Council moves cautiously back toward at-large elections

 PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles City Council voted unanimously at its Jan. 7 meeting to take a baby step toward becoming a charter city and returning to at-large elections. 

The City changed its method for electing City Council members to a district-based system for the 2019 election after receiving a “demand letter” from an attorney threatening legal action in 2018. The letter, which claimed that the city’s “at large” election method unfairly represented minority voters and did not comply with the California Voting Rights Act, left the City with little recourse but to switch to district voting or face pricey litigation. 

According to Mayor Steve Martin, Council members and voters alike were unhappy with the change and desired to see at-large elections return. In order for that to happen, the City would have to use an alternative method for at large elections rather than the “first past the post” method used previously. City staff suggested that the City might use the “rank choice” voting system, which has been shown to give minority candidates a better chance at winning an election. Even then, the city would still be open to litigation but might be able to better defend itself, according to City Manager Tom Frutchey. 

“It’s important that minorities understand that they can be represented by someone who has 

 their same racial experiences and cultural experiences and has gone through some of the same challenges they have,” Frutchey said. “What we’re really talking about here is fair voting versus polarized voting.” 

But to adopt the rank choice method, the City would first have to go through the costly process of drafting a charter and putting it on the ballot for voter approval.

Drafting a charter would mean that the City could decide how its elections would work rather than having to follow the state’s election guidelines by default. The City’s charter could determine how the City handles many different “municipal affairs” and could afford many benefits such as allowing the City to avoid paying prevailing wages for capital projects, but the focus could also be kept narrow and merely lay out how elections will be governed. 

The Council spoke in unity about their desire for more education and more public feedback before they decide on what the City’s charter should look like or if they should adopt one at all. 

“It’s something that I think would take a lot of work to prepare the charter because that charter has to be approved by the voters and can only be changed by the voters,” Martin said. “A lot of care should be taken to understand what the charter means to the city. A lot of education would have to be done before we put that together and I’m really hesitant to think that we’d be able to do that effectively in the amount of time we have to get prepared for the 2020 election. I think if we tried to rush through for 2020 the likelihood that we’d wind up shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to redefine ourselves as a charter law city that quickly would be pretty great.”

Councilmember Fred Strong also called for a period of education. 

“The charter for a city is the same thing for a City as the constitution is for the nation, and I don’t think our forefathers wrote the constitution in a couple of months,” he said. “I’m afraid if we try to rush this through we’re going to miss a lot of things and we’re not going to do it the way it should be done.” 

Frutchey said that City staff could have the charter on the ballot for November of 2020 but only at the cost of another project. 

“Something else is going to have to give if we take this on, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We don’t have the additional capacity for that. The only way we can do it is to short-change or take something else off the calendar.” 

The Council directed City staff to begin the process of setting up public workshops regarding the City’s charter, but even that could take some time, Frutchey said.

“We’ll initiate that process when we have the staff capability and time to do that,” he said.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles