The Fullerton City Council, dealing with district elections for the first time, has reversed its initial decision on which two districts will be up for election next year and voted instead to allow Councilman Greg Sebourn to run in 2018.
The move drew strong criticism from Councilman Doug Chaffee.
“To me, the first thing that is wrong with this action is we have government favoring itself by creating a favorite person to run (who already sits on the council),” Chaffee told the March 7 meeting.
Chaffee, who has said he isn’t going to run for re-election, said the council should have made his northern Fullerton district one of the two on the 2018 ballot. Two of the new district seats will be up for election next year and the other three in 2020.
In February, a split city council voted to put Chaffee’s district and a southeastern district on the ballot in 2018. None of the current councilmembers live in the new southeastern district.
But that decision meant Sebourn couldn’t run again for the city council until 2020. He was re-elected in 2014 and his term expires next year, so he would be out of office for two years.
Two weeks later, at the March 7 meeting, the council changed its mind on a 3-2 vote. Instead of Chaffee’s district being on the ballot next year, the council decided to have district 2, where Sebourn and Councilman Jose Silva live, be one of the first two up for election. District 2 is in eastern Fullerton. District 5, the southeastern Fullerton district, still will be on the ballot as well.
City council seats are non-partisan but the council has three Republicans and two Democrats, Silva and Chaffee. The current five council members all were elected at large and none specifically represents one of the new districts.
It was Mayor Bruce Whitaker who put the issue of substituting the Sebourn-Silva district for Chaffee’s district on the March 7 agenda. Sebourn didn’t comment on the issue during the council discussion.
“The unintended result of the vote that we took at our last regular council meeting (February 21) is that perhaps there are thousands of voters who might support the continuation of councilmember Sebourn on the council. And they’ve been disenfranchised on not being allowed to vote for him,” Whitaker said.
Responded Chaffee, “this is a grossly unfair action” and it stemmed from “probably a councilmember complaining about the result. At least from my own personal sense of ethics, it’s wrong to favor an incumbent … Favors should not be given to us”
Silva will serve out his at-large term, which expires in 2020, while Sebourn is eligible to run for the district in 2018. Silva also could choose to run against Sebourn for the 2018 district 3 seat. Or, he could move to another district or wait until 2022 to run for the district 2 seat.
If Silva runs in 2018 and wins, he would vacate his at-large seat and Sebourn would be eligible to serve the remainder of the at-large term until 2020, according to staff reports.
The switch from at-large to district elections is the result of a settlement of lawsuits filed against the city that alleged at-large voting disenfranchised minority voters across the city.
The city of more than 135,000 is 22.8 percent Asian and 34.4 percent Latino, according to the 2010 census, for a total of 57.2 percent.
Although 53 percent of Fullerton voters in November approved switching to districts, there is ongoing controversy over the way the city council drew the new boundaries.
“Originally, you guys were the ones that gerrymandered that map for Sebourn and Chaffee (to not run against each other)… now it’s back to bite you in the butt,” Kitty Jaramillo, one of the plaintiffs in the voting lawsuit against the city, said at last month’s meeting.
Resident Jane Rands told the council if they had chosen one of the community maps, the council wouldn’t be facing this dilemma.
The approved map was drawn up by Slidebar bar and grill owner Jeremy Popoff last summer and immediately drew criticism from proponents of community maps that — unlike Popoff’s map — went through numerous rounds of public hearings and input sessions.
Critics say the map slices downtown in a way that leaves its residents voiceless but gives each district a section of the business district. Popoff’s map only had two settlement-mandated public hearings, with the second hearing the result of a court order.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.