Despite early talk of a polite, non-politicized election, a ballot measure to change Oceanside’s form of government has quickly turned into a bare-knuckles contest.
When the City Council voted in February to place a proposal to make Oceanside a charter city on the June 5 ballot, members were so eager to avoid making the issue look political that they decided not to sponsor the ballot argument for Proposition H.
If the measure passes, Oceanside will have more authority over certain tax matters and how its government is organized than under the general-law system, the one used in most cities.
In the past six weeks, any pretense of political equanimity has vanished.
Accusations of personal sniping and distortion have become common, and one group supporting the charter proposition announced that it intends to act as a “truth squad.”
Charter foes have formed into two groups, the No on Charter Committee and No on H. Their opponents have created the Committee for the Charter.
“Already, we have been subjected to personal attacks, half-truths and outright fabrications,” Brian Graham said as he launched the pro-charter group, of which he is chairman. He said the committee’s objective is to be a “truth squad” to “ensure the accuracy of information about the charter.”
Adversaries likewise mince no words, calling the measure a sham to keep the city’s pro-growth political structure intact.
The changes a charter would bring “obviously favor incumbents who always favor a pro-growth philosophy,” said Councilwoman Melba Bishop, the only council member to oppose the charter. She belongs to No on H.
Oceanside’s five City Council members are chosen in citywide elections. If Proposition H is approved by a majority of voters, the council would be broadened to seven members, with the two new members and the mayor elected citywide and four members chosen by council districts. Council terms would be limited to eight years.
Pro-charter council members have been guarded in their public remarks, hoping to avoid a divisive political battle like the one that occurred in 1986, when a charter bid was pilloried at the polls by 61% of the vote.
But, if the council majority’s desire is to avoid election controversy this year, it appears destined for disappointment.
“It’s no question this is a rerun of what happened in ’86,” said Nancy York, chairwoman of No on H who once ran unsuccessfully for a council seat.
Graham and charter supporters assert that switching to district elections would guarantee that all areas within the city are represented. Now, three of the council members live in one area, Fire Mountain.
“Certain areas haven’t been adequately represented,” said Tim Peckham, a property management consultant who noted that only one council member now lives east of El Camino Real, where much of Oceanside’s growth is taking place.
Foes of the measure say council districts would hardly bring greater democracy.
Instead, they say, neighborhoods where growth control is strongly supported would be broken up into separate districts and weakened. And they claim that mobile home parks, where residents now enjoy rent control and are a formidable voting bloc in citywide elections, would be locked into one district.
“It’s clear the people who propose the charter would not only like to break up the influence of mobile home parks, but also neighborhood groups,” Bishop said.
Some council members have said in private that Bishop opposes the charter because she is afraid her growth-control constituency would be spread out among the new districts.
To protect her political turf, they say, Bishop is willing to spread fear of the charter in the mobile home parks and neighborhoods.
“She’s making this out to be a threat,” said Graham, adding that “members of neighborhood organizations and residents of mobile home parks and senior citizen areas have been held hostage by a small group of people who have filtered information” about the charter.
Even charter supporter Peckham, who said he was on Bishop’s side during the fight for passage of Proposition A, the city’s slow-growth initiative, said “scare tactics” are being used to sway voters against the charter.
Bishop denies opposing the charter for her own political survival and suggests that “there’s definitely a move afoot on the other side to portray this as a personal thing.”
The charter debate escalated when Mayor Larry Bagley, who, like the council majority has kept a low public profile on the issue, this week lashed out at foes who claim the charter would mean added council salaries.
He said those are “the same people who promoted Proposition A,” which has cost $1.5 million to defend in court. “We could run a charter city for 10 years for that money that was wasted” on a growth-control measure that “was flawed from the beginning,” Bagley said.