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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Carlsbad Council Bows to Lawsuit Threat, Approves District Elections

Before casting his vote against district elections, Carlsbad city Councilman Mark Packard called the California Voting Rights Act a “bad law.” He explained with furrowed brow, “The closest analogy that has come to my mind is the Stamp Act. It disenfranchised the colonists at that time. I believe that this law disenfranchises the citizens of Carlsbad.”

The councilman’s history lesson didn’t include the fact that colonists wouldn't have been allowed to vote on the Stamp Act unless they were free, male, landowners and members of the predominant religious group. Had England passed a Colonial Voting Rights Act, I think those disenfranchised colonists would have called it a good law.

Packard claimed to have voted his conscience, admitting it was a losing cause that would subject the city to up to $5 million in legal fees and allow the court to mandate the composition of voting districts rather than permit city residents to weigh in on it. His conscience appeared to be responsibility-free.

Nearly all discussion of district elections at the May 9 Council meeting was negative. The resolution to adopt them passed on a 3-2 vote, but there was unanimous agreement Sacramento had left them no choice.

After Councilmembers Cori Schumacher, Michael Schumacher (no relation) and Keith Blackburn held their noses and did the responsible thing, it was easy for Mayor Matt Hall to do the political thing. Having already filed with the city his Matt Hall for Mayor 2018 Campaign Committee, he chimed in with a smile, “I agree with Packard.”

It comes as no surprise that Packard and Hall, with a combined total of 34 years on the Council, have the greatest stake in business as usual at the polls.

City leaders should not have been taken by surprise by the threatened lawsuit. The California Voting Rights Act, paving the way for mandated district elections, was signed into law in 2002. It survived court challenges before 45 California cities succumbed to charges of violations, including North County's San Marcos, Vista, and Oceanside.

Carlsbad’s website quotes a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, contending that the City of Carlsbad’s at-large voting system “dilutes the ability of Latinos, (‘a protected class’), to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Carlsbad’s council elections.” The letter cites three instances where Latino candidates ran unsuccessfully for City Council yet received “significant support” from Latino voters.

There were ten public speakers that night. Leading the opposition was Melanie Burkholder, a 2016 Council candidate, who announced her withdrawal from the race on September 28 in a Coast News article, explaining she wanted, “to support other Republican candidates” for the nonpartisan office. Despite her announcement more than a month before election day, her name remained on the ballot, gathering 5,222 votes that could have gone to bona fide candidates.

Burkholder complained she would be constrained to vote for a single person to represent her estimate of 25,000 persons in her district. “What if there is not one of them who has a servant’s heart, or is passionate about public service? Are we really going to get the best of the best if they’re coming from that pool?” She went on to claim, “It’s further divisive to our city and a movement to create an entirely Democratic California.”

The other four speakers opposing district elections asserted their voting rights would be “diluted by 75 percent, since they would only be allowed to vote for one council member every four years.

Two pointed out the attorney threatening the lawsuit lives in Malibu, which continue to have at-large elections. They claimed Carlsbad and Malibu have similar demographics. But 2010 census figures reveal Carlsbad’s population is about ten times the size of Malibu’s 12,000. Only 6 percent of Malibu residents are Latino, while SANDAG’s 2016 estimate for Carlsbad is 20 percent.

In 2010 Malibu’s median household income was $115,000. Carlsbad’s was $85,000. District elections make little sense in small, wealthy, nearly mono-ethnic towns.

One speaker called the California Voting Rights Act “socialism.” Another declared, “Sacramento, you are my enemy!”

One of the few speaking in favor of district elections, Carlsbad Barrio resident Patricia Amador, expressed her hope for the day a Latina is elected to the council. She asked that wide public participation be sought in drawing district lines.

The only speaker to address the specific advantages of district elections was Linda Breen. She called the cost of citywide campaigning for at-large seats prohibitive for many.

The facts support her claim. Mayor Hall raised $79,000 to support his 2014 campaign, while running unopposed. Councilman Keith Blackburn raised $50,000 for his 2016 campaign, but he began with a $116,000 cash balance from his 2012 campaign.

I spoke with a potential 2018 mayoral candidate who told me, according to a local consultant, a successful candidate will need a campaign war chest of at least $100,000.

While the primary purpose of the California Voting Rights Act is to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in city government, there are advantages of district elections for all voters. They went unmentioned at the May 9 meeting.

For starters, district elections create a closer connection between council members and their constituents. Each council member must answer to a majority of voters in his or her district, unlike in at-large elections, when each is likely to represent only a plurality of voters.

District voters will get to know candidates campaigning in their own neighborhoods about issues affecting where they live, rather than relying largely on the quality and quantity of road and yard signs, hoping a city-wide winning candidate will care about their neighborhood.

None of the four current council members received more than half the vote in their latest elections, yet each is expected to represent the interests of the majority of city voters. Mayor Hall ran unopposed in the 2014 election but still got only 55 percent of the vote in his 2014 election victory.

Carlsbad’s at-large elections are partly to blame for the divisive results of a unanimous Council decision to build a shopping mall on the shore of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, with the mayor and council members eagerly posing as poster children for the billionaire L.A. developer's project. Their decision was overturned in a costly special election with record voter turnout.

District elections can be more responsive to citizen preferences in land-use decisions.

According to the city’s website, over the next three months at least four public hearings will be held to seek advice on the composition of the districts, as well as provide feedback on a proposed map. The first two are scheduled for May 30 and June 13 at 6 p.m. at 1200 Carlsbad Village Drive.

The city has hired Douglas Johnson, President and Founder of the National Demographics Corporation, to draft district maps that comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act.

Later in the May 9 meeting, Councilmember Cori Schumacher called for a discussion of how to
improve the process for appointments to city commissions to increase transparency to the public.
After a very long silence from other council members, Mayor Hall spoke.

“I don’t quite understand. We’ve done this same process for almost 40 years, and it seems like it’s worked out all right up to this point. Help me understand what we need to fix.”

The mayor’s cluelessness, followed by his explanation of how he picks candidates for city commissions, illustrate how cronyism has infected Carlsbad politics and how district elections may lead to a cure.

More about that next time.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Issa's 2016 Report Card Revealed

The day after Rep. Darrell Issa cast his vote in favor of the GOP’s 2017 American Health Care Act, I received his first 2018 campaign mailing, disguised as a “Constituent Survey” to qualify for free postage.

There’s no mention of the Congressman’s position on healthcare in his mailing. Instead, he trots out his GovTrack.com’s 2016 Report Card to prove he kept his promises of “Effective Leadership. Real Results” in the 114th session of Congress. GovTrack.us is “a project of Civic Impulse, LLC, a completely independent entity wholly owned by its operator and receives no funding in any form from outside organizations.”

Like a kid who tries to keep his parents from seeing his entire report card, Issa attempts to do the same with his constituents.

The 49th District Congressman claims he was the “most effective lawmaker in the San Diego area” in the last session of Congress and tied for second in the entire California delegation. But the GovTrack report did not rate his legislative effectiveness, as Issa claims. It simply reported the number of bills (4) he introduced that made it out of committee to the floor for further consideration.

Here’s the GovTrack website disclaimer: “A higher or lower number below doesn’t necessarily make this legislator any better or worse, or more or less effective, than other Members of Congress. We present these statistics for you to understand the quantitative aspects of Issa’s legislative career and make your own judgements based on what activities you think are important.”

I was a high school teacher in my former life. After reviewing GovTrack’s entire report card for Congressman Issa, I couldn’t resist translating its statistics into letter grades. His constituents, like a kid’s parents, need to see the whole thing.

Here’s how I did it:

1.     Issa has been in office for 15 years. His job performance score in each of the following categories has been compared to the scores of 184 other members of Congress who have been in office for at least 10 years. In his personal version, Issa compared himself to the 52 members of the California delegation only.

2.     Issa’s job performance in each category has been converted to a percentile rank of the entire group of the longest-serving members of Congress.

3.     His job performance has been assigned a letter grade for each category, according to a standard high school grading scale, followed by his cumulative GPA.

A =90 to 100   4
B =80 to 89     3
C =70 to 79     2
D =60 to 69     1
F =Below 60   0

Number of bills moved out of committee to the floor for further consideration
25th of 185
86th percentile
B         3

Co-sponsoring bills introduced by other members
155th of 185
16th percentile
F          0

Writing Bipartisan Bills
28th of 185
85th percentile
B         3

Government Transparency
24th of 185
87th percentile
B         3

Joining bipartisan bills
Of the 155 bills that Issa cosponsored, 18% were introduced by a legislator who was not a Republican, making him among the least bipartisan members of Congress.
114th of 185
38th percentile
F          0

Leadership score, This looks at who is cosponsoring whose bills. A higher score shows a greater ability to get cosponsors on bills.
66th of 185,
64th percentile
D         1

Bills introduced
64th of 185
65th percentile
D         1

Working with Senate
60th of 185,
68th percentile
D+       1

Missed votes
79th of 185
57th percentile
F          0

Overall GPA 1.33

Teacher’s comment:
Darrell likes being a leader but is often absent from class, exaggerates his accomplishments, and doesn’t work well with others.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Are Carlsbad’s Good Old Boys Losing their Grip?

According to the city’s 2016 Survey, only one in four Carlsbad residents are “very confident” that their city leaders will make the right decisions for them. That’s down from one in three in 2014. Overall, the share of residents who have confidence in city government dropped from 84 percent to 74 percent in the last two years.

The level of satisfaction varies by ZIP Code. North Carlsbad residents (92008 coastal and 92010 inland) were almost twice as likely to lack confidence in city leadership (27% and 36%) than those living in South Carlsbad (92011 coastal: 17 percent and 92009 inland: 15 percent).

It’s a tale of two cities.

According to SANDAG’s 2016 demographic and socioeconomic estimates:

Carlsbad’s median household income is $98,000. Southerners are wealthier, at $115,000 coastal $99,000 inland, compared to Northerners, at $78,000 coastal and $81,000 inland.

The median age of Carlsbad residents is 41. Northerners are younger, at 38 coastal and 40 inland, compared to Southerners, at 44 coastal and 42 inland.

According to the SANDAG report, 20 percent of Carlsbadians identify as Latinos. For Northerners it’s 25 percent coastal (includes the Barrio), and 19 percent inland. For Southerners it’s 18 percent coastal and17 percent inland.

A total of 86,000 residents were telephoned or emailed the survey, producing 1,000 respondents.

In what can only be assumed to be a typographical error, the survey’s methodology appendix reads, “The large majority of residents is white or Caucasian (77 percent).” Only 7.4 percent are listed as “Hispanic or Latino.”

If only 74 Latinos responded to the survey, the report is useless for measuring their community’s level of satisfaction with city government.

With females representing more than half the population and Latinos one in five it’s hard to explain why Carlsbad has never had a female majority on the Council nor a single Latino councilmember.

The result of at-large elections in Carlsbad has brought the city mostly white male leaders elected by less than half of city voters. The only time Mayor Matt Hall received more than half of the votes was when he ran unopposed in 2014.

Mark Packard has been elected to the Council three times, exceeding 40% of the vote only once.

Michael Schumacher was elected to the Council in 2014 with 42% of the vote.

In 2016 Keith Blackburn won support of only 23 percent of voters, followed by Cori Schumacher, who defeated Lorraine Wood, the Council’s sole female incumbent, 20 percent to 19 percent.

There were four other candidates for the two seats, sharing 36 percent of the votes. Melanie Burkholder withdrew mysteriously from the race at the last minute, before her name could be removed from the ballot. She wound up with 5 percent of those uninformed voters.

And that’s the problem with at-large elections. Only rarely do winning candidates win a simple majority of votes. Election results, either intentionally, or unintentionally, can be influenced by phantom candidates like Burkholder and other hopefuls with very little public recognition. The result is the election of individuals with little constituent support.

According to the city’s website the Council is tentatively scheduled to address the issue of at-large elections at its May 9 meeting. It’s in response to a letter the city received from a law firm claiming Carlsbad’s at-large elections violates the California voting rights act. The letter cites three instances where Latino candidates ran unsuccessfully for City Council, yet received “significant support” from Latino voters.

The city website claims Latinos represent about 13 percent of Carlsbad’s population. That figure comes from the 2010 census. As cited above, SANDAG’s 2016 estimate is 7 points larger.

San Marcos and Vista changed from at-large to district elections last year. Given the experience of other southern California cities, the financial consequences of challenging a voting rights act lawsuit could be in the millions with the strong likelihood that the city would lose.

But the benefits of abandoning at-large elections are substantial, beginning with breaking the hold of a good old boys’ network that serves to bar gender and ethnic diversity from Carlsbad leadership.

Cori Schumacher’s election last year loosened their grip. The political outsider may not have been elected if it were not for her exceptional leadership in the grassroots campaign to defeat Measure A, protecting the Hedionda Lagoon from a billionaire LA developer.

District elections have the potential to change the go-along to get-along politics of our Village by the Sea.