the Eureka City Council three times. Three females have been elected Eureka Mayor. Our current Eureka City Council is made up of not one, not two, not three, but five women, including one openly gay Councilmember and one Hispanic Councilmember. So tell me, which voting bloc is not being represented on the Eureka City Council today? Oh yeah, old white men. Them old white dudes should sue for being discriminated against.

Linda Atkins said during the July 5 Eureka City Council meeting when discussing a potential lawsuit against the City for violating voters’ rights, “You want to prove that we’re not illegal.”

Better yet, why don’t you prove that Eureka’s voting is illegal (see above)?

The main knock of the ward system is the potential violation of “due process” under the Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, “one person, one vote”. With the ward voting system, each person would get 1/5 of a vote. Let’s say you live in Eureka’s 1st ward, you would only be able to vote for the City Council candidates in the 1st ward. You would not have any say (vote) for the City Council candidates in the other four wards. In other words, for each Eureka City Council election only 20% of the voters (one out of five wards) would have a say and 80% of the voters would be discriminated against. I’m not a big fan of exclusion in the Democratic process.

When Linda Atkins stated, “You can knock on everybody’s door in a ward; you can’t knock on everybody’s door in the city.” The reality is that a motivated candidate will get out there and do the one-on-one outreach to the voters. No one said campaigning is fun, nor should it be. I want a candidate who is willing work hard for the office, not some slacker who expects it to be easy. Kudos to Councilmember Kim Bergel, who two years ago probably knocked on more voter doors than the other three candidates combined.

I’ve also heard the ward system proponents say this will bring down the cost of elections as our local Regressives are always complaining about “developers buying our local elections.”

So here’s the obvious questions:

  • What development?
  • Did you forget that Chris Kerrigan raised over $88,000 for his 2004 Eureka City Council reelection campaign against Rex Bohn?

Recently Bob Service, chair of the Democratic Central Committee came forth to the Eureka City Council and stated, “Three of you (Mayor Frank Jager, Councilmembers Melinda Ciarabellini and Marian Brady) sitting up there ran unopposed.”, which is a factually correct statement. So why didn’t any candidates run against these incumbents?

And if the City of Eureka’s hybrid voting is so awful, why did County Supervisor Rex Bohn run unopposed with the ward/district voting? How about County Supervisors Estelle Fennel and Mike Wilson each garnering 80% of the votes in their respective elections? Maybe this ward/district voting thingie is defective too. Maybe we should go to an at large voting method countywide, where the best five candidates run in the cities of Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna, Rio Dell and the County of Humboldt.

May I remind you that the Eureka Mayor is effectively an at large vote, where anyone living within the City of Eureka can run for Mayor and all of the voters of Eureka can vote for Mayor.

The best line from the National League of Cities webpage, “However, councils elected by district (or ward) elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.”

My personal concern with the ward system is constituent issues. What if your ward representative doesn’t like you or is inherently lazy? You got a problem with a pothole, a neighbor’s fence, a drug house in your neighborhood, your water bill tripled and your ward’s City Council person doesn’t call you back.

Now what do you do? Go to another City Council person?

“Yeah I’m sorry, but you’re not in my ward and you can’t vote for me so I really don’t want to expend an ounce of energy to assist you.”

Think if Eureka goes to a ward system and the councilmembers now fight over pork projects in their districts.

“I want development and jobs in my district.”

“No, I want low-income housing in my district.”

“We need to develop the waterfront in my district.”

“My park needs repairs.”

“No, my park needs to be upgraded.”

What’s worse is if three of the Councilmembers say, “Yeah, we enjoy the Sequoia Zoo. But we think it sucks that we have to pay any city money to support it. So we’re cutting all funding for the zoo.”

Shudder, flashbacks to the nightmare that was Councilmember Larry Glass, huh?

Or if three Councilmembers say, “Yeah, the waterfront’s nice and Old Town is quaint, but we more want more police in the Westside. Cut all funding for bay front development and Old Town is on its own. Not a dime of city money.”

Don’t laugh, it could happen and many Heraldo Regressives would applaud.

Nationally, almost 2/3 of the cities use the “at large” method of voting. At large elected representatives must be impartial and represent the City as a whole and rise above the territorial tribes. At large can also attract a better caliber candidate, as the population base is larger (all five wards vs. one ward), which would mean the best five candidates are elected regardless of where they live. While some folks knock at large voting, I’ll remind you that the progressive town of Arcata seems to be fine with it.

The knock on at large voting is that theoretically all five councilmembers could live on the same block, the same neighborhood or the same district.

21% of cities use a hybrid or mixed system of voting, which is what the City of Eureka has. This allows the best of both worlds. The city is divided (gerrymandered) into five wards. Each City Council candidate must be registered to vote and live in that specific ward, however the entire city gets to vote for all five wards of the Eureka City Council. In other words, the Councilmembers must be “true ward” candidates, while the voters are “at large”. Also the City of Eureka elections are non-partisan as I’ve never met a pothole that was Democrat or Republican.

While some people seem to get confused about this hybrid style of voting, it’s worked well in Eureka for over 40 years. Each of the five wards has an elected representative and every voter in Eureka has a say in our entire City Council. As some folks stated at the recent City Council public comment, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

If nothing else it should make for an interesting forum or debate on Public Access TV, with both the City Council candidates and pro/con advocates.

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MORE ON EUREKA’S REALLY DUMB SYSTEM FOR CITY COUNCIL ELECTIONS:


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