Pasadena City Council set to discuss municipal election system on Sept. 18
By Gus Herrera
The City of Pasadena might soon be changing the way it holds municipal elections. The city council is set to take action on how best to respond to the California Voter Participation Rights Act (CVPRA), aka Senate Bill 415, on Sept. 18.
The CVPRA, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2015, is meant to increase voter participation throughout the state by eliminating off-year elections and forcing all local elections to be consolidated with state elections on even years.
Proponents of the bill argue that consolidated elections will allow tax dollars to be spent more efficiently and that higher voter turnout will ensure constituents are more well-represented via local government.
Whereas the CVPRA directly applies to general law cities, charter cities, such as Pasadena, are still not convinced the bill applies to them.
On March 7, 2016, the Pasadena council directed city staff to seek a legal opinion on the matter. More than a year later, on July 13, the city received an opinion from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra stating that the CVPRA does indeed apply to Pasadena.
The legal opinion argued that charter cities are subject to the bill if local voter turnout is 25 percent less than the city’s average turnout for the past four statewide general elections. According to the LA County Registrar, turnout for local Pasadena/PUSD elections average 20 percent – 40 percent lower than the average turnout for statewide elections (63.21 percent).
Despite the decision, many Pasadena council members stand firmly in opposition to the CVPRA, defending the city’s right to “home rule” as a charter city.
“I don’t agree with the opinion regarding charter cities … I don’t believe it applies to us, plainly as that … we should not comply with the state,” said Council Member Gene Masuda.
Council Member Tyron Hampton concurred, “we need to stand up … we either need to sue or wait for the state to come down and sue us. I think we should fight it, absolutely.”
“What a mess,” proclaimed Council Member Margaret McAustin, “one more time the state is coming in and stomping on local control.”
In addition to the belief that the state has no authority over the city charter, council also argued that consolidating local elections will open the floodgates to a variety of unintended consequences.
Some fear that ballots will grow longer and more complex, with the need to fit local, state, and school district measures on one or more cards. There is also the potential for local issues to fall subject to partisan politics. Additionally, anyone running for local office will struggle to secure funding and airtime, as they will be competing against statewide races – inevitably tilting the odds in favor of more financially-capable candidates.
“Imagine your mailbox filled with ballot initiatives,” said Council Member Andy Wilson, “I’m all for voter participation, but the noise will be overwhelming … I’m afraid … we’d have people punching numbers and not focusing on issues.”
If council decides not to comply with the CVPRA, City Clerk Mark Jomsky suggested several possibilities, including administering local elections through the LA County Registrar of Voters or switching from the current primary/general format to plurality voting, where the candidate receiving the highest number of votes is elected without the need for majority mandates.
Regardless of which path the city chooses to pursue, Mayor Terry Tornek argued that despite the seemingly limited interest from the public, the people should be involved in order to avoid the notion that a group of “self-serving bunch of insiders” are maintaining “control of the process and not giving the public the opportunity to weigh in.”