RCV DEBACLE RAISES EYEBROWS; HELPS SANTOSBy STEVEN TAVARES
SAN LEANDROMayor Tony Santos likes to study the demeanor of his councilmembers for visible cracks in their poker faces. There was no indication Councilwoman Diana Souza was angling Monday night to vote against an ordinance finalizing Ranking Choice Voting for the coming November election. The look on his colleagues face was surprise, then a expression of, "Now what?"
Souza voted with the majority last month approving the voting system that, among other things, eliminates the need for a costly runoff election. That tally was 5-2 with Vice Mayor Joyce Starosciak and Councilman Bill Stephens against it. Souza said her change of conscience came from constituents who voiced displeasure tinkering with the manner residents elected their officials. She has never been enamored with RCV, anyway, speculating it would confuse and disenfranchise voters and doubted its cost-savings and saying last year, "Why don't we go back to the way it was before?" which was a winner-takes-all setup. More surprising than her vote Monday against was her vote for it last month when a protest vote would have been more appropriate. It still would have passed with a vote to spare.
No matter what your opinion of RCV, the decision to proceed had already been made with last month's action. The memoradum of understanding had been signed with the city's of Oakland and Berkeley putting San Leandro on the hook for their share of the system's startup costs, no matter what. The election date had been changed to Nov. 2. By the city's charter, there is no way to go back to a June primary raising the possibility of a runoff election being pushed to early next year. San Leandro City Clerk Marian Handa estimates a stand-alone runoff as early as February 2011 would be costly, possibly $200,000.
This runs counter to the debate's core issue--saving money. Souza's vote stands to cost the city up to $300,000 when the intenton was to lower the city's costs, not substantially increase it. It's kind of like installing energy efficient solar panels on your house hoping to save money in the long run, only to have the panels crash through the roof damaging the house and demolishing your brand new 50-inch flat screen on the way down.
The easy way is to blame Councilman Michael Gregory for going on vacation and leaving his decisive vote on the table, but that's not fair and misses the point. Gregory was on vacation in Japan and did not attend Monday night's meeting via teleconference, although he did link up earlier that evening for the council's closed session. The councilman, who is up for re-election this year, has long been a proponent of RCV along with Councilman Jim Prola and Santos. Councilwoman Ursula Reed showed early apprehensiveness in suporting RCV, but has voted recently in favor.
After Santos used little-used powers afforded the mayor in city's charter to reconsider the vote April 19 and assuming Gregory isn't detained for smuggling U.S.-banned Kobe beef into the country, the RCV ordinance will likely pass. But, this only raises speculation the gumming up of RCV has a certain political tinge with Starosciak and her acolyte on the council Souza tussling with Santos and his supporters Prola, Gregory and sometimes Stephens.
In addition, everyone's support on RCV run counter to their political aspirations. Starosciak is against it for purely short-term budget concerns. RCV costs more than a primary election in the first year and its inaugural year also coincides with large budget cuts in the city. The current dynamic of mayoral candidates favor an upset by Starosciak from a possible preponderance of second place votes from both Santos and former school board trustee Stephen Cassidy.
It's "The Hurt Locker" winning the Academy Award, Part II, yet she continues to block its initiation. To further build on Starosciak's strength within RCV, a few supporters of Santos have raised the possibility of reaching out to Cassidy for fear his voters could hand the election to the vice mayor. This would be a stunning turn of events since the past six months have been highlighted with verbal jousting and taunts between Santos and Cassidy.
Cassidy, readily admits, he has no idea whether RCV helps or hurts his chances, although a primary would appear to aid his case to force a second chance to top the winner in a runoff, if he could finish in the top two. As for Santos, the wily politician has again put himself in a position where either outcome could aid his cause. The limited amount of research on RCV indicates it favors Santos as the incumbent. Supporters disagree, saying it only produces the consensus candidate, but no system is totally fair. Santos has created a similar win-win scenario with the San Leandro Hospital situation, where his opponent's lack of a strong voice on the subject has allowed the mayor political coverage whether it closes or not.
Santos' inner circle, though, has long worried the mayor's strong support for RCV harms his chances along with delving the campaign into the unknown of a new, never-used electoral system. If RCV passes, it's a council victory for Santos. If it loses, his campaign can return to business as usual and his strongest opponent has egg on her face by opposing RCV for money reasons only to have not implementating it cost the city way more.
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