Morro Bay council to decide on putting election reform measure on ballot

Morro Bay voters may have a chance to reconsider how mayoral and City Council elections are held.

The City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to put a measure on the Nov. 4 ballot asking voters whether to eliminate the June primary from the city election process. The council voted 3-2 on June 24 to direct interim city attorney Joseph Pannone to prepare the necessary paperwork to put the measure on the ballot in a special election. Tuesday they’ll decide whether to make it official.

The city has operated under its current election set-up since 2006 when voters changed from a consolidated November election every two years to a primary vote that can lead to two elections within a six-month period.

Under the current law, candidates must garner more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary to win a seat. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters face a runoff in the November general election.

The proposed ballot measure would return the city to its original system, eliminating the June primary. The top vote-getter in the November mayoral and council races would win seats, whatever percentage of the vote they receive. Consolidating the election to a single November vote could save the city money in the long run, though how much is unclear.

“The county Election Office will charge the city approximately $13,000 for administering this special election regarding this measure,” Pannone wrote in his staff report. “However, if the measure is adopted, then the city should see a reduction in future election administration costs as the city will conduct only one election every two years.”

Mayor Jamie Irons said he discussed the issue with many residents during his latest campaign and said many told him they don’t support the current set-up.

Arguments against the current arrangement include extra cost and work for city staff to coordinate the election; disruption to city business to potentially have a longer election process; and confusion among residents during the seven-month period if a council member loses re-election in June but still serves on the council until the end of the year.

“I put this issue in my campaign literature because I thought it deserved consideration,” Irons said. “Whether or not I think it’s productive, it’s for the residents to cast their vote for or against it.”

Proponents of the current system say a primary runoff is a more democratic process that encourages more people to run for office. When the current system was implemented in 2006, advocates said it would help avoid vote-splitting, or a candidate who spoils an opportunity for a competitor who otherwise would win. Winner often won with less than majority support from voters.

Morro Bay is the only city in the county to hold a primary election for its council and mayoral races.

At the June 24 meeting, council members Noah Smukler and Christine Johnson, along with Irons, voted to move forward with the ballot measure. Nancy Johnson and George Leage voted against.

“I think it's just been working fine the way it is,” Leage said at the time. “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.”