Jun 242011

At last Monday’s City Council meeting, Council Member Ursula Reed proposed that the City Council consider reducing its numbers from 7 to 5 when they next draw the redistricting lines later this year.  She also proposed to extend term limits to 3 terms per Council Member.  Mayor Cassidy thought the idea was worth considering, but he advocated that it be done as part of a larger reform of the whole City Charter. I agree.   The Charter hasn’t been touched in decades, comes from a time when San Leandro was a very different city, and it may be time to give it more than a couple of cosmetic changes.

I have advocated elsewhere that San Leandro would be better off having a full-time Mayor with broader powers.  San Leandro is currently “ruled” by a City Manager only very indirectly accountable to the community.  When a city manager is incompetent or corrupt, but still has the support of the City Council, citizens have little recourse: the only way to remove would be by the impossible task of recalling 4 City Council members.  A Mayor, on the other hand, is elected directly and if undesirable he risks not being re-elected or recalled (one recall is easier to manage than four).

I also support Reed’s idea of reducing the number of City Council members.  San Leandro’s City Council is quite large for a city its size but here it’s clear that size does not equal competence.  I can only hope that it’d be easier to find five competent people to sit in the Council than it’s been to find seven.  Reducing the number of City Council members by two will result in some small savings (about $40,000-$60,000), the money could be put into better training or support for the remaining City Council members.

Another issue that needs to be back on the table is that of having district elections. Right now, candidates must live within a particular district to run for that City Council seat but the whole city votes for them.  This has the advantage of making all City Council members accountable to the whole city.  A Council Member from the Marina, for example, is less likely to push the interest of Marina residents at the expense of those in other districts if the whole city will vote for his re-election.  However, running city-wide campaigns is extremely expensive: the greatest cost in any local campaign is that of printing and mailing campaign literature – by having district elections candidate’s costs can be reduced by 1/6th (or 1/4th if we move to a 5-member City Council).  This opens up the election to more candidates, in particular challengers who are unlikely to have the fundraising might of established politicians. It also makes it easier for candidates to get to know their constituents: in San Leandro you still get the most votes by knocking on doors and meeting voters face to face.

Yet another compelling reason to move to district elections is that our current at-large elections may be illegal under the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits at-large elections when these impair the ability of minority candidates from being elected.  Despite the fact that over half the population of San Leandro is Asian or Latino, neither group is represented in the City Council which might indicate a violation of the Act.  Other Californian cities have been sued by civil rights organizations under similar circumstances and it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens in San Leandro.  We might as well nip this problem in the bud.

Together with making the Mayor more powerful and the City Council smaller, I think we need to grant the City Council greater oversight powers over the City administration.  Right now the only hiring decision the City Council does is for the City Manager, who is responsible for hiring and firing everyone else in staff.  This has led to an overwhelmingly white workforce in San Leandro and one whose loyalties are towards the City Manager rather than to the city as a whole.  While the City Council should not be micromanaging the city, it should participate on key hiring/firing decisions such as those for the Chief of Police, assistant & deputy City Managers and the Finance Director at a minimum.

As I explored in another posting, San Leandro is in dire need of a Citizens’ Police Commission to evaluate complaints of police misconduct, help set hiring practices and discipline standards and act as a liaison with the community.  Any revision of the Charter should include the creation of this commission – this would ensure that future City Councils with cozy relationships with the Police would not be able to undermine the work of this body.

Council Member Reed also suggested changing our current term limits from 2 4-year terms to 3.  I am not convinced that this is a good idea (though I am convince-able).  It’s extremely difficult for a candidate to run against an incumbent in San Leandro.  Incumbents usually win by large margins.  Since 1970, only one incumbent City Council member has a lost an election.  However, term limits not only get rid of bad City Council members but of good ones as well, and take away some of the historical knowledge the Council can benefit from.  As Council woman Starosciak mentioned at the last City Council meeting, it takes several years for a Council member to come up to speed – and by then they only have a few years left.  Perhaps more importantly, second-term Council members without further political ambitions have no incentives to be responsive towards the community.  This is a matter that should be discussed at length.

There are some other minor things that need to be changed in the Charter as well.  Currently, for example, a Council cannot vote to fire a City Manager within 3 months of an election.  This very much curtails the power of citizens to do away with corrupt or inept City Managers by electing candidates to the City Council without a personal allegiance to him.  As this city should be run for the benefit of its citizens and not City Hall there is no reason to keep this provision.   And it may also be time to take another look at the binding arbitration provisions of the Charter.  These prohibit the Police to strike but give them generous rights to arbitration of their employment contracts.  The Police have threatened to use these provisions to stop any attempts to make them contribute their fair share to their own pensions.

The need to reform the Charter is clear, the question is whether there is the political will to do so.  That’s difficult to surmise right now.

  20 Responses to “Charter Reform for San Leandro”

  1. Marga, I too agree that Charter Reform is a good idea, but not necessarily that those that you are advocating are the ones that I would want to have.

    Term Limits. I think that term limits are a huge mistake. The present mayor is a good example of why you want to keep folks who have a clue about how the city works. Remove term limitations and institute a “no confidence election” with a petition of ten per cent of the registered district voters petition.

    District Elections. Terrible idea. The present residency requirements within the district are an excellent practice and should be maintained. When combined with the potential no confidence vote the politicians can be reigned in and be held accountable.

    Strong mayor. This is another mistake. The assumption is that the council cannot keep control of the city manager. That is not true. The mayor should be a appointed for a one year term by the vote the council. There is not need to spend more money on a mayor. Spend the money on a professional city manager. Hold the city manager accountable for the success of the city.

    Districts. I would follow the historical districts within the city while paying attention to the defacto segregation of the neighborhoods. I suspect that the seven districts may increase to nine, not contract to five. If the California Voting Rights Act requires district elections, then the city should switch to that, but n ot lead it.

    Citizens Public Safety Commission. This group should be called for by the City Charter and should act in review of the Police and Fire Departments and any others called for from within the commission. One member of the committee should be appointed for each member of the city council.

    Termination of the City Manager. The City Manager should serve under a one year renewable contract. The City Manager should be required to be a resident of the city of San Leandro.

    Residency requirements for city employees. The charter should be changed to offer residency incentives for all employees. The charter should impose a non-resident fee equal to fifteen per cent of the annual salary.

    The charter should prohibit outside contractural services without an electoral approval of two thirds. In short the city should be able to rely on its own employees for virtually all services.

    The charter should be amended to prohibit strikes by public safety organizations.

    The charter should be altered to allow for the elimination of the police department and the fire department and the contracting out of those services to Alameda County.

  2. Thomas, I’m not going to argue on the things we disagree, but a couple of points of clarification.

    – We can recall the Mayor/City Council members now with that type of petition. But in reality, 10% of the electorate means 4,000 registered voters. I’ve collected voter signatures before (when Mike and I ran for office) and even getting those 40-50 signatures (you need 25, but you can’t trust that all your signatures are valid) was time consuming. And that’s for a non-controversial thing, for a recall it’d be close to impossible.

    -By CA law you cannot require the City Manager or city employees to live within San Leandro. You can give them incentives to do so, however, and you can require that they live within a reasonable distance of the city.

    -Strikes by public safety employees are prohibited. In lieu of that they have this “binding arbitration” clause which seems to benefit the police.

    -The city can eliminate the police and fire department without amending the charter. Indeed, we’ve done away with the fire department, we contract with Alameda County Fire now. We could do the same thing with the Police Department and contract with the Alameda county Sheriff. I know people have started talking about this.

  3. Marga,

    Many people say that the California Constitution prohibits Residency Requirements for Public Employees. However, no one has cited that reference. The US Supreme Court has definitively ruled that residency requirements can be set within municipal borders.

    This citation is for a 1983 UCLA presentation on the point and it clearly states that there are practices and policies but that there is no prohibition in California for setting residency requirements. In short if the municipality changes its charter to require residency that can be done. That of course was my first point. If you can cite the CA Constitution please do so. I of course am sure that the unions will not be happy, but then that is life.



    • Thomas, you can google it, but here are the laws in question:

      CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTION ARTICLE 11 LOCAL GOVERNMENT: SEC. 10. (b) A city or county, including any chartered city or chartered county, or public district, may not require that its employees be residents of such city, county, or district; except that such employees may be required to reside within a reasonable and specific distance of their place of employment or other designated location.

      (CALIFORNIA) GOVERNMENT CODE SECTION 50083: No local agency or district shall require that its employees be residents of such local agency or district.

      • Marga,

        We are splitting hairs. Here is what it really says. The California Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court have both supported this part of the CA Constitution to read that the maximum distance is 20 miles, which is good as far as I am concerned. That means that Big Dirty is history as is Chief Spagnoli. Now the City of San Leandro needs to move towards requiring its employees to live in the city or near abouts and it needs to offer incentives to do so. Of course the Union may not like this but the residents of San Leandro will like it. It is a good practice of the city, considering that the city and the School District are the largest employers around.


        SEC. 10. (a) A local government body may not grant extra
        compensation or extra allowance to a public officer, public employee,
        or contractor after service has been rendered or a contract has been
        entered into and performed in whole or in part, or pay a claim under
        an agreement made without authority of law.
        (b) A city or county, including any chartered city or chartered
        county, or public district, may not require that its employees be
        residents of such city, county, or district; except that such
        employees may be required to reside within a reasonable and specific
        distance of their place of employment or other designated location.

      • Thank you for the citation.

  4. Marga, my point was that annual no contest votes are a good idea. You may not like it. That is OK. I prefer the idea of no contest more than recall and I definitely am not in favor of losing intelligent politicians just because they have termed out. The mediocre ones, like Stephen Cassidy are a painful reminder of the process.

    • Do you want an automatic no contest vote or one that requires signatures to put in the ballot? It’d have to be every 2 years, though, as otherwise it’d require expensive special elections.

      • I think an automatic no contest vote is most likely to be approved. My concern is about artificial term limits. If charter reform is real, then this should be discussed and voted upon.

  5. The sooner that the SLPD goes away and we have only the ACSO to deal with, the better off San Leandro will be. I am not suggesting that the ACSO is great, they are not. But they at least are able to be somewhat responsive. SLPD has been amateur night for as long as it has been in place.

  6. Incumbents are easily defeated when their record is compiled and made available to the general public. The reason that incumbents stick around is that the smart ones figure out how to buy the local persuasive media. Very simple. Cassidy was elected because of the smart folks he hired, not the least of which is your husband.

  7. Thomas, incumbents are not in the least easily defeated. As I mentioned, only ONE City Council incumbent has been defeated in the last 40 years. That’s not a stellar record.

    Making an incumbent’s record available to the general public sounds good, but in practice it’s very expensive. One political mailer sent to the most likely voters in town (a fraction of all the registered voters) will run you about $8K. And chances are that one mailer won’t do it. If you’re going against an incumbent you’ll have to mail several mailers, in addition to walking and telephoning. That costs A LOT of money that you need to get from somewhere.

    Now, Cassidy was in a good position to run this campaign because 1) he could loan his campaign a substantial amount of money, 2) he was able to take over a pre-existing campaign apparatus (the same one that got Mike and later Morgan Mack-Rose elected), which included motivated and experienced volunteers and lots of potential contributors, 3) he was willing to put all his spare time into campaigning, walking, holding coffees, etc. and 4) he had an opponent who had made many public blunders. Most importantly, though, what really won Cassidy the election is that Santos had looked at the same data I told you (only 1 incumbent mayor having been defeated in the last 40 years, and then one that had originally been appointed) and he was overconfident. His biggest blunder, IMHO, was that he did not send his first flyer until several days after the absentee ballots had arrived, and then that flyer was less than compelling. Had he sent a better flyer a few days earlier, I think he’d won. Had he actually campaigned, walked, called, etc., he might even have won well.

    But don’t underestimate the effort that it was to get Cassidy elected, many people worked very, very hard, for free, for over a year. Very few candidates will be able to assemble a team like that out of nothing.

    • Actually, three City Council incumbents have been defeated in the last 40 years: District 5 Councilmember Al Nahm in 1974 (by Gunther Seymon), Mayor John Faria in 1994 (by Ellen Corbett), and Mayor Tony Santos in 2010 (by Stephen Cassidy).

      But those are the exceptions. I agree with Thomas on term limits – I’m opposed to them on principle. However, I wouldn’t get rid of term limits without some meaningful campaign finance reform. Otherwise, incumbents will continue to have a huge advantage over any challenger.

      And then there’s the political reality that the majority of voters support term limits. I believe it enhances the power of bureaucrats and lobbyists over legislators, which is not a good thing.

      • That ONE incumbent City Council member and two incumbent mayors. I don’t think it’s a good idea to lump them together. Mayors have the spotlight on them and you can make them responsible for everything that’s going bad with the city – whether they’re at fault or not – but it’s much harder to pin anything on a City Council member. So I think that it’s MUCH easier to defeat an incumbent mayor than an incumbent City Council member. And it’s way hard to do either.

  8. I am fairly certain that Cassidy’s supporters will not turn out to reelect him. Tony Santos had his time, just as Jack Maltester did. Given your logic Hosni Mubarak would still be in charge instead of under arrest facing either death in custody or at the end of the rope.

    Solcial media, when harnessed by the young, which is neither of us, will turn out the entitled white middle class and rich and bring in the new leaders, who are diverse and media savvy.

    The politics will be the same but it will not be made of mailers, printing presses and snail mail.

    It will be about instant information. If you are ethnically diverse, meaning Hispanic, Asian or Black you have no voices in San Leandro. You do have elected officials who variously like empanadas, chipotle peppers, quinceanaras, pho, can tell the differences between the Hmong, Thai, Han and Koreans as well as like greens, watermelon and ribs.

    No more room for the old guard of Jack Maltester and the present board. It is coming. I look forward to it.

    • I think Cassidy will have to change his game and make a lot of amends if he wants to regain the support of the people who backed him, but I don’t think that concerns him. If he runs for re-election, and I think that’s a big *if*, the will do it with the support & money of the Chamber.
      Social media is a great tool, but it’s still too young to make any difference in the electoral process at the local level. The issue is not that it’s the tool of the young – adult voters may use FB & specially twitter at lower rates but they still use it – but that local politics are not something the vast majority of people are interested in and social media requires their active participation in the information process. Look at Cassidy’s FB page, for example, he only has 109 “likes” even after I promoted it last week. And don’t count on those likes multiplying your stories exponentially. I have over 800 friends and my most popular story was only shared on FB 74 times – as far as I can see Cassidy’s latest blog post wasn’t shared on FB by anyone. No, for the immediate future (at last the next 2 elections), if you want to reach a substantial number of likely voters, you will have to use snail mail.
      I do also look forward to the changes in the guard, but I don’t think they’re likely to come any time soon unless we change to district election. The legacy of San Leandro’s history of housing racial discrimination is that while we now have substantial Latino & Asian communities, these are very young communities without roots in the city and solid relationships within each one – and their members by in large lack all type of political expertise. This really continues leaving an opening to those who are able to mobilize politically, which tend to be the older communities.

  9. You are forgetting that adults can vote at ages way younger than either of us. Soon the young will cast the elderly, age 50+ and the middle aged, age 30+; on to the scrap heap and wonder why it took so long to get rid of our old and decrepit ideas. It is coming fast.

    The first change will be to allow voting electronically and remotely. This is not far away. When it does, the revolution will be complete.

    Sara Mestas was a bit too shallow. She will be surmounted by others who will come up through the ranks, reflect the goals and aspirations of the 17-30 age group and they will begin to run the show.

    • Thomas, it’s not about who /can/ vote, but who /does/ vote, and the young don’t. Yeah, they voted for Obama in ’08, but that doesn’t mean they voted in local elections. On one of the first phone-banks I ran we started by calling new registered voters who were 18 – it was a terrible experience for our volunteers. The young voters had no interest whatsoever in local politics, no knowledge of even what the different offices were and couldn’t care less to learn about them. After that experience, we decided to start calling the oldest people first 🙂 Mike ran the numbers of likely voters per age group in San Leandro, perhaps he’ll post them later but believe me, they don’t flatter the young.

      Of course, the young people will grow up, buy their first home, have some kids, and start caring about local politics. And yes, social media will become more and more important, but I think it’ll still be a slow process at the local level. It’s moving that way – when Mike ran in ’06 he didn’t have a FB page or a twitter account, and he didn’t e-mail spam the voter list, which Cassidy certainly did in ’10 – but it very much remains to be seen how useful a tool it will be in reaching enough voters to make a difference.

  10. Marga, you sound like Mubarak. I am so sorry that you feel that way. The first intelligent 18-30 year old who is of diverse non-WASP extraction with a message will sweep the community. I thought that was going to be Sara Mestas, but she lacked sand.

    • Thomas, I think the first intelligent candidate with a message will sweep the community regardless of his age or ethnicity. The problem is that intelligent candidates with messages are few and far between. Cassidy is smart and had a message (competence + fiscal responsibility), but I can’t think of anyone else who ran for City Council/Mayor in the last ten years who did.

      Thinking that Sara Mestas could amount to anything politically does make me think you’re lost in wishful thinking.

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