Morro Bay’s 2-election system needs an update

It sounds good in principle, but in reality, Morro Bay’s unusual system of electing a mayor and council — it conducts a primary election and, if necessary, a runoff — is confusing, cumbersome and expensive for a small city.

Consider the city’s current dilemma: Nearly two weeks have passed since the June 3 election. Yet results of the council race are still unclear because the city isn’t sure how to deal with 123 ballots that had no candidates marked for City Council. (Editor's note: Incumbent Nancy Johnson conceded to John Headding on Sunday.)

If the ballots aren’t counted, candidate John Headding will have a clear majority and be declared the winner; if they are, he’ll be just short of the necessary number of votes and will be headed for a runoff.

City officials are researching case law and looking at how other agencies have handled the situation to figure out what to do next.

Whatever the outcome, this period of uncertainty is unfair to the candidates and their supporters, as well as to voters. Plus, no matter how carefully the city states its reasons for its ultimate decision, the situation opens the door to discontent and accusations of favoritism.

Given such issues, we were glad to learn the Morro Bay City Council is considering a ballot measure that would ask voters whether they want to undo their 2006 decision. In that year, Measure S— an initiative asking voters whether they wanted to switch to the primary/runoff system — passed easily, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

We can understand the attraction; in theory, the two-election system appears to be more democratic because it ensures the ultimate winners will have the support of a majority of voters.

It’s also been touted as a way to encourage more people to run for office.

That was stressed by proponents of Measure S, who had this to say in a Tribune Viewpoint published in 2006: “Its effect is to allow multiple challengers to run without fear of vote-splitting. Our existing system produces winners with less than majority vote and spoilers are common.”

Yet two years later, the Morro Bay City Council already was discussing whether to give voters the opportunity to change their minds. Expense was the primary argument cited against the primary system, though the council ultimately decided against putting a measure on the ballot to rescind Measure S— in part because voters had approved it just two years earlier.

Now that more time has passed, though, weaknesses have become apparent, and we believe it is time to let voters reconsider:

The two-election system has dragged out the campaign season and made it more expensive and timeconsuming for candidates who must go on to compete in a runoff. While two campaigns may not be excessive for candidates competing for a full-time job such as county super visor or clerk/ recorder, it’s a lot to ask of politicians in a small city who are essentially volunteers earning a stipend of $500 per month — and often working 9-to-5 jobs as well.

As newly re-elected Mayor Jamie Irons points out, there can be a prolonged “lame duck” period under the current system. A candidate who wins a clear majority in June isn’t seated until after the November election. In the meantime, the outgoing mayor and council members are still in power, and could theoretically continue supporting unpopular policies that lost them the election.

The expense for the city doubles in years when two elections are necessary. We aren’t talking about a huge sum; the primary election in 2012 cost the city $18,600 (figures for 2014 weren’t available). If it were money well spent we would have no problem, but we don’t believe that it is.

Morro Bay is the only city in the county to have the two-election system. That, in itself, is not sufficient reason to reject it, but it does raise the question: If this were a good idea, wouldn’t other jurisdictions follow suit?

Bottom line: The Morro Bay primary was a well-intentioned and interesting experiment, but we believe it’s time to reconsider.

We strongly urge the City Council to place a measure on the November ballot, asking voters whether they want to return to a one-and-done election.