San Jose voters have spoken. Our choices have created two upcoming vacancies on our next City Council. Our City Charter provides three options for filling these seats: leaving them vacant pending a special election, appointing interim council persons until a special election fills the seats for the remaining term, and appointing someone to serve out the remaining term. Our current City Council will determine how to fill the vacated seats of Districts 8 and 10 over the next several weeks.
Several arguments are being made in favor of appointing people to fulfill the remaining terms instead of holding a special election. First, special elections are an expensive incremental cost. Second, it is unfair that residents go unrepresented during the time it takes for a special election. Finally, turnout in special elections is historically low.
Council members have vacated their seats mid-term several times in the past 25 years. In every instance our City Council held special elections. Only once did the council opt to appoint an interim council member pending the results of a special election, and that was a contentious split vote decision. The council has never usurped voters’ rights by appointing someone to fulfill a remaining term.
Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (CFR) feels that precedent should prevail; the council should convene a special election to fill the vacancies. The arguments against doing so don’t hold water.
The issue of historically low turnout numbers does not justify appointments to fulfill the remaining terms. CFR believes allowing the 10,000 or so people who will vote in each district’s special election to choose their representatives makes more sense than having six councilmembers (a majority of the City Council, possibly none of whom might reside in Districts 8 or 10) appoint the next representatives of the approximately 200,000 total residents of Districts 8 and 10. Voters are entitled to the right to select their representatives.
As for the special election’s cost, that is the cost of democracy. Voters’ right to elect their representatives is so much more valuable than the cost of a special election. Besides, San Jose has a general fund budget of $1.7 billion and a total budget approaching $6 billion. Surely our City Council can reprioritize spending to safeguard our voting rights.
Finally, it is a conceit to believe that residents will suffer while the councilmembers’ seats are empty. For starters, many residents can name neither their district number nor their council representative. Secondly, for many of us our council member serves as a conduit to our government services. As long as staff is available to answer our phone calls regarding potholes, garbage service, graffiti, and the like we are generally satisfied. Third, significant issues involving those unrepresented districts can be deferred until such time as newly elected council members are sworn in. Lastly, we residents do have representation in the form of our mayor, who represents all residents of San Jose.
During the just concluded political campaign we often heard the phrase “democracy is on the ballot.” The word “democracy” stems from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos,” literally meaning “people power.” A City Council decision appointing representatives for the remaining terms would be the antithesis of democracy. It would disempower people and contradict the actions taken to increase voter participation.
Now is not the time to reverse course on the hard work done to create a more inclusive, participative, and representative government. It is only fair that the residents of Districts 8 and 10 choose their representatives. CFR believes the City Council should let us vote. We urge you to raise your voices in support of the voting rights of our fellow residents of Districts 8 and 10.
Pat Waite is President of Citizens for Fiscal responsibility and a resident of San Jose City Council District 8.
Rich Crowley is Vice President of CFR and a resident of San Jose City Council District 10