CITY HALL — With a vacant seat on the City Council for the second time in a year, speculation is mounting over how the body will act to select a seventh member.
The seat occupied for over 20 years by Ken Genser, whose memorial service was held on Sunday, could either be filled by appointment or through a special election.
At its meeting tonight the council is expected to declare the seat vacant. The body will then have 30 days to appoint a replacement with a majority vote or an election will be triggered.
The decision facing the council comes exactly a year after the death of Councilman Herb Katz led to a contentious debate over who should get the seat. It took the council eight voting rounds before a majority appointed Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) co-chair Gleam Davis to fill the vacancy.
Some City Hall observers, including at least two councilmen, have criticized the process that unfolded last year for giving those who applied for the seat false hopes they could be appointed.
The council received 27 applications to fill Katz’ seat, but just four candidates were considered by the council the day the body made its appointment.
Councilman Bobby Shriver said soliciting applications “deceived members of the public” by suggesting the selection process would be a thorough and broad search for the most qualified candidate when in fact only a few were seriously considered.
The four individuals who received a nomination for the position from a council member a year ago were Davis, Planning Commissioner Ted Winterer, former school board member Patricia Hoffman and former City Councilman Nat Trives.
Shriver said he doesn’t see the point of asking for applications to fill Genser’s seat.
“I’m really against telling people to apply for a job they have no real chance for,” he said.
Councilman Kevin McKeown also acknowledged last year’s process had shortcomings but said he still supports soliciting applications. He said people who apply to be on the council should also be considered for City Hall’s boards and commissions.
“I’m committed to taking what may have been [viewed] as a negative process that turned down or excluded people and converting it into an open, welcoming process that includes people for boards and commissions if not for City Council,” he said.
The political calculus behind council members’ decisions on a possible appointment also promises to be particularly intricate this year since as many as five of the seven seats will be up for grabs in the November election.
If the council fills the vacancy by appointment, the seat would be in play in November, but if it holds a special election the new council member’s term would last until 2012, said Assistant City Clerk Beth Sanchez.
Provided the council makes an appointment, in the November election voters will be asked to pick three candidates to serve 4-year terms and two candidates to serve 2-year terms. The only council members whose terms are not expiring this year are Shriver and Councilman Richard Bloom.
Sanchez said if the council opts to hold an election to fill the seat it can’t put the decision to voters at the same time residents decide on a proposed parcel tax to benefit the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Combining elections typically saves money, but the school district’s special mail-in election, scheduled for May 25, is too soon for the potential City Council election to be included.
Several candidates for City Council in past elections and one prominent member of SMRR, the city’s leading political party, have already expressed interest in the vacant seat.
Winterer, who received the most votes of any candidate not elected to the council in 2008, said he will apply for the seat and was already planning to run for the council in November.
School board member Oscar de la Torre, who was elected with the backing of SMRR, and past council candidate and Planning Commissioner Terry O’Day also said they’re interested in the appointment.
“I think that it’s time for change and it’s time for diversity on the City Council,” de la Torre said, adding that he would run in November if he’s not appointed.
Reached on Monday, Patricia Hoffman, a SMRR co-chair, said she wasn’t ready to think about applying for the seat that Genser, a longtime friend, held. Former Councilman Kelly Olsen, a close friend of Genser, said at the late mayor’s memorial Sunday that Hoffman should be appointed to Genser’s seat because that is what he would have wanted.
“It’s not what I’ve been thinking about. What I’ve been thinking about is Ken and how much I miss him,” she said.
Several council members on Monday said holding a special election to fill the seat is only a fallback plan if no candidate garners a majority of the members’ support.
“I always feel we should try to appoint,” said Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor.
Bloom noted holding an election would cost more than $100,000 at a time when City Hall is facing a projected deficit as high as $9 million.
“My hope is that the council will be able to coalesce around a candidate to appoint to fill out Ken’s term,” he said.
Bloom said he’ll consider ways of altering the council’s appointment process but added he felt the process used to appoint Davis last year was “relatively fair.”
O’Connor said whether or not the council solicits formal applications for the position won’t change the core issue; the council still has to find out who is interested in the position and then has to vote on the candidates who have the most support.
“The reality is somebody out of the blue is less likely to be appointed than somebody who has a deep record of community experience and participation,” she said.