San Mateo County Harbor Commission Stalls on California Voting Rights Act

Press Release

On March 21, 2018, the board majority denied the Harbor District an opportunity to comply with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) before the upcoming 2018 election. Staff recommendations and legal advice was ignored and a vote to “Do Nothing” was approved. Board President Virginia Chang-Kiraly, Commissioner Tom Mattusch, and Commissioner Robert Bernardo expressed doubts about whether racially polarized voting exists in San Mateo County.

In an effort to comply with state law Harbor Commissioners Sabrina Brennan and Edmundo Larenas requested that the CVRA be placed on the March 21, 2018 agenda. Both commissioners worked collaboratively with Harbor District staff and attorney Kimon Manolius to draft Resolution 18-04-A. Counsel’s review of the resolution was cut short because Chang-Kiraly contacted Manolius and demanded that he “stop working with Brennan and Larenas.”

Minority Opinion

The Harbor District is a countywide agency funded by countywide property tax. Its five-member elected board does not adequately represent all areas of the county and hasn’t for decades. The board’s decision to “do nothing” delays the District’s ability to serve marginalized communities. 

—Edmundo Larenas, SMC Harbor Commissioner

Candidates of a protected class elected to an agency’s governing board do not negate a finding that racially polarized voting exists for that class. Under the CVRA, a class members’ successful campaign is not the only factor considered when determining the existence of racially polarized voting.

—Sabrina Brennan, SMC Harbor Commissioner

Flouting state law could put the special district on the receiving end of a demand letter.

March 21, 2018, Meeting Video

Item 12: First Motion

  • Motion by Brennan, second by Larenas to Comply with the California Voting Rights Act and Transition from At-Large Elections to District-Based Elections
  • Failed: 2-3 Vote

Item 12: Second Motion

  • Motion by Chang-Kiraly, second by Bernardo to “Do Nothing”
  • Approved: 3-2 Vote
  • Proactive Approach

On February 27, 2018, Commissioners Edmundo Larenas and Sabrina Brennan called for district based elections to save millions in property tax funds currently being wasted on a countywide at-large election system. The Harbor District paid the County $752,490 for printing and mailing ballots for the Nov 2017 countywide at-large election. Switching to district elections would improve accountability; increase citizen participation including marginalized communities, and lower taxpayer costs by decreasing the cost of printing and mailing ballots.

In 2010, Sabrina Brennan first proposed district elections as a way to reduce election costs.

Half Moon Bay Review – July 12, 2010

Resident suggests new format for harbor elections

According to Brennan, lowering the cost would not only relieve the burden on taxpayers but also encourage more qualified candidates to run for board positions.

"I'm concerned about the fact that for people who want to run, like myself … it costs a lot of money," she said, citing it would cost $7,000 for a candidate to place an optional statement onto the voter pamphlet.

Local agencies that have switched to district based as a result of CVRA challenges:

  • At least 169 school districts
  • 32 community college districts
  • Over 78 cities including the City of Menlo Park
  • San Mateo County Board of Supervisors
  • 10 water and other special districts

Due to the significant costs of defending against CVRA lawsuits, the vast majority of local agencies approved voluntarily transitions to district elections.

Examples of settlements:

  • Anaheim - $1.1 million
  • Hanford Joint Union Schools - $118,000
  • Madera Unified - about $170,000
  • Merced City - $42,000
  • Modesto - $3 million plaintiff's attorney fees and $1.7 million for its own lawyers
  • Palmdale - $4.7 million
  • Placentia - $20,000
  • Santa Barbara - $600,000
  • Tulare Hospital - $500,000
  • West Covina - $220,000 
  • Whittier - $1 million

County Harbor Commissioners Brennan & Larenas Support District Elections

Press Release

SAN MATEO COUNTY— Harbor Commissioners Larenas and Brennan are calling for district elections to save millions in property tax funds currently being wasted on a countywide at-large election system. The Harbor District paid the County $752,490 for the Nov 2017 countywide at-large election. Switching to district elections would improve accountability; increase citizen participation including marginalized communities and lower taxpayer costs.

It is time to change the Harbor District’s election system to the much more equitable District Elections.

—Edmundo Larenas, SMC Harbor Commissioner

The current countywide at-large system for electing Harbor Commissioners prevents voters from holding incumbents accountable. In Feb 2018, Commissioner Tom Mattusch admitted to sexual misconduct. A countywide recall initiative would require a staggering number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. The at-large system blocks the path for removing a commissioner. District elections empower voters to take action when the public trust is violated.

—Sabrina Brennan, SMC Harbor Commissioner

At-large elections have been abandoned by many local agencies because they favor candidates with deep pockets and politically connected incumbents, making it prohibitive for lower-income people and people of color to run successful campaigns. In 2009, the benefits of district elections were supported by the SMC Civil Grand Jury, which issued a formal recommendation to the County Board of Supervisors in favor of district elections. In Nov 2012, the voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure to dismantle the at-large elections system for county supervisors. In Oct 2017, the Menlo Park City Council adopted a resolution declaring the intent to transition to district-based elections.

In 2010, Sabrina Brennan first proposed district elections as a way to reduce election costs.

Half Moon Bay Review – July 12, 2010

Resident suggests new format for harbor elections

According to Brennan, lowering the cost would not only relieve the burden on taxpayers but also encourage more qualified candidates to run for board positions.

"I'm concerned about the fact that for people who want to run, like myself … it costs a lot of money," she said, citing it would cost $7,000 for a candidate to place an optional statement onto the voter pamphlet.

It’s time to eliminate at-large elections and comply with the California Voting Rights Act.

Local agencies that have switched to district as a result of CVRA challenges:

Due to the significant costs of defending against CVRA lawsuits, the vast majority of local agencies approved voluntarily transitions to district elections.

Examples of settlements:

  • Anaheim - $1.1 million
  • Hanford Joint Union Schools - $118,000
  • Madera Unified - about $170,000
  • Merced City - $42,000
  • Modesto - $3 million plaintiff's attorney fees and $1.7 million for its own lawyers
  • Palmdale - $4.7 million
  • Placentia - $20,000
  • Santa Barbara - $600,000
  • Tulare Hospital - $500,000
  • West Covina - $220,000 
  • Whittier - $1 million

Bringing SMC Harbor District government closer to home would increase countywide awareness about the following:

  • Public Harbors and Marinas
  • California Coastal Trail and Bay Trail Access
  • Wildlife and Marine Environment Education
  • Water Quality and Environmental Protection
  • Public Transportation to and from District facilities
  • Human Powered Vessel Rental and Launch Opportunities
  • Commercial Fishing Industry and Sports Fishing
  • Ocean and Bay Safety
  • Sea Rise Preparedness
  • Tsunami Inundation Evacuation Routes