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Huntington Beach is the latest city to grapple with how to fill a city council vacancy — a debate many other Orange County cities have faced in recent years.

Should it be the runner up in the previous election? Should a special election be held or should city council members appoint someone to finish the term?

These questions arise whenever a vacancy happens on a city council and the council members’ decision usually leaves some residents upset.

Council members in Surf City ultimately decided to go with an appointment process rather than a special election. 

“The idea of a special election is oftentimes the best scenario when it comes to a representative democracy because it’s the people who get the option to elect somebody.”

Chapman University professor and elections expert Mike Moodian

He said the problem with special elections is that they’re costly and result in low voter turnout.

“There’s no perfect scenario,” Moodian said in the Thursday phone interview.

A special election would cost Huntington Beach roughly $1 million, City Manager Oliver Chi told council members at a June 10 special meeting.

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In recent years, the debate on how city councils should fill vacancies on the dais has played out around the county in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Fullerton, Santa Ana and in Orange.

In the November 2020 election, Mike Alvarez was elected by voters to continue his tenure on the Orange City Council.

The only issue was Alvarez was not eligible for another term, ruled a Superior Court judge.

In the end, Alvarez resigned and the council appointed county employee Kathy Tavoularis, while some residents called for a special election and others called to appoint the runner-up.

Tito Ortiz being sworn in as Mayor Pro Tem on Dec. 7, 2020. Credit: HB City GOV

The debate on vacancies is now popping off in Huntington Beach following the resignation of Tito Ortiz in early June.

City council members unanimously decided at the June 10 meeting to pick from a pool of applicants, interview them and appoint a candidate to finish a majority of Ortiz’s term. 

This is typically what most cities do.

But not without criticism from residents and council members.

Some residents are calling for the runner-up — Gracey Van Der Mark, a controversial figure to some and an ideal candidate to others — to fill Ortiz’ vacancy.

“If we’re not going to go back and look at the last election and use the first runner up, then I don’t know why we’re not going to do an election. It’s a big term and it is the people’s seat. It’s not the council’s seat. Yeah we’re supposed to pick, but the people already picked for us,” Councilman Erik Peterson said at the June 10 meeting.

“The election just happened.”

Mark Bixby — a longtime community activist and former planning commissioner — said the landscape has changed since last November’s election. He supports the application process.

“Elections are a snapshot of the issues that were going on at the time that the election was held and so here we are six months later, we’re in a completely different pandemic state,” he said in a Friday phone interview.

In Costa Mesa earlier this year, the council appointed John Stephens, a former councilman and planning commissioner, to be mayor rather than go through an application process.

A vacancy was left when Katrina Foley won a special election to the county board of supervisors. 

“What happens the vast majority of the time when someone is appointed to fill a vacancy is that the majority council members will appoint someone who will vote along the same lines as them,” Moodian said.

Meanwhile, some in Costa Mesa wanted a special election and others wanted runner-up Sandra Genis to fill the role. 

One Applicant Makes Waves in Surf City

A host of Huntington Beach residents are calling on the council to “honor the vote” and pick runner-up Van Der Mark who won 8.2% of the vote, but lost to Ortiz, Dan Kalmick and Natalie Moser.

“If we all believe in democracy, equality and fairness, the only true democratic procedure would be to honor the vote and appoint the individual that received the next highest votes in the November 2020 election,” said one Huntington Beach resident at the special council meeting.

Van Der Mark has been criticized in the past as being racist, islamophobic and anti-semitic. She was also removed from two committees in Huntington Beach’s local school districts. 

But her supporters are defending her — calling Van Der Mark a target of a smear campaign. 

Others in the city are pleading for the council to pick anyone but Van Der Mark calling her a “delusional conspiracy theorist.”

“These are not lies nor is this a smear campaign because we have the receipts. This info is all well documented and would surely be the subject of news and social media posts for the duration of her tenure,” another resident said at the meeting.

Huntington Beach on March 28, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Ortiz — who won the most votes in city history — has voiced support for Van Der Mark on his Instagram.

Some, however, are calling for the Council to pick Oscar Rodriguez who came 5th in the race for city council last year with about 7.6% of the vote.

“When someone this extraordinary makes a commitment to serve the public, we should all stand up and take notice. No matter who you are, what party you belong to, which neighborhood you live in, Oscar Rodriguez will represent you,” said Gina Clayton -Tarvin, Ocean View School District trustee at the June 10 meeting. 

Nearly 200 Applicants Apply for HB Vacancy

After a week of accepting applications, 190 people threw their name in the ring for Ortiz’s old seat on the dais, including Van Der Mark and Rodriguez. Only 182 applications are visible on the city website.

Interviews by city council members are scheduled July 9 and July 10, according to the city website.

Mike Daly, one of the administrators of the Facebook group — Huntington Beach Community Forum, encouraged people to apply for the vacancy, even if they have no interest in the position and said they could probably use false information.

“The current council is trying to disenfranchise us from even having an opinion. They don’t care about what we think one bit, and they laugh in our faces …we can let them know how we feel by applying for that council seat, every one of us!”

Mike Daly, in a post on the Facebook Huntington Beach Community Forum group he helps administer

Some Facebook commenters on the post said they applied, with some of their names matching the names of applicants.

“Those application processes are a joke,” Moodian said. “I guarantee you they know who they want to appoint.”

A couple of years ago in Fullerton, Joshua Ferguson — a local city blogger and meeting regular — threw his name in the bidding for a council vacancy as a form of protest. 

Ferguson and other residents had advocated for an election to fill the vacancy, but the council appointed Jan Flory, a former councilwoman, instead.

Helen Higgins, a resident of Fullerton for 21 years, came to address the council Jan. 29. Credit: KATIE LICARI, Voice of OC

In Huntington Beach, Bixby said the conservative segment of the community feels like the current council does not take them seriously and their influence has been waning.

He criticized Daly’s call for anyone to apply for the vacancy.

“Daly is just going to have the effect of getting them taken even less seriously by the current Council, so it just seems like an astoundingly bad strategy to me,” he said.

Bixby also said many of the applicants will probably run in the next election.

“I would not be surprised if we have a record breaking ballot size,” he said. “We tend to have easily 15 people running in our city council elections here. I think we’re going to set a new record,” he said.

The city council is expected to fill the seat at their July 20 meeting.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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