Anaheim City Council members are discussing a possible amendment to the city charter to change how vacancies on the seven-member city council are filled.

The proposal by Councilmember Kris Murray would call for a special election each time one of the city’s six district-elected council seats is vacant. If an election is already scheduled to take place within 180 days of the vacancy, the council could also opt to wait for the following election.

If the vacancy occurs in the last year of the incumbent’s term, the council would be allowed to fill the seat by appointment.

“The purpose of requesting it (the charter amendment) was to ensure that any vacancies that would come up in the future were in compliance with the intent and purpose of moving to districts,” said Murray at the Feb. 27 council meeting. “And ensuring any resident has the ability to select their representative.”

The city began electing council members by districts in 2016, moving from a five-member body elected at-large to a seven-member body with six district seats and one at-large mayor.

The current charter allows the council to appoint someone to fill a vacant seat. If no one is selected within 60 days of the vacancy, a special election is called.

The amendment would not change the procedure for filling a vacancy of the mayor’s seat, which only is filled by appointment.

Councilwoman Lucille Kring, who supported the proposal, said it would strengthen the district system by allowing residents to elect their new representative rather than having six council members who live in other districts make the choice for them.

Murray’s proposal Tuesday called for the charter amendment to be placed on the ballot for the June primary election.

Mayor Tom Tait, one of the most vocal supporters of the city’s move to district elections, said the amendment is “not necessary and could be harmful if we pass it.” Murray and Kring were opponents of district elections.

He said the council should always have the option to make an appointment in special circumstances, citing his own appointment to the City Council in 1995, shortly after the Orange County bankruptcy.

“It was somewhat of a panic time in the county and the city, and the people were very upset about the city waiting for a special election and costing $200,000 when Anaheim was losing millions and millions,” said Tait. “So they appointed me to the seat, because there were issues with the bankruptcy, and the stadium and Disney…we would have had gridlock.”

“Sometimes the wise path might be to appoint somebody…and often times, a special election would make sense but other times it wouldn’t,” Tait continued.

Tait also opposed placing the amendment on the June primary ballot because of the cost.

According to a city staff report, the Orange County Registrar of Voters has estimated the cost of placing the charter amendment on the June ballot at between $222,448 and $283,575 while placing the amendment on the November ballot would cost $8,500.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to table the item, although several council members said they would consider supporting the amendment if changes are made. The council could still meet the deadline to place the item on the June ballot if they take action at the March 6 meeting.

The City Council could face a vacancy next January for the District 4 seat, which covers south-central Anaheim and includes the area around Disneyland and the Anaheim Convention Center.

The District 4 incumbent, Kring, is among four candidates currently running for Supervisor Shawn Nelson’s seat. Nelson is termed out and running for an open seat in the 39th Congressional District, to replace Republican Rep. Ed Royce.

If Kring is successful, she would be appointed to the Board of Supervisors in Jan. 2019, two years before her term ends. Under current rules, the city council – with three new members who would take their seats in Dec. 2018 – could vote to appoint Kring’s successor or wait 60 days and hold a special election.

It’s unclear what the city council will look like next January. Although Tait currently has, on most issues, three allies on the council to form a voting majority, three seats are up for grabs in November in districts 2, 3 and 6.

Two of those seats are held by Tait allies, Councilmember Jose Moreno of District 3 and Councilmember James Vanderbilt, who currently serves at-large but lives in District 2. Murray, who also serves at-large, is termed out, opening up the District 6 seat.

Cynthia Ward, an Anaheim resident who recently filed paperwork to run for mayor, said she supports Murray’s amendment but is concerned that a seat would remain vacant while residents await the result of the special election.

“My concern is there might be a gap in which we might have no leadership for that seat,” Ward said. “180 days of one sixth of our city not having representation. If we’re left with a six-member body, there’s the potential for gridlock.”

Councilman Steve Faessel, who supported the charter amendment, reminded Tait of his past support for district elections.

“There’s been no stronger advocate for district elections than yourself,” Faessel told Tait. “To do anything other than allow the residents of those districts to elect somebody in their district runs counter to everything you fought for over the last few years.”

Tait said he would rather have the council appoint a representative in the short-term and wait for a general election than call a special election immediately, again citing costs.

“I think it’s the lesser of evils. I’d rather have somebody appointed rather than nobody,” Tait said.

Moreno supported the gist of Murray’s proposal but raised questions about the timing and costs, echoing Tait’s concerns.

“We’re struggling how to fund our libraries on Sunday,” Moreno said. “I don’t think we should be spending $250,000 in June for a vacancy that may or may not really happen.”

Kring suggested that the council allow a departing council member to appoint their successor, but that suggestion was largely rejected.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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