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Paso discusses potentially reverting back to at-large elections 

Paso Robles was the first of several cities in San Luis Obispo County threatened with litigation over its policy for electing city council members, and it could also be the first to reverse its decision of changing to a by-district election.

click to enlarge TAKING A STAND The city of Paso Robles could be the first local city to change back to at-large district elections, but the City Council said it needs more information. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PASO ROBLES CITY COUNCIL
  • Photo Courtesy Of The Paso Robles City Council
  • TAKING A STAND The city of Paso Robles could be the first local city to change back to at-large district elections, but the City Council said it needs more information.

However, the Paso City Council was hesitant to move forward with any action to change the policy at its Jan. 7 meeting. Council members had concerns with the time frame for drafting a proposed measure that residents could vote on by November 2020 and the current city staff's workload, which is already full.

"This is a big chunk to chew on," City Councilmember John Hamon said at the meeting.

He said it's a very important decision for the council to make and figure out what path would be in the best interest of the entire city.

"I totally agree that the more control we have over our destiny rather than somebody else telling us what to do ... I'm all for it," Hamon said.

In 2018, the city was threatened with litigation for violating the California Voting Rights Act, alleging that there was election bias against minority members of the community because council members were elected through at-large elections. According to a staff report, an analysis conducted by the National Demographics Center concluded that there wasn't any substantial evidence of election bias in the city.

But with the threat of litigation hanging over the city, in 2019, the council voted to convert to by-district elections for the November 2020 election cycle and take the necessary steps to convert back to at-large elections for the November 2022 election cycle, if possible.

The council is now discussing what it would take to change back to at-large elections.

In order to reverse its election policy, the city would need to change its "general law city" status to "charter city," work with the San Luis Obispo County Elections Office to convert to an alternative voting system such as ranked-choice voting, and have the Secretary of State agree to certify the results of an alternative voting approach.

The last step would be a challenge, according to the staff report, which states that the Secretary of State's office hasn't yet been willing to certify results for other cities without new legislation.

Transitioning to a "charter city" has its benefits—such as greater local control over municipal affairs—but the most important factor for Paso Robles would be having the ability to implement an alternative voting policy, which also achieves the goal of the California Voting Rights Act.

But changing Paso's status and election policy wouldn't necessarily save it from receiving another California Voting Rights Act challenge. Other cities in the state tried to fight similar lawsuits in court, but Paso City Manager Tom Frutchey said "not a single jurisdiction has won." The cities have either lost or are still in the litigation process.

The city of San Luis Obispo has a current deadline of Jan. 31 to decide on a new election policy and avoid litigation.

In order for Paso to change its status to "charter city," the council or a committee would need to draft a proposal to be put on the November ballot.

"This seems like a very short accelerated timeframe to get on the November ballot this year for something as potentially complex and needing public input," City Mayor Steve Martin said.

The council directed staff to provide more education to the council and community on the impacts of becoming a charter city and the entire process of potentially changing its election policy. Δ

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