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Council opposes switching school elections to even years, leaning to change for council as well

The City Council voted Jan. 2 to oppose moving school board elections to even-numbered years to coincide with national and state elections, and a majority of council members appear ready to reconsider El Cerrito's plan to go to even years as well.

The school board discussed moving election of members from odd to even years at its Dec. 6 meeting but has not yet voted on the matter.

School board members Glen Price and Patricia Player presented arguments in favor of going to even-yeared elections at the City Council meeting. Price said the change would save the district an estimated $100,000 per election and mean more voters would participate in the selection of board members, since turnout in even-numbered years runs as high as double the turnout in odd-numbered years.

Player said that as a high school government teacher she often extolled the virtues of odd-year elections as an opportunity to get involved in local politics without being overshadowed by state and federal races. But she said the potential savings and high voter involvement of even years is swaying her toward even years, and sticking with odd years makes less sense as more and more jurisdictions have switched over.

Dwight Merrill of the Stege Sanitary District board said, "I'm concerned about being drowned out in a general election . . .In order to have a viable campaign in an even-year election you're going to have to spend more money."

School board member Karen Fenton, who was unable to attend the council meeting, sent a letter to council member Gina Brusatori in support of odd-year elections. Fenton argued there are better ways to save money on elections, if savings are needed. She also argued that it would be more costly for candidates to run for school board, giving special interests willing to supply campaign money more influence.

Al Miller, who also serves on the Stege board as well as being active in city politics, said El Cerrito residents might be cynical of the council's motives if it reversed itself on odd vs. even elections. If the council does make such a switch on El Cerrito's council elections, he said, it should do a complete financial analysis of the costs of odd vs. even-yeared elections.

The council vote was 4-1, with Mark Friedman dissenting, to send a letter to the West Contra Costa Unified School District board members and superintendent opposing a switch by the district to even-yeared elections.

The council's agenda indicated only that it would be discussing a potential switch by the school district, not the city, so discussion on changing council elections was limited. But some council members asked that the matter be put on a future agenda, and Friedman appeared to be the only council member in support of even years.

The council voted in spring 1999 to switch to even years. Janet Abelson and Kathie Perka were elected in November 1999 to three-year terms. As things stand now, the three council members selected in November 2001 would serve for three years as well, lining up the city for its first even-year election in 2002.

City Attorney Howard Stern said he would research for the council what would be involved in switching back to odd year elections.

When the switch to even years was voted on, Perka and Abelson were not yet on the council. Brusatori opposed it, as she still does. Friedman supported and still supports even-yeared elections. Mayor Larry Damon said he reluctantly supported the switch, focusing his attention at that time on making sure it was done without extending the length of anyone's term. But Damon said he now sees the merits of odd-year elections.

Damon and other council members said they were particularly swayed by the narrow failure of Measure L in November, which would have raised additional funds for Contra Costa libraries. Without the competition of other races and propositions they felt the measure might have had a better chance of passage.

Members also questioned whether switching to even years will really save as much money as proponents expect.

In other action, the council:

* Reappointed Letitia Moore to the Planning Commission and named Jennifer Lowe as a new member of the commission. Both were appointed tor four-year terms. Lowe is an employee of the East Bay Regional Park District and serves on the Tree Commission, which meets only as needed. She replaces Julie Rogers who has served on the Planning Commission for 11 years and was not eligible for reappointment.

* Granted management employees a 3 percent raise, effective Dec. 1, 2000. Management employees' last raise was December 1998. The amount management employees can receive for education related to work was increased from $500 to $1,000 per year.

* Indicated to Police Chief Scott Kirkland that one of the three parking enforcement positions be increased to full time. Currently each of the positions is for three days a week. One of the positions has been vacant since Sept. 7, 1997 but Kirkland said he hopes to have that position filled soon.

One reason given for increasing the staff is to enforce parking restrictions around the city's two BART stations and ensure the police department is able to respond to complaints from neighbors in those areas, such as about cars blocking their driveways.

* Approved unanimously, on the second reading before the council, three ordinances related to code enforcement. One allows the city to recover costs of abating problems through the owner's tax bill. Another sets maintenance standards for vacant buildings. The purpose of the third ordinance is to provide a more clear-cut process for dealing with substandard buildings.

The ordinances were largely a response to residents' complaints about run-down properties.

Run dates: 2001-01-03 - 2001-01-20

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