LocationAlhambra , CA
The major item on the agenda at Alhambra City Council’s special meeting Monday afternoon was a request to “Provide direction to staff concerning items to be placed on the November, 2020 ballot.”
The items in question involved a charter amendment initiative petition that has already qualified for the ballot, and a request from the Alhambra Unified School District for a charter amendment that would also allow for it to change its voting procedures, as well as any other measures the council might wish to consider.
Clearly, the initiative petition was the key item under discussion. It has been simmering in the city since November, 2018, when the city received and filed the city clerk’s certification that the 8,500 or so signatures on the petition submitted by local activists were valid and that the initiative qualified for the 2020 ballot.
Key points of the initiative involved ending the city’s long practice of at-large voting for city council seats in favor of voting by district and, as written in the initiative, to “place realistic and enforceable limits on the amounts persons may contribute to political campaigns in municipal elections.” In this case, the realistic and enforceable limit is $250 that a candidate or a candidates’ committee may take in total.
City staff offered the council two options on the qualified charter amendment initiative petition:
- Determine whether or not to direct the city attorney to prepare an impartial analysis of the previously qualified Charter Amendment Initiative Petition, to appear in the election materials.
- Determine whether or not the City Council wishes to author the argument against the initiative in the election materials.
And that’s where the debate started. Due to the COVID-19 realities, the meeting was a teleconference with several phone calls and, perhaps, 30 emailed comments, some of considerable length.
Several of the communications expressed the view that voting by district would dilute their vote in the city.
Former Mayor Barbara Messina offered a bit of history in her telephoned comments, saying that the city had operated in the present manner since 1914 with the council working as a unit serving the entire community and not five separate units.
“I want a voice on what happens in the entire city,” she said.
Resident Cliff Bender, in an email, encouraged the council to let the voters decide the issue, noting that 20% of the registered voters in Alhambra had signed the petition and that offering any kind of diluting argument would be “attacking their intelligence by saying they didn’t know what they were signing.”
The last part of Bender’s comment seemed to reflect those critics of the initiative who said they were not fully aware of the dual points on the measure: campaign finance reform and changes in the at-large voting system.
Of the thirty of so e-mails to city council on the issue, each read by City Clerk Lauren Myles, a main point for many in favor of the measure was that the district-by-district voting would reduce the cost of running for office and make candidacy more attractive to residents. Campaign finance reform was on the minds of many who claimed that past councils have been too beholden to special interests, including developers, at a cost to the quality of life in the city.
Those opposed to the measure characterized the signature-gathering apparatus as “sneaky” without full disclosure of what was in the petition. In response, several who supported the measure said that those kinds of charges discounted the ability of Alhambra’s residents to fully assess what is in an initiative.
And then it came time for the individual council members to weigh in.
Council member Jeffrey Maloney thanked the public for its comments and said “he enjoyed hearing different points of view and he agreed that the voters should decide.”
He thought that the city attorney should provide an impartial analysis of the initiative to appear in election materials.
And he said he had no problem with the idea of campaign finance limits and in this case, reform. A major stumbling block for him in this measure was that it tried to insert two weighty matters into one vote.
So, he was in favor of another option, an initiated ballot measure put forth by the council that would limit campaign contributions while leaving the current at-large voting system in place.
In later questioning from councilmember Adele Andrade-Stadler, who supported the full measure and the option of having the city attorney prepare an impartial analysis but not an argument against, Maloney spoke of conversations that he and now Vice Mayor David Mejia had conducted some months ago with Eric Sunada and Ron Sahu, two activists involved in the campaign, about the measure in an effort to find common ground and present a united front on reform.
Those talks were unsuccessful and while Maloney said he was committed not to divulge their nature, he said that campaign finance reform was not the sticking point to reaching consensus.
Vice Mayor Mejia said the he too was fine with the campaign finance considerations and voiced support for the impartial analysis of the initiative petition.
But he voiced concerns on the signature gathering process, saying that his father-in-law had told him that he was unable to see the full petition when he was asked to sign. Maloney also expressed a bit of concern about this issue, saying that the person circulating the petition to him had emphasized the campaign finance aspect but said little about the broader change in voting procedures.
Mayor Ross Maza also had problems with the signature process but supported the campaign finance limits and said it was “important that all council members be accountable to all residents of Alhambra.”
Katherine Lee, who was elected to council in 2018, spoke of the high costs of running for office, noting that she sent out five mailers during the campaign at a cost of $4,000-$5,000 each. That cost meant she had to cut back on yard signs and other campaign advertising. She also said that campaign spending reform would not be workable without by-district voting.
Questions over specific points went on and on.
Maloney, who had outlined the framework for an alternate measure on the ballot, came back with some added language, saying that the $250 limit would be expanded a bit to restrict vendors, bidders or entities that have projects under consideration with the city now or in the foreseeable future. He also suggested that the Council add language giving it the authority to, at some point in the future if need be, control the city’s voting system by ordinance rather than ballot initiative.
Maloney made a motion proposing his initiative as direction for the city staff. This was allowed for in the agenda which said the council could draft any additional measures to be placed on the ballot.
But before the vote, Andrade-Stadler wondered if the council could merely take that action now by passing an ordinance, which she said would be faster, less expensive and more efficient.
Maloney’s measure was on the floor, however, and it was approved with Maloney, Maza and Mejia voting in favor and Andrade-Stadler and Lee voting against.
City staff will work on the guidance and bring it back to the council for additional consideration in May.
The other part of item three, involving the direction on the AUSD request for a measure to be allowed to pull out of the city’s charter so that it may switch the election of its board members from the current at large system to a by-district model, had no opposition and will be on the ballot with the city attorney’s impartial analysis. AUSD now includes students from the cities of Monterey Parks, Rosemead and San Gabriel giving it a broader base than just the city of Alhambra.