Community Columns

Why an all-or-nothing vote on Modesto charter changes?

The Modesto City Council may be about to make a strategic error.

In February, we will vote yes or no on the winner of this November's beauty contest between competing plans for district elections.

There will be another item on that ballot next year, also courtesy of the Charter Review Committee; it's called -- ponderously, and with predictably positive spin-nomenclature -- "The Increase Accountability in City Hall Measure of 2008."

It's not just one item, though -- it's eight separate changes to the way the city is run and the way power is distributed at the top. These include increased authority for council members and (especially) the mayor, creation of a commission with the obvious intent of increasing the salaries of the mayor and councilmembers, and creation of a new charter officer. And there are five more.

These items are not interdependent; each could stand or fall on its own merits without negating any others. Which means there's no technical reason for bundling them into one take-it-or- leave-it package.

So what's the thinking here? One school of thought recalls the 1999 election, where proposed charter changes (including a very modest salary increase for the mayor and vice mayor) were on the ballot. These changes were presented separately, and voters turned most of them down. Especially, and most emphatically, the salary proposal.

To blame those results on the method of presentation, though, ignores context and is a little like crediting the sunrise to the crowing rooster. That election was the tsunami of public disgust that turned conventional wisdom on its head and swept underdogs Carmen Sabatino and Bruce Frohman into office. Simply put, the electorate wasn't interested in giving the City Council anything other than the back of its collective hand.

Imagine yourself in a restaurant, desiring a prime rib. You're told it comes with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. You order it with a baked potato and anything but Brussels sprouts, and are told that there are no substitutions. Take it or leave it.

Odds are, you'll leave it.

So it could be with this odd bundle -- find one item you dislike (remember, there are eight to choose from) and chances are you're not going to vote in favor of it.

Additionally, listing all the particulars together could give a voter a negative-vote- inducing headache.

There's still time for the council to put these items on the ballot individually, but it seems unlikely that they'll do so.

All of which will be fodder for local conspiracy buffs, who will tell you that there's an unelected, off-the-radar power structure in Modesto (no argument there) that has no interest in seeing any changes in the way things are run and favors any approach that keeps the voters from upsetting the status quo.

Like this, perhaps.

Flint is a Modesto resident. E-mail him at columns@modbee.com.

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