What do Barstow, Cotati, Dublin, Dunsmuir, Monrovia, Richmond, Santa Maria, and Santa Rosa have in common, besides all being in California? In the first few months of this year, they have each carried out a method of cronyism that I call the Ooze and Cruise Method. How does it work? Simple. 1. If you have always wanted to be a member of your city council, suck up to a current member. 2. Get appointed to a planning commission or design review board. Hang around and wait for an opening to appear on the city council. 3. Ooze into the vacant seat by being appointed by other members, even though you have never run for office. 4. Cruise into the office in the next election because you are now an incumbent, and have a definite advantage.
I find this to be profoundly undemocratic and ethically bankrupt, but for the time being, it is 100% permissible under California law. Using an example that is close to home, here’s how it worked in Santa Rosa recently:
On November 6, there were four seats available for the Santa Rosa City Council, and the top four vote-getters were Ernesto Olivares, Julie Combs, Erin Carlstrom, and Gary Wysocky. That same day, Susan Gorin was elected as County Supervisor, which forced her to resign her seat on the Santa Rosa City Council only a few days later. Morally, ethically, and logically, Ms. Gorin’s seat should have gone to the next highest vote-getter, Don Taylor. But this is California. Instead of accepting Taylor’s 23,238 votes as the will of the people, the Santa Rosa City Council decided to take applications for the job and let six council members decide who should fill the empty seat. They chose Robin Swinth, a planning commissioner who had not run in the recent election.
I met Taylor at one of his restaurants, The Omelette Express in Railroad Square. He’s a happy optimistic guy, but he feels hurt and wronged by the entire process.
In a city that says they want business-friendly policies, Taylor operates a successful retail business. He has been President of the Railroad Square Merchant’s Association. He even represented Santa Rosa to their sister city in South Korea, where he spent his own money to give the city a Snoopy monument, much like the ones around Railroad Square.
When Taylor was one of the 17 applicants who were interviewed by the City Council, the first question he was asked was. “You’ve lost four times. Why are you here?” When the chosen candidate, Robin Swinth, faced the same questioners, the first question they asked was, “So, you’re a Mom?”
In Cotati, an even smaller-minded town, we meet George Barich. In the November election, where three Cotati city council members were elected, Barich won 1,274 votes, which placed him a solid fourth.
Shortly after the election, council member Pat Gilardi announced that she was resigning to take a full-time job working for Susan Gorin, who had just been elected to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Just like in Santa Rosa, California law leaves it up to the city council to decide what to do next.
Six people showed up to be interviewed: Barich, Linell Hardy, John Moore, Ashley Veach, Eris Weaver, and Alan Wintermeyer. In a four-hour meeting, the current council members interviewed each candidate, and appointed John Moore as the fifth member.
This is how Mayor Mark Landman first got a council seat in 2009 and Vice Mayor John Dell’Osso got a seat in 2011. Landman was then elected in 2010, and Dell’Osso was elected in 2012.
In an interview with Barich before the meeting, he explained why he deserves the job. “I’m the most experienced, the best qualified, and I’ve got the best attendance record. I’m also brutally honest, and the most transparent. So here we are, only a few months after the election. If this is not the perfect time to appoint the next in line, there is no time.”
There is no question that Barich is controversial. He is a fiscal conservative in a town with a definite progressive tilt. He has never been known to quietly go along with anything. After winning a council seat in 2008, he was the subject of a nasty recall campaign, in which Mark Landman and John Moore were heavily involved.
The council could have appointed a candidate with actual experience, and a point of view that represents many in the community. Instead, they appointed John Moore, who did not run a campaign, and won no votes. Moore’s experience with city politics includes his marriage to former mayor and current planning commissioner Lisa Moore. He says he has learned a lot “by osmosis.” Moore was a key figure in the 2009 recall of George Barich, and his appointment was clearly payback from the local progressive establishment for his anti-Barich activities.
But all bickering and partisanship aside, these incidents reveal a deeper flaw that goes beyond Democrat vs. Republican. Ideally, the makeup of any government body should reflect the rough percentage of voters who belong to each party. But when the majority party on the council is able to fill a vacant seat by appointment, they invariably appoint one of their own, leaving the minority party out in the cold.
I’m a libertarian by choice, and a Republican by default, but if there were a situation where four seated Republicans gave a vacant seat to a Republican crony who had not participated in the most recent election, I’d feel the same way.
What would be more democratic? There should be an initiative to change California law to stipulate that when a city council or county supervisor seat becomes vacant less than six months after an election, the seat should automatically go to the next highest vote-getter. It would cost less than holding a special election and be infinitely fairer than the current Ooze and Cruise method.