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Non-profit group to file petition to change election rules in Alhambra

Grassroots Alhambra members handing in paperwork in March to gather signatures for a petition to change election rules in Alhambra. Photo by Phoenix Tso.


Alhambra , CA United States

A local non-profit is seeking to limit the area that candidates for Alhambra City Council can campaign in, as well as to cap their campaign contributions.

Grassroots Alhambra in Action notified the City of Alhambra on Tuesday that they would circulate a petition to change Alhambra’s city charter to only allow people to vote for City Council candidates running to represent their district, said Eric Sunada*, one of Grassroots Alhambra in Action’s leaders, in an email.

He added that campaign contributions would be capped at $250 for individuals, corporations and committees, though that number can change depending on inflation.

“The purpose is to remove the influence of money over elected officials and city government,” Sunada said.

This petition reflects increased concern in Los Angeles County and the state of California over the influence that certain groups have in local elections, whether politically or financially.

If enough signatures are obtained, the petition can be placed on the next city ballot for voters to decide on. Alhambra has municipal elections coming up in November of this year.

The City Clerk’s Office said they were reviewing how many signatures Grassroots Alhambra needs for the petition.

Alhambra City Council candidates currently represent a district, but campaign for votes from the entire City in a practice known as an at-large election. These types of elections have been controversial, with claims in various California cities that candidates supported by larger, more powerful groups getting representation over candidates that represent a disenfranchised minority.

One lawyer recently claimed that Elk Grove, Calif.’s at-large elections have allowed Asian candidates to dominate their City Council, to the detriment of its Latino population.

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits at-large elections that dilute the power of minority groups in elections.

As for campaign finance reform, Temple City voted to ban donations from developers and contractors in 2016.

The campaign coffers would be reduced and it would be a step to leveling the playing field,” said Michael Lawrence* of Grassroots Alhambra in Action in an email. “It allows more grassroots candidates to effectively run [and] moneyed interests would not be able to buy votes.”

City Council members and candidates weigh in

Suzi Dunkel-Soto, who is running for City Council in the November 2018 election, said she was open to discussing this proposal, but cautioned against setting a cap that was too low. “There’s a lot that goes into a campaign and you pull from the resources you have,” she said.

She added that candidates could also gain undue influence through their endorsements and other political connections. “Where do you draw the line?” she asked.

As for at-large elections, Dunkel-Soto maintained that they were the best form of representation for Alhambra. “You’re going in for a tough position to represent the city as a whole, not just your neighborhood,” she said.

Adele Andrade-Stadler, who is running for City Council against Dunkel-Soto, said that she supported the potential ballot measure. “This is about Democracy and leveling the playing field,” she wrote in an email.

“Ideally, elections would be based on a candidate’s direct message where in-person conversations are happening,” Sunada said. “By-district elections bring that closer to a reality, instead of the current method which only serves to dilute a candidate’s resources.”

Jeff Maloney, who currently serves on Alhambra’s City Council, praised the current council’s diversity and said that changing the at-large system would make it easier for people to run, but that it would take away voters’ right to have a say in all five council districts. “I think our current system is the best of both worlds – it forces a geographic distribution throughout the city, but also requires that every council member is accountable to every Alhambra resident,” he said via email.

He added that if voters passed this measure, he would commit to making it work.

*Eric Sunada is a member of the Alhambra Source advisory board. Michael Lawrence has contributed articles to the Alhambra Source.

Updated on March 15, 2018 at 9:33 a.m. to include Jeff Maloney’s comments and to take out mention of a “larger” Latino population in discussion of Elk Grove’s at-large voting system.

Updated on March 15, 2018 at 1:05 p.m. to include comments from Adele Andrade-Stadler.

Read the petition below:

Grassroots Alhambra in Action – Notice of Intent to file a petition by Anonymous 56qRCzJR on Scribd

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5 thoughts on “Non-profit group to file petition to change election rules in Alhambra”

  1. Based on her comments in the article, it appears that District 5 candidate, Suzie Dunkel-Soto, does not support the measure. I think her excuses for not supporting it are standard Alhambra political establishment excuses with no merit what-so-ever. Mrs. Dunkel-Soto sits on the planning commission and votes in-line with Alhambra’s political establishment. She is a product of the current system, which so many of us feel is rigged.

    The irony of Mrs. Dunkel-Soto’s comments are that this initiative, if passed, would not only make elections fairer but also less expensive for a candidate to effectively get their message across to voters. Thus, her, “elections are expensive” comment misses the whole point. Elections are exorbitantly expensive in Alhambra because of Alhambra’s current system! Mrs. Donkel-Soto’s argument for higher donor limits is essentially an argument for allowing moneyed interests undue influence in Alhambra elections and politics. The $250 donor limit proposed in the initiative is appropriate for Alhambra’s size (population around 87,000). Burbank, with a population of 120,000, has a $250 donor limits L.A., with a population of nearly 4 million, has a $700 dollar donor limit. I suggest Mrs. Dunkel-Soto do her research. If she wants to argue that big money in Alhambra politics is a good thing, then good luck with that.

    As for Mrs. Dunkel-Soto and Councilman Maloney’s comments about Alhambra’s current at-large system of voting being the best system available, I and many others wholly disagree. Alhambra’s current system not only dilutes district voting (i.e. makes a district resident’s vote less significant), it greatly increases the cost of running for city council. At-large elections can also result in a city council that collectively implements policies that are more beneficial and/or harmful to certain districts than others because city council candidates are less beholden to the constituents in their districts.

    I think it is important to note here that Councilman Maloney benefitted greatly in 2016 from an at-large system with no donor limits. He accepted tens of thousands of dollars in big-money donations from special interest which allowed him to outspend his opponent 6 to 1 and blanket the city with expensive mailers. He took a $5,000 check from one developer alone then voted to approve that developer’s large project on Fremont Ave. Is this the type of good governance Maloney is claiming at-large elections produce?

    And Councilman Maloney and Mrs. Dunkel-Soto’s claim that leaders elected by-districts will be leaders who act against the best interests of the city as a whole is absolute nonsense. Councilman Maloney and Mrs. Dunkel-Soto provide no evidence to support this claim. Such claims are irresponsible and reflective of how desperate the Alhambra political establishment is to maintain the status quo.

    Responsible leaders always take the concerns of the entire city into account, but the needs of Alhambra’s districts are not always the same and city council members from Alhambra’s 5 districts are first and foremost responsible to the constituents of their districts. And by the way, by-district municipal elections are no different than how our county, state, and national congressional leaders are elected. One must reside within a candidate’s assembly or senate district in order to vote for them in state races. The same is true for all of California’s congress people in D.C. Under Alhambra’s current system, a candidate could lose to their opponent in their district and still win the election because they received more votes from other districts, not necessarily because they were more qualified or had a better message but because they had more money than their opponents to blanket the entire city with mailers. Consequently, a city council person from your district could end up being more beholden to the constituents of another district. But who they are really beholden to are the moneyed interests who cut them the large campaign checks.

    The bottom line is, the Alhambra political establishment does not want the system to change because they have benefitted from the current system. The sad fact of the matter is, if they are truly the best people for the job then they can certainly win on a more level playing field. So you have to ask yourself, what are they so afraid of?

  2. So glad to see this ballot initiative is happening. Where can we sign up? And I REALLY love that it addresses not only the ridiculous at-large system for electing City Council but also the disproportionate power that corporations can have with their campaign contributions.
    The arguments against it are too weak for me to even critique here, except to say that the elected officials quoted here so perfectly embody what we need to change about our great city– let’s take Alhambra into the future, rather than a corporate-pandering past that is out of step with the rest of California.
    Let’s do this, Alhambra!

  3. Campaign contribution limits and by-district elections promote a more representative local government body.

    The city’s geographic stratification has only increased under the status quo, where money plays a substantial role in local elections. Areas with a degraded environment continue to worsen. Those who live in congested areas with already unhealthful air quality continue to see a rise in traffic. The clean-up of contaminated sites in the Superfund area do not even enter the discussion with our city council or staff. The number of our residents who suffer from economic precariousness has reached unprecedented levels, yet the city’s record with affordable housing remains deplorable. In stark contrast are those who do well, live in beautiful environs, or profit from the city market.

    Meanwhile, those being elected to city council are spending upwards of $100,000 or more on their campaigns. This money is often used to purchase advertising and glossy mailers that flood the city with lustrous words that cannot be challenged with direct Q&A.

    Yet the candidate quoted in the article defends the current at-large voting system stating that it allows council persons “to represent the city as a whole, not just your neighborhood.” Those are the type of words that are too often used to justify the dilution of votes by money–the “divide and conquer” mentality. It’s often impossible to know what others are going through unless you live it yourself. Especially when all you have to go by are those glossy advertisements. By-district elections are more representative.

    In another article (https://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2018/03/13/alhambra-residents-aim-to-limit-real-estate-developers-influence-in-city-elections/) , a sitting councilman implied that only larger cities can justify by-district elections. That’s nonsense. In fact, from the list shown below of California cities with populations near that of Alhambra’s, all but five (San Ramon, Hawthorne, Livermore, Citrus Heights, Napa) have by-district elections:

    Menifee 90,660
    Redding 90,653
    Livermore 89,648
    Indio 88,718
    San Leandro 88,274
    Chino 88,026
    Whittier 87,708
    Hawthorne 87,662
    Citrus Heights 87,013
    Alhambra 86,922
    Redwood City 85,601
    Lake Forest 84,931
    Newport Beach 84,915
    Merced 84,464
    Buena Park 83,884
    Tustin 82,372
    Hemet 81,868
    Chino Hills 80,676
    Napa 80,628
    San Ramon 80,550

  4. Michael Lawrence

    Ms. Dunkel-Soto’s interview and her answers here indicate a preference for the status quo and solid defense of the current system. Her consistent voting record on the planning commission supports this. She is also consistent in that her answers are vague and leave the door open for more of the same: “There’s a lot that goes into a campaign and you pull from the resources you have,” she said. What does that mean? I myself will vote for the candidate that gives clear answers and solutions that indicate change not the same old pay-to-play game.

  5. Melissa Michelson

    Give me a break – at large elections is representative? That’s what we have, and it’s not working. I don’t feel represented in the LEAST! The city works as one big block – since when have they didn’t vote unanimously? Ms. Dunkel-Soto is echoing the the mantra of Councilmember Mejia lock-stock-and-barrel. Don’t they know cities up and down the state are being sued for being at-large, as Alhambra is?