Huntington Beach has a new city council member after almost two months of deliberation and public comments, which led to the appointment of the city’s first Black woman on the council.
Rhonda Bolton was appointed and sworn in at Monday’s special city council meeting to replace Tito Ortiz — who abruptly resigned last month leaving an empty seat on the dais — despite pushback from residents who wanted a special election.
The Council voted 4-2 in support of Bolton. Council members Erik Peterson and Mike Posey dissented.
“I have reviewed all the applications and one candidate does stand out for me with her professionalism and diverse background, numerous business positions,” Councilwoman Barbara Delgleize said. “I believe she would be a compliment to our city council by bringing expertise in leadership and business knowledge. For these reasons I have made a decision that I will be casting my vote tonight for Rhonda Bolton.”
Delgleize’s comments prompted some members of the audience to vocally protest, with some booing and others verbally calling her a “sell out” and the council was the “deep state.”
Posey tried to make a substitute motion for a special election with support from the audience and Peterson, but it failed to receive a majority vote.
Last week, the council was expected to appoint Ortiz’s replacement but could not reach an agreement with half the dais at the end of the night calling for the residents to pick their new city councilmember.
Delgleize had supported a special election at the previous meeting before announcing her support for Bolton.
Bolton, an attorney, was appointed to the city’s Human Relations Task Force in 2020. She is also the founder of IncludeMe, LLC, a nationwide diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy firm, according to her Linkedin profile.
“For me, this is about doing my part to see that every person has what they need to reach their full potential and that includes feeling safe, having a decent place to live, economic opportunity, and being able to hold their head up high,” she said at Monday’s meeting.
Bolton received support from Carr as well as Councilmembers Natalie Moser and Dan Kalmick at the last meeting.
“She represents the type of person we should all want to serve the city and her unique perspective as a woman of color will broaden the view of the council,” said a person who called into Monday’s meeting to voice support for Bolton.
Bolton’s appointment stopped a November special election that could have cost the city between $885,000 to $1 million.
The decision to select Bolton as Ortiz’s successor ends almost two months of debate in Huntington Beach on how the council should go about filling the spot on the dais — a debate that has played out over the years in cities throughout Orange County — most recently in Costa Mesa, Orange and Cypress.
Many residents at the last meeting were vocally interrupting council members as well as public commenters.
“I wanted to let everyone know that we will not have a repeat of that situation that we endured at our prior meeting. To that end, I am asking everyone to remain professional and civil and during city council deliberations audience interruptions will not be tolerated,” Mayor Kim Carr said at the start of the meeting.
At one point Carr asked for a member of the public to be removed and took a ten minute recess after an uproar from the crowd following the vote for Bolton.
The Debate Surrounding an Election or an Appointment
The debate started when Ortiz — who garnered the most votes in surf city history last year — abruptly resigned citing concerns for his family’s safety and being targeted by the press at a council meeting on June 1st.
Some members of the public called for an appointment and for the council to “honor the charter.”
“Is it worth a million dollars not to choose one of the strong candidates who applied for the City Council position?” said Robin Jenny Braithwaite, an applicant for the vacancy, at Monday’s meeting.
“I’d like to see those funds used for any productive municipal purpose, be it public safety, parks, beaches, more broadband access, recreation programs, library resources, the Senior Center, the Junior Lifeguard program — just to name a few.”
“Don’t waste my money on an unnecessary special election,” another resident called in and said.
Others spoke in favor of the special election.
“That is a lot of money. On the other hand, it is our money and we want the special election,” one resident said.
“I put friends of mine in body bags — pieces of them — for exactly what we’re sitting and discussing here today,” a resident and veteran said. “Now we want to do something that’s fair and equitable. You want to honor me, you want to honor the thousands that have fallen before … have a special election. That’s democracy at work.”
Some residents have been showing up to recent city council meetings calling for council members to pick Gracey Van Der Mark, the runner up in the 2020 election, as Ortiz’s successor.
Van Der Mark has been publicly 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.
“I want to stress that intimidation is not democracy. What I’ve been seeing in the city council meetings is incredibly stressful as a resident of Huntington Beach. That is also why a lot of people are not there. A lot of my friends absolutely despise Gracie for what she said about Black people and Jewish people,” said one resident who called into the meeting.
Van Der Mark won 8.2% of the vote last November.
Some residents spoke in favor of a Van Der Mark appointment, while some of her supporters called for a special election.
“You need to choose Gracie because that’s what we want. We the People — you guys work for us,” one resident said.
Some people threatened to recall council members for not choosing Van Der Mark or going with a special election.
Others had a different definition of what it meant to honor the vote.
“Refusing to name a replacement tonight would be a dereliction of your duty to honor me as a voter in this city. Indeed, working to derail that appointment process would dishonor me as a voter. It would dishonor each and every voter in the last two elections,” one resident said.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.