During back-to-back Santa Clarita City Council meetings Tuesday night, council members revealed some apparent backroom dealings in selecting a replacement mayor and exposed the city to possible litigation through its choice for replacing outgoing Councilman Dante Acosta.
The four-member council’s negligent choice to replace Acosta by themselves needs to be reversed as soon as possible.
Certainly it was not an auspicious opening for the council’s next two years. We call for a do-over.
During the first meeting, held to conduct council business, re-elected councilmen Bob Kellar and Cameron Smyth were sworn in, Smyth taking a council seat after a 10-year hiatus.
Nominations were then opened among council members to select a mayor, and Councilwoman Laurene Weste quickly nominated Smyth despite his 10-year absence. Councilwoman Marsha McLean quickly seconded the motion.
Kellar made a great show of objecting, and Smyth later said Kellar warned him of his lack of support. The motion passed 3-1 with Weste, McLean and Smyth in support.
The nomination was deemed a surprise – and indeed it seems surprising , or maybe foolhardy, to hand the mayor’s gavel to a person who just took his seat after a 10-year absence.
So who benefits from the move? Weste, who was the logical choice for mayor, seized instead the mayor pro tem’s office, which if rotations occur as usual puts her in the mayor’s chair in 2018 – the year she would be up for re-election.
The question is: How could Weste and Smyth engineer this “surprise” move, which Kellar knew about in advance, without violating California’s open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act?
The Brown Act prohibits elected officials from doing the people’s business outside the public eye, including using “a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”
But, a California Newspaper Publishers Association lawyer said, the Act would not apply to Smyth because he hadn’t yet been sworn into office.
So there was no violation of the Brown Act – except, perhaps, in spirit.
More alarming, though: During the second, regular council meeting Tuesday night, the three white senior citizens – Weste, Kellar and McLean, who have been entrenched in office for 18, 16 and 14 years respectively – along with Smyth, a white middle-aged man, voted to select a replacement council member without anyone else’s input.
To be sure, council members cited a very solid reason for avoiding a special election to replace Acosta: the approximately $354,000 price tag, which was not budgeted for the city’s 2016-17 fiscal year. And as Smyth noted, voter turnout was traditionally very low when the city conducted stand-alone City Council elections every other April.
But the choice to put an all-white council in charge of replacing a lone Latino council member is negligent and begs the attention of civil rights activists.
“I think the city is very much open to a suit pursuant to the California Voting Rights Act,” said Kevin Shenkman, one of a team of attorneys who brought such a case against the city in 2013. The city negotiated its way out of that suit by changing the council election date and managed to retain its at-large election system, which the attorneys argued violates Latinos’ voting rights.
Now the city is OK with a small group of all-whites choosing the lone Latino’s replacement, seeking no input from the public and publicizing no criteria by which it will judge candidates?
Smyth said there was no time for another method. He cited the Feb. 2, 2017, deadline to announce a replacement unless a special election is called.
Not so, says Alan Ferdman, who served on a citizens’ panel in 2006, the last time a replacement council member was chosen without benefit of an election.
The 16 volunteers on the panel broke into three groups and separately ranked each candidate according to specific standards, assigning numeric values to each before passing the information on to the council to decide, Ferdman said. He recalled the entire citizens’ vetting process took no more than a day.
The current council has more than seven weeks between its Tuesday night meeting and the Feb. 2 state-imposed deadline to name a new council member. And it’s known since Nov. 9 that Acosta would be leaving Santa Clarita for Sacramento.
Some critics also find troubling the lack of qualifications laid out by the council for a new member. Smyth said after Tuesday’s meeting that a form like a city commissioner application would be provided – which he called “basic.”
Ferdman is among at least a handful of residents who say they suspect the council already has someone in mind for the position. If that’s the case, he said, “I don’t think (a citizens’ council) would make any difference.”
The newly constituted council’s series of blunders during its first two meetings serves to widen the six-year-old rift between elected and constituents, dating to when the council voted – with good reason but inadequate explanation – to withdraw from the Los Angeles County Public Library system.
The difference is Tuesday night’s moves were tinged with arrogance and punctuated with plain recklessness.
We call for council members to set aside whatever holiday plans are occupying them and call another special council meeting soon to right some of the wrongs committed this week.
Santa Clarita citizens must be involved in the selection process to replace Acosta. The citizens’ search committee must be made up of community members diverse in their professional backgrounds – taking in business, social services, nonprofits and education – but also diverse in their personal background, including ethnicity, sexual preference and faith.
If the council does not do so, we urge every person in the Santa Clarita Valley who qualifies to file for the City Council spot.
It’s simple: You have to be 18 or older and live within city limits. If you aren’t already registered to vote yet, do so. And file.