Surf City politicians are pushing for a series of changes to the city charter – including voter ID laws and regulating what books are available at libraries.
So far, the proposals are facing constant criticism from residents during public meetings.
Most of the public speakers at the city council’s charter meetings have urged them to make no changes, questioning why it’s necessary and asking them to focus on things like homelessness and other quality of life issues.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark argued the council was able to “chew gum and walk at the same time,” and that their work on charter amendments wasn’t detrimental to other city efforts.
While city staff published analyses of a dozen proposed amendments to the city charter, council members’ spent most of their time discussing what the city’s future elections could look like.
Are Voter IDs coming?
The most contentious discussion was focused yet again on the Republican city council majority’s idea to implement voter ID requirements at all in person polling places along with ballot box monitoring, which has brought in a lot of concern from residents.
“To me, it’s just increasing faith in our elections and increasing voter turnout,” said Councilman Casey McKeon.
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the US, with multiple studies finding little to no fraud, with one study by Loyola Law School that was published in the Washington Post finding that from 2000 to 2014 there were 31 credible instances of fraud out of over one billion votes cast.
The council’s proposal would also require the city to set up additional voting centers throughout the city and additional security cameras to watch ballot boxes.
Tuesday’s debate reached its peak with McKeon and Councilman Dan Kalmick shouting over one another, with Kalmick insisting that the push for voter ID would only create more barriers for people to vote.
“You are making it more difficult for people without resources to vote,” Kalmick said. “You’re creating a barrier that doesn’t exist currently for a constitutionally protected right.”
McKeon and Van Der Mark disputed Kalmick’s argument, with McKeon adding that if you need to show ID to get on a plane, you should need one to vote.
“It’s an absurd argument!” McKeon said. “This is the only aspect of your life you don’t have to show an identification card.”
Councilwoman Natalie Moser also critiqued the idea, saying that because many of the proposed changes were written in a closed door meeting between McKeon, Van Der Mark and Mayor Tony Strickland, other council members hadn’t had a chance to provide enough input on the process.
“I think we’ll actually end up doing the opposite of what you’re trying to do,” Moser said after McKeon’s comments. “I think it’s kind of a fire, aim, fire, because all of these are coming forward all ready to go. I appreciate we’re having dialogue, but I think it’s important to always remember the context and origin of this.”
It remains unclear whether or not the Orange County Registrar of Voters, which currently runs the city’s elections, would support Huntington Beach with voter ID regulations or with ballot box monitoring.
Sunny Han, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, said the costs for the city to run their own elections would range from, “$1.3 million to $1.65 million,” without including cybersecurity or ballot tracking costs.
“It’s really a nebulous number,” Han said.
Potential Changes to Libraries & Council Appointments
After a heated debate in June, which saw city council members ask staff to come up with a way to restrict access to “obscene,” books in public libraries, one councilwoman is asking for city voters to make the decision instead.
on whether city leaders can do that.
Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton proposed letting voters decide whether or not to move forward with restricting access to library books that discuss sex to underage residents, one of the council’s most controversial policies discussed over the past year that remains in limbo.
“We’ve done a lot of talk if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – this is something based on the debate we’ve had about libraries and the community’s response about the libraries, it looks like something that might be broken,” Bolton said. “We may as well consider a charter amendment and put it to a vote of the residents about how to handle the library issue.”
One of the only proposed charter amendments that received support across the political aisle was an idea to require anyone appointed to the city council to fill a vacancy should have to run in the next general election, regardless of how much time was left on the term.
The last appointment to the council came in 2020, when then-Councilman Tito Ortiz resigned less than a year into his term, and was replaced by Bolton, who will hold onto the seat until the 2024 election.
Last Tuesday was also the first opportunity that council members who didn’t sit on the ad-hoc committee had to introduce new ideas for ballot measures.
While council members met on Sept. 14 to hear from residents about the charter, they did not discuss any potential policy changes.
Bolton suggested introducing a change to the city’s rules on nepotism, which would prevent the city council, city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer from being able to hire anyone they’re related with to work at the city.
Kalmick also suggested changing the charter to allow for the city council to hire their own staff and increase their pay, saying it wouldn’t require that to happen immediately but would open the door for it.
“Our current charter doesn’t allow us to direct anyone, as a council, other than the city manager,” Kalmick said. “We’re all working full time, so to have somebody who’s sitting in our office upstairs for most of the week, to be able to do constituent calls, things like that.”
Huntington Beach is one of the largest cities in the county to not have staff that report directly to city council members, where cities like Anaheim and Irvine allow city council members a budget to hire their own staff that have faced questions in the past.
The council is set to discuss more charter amendments at their Thursday, Sept. 28 meeting, which could include their first votes to decide what will or won’t be placed on the ballot.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X @NBiesiada.
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