Homelessness. Crime. Social services that struggle to keep up with growing needs.
Sandy Moreno moved to Kern County during the pandemic to be a caretaker for her grandmother through the county’s In-Home Supportive Services program.
But on June 14, she told county supervisors her frustration with their performance in delivering help to address the county’s ills is what prompted her to get involved in a labor union-backed drive to try and create term limits for them.
“We want new voices with new solutions,” she said during the board meeting when more than 21,000 signatures collected by We Are Kern were certified and received by the county. “I know that we can do better. We can elect a leadership that reflects all of us and invests in our local economies.”
As the result of a signature drive from September 2021 to March 2022, the coalition backing the measure was able to get a question, which is known as Measure J, put to all Kern County voters on the Nov. 8 ballot:
“Shall the measure limiting members of the Kern County Board of Supervisors to serving a maximum of two four-year terms, which applies prospectively so that any current or former supervisor is prohibited from serving more than two additional terms, and which may only be amended by a majority vote of the Kern County voter be adopted?”
In response to the measure, Supervisor David Couch motioned for the county to accept the signatures and for county staff to bring back a report that asked for more information about term limits.
At the June 28 meeting in which county counsel was set to present its research on term limits, county Supervisor Mike Maggard let his opinion of the ballot measure be known in no uncertain terms.
Maggard, who announced months back that he is retiring at the end of his fourth term later this year, asked about the potential of several other competing ballot measures at that meeting and characterized Measure J as an attempt at manipulation by labor interests.
“There’s a naked power-grab attempt here to control the makeup of this board going forward because some unions didn’t get their way,” Maggard said, before county counsel reviewed supervisors’ options. “And as they’re doing that, they are, I think, seizing an opportunity to manipulate the public into doing something that I don’t know that the public might fully understand.”
Maggard started his comments by noting the measure won’t affect him. He also pointed out that, in comparison to other term limits, the one being considered for Kern had language he called “draconian.”
“But it appears to foist upon the people of Kern County some implications that aren’t present in any other county in California,” Maggard added, pointing out that the language amounts to a “lifetime ban” from running for supervisors after two terms have been served.
County counsel’s report looked at 10 other counties that had term limits for their supervisors.
The language in Measure J is similar to a ballot measure on term limits for supervisors that passed in 2010 in San Diego County, according to Estevan Gutierrez, communications specialist for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, which represents 53,000 public- and nonprofit, private-sector workers in the central Bay Area region and in the Central Valley as well as family child care providers. The San Diego measure passed with more than 68 percent of the vote after an effort supported by Service Employees International Union 221, which represents county employees there. Gutierrez also pointed out the state Legislature has a similar style of limits.
"I would say the fact that you know, we have other workers also involved in this is because we are part of this community," Moreno said, referring to the involvement of labor in the effort. "And we do want to see some change and need people, like on the board, that actually care about the local economy, local shops and things like that."
County Supervisor Zack Scrivner was elected to a fourth term on the board in June and currently serves as chairman of the board.
For Scrivner, there were a couple concerns with the measure, and he pointed to “what’s going on in Sacramento” as what happens when you institute policies that don’t represent best practices for good governance, like term limits.
“The loss of institutional knowledge and the empowering of bureaucrats” are real concerns when you have elected officials who know they’re not going to be in office for that long, he said. Term limits also diminish an elected official’s accountability and effectiveness, he added. During a second term, under Measure J, the supervisor would essentially become a “lame duck.”
“And so the bureaucrats are there for the long term, generally speaking, and many of them are unionized employees,” he said, “so they are very difficult to discipline or to dismiss under those systems, and so, essentially, it diminishes the authority of the elected official who is accountable to the people.”
Scrivner also felt the union support behind the effort was motivated by the board’s denial of the wage increases they requested that he said weren’t possible in the county’s budget.
Supervisor Leticia Perez credited Measure J’s proponents for doing the work to collect the signatures and qualify the measure for the ballot, when the signatures were presented to the board in June. She also indicated that no one on the county's dais seemed happy about the measure, including herself; however, she recognized it was part of the process.
She’s a candidate for the 35th Assembly District on Nov. 8 and, as such, is hopeful Measure J won't impact her, but she acknowledged that it could.
“Any of us remaining on the board, which may be me still, are not happy about it. I’m sure about that,” she said from the dais. “But I think that’s part of the tension, right? That’s part of the process that holds people accountable, and hopefully gets us leadership that is helpful — as any community transitions, its leadership changes, obviously. And this is going to move it along a little quicker, I think, if it goes through.”