City Hall (File photo)

By Michael Feinstein, Inside/Outside. January 14, 2019

With the election of Tony Vazquez to the California State Board of Equalization in November 2018, there is now an unscheduled vacancy on the Santa Monica City Council.  

Vazquez – who was last elected to a four year City Council term in November 2016 – had to resign his seat in order to assume office on the state Board of Equalization, after California Attorney General Xavier Beccera ruled that Vasquez could not hold both seats simultaneously, owing to the potential for conflict between the responsibilities and interests of the two.

Such mid-term vacancies – while rare – are not totally uncommon in  Santa Monica. Since the City’s Charter was amended in 1946 to establish a seven member City Council, there have been 16 mid-term vacancies, including Vazquez. Nine resulted from Councilmembers passing away in office – most recently Herb Katz in January 2009 and Ken Genser in January 2010 – and seven from resignation.

How Fill Mid-Term Vacancies?

Under Santa Monica’s City Charter, when such a vacancy occurs, it can be filled in one of two ways.  First the City Council gets a chance to fill the seat by appointment, if it can garner four votes to appoint among the remaining six councilmembers. If the vacancy is filled by appointment with less than two years remaining on the four year term, the appointed Councilmember simply serves out the remainder of the term – and then can decide to run in the next election like any other Santa Monican.  If the vacancy is filled with more than two years remaining, the appointed member must stand for re-election in order to fill out the remainder of the term, or they can choose to not run at that time.

In this case of our current vacancy, with less than two years remaining until the November 2020 general election, an appointed member would simply serve until that time. If the Council is not able to make an appointment however, then filling the seat would go to a special election, and whomever is elected would serve through the remainder of the term.   

The advantage of Santa Monica’s approach is that it doesn’t require the financial cost of a special election if the Council can make an appointment; yet the appointed person would still have to stand for re-election in the next regularly scheduled election, where voter turnout would also most likely be much higher.

Appoint or Not?

Santa Monica’s last two mid-term vacancies were filled by appointment, taking multiple rounds and providing a lot of drama. On February 24, 2009 27 applications were received to fill Herb Katz’s seat, there were 22 speakers and it took nine rounds to make an appointment Votes were mostly split between Gleam Davis, Ted Winterer and Patricia Hoffman, and Davis was ultimately appointed 5-2.  On February 23, 2010 there were ten applicants to fill Genser’s set, 21 speakers and six rounds to appoint, with votes mostly split between Terry O’Day, Ted Winterer and Jennifer Kennedy, with O’Day ultimately appointed 5-2.

Two-Day Weekend Special Election

I was on the City Council the last time we couldn’t get four votes to make an appointment. At that time the Council was more politically divided than today.  Councilmember Asha Greenberg had just resigned in the fall of 1998 and we met on November 10 to try to fill the seat. There were 15 applicants, 21 speakers — and at that time, City Council minutes recorded whom members of the public spoke in favor of, with most speakers advocating appointing Richard Bloom, who had finished just 92 votes behind Bob Holbrook for the third of three seats in the recently concluded November 3, 1998 election.

In six rounds of voting, no one could get more than three votes in any round, with votes split among Bloom, Susan Cloke, Shari Davis, Kathy Weremiuk, Jean Sedillos and Louise Jaffe. At that point we voted to continue discussion of setting a special election date until December 8.  I made a motion that night to investigate holding a weekend special election, in order to address the low turnout issues associated with a special election on a random spring Tuesday. We couldn’t get the votes for it at that meeting, but such a motion passed 7-0 on December 15th, leading to what we are aware of here in Santa Monica as the nation’s first and only two-day, weekend special election (on April 24-25, 1999) in which Bloom was elected with 54% of the vote.

Compared to regular spring elections at that time in neighboring Beverly Hills, Culver City, Los Angeles and West Hollywood, Santa Monica’s one-time only weekend election turnout of 27.5% was much higher; and according to a post-election report by then City Clerk Maria Stewart, (buttressed by a post-election telephone survey by Paul Goodwin of GLS Research), “[if] the City to switch to a two-day weekend election, it might increase turnout among voters least likely to participate during elections held on Tuesdays, including younger voters, minorities, renters, and non-partisan voters.”  Carrying forward this theme in my 2018 California Secretary of State campaign, I recommended turning California’s primary and general elections into state ‘Democracy Holidays’.

Watering the Garden?

Perhaps the most consequential Council vacancy appointment was shaped by what preceded it. In August 1985 Councilmember Ken Edwards passed away after having been recently elected in November 1984. Edwards had been backed in that election by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which had held a 4-3 Council majority at that time.  

But before that election, SMRR-backed incumbent Dolores Press only gathered 110 signatures towards the 100 needed to qualify for the ballot, of which only 97 were valid, and had to run instead as a write-in candidate.  Other SMMR-backed candidates – Edwards, Denny Zane and Reverend James Conn – won the top three seats versus the developer/landlord-backed All Santa Monica slate. But Press placed seventh out of ten candidates and Herb Katz won the fourth and final seat.  When Edwards died the next year, SMRR-backed council members did not have the votes to replace him with one of their own, and independent Alan Katz was appointed in Edward’s place.

As a result of these falling dominos, SMRR-backed candidates would not gain a Council majority again until the November 1988 election.  Before then, the more development-friendly Council that resulted from Press’s historic blunder voted to rezone part of the city’s light manufacturing district along Olympic Bl. into the Special Office District. Then within it, they approved the gigantic Water Gardens office project at 26th/Olympic, greatly distorting the city’s job/housing balance, and helping lead to choking morning and afternoon gridlock in that part of town — and ultimately because of this distortion and gridlock, helping lead to the historic defeat of the proposed Hines project across the street 26 years later.

Three-Part Series on City Council appointments:

Part I – Appointing History, January 14, 2019
Part II – Appointing Counsel, January 15, 2019
Part III – Appointing Process, February 11, 2019

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.



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