Group Pushes for Council Elections by District Only

Times Staff Writer

Reviving a periodic quest for "more representative government" and less-expensive election campaigns, a citizens' group is organizing a drive to choose San Diego City Council members in district elections instead of the current citywide contests.

Neighborhoods for District Elections intends to circulate petitions to put a charter amendment on next November's ballot. The organization has until June to gather the necessary 40,292 signatures.

The campaign is an attempt to produce more representative government by lowering the cost of elections, a move that would encourage participation by candidates who have less money but more concern for neighborhood issues, said Fran Zimmerman, spokeswoman for the organization.

"Representative government is the name of the game here," Zimmerman said. "The city's too big to keep these impersonal and expensive citywide elections. It allows (candidates) to have a broad-brush approach to these issues."

If it qualifies, the initiative would be the fifth time in the last 18 years that voters have been asked to overturn the city's electoral process. Candidates now compete in primaries held in each of the eight council districts, and the first two finishers in each district face a citywide runoff.

City voters rejected district-only elections in 1969, 1973, 1980 and 1981, apparently agreeing with opponents who said that the citywide contest ensures that council members will not focus on parochial issues at the expense of the needs of residents in other districts. In 1980, the council itself voted to place the measure on the ballot.

In 1983, candidates Celia Ballesteros and Bob Filner lost in the citywide election after garnering more than 50% of the vote in their district primaries. Ballesteros was named last year to fill the unexpired council term of 8th District Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, who resigned. Filner won the 8th District seat this year.

Outgrown Present System?

Zimmerman's group, which she described as nonpartisan and citywide, believes that the city has outgrown the current system, and that residents of each district would be better served by candidates focusing on their specific needs.

Under the organization's plan, candidates would face each other in a district primary. Any candidate who received more than 50% of the vote would be elected to the council. If no one gained that percentage, the top two candidates would face a district runoff.

"This would make the scope of an election smaller, so that people who are voting feel they have a stake in the process and voters have a stake in the issue," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman contends that the system will lower election costs, will take clout away from developers and others with large amounts of money to spend on candidates, and will encourage less-wealthy candidates with ties to neighborhoods to run for office.

"They would be able to run for office," she said. "They wouldn't be spending $200,000 to $300,000."

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