At its Oct. 28 meeting, San Marino City Council opted to only discuss the city’s possible responses to a new state law that aims to increase voter turnout at local elections.
In the unexpected absence of Mayor Allan Yung, the council decided to postpone any official action until its Dec. 14 meeting.
The new state law—California Senate Bill 415—prohibits cities and other political subdivisions from holding their elections on dates not concurrent with statewide elections, if holding it on that non-concurrent date previously resulted in “a significant decrease in voter turnout.”
Significant decrease in voter turnout is described as voter turnout at least 25 percent less than the average voter turnout for the previous four statewide general elections.
“As you can see in the report, our minimum city turnout to avoid the state cycle would be 48 percent. Our past [city council] election from Nov 3, 2015 was 27.84 percent, which was well below that threshold,” City Clerk Veronica Ruiz told the council.
“We cannot avoid changing our election date to coincide with with statewide election,” she stated, noting that the city has until the first day of 2018 to prepare a transition plan.
Ruiz informed the council that the San Marino Unified School District’s governing board chose to move its November, 2017 election to 2018, extending the terms of all five sitting board members by one year.
“I’m surprised by the action of the school board,” said Council Member Richard Ward, expressing a sentiment that appeared to be shared by the council.
Council Member Steve Talt was surprised by cities that had acted similarly, advising that “[the council] wait as long as we can to see whether or not there is a challenge or an amendment [to the law].”
“I don’t think you can disenfranchise a voter by allowing for members of the city council to unilaterally extend their terms and that includes me,” Talt said. “We go about our business and the next time in November, 2017 you’re electing a five-year council.”
Despite his suggestion, Talt shared more reservations about the impact of the new law on council elections.
“Our citywide elections are very important and if we’re forced to have it during a statewide general election, the messaging and the cost associated with someone running a campaign is going to get lost,” he said.
Council Member Steven Huang joined Talt in expressing support for the option that would keep the November, 2017 and 2019 elections as scheduled.
Moving forward, that option would only extend the terms of newly elected council members and transition city council elections to November general elections in 2022.
“Let the voters decide,” Huang said.
“The fiscal impact is unknown at the time because there’s so many different factors that could impact the cost,” explained City Clerk Ruiz, adding that coinciding council elections with the school board would result in “minimal” savings.