Fullerton residents could learn Tuesday if the vacant City Council seat will be filled by appointment or special election when the Council is slated to make a decision after deadlocking on the issue in December.

If the Council opts for a special election, it would be held Nov. 5. The idea of holding a mail-in election at an earlier date was floated at the Dec. 18 meeting. That could have saved the city nearly $200,000 for an election. But a Jan. 9 email exchange between Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly and City Manager Ken Domer said the city is too large to qualify for a mail-in election.

Now, the Council will have to choose between appointing someone or holding a Nov. 5 special, election which could cost up to $428,000.

“That is new information that we never had in the beginning and … all I can say is I’m going in with the idea now that is a new agenda item with actually updated information so we’re going to have to consider all options,” Councilman Ahmad Zahra said Friday.

The Council vacancy happened after Mayor Jesus Silva beat former Councilman Greg Sebourn for the eastern 3rd district seat, vacating Silva’s at-large seat with two years left on the term. The Council has until Feb. 2 to make a decision before a special election will automatically be held in November, according to state law.

Sebourn urged the Council to hold a special election when he spoke during public comment at the Dec. 18 meeting, but that was when it was generally believed a mail-in election was possible.

“I think it would be best to have a special election. There are some opportunities to do it as cost effective as possible and I think those are fair and reasonable and I think that is probably the best course of action,” Sebourn said.  

And if the Council appoints, Sebourn said, “I think just about anybody you ask to serve on that Council would be willing to do it, so choose carefully.”

Zahra and Councilman Bruce Whitaker voted to hold a special election at the December meeting, while Silva and Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald voted to appoint somebody. Zahra was the only council member to return phone calls seeking comment.

Former Councilwoman Jan Flory threw her name in the hat at the December meeting also.

“In ordinary circumstances I also would be asking for a special election, but I did not have any idea that the special election would be as expensive as it was going to cost,” Flory told the Council, adding that during her time on the council “there has been no scandal, no DUIs, no accusations of conflict of interest or anything like that. I think I have been a collaborative and collegial representative. And I think I have a track record that represents that.”

Many residents who spoke at the December meeting expressed concern over the lack of additional information about the appointment process in the agenda packet. Speakers at that meeting were about evenly split on whether to appoint or hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

The Orange City Council is faced with a similar issue because then-Councilman Mark Murphy vacated his seat after winning the seat for mayor in November. While the Council members haven’t voted on holding a special election or appointing somebody, the city is taking applications and two council members are speaking with potential applicants. At the Dec. 11 meeting, many people said the Council should appoint Beatriz “Betty” Valencia, the third place candidate in the November general election. Tension between residents over the issue grew and a man pulled out a knife in the Council chambers.

The Orange City Council meets Jan. 22 to vote on the issue and Councilmen Mike Alvarez and Chip Monaco have been speaking with applicants, according to Valencia and Alvarez. A formal committee on the appointment process hasn’t been established and the city’s website, noting the Council hasn’t made a decision yet, began taking applications Dec. 17. 

For Fullerton’s Tuesday meeting, a sample application asking for information like qualifications, board or committee experience, community volunteering activities and a 400-word maximum essay is included in the agenda packet.

“That is really the argument I had last time against the appointment, which was I didn’t feel we had a process in place that was fair and transparent and because of that an election is probably a better solution. However now, with difference variables in place, we’re going to have to reconsider all of that … with a fresh pair of eyes with all this new information,” Zahra said.

He didn’t say which way he’s leaning on the issue heading into Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I think this is a very important and serious decision, so I’m not going to weigh in before I give it all my thoughts until the last minute and wait until the Council meeting when all my colleagues weigh in on it,” Zahra said.

He also said the Council has “the task to protect people’s money, but we also have the task to protect their rights. And so voting rights is a very serious thing for me and I’m taking this very, very carefully.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

Voice of OC intern Katie Licari contributed to this report. 

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