Californians for
Electoral Reform
PO Box 128, Sacramento, CA 95812
916 455-8021

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Voice for Democracy

Newsletter of Californians for Electoral Reform

Fall 2006

IRV and Ballot Measures: A Case Study

Editorís note: IRV is usually thought of as the best way to choose among candidates to fill an office. Now interest in using IRV for ballot measures is also starting to grow.

In January of this year, the Los Osos Community Services District in San Luis Obispo County decided to use IRV in future votes to choose among sites for wastewater treatment facilities -- an issue that can and sometimes does involve presenting more than two options to the voters.  After the districtís voters mandated that new sites be approved by a majority vote in September 2005, district resident Norman Risch successfully argued for IRV.  Now CfER member Preston Jordan is hoping that the city of Albany in Alameda County will take the same approach to a major land use decision.  Here is his report.

After a highly politicized struggle, Albany, California, is starting a process to plan the future of its San Francisco Bay waterfront. My recent advocacy work has focused on the need for the planning process to develop alternative land use plans with voters subsequently identifying the preferred alternative using IRV. The Albany Planning and Zoning Commission has endorsed this concept and requested the City Attorney to explore the use of IRV in this role.

Advocacy will next focus on working with the City Attorney to prepare a report on IRV.  Preliminary findings indicate Albanyís charter probably allows the use of IRV. For this issue, the vote would likely need to be advisory to avoid the expense of a full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis of each land use plan alternative. Alameda County, which typically conducts Albanyís elections, does not yet have IRV capability, despite Berkeley and San Leandroís longstanding desire for such elections, but plans to do so by late 2007. In any case, Albany has the advantage of small size (population 16,500; land area 1,095 acres), raising the possibility of the city conducting its own election on this issue if necessary.

Albany is located immediately north of Berkeley adjacent to San Francisco Bay. The waterfront area of Albany consists of approximately 190 acres of land of which 88 are publicly owned and 102 are privately owned. The private property is zoned for recreational and waterfront-related uses.  In response to possible development proposals in the late 1980ís, Albany voters passed Measure C in 1990. It requires voter approval of all zoning changes on the waterfront.

About two years ago, the landowner (Magna Entertainment Corporation) teamed with a retail developer (Caruso Affiliated) to pursue developing approximately 40 acres of underutilized parking lots at the site. The landowner operates Golden Gate Fields horse racing track on the site. While it is still profitable, revenue from this operation has been declining.

The developerís hallmark is eliciting community input ahead of a development application. The developer seeks to incorporate a sufficient amount of this input into the development proposal to win project approval. In Albany, the developer floated two iterations of a project plan in the community, but did not submit a development application to the city.

Subsequently a coalition of groups desiring increased parkland on the waterfront qualified an initiative for the November 2006 ballot. The initiative would have prohibited the development sought by the landowner and would have created a Task Force for devising a specific plan for the Waterfront. The Task Force would have been comprised of nine members, five appointed by the City Council and four by the groups putting forth the initiative. The landowner successfully sued to block the initiative due to improper noticing under the elections code. Further, independent legal analysis for the City concluded that the appointment provision for two of the groups putting forth the initiative would likely violate the state constitution.

At approximately the same time as the court ruling, the developer decided not to submit a development application. This decision was taken after the City Council refused to commit to processing the application through the Final Environmental Impact Report as desired by the developer. Such a commitment was not required by law and would have reduced the Cityís range of responses to the application. 

Concurrent with these events, the City Council directed the Planning and Zoning Commission to lead a city-sponsored planning process resulting in ďa range of plansĒ for the waterfront. Advocacy to this Commission successfully pointed out that the contest between the landowner/developer and the parkland groups resulted from the current electoral rules. Under these rules, only one groupís perspective would be placed on the ballot for an up-or-down vote. Therefore each side has an incentive to prevent the other sideís perspective from being considered. This is not in the best interest of the city, however. Stating up front that the voters would select a preferred plan from a range of plans using IRV would encourage the sides to focus on developing inclusive plans rather than on legal processes.

The city is now at the stage of selecting a consultant to conduct the Waterfront Planning Process. The possibility of using IRV to choose among the range of plans will be raised during this process to elicit consultantsí perspectives.  

In addition to the above, an election to fill two of five Council seats is also currently taking place. Two candidates from each side of the waterfront issue are running. I published an opinion column in the local paper that set the stage for a campaign for choice voting for city council members. The column argued that the current block voting system (each voter has two votes) could result in one side taking both seats with a bare majority of the vote. The column called for moderates to avert this unrepresentative outcome by voting for the same single candidate from each side. Some requests regarding alternate electoral systems, which were not mentioned in the column, have resulted.

I thank Chris Jerdonek, Norman Risch and Bob Richard for their critical assistance strengthening and developing the advocacy positions and actions described above. This said, such positions and actions are solely the responsibility of the author.

Preston Jordan

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