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Democracy on the ballot

The upcoming elections are about more than just who takes a seat on your local governing body



Imagine if the team winning the Super Bowl could set next year's NFL rules. Does the winning team have a fantastic punter? Starting in 2023, field goals will be worth three points, not one. Or is the winning manager an in-your-face type of guy? Going forward, his first chest bump gets just a warning. Is the winner's roster aging out? Next year, there will be more and longer timeouts. Finally, as winner, make it so your changes are permanent.

Sadly, this absurdist, win-one-win-forever model is basically the approach our SLO County Board of Supervisors has taken since GOP über strategist and local political campaign consultant John Peschong was elected to the board in 2017. With his election, the board—mandated by law as "nonpartisan"—went bright red. Four examples follow:

Off the scrimmage line, the new majority raised the maximum campaign contribution per candidate from $4,700 to $25,000. Thus a family of four can now donate $100,000 to the campaign of a county judge, recorder, district attorney, or supervisor. This may not seem fair to those of us unable to donate megabucks to political campaigns, but it's a superpower for those who can and for political campaign firms.

After the 2020 election, county Supervisors Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold pointedly declined to express confidence in long-serving, highly respected county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong after he was subjected to blatant racist attacks on a county government Zoom call. The LA Times noted that many of the callers seemed to be outsiders, judging from their pronunciation of San "Louie" Obispo. Chagrined, Mr. Gong resigned.

Last year, by a 3-2 vote, the board radically redrew the county's five districts, in the process disenfranchising more than 40,000 urban voters for two years. The map they selected was the brainchild of Arroyo Grande resident Richard Patten, who was most recently in the news for demanding "images of all ballots received" from the 2021 Newsom recall. According to official results, SLO County voted 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent for Newsom to remain in office—too close to call, right?

Lastly, perhaps sensing the vulnerability of 4th District Supervisor Compton to the energized Jimmy Paulding campaign, supervisors proposed a charter change, ending the ability of the California governor to appoint replacements when a board vacancy occurs. Instead, vacant seat would remain empty (meaning residents in those parts of the would have no representation for up to a year). If the election is more than a year out, a special election would be called, which would cost about $1 million. Another key aspect of this plan would require an 80 percent majority (four of the board's five votes) to make further changes to the revised charter.

When you vote on June 7, you will likely be doing much more than electing a couple of board members. You will be—like voters for school board, city, and county elections all over the nation—deciding whether the American model of neighborly, congenial local government is to survive or be permanently subverted by those nursing the contagious belief that a bare majority is a license to rewrite rules and laws so the risk of losing power again is greatly diminished or even eliminated.

Filmmaker Rob Reiner recently wrote, "It couldn't be more simple. A vote for Republicans is a vote to destroy democracy." True. SLO County government is "nonpartisan," but democracy is on the ballot nevertheless. Choose wisely. Δ

Todd Katz lives in San Luis Obispo. Write a response for publication by emailing it to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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