Why Not Let the People Choose?

This is an op ed I wrote for the San Mateo Daily News that was published on Tuesday, November 29, 2011. In it I lay out the pros and cons of whether the Board should appoint replacements for Carrie Du Bois and me, or call a special election.

Lincoln famously observed our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. But when replacements are needed, school boards can either appoint trustees or call an election. The San Carlos School Board must decide between these two approaches because Carrie Du Bois and I were just elected to new offices. Voters can require an election by submitting a petition with about 250 signatures within 30 days of any appointment.

Let’s start our review of the alternatives by listing the major reasons favoring appointments:

  • An election costs $60,000, about the salary and benefits of a new teacher.
  • In the six months it would take to hold an election and seat new trustees the Board must make some big decisions. These include developing and approving another austerity budget, and deciding if, and how, to build more school capacity.
  • Three trustees are needed to hold a meeting, requiring perfect attendance until new trustees are seated.
  • Decisions require a three vote majority, so while two positions are vacant all decisions must be unanimous.
  • While elections give voters a direct say in choosing trustees, appointments are made by trustees who are themselves elected. That’s only one step removed from a direct vote of the people.
  • Not everyone has the time, money and personality needed to run a campaign, so some good potential trustees are only available via appointment.
  • Three people ran for two seats a few weeks ago. Why not at least appoint the candidate who came in third?

There is some merit to each of these arguments. But there are good reasons to hold an election, too:

  • Knowing the three continuing trustees as I do – they’re diligent, committed public servants — attendance is a scheduling issue that can be solved.
  • Appointed trustees get “unearned incumbency” should they run when their two year appointment ends. This can cause future potential candidates to stand aside.
  • More people will run in a special election since no incumbents will be on the ballot (many more than the two newcomers who ran in the recent election have expressed interest). The community is better served when it gets to choose from a broader field of candidates.
  • Elections give voters a chance to decide who wields power – power that can affect voters’ lives and pocketbooks — on behalf of the community.
  • Almost all Board decisions are unanimous…except for those that are complex and/or far-reaching. Which are precisely the ones where the community has the greatest interest in picking representatives to make decisions on its behalf.
  • Appointments will result in almost a majority of the Board’s decision-making power (40%) not having been chosen by the community, for a period of two years.
  • Appointments can erode the Board’s most important asset: legitimacy in the eyes of the people it represents. That can cause problems when community support is needed for District initiatives.

Reasonable people can disagree about which set of arguments is more persuasive. Certainly operating with open positions during an election cycle would be hard on the District and the Board. But not holding an election would ignore important community values and interests. It isn’t an easy decision. But, absent overwhelming arguments in favor of appointments, why not let the people choose?

Personally, I strongly believe the Board should call an election. While it will be inconvenient for it to operate until the process is completed, appointments strike me as undemocratic given the number of positions to be filled (2 – almost half the Board) and the length of time appointees will serve (2 years).

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