Panel urges L.A. council to move elections to boost voter turnout

A group of high-profile civic leaders renewed its push Tuesday for the Los Angeles City Council to change the date of its municipal elections, saying such a move would result in much greater voter turnout.

Appearing before the council, members of the Los Angeles 2020 Commission said the city should abandon its current practice of having elections in March and May of odd-numbered years and instead hold them in even-numbered years, when state and national contests are conducted.


Such a move would dramatically increase the number of voters and "lessen the impact ... of special interests on our local elections," said commission co-chairman Austin Beutner, who advised former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and waged his own unsuccessful bid for mayor two years ago.

Mayor Eric Garcetti won citywide office last year in an election where only 23% of voters showed up. He and Council President Herb Wesson have convened a citizens commission to look at ways of boosting turnout. The group is expected to present its findings next month.

Beutner said San Diego held its election in November 2012 — the same year as the vote for president — and experienced a voter turnout of 69%. Still, some lawmakers questioned Beutner's rationale for moving elections.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield said he feared that L.A. would experience a high "dropoff rate" in even-numbered election years, with residents voting for president and then skipping races much farther down the ballot, like those for judge or council. With a larger voter pool and a more crowded ballot, city candidates also would have to spend "a heck of a lot more for each campaign," he said.

"That's going to increase the influence of special interests, or could increase the influence of special interests," Blumenfield said. "That's something we need to be very measured and concerned about."

Some of those who served on the 2020 Commission have wielded their own influence over city elections or city decision-making: Brian D'Arcy, who heads the largest and most powerful union at the Department of Water and Power, and Tyler Izen, president of the Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file Los Angeles Police Department officers. Both unions spent big in last year's election.

Also on the panel were Ron Miller, executive secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, which weighs in regularly on major development projects; attorney Mickey Kantor, who represented BNSF Railway as it sought approval of a $500-million rail yard project; and former Gov. Gray Davis, a lawyer who represented Casden West LA as it secured council approval for a major residential development project at Pico and Sepulveda boulevards.

The 2020 Commission issued a series of other proposals last month, packaging them in a report titled "A Time for Action." The group called for a merger of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, a hike in the minimum wage and establishment of a regional tourism authority. Since then, panel members have gone to various venues to sell the public on their ideas.

Last week, appearing at Town Hall Los Angeles, Beutner said the recent fight over a runway at Los Angeles International Airport offered a clear example of how voting blocs can wield influence in a low-turnout election and why city elections should be rescheduled.

While running for mayor, Garcetti came out against a proposal to push the airport's northernmost runway 260 feet closer to Westchester. He took that position after being prodded by residents in that neighborhood, Beutner said. Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Westchester and also won office last year, took the same position.

"We've elected a mayor, and we've elected a City Council person representing that district, based on a pledge ... to 700 voters in Westchester not to move the runway," Beutner said.

"Those in Westchester have a voice," Beutner told the audience. "So do the rest of us. So diluting the power of those special interests ... and actually encouraging a broader conversation, I think we'd wind up with perhaps a different result."

Asked about Beutner's remarks, Bonin said he was open to city elections in November but would prefer that they be in odd-numbered years, when the ballot is less crowded. Bonin also disagreed with Beutner's portrayal of his constituents.

"I think it is odd and incongruous to equate residents of a neighborhood with special interests," he said.