Attorney General decision, lack of election vendors, and costs may force the City’s hand
Published : Monday, October 16, 2017 | 5:11 AM
The Pasadena City Council tonight takes up whether to align the city’s elections with the State of California’s election cycle and turn over the municipal vote counting process to Los Angeles County officials.
If the Council decides to act on the opinion and consolidate local voting with the statewide cycle in June, 2020, it is possible 2019 Mayoral and Districts 1,2,4 and 6 Council elections along with Pasadena Unified School Board elections could be cancelled and current seatholders remain in office an extra 20 months.
The Council’s discussions tonight are prompted by State Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s Opinion No. 16-603, which said that the California Voter Participation Rights Act applies to charter cities and school districts whose elections are governed by City Charter, as are Pasadena’s.
The Act “prohibits a political subdivision (Such as the City of Pasadena), as defined, from holding an election other than on a statewide election date, if holding an election on a nonconcurrent date has previously resulted in voter turnout for a regularly scheduled election in that political subdivision being at least 25% less than the average voter turnout within the political subdivision for the previous 4 statewide general elections, except as specified.”
The Act also penalizes local cities who attempt to hold their own elections.
Depending on the vote or decision Monday evening, the Council may ask City staff to consider whether and how to comply with the California Voter Participation Rights Act , including submitting amendments to the City Charter for voter consideration and approval at an upcoming election, refer the matter to the Legislative Policy Committee (or other City Council Committee) for more study and a formal recommendation, or refer the matter to a Charter Study Task Force for study and recommendation, The Council may also provide an alternative direction to staff on how to proceed.
Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek, reached last Friday, said “there are no happy alternatives here. I think that my colleagues on the Council are resentful and a number of people in the city are resentful about having this date dictated this to us. There’s a strong body of opinion that suggests that the attorney general’s opinion that says that we must conform to the to the state dates is not accurate, and that our charter, the fact that we’re a chartered city, allows us to retain our dates.”
Continued Tornek, “The practical reality suggests that even if we wanted to keep the existing odd year date, the availability of a vendor to run the election, and the cost of having the county run an election on the odd year, on our schedule, even if they’re willing to do it, both the cost and the availability of being able to manage those elections on our own suggests, to me at least, that we may not have any practical alternative.”
Michael Alexander, President of Pasadena TeaPAC, a non-partisan organization born out of the Tea Party movement of 2009, disagrees with Mayor Tornek.
“The idea that the cities are somehow cost-conscious or care about taxpayers or how large the cheque is they have to write, well, that’s nonsense. They don’t care about any such thing,” Alexander said last week.
“As a matter of fact, I believe that the motivation for syncing up the local elections with the statewide elections, in some cases, the national elections, is to escape scrutiny and make sure that the leverage of the public employee unions is reserved,” he continued. “In my judgement, it is a cynical exercise in politics that has little or nothing to do with, A, increasing voter participation, or B, reducing the cost of municipal elections.”
Adding conflict to the debate is the fact that in order to synchronize with the State’s voting cycle, current office holders would either find their terms cut shorter by five months or extended 20 months.
“I see arguments on both sides,” said Councilmember Andy Wilson, who went through a hotly contested race in March. “Part of this is from somebody who’s most recently having gone through an intense election period. I know how important it is to get your election out and educate voters. I spent nine months of my life doing that. It’s a bit daunting to think, that if there were a lot more moving pieces, and a lot more ballot initiatives, and a lot more mail flying around, it seems it would be more challenging to connect with voters.”
Wilson continued, “Depending on how they actually end up sequencing this,” he continued, “and, obviously, the longer the campaign, the more expensive the campaign. I think there’s arguments that when you consolidate this way it could increase the partisanship, and one of the things that I think is important in our city elections is being non-partisan. So these are all concerns for me, but it looks like maintaining the status quo is going to be more difficult than I would’ve hoped.”
The Pasadena City Council first grappled with the issue in August, with a number of members apparently aligning against the idea of concurrent elections following the issuance of Becerra’s opinion.
Pasadena City Clerk Mark Jomsky also pointed out recently that to hold local elections would be costly, as the City would need to pay Los Angeles County to manage local elections. The estimated cost to conduct the City’s 2019 Primary and General elections is $2,178,000.
Martin Chapman, the local election company which has assisted Pasadena with numerous past local elections, will basically be “put out of business” by the new election law, said Jomsky.
Given the cost of running its own elections, the City may have little choice in the matter, although Councilmembers Gene Masuda, Tyron Hampton, John Kennedy, and Steve Madison have said they believe that the state law should not be followed.
The City and the Pasadena Unified School District currently hold elections in odd years, to move away from more crowded state and national elections, known as “concurrent” elections. The new California Voter Participation Rights Act mandates that local elections must move to match the State and national election cycles if local election turnouts average under 25 percent.
In Pasadena, the turnout for the March, 2017 City Council election was 21 percent, and the Pasadena Unified voter turnout was 20.47 percent, according to City Clerk Mark Jomsky, who would help coordinate any election changes for the City.
Councilmember Margaret McAustin summarized the issue in practical economic terms, saying, “I think that it’s folly to think that we’re going to be able to hold our own elections in the spring, because essentially all the election providers, other than the county, are going out of business.”
“So even though we may want to, I don’t think an election could be held with confidence and integrity, just because the service providers are very rapidly going out of business and we can’t afford to pay the county the cost to hold a special election just for Pasadena.”