Fullerton Juggles How to Handle City Council Vacancies

Fullerton City Hall.

The Fullerton City Council can either hold a special election or appoint someone to fill Councilman Jesus Silva’s at-large seat after he won the District 3 seat this month. 

Council members adopted an ordinance Nov. 6 to revise the city’s Council vacancy appointment process, which is taken from a 2015 state law intended, in part, to help alleviate some of the costs of holding a special election to fill a short-term vacancy. A special election to fill a Council vacancy will cost roughly $400,000.

“It’s to avoid burdening the cities the cost of a special election for a very short vacancy — less than two years,” said Deputy City Attorney Ivy Tsai Oct. 16, during the first reading of the ordinance.

Silva’s at-large seat, which he won in 2016, will be vacated because he won the District 3 seat Nov. 6. The council will have to decide whether to appoint somebody or hold a special election to fill the remaining two years on Silva’s at-large seat.

“This amendment to the Government Code achieves the goal of [the original ordinance] to allow a temporary appointment in the case of a City Council vacancy until voters can decide on a candidate to fill the remainder of the term at the next general municipal election,” reads the Oct. 16 staff report.

According to state law, the council can appoint someone who would fill the second half of a term instead of holding a special election, like Silva’s at-large seat.

“Under our current code, you can appoint someone in an interim capacity, but you still have to hold an election,” City Clerk Lucinda Williams said during the meeting. 

The state law also gives leeway to city councils to adopt ordinances such as requiring immediate special elections to fill vacancies or the appointed council member serves until special elections are held.  

In an attempt to address some residents’ fears that the City Council was trying to take away voting rights, some Council members said they always prefer voters choice.

“The one thing I have always stood for is giving the voters a choice,” Councilman Bruce Whitaker said Oct. 16. “I’ve always been supportive of the voter’s right to be heard. I for one would still continue very much to prefer the voters make those decisions over the council.”

Mayor Pro Tem Greg Sebourn said voting is the most important thing in the United States and even an 18-month appointment is “an awfully long time to not allow the public to put in their choice of leaders … I think we need to respect the will of the voters.”

Under state law, if the vacancy occurs in the first half of a term, the Council may avoid a special election and its costs by appointing someone to fill the seat until the next general municipal election, when voters pick their next council representative to serve out the remainder of the term. The vacancy has to occur at least 130 days before the next election.

If the council appoints someone to a vacant seat during the first half of a term, but less than 130 days before the next municipal general election, the appointed member will serve the rest of the term.

In any event, the City Council must call a special election or appoint someone within 60 days of the vacancy.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story by student journalists working with Voice of OC erroneously said the Fullerton City Council voted to take away the special elections process.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio