ENCINITAS — City Council voted unanimously Oct. 6 to adopt a subcommittee’s recommendations to appoint a candidate to fill the vacant council seat following the death of Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan from cancer Sept. 16.
At a special meeting Sept. 26, the council voted to appoint council members Teresa Barth and Kristin Gaspar to the subcommittee to provide recommendations to fill the seat.
Since the city does not have an ordinance addressing the issue of filling a vacant seat on the council, the subcommittee relied on state code that provides the option of either filling the vacancy by appointment within 60 days of the vacancy or by calling a special election.
Gaspar said that given the high cost of a special election and the protracted time the process would take, an appointment was more feasible. According to the city clerk’s estimates, a special election would cost the city up to $330,000.
The earliest an election could be held under state law is Feb. 7, with a certification of the results 30 days later. Houlihan’s term expires Dec. 2012, leaving less than a year for the person filling the seat to serve under this scenario, Gaspar added.
Alternately, the subcommittee said an appointment process could begin immediately and with a person seated by Nov. 15.
“I think it’s really neat the state gave us two options, only one of which is doable,” said Mayor James Bond.
Under the process, candidates for the position will submit a detailed application to the city clerk. Applicants that meet the qualifications detailed in the state’s elections code will have five minutes to address the council during a public meeting. Council members and the public are able to speak at the initial meeting as well. A subsequent meeting will allow public speakers and council discussion of the applicants.
Gaspar said the subcommittee decided against an actual nomination rather than an application process because it was not open enough to allow for public participation. “We expect the applicants are going to get a pretty detailed description so it gives the public an opportunity to have a better look at the candidates,” Barth said.
A handful of public speakers addressed the issue of filling the vacant seat. Tony Kranz, a former candidate for council in the last election who finished in third place, recalled his mother’s death from cancer at age 53, over 20 years ago. He said Houlihan reminded him of his mother. “Once again, evidence that life’s not fair,” he said.
People have mentioned my name as the runner-up in the last election,” he said, adding, “I am more than willing to serve.”
While Kranz said the proposed appointment process was not totally unreasonable, he had reservations about the council’s final decision and the public’s input.
“This has been in the works for some time,” he said, referring to a preferred replacement candidate.
Martha Cox, a Cardiff resident of 34 years, said she supported the idea of choosing an applicant that would not run in the 2012 election. “What matters to me and what should matter most to every member of this community should be the process and the power of the ballot box,” she told the council.
Cox suggested the council encourage former council members to apply to fill the vacancy.
“Lets take the personalities and the politics out of this decision and do what’s best for our community,” she said.
Donna Westbrook, a regular at City Council meetings, asked if there was a way to actually leave the seat open by passing a city ordinance.
She said she feared that a super-majority, which consists of four votes on the five-person council, would control the council especially in reference to a possible vote on the general plan.
“That seat needs to be vacant until the residents of Encinitas vote, not just the council,” she said.
City Attorney Glen Sabine said the seat could be left open until the next general election unless someone challenges the inaction.
“The intent of the statute is that the seat be filled as soon as possible,” he said. He added that if the vote to fill the seat ends up in a tie, then the action would trigger a default and require a special election.
Kathleen Lindeman urged the council to appoint a former councilperson to fill the seat as a placeholder until the next general election. “They don’t need to get on board, they’ve been on board,” she said.
“We are a divided city,” she said. Lindeman said she was concerned that an appointee chosen by the council majority would not represent the citizens in the same way Houlihan did. If so, she predicted a damaging impact on the residents.
“Anything you do will be suspect and that is a terrible thing for our city,” she said.