SLO County seeks charter to address elected office vacancies



San Luis Obispo County supervisors took a step on April 5 toward putting a county charter on the November election ballot that would establish new processes for filling vacancies in local elected offices.

A majority of the Board of Supervisors directed county staff at a special evening meeting to move ahead on a proposed charter that would require the board to call a special election in the event of any elected office vacancy, if it occurs a year or more before a regularly scheduled election.

The board will discuss the charter again at a May 17 meeting, with a final decision coming in June. A charter, which 14 of 58 California counties have, requires a simple majority vote to pass.

"The whole intent of this evening is that there were some of us who wanted to see that the electorate was involved when we had these vacancies," 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold said.

The debate arrives on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom's 2020 appointment of Dawn Ortiz-Legg to SLO County's vacant 3rd District supervisor seat, and the Board of Supervisors' 2021 appointment of Elaina Cano to the clerk-recorder position.

Supporters of a charter said they want county voters to decide who fills vacant elected offices, like county supervisor, sheriff, district attorney, or clerk-recorder. Opponents countered that special elections are expensive—as much as $1 million each—and typically draw low voter turnout.

Arnold, 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton, and 1st District Supervisor John Peschong expressed strong support for the charter. All three asked county staff whether they could include "safeguards" in the charter that would make it harder to amend in the future. Peschong and Arnold said they want any future charter amendments to require four supervisor votes and a supermajority of voters—versus simple majorities. County counsel said they'd need to do further research on whether that was possible.

Second District Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he was opposed to the charter proposal. He argued that leaving an elected office vacant for up to a year "does not do service to the citizenry of this county." He also called the board majority "hypocritical" for wanting to limit future boards' and voters' ability to amend the charter.

"I find it fascinating and hypocritical for supervisors on this dais to be moving forward to put a charter before the voters on a simple majority vote and a simple majority vote of the electorate and then speculating how they might be able to lock that charter down to make it more difficult for future boards to offer this to voters," he said.

Gibson then floated a proposal to include a redistricting commission on the new county charter, in light of the controversy around the board's redistricting process last year. That received support from Ortiz-Legg, but not Peschong, Arnold, or Compton.

"I'm totally against passing that job off to people who haven't been elected by a constituency," Arnold said. Δ


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