Election 2020: Time For A Change?

By Lance Simmens

A prominent topic in City Council recently has been debate over whether or not the City should consider changing its electoral structure from the current at-large system to a by-district system. Under pressure from the threat of a lawsuit by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project for violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001, Malibu is now joining a list of California cities facing huge legal fees to prove that the current at-large system does not result in the “impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect they preferred candidate or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner.”

This effort, as I see it, would be laughable if the potential costs were not so prohibitive, and if the burden of proof was not on the city to prove they are not encouraging racial polarization rather than on the challengers to prove they were. The results of capitulating to a by-district system would be the drawing of 5 separate and distinct districts where city council members would be elected by residents within each district. While one could legitimately make the argument that having representatives from geographical distinct districts would make those reps more sensitive to the needs of the individual communities within the city, the cost of political tribalism at a time of serious political divisiveness and dysfunction would both clog the system of action and further alienate an already cynical and angry electorate.

As a past and potential future candidate for City Council I might be expected to embrace a system that limits the area to seek votes, particularly since I reside on the eastern end of the city, however I am supportive of the notion that it is more important for the future of the community that each council member have general knowledge of the entire community, rather than be subjected to local parochial concerns.

I spent over four decades involved in public service and governmental policy making and truly believe that policy over politics is needed now more than ever. It is possible to maintain personal integrity while promoting a system responsible to the people and forward looking, my career and my extensive writings (two books and over 850 published articles) are proof that it can be done. If I thought for one-second that this community was promoting discrimination over any minority or minority community within it I would be shouting from the rooftops about the need to correct it. While the proponents of the lawsuit may be well intentioned it appears to me as though they are proposing a solution in search of a problem, and of course while the legal establishment will ultimately reap large rewards for such a fight, I simply do not see where there is evidence that an issues exists.

Concurrent with this development, there are murmurings of dissatisfaction with the current council-manager governmental structure which runs the city. For purposes of background, I spent six years as Assistant Executive Director of the US Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan organization of Mayors representing cities over 30,000 in population that was established in 1932 in the shadow of the Great Depression. In essence, I represented the nation’s cities in Washington, DC on issues large and small, with a particular emphasis on economic and budget issues (I also spent 6 years previously on the US Senate Budget Committee as Senior Economic Counsel to a US Senator).

Thus, I am fairly experienced with urban issues and local government structures. Essentially municipalities are split into two-forms of government: council-manager and Mayor-council. Additionally Mayor-council forms of government are split among Strong Mayor and “Weak” Mayor models. Most smaller municipalities have adopted the council-manager form of government, Malibu fits this category, in response to Progressive Era reforms in the first part of the 20th century to limit excessive politicalization of policy decisions inherent in the spoils system of political machines.

In a councilmanager government, an elected city council serves as the city’s primary legislative body and appoints a chief executive officer called a city manager to oversee day-to-day municipal operations, to draft a budget, and to implement and enforce the council’s policy and legislative initiatives. The Mayor is largely ceremonial and selected amongst and by city council members.

In a “weak” Mayor-council form of government City Council has legislative and executive authority, the Mayor cannot appoint or remove officials, and lacks veto power over council. In a strong Mayor-council system the Mayor has almost total administrative authority, political independence, and the power to appoint and dismiss department heads without council approval. In some instances, the Mayor may appoint either their chief-of-staff or a Chief Administrative Officer who is responsible only to the Mayor.

If there is a move to move to a strong Mayor system of government it would have the advantage of centralizing power to an elected official who could be held accountable to the public. Of course, there is no guarantee, except at the ballot box, that concentration of power might not lead to actions that might be viewed as suspect. On the other hand the ultimate check is upon the individual who must face the voters.

As someone who wishes to serve the community to the best of my abilities I have no preference one way or the other and feel the decision on which form of government best suits the needs of the community ought to be decided by the citizens themselves. The important thing is that there are alternatives and options, each carrying with them pros and cons. I have had largely positive experiences with strong Mayors of major cities who deeply care for and are a part of “their” communities.

Former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier, who was elected Mayor and served for 28 years once was asked by a news reporter when he was going to consider running for higher office. His curt response was, “there is no higher office.”  In a conversation with former Pennsylvania Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell I once asked him why he was not running for US Senator in 2000, he patiently explained that there were two basic types of political temperaments, one was legislative and the other was executive. The former required the ability to get along with colleagues, the latter required the ability to make decisions. His temperament clearly was that of an executive.

I have known and been mentored by great local leaders, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, Atlanta Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andy Young, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley just to name a few. All were strong Mayors in every sense of the word. Many Mayors who would later become Members of Congress would personally lament the fact that they did not feel in control like when they were chief executive of their cities.

Whatever and whichever way the discussion of governmental structure develops the most important thing will be to put this city on a glide path to sustainability and resiliency. While important decisions need to be made regarding the current state of affairs it is essential that we focus on a long-term plan that benefits future generations. That must be the goal of any discussions of how to proceed. I feel confident that the citizens will make the right decision.

Cece Woods

The Current Report Editor in Chief Cece Woods started The Local Malibu, an activism based platform in 2014. The publication was instrumental in the success of pro-preservation ballot measures and seating five top vote-getters in the Malibu City Council elections.

During the summer of 2018, Woods exposed the two-year law enforcement cover-up in the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings, and a few short months later provided the most comprehensive local news coverage during the Woolsey Fire attracting over one million hits across her social media platforms.

Since 2020, Woods was the only journalist reporting on the on-going public corruption involving former L.A. Metro CEO Phil Washington. Woods worked with Political Corruption expert Adam Loew, DC Watchdog organizations and leaders in the Capitol exposing Washington which ultimately led to the withdrawal of his nomination to head the FAA.

Woods also founded Malibu based 90265 Magazine and Cali Mag devoted to the authentic southern California lifestyle.

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