City Hall (File photo)

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. January 15, 2019

With the election of Tony Vasquez to the California State Board of Equalization in November 2018 – and with his subsequent, legally-mandated resignation of his City Council seat in order to join the Board of Equalization – there is now an unscheduled mid-term vacancy on the Santa Monica City Council, the 16th time since Santa Monica went to a seven member Council in 1946.

How should the seat be filled? As the old adage says, ‘very carefully’, haha.

There is no recipe, rule nor criteria on how to fill the seat.  Ultimately it will come down to four votes on the City Council, among the remaining six members to make the appointment.

What does the application process tell us?

To be considered for appointment by the City Council, one must apply online here by noon, January 17.

The application form first asks applicants to specify their current or prior service on any City Board or Commission, which community activities they are involved in, and their other qualifications, experience, education, and their technical/professional background relative to the duties of the City Council. They are also asked whether they are able to commit to the heavy time and workload required to be an effective Santa Monica City Councilmember. (What should be added to this last question is mention of the part-time level of financial compensation for serving on the Council, as this can also affect one’s ability to commit and serve.)

These first questions address competency – can you actually do the job? The next two questions — ‘what are your goals in serving on the City Council’, and ‘what is your vision for Council and the role it plays in Santa Monica and the region’ — give the applicant the opportunity to address how they would do their job personally, the role they see for the Council overall, and just as importantly, what are their public policy priorities.

(A hidden jewel in the ‘vision’ question is the mention of the region. Anyone who works on housing, transportation, homelessness or other issues knows how much Santa Monica is affected by the larger region.)

What are the political considerations?

Of course the appointment process is not divorced from politics.  What political considerations may be before the Council?

One is whether there is a ‘voter mandate’ for what type of person should be appointed. Some argue that an appointee should generally reflect the politics and policies of the Councilmember who resigned, because that way the will of the voters who elected that person continue to be reflected.  But what if another election has been held since that person was elected (Santa Monica’s City Council elections occur every two years, with three or four members elected each time to staggered, four-year terms). Do we ask what that election tell us about the latest will of the voters?

Then there is the balance of power, especially in a place like Santa Monica, where land use and development is such an important issue. Will an appointee maintain the existing balance of power on this key issue — as well as other sometimes controversial issues like affordable housing, tenant protection and social services — or will they alter it?  

From a policy perspective, even if an applicant wouldn’t alter the balance of power, would they bring additional views and expertise to existing policies, that might improve and enhance them? And can they add diversity to the Council in other ways, including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other important aspects?

By definition, filing a mid-term vacancy is not for a full four-year term, so the time to ‘get up to speed’ is less than normal. Do you therefore want to bring in someone who can hit the ground running, like a former Councilmember or perhaps someone else who has served in a different elected office? Or do you go with someone who has not had previous governing experience? In these latter cases, prior experience on a City Board or Commission is also relevant.

Then there is the question of conferring future political advantage to the appointee, by making them an incumbent in the next election, should they choose to run. Six of nine Santa Monica appointees that ran in the next election after being appointed were re-elected – Russell Hart (1949), John Bohn (1963), Virgil Kingsley (1969), Alan Katz (1985), Gleam Davis (2010) and Terry O’Day (2010).  Three were not re-elected – Lowell Patton (1971), Hilliard Lawson (1975) and Arthur Rinck (1973) – the latter swept out of office because of his February 1973 vote to tear down the Santa Monica Pier.

Alternatively, sometimes when someone seeks appointment to fill a short-term legislative vacancy, they offer to do it only until the next election, in order to mitigate this concern of gained advantage. 

In four other cases, appointees chose not to run after serving out the partial term to which they were appointed. In two cases (1979 and 1999), the Council moved to hold a special election, and in two others (1965 and 1980), the vacancy came so close to the next regular election that the Council left the seat vacant until then.

Who should the Council appoint?

In a City with as rich a political culture as Santa Monica, there will rightfully by a range of diversity within our local community that seeks representation via this appointment; and the range of qualified candidates that have or are still rumored to be applying is exciting and reflective of the deep talent base in our community.  

But even though the universe is contained in a grain of sand and we are all multitudes, because only one person that can be chosen to fill this vacant seat, by definition this appointment will be representative of some views and not others, leaving some Santa Monicans satisfied and other not by this appointment.

That should also be a sobering thought for those who think single-seat, winner-take-all district elections would be a good thing for our community – elections where voters would be restricted to voting for only one council seat out of seven. What happens if they lose on that one?

 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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