Mark White | Is It Time for District Elections?

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

Typically the argument against district elections has been it will create “turf wars” between the districts and individuals may put the interest of their district ahead of the city as a whole. It has also been stated that the current system “isn’t broken, so why do we need to change it?” and “it has worked well so far,” and “the voters approved it,” albeit the last approval on this was 31 years ago.

A current viewpoint being expressed is that district elections will disadvantage the incumbents and potentially increase the odds of a newcomer being elected. Our incumbents are not entitled to their seat — and term limits are a discussion for another day.

Notwithstanding the possibility of additional legal action under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), district elections should be considered because it is the right thing to do. Local, accessible direct representation is better.

School boards, water agencies, community colleges, state and federal office holders are all now elected by district – why not our City Council? Three of the current council members all live in Newhall less than three miles apart from each other. The three incumbents who have announced they are running for re-election also all live just a few miles from each other.

In a city that is over 62 square miles should four of the five current City Council members be concentrated in such a small area? Does this provide the best representation and is it in the best interest for all of the SCV?

With less than 100 days until the next election each candidate should go on the record and state if they favor or oppose district elections and their reasons why. The people of Santa Clarita deserve to know before this election. And wouldn’t it be nice if there was no vague “we should look into it” or “I would be open to exploring the issue.” Take a stand – for or against, and your reasons why.

The current City Council should immediately make this an agenda item and direct staff to explore district elections as soon as possible.

As our city has grown and changed, so should our method of governance. District elections will make running for office accessible to more people and increase citizen involvement. Election by districts will drastically reduce the cost of campaigns and will put elected representatives in closer contact with their constituents. With the implementation of districts the city should consider hiring appointed full-time district field representatives to represent and serve each district. City staff is good but having direct access to our elected representative will provide improved service, transparency and accountability.

Another benefit of City Council districts is that future vacancies will be easier to fill and not require a costly citywide special election or other controversial methods. The last two vacancies and the controversy surrounding those appointments demonstrate the need for a more consistent and transparent way to fill vacancies.

District elections are a step in the right direction. For the recent vacancy of 2016, the council chose the option of an open application process where any resident of Santa Clarita could apply; about 50 people did. The selected person was determined based on an application and approximately 10 minutes of discussion at one council meeting. There was no public vetting, interviews or financial disclosures; no public forums, debates or scrutiny by mainstream or social media.

The vacancy prior to 2016 was filled by appointment after prospective applicants were vetted by citizen panels. A point system was developed for ranking applicants. After multiple votes the council could not agree on any of the higher-scoring candidates and in the end they selected a very low-scoring candidate.

District elections will provide better direct representation. Districts will encourage more citizen involvement and it will be less expensive to run a campaign. It will be a deterrent against potential future CVRA lawsuits. Future council vacancies would be filled with less cost and less controversy. Council persons will be better known by the residents in their districts and the entire Santa Clarita Valley will be better served.

So when will district elections become a reality for Santa Clarita?

Mark White is a 53-year resident of the SCV who works and lives in Valencia. He ran for City Council in 2016.

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