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Suburb a Hotbed of Political Apathy

A lack of candidates allows government to scrap election and appoint officials

August 23, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — With 135 people clamoring to replace Gov. Gray Davis, it may appear as if running for office is suddenly in vogue.

But this waterfront suburb, where 30,000 people live on fingers of landfill that jut into San Francisco Bay, seems to care so little for politics that the city's November election has been canceled for lack of interest.

On a 4-1 vote, the City Council voted Monday night to cancel the town's municipal election, after just three candidates filed nomination papers to fill three council seats. The three candidates -- incumbents Ron Cox and Rick Wykoff and local businesswoman Linda Koelling -- were appointed to the City Council and will begin their four-year terms Nov. 24.

The cancellation will save the city $15,000 out of a general fund of $26 million.

Foster City is not the only Bay Area city where the lure of political office hasn't taken hold. Four others -- Belmont, Brisbane and San Bruno in San Mateo County and Newark in Alameda County -- have canceled their November elections or are considering doing so, for lack of competition.

David Tom, elections manager for San Mateo County, said California's election code allows a city to cancel an election if the number of candidates is equal to or less than the number of seats available. Canceling elections is not uncommon, he said. "But I'm surprised that it's happening in so many different cities at one time."

Canceling elections will save the cash-strapped cities from $4,000 to nearly $40,000, depending on the number of registered voters.

Marland Townsend, the only Foster City council member to oppose scratching the election, said cancellation "simply doesn't pass the sniff test."

"This means that the City Council itself will have appointed three out of its five members," said Townsend, who was first elected to the council in 1993. "We have critical issues coming up, and it looks bad when the majority of the people deciding them haven't even been elected."

Townsend is particularly concerned that the two incumbents who were to appear on the ballot, both of whom he said he would have endorsed, voted to appoint themselves. "Election law may allow them to do that, but they should not have voted," he said. "It's self-serving and it smells bad."

In all Bay Area cities with November elections, the nomination period to appear as an official name on the ballot expired Aug. 8. However, a potential candidate has until Oct. 21 to file the 20 nominating signatures required to become an official write-in candidate.

Foster City Councilwoman Deborah Wilder said that holding an election for the sake of a potential write-in candidate is too costly. "The likelihood that any write-in candidate will get more votes than those already on the ballot is very small," Wilder said.

But in recent years, some write-in candidates in California municipal elections have done relatively well.

Though term limits prevented her name from appearing on the official ballot, Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill was reelected last year as a write-in. In November 1999, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano's last-minute write-in campaign for mayor shook up the city's powerful political machine by forcing Mayor Willie Brown into a December runoff, although Brown ultimately won.

And in 1992, John Blake was elected as a write-in candidate to the town council of Woodside in southern San Mateo County as part of an anti-utility tax revolt.

Woodside now holds elections even when all candidates are unopposed, Town Clerk Janet Koelsch said.

To Foster City Mayor Russ Harter, the lack of interest in running for local office is a disturbing sign "of a deep and unfortunate apathy."

Though Townsend said that he had spoken to about 200 people in Foster City and found that sentiment "against canceling the election ran 3 to 1," there was little evidence of that point of view at the Monday night council meeting, where only 15 people showed up and the only one to testify supported the cancellation.

In Brisbane, a suburb of 3,500 bordering San Francisco, the City Council voted unanimously to save about $4,000 by canceling the city's November election and reappointing incumbents Cyril Bologoff and Clara Johnson to four-year terms.

According to Brisbane City Clerk Sherri Schroeder, no one showed up at the meeting to support or oppose the November election.

"That's very unusual for Brisbane," Schroeder said. "We've never had anything like this."

The lack of candidates for office in Belmont also has stumped city officials there, where the City Council will consider canceling elections this week for city clerk, treasurer and two council seats.

"There are all these people running for governor and only one person wants to be treasurer of Belmont," said Sheila Harrington, Belmont's assistant city clerk. "We've always had many candidates. I really can't explain why this year is different."

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