Sunday Commentary: Democracy Imperiled?

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Alan Fernandes is Sworn-in by Board President Gina Daleiden in May
Alan Fernandes is Sworn In by Board President Gina Daleiden in May

In March of this year, Nancy Peterson, embroiled in a lengthy controversy, stunned many in the community when she resigned from the school board seat less than 15 months into her four-year term. At that time, the Davis School Board had a couple of options to fill the seat.

They could call a special election or they could appoint a replacement to the seat who would face reelection in November. At the time, we were concerned that the person they appointed would not only become a de facto incumbent but, because there would be a four-year seat open at the time, with potentially three open seats, the best candidates would be drawn to the four-year seat with no incumbent, rather than the two-year seat with an appointed incumbent.

For a time it seemed like that worst case scenario would not come true. Tom Adams indicated he would run for the two-year seat. It was thought that anti-tax candidate Jose Granda might do the same. However, both those individuals have filed for the four-year seat and that leaves Alan Fernandes as the only candidate for the spot and therefore likely to serve nearly three-quarters of a term without having been elected by the voters.

We can rightly rejoice in the fact that seven high quality candidates have emerged in the four-year seat race to give the voters plenty of different alternatives to fill three seats where the incumbents have chosen not to run, but we are troubled by the anointment of Alan Fernandes.

The duly elected body of the people – the school board – was, alas, not put in place for their ability to appoint individuals to fill seats.

Sadly, this result was largely predictable in April and May when the choice was made. The school board had a way out of this – and chose not to take it. If they insisted on appointing a replacement, they could have appointed someone who agreed not to run for reelection. That would have prevented the de facto appointed incumbent and the disincentive for another candidate to challenge him.

However, we are more troubled by the idea that the cost of running a special election means that we do not allow democracy and the people to fill vacancies. What the school board is saying is that the costs to run a special election are prohibitive. They see democracy as a hindrance, an expensive luxury rather than the lifeblood of their population.

The school districts are willing to run elections every two years to fill seats. They have run no less than three special elections for parcel taxes. But when it comes to the very lifeblood of democracy, they say no, it is too expensive.

This attitude is itself detrimental to the process. There is nothing more important on this planet than open and fair elections. That is what makes the difference between tyranny and liberty itself.

$50,000, $100,000, even $200,000 is a small cost to ensure proper process, particularly in the wake of the ugliness that we saw on the school board that leaked into the community in February and March.

I fear that we have learned little from the demise of Nancy Peterson, even as the school board works hard to put policies in place to prevent some of the worst misfortunes.

Sadly, this attitude is part and parcel to an overall trend in the county where we see county officials unchallenged by opposition. At the county level, we saw two contested races – the open superintendent seat and the quasi-open clerk/assessor seat created when the supervisors merged those two offices.

In 2012, Duane Chamberlain was challenged for his seat on the Board of Supervisors. Appointed incumbent Oscar Villegas had a challenge this June, but Don Saylor has won two terms on the Board of Supervisors with no challenges; both Jim Provenza and Matt Rexroad won initial challenges and have not been challenged again.

The same is true for the district attorney and the sheriff.

Incumbents running unopposed and without quality challengers is not conducive to a healthy and robust democracy.

Alan Fernandes thus becomes only the latest public official in this county to serve substantial stretches of electoral service without having been challenged at the polls. And, while the school board was quick to point out that Mr. Fernandes ran for office in 2012, he finished a relatively distant third behind Susan Lovenburg and Nancy Peterson.

This is nothing against Mr. Fernandes, who is clearly qualified for the office and brings to it unique and different experiences. Despite this procedural snafu, Mr. Fernandes may serve this community well.

This is not about policy, however, this is about process and democracy. And we would urge future bodies to shy away from creating appointed incumbents in the name of expediency and penny-savings.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Democracy Imperiled?”

  1. Mr. Toad

    Wrong wrong wrong. Fernandes is standing for election. Its not his fault or that of the school board that nobody filed against him. Its even not too late for a write in campaign if someone wants to try. Appointing someone who will only serve for a few months might be a good idea but so is appointing someone willing to serve out the rest of the vacant term. Mid-term vacancies happen and there are rules for addressing them. Lamenting the implementation of those rules misses the mark.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      He’s not even going to be on the ballot. It’s not his fault that nobody filed against him, but it was actually predictable. Cost is not a good enough reason not to hold an election to fill vacancies.

    2. John

      I agree with Toad. David, why don’t you ask the 8 candidates for the four-year seats why they didn’t file for the two-year seat. Coming in first in a field of two has to be easier to accomplish than coming in third in a field of eight.

  2. BrianRiley429

    I think it’s alright for the board to appoint someone on a temporary basis. The appointment is democratic in that sense, since its a democratic vote by a democratically elected body (kind of like how Gerald Ford ended up being US President).

    My only reservation is that Fernandes seems to be using the word “diverse” in his public statements (“diverse perspectives,” “diverse groups,” “diverse clients,” “diverse children”) in order to lead people to think he is Hispanic or Latino, but nowhere on his Twitter, Facebook or public statements (that I can find) does he explicitly identify himself as being Latino or Hispanic. Fernandes is a Portuguese surname.

  3. Tia Will

    BrianRiley429

    “does he explicitly identify himself as being Latino or Hispanic. Fernandes is a Portuguese surname.”

    Would you not consider an individual of Portuguese ancestry to be “diverse” in this community ? I would given that I imagine that there are far fewer folks living here of Portuguese descent than Hispanic or Latino. Please correct me if I am wrong about this amy of you who are more demographically aware than I.

  4. BrianRiley429

    Of course, but if someone is going use the term “diverse,” as a public relations strategy, then they should also expand on that and explain where they are coming from. I don’t see him identifying himself as being of Portuguese ethnicity on the Internet.

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