The Ceres City Council is expected to take a very rare action in late January to lengthen the terms of four council seats and the mayor one time by a year so the terms will coincide in a gubernatorial or presidential election year.
The action is being triggered by a new law, SB 415, passed by the Legislature and signed into law on Sept. 1, 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown designed to increase voter participation in municipal and other elections. State lawmakers have accurately noted that many voters won't turn out to vote in an off-year election, in other words, when there is no election for governor or president. The law requires cities to come up with a transition plan to comply with the law by Jan. 1, 2018 and implement it by November 2022.
SB 415 specifically says that cities cannot hold an election in an off-year if voter turnout is more than 25 percent less than major election years.
City Manager Toby Wells supplied the City Council with data backing the state's claim that voter turnout can be extremely low in off-year elections. For example, in November 2015, the voter turnout in Ceres was 15.93 percent. But for the governor's race in November 2014, turnout was more than double at 33.92 percent. During the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout in Ceres was 64.62 percent. The average voter turnout over the past four statewide elections (including two presidential elections) was 51 percent in Ceres. However, the average voter turnout over the past four municipal elections was 17 percent. That puts Ceres directly under the dictates of SB 214 to modify terms.
Wells offered three options for the council:
• Expand the four-year terms to five years so elections occur in an odd-year election;
• Reduce the four-year terms to three years;
• Extend the next terms by a year.
The consensus of the council was to lengthen the terms.
Surprisingly, the city does not need to seek voter approval to expand the terms, said Wells.
Councilwoman Linda Ryno commented that Ceres voter turnout has been "really sad" in off-year elections.
The problem of voter turnout in Ceres will only be exacerbated when the city next year starts electing council members on a district basis rather than the current at-large basis, said Wells.
"Couple that with ... low voter turnout with district elections, (and) we really have a small number of folks electing the representatives of this body in the future," said Wells. "Again, another state mandate, another thing that the state, in their infinite wisdom, to help us all govern better makes it a difficult challenge. Part of it is people getting out and voting which is the attempt of this legislation. Whether it works or not we'll have to see. But the bottom line is we really don't have a choice. We have to move in that direction."
Council seats are staggered so that not all five seats come up in the same election. The next two seats impacted will be the seats occupied by Ryno and Ken Lane, which were due to expire in November 2017. Lengthening the terms mean that Ryno and Lane may continue to serve until November 2018 when California elects a governor and other state officials.
The seats of Mayor Chris Vierra and Councilmembers Bret Durossette and Mike Kline were set to expire November 2019, which is an off-year for elections. Adding a year to the terms mean they would be before voters until November 2020, which is also a presidential election year.
An ordinance change is required to make the change.
The Ceres Unified School District board recently opted to extend their next terms to comply with SB 415, said Wells.
Voter participation in lower level elections could increase by 25 to 36 percent under the new direction, concluded a study done two years ago by the Public Policy Institute of California.
"I don't think you're going to fix any apathy," commented Ceres resident Len Shepherd. "People don't care enough to shut off the TV on Monday nights to come to the City Council meeting. I hear people say, ‘why should I vote? They don't pay attention to me anyway.' I don't think the law is going to change the apathy."
Ryno felt the first option was the best given that the city is in the midst of updating its General Plan, which will be completed in early 2018. She also cited the cost savings of not having to pay for an election for the next two years.
Durossette agreed if only if it meant not shelling out $40,000 for an election next year.
Kline said postponing the 2017 election until 2018 could help avoid disrupting the council's attention needed to see the General Fund update through.
Lane said he is not planning to run for office again and would appreciate another year to focus on the important update.