Elk Grove weighs election overhaul
City considers a change to charter status and adoption of a 'choice voting' system.

By Loretta Kalb
Published February 5th 2007 in Sacramento Bee
Elk Grove, the city synonymous with change, is considering one of the most fundamental shifts of all -- an overhaul of City Council elections and governance.

The city could pursue the "choice voting" approach sought in Davis, in which voters rank council candidates by preference. That would require the dramatic step of asking city voters to approve a city charter, similar to a constitution.

Or less-significant changes could go forward without altering the city's structure from general law to charter. Most of the 478 cities in California function as general law cities, following procedures mainly set by state law.

Either way, the discussion about changing Elk Grove's election practices and perhaps its governing structure is one more facet of a theme that has marked Elk Grove's short existence.

In its seven-year history, the city of 131,000 has never shied from change.

It abandoned a contract with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and last year established one of the few new police departments in California. It launched its own transit and animal control services.

In recent weeks, a new council coalition has signaled that it could alter the city's historic reliance on a mainly contract work force. Last month it declared plans to push the boundaries of its already congested city southward.

Against this backdrop, options for an overhaul in the election process will be examined by the city's newly authorized election-reform committee, whose members have yet to be selected. The consequences could be far-reaching.

Creating a charter city will be one of the most weighty issues before the committee.

There are 108 charter cities in California, according to the League of California Cities. Charter status generally gives cities latitude in carving their own path on many fronts, the league says, from establishing a powerful-mayor form of government to enacting "choice" voting.

"You may as well throw in the issue of a charter city as a way to reform this whole process," Councilman Michael Leary said shortly before the Jan. 24 unanimous vote establishing an election-reform committee.

But on a more basic level, the committee is likely first to take up the issue of how to assure that only candidates who receive a majority vote become City Council members.

Under Elk Grove's current system, council members often are elected with less than 50 percent of the votes. In the three elections since incorporation in July 2000, just three candidates have won majority mandates, two incumbents and one challenger.

"Since the election, there has been a change of attitude," newly elected Councilman Pat Hume told The Bee Thursday.

Hume said he wants to curtail the costly practice of campaigning citywide for a district seat. Voters citywide currently vote for all district candidates, a factor that helped push campaign spending above $850,000 in the last city election.

That could require a change from citywide voting to establishing council districts and having only voters within the district elect the council representative.

"From a candidate's standpoint, running for office is a very unwieldy and expensive process," Hume said. "From a citizen's standpoint, there's a feeling of lack of representation.

"It seems like people aren't sure if anyone is in charge of the concerns of their neighborhood."

The committee also will examine changing how the city's mayor is selected. Currently it is done by council colleagues.

"The current process has no continuity ... and lends itself to a perception of brokering and backroom dealing," Hume said in December as the council chose Jim Cooper as the city's 2007 mayor.

The two-person reform committee also will examine whether the city should choose a strong-mayor form of government, Hume said. In strong-mayor cities, such as Oakland, for example, the person elected to the post also functions as a city manager.

For a strong mayor form of government, the city would have to seek voter approval to become a charter city, said Patrick Whitnell, general counsel for the League of California Cities.

"Does that politicize the post? You bet," Hume said. "That's the danger of going to a charter city. Yes, it has more leeway. But is that always a good thing?"