A host of Orange County cities have seen elected officials and city leaders leave their roles in government over the past year, leading to a vacuum of power at the top of many local agencies. 

These empty seats on the dais have forced city officials and residents into a debate on how best to fill a vacancy when an elected representative abandons their post before their term ends.

There have been at least 7 vacated seats on various boards and city councils in Orange County this past year, which can have a real impact on how cities handle major issues. 

“Many of our cities are quite large, and in all of them, the biggest problem of course is representation,” said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller. “Most city councils are five people, so you’re losing 20% of your representation, it’s like losing 20 senate votes or 87 votes out of the house.”

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Most cities and other governing bodies’ rules on vacancy dictate that an empty seat must be filled within two months by appointing a new member or a special election will be automatically triggered.

While residents usually call for a special election so they can choose who fills the seat, city leaders usually go the other way, choosing to appoint someone themselves rather than pay to send it back to the ballot. 

Others call for the runner up in the previous election to fill the seat and avoid the costs of going back to the ballot, but that didn’t happen with any of Orange County’s open seats this year. 

Smoller said that as absentee ballots become more common, it’s easier for cities to do a special election, but many choose not to. 

“The one argument is we’re going to save a ton of money, and I’m sympathetic to that. But democracy isn’t free,” Smoller said. “The appointment process lacks legitimacy, and once they’re in they get the chance to use the incumbency advantage to get reelected.”

Last year, Cypress and Laguna Hills City Council have had to deal with a vacancy following the resignation of Stacy Berry in Cypress and Bill Hunt in Laguna Hills.

The gap in upper leadership has affected more than just city councils, with multiple cities looking to replace their city managers while others have had to find new police chiefs.

[Read: Leadership Vacuum Hits City Halls Across Orange County]

County Board of Education Reappoints Member Who Left Two Months Earlier

The latest vacancy popped up on the County’s Board of Education, after Tim Shaw resigned amid threats of a lawsuit due to his second position on the La Habra City Council, which some saw as a conflict of interest.

[Read: La Habra City Councilman to Resign Tonight from OC Board of Education Following Lawsuit]

But nearly two months later, Shaw instead chose to reapply for his seat on the board of education and depart the La Habra City Council and was reappointed to his old seat on the board. Shaw said he was forced to resign from the board of education instead of the city council the first time. 

“The most recent election was city council so that’s the one I had to keep to make the lawsuit go away,” Shaw said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “I resigned from the board of education, but there’s nothing stopping me from going in and being reappointed back to the board of education and I obviously have a strong moral claim that I won the election.”

The board of directors voted to reappoint Shaw to his old seat. 

Shaw wasn’t picked until Dec. 21 at a special board meeting, just 12 days before the board would’ve been forced to go to a special election. 

Tito Ortiz’s Departure Forced Huntington Beach to Rethink Vacancies

Perhaps the most notable debate over vacancies last year took place in Huntington Beach, when Tito Ortiz abruptly resigned from office last June citing concerns for his family’s safety and being targeted by the press and left three years on his term up for grabs.

Ortiz, a former UFC light heavyweight champion, tapped out of his councilman role after garnering the most votes in Surf City history in 2020’s general election.

After that, some residents started to show up to council meetings to get runner up and controversial figure Gracey Van Der Mark appointed or to hold a special election that city staff estimated could cost Huntington Beach up to a $1 million.

The council, however, decided they would interview a pool of applicants to fill the vacancy. 

[Read: Huntington Beach to Appoint New Council Member, Reviving a Debate Other OC Cities Tackled]

The city council ultimately appointed Rhonda Bolton to replace Ortiz — making her the first Black woman on the dais just days before a special election would have been automatically triggered under city law.

Shortly after her appointment, efforts to recall almost everybody on the dais — including Bolton — emerged. 

The two month long debate in that city also led to Huntington Beach city council members voting to create a citizen lead committee to review the city charter including the part on council vacancies.

[Read: Elect or Appoint? After Filling Tito Ortiz Vacancy, HB Officials to Examine City Charter ]

OC Supervisors’ Special Election Leaves Costa Mesa Officials to Pick New Mayor

Prior to the vacancy in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa city council members also had to deal with their own vacancy after Katrina Foley flipped a Republican seat on Orange County’s Board of Supervisors winning a special election in March for the open spot on the dais after then Supervisor Michelle Steel was elected to Congress.

Foley — Costa Mesa’s first directly elected mayor — was reelected as mayor in November 2020 beating out former councilwoman Sandra Genis by more than 10,000 votes.

Following Foley’s election to the board of supervisors, some residents called for a special election to elect a new Costa Mesa mayor, while some called for the runner up Genis to be appointed as the new mayor.

City staff projected a special election could have cost Costa Mesa around half a million dollars.

A week after the supervisorial special election, the council ended up directly appointing John Stephens as the new mayor of the city without taking applications from residents.

Stephens, who had served on the council before, lost his reelection bid in 2020 to Councilman Don Harper by a couple hundred votes.

Jordan Brandman Resigns After Vulgar Texts; Council Appointment Triggers Criticism

Last August, Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman resigned from his post after facing scrutiny and recoil over leaked vulgar texts he sent to people about former Councilwoman Denise Barnes.

The council decided to fill the empty seat through an appointment process, taking applications from residents and interviewing those interested in serving on the council.

In September, the council appointed Gloria Saha’gun Ma’ae, a resort industry ally, to take Brandman’s place on the dais.

Her appointment has triggered public criticism from residents and council members Jose Moreno and Avelino Valencia who criticized Ma’ae’s appointment as politicized and questioned the integrity of the appointment process.

[Read: Anaheim Council’s Appointment of a Resort Ally Stirs Calls of Rushed, Politicized Process]

Mike Alvarez Forced Resignation Opens up Seat on Orange City Council

In Orange, the vacancy debate popped off when Mike Alvarez was forced to resign from his spot on the council dais after winning a third term in office.

Alvarez, however, was ineligible to serve due to the city’s rules on term limits, ruled an Orange County Superior Court judge last February.

[Read: Mike Alvarez Resigns From Orange City Council After Term Limits Lawsuit]

Alvarez was replaced by Kathy Tavoularis, a county employee, in April after the city council decided not to go with a special election and instead take applications for the seat. 

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

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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