Fullerton residents may see the vacant City Council seat filled by an appointment rather than a special election after the Council voted to move forward with an appointment process.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to appoint someone, but it does mean we’re looking at candidates,” Mayor Jesus Silva said. “If, at the end of the day, we cannot agree on someone, then it goes … to a special election and we start the campaign season again for those of you who are interested.”
According to state law, the City has until Feb. 2 to appoint someone to fill the vacancy, or a special election will automatically 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.
The City Council voted 3-1 Jan. 15 to call a Jan. 29 special meeting and potentially appoint someone to fill the vacancy. Councilman Bruce Whitaker dissented.
The vacancy happened after 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.
Some Council members said waiting until November to fill the vacancy is too long to operate without a full council.
“I understand that there are two sides to this issue. It’s just absolutely unacceptable to me to do a disservice to the people of Fullerton for the next 11 months for the sake of holding a special election,” Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald said.
“I heard many times how city government moves at the pace of molasses,” Silva said. “I don’t feel we can go 10 months without having a full council.”
Councilman Ahmad Zahra, who voted against the appointment process at the Dec. 18 meeting along with Whitaker, said since the possibility of a mail-in election is dead, cost is a major factor.
“As far as the cost, one of the things we’re facing is we don’t have an election fund. It’s not just about a decision today, it’s about what kind of precedent we’re setting and how to avoid some of these problems in the future as well,” Zahra said.
Zahra asked if the Council is willing to discuss creating an election fund at a future meeting and the Council agreed.
Fitzgerald also said the cost is too high and can be better spent on fixing Fullerton roads — an issue that’s brought up by residents at nearly every City Council meeting.
“General Fund pension costs are approximately 18% of the General Fund budget and pension costs are expected to rise to as much as 23% of the General Fund budget over the next ten years before leveling off,” the budget summary reads. The bulk of pension costs are from police and firefighter pensions.
According to reports from the California Public Employee Retirement System, the city will pay nearly $14.3 million for police and firefighter pensions, while all other eligible city employee pensions will cost the city a little over $6.2 million for the current 2018-2019 fiscal year.
The city is spending roughly $8 million on road repairs this budget cycle, which is expected to bring its pavement score from 64.7 to 67.7 in the fiscal year 2019-2020. The pavement score rates the conditions of roads in the city. An additional $1.5 million annual spending will be required to maintain the 67.7 score level.
“We have, quantifiably, the worst roads in the county,” Fitzgerald said, adding the pavement score is below par. “Obviously, that’s a D in anyone’s book. And it’s unacceptable for all of us.”
Zahra asked if the Council can appoint someone fairly and without bias.
“There is one issue I still have a problem with is how do we vote without biases? … I’m sure I have my own biases,” Zahra said. “When it comes time to actually vote, can you vote without bias? Can you be open-minded to any applicant?”
Silva said Zahra’s question to the Council was “somewhat insulting.”
Fitzgerald told Zahra, “I think you worry about yourself and we’ll worry about ourselves. I think that’s the answer.”
Zahra later apologized to Silva and Fitzgerald during council deliberations.
Whitaker said public perception of the appointment process is critical and a special election would remove any perceived bias from the situation.
“Even if we perceived we can be unbiased … the problem still is one of public perception and I think the public perception of a faulty process is going to be a downgrade of this entire Council,” Whitaker said. “To me, it’s a small price to pay, to allow for the Council to be more credible going forward.”
While Silva and Zahra said their vote to move to an appointment process doesn’t mean there won’t be a special election, Whitaker said the Jan. 15 action will pressure the Council to appoint someone.
“The important thing to understand is if we begin this process tonight, we’re launching a great many people into action and it appears as though that decision has been made to appoint. There will be great pressure to appoint,” Whitaker said.
Most of the 19 people who spoke Tuesday were in favor of holding a special election, but some residents also favored appointing someone in order to save money and get a full five-member City Council faster.
Fullerton Public Library Foundation trustee Ryan Cantor said the Council should appoint somebody because not having a full Council for most of the year abridges his First Amendment right to petition a full legislative body.
“I have the right to address not one, not two, not three not four, but five members of the City Council,” Cantor said.
Angela Lindstrom, president of the local conservation group Friends of West Coyote Hills, said since the city changed to district elections to increase representation, it would be “going backwards” to appoint someone instead of holding an election.
“The main reason for the appointment process is that it’s fast and cheap. So is fast food and I don’t recommend that for anybody’s diet,” Lindstrom said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio