The San Luis Obispo County district attorney election is over, and we all lost. It didn’t have to be.
The internal struggle for leadership of the District Attorney’s Office was seemingly settled by the election of Dan Dow — at least on paper. However, the disruptive office atmosphere created by a name-calling campaign that pitted a subordinate (Dow) against his supervisor (Tim Covello) to replace Gerry Shea as district attorney will not end soon. Seven months will pass before Dow takes office, and it is naïve to believe office rancor will cease on that date.
The Tribune (June 4) quotes Dow as saying, “I’m anxious to begin the healing process in this office.” Healing, however, would not be necessary if the position of district attorney were filled by appointment, and not by expensive, time-consuming, acrimonious elections.
A change in the law could allow the county Board of Supervisors to select a district attorney based on necessary qualifications, just as it selects a county chief administrative officer. The same can be said for other county officials, such as the sheriff and superintendent of schools. The local chief of police is selected, based on qualifications, by an elected city council. School boards do likewise in selecting various superintendents.
City councils and county boards are truly representative . Those positions are available to the public at large and responsible to constituents via open meetings, election campaigns, websites, etc.
Our district attorney is not liable to the public in the same manner. When has that office ever held a forum for public input? And what value would that serve when its primary function is prosecuting criminal cases?
The primary purpose of an election is to connect the public with representative office holders who create public policy. This connection is obvious with city councils, county boards and state legislators where no professional qualifications are required. That connection is not obvious when professional qualifications are necessary, as in the case of a district attorney.
We elect people to offices requiring specific credentials because of tradition — not reason. While living in Iowa, I once voted for a state milk inspector, a position now appointive. In Kansas, I voted for a state printer, now converted to an appointive position.
We would be wise to do likewise in California and only elect public officials with truly representative functions, and allow them to appoint the best individuals available to fill positions requiring professional qualifications.
Carroll R. McKibbin is a retired Cal Poly political science professor.