Oakland’s New Voting System

A strongly worded legal opinion by City Attorney John Russo calms fears that the city would try to block ranked-choice voting next year.

Oakland’s version of ranked-choice voting won approval earlier this month from California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, yet some advocates feared that the city council might attempt to block it from going into effect in 2010. But then last week, Oakland City Attorney John Russo issued a strongly worded opinion that said the city had no choice but to implement the new format. And although the council could still derail it, the chances now appear remote.

Russo concluded that once Bowen approved the hardware and software system and county Registrar Dave MacDonald declared that he was ready to conduct a ranked-choice-voting election, then the city was obligated to use the new format. Oakland residents approved ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, with 69 percent of the vote in the November 2006 election. Russo noted that the measure stated that the city “shall use ranked-choice voting once the Alameda County Registrar of Voters is able to conduct the election on behalf of the city.” Russo added that neither the council nor any other city official possesses the legal power to override the voters’ mandate. The new system allows the city to hold just one election in November 2010 and forgo a June primary.

Former state Senator Don Perata, who is running for mayor next year, had been working to stop ranked-choice voting from happening. He expressed concerns that it would confuse seniors and non-English speakers, even though San Francisco has used the system successfully for years. But it was no secret that Perata would have benefited from two elections because he is a prodigious fund-raiser and enjoys strong name recognition.

In light of Russo’s opinion, Oakland Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente, a Perata ally who also had raised concerns about the new format, said he believes the council will okay ranked-choice voting for next year. However, he said the council needs to make sure that the educational outreach program outlined by Bowen’s office is implemented fully and effectively. He also said the council should have an honest discussion about how much it will cost to implement the new format. Although the city will save about $800,000 by canceling the June primary, De La Fuente said he believes ranked-choice voting will cost more than that. He acknowledged, however, that the city will save money over the long run.

The council plans to take up the issue on January 5. Before Russo’s opinion, there were four solid votes for ranked-choice voting on the eight-member panel — Rebecca Kaplan, Pat Kernighan, Nancy Nadel, and Jean Quan, who is running against Perata for mayor. Kernighan had expressed some reservations earlier this fall, but said last week that she is committed to the new system. She co-sponsored the 2006 ballot measure with Nadel.

The release of Russo’s opinion also coincided with a letter from Oakland lawyer Stuart Flashman, who is representing ranked-choice advocates. Flashman came to the same conclusion as Russo as to why the city must use the format next year. He said that his clients would likely sue if the council tries to delay or block it. His clients include school board members and good government activists. Flashman’s opinion also had the blessing of the Sierra Club and the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.

Council Prez Pushes June Cops Measure

But all the talk of ranked-choice voting isn’t stopping Oakland City Council President Jane Brunner from pressing for a June election anyway. The Oakland Tribune reported that Brunner is pushing for a ballot measure that would raise property taxes to fund police services. The city is facing a projected $25 million budget shortfall come July 1, and Brunner noted that without more revenue, the city may have to lay off more than 100 cops.

But spending an extra $800,000 for a June election would be a gamble for the cash-strapped city. A police parcel tax measure likely will face an uphill battle, considering that a 2008 initiative that would have paid for 105 police officers fell well short of passage. In addition, council Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente said last week that he does not support a parcel tax measure for police services.

AC Transit Delays BRT

The AC Transit Board of Directors decided to delay its controversial bus rapid transit plan for an unspecified period in order to reduce service cuts. The Contra Costa Times reported that the agency board made the decision after the Metropolitan Transportation Commission agreed to let AC Transit transfer $35 million in federal funds from BRT to regular bus service. The move lets AC Transit cut service by 8.4 percent instead of 15 percent. But in exchange for the funding transfer, AC Transit agreed to take part in a study of transit redundancies in the East Bay in which bus service mirrors BART service. The service cuts will take place in March.

Three-Dot Roundup

A judge overturned a Richmond voter-approved tax that would have cost Chevron about $16 million a year. … Underpaid Richmond teachers, meanwhile, agreed to a new contract that offers no pay increases for the next three years. … An El Cerrito Middle School was in shock last week after a twelve-year-old girl was allegedly raped in a school stairwell during class time. … A new report found that the East Bay is home to some of the worst-kept roads in the nation. … Laney College President Frank Chong left to become President Obama’s community college chief. … And the Oakland backers of a statewide measure that would legalize pot say they already have enough signatures to get it on the November 2010 ballot.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the clients of Oakland attorney Stuart Flashman included the Sierra Club and the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. Both clubs, however, concurred with his legal conclusion concerning the City of Oakland’s requirement to implement ranked choice voting.


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