On the modest ballot this November, Modestans have the chance to vote on perhaps the most important question in city politics in decades: Whether we change the system of electing council members and, if so, to what system should we change?
Why is this so important? Because the answer will change the character of local politics for generations. Consequently, we should focus on long-term outcomes, not short-term gains: How do we ensure that our politicians remain accountable to our city and its citizens? How do we achieve neighborhood representation, but not to the detriment of the greater city? How do we have an effective and efficient government, not just an efficient campaign? How do we foster authentic concern for our community -- not just individual neighborhoods?
A candid analysis shows that district elections fail to achieve these fundamental goals. Look to any major city and you will see district representatives who couldn't care less about the greater city and politics characterized by infighting and backroom "you vote for mine and I'll vote for yours" deals. You will also see massive campaign budgets and polarized politicians who get far less done with far more dollars.
What is our alternative?
To create a truly hybrid system that ensures all politicians are accountable to their districts and to the greater city.
We need only look a few miles north to a major city that has implemented such a system. In Stockton, candidates run for district elections like most other major cities. But then the top two vote-getters in each district run against each other in a citywide election. This ensures each candidate is truly representing his or her district while also representing the greater city's interests.
Stockton's system certainly puts a greater burden on candidates -- they must in essence run two campaigns. But our goal must be to create the best system for our city and its citizens, not the most user-friendly experience for the candidate. If we get sidetracked with the idea of creating a cheap and easy way to run, it will be at the expense of our city's bright future. This is especially futile since running a campaign in a growing city of our size will never be inexpensive: Even today, no candidate runs their campaign without donations from others.
It is time for a change to better Modesto's future and to ensure the control for such a change resides with the citizens, not a court. But it is time for a change that creates a truly hybrid system exploiting the advantages to our community of the at-large model and the district model.
Vote Yes on Measure I and abstain from voting on Measure J to communicate that you support another alternative.
Most important, let our City Council know how you feel about this issue so that we can create the best system for our city's incredibly bright future.
Swehla works as a consultant on housing and commercial projects and serves on two city committees.