Special elections might be best in SLO and Grover

The people should choose their leaders for vacated council seats

letters@thetribunenews.comFebruary 4, 2013 

San Luis Obispo County is about to lose two elected leaders: In San Luis Obispo, Councilman Andrew Carter is leaving to become city manager of Guadalupe, and in Grover Beach, Councilwoman Phyllis Molnar is moving outside the city limits.

To fill their seats, City Councils in the two cities can opt to hold a special election or appoint a replacement.

But especially in San Luis Obispo, there’s been increasing talk of following a third option — a hybrid, if you will: Appoint the third-highest finisher in the November election.

That might sound like the most logical course of action. It respects the will of the voters, without going to the expense of a special election.

That was exactly what the San Luis Obispo City Council did in 2010, when it appointed Dan Carpenter to fill out the term vacated by Jan Marx, who was elected mayor.

Then, it was a no-brainer: Carpenter had finished a close third behind Kathy Smith, losing by just 229 votes.

That’s hardly the case now. Jeff Aranguena, the third-place finisher in the November San Luis Obispo council election, was more than 3,000 votes behind second-place candidate John Ashbaugh.

While we respect Aranguena and believe he is a strong candidate for Carter’s seat, his relatively distant, third-place finish in November is hardly a clear and convincing mandate from voters. For that reason, we do not believe the San Luis Obispo council should base its decision on the recent election.

The same holds for Grover Beach. While that election was closer, there was still a sizeable gap between the two winning candidates and the third-place finisher.

That brings us to the question: Should the councils appoint a replacement or hold special elections?

Cost is a big concern — an election would cost at least $65,000 in San Luis Obispo and around $30,000 in Grover Beach.

Those are big expenses, especially in an era when local governments are skimping on everything from street paving to office supplies.

But cost shouldn’t be the only — or even the most important — consideration.

Here are others:

• Length of term. If we were talking a matter of months, we would have no problem with appointments. But in both cases, the council terms expire at the end of 2014, which means there are almost two years left. That’s a long time for anonelected council member to be in office.

• Level of interest. There already are at least five candidates interested in Carter’s soon-to-be-vacated seat in San Luis Obispo, and there’s been considerable behind-thescenes lobbying. We believe it would be far more transparent to campaign in the open, and let the public decide. We’ve yet to hear from potential candidates in Grover Beach, but Molnar just announced her resignation late last week.

• Method of balloting. Because it’s a charter city, San Luis Obispo has the option of conducting a vote-by-mail election. That keeps costs down, and because mailing in ballots is so easy, it could also encourage turnout.

Bottom line: Given Grover Beach’s financial difficulties (it was especially hard hit by the recession and had to sell property, dramatically reduce services and lay off staff), we can understand why the council might be inclined to skip a special election. We urge the Grover Beach council, though, to at least consider an election, especially if strong interest develops in the seat.

In San Luis Obispo, where that interest is already apparent, we strongly urge the City Council to hold a special election.

There are many critical issues facing the city — homelessness, the extension of Measure Y, economic development — and we believe those should be decided by a council elected by the voters, not by four elected officials and a fifth who’s been handpicked by the council majority.

Yes, $65,000 is a lot of money, and some will no doubt argue that it would be better spent on street repairs or parks or neighborhood patrols.

We don’t agree. Elections are one of the costs of doing business in a democracy. In the long run, we believe that $65,000 is money well spent if it gives voters the opportunity to directly elect their representatives.

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