San Bruno currently operates under General Law, meaning that we have not adopted our own municipal charter and instead default to the general laws of the State of California. These general laws specify that a city of our size must utilize District Elections wherein we would divide the city into a number of districts, with each represented by a City Council member who resides in that district and is elected by the voters in that district. A group of lawyers is currently moving up and down the state to force cities like ours to move to district elections or face lawsuits, and San Bruno appears to be next on their list.
The overall concept of district elections sounds reasonable, but I have specific reservations about moving to this model in San Bruno at this time. To start, when I think of areas of the city like Downtown, I wouldn’t want responsibility to fall on only one councilmember…I want all of our councilmembers to be responsible and held accountable for our Downtown. Second, we currently do not have many residents choosing to run for office from across the various areas of San Bruno. I fear that if we move to district elections, there’s a real possibility of no one stepping up to run for a particular district or for candidates to run unopposed. A lack of candidates would also invite outside interests to recruit and fund a campaign for a local resident in order to influence our council. In a large city like San Francisco district elections make sense, but I don’t believe the situation in San Bruno is appropriate for us to move to District Elections at this time.
One way to avoid being forced into district elections would be to become a Charter City. We can write and adopt our own municipal charter and then decide on our own when it will be appropriate to move to district elections.
There are other benefits to becoming a charter city. The city would have the power to enact a transfer fee on real estate sales, a tactic other charter cities in California have used to substantially increase revenue. Such a transfer fee could be set up however we wish; it could apply to commercial and not residential property, it could be set at different amounts for each…whatever we decide to write into our charter. Over the past several years California state law has steadily eroded our ability to use local tax dollars for local needs, which we could mitigate by having our own municipal charter. We would have increased autonomy over land use decisions and more control over traffic regulations, among other benefits.
There are currently 121 cities in California, including several in the Bay Area, who have moved to the charter city model, and I advocate for exploring this option for San Bruno as soon as possible. This would involve drafting the municipal charter, which the voters must approve before it could be enacted.