Irvine voters will have to wait until at least late April before they know how a vacancy on the City Council will be filled after council members, while moving parts of an appointment process forward, rejected the appointment mechanics recommended by staff.

Staff recommended rank choice voting to appoint someone to fill the City Council vacancy, after Christina Shea vacated her council seat to become mayor, taking now-Supervisor Don Wagner’s place when he won the special election in March. Shea was sworn in as mayor Tuesday.

According to the staff report, council members would pick three candidates to fill the vacancy: the first choice gets three points, second gets two and third choice gets one point. The city clerk will tally the points and whoever has the most points would be appointed to fill the seat, which is up for election in November 2020.

Councilwoman Melissa Fox said the ranked choice voting approach is likely illegal since someone could be appointed without a majority vote. She said she’d rather have a special election held to fill the vacancy, but if they have to appoint, it should be a simple majority vote to appoint someone.

“At this time, due to a concern of the procedure and the potential for yet another round of expensive litigation, I’d like to offer a substitute motion … to base any appointment on a mere majority, where there’s an applicant recommended by a council member, seconded and voted on,” said Fox during Tuesday’s meeting.

Although the staff report noted the City Council may choose its own appointing mechanism, Councilman Anthony Kuo recommended moving forward with the rank choice voting method.

“I’m going to move the staff-recommended process that has been public, per our sunshine ordinance,” Kuo said.

The vote deadlocked 2-2, with Fox and Councilwoman Farrah Khan dissenting.

Kuo then moved to authorize the deadlines and application process forward, but not the appointment procedure.

The Council voted 3-1, with Fox dissenting. The issue will come back to the council April 23.

“I’m thinking that since we’re not able to get to that consensus right now, I think we’ll compromise,” Khan said.

Other cities also grappled with council vacancies this year. Santa Ana and Orange decided to hold special elections to fill their vacancies, while Fullerton and Stanton appointed people.

The City Council still has the ability to call for a special election, but City Attorney Jeff Melching said it will have to wait until 60 days after the vacancy occurred April 3, according to city ordinance adopted in February, which was put forward by Kuo.

For the first 60 days, council members may only move forward with an appointment process and after that, the City Council can only call for a special election, Melching said during the meeting.

During public comment, which lasted over an hour, residents and people from outside the city, were split on an appointment or special election.

Community members advocating for a special election to fill the vacant council seat at the April 9, 2019, Irvine City Council meeting. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

According to estimates from the county Registrar of Voters provided in the staff report, a special election could run the city $820,000 to $900,000.

Former City Council candidate in 2018, Lauren Johnson-Norris, told the City Council it should hold a special election to quell any perceptions of cronyism.

“I think the easiest way to steal an election is to not have one at all,” Johnson-Norris said. “There is more at stake tonight than who will fill this seat until November 2020 … what is at stake is the legitimacy of this city’s government.”

Carrie O’Malley, also a 2018 candidate, told the Council it should appoint her because she came in third place in an election for two council seats.

“The election of November 2018 was just a few months ago … the people of Irvine spoke at that time and spoke loudly,” O’Malley said. “Among the 12 candidates running for City Council in November, I was the first runner-up with over 19,000 votes. Just one percent behind the elected position.”

Johnson-Norris was behind O’Malley by roughly 2,000 votes, according to the 2018 results.

A handful of public speakers also supported appointing O’Malley in an effort to save money, including a transportation commissioner, which is a commission O’Malley sits on.

One person, Bridgette Washington, a representative of the Orange County Employees Association, supported appointing Johnson-Norris.

Residents can also petition to force a special election, but need to submit signatures from seven percent of Irvine registered voters, a little over 9,000 people, to the city clerk’s office within 30 days of the vacancy.

Johnson-Norris, chair of the city’s community services commission, said that timeframe isn’t feasible.

“We don’t think that’s realistic because the residents aren’t backed by some special interest that’s going to fund this. There’s no paid petition gatherers like we’ve seen when special interests try to pass initiatives,” Johnson-Norris said in an interview after the meeting.

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

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