One idea generally thrown around as a potential reform measure is going to district elections. My view has generally been that, while there are some potential benefits of going to district elections – and there are places where district elections allow for a more representative body – the harm would outweigh the good.
A recent letter published in the local paper comes out in strong support of district elections.
They write, “I believe it is time to change the way we elect our City Council. Over the past year I have gotten the impression that council members have their own agenda. Sometimes when you are responsible to everyone, you are accountable to no one.”
“With issues such as The Cannery Community Facilities District, cutting back on green-waste pickup and authorizing a million dollars to study a Davis utility, I get the impression that despite protest, our council chooses its own path,” they continue.
They write, “I would like to see neighborhood districts where the member resides. Then you would not need to raise a lot of money because you could get out and talk to your constituents. Each member would be more aware of his or her neighbors’ concerns and the unique needs of each area.”
They conclude, “At least this way we could hope to get some representation. Now I believe there is too much emphasis on raising money. And this way, if a district is unhappy, it votes its representative out. Now, the base has become too broad to make the council beholden to anyone except the people who finance their campaign. We have a lot of smart people here who could figure out the logistics. It’s about time for a change.”
While I do think it might help at times when there is a more localized issue, I do not see district elections as the solution to the problems highlighted in this letter.
First of all, I don’t see the issues complained about here – CFD, greenwaste, or public power – as being district-specific. Probably the issue of the CFD is closest to the notion of council adhering to special interests rather than responding to the will of the voters. But even here, where there might be political calculations at play, who is to say that the issue would have come up during the election to allow the voters to judge?
Ironically, when the city moved to a Public Own Utility (POU), it was public pushback that got them to change course. They didn’t spend $1 million, they allocated $1 million but rescinded it, based on public criticism of the plan. The council has now moved toward community choice energy as an alternative, which is more of a halfway measure – it allows the city more control but keeps the infrastructure in the hands of PG&E.
I know there were a lot of people opposed to greenwaste containerization, but there were a lot in support as well. I’m not convinced that would have changed. But one thing to bear in mind is that community pushback on greenwaste led council for years to keep the current system in place.
Part of the reason for the change was stricter standards in storm water discharge that would have forced the city to change the way greenwaste is handled, regardless of who was in office. However, responding to public concerns, the council – instead of implementing a purely containerized system – has gone to a compromise hybrid model.
That hybrid model was created to reflect the specific desires and needs of this community. And so the containerization issue is actually an example of responsiveness by the council, rather than the opposite. Personally, I would have preferred even less allowable dumping in the streets than has been implemented – but it is a compromise.
The specifics aside, I think the core question is not whether you agree with council’s decisions, but whether you expect them to change with a district election.
The letter writer believes that neighborhood districts would solve some of these problems. They argue that “you would not need to raise a lot of money because you could get out and talk to your constituents.”
But that’s actually happening now. In 2008, the first place finisher spent $75,000, the second place finisher $55,000 and two others spent over $40,000. However, in the elections since 2010, candidates are spending generally less than $30,000 and some candidates have won with less than $20,000 in spending.
Robb Davis finished first in 2014, not through exorbitant campaign spending, but by creating an organization that did exactly what the letter writer suggested – talked to a huge number of community residents. You can still win in Davis with less than $20,000 if you go out and walk and talk.
Here are some problems with district elections. First, it would divide the community into sections based on geographical interest. No longer would all five candidates represent the whole of Davis.
That could mean that some candidates will attempt to bring goodies into their district while others might be elected to preclude development in their district.
Do we really want one councilmember representing the downtown? Is that conducive to better governance?
To me, the problems that the individual cites are not the most pressing problems in the city anyway. While I found the Cannery CFD problematic, the bigger issues we face are fiscal. We lack the revenue right now to maintain our basic infrastructure. We need to explore tax measures to temporarily boost revenue to repair our roads and bike paths. We have to maintain a strong fiscally sustainable budget outlook. And we have to look at ways to expand our revenue.
These are the kinds of solutions that affect the entire community and need a community-wide approach.
There is no guarantee that we would get better leadership under a district election model. Nor is there any guarantee that running for election will be cheaper.
There are legitimate concerns that politicians are using the Davis City Council as a stepping stone – but, at the same time, that doesn’t mean those politicians have been necessarily poor leaders for Davis. Nor is there any guarantee that they wouldn’t be elected under a district model.
The best solution is to pay attention to civic politics. There are a core of people who do, but many do not. By paying attention to civic politics, going to council meetings, staying current on the issues, and then communicating to the council, you have a better chance of enacting the type of policies you want to see implemented in this community – and avoiding the pitfall of the issues you wish to avoid.
—David M. Greenwald reporting