Election day is a month away. Again, you ask? Didn't we just have an election? Well, yes, we did. We voted for governor and Congress and other offices — and decided a handful of ballot measures — on Nov. 4. Now Los Angeles residents are being asked to vote again, on March 3, for City Council, school board and community college district board members. If you feel overwhelmed by the number of elections or disinclined to read up on candidates so soon after the last election cycle, then this ballot may actually offer some relief.
In addition to voting on the usual political races, Angelenos will decide whether to change the date of local elections. Charter Amendments 1 and 2 would move city and Los Angeles Unified school board elections from March (with a May runoff) in odd-numbered years to June (with a November runoff) in even-numbered years. The idea is to boost dismally low voter participation — only 23% of voters turned out for the last mayoral election — by combining local elections with higher-turnout presidential and gubernatorial elections.
Besides reducing the number of election days, this proposal could significantly shift the balance of power in Los Angeles politics. But in what direction? Will greater voter participation diminish the influence of interest groups, such as labor unions or homeowners associations, that can dominate in low-turnout elections? Or will it empower wealthy special interests, because candidates may need to raise more money to get their messages out amid the noise of state and national races? Will consolidated elections draw more young and minority voters to the polls, and might that affect decisions made at City Hall or school district headquarters? And even if more Angelenos vote in local elections, will they feel more invested and engaged and hold elected officials to greater account?
Right now, this is mostly speculation. But there is one immediate effect if Charter Amendments 1 and 2 pass: City and school board candidates elected this year and in 2017 will serve 5 1/2 years in office rather than the standard four-year term. When City Council members voted to put the charter amendments on the ballot, they had a choice about how to make the switch to the new election cycles in 2020 and 2022. They could lengthen the term of those city and school officials elected in 2015 and 2017 by 18 months or they could hold a special election, which is admittedly costly, for an interim 18-month term. Not surprisingly — since most council members will run for reelection — they chose to supersize their terms.
Although it's always important to vet candidates for public office, the possibility that some candidates elected in the March primary or May runoff will serve extra-long terms means it's extra important to choose wisely.
Over the next 5 1/2 years, the Los Angeles City Council will have to grapple with the city's structural deficit, decide how quickly to restore funding for basic city services cut during the recession and develop economic development polices that create more well-paying jobs. City leaders will face crucial financial choices about which programs get funded, which employees get pay raises (and how much) and how to fix the city's aging water pipes, streets, computer systems and buildings. And they have to figure out how to meet the demands of a growing population that needs housing, transportation and jobs, without sacrificing the character and quality of life of L.A.'s diverse communities.
The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education must choose a new school superintendent to replace John Deasy and must oversee the transition to the Common Core curriculum. The board has to keep up the momentum that has led to some noticeable improvements in recent years — higher test scores, fewer dropouts and more students of color taking college prep courses — while contending with shrinking student enrollment and a drop in funding as more students move to charter schools.
The Los Angeles Community College Board also has much work to do. The board has to help guide a transition at the community colleges from a loose academic program in which students took too long to complete their studies, and far too many never completed them, to one that is better planned, more heavily counseled and more focused on successful completion of whatever the students' goals were — whether vocational certification, skills brush-up or transfer to a four-year school.
In the next two weeks, The Times editorial board will endorse candidates for the City Council, L.A. Unified and the community colleges and will take a position on the two ballot measures. Before making our picks, we will have interviewed all the candidates on the ballot. We will attend debates and talk to residents in the districts where races are underway. This year there is a surprising number of strong challengers to incumbents, enabling voters to make a real choice to keep or oust their representatives. In some districts, however, incumbents are running unopposed or facing challengers who don't have the expertise or the ideas to lead.
The Times editorial board looks for candidates with a record of success, who have solved problems and built consensus. It's easy enough to identify the problems — L.A. doesn't pave enough streets, and L.A. Unified classes are overcrowded. Rare is the candidate who can articulate solutions and strategies to implement them. We also look for individuals who are independent, critical thinkers, rather than candidates who are rigid or ideological or who come with a narrow set of interests. For example, the school board has been sharply divided between members aligned with the teachers union and members aligned with the school reform movement, and their hardened positions have, at times, stymied progress.
The best candidates understand that the job of an elected official is twofold. First, they must serve the voters of their districts. City Council members, for instance, are elected to be the voice of nearly a quarter-million constituents each in City Hall. That requires deep roots in the community. But council members and other elected officials must also be willing and able to take on the bigger, broader challenges that confront the city as a whole and its major public institutions. How can Los Angeles best help provide the homes, jobs and transportation system needed for it to thrive? How can the public schools help lift the next generation of Angelenos out of poverty through education? How can the community colleges best prepare young people for the jobs of tomorrow, so those jobs come and stay in Los Angeles?
Elections present an opportunity to talk about these issues and about the future of L.A. We invite you to share your thoughts on the issues, the candidates and our endorsements when they're posted online, at latimes.com/opinion.
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