Morro Bay may let voters decide on change to election code

Morro Bay
Morro Bay The Tribune

Morro Bay voters will likely get the chance in November to decide whether to change the city’s election code, eliminating a June primary election for City Council and mayoral seats.

The City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to direct the city attorney to prepare the necessary paperwork to put a measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. The council will then vote July 8 whether to put the measure on the ballot.

On Tuesday, Councilman George Leage and Councilwoman Nancy Johnson cast the dissenting votes.

Morro Bay is the only city in San Luis Obispo County that requires candidates to get more than 50 percent to win a mayoral or council seat. If no candidate gets a majority vote in the June primary, the top two vote-getters go to a runoff the following November. In other cities, the top vote-getter wins outright.

The primary/runoff system has been in place since 2006 when voters approved an initiative titled Measure S. At the time, it passed with 60 percent of the vote.

Those who supported the primary system said it gave voters more control of the voting process.

Leage said Wednesday that he voted against putting the measure on the ballot because he thought the current system works.

“I think it’s just been working fine the way it is,” said Leage. “I respect the people who put it on the ballot to begin with. We will see if the people still want it if the people don’t want it, then we shouldn’t have it.”

The change was initiated by Mayor Jamie Irons, supported by council members Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler.

“Having an election in June and again in November is a challenge for any city,” Irons said.

He said the burden falls on candidates who might have to campaign twice in a year and on city staff, especially the city clerk, the city’s election official.

“To have staff go through it twice is pretty disruptive,” he said.

A ballot measure is required to change the election procedure because it was adopted by a citizen’s initiative, said Joseph Pannone, interim city attorney.

The change, if approved by voters, would alter the city’s election process so that elections would be held in November on even-numbered years.

The most recent primary election was a lesson in how the current law works.

In the June 3 primary, only two candidates were running for mayor — Irons and Carla Wixom. That meant one of them would win a majority of the vote and a November runoff would be avoided. Irons won.

But three candidates were running for two City Council seats. Candidate Matt Makowetski won one seat by securing 61 percent of the vote. Because of a vagary in the city code, the city attorney had to research state election law to determine that candidate John Headding won the second seat over incumbent Nancy Johnson.

Initially, Headding appeared to have 49.09 percent of the vote, which would have required the two to face a runoff.

Pannone determined, however, that 123 unmarked ballots should not be included in the percentage calculation, which gave Headding 50.7 percent and the second council seat.

“For me, (the primary) was not necessarily cumbersome because I didn’t have to go through it twice,” Irons said. “But it is a lot of work for people who have to. People who have families sacrifice all of that time all over again.

“The reality is people worked hard on my election, and people worked hard on other people’s elections. Maybe we should just ask them to work hard once instead of trying to do it twice.”