Some Santa Cruz leaders are pushing to expand a special committee tasked with examining the city’s elections, as well as the basic framework of the town’s government.
The 2018 election has come and gone. Three new members have been seated, and the Santa Cruz City Council is considering adding five new members to the town’s 13-member Charter Amendment Committee. That council-appointed task force had its first two meetings last year. Now, members of the newly minted City Council majority say that their suggested change would give more folks a seat at the committee’s table.
“Having diverse representation is important,” says Councilmember Sandy Brown, who endorsed both Justin Cummings and Drew Glover, two of the council’s three new members. Councilmember Chris Krohn, who is part of the push to add members to the task force, says he defines diversity in this context as “pulling people from various economic backgrounds, as well ethnicities and race and gender.”
But the change would also allow the council’s majority—Krohn, Brown, Cummings, and Glover—to partially reshape the overall makeup of the committee. The news has raised concerns about the intentions behind the possible shift, as well as about what they would mean for the future of the city.
Cummings, now the vice mayor, and Glover both expressed an interest in picking committee members who might share their values. Donna Meyers, the council’s other newly elected member, said she would prefer to keep the Charter Amendment Committee at the size that it is now. The council was scheduled to vote on Tuesday, Jan. 8, but ultimately decided to put off the decision until a later date.
I spoke with a member of the watchdog group Common Cause, who says he has never heard of a city considering such a change to a special committee that had already been seated.
The organization’s California Director Rey Lopez-Calderon says that while the changes don’t sound like they’re illegal, they do strike him as potentially unethical. “The council should play by the rules and not try to change the committee in the middle of the process,” says Lopez-Calderon, who’s based in San Diego. Without knowing the council’s true intentions, Lopez-Calderon adds, a change to the committee’s membership could potentially be warranted, provided that the electeds can prove that the current committee is lacking in a certain kind of diversity—and if the council has a specific plan remedy that issue.
Others are supportive of the move, arguing that it can be generally beneficial to bring wider-ranging representation to city discussions like these. That’s particularly the case when the scope of a body is as large as this committee’s is, says Pedro Hernandez, the senior policy advisor for FairVote, which has supported a campaign to introduce ranked-choice voting to the city of Santa Cruz.
Krohn, for his part, says the suggested changes are “just leveling the playing field,” adding that he thinks the body could benefit from seating more students, in addition to committee member Keshav Kumar.
If the changes to the group go through, the committee would be the city’s largest council-appointed body in more than 15 years.
No one I talked to at the city—Brown and Krohn included—can remember the last time that the City Council added new members to a committee after it began meeting, nor the last time that an election necessitated a change in a committee’s makeup.
Over the summer, some councilmembers s recommended that the council pump the brakes and slow down on picking committee members, partly because the makeup of the council itself was about to change with elections just around the corner.
Before Krohn’s favorite candidates won their election bids, he was not one of the councilmembers who felt that way. “That happens all the time,” Krohn said at the time. “When you get elected to the council, all the commissioners are selected by past councilmembers who are off the council, so I don’t see a problem with that.”
Mayor Martine Watkins said last week that the idea of reversing course now and adding new members strikes her as odd.
The council formed the Charter Amendment Committee last fall, at a time when many were calling for changes to the setup of the city government and local elections. But there has been nothing close to a consensus on what those changes should be. It’s not even clear that anyone can agree on what the problems are.
However, city councilmembers of all stripes have complained over the years that voters find the current setup of Santa Cruz’s council elections confusing. Under the city charter, Santa Cruz’s city operations aren’t run by the mayor, but rather by its city manager. The seven-member City Council is only part-time, and the mayor isn’t elected by the voters. Instead, the leading role rotates between councilmembers, with various members each serving one year at a time.
On top of that, one-fifth of the town’s residents are Latino, but the council hasn’t had a Latino member since Tony Madrigal left the council in 2012. The new elections committee is looking at a long list of possible changes to the system, including the concept of having a directly elected mayor, increasing councilmember pay, changing the size of the council, tweaking term-limit rules, implementing ranked-choice voting, and switching to a system of district elections.
After the committee wraps up this summer, their recommendations will go to the City Council. Significant changes would require approval from city voters at the polls.
Last week’s discussion about the committee was understandably overshadowed by a vote about banning no-cause evictions. The council voted 4-3 to take the first step toward implementing temporary tenant protections similar to portions of Measure M, the local rent control initiative which 62 percent of voters opposed at the polls in November. While the anti-rent control group Santa Cruz Together painted it as a brazen attempt to force a rule that voters had overwhelmingly already shut down, supporters praised the new effort as an important step to provide relief for renters. The council also finalized a new law aimed at penalizing landlords who enact significant rent increases by forcing them to pay relocation assistance if their tenants get priced out.
That debate may have stolen the headlines, but it’s the tension over the city’s election committee that is exposing a rift over political power and questions of process.
Of the current 13-member committee, seven members were appointed by individual councilmembers this past fall. The council then voted on a pool of 13 applicants to determine the other six committee members, two of them nominated by Krohn. He says that he would like to see more of the types of applicants that he liked serve on the committee. He also hopes the council gets more applicants to the committee, including additional renters and young people, if it opens up the matter again.
Under the new proposal, which the council discussed Jan. 8, each of the three new councilmembers would get to appoint one member to the committee, and the council would approve two additional members.
Krohn says that he generally doesn’t like the idea of district elections, but he insists that he isn’t trying to tip the scales with this move. “I’m interested in what’s going to come out of the committee’s conversations, but I’m not at all sure that they’re going to come out with something I want,” he says.
I’ve watched a few special council-appointed bodies wade through touchy subjects over the years. When they wrap up, the council does often make tweaks to whatever recommendations come back to them. Krohn emphasizes that the real decision on how to proceed with these matters will, in fact, be left up to the council.
But that’s part of what makes this saga so confusing. If the council’s going to have the final say over the matter, why stack the committee with people that you think are more likely to agree with you?
“I just wanted to see a robust debate,” says Krohn.
The proposal was originally on the council’s consent agenda, which is reserved for items thought to be non-controversial. Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, however, pulled it from the consent agenda, demanding a full discussion. Cummings, one of the councilmembers who supported the item, says he would actually like to learn more about the committee and its members before deciding where he stands on the issue. After 40 minutes of deliberation, the council voted to put off the matter until a later meeting.
Before that happened, though, Glover, Cummings and Mathews each mentioned that they were open to adding just three new members instead of five as a compromise.
Krohn, however, drew a line in the sand last week and insisted that he wasn’t willing to budge. “We are talking about politics,” Krohn said. “It’s real important to have more voices in a group like this.”