Council Size at Issue in Huntington Beach

Times Staff Writer

A bare majority of the Huntington Beach City Council agrees with a citizens initiative that council members should be elected by district instead of citywide but wants to keep the council at seven members instead of the five proposed in the initiative.

Ballot language to support a seven-member City Council elected by district was ordered Monday night by a 4-3 vote. If adopted Nov. 17, the city charter amendment will appear on the March ballot, competing with the citizens initiative that calls for a five-member City Council elected by district.

Councilman Dave Sullivan said he proposed the alternative to the citizens initiative because he believes voters support election of council members by district. But Sullivan wants a seven-member council.

Supporting Sullivan's seven-district proposal were council members Cathy Green, Gil Coerper and Pam Houchen. Opposed were Mayor Connie Boardman and Debbie Cook and Jill Hardy.

Cook said she opposes any measure that calls for the election of council members by district.

"It balkanizes the community," she said. "It causes people to lose connection with the community as a whole, and it reduces the public's access to elected officials."

The citizens initiative calling for the election of five council members by district was launched by former Assemblyman Scott Baugh. He has argued that coastal and environmental interests dominate citywide elections at the expense of inland constituents, whose more local issues become lost in the mix.

Campaigning by district would reduce the cost of running for office, and winners would be more accountable to district voters, Baugh says.

Sullivan agreed that voters may find district representation appealing, but he said reducing the size of the City Council to five could reduce the effectiveness of the council's subcommittees that work with residents.

Many subcommittees have three council members and can tend to business even if only two attend a meeting.

If there are only five council members, he said, no more than two could serve on each subcommittee.

Opponents of the council district system say that residents who have a beef with the city or a problem they want solved could go to only one council member for assistance. Under the at-large system, they say, residents would have the ear of every council member.

Sullivan said he expects voters to support a district-based City Council "because the public perceives that they get more representation. I think their representation will be diminished, but it's a complicated issue to explain."

Under his proposal, he said, voters can adopt district elections without reducing the size of the council.

Baugh said the number is less important than the method of electing the council.

"Whether it's five or seven isn't the real point," he said. "It's whether we have districts, and I firmly believe we should have districts in Huntington Beach."

He said the initiative was written with five members instead of seven because most California cities have five council members.

If the council does approve putting a council district initiative on the ballot, Baugh said, he would support it.

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