Morro Bay voters will get the chance Nov. 4 to decide what they believe to be the most fair and effective election system.
Measure J-14 proposes changing to a single election in November from a dual-election system, every two years.
Morro Bay is currently the only city in San Luis Obispo County with the two-election setup, which includes holding a June primary election for City Council and mayoral candidates alongside county, state and federal elections. The initial election sets up a potential November runoff if a clear majority isn’t achieved in the primary.
Voters changed Morro Bay’s municipal code to the two-election system in 2006.
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Proponents argued a two-election system would encourage more candidates to run and help voters elect the best applicant.
Opponents said a two-election system is too costly and cumbersome for the city of roughly 10,000 residents, and it can result in a six-month lame duck period for outgoing council members, which they say is detrimental to governance.
Some of the same arguments are being made about the current ballot measure that aims to reverse the 2006 action.
Morro Bay had a 58 percent voter turnout in June compared with a 60 percent voter turnout in November 2012.
Under the current system, candidates can avoid a runoff if they can garner more than 50 percent of the vote in their respective primary races.
Measure J-14 arguments for and against the change, and their rebuttals, will appear in the ballot information that voters receive before the election.
Mayor Jamie Irons, Councilmember Christine Johnson, Morro Bay business owner Jack Smith and community volunteers Marlys McPherson and Amy Burton favor Measure J-14, supporting a one-election system.
In the ballot information, they cited the expense to the city and candidates, and lengthy campaign commitment over the course of several months, for council contenders to participate in two elections.
They also said the initial goal of attracting more candidates to the field wasn’t achieved in the last election, which fielded two mayoral contenders and three council applicants.
That compares with 12 candidates in the first year of the two-election system in 2008 when there were four candidates for mayor and eight for council.
In the past two primary elections in 2012 and 2014, Morro Bay mayoral and council candidates received a majority in the primary, eliminating a need for a November election.
“(A dual-election system) was promoted as a way to encourage more candidates and elect a clear majority,” the argument states. “In the last election, the field of candidates was smaller and elections were won by a clear majority in June for both City Council seats and Mayor.”
Opponents of Measure J-14 include council members George Leage and Nancy Johnson and Morro Bay citizens Grace Poletti, Bill H. Olson and James R. Hayes, who signed the ballot information against the measure.
They argue that multiple elections within a year motivate officials to “really pay attention to voters” rather than disrupt city business. And they say a one-time majority vote could discourage valid candidates from running because they don’t want to “split the vote” with like-minded competitors.
“Measure J-14 asks you to silence yourself in up to half of Morro Bay’s elections,” the argument against J-14 states. “ (Under the one-election system) in a field of multiple candidates someone could be elected mayor or to council with far less than majority support. It means there will be backroom deals where good candidates will be discouraged from running so they won’t split the vote.”
Community volunteer Robert Fuller Davis disagrees. Conducting two elections requires too much of an expense for local candidates and taxpayers in a small town, he said.
A six-month time frame for sitting council members on their way out can hurt the city’s democratic process, he noted. “We end up with lame-duck, defeated candidates who can work against the express will of the people in the election of their opponent or be disinterested politicians during the remainder of the term.”
But for J-14 opponents, the potential for a candidate to win with a small majority in a single election is more harmful to effective governance.
And a waiting period allows more time for preparation for civic duties, to get up to speed on issues, they argue.
If adopted, the new measure would swear in the successful candidates at the first council meeting held in December immediately following the November election. That’s when successful candidates in the June primary now take office.