Chula Vista's Charter Review Commission (Robert Ross, far left)
Chula Vista opted for democracy-on-the-cheap last January when they filled a council vacancy through appointment rather than special election.
Then, shortly after Steve Miesen was appointed to mayor Mary Casillas Salas's open seat, Chris Shilling, chairman of the Ethics Board, joined by California Coast Law and San Diegans for Open Government, filed a suit against the city for Brown Act violations during the appointment process. The suit has cost the city more than $100,000 and the meter is still running A demurrer hearing is scheduled for November 13.
On November 2, the Charter Review Commission voted 6-1 to propose new charter language that would give the city council the option to exclusively use mail-in ballots should a mayor or council member seat be prematurely vacated with more than 12 months but less than 25 months remaining in the term.
Commissioner Robert Ross brought forward the motion. Ross worked with the city clerk to come up with cost estimates for special elections that are not held in the June primary or the November general elections.
If a council seat were unexpectedly vacated and the city needed to hold a special election, Ross calculated that the average cost, relying on traditional polling places, would be $325,000. However, a vote-by-mail election would cost $205,000; this calculation is for one district with five candidates and would save the city $120,000. The cost would be higher to replace a mayor because it would involve all four districts.
Ross explained to commissioners: “If there is a vacancy within the first couple of years, the council must hold an election…but the reason why I brought it up was I thought about what happened recently. It was a vacancy, the city council didn’t want to hold an election because of the cost, so I started to get information to see whether the cost would be low enough so that in the future the city council might consider an election rather than an appointment because I personally think that having an elected city council member is better than having an appointed one.”
The commission’s agenda stated the action item would consider “all-mail balloting for City Council Elections,” not just special elections. During the discussion Ross asked the commissioners, “Do you want to do that only for special elections or do you want to do it for regular elections as well?”
Commissioner Tom O’Donnell stated, “I personally feel it’s important to have people get out and go to the polls — it’s important to keep the polls open.” O’Donnell was the lone vote against the resolution.
Assistant city attorney Jill Maland informed the commissioners that recent state legislation lays the groundwork for more mail-in ballot elections. Several members concurred that mail-in was “the trend.” Several also averred that voting is a right, not a privilege.
Curiously, there was limited discussion about any problems inherent with mail-in ballots. One example of a potential problem was in the 2014 victory of council member John McCann over former mayor Steve Padilla. McCann won by 2 votes and the vote was challenged in court. The challenge, which ultimately was resolved in McCann’s favor, involved 15 uncounted provisional and mail-in ballots.
Accord to a 2012 New York Times article, “Nationwide, the use of absentee ballots and other forms of voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980 and now accounts for almost 20 percent of all votes. Yet votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show. Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting.”
This charter change is still in the early stages. According to assistant attorney Maland: “We will present the proposed language to the commission for consideration. If a majority of the commission votes to recommend the amendment to the city council, it will then be presented to the city council for consideration. If a majority of the council votes to place it on the ballot, it would then go to the voters for consideration. If approved by the voters, the charter would be amended, accordingly.”