The majority of Costa Mesa Council members decided to appoint former Councilman John Stephens to take over Mayor Katrina Foley’s seat after she won the Orange County Supervisors special election last week.
Last week Foley flipped a Republican seat on the Orange County’s Board of Supervisors and won a place at the dais, the first woman Democrat ever to do so, according to the OC Democratic party.
Since then, questions have been swirling on how the City Council will handle the vacancy.
On Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning, the council members answered those questions when they voted 5-1 to appoint Stephens, who’s a planning commissioner, around 12:30 a.m.
“We need someone with a steady hand who’s been in government before, who’s been in our city before and knows city staff and knows how to navigate these difficult times. John Stephens can do that,” said Councilman Manuel Chavez who made the motion.
Councilman Don Harper dissented and Foley abstained.
“Let’s do a fair process and be transparent about it and try to be objective about it,” Harper said. “Let’s take a look at the different candidates, including any of the council that wants to apply for that position.”
Some residents called for Stephens to be appointed during public comment.
“I believe John has continued to show his strength and abilities that would make him a productive and successful mayor. He is a longtime resident of Costa Mesa and cares about the city and wants it to be the best it can be,” one resident said at the meeting.
Stephens lost to Harper in last year’s election by a couple hundred votes and some residents spoke against the former councilman being appointed.
“John Stephens, from what I’ve seen and heard from him, sounds like a very nice gentleman and I thank him for his service to our city. However, the voters of District 1 rejected his campaign for reelection,” one resident said.
The city is split into 6 districts and directly elects their mayor.
Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds made a substitute motion to appoint the Mayor through an application process with backing from Harper.
Councilwoman Andrea Marr was at first unsure if she would support the motion to appoint Stephens, but in the end voted in his favor.
“I want to be super clear with the public that this was not a thing that we all decided on. This was not a preordained situation by any means,” Marr said. “I am going to rip the band aid off and side with the original motion.”
Reynolds also voted for Stephens in the end.
On Tuesday morning, a handful of residents led by Hengameh Abraham, a former council candidate, showed up to city hall to rally the council members to appoint former Mayor and City Councilmember Sandra Genis.
“She’s been the mayor before. It’s only a year and a half. We’re going to have another election in ‘22. Please do not appoint anyone who has not run a mayoral campaign,” Abraham said.
Genis lost to Foley and received the second most votes in the 2020 mayoral election and did not return a request for comment Tuesday.
Abraham intends to run for Mayor in 2022 and had previously called for a special election.
“We’re not asking for a special election anymore. We understand it costs too much. It doesn’t make sense to spend that much money,” she said.
A special election could cost the city between $433,321 to $503,350, according to a city staff report.
If the council didn’t pick a resident to fill the position within 60 days of the vacancy, it would’ve been up to voters to decide in November of this year.
Some residents still wanted a special election.
This question of whether to appoint people to fill vacancies on a city council or to hold a special election has played out across Orange County in recent years.
After then-Fullerton Mayor Doug Chaffee won a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2018, the Fullerton City Council majority appointed former Councilwoman Jan Flory to fill the vacancy.
Flory didn’t run in the 2020 election.
Fullerton used an application-based process, similar to what Reynolds proposed to her colleagues on the Costa Mesa City Council.
When then-Irvine Mayor Don Wagner won a special 2019 county Supervisor election to fulfill the remainder of Todd Spitzer’s seat, who won the District Attorney race in 2018.
The Irvine City Council appointed Councilwoman Christina Shea to fulfill Wagner’s remaining term as mayor.
Irvine Council members also appointed former planning commissioner Mike Carrol to Shea’s Council seat. He kept his spot in last year’s election.
Shea lost the mayoral election last year to Mayor Farrah Khan.
Historically in Costa Mesa, city council vacancies have been filled by appointments.
In 2003, Mike Schafer was appointed to replace Mayor Karen Robinson and Steve Mensinger was appointed to replace Foley after she was elected to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in 2010.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.