The City of Sunnyvale’s plan to move to district elections through Measure B sounds like a wonderful idea until you read the fine print. Along with an admirable move to districts there is a poison pill in the form of a directly elected mayor which will do more harm than good. But before we move to the substance of the new 6+1 election scheme let’s look at how we got here.
Faced with a potential lawsuit the City wisely voted to move forward with district elections instead of the current at-large format which violates the California Voting Rights Act. (Notice letter) But instead of moving to seven districts with no at-large voting the Sunnyvale City Council majority chose to enact a plan to have a directly elected mayor. The question is why?
Those who know Sunnyvale’s recent history know that two directly elected mayor ballot measures already failed, most recently in 2011 when it was soundly defeated 63%-37%. ( link) Why try to revive the failed initiative for a third time? The real answer lies in Sunnyvale’s term limits on council members and in the weakened power of developers and PACs that a switch to district elections would almost certainly bring about.
Workaround for Term Limits
Section 602 of Sunnyvale’s city code does not allow a council member to serve more than two terms within a 12-year period. Allowing a 6+1 mayor scheme will mean that after 8 years on the city council a council member could then serve another four years as Mayor. Alternately, a council member could serve one term of four years on the Council and then serve another two four year terms consecutively as mayor.
Not surprisingly, some of biggest supporters of the 6+1 proposal are council members whose terms will expire in the next two years. A directly elected mayor is an ideal way to offer a comfortable landing for termed out council members who can then safely run for one four-year mayoral term.
Power to the PACs
One outcome of a move to district elections is that there will almost certainly be a weakening of the power of PACs and developers. It can easily cost $100,000 to run a successful at-large campaign in Sunnyvale. That’s precisely what most PAC and developer backed candidates do especially if independent expenditures are factored into the equation. (link) By contrast, a grass-roots candidate could run a successful campaign in a local district for $10,000. This is where a directly elected at-large mayor comes in. Since the election for mayor is at-large the costs will often exceed what was spent on at-large council seats in the past. But that’s not the only benefit for folks that have the money to donate thousands of dollars to a campaign.
Weakening the Council
A PAC and developer supported mayor will be able to influence the votes of his or her colleagues as a first among “sort of” equals due to the resources they are able to generate for their campaigns. But the real kicker will come in the form of the nearly inevitable move to increase the power of the mayor. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Oakland have mayors with veto power. Eventually, Sunnyvale’s council is very likely to push for a “strong-mayor.” The natural argument will be that if we have a directly elected mayor that represents the whole city it is only fair that he or she has powers which reflect the unique status of that position.
Redistricting has been described as an “adult political blood sport.” I’m not so naïve as to assume that politics should not have a place in the transition to district elections, but Measure B crosses the line by using the move to district elections as a vehicle for an at-large mayor and term limit extensions. Instead of a 6+1 scheme, the council should do what’s best for our city and go to a seven-district system with no at-large mayor. If the council majority wants to extend term limits and have a directly elected mayor, then put that on the ballot separately. Now is the time to solve the problem of an election system which is at odds with the CVRA and implement seven districts. Voters should reject Measure B at the ballot box. Sunnyvale deserves better.