Déjà vu all over again

Why do Chico City Council races all look alike?

Have you noticed that Chico City Council elections are a lot alike from year to year? Invariably, it seems, they pit a group of business-oriented, developer-backed conservatives, usually middle-aged white men, against a similar group of liberal social-worker types, also usually middle aged, though often female.

This year it was Bob Evans, Mark Sorensen and Bob Kromer (the conservatives) against Scott Gruendl, Mary Flynn and Mark Herrera (the liberals). Herrera is the only one who isn’t more than 50 years old.

But why groups? Why do local elections pit camp against camp?

Even when candidates try to run as independents, voters tend to lump them in with a group. (Unless, that is, they’re Brahama Sharma and Quentin Colgan and have no chance of winning.)

The candidates go along with this. Flynn and Gruendl may not always vote the same way (cf. Walmart), but they are allies. They are running for the same thing, after all—to win and be in the majority. Power comes only to those with four votes, so they need allies.

There’s nothing evil about this, but it does turn the council races into somewhat limited black-and-white contests: liberals vs. conservatives, business types vs. social do-gooders. Winners and losers are determined based on ideology more than anything else. There’s a lot more to being on the City Council than that.

I’ve long believed—and occasionally suggested publicly—that Chico would be better served by electing council members from separate districts, rather than at large.

District elections have a number of advantages. They’re much smaller, for one thing. If Chico had six council districts, each would have only about 15,000 people, and candidates could mount door-to-door campaigns at almost no cost, thereby taking much of the money out of politics. (This year the candidates spent $140,000.)

Winners would take office knowing they had the backing of a majority of voters in their district. That’s not the case in at-large elections, in which winners typically get around 20 percent of the vote, hardly a mandate. And voters would know their council member lived in the neighborhood and could be held responsible when problems arose.

Ideology—or, to use a better term, vision—would still be important. Voters would still care about the city as a whole and understand that their district’s prosperity was dependent on the prosperity of the entire community.

I lived for two years in Boise, Idaho, which has district elections. I learned that such elections are less polarized and council members are more diverse and representative of the entire city than in Chico.

Several years ago, when the council put together an ad-hoc committee to consider revisions to the city charter, I pitched the district-elections idea. It got nowhere. Former City Manager Fred Davis chaired the committee, and he thought it was wrong-headed, which was good enough for the committee, I was told.

What do you readers think? Are you as tired of the predictable City Council battles as I am? Is it time to look at district elections? Let’s have a discussion. Send me an e-mail and I’ll publish it.