Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Voters to pick election cycle

BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

After Santa Barbara city leaders decided to take on the responsibility of running city elections earlier this year, proponents of Measure A hope to switch municipal elections to an even-year cycle, thereby returning that responsibility to the County of Santa Barbara.
Supporters of the measure, which will appear on the ballot this November, say it will save the city close to $250,000 every election, significantly increase voter turnout and make voting in Santa Barbara more convenient and efficient.
Opponents call the ballot measure a calculated attempt by the current City Council to increase their terms another year and argue that the changeover will bury local issues and bring party politics into normally neutral local issues.

Measure A, if approved by a two-thirds majority, will change local elections from odd years to even years to coincide with county, state and federal elections. The proposed change will shift the 2009 city election to 2010 instead.
“Having served on the City Council for 18 years, I think we need to do everything we can to increase voter participation,” said Hal Conklin, a former Santa Barbara mayor who signed the Yes on A ballot argument. “...Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”
Standing in front of the Lower Westside Community Center yesterday, Conklin joined members of the Santa Barbara Clean Elections Working Group to voice support for the measure.
“It will increase voter turnout nearly double based on the past 12 years of elections in Santa Barbara,” said David Pritchett, cochairman of the Clean Elections group. Pritchett held up a graph comparing odd-year and even-year election turnout figures in Santa Barbara County.
“The odd-year elections are substantially lower every time,” he said.
Dale Francisco, who signed the ballot argument against Measure A, said he isn’t convinced that the switch to even years will bring more people to the polls to vote on regional issues.
“The gross turnout may be bigger,” Francisco said. “What I’d like to know is if the number of people who vote on local, city issues — is that bigger?”
James Kahan, another local resident who supports the No on A movement, also said an increase in voter turnout shouldn’t be automatically accepted as positive.
“Turnout figures don’t mean anything,” Kahan said. “Numbers don’t really do it. I think there are some issues in the city that have to stand out.”
Pritchett dismissed the concept that local issues will be diluted by federal and state issues on a combined ballot, calling it a “pessimistic theory” that doesn’t hold true.
“To say that the city needs to have its own stand-alone election because the people won’t get it otherwise is bunk,” Pritchett said.
Conklin agreed, saying that city issues get very few voters when they are on an odd-year ballot, and increasing the turnout is key in garnering more interest in local government.
Sharon Westby, another supporter for the argument against Measure A, disagreed, saying she believes combining the elections will fatigue voters and leave them less than enthusiastic about local ballot topics.
“I think having the elections for city officers at a time when we have the federal and state elections would really cloud the issue of our local interests and our local issues,” Westby said. “We all know when the presidential election is running there is a lot of focus on the state and national level, and it would be difficult to get to the issues we face here in Santa Barbara.”
Opponents have argued that voters will gradually lose interest in the voting booth as they wade through national and state proposals and propositions, leaving the city issues at the bottom of the ballot blank.
Measure A supporters said this “downballot dropoff” does exist, but only to a limited degree. They cite a 2007 report by Billie Alvarez, the County Deputy Registrar of Voters, that shows voters skipped ballot items only five percent of the time during even-year elections in Carpinteria, Lompoc and Santa Maria since 2000.
Proponents of the measure also argue that bringing municipal elections in line with federal and state elections will save the city a bundle of money, about $245,000 for each election.
City leaders voted earlier this year to have city staff run local elections at a cost of around $280,000 per election after deciding that the County of Santa Barbara charged too much for its election services. Measure A proponents say the city can lower that figure to $35,000 for each election if it aligns with the county, state and national governments.
Westby, however, argued that she isn’t convinced that the measure will save the city money.
“I haven’t seen any of the figures and I don’t think that even if it saved dollars, I don’t think that is a good enough reason,” Westby said. “I think having the right city officials and having people understand the issues, those are much more important than saving money.”
Measure A supporters said they have confirmed the potential savings with several county election officials. In his impartial analysis of Measure A, City Attorney Steve Wiley wrote that county officials said the city would pay between $30,000 and $60,000 for each election if the measure passes.
The move to an even-year cycle will also place the responsibility of running the elections back in the hands of county officials, something Francisco agreed is a good idea.
“I think it’s a huge problem that employees of the City Council are regulating the city election,” Francisco said.
Proponents decried arguments that the ballot measure is an attempt for current Councilmembers to extend their terms an additional year.
“I think that’s a smokescreen issue,” Conklin said. “We’re more concerned about the next 50 years than the next two years.”
Pritchett also agreed, saying that there is no conspiracy in place and that his group isn’t “any happier with the City Council than anyone else.”
However, opponents focus on that argument in their ballot argument against Measure A, arguing that local residents should not reward city leaders with an extra year in office.
“This is a calculated attempt by current City Council members to receive special treatment by increasing their terms of office from four to five years while masquerading as a measure to save money,” the argument states. Francisco, Kahan, Westby and John McKinney penned the No on A argument that will appear on ballots this fall.
Pritchett fired back at that attack yesterday, calling it shortsighted and a desperate attempt to distract local residents from the benefits of Measure A.
“I think the voters are smart enough to understand what is going on,” Pritchett said.
Sandy Stites, a charter member of the Santa Barbara Clean Elections Working Group, also dismissed the idea that Measure A is being backed by people who want the current City Council to stick around for a bonus year.
“It isn’t, oh, we love the City Council as it stands,” Stites said. “We just love democracy.”

1 comment:

Yes on Measure A said...

The vote margin for Measure A only needs to be a simple majority (50% plus 1), not a two-thirds supermajority.

This was a correction in Daily Sound print edition, but those do not appear at the website.