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Menlo Park official explores change to City Council elections

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Ray Mueller
  • Ray Mueller

A Menlo Park official is floating the idea of amending how the city elects its council.

Mayor Pro Tem Ray Mueller has raised the idea of adding district representation -- like in San Francisco -- to Menlo Park. But, unlike San Francisco, Mueller believes that retaining some at-large councilors -- officials who aren't tied to a specific geographic area -- would generate the most democratic outcome.

Under the plan -- which is in the early stages and informal -- the city would make two council seats at-large and three electable by district.

"The right timing is essential to having this discussion," Mueller said, "and I don't know what the end result will be."

One of the three districts would likely encompass the Belle Haven neighborhood, in the hope that its residents would be better represented on the City Council. Elections based on political districts increase the chances that minority candidates get elected, said Jason McDaniel, an urban political science expert.

"Our city is growing rapidly, and adding district elections would make it cheaper to run for office," Mueller said.

Other minority groups also can benefit, and McDaniel cited Harvey Milk's election in San Francisco in the 1970s as an example.

Districting tends to increase voter turnout as well, McDaniel said.

But adding district representation also has risks. A common criticism leveled at the practice is that specific neighborhoods, and interest groups, can hijack a city's agenda -- especially smaller cities.

Retaining two at-large seats on the council will help prevent that, Mueller said.

Two types of city councilors might cause problems too. It would create different centers of power and authority, McDaniel said, noting that elected officials with citywide responsibilities might argue they have a greater level of legitimacy.

"The really important question is: Do the two types of councilors have the same amount of power or does it create two tiers?" McDaniel said.

A hybrid system could add friction to the relationship between the City Council and city staff, McDaniel said.

Historically, at-large elections were adopted by small and midsize cities in the early 20th century in response to the Democratic Party controlling large cities such as New York and Chicago, McDaniel said. Many scholars believe at-large election reform was motivated by "a strong element of bias" toward immigrants, the poor and visible

minorities.

In 2012, San Mateo County voters approved Measure B, requiring district elections for the Board of Supervisors.

Should Menlo Park adopt district elections, it would be an unusual experiment. But it has the chance of offering under-represented residents a greater voice in community decisions.

"It makes democracy more accessible to the community," Mueller said.