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Group aims to change City Council election procedures

Modified: Tuesday, Jul 2nd, 2013




(Editor's note: This story was inadvertently cut off in Tuesday's edition. The full story is below, and It will be rerun in full in Thursday's paper.)

WATSONVILLE — If a group of Watsonville residents has its way, voters will soon be tasked with changing the way city leaders are chosen.

The as-yet-unnamed group on Monday submitted three petitions to Watsonville City Clerk Beatriz Florez, one seeking to have the mayor chosen on a rotating basis, one to change the way City Council vacancies are filled and the third to let voters decide when and how public places are named.

“We looked at issues people were passionate about,” said group member Rhea DeHart.

Currently, the City Council appoints a mayor annually. If the group’s proposal is approved by voters, the mayor and vice-mayor will be chosen on a rotating basis.

“We want to start with the district that has gone the longest without representation, which is District 7,” group member Rhea DeHart said.

District 7 is currently served by Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich, who has been on the Council since 2009. She served a stint as vice-mayor and was in line to serve as mayor when newly appointed councilman Daniel Dodge was chosen for that seat. The move caused a rift in the Council and consternation in some parts of the community.

“Anyone who served two full terms will always have the opportunity to be mayor and vice-mayor,” DeHart said. “We think this is equitable, and we think it avoids a lot of bad blood. It’s an effort at good governance.”

But Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst cautioned that anyone seeking to change the mayoral selection process should first consider laws and legal precedent that created the current system.

Hurst was referring to Dolores Cruz Gomez v. the City of Watsonville, a lawsuit that stemmed from concern that the at-large election system was disenfranchising Latino voters. After making it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the result was the current district election system.

Hurst added that a rotating system could result in the selection of a mayor that might not complete his or her term, or who might not have the confidence to take the chair.

“The voters should always be careful what they wish for,” Hurst said.

Dehart said she is confident that the proposed change will stand up to legal scrutiny.

“We felt that people want to be involved in a fair way,” she said. "These issues have caused a lot of divisiveness, and we want to end that so we can concentrate on the issues that matter.”

The same is true for vacant seats on the City Council. When a seat becomes vacant, the Council appoints the replacement.

In the petition, the group stated that that rule has “had the effect of greatly decreasing the number of elected representatives serving on the Council.”

Under the proposed change voters in the district where the vacancy exists would elect a candidate.

“A vacancy is not filled by the City Council,” DeHart said. “The vacancy should be replaced by the people in the districts in question by mail-in ballot.”

But Hurst said that the elected Council members are acting for residents when they make their appointments.

“I can understand how the voters would want to weigh in, but they have the opportunity to do so through their elected official,” he said.

Finally, under the proposed changes, voters would also approve the naming of public places such as bridges, buildings and plazas, among others.

In cases where the city is seeking to rename a public place, each City Council member would be able to nominate a name. The name that receives the highest number of votes would win.

This stems from failed efforts in 2010 to rename the Watsonville Plaza “Watsonville Dolores Huerta City Plaza.” The plan generated enormous controversy from people on both sides of the issue. Then-mayor Luis Alejo cited a lack of community support when he dropped the plan.

“It is time to put aside these bitter and divisive government spectacles and adopt a method of community approval for the naming of public places,” the petition states.

Hurst acknowledged that the issue has been controversial in the past.

“That’s up to the voter,” he said.

The petitions will now go to the city attorney, who has 15 days to write a title and summary. The group then has 180 days to gather approximately 1,400 signatures on each one, or 10 percent of Watsonville’s registered voters, said City Clerk Beatriz Florez.

The group is aiming to get the changes on the ballot for the June 2014 election.



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