Bad rules, cherry-picked numbers

On counting votes, the public-comment stopwatch and the Sac city school board losing public trust

One person, one vote. It doesn’t get much more fundamental than that. Which is why Bites was perplexed by the decision by Sacramento County elections officials not to count a bag of mail-in ballots found in a warehouse last week. They won’t even open the envelopes.

When Bites first heard the news, it seemed certain that the smoking gun had finally been found and that Angelique Ashby’s effort to suppress turnout for Measure M had been exposed.

Alas, it turned out to be only 400 votes, not enough to flip any election. The votes were in precincts (92 precincts in all) where all the races were decided by margins much wider than the handful of missing ballots. And that’s why Sacramento County elections officials have decided not to count the votes. “Election Code does not authorize me to recertify an election if the outcome does not change,” explained Jill LaVine, the county registrar of voters.

Bites has just one follow up question: So what? When did the basic idea shift from “everybody gets their vote counted” to “everybody gets their vote counted if it changes the outcome”? LaVine was nice enough to send Bites a list of election codes that formed the basis of the county’s decision. But there’s actually nothing in there that says we don’t get to see and count the votes.

Pressed, LaVine said, “We will be giving these voters credit for voting.” Which will surely come in handy—though Bites wonders if anyone will get enough credit to move up a letter grade.

It’s the little things. Like 407 votes. Or like a few nervous moments, speaking truth to the folks in power. In the last four years, those moments have even gotten fewer and more nervous—thanks to rules by the Sacramento City Council to limit public comment. They dropped the Tuesday-afternoon council meeting. Then, they shaved the time allowed for individual public comments during council meetings from three minutes to two minutes.

It doesn’t sound like a big change, but the two-minute rule is tough, forcing some speakers to rush their thoughts out in an anxious jumble. Public speaking is hard enough. Try tackling a complicated policy issue in two minutes while facing a blinking red light and a council member who’s ready to gavel you down when the clock hits zero. (Which is not that much of an exaggeration: Bites will never forget Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell siccing the cops on a speaker for going over time.)

“We are concerned that this change in a decades-old rule, while well-intentioned, has served to seriously degrade the quality of public comments at council meetings and diminished the ability of citizens to have a meaningful impact on their own government,” said Craig Powell, with local watchdog group Eye on Sacramento.

Last week, the group put out a brief study showing that most all other cities in Sacramento County allow three minutes for public comment, except for Citrus Heights, where citizens can take five. Around the region, the median amount of time is three minutes, with a few fives here and there. In Auburn, according to EOS’s survey, the standard is “whatever is reasonable.”

It seems reasonable for the city council to ease up a bit on the time limits.

There’s nothing reasonable about the Sacramento City Unified School District board’s rush to close 11 elementary schools.

The plan is promised to save $2.5 million, not much money in exchange for closing one out of every five elementary campuses. And those savings will be completely wiped out if a relatively small number of students get lost in the shuffle and wind up going to charter schools or to schools out of the district.

Indeed, charter operators are already licking their chops over some prime school sites. But there’s no analysis of this likely loss of enrollment—no analysis of a lot of things—among the superintendent’s cherry-picked numbers.

There hasn’t been a railroading like this in a long time. The closing of Sacramento High School comes to mind. In the past, Bites has talked at some length to school board members Patrick Kennedy and Jeff Cuneo about that experience, about how much public trust was lost in the process. Both know well how hard it is to undo a mistake like that once it’s made. Which is why it’s sad they are in such a hurry to make this one.