Where’s the Beef?

This is an op ed I wrote which was published in the Palo Alto Daily Post on Saturday, August 29, 2020 under the title There’s No Substitute for Elections. You can find the article on line here.

I was saddened, and disappointed, to hear the San Carlos School District will be filling a vacancy on its oversight board via appointment rather than election.

I’m told the main reason for not holding an election is cost. While public agencies don’t pay candidate campaign expenses, they do have to pay the costs of holding an election. And they’re not cheap. This November’s City Council election will cost the city $60,000 or more. As a former trustee of the District’s Board, and a serving member of the Council, I know the financial pressure the District currently faces.

But elections should not be avoided simply to save money. That would be like buying a hamburger at In N Out only to find the beef patty was missing. And being told “Beef is expensive so we eliminated it. But it’s still the same great burger!”

Elections are even more important to a community than beef is to a hamburger. Elected bodies exercise significant public power. They must, to do their job. But they do so on behalf of the community, which delegates its power through the electoral process.

Elections are also important for elected officials. Nothing hones your message, and your understanding of your community’s needs and priorities, better then campaigning. There is no substitute for it.

Sure, elections are stressful. I’ve campaigned in four of them in order to hold office, and a number more to get initiatives passed. But winning an election gives you the confidence to use your judgment on behalf of your community. You will have no doubt, when you are sworn in, that you were granted something precious, to which you owe a profound duty: your community’s trust.

I don’t mean to demean anyone who’s been appointed to an elected position. That happens sometimes and I know the appointees strive to do right by their community. My transition from the District Board to the City Council in 2011 created a vacancy which was filled by appointment. I even voted, once, to appoint someone to the Council. It was clear we were deadlocked two to two on whether to hold an election. Politics is the art of compromise and we had the community’s business to attend to.

But appointments should be rare. I’ll note in passing, too, that this particular appointment process was triggered only a few weeks after the filing period for November’s election closed. It’s unfortunate the vacancy didn’t occur a bit earlier.

If I were serving on the District Board I would rather temporarily cut administrative costs than forego an election due to financial concerns. I’d even rather ask some other public agency for a loan, or a grant, to hold the election. As a council member I’ve pitched the idea of supporting the District in its time of troubles. This year’s proposed city budget projects we’ll have $30 million or more in the bank come next June 30th. I would support using some of that money to fund a District election, whether through a no-interest loan or an outright grant.

After all, voting is our most sacred right as citizens. Because without it we have little or no control over the government we created to serve us. That’s something which transcends the boundary between two public agencies, the District and the City, that serve essentially the same community.

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