A group of San Clemente residents, who say they want better representation on their city council, did everything needed to get a referendum on the November ballot to change the city's electoral system from at-large to district-based voting.
They collected thousands of signatures from registered voters and turned in their petition on June 1, over two months before the Aug. 12 deadline for measures to be placed on the November ballot.
A few weeks later, the signatures were confirmed by election officials. All that was left to ensure city voters would have a say this year in how their future leaders are chosen was for a majority of the City Council to approve the measure for the ballot.
That didn't happen.
Instead, the four-member council majority – who all live within few blocks of each other and would see their hold on power severely threatened if council members were chosen through geographic districts – took a vote last week that delays the referendum until at least the November 2018 ballot. This means the earliest a district-based election could take place in San Clemente would be 2020.
“This is a brazen act to thwart the will of the voters,” said Jim Bieber, a San Clemente resident and political consultant who’s been a leader in the districting effort.
The council members who delayed the election see it differently, saying that there’s many unanswered questions about districting and the voters will be heard in 2018.
“What is it that we’re in such a hurry for that we have to push this thing through in this November election?” asked Councilman Tim Brown at a recent council meeting. “If it happens this November, if it happens in November in two years…they’ll have their voice, they’ll have their say.”
It all went down at the Aug. 2 council meeting, during which council members were required by state law to take action on the initiative. They had three options:
They could adopt the districting measure without putting it to the voters; they could put it on this November’s ballot; or they could order a study of the measure that takes up to 30 days, which means it would miss this year's ballot deadline.
The vote was 3-1 for option three, with the report being presented to the council at the end of this month. Voting for the delay were council members Tim Brown, Chis Hamm, and Kathleen Ward. Mayor Bob Baker voted against the delay and Councilwoman Lori Donchak was absent.
Better Representation or a Divided City?
Proponents of district elections argue that by having each council member represent a different part of the city, it would give a greater voice to residents in parts of the city that have been underrepresented.
As things stand now, proponents argue, most of the city because four of the five council members all live in one corner of the 20 square-mile city of 65,000 people.
Ward and Hamm live a few houses down the street from each other, while Baker and Brown live another half a mile away. Donchak is the only member of council who lives in another part of town.
Opponents of districting say it would divide the town and prevent residents from being heard by the other four council members who don’t represent their area.
They also say the districting effort is really a ploy by short-term rental owners to try and undo the council’s recent restrictions on their businesses.
'Please Let Voters Decide'
Before the vote last week, three residents involved in the districting effort pleaded with the council to place it on the upcoming ballot.
“This is a presidential election. We are going to have a record outpouring of voting. This is the time to have this discussion,” said Dan Bane, a former San Clemente planning commissioner and resident of the inland Talega neighborhood who’s running for City Council.
“Please let the voters decide in November 2016,” said Brad Malamud, who has helped lead the districting effort and says he hasn’t taken a position on short-term rentals.
One resident, Bernie Wohlfarth, spoke in support of the study, saying it could help correct unspecified “false information” he said was spread by districting supporters.
Brown, Hamm, and Ward argued that the report is important to flesh out unanswered questions about district elections, like whether there’s truth to claims in the pro-districting petition that some of the city’s neighborhoods are underrepresented or “not represented at all” on the City Council.
“Before I turn the entire way we run our city and how we get our elected officials upside down, I’d like to take some time to evaluate whether or not the inequities exist that are alleged in this petition,” said Brown.
But Malamud later pointed out that the council could have ordered the report, which is due Aug. 30, while still holding the election this November.
“It’s all disingenuous,” Malamud said. “Nothing stops this council from getting the report they asked for, giving it to the citizens and allowing the vote to go forward in November.”
Council members didn’t respond to Malamud’s point.
The council’s treatment of the districting measure stood in contrast to how they recently handled their own ballot proposal to increase hotel bed taxes, Malamud also said.
“You guys in one week put an initiative on the ballot to raise the taxes, without any report [on] what the effects would be,” he said. “But when it comes to the people’s request, you delay it.”
Brown, Hamm and Ward also suggested, without much explanation, that a move to district voting – which are typically done to give a stronger voice to minority communities – could instead hurt minority voters in San Clemente. They directed that it be studied in the report.
“My concern…is that potentially we could be disillusioning minority voters in our community by segregating districts out, because I think we do have a very geographically unique setup in terms of where the minorities in our communities live,” said Hamm.
Neither Hamm nor the other council members got into more detail about how district voting could negatively affect minorities in the city. San Clemente’s population is 76 percent white and 17 percent Latino, and currently all five council members are white.
Baker, meanwhile, said that while he thinks the districting proposal is “a dumb idea,” the vote should have still moved forward on this November’s ballot.
“When the truth comes out about it, [the measure] doesn’t have a chance. The voters are smart," Baker said. “I still think we ought to put it on the ballot.”
In defending the measure’s delay, Brown noted that over the next two election cycles, all five council members’ seats are up for election, giving candidates from other parts of the city a chance to get elected.
Hamm and Baker are up for re-election this November, and the other three council members are up for election in 2018.
Bieber, the districting supporter, suggested that council members will be in for a tough fight to keep their seats.
“They can only put off the consequences of their actions for only so long,” he said. “This November the public won't take kindly to their latest thumb to the public's wishes.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Dan Bane as a planning commissioner. He is a former planning commissioner. We regret the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.