Politics & Government

Morro Bay voters to decide whether to keep primary election

Morro Bay
Morro Bay jmellom@thetribunenews.com

The voters of Morro Bay will decide in November if they want to keep a dual-election voting process with a primary and potential general election runoff — or if they’ll do away with the primary and hold a single election every two years.

The City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday in favor of putting the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot that could change the way mayors and City Council members are elected. Council members Nancy Johnson and George Leage dissented.

Johnson and Leage will write the argument, to appear on the ballot, against changing the existing dual-election voting procedure in Morro Bay.

Mayor Jamie Irons and Mayor Pro Tem Christine Johnson will compose the argument for changing the dual-election process to a single vote.

Each side will have the opportunity to seek input from up to three members of the community to formulate their argument.

Those in favor of the current system said it prevents a candidate from winning without a clear majority, particularly when several candidates run for office.

Those against the current system said that a longer two-part voting cycle is tiresome for voters, disruptive to city business, and costs the city more money and manpower to administer.

The current system requires candidates to win a majority vote in the primary or the top two-vote getters for each available seat face a runoff in the general election. Voters approved the current system through a citizen’s initiative in 2006.

If the city returns to the method in place before 2006, those who win the most votes are elected, regardless of the winning percentage.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Nancy Johnson vehemently opposed changing the current system.

“In the past, people were elected by a total (margin) of five, six, maybe even seven votes in some cases,” Johnson said. “There’s no way that’s a clear majority. We’re a small city. It’s important to keep the primary system.”

She said she also believes more people would run with a primary vote in place.

Johnson also contended voters should be reminded of the 2006 change to a primary system in the ballot question presented to them on the matter, which the council majority opted against on Tuesday.

Differing from Nancy Johnson’s view, Christine Johnson said she believes fewer people run with a dual-election cycle because of the lengthy commitment.

She argued that in a town with a population of about 10,000, “we will exhaust the public, and fewer people will run if they have to potentially campaign for a year.”

“It’s an extremely long time to dedicate personal time, starting in February, to an election that may not be decided until November,” she said. “Funds will have to be raised prior to June and you’re in full campaign mode starting in February. Then you have people who win a 50 percent majority in June but don’t take their seats for several months.”

Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler both said that a majority of California cities hold a single-election cycle, and thus Morro Bay wouldn’t be straying from the norm.

Irons, who supported the 2006 measure to add the primary at that time, said that his recent discussions with residents prompted him to initiate the new ballot measure and that city dialogue on the issue is necessary.

Leage countered that many citizens have told him they like the current voting set-up.

Morro Bay resident John Barta worked on the successful citizen’s initiative in 2006 and commented at Tuesday’s meeting that the council shouldn’t undo a measure that citizens voted in eight years ago.

“Citizens should have the greatest possibility to vote in the biggest field,” Barta said. “In a single election in November, in a large candidate field, votes will be split. The highest vote-getter wins, but may fall well short of a majority. You’ll see people win with a 34 percent vote. I stand ready to argue against.”

Morro Bay City Clerk Jamie Boucher said that the 2012 primary cost the city $16,647. The invoice from the county on this year’s election hasn’t been issued to the city yet.