Our View: Ditch the mayoral advantage in City Council elections

The next election for Santa Clarita City Council is nearly a year away. But there is a routine matter set for Tuesday’s council agenda – the council’s last meeting of 2017 – that could have an important influence on the election’s outcome.

As a general law city, not a charter city like Los Angeles, Santa Clarita is governed by five elected or appointed council members with approximately equal power over policy-making. One of the five does serve as mayor for a one-year term each year, but that ceremonial title gives him or her marginally enhanced powers – he or she presides over council meetings and assumes certain designated duties such as taking a seat on the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District.

Otherwise, Santa Clarita’s mayor is called upon to cut a lot of ribbons and makes fluffy public appearances on behalf of the city. He or she can seize that year’s term to make as many appearances as desired – all under the title of “mayor.”

Meantime, the city manager, currently Ken Striplin, handles administration of the city. Striplin is not elected by the voters, but hired by the City Council.

Santa Clarita’s mayor and that of a charter city, like L.A.’s Eric Garcetti, have vastly different powers and authority. Yet both are accurately called mayors.

So what? you might ask. Here’s what: Being mayor and being up for re-election to the council during the same year provides plenty of opportunity to turn ceremonial mayoral appearances into campaign appearances – opportunities for the candidate to seize the appearance of authority that would seem to put him or her into the same league with an Eric Garcetti.

On Tuesday night, the City Council will select the city’s mayor for 2018. Currently, Councilman Cameron Smyth is mayor and Councilwoman Laurene Weste is mayor pro tem; traditionally, the mayor pro tem is appointed mayor.

Weste, however, is up for re-election in November 2018, giving her nearly an entire year to campaign as mayor of Santa Clarita if the council appoints her Tuesday. The choice is entirely up to the council – you and other Santa Clarita voters get no say.

Santa Clarita’s “Norms and Procedures” – which govern how council members should interact with each other, with their employees, with the public and with other government officials – says nothing about how council members select the mayor.

Beginning in December 1987, when the city was founded, the mayor was generally selected by rotation and by winning three council members’ votes. In 2012, then-Councilman TimBen Boydston called for a review of the mayoral selection process, proposing it be moved from December to April – when city elections were held until last year – and challenging the policy that allowed a council member to hold the mayor’s office during an election year.

Being mayor while seeking re-election to the council allows the mayor-candidate “to position themselves to gain that extra exposure,” Boydston told his colleagues.

The proposal failed on a 4-1 vote, with opposition from Weste, Councilwoman Marsha McLean, Councilman Bob Kellar and then-councilman Frank Ferry.

Weste and McLean remain council members and are up for re-election in 2018.

Since the rejection of Boydston’s proposal we have seen more than one occasion when it seemed council members were manipulating fellow members into position to be mayor during their bids for re-election.

We believe such subterfuge gives that council member an unfair advantage in the election. We call on the council to select as 2018 mayor one of the two council members not up for re-election next year, and we suggest that council member be Cameron Smyth for a second term as mayor.

The city should stop giving the re-election edge to incumbents based on a fake authority vested in a ceremonial title.

This post was last modified on December 11, 2017, 5:04 pm

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