Gavilan newcomer opposes district’s election structure

Discussion over potentially developing the Leatherback site,

The structure for electing the seven trustees on the Gavilan
Community College board
– three are elected from San Benito County and four are chosen
from Southern Santa Clara County – has one new member criticizing
the system because it doesn’t guarantee that voters from those
respective regions will land their preferred candidates.
The structure for electing the seven trustees on the Gavilan Community College board – three are elected from San Benito County and four are chosen from Southern Santa Clara County – has one new member criticizing the system because it doesn’t guarantee that voters from those respective regions will land their preferred candidates.

Historically, races for the Gavilan Joint Community College District Board of Trustees have often come and gone quietly, with little notice from voters when compared with other more prominent contests on the local ballots, such as for city council, county supervisor or sheriff – or even the broader races for governor and U.S. president.

In San Benito County this past election season, however, future expansion of Gavilan College offerings in and around Hollister was one of the hotter topics, with uncertainty over the short-term plans for added space and whether it might occur at the old Leatherback Industries location near downtown.

Two challengers faced the two incumbents. Incumbent Trustee Kent Child and challenger Tony Ruiz won out in convincing fashion over incumbent Elvira Zaragoza Robinson and newcomer Selvio Locci.

It was Ruiz, a retired Gavilan instructor who focused much of his campaign on the local expansion issue, calling the longtime structure of electing seven trustees “nonsense.” With name recognition gained so easily for incumbents spending time on the board, he believes it makes it “very, very difficult” for a challenger to knock off trustees with experience.

A new colleague of his, longtime Gavilan Trustee Laura Perry who represents Morgan Hill, defended the system and noted how it forces all the trustees to campaign throughout the entire district and learn the desires of constituents in each area.

“I think it’s critical,” said Perry, who ran unopposed on this month’s ballot. “It actually forces me to do the work and not depend on Hollister trustees to just tell me what they’re hearing.”

Child and Ruiz won in both Santa Clara and San Benito counties. Child gained 36.3 percent in Santa Clara to Ruiz’s 28.7 percent – with Robinson in third with 22.8 percent. In San Benito County, Child gained 33.4 percent to Ruiz’s 31.6 percent – with Robinson in third here, too, with 20.6 percent.

Ruiz noted two races he knew of on record in which candidates from the San Benito County area gained the most votes here but still lost their bids for board seats because of differing preferences in the Gilroy and Morgan Hill voting blocs – when Jaime De La Cruz had won a seat with the minority vote here before his current stint on the county board, and when Henry Solorio received the most votes here but lost out in the 1970s.

“I could’ve won here and lost, which makes even less sense,” Ruiz said, following his election to the seven-member board.

That system includes electing seven board members – three from San Benito County, and two each from Gilroy and Morgan Hill. It has been in place since the district’s founding in the 1960s. At the time, there was a statewide movement toward forming community college districts, noted Gavilan spokeswoman Jan Bernstein-Chargin. San Benito Joint Union High School had a junior college in place, but Gilroy and Morgan Hill did not, and the three merged.

As part of the merger, though, San Benito County “didn’t want to give up a lot of the control,” while Gilroy and Morgan Hill leaders hoped to prevent being in a permanent minority, the spokeswoman explained. There must be an odd number of representatives, meanwhile, to avoid customarily having ties on decisions.

Gavilan College officials do not recall the district structure stirring much controversy in the past. San Benito’s head elections official Joe Paul Gonzalez compared the Gavilan district to others such as those in Aromas, which spans three different counties – and where tallies from each of those areas must be added to determine the winners.

“So everybody in the district has a right to participate in voting,” Gonzalez said.

There are other districts that follow a similar set-up, the Gavilan spokeswoman noted, such as Rio Hondo, Coast and West Hills community college districts.

But Ruiz believes it is a problem with Gavilan College because, he contended, Gilroy or Morgan Hill representatives do not have the same understanding of local matters such as downtown expansion, and how voters here might perceive its importance compared with other issues.

He said he was frustrated that he had to raise more than $5,000 – plus nearly $3,000 he contributed – because there must be a focus on campaigning in those outside areas. He pointed out how the cost for candidates to place their names on the ballot in San Benito County was $450 and $2,500 in Santa Clara County.

“You have to do it. Otherwise, why even spend the $450 if you’re not going to get on the ballot (in Santa Clara) and lose?” he said.

Perry said it is important to get elected districtwide because all trustees are “working with the same tax dollars.”

“In 18 years we never have come to a decision when it was one district or another competing for an interest, with a deciding vote,” she said.

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