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SLO County supervisors drop effort to put charter on the ballot

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Wasteful. Shortsighted. A Pandora’s box. Cannot be trusted.

Local citizens used all of those phrases and more on May 17 to describe a recent San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors proposal to place a county charter on the November 2022 ballot.

First floated by 1st District Supervisor John Peschong last year as a means to ensure that special elections, rather than temporary appointments, fill vacant county elected office seats, Peschong and the board changed course on May 17 and voted unanimously to drop the idea.

“I pretty much got spanked,” Peschong said after the wave of critical public feedback. “So I will be not supporting this today.”

As drafted, the proposed charter would’ve required the county to hold a special election for any elected office vacancy that occurred a year or more before a regular scheduled election. Officials estimated that each special election would cost between $313,000 and $1 million.

Charters require a simple majority of county voters to pass and a simple majority of voters to amend. Of California’s 58 counties, 14 currently have charters.

While Peschong, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton backed the charter as recently as April, the idea lost its momentum after county staff said that the board could not insert “safeguards” in the charter to make future amendments more difficult to pass—like requiring a supermajority vote of the board and/or the voters. That kind of measure violates the California Constitution, officials said.

Concerned that the charter would be subject to future amendments that could cause harm to the county, Peschong, Arnold, and Compton pulled the plug on it.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a good idea,” Peschong said.

That was the prevailing sentiment of those who spoke during public comment on May 17. Several residents warned that a charter would be subject to the whims of any future Board of Supervisors majority or even an influential special interest group.

“Please do not for one minute operate under the false sense of security that voting to support a charter written with a single function today will by any means guarantee us that it will remain unaltered into the future,” local resident Sara Simms said.

Others focused their critiques on the proposed charter’s singular focus on special elections, and what the resulting effect would be on county tax dollars.

“I’m against it because I just see all these expensive special elections—and I’m a taxpayer—and I’d really like us to spend less money,” Atascadero resident Anne Quinn said. “I just can’t understand why we can’t accept the temporary appointment by an elected governor. It’s temporary. The voters have a chance to weigh in quickly enough.”

Longtime opponents of the charter idea, 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson and 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, joined the other board members in the vote to drop the initiative. Gibson noted that he would’ve supported the charter if it had included an independent redistricting commission in it—an idea Peschong, Arnold, and Compton opposed.

“My support for the charter county concept had always been completely contingent on it including an independent redistricting commission,” Gibson said. “The thought of electing the vacancies is democratic one, and the cost is the cost. But if those districts that those elections are conducted in aren’t fairly drawn, then that isn’t a good idea.”

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