To kick off 2018, the Menlo Park City Council is going to be digging deeper than just setting new goals -- though that's scheduled, too, for the council's Jan. 29 meeting. At its first meeting of the calendar year, tonight (Jan. 16), the council will discuss the possibility of rewriting the city's founding document to gain more flexibility for its voting system.
Since Menlo Park received a lawsuit threat in August alleging that its at-large voting system makes it harder for minority voters to elect candidates they prefer, the City Council has been mulling the possibility of switching from a "general law" to a "charter" city.
Doing so would enable the city to explore voting systems other than just an "at-large" system (in which every voter votes for every City Council member) or a "by-district" system (in which the city is split into geographic districts and voters can vote only for the candidate from the district where they live).
The council has already committed to switching Menlo Park from its at-large voting system to a by-district one to avoid the lawsuit threat, but could go further in an effort to remedy some of the potential drawbacks of the by-district system.
Specifically, when a city is split into districts, balkanization or governance by "mini-mayors" may result, in the words of Steve Chessin, president of the election reform organization Californians for Electoral Reform. That's because council members would theoretically be accountable only to the constituents of their district for re-election, rather than the entire city.
However, any change other than moving to a by-district system won't guarantee protection from current or future litigation threats.
The move to explore making Menlo Park a charter city is being encouraged by a group of Menlo Park residents that has been working with organizations such as Californians for Electoral Reform and FairVote California to host informational events about what such other alternative voting systems are and what might work in Menlo Park.
One system those organizations favor is called "ranked-choice" voting. Under that system, voters would be given the option to rank candidates, depending on the number of seats up for election.
Another option is "cumulative voting," in which voters get a certain number of votes to distribute among candidates as they see fit, and can give multiple votes to one candidate.
The specific questions
At tonight's meeting, the council is tasked with coming with up recommendations to staff as to whether the city should pursue becoming a charter city or stick with its "general law" system.
If the council does favor becoming a charter city, then it will have to decide what the scope of the new charter should be, whether an elected or advisory committee would be set up to develop the charter, and when the city would vote on the charter.
In previous council discussions, City Attorney Bill McClure has pointed out that once the city's charter is up for discussion, the scope could quickly spiral out of control into the terrain of questioning other city fundamentals. Generally, charter cities have more flexibility and can be customized more easily than general law cities, which prescribe a standardized set of regulations and procedures for governance.
In picking who would draft the charter, the city has three options, Mr. McClure wrote in a staff report. The council can draft the charter or appoint an advisory committee to help draft the charter; or voters can elect a commission to draft the charter.
If the council opts for the second option, there would be a snug timeline to get the measure on the upcoming November ballot. After the charter is drafted, it will have to go through a public comment process, which generally takes about two-and-a-half months, he wrote.
Then the charter would have to be approved by a majority of the city's voters in an even-year election. For Menlo Park to get the change on voters' November 2018 ballot, it would have to submit the measure on or before Aug. 10.
Working backward, Mr. McClure says, the public hearings would have to start by June, so a theoretical charter advisory committee would have to wrap up its work by May, and realistically couldn't start before March because the City Council would have to approve the item and the city would still have to appoint the committee. That would leave the committee only a two-month window, between March and May, to come up with recommendations for the city charter.
The council will meet 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, at the City Council Chambers (701 Laurel St.) in the Menlo Park Civic Center.