The Source asked, "Did you know that local elections were cancelled?" No, I didn't!
Indeed, I was disturbed to discover that City Council voted to reappoint three members up for reelection with no discussion on an August evening. The cancellation of the election was an unprecedented move in Alhambra’s history. As a relatively informed Alhambra resident, I wondered why I wasn’t aware of the decision.
What I discovered was that the election was cancelled when no candidates challenged the five incumbents who were up for reelection in City Council and the Board of Education. True, no challengers ran for office, but the Council had other options as well: invite public comment, delay the nomination process, or proceed with write-in candidates.
By doing none of the above, the City Council did not provide adequately for local residents to hold elected officials accountable to their promises. It is a more difficult route, but elected officials should not be comfortable with the political apathy of their constituents. To avoid an election is to avoid answering hard questions.
"'Everything is running smoothly, everything is running well, why would you look to change it?'" Councilwoman Barbara Messina, who, along with Councilmen Stephen Sham and Luis Ayala was up for reelection, asked the Source. This was her primary explanation for why she thought no challengers had chosen to enter the race. She further reflected, "'[N]o one in their right mind would want to jump into this kind of nightmare . . . People just seem not to care . . . Or they care and they figure, ‘What’s the use?’”
In my experience, people do care, and everything is not running smoothly. Local businesses are conspicuously closing throughout Alhambra. Recent college graduates are returning home unemployed. City recreational facilities are closing early. School programs are being cut.
Councilwoman Messina also told the Source that cancelling the election saved the city around $100,000. Great. Not quite enough for another Arc de Triomphe, but we're getting close. While some, like Messina, may argue that the cancellation of the election is fiscally responsible, I would argue it is insular decision-making and undemocratic governance.
City politics is foreign to most Alhambrans, which means elected officials have a special responsibility to promote engagement. Without this, details of public employees are often overlooked. For example, I came across this little known perk of being a council member. Ordinance 2.04.280 provides council members who have served 12 years to receive the same health care benefits for the remainder of their lives at the same rate as their last year of service. That means council members are part-time employees receiving full-time benefits. We should have oversight in how our money is appropriated, and should be active in correcting misaligned incentives to serve in public office.
When people know, people care. The responsibilities of elected officials are to respond to constituent needs, and when constituent participation is visibly absent, responsibilities entail re-engaging their people. City Council's decision to cancel this November's municipal election highlights the lack of accountability and participation in our local city government. The historic election cancellation was a first and hopefully a last. How about a call for a special election?
Helen Tran is a student at USC Gould School of Law