On his first and only night as a civic agitator, Stephen Erickson got off to a shaky start. He arrived at City Hall late, could not find a seat and had to stand in the back of the room.
But Erickson was undeterred. For the first time since he moved to this San Francisco suburb 18 years ago, he stood up and addressed the City Council, telling his elected leaders that what they were about to do was wrong.
Five minutes later, the City Council voted unanimously to scrap the November municipal election for lack of candidates. Four people -- two incumbents and two new candidates -- were appointed to the four-year terms instead.
The move last month to cancel the election was particularly striking coming against the backdrop of the election to recall Governor Gray Davis, who happened to be campaigning a few miles away on the same evening.
The recall campaign attracted 135 candidates hoping to replace Davis. Belmont, meanwhile, was able to interest just four people in four open city offices. And the situation was similar in nearby Brisbane, Foster City, San Bruno and Newark, as well as two Los Angeles suburbs, Hawaiian Gardens and Rolling Hills Estates.
All seven cities are scuttling uncontested council elections that had been scheduled for November; officials say they will save US$4,000 to US$38,000 by choosing not to stage elections for appearance's sake.
Erickson, a retired business executive, said he felt compelled to speak up after hearing that a Council member had strong-armed a resident who had been contemplating a bid for office, eventually persuading him not to run.
"If there was an election to be held, I wanted to be able to vote," Erickson said. "The way this was done somehow stinks to me."
Much has been made of the recall election's populist appeal. In addition to the abundance of would-be governors, California's secretary of state estimates that there have been nearly 185,000 new voter registrations since Aug, 8. One public opinion poll indicated that 99 percent of the electorate was following news about the recall, whereas a poll last October found that just 38 percent of the electorate was following the November election for governor.
But the fact that voters in 7 of the 66 California cities that were to have elections this November will not be going to the polls points to troubling trends in civic involvement, political scholars say.
A study published last year by Paul Lewis, director of the governance program at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group in San Francisco, asked 390 city clerks in California about the most recent election in their towns. In 4 percent of city council races and 17 percent of mayoral elections, the clerks reported, candidates ran unopposed. The study also found that many of the same ingredients that decrease voter turnout also increase the likelihood of an uncontested election. Among the factors cited: local elections that are not held simultaneously with more visible state or national ones, the lack of divisive issues, and the perception that incumbents are unbeatable.
In his 2000 study of civil society, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, reported that the number of candidates nationwide running for local offices dropped by 15 percent from 1974 to 1994. In that time, he wrote, the number of Americans joining civic organizations, attending community events and even signing petitions also fell.