City Council Elections, Appointments and the Future
by Alan Ferdman
Santa Clarita became an official entity on Nov. 3, 1987, when voters cast their ballots and determined our city would be formed. Those same voters also decided to be represented by a city council elected “at large.” There were 26 candidates in the race, and voters selected Buck McKeon, Jan Heidt, Jo Anne Darcy, Carl Boyer and Dennis Koontz to be the first Santa Clarita City Council.
From the date of Santa Clarita’s formation to the present day, our City Council membership has been determined by a vote of the people, with two recent exceptions. In both cases, a sitting councilmember had been elected to a state office and, therefore, resigned prior to completing their term. In both cases, the remaining City Council members made the decision to appoint a replacement member, rather than holding a special election.
By California Government Code, using an appointment process rather than holding a special election is perfectly acceptable; however, controversy has accompanied both appointment processes.
Before you read any further, please take note. My intent is not to open a dialogue about who was selected. Instead, I will be sharing my opinion about the process of “how replacement city council members are selected.” I stayed away from this subject until now, because, having been a City Council election candidate who has not scored enough support to obtain a seat, I did not want to sound as if I am making excuses. I firmly believe in accepting the will of the people and continue doing my best to work with those individuals chosen by the electorate to represent our city. At the same time, participating as a City Council candidate has given me insight into the personal commitment required to be the center of a council campaign.
During the 2016 Santa Clarita City Council election process, 11 candidates stepped forward and declared their commitment and desire to serve by filing their nomination paperwork with the city clerk’s office by August 12, 2016, approximately three months before the election. Included was a form where each candidate had obtained between 20-30 signatures of registered city voters supporting their candidacy. Candidates who wished to have a personal statement included on the ballot had to bring along $1,700, or to add another language, add another $1,700.
Some of the campaigns started a year prior to the election. If a candidate intended to raise money, forms were filed with the State of California to obtain a Campaign ID and there was periodic reporting of campaign donations and expenditures. Many of the candidates procured signs, buttons and other campaign materials to be distributed to supporters and used for handouts. You also probably noticed the ads placed in local papers and on social media. Candidates participated in numerous forums and made lots of personal appearances and, oh yes, if a candidate could afford it, there are those colorful mailers you received. When you add political action committee efforts to the candidates’ own campaign resources, some spent more than $100,000 on their campaigns.
In short, running for the Santa Clarita City Council requires a very strong commitment of time, resources and personal resolve by all serious candidates. Just like any state or federal election, candidates can expect to be fully vetted, where issues in their personal lives are made public and heavily scrutinized. With these things in mind, the most important concept to remember is that the decision rests with the will of the people and each voter gets one vote.
So, when Dante Acosta resigned after being elected to the state Legislature, the remaining four City Council members had a decision to make. They could call for a special election. They could choose the candidate with the next highest vote count from the previous election. Or they could make an appointment using some other criteria. They chose to use the same city process currently used to select city commissioners. Anyone could apply by providing a resume and two letters of recommendation. There is nothing legally improper about their decision, because the California Election Code allows for an appointment process to be used and does not define a specific appointment methodology. The stage was now set for the four City Council members to each represent the equivalent of approximately 25,000 votes, or one-quarter of the registered Santa Clarita voters.
When 50 Santa Clarita residents stepped forward and applied, including many who had been candidates in the previous election, their decision was, in my opinion, just the wrong road to take. While the four sitting council members praised all those willing to step forward and serve, how does a resume and two letters of recommendation become equivalent, or superior even, to the commitment and effort shown by the 11 candidates who had just gone through the current election cycle? The appointment process consciously enabled the council to select an individual without regard to the feelings of the city’s residents.
If I had made the decision, I would have selected the person with the next highest election votes — Mr. Boydston. Not because I like him, but because I believe that decision would most closely reflect the will of the people and was, therefore, the right thing to do.
As the appointment process had no real selection criteria, interviews or vetting, I am convinced it educated the 50 applicants about how our City Council operates. We are the third largest city, by population, in Los Angeles County and our governmental processes need to grow up to a level that supports our current stature. It is time for change. It is time we take Santa Clarita decisions out of the hands of a few privileged individuals.
This election and appointment cycle has cemented my position relative to establishing districts and town councils in Santa Clarita, therefore bringing government closer to the citizens it serves. It was the concept which sold our community on establishing the City of Santa Clarita in the first place, and it should be the concept we use to make our leaders even more responsive to our residents. In the meantime, I urge you to encourage change by working diligently with our five “at large” council members, because currently they are the only government body in town.
**The Views and Opinions expressed in these columns are those of the writer, not necessarily those of SCV Publications/Santa Clarita Gazette.**