Measure may change Peninsula incumbents’ status quo 

It’s been 30 years since the last incumbent supervisor was thrown out in an election in San Mateo County — a fact that gives the people appointed to a vacant seat enormous power.

Take a recent case: When Supervisor Jerry Hill was elected to the state Assembly in 2008, the remaining supervisors decided against holding a special election to replace him. Instead, they appointed then-San Mateo City Councilwoman Carole Groom to his seat.

That move not only ensured her the seat through the rest of his term — through 2011 — but likely ensured her place on the Board of Supervisors for the next 12 years, since it’s so difficult to unseat the incumbent.

A committee specially assigned to look at this and a handful of other concerns with the county charter will this week vote on how this practice should be changed.

Their recommendation of change will go to the Board of Supervisors, and, depending on how they act on it, could go before voters in November.

Two possible recommendations will be considered, said Dave Pine, a member of the 2010 Charter Review Committee.

Both would require a special election if the supervisorial seat became vacant in the first two years and nine months of a supervisor’s four-year term.

Where the two plans diverge is what happens after that. One allows the supervisors to appoint someone after that period, because it’s relatively close to the next election. The second plan is more complicated: It requires the supervisors to keep the seat empty until after the filing date for the next election, and then appoint someone who is not running in the race.

For example, if a supervisor left his or her seat in December, that seat would remain vacant until March, which is when the filing deadline for the June primary election is. Then, the supervisors would be required to select someone who is not running for the seat — essentially avoiding the problem of appointing someone who would be an incumbent.

While the second plan does a better job of avoiding an appointed incumbent, it’s also far more complicated, Pine admitted.

“The benefit of Option B is it’s more elegant, in that it really almost 100 percent takes care of the problem of appointing someone and giving them the power of incumbency,” he said. “But it’s so complicated to explain, we’re thinking that Option A might not be so bad.”

If it’s too complicated, voters might decide to vote against it or not vote at all, he said.

Pine said the committee will likely decide which recommendation to make in its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 101 of 455 County Center, Redwood City.

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