By The Signal Editorial Board
This was not Santa Clarita’s finest hour.
On Tuesday night, the City Council met, as it does each December, to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, salute the outgoing mayor, and choose its mayor and mayor pro tem for the following year.
It all went well until the last scroll was presented to outgoing Mayor Laurene Weste. Then all hell broke loose.
Most years, the selection of a “new” mayor for the following year is a rather uneventful passing of the gavel from one mayor to the next. In Santa Clarita’s council-manager form of government, the mayor is a largely ceremonial — though not insignificant — role. Santa Claritans do not directly elect the mayor. Rather, the mayor is appointed each year by the council, from within their own ranks. He or she who has the gavel runs the meetings and sets the tone, but does not hold any greater voting power than the other four council members. The city manager — an executive who serves at the pleasure of the five council members — actually handles the day-to-day running of the city.
The mayor also serves as the city’s “ceremonial” leader. The job involves a lot of speeches, ribbon cuttings, and photo ops while wearing a hard hat and holding a gold-colored shovel as the city breaks ground on one public improvement project or another.
Santa Clarita’s mayor is essentially a leader among equals, but make no mistake: When Weste had the opportunity to run for re-election this November as the sitting mayor, local political wags took notice of the inherent advantage it gave her on top of the “regular” benefits of incumbency. When you’re the mayor of a well-run city like Santa Clarita, a place where people are generally pretty happy to live and their biggest complaint is the traffic, the word “mayor” sure looks good next to your name on the ballot — and all those photo ops throughout the year don’t hurt, either.
Considering all this, the council, for most of its existence since the city formed in 1987, has adhered to an understanding that the mayoralty “rotates” among council members. Each year, they appoint the current mayor pro tem as mayor and select a new mayor pro tem who, in turn, is “on deck” to be the next mayor.
The council has deviated from the rotation on several occasions, but for the most part, they have stuck with it.
Going into Tuesday night, the 2018 mayor pro tem, long-time council member Marsha McLean, was “on deck” to be the next mayor.
But something happened on her way up to her turn at bat. Councilman Bob Kellar opened the nominations by nominating not McLean, but Councilman Cameron Smyth to be mayor. Weste quickly seconded the motion.
McLean, expressing surprise and anger that as mayor pro tem she was not nominated to be mayor, nominated herself. Councilman Bill Miranda seconded that motion.
A rather heated discussion ensued. Smyth indicated he would be voting for himself because, as he noted, the “first rule of politics” is to never vote against oneself. McLean said she was offended by Kellar’s motion and she felt blindsided — to which Kellar responded that he had called her earlier in the day and left her a voice mail to let her know of his intentions to nominate Smyth.
Miranda indicated that his own “standard” was to have at least four votes in favor of a new mayor. Weste said she just wanted all of the council members to get along.
Since McLean’s nomination of herself served as a “substitute” motion, the council voted on it first. Miranda and McLean voted “yes.” Smyth initially chose to abstain, but when he was told that in this case an abstention would count as a “yes,” he switched it to a “no.”
Kellar voted “no.”
That left it at a 2-2 deadlock with Weste’s vote left.
Weste, clearly torn, backed down from her support of Smyth’s nomination and cast her vote for McLean.
In the ensuing vote for mayor pro tem, the council appointed Smyth — possibly putting him in line to run for re-election as the sitting mayor in 2020. Before she cast her vote for Smyth, McLean lamented to Miranda that she thought he should have been next in line for mayor pro tem since, as the newest council member, he is the only one who has yet to serve in either of the two leadership roles.
It seemed to escape McLean that, if she thought Miranda should have been nominated for mayor pro tem, she could have nominated him just as she had nominated herself for mayor.
As interesting as all of this was — and we recommend you make some popcorn and check out the video of the session at signalscv.com/video729 — it was one of the low points in the governing of a city that gives us many more highs than lows.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The odds are extremely remote that the majority of the council was unaware of Kellar’s intentions before they gathered Tuesday night. It’s a fair bet that his nomination of Smyth didn’t surprise anyone on the dais. Even McLean.
It’s also a fair bet, based on her quick seconding of Kellar’s motion, that Weste intended to support Smyth as the next mayor. But when push came to shove, she backed down and left Smyth and Kellar holding the bag. Miranda made it difficult for Weste by seconding McLean’s self-nomination.
As uncomfortable as it might have been to do so, Weste should have had the courage of her convictions and stuck by her second on Kellar’s motion, as she clearly favored Smyth and only backed down to put out the fire they’d started. One way or the other, right or wrong, we expect our leaders to lead.
Expressing his disdain at essentially being thrown under the bus, Smyth characterized the whole scene as “amateur hour.”
It’s hard to disagree with that characterization, and it also serves as a reminder that, as the city of Santa Clarita enters its 31st year, it’s time for our city leaders to take a hard look at how the council is elected, how it operates, and how it chooses its own mayor from within its ranks. Santa Clarita is growing, and still has some “growing up” to do.
We’ve previously suggested that the time has come for the city to consider more efficient and effective ways for local residents to elect their representatives, to better enable voters to make informed choices and to ensure a regular injection of new blood into the council. Perhaps it’s term limits, perhaps election by district, and perhaps some other solution — but the time has come for the serious discussion of such things, and for that discussion to lead to change.
Likewise, the time has come to address the issue of the mayoral “rotation.” We would suggest this: Rather than having council members feeling “entitled” to take their “turn” as the mayor, perhaps each year there should be no pretense of a rotation, and the council should elect its mayor and mayor pro tem based on merit at any given time, and have a frank discussion, in the open, like the big boys and girls they are supposed to be. Who will be most efficient at running the meetings? Are there council members who have not yet served as mayor but are ready for the experience? Who will best serve as the city’s ceremonial leader for the following year? Who really has the time for it? (Remember, serving on the council is a part-time job. Council members often have a “day job” that actually pays their bills.)
That’s not to say we’d like to see any one “mayor” get entrenched in the role. But it does seem the notion of a “rotation” is obsolete, and being mayor should not be some kind of participation trophy for merely serving on the council. To avoid entrenchment, perhaps the unofficial rotation could be replaced with an unofficial understanding that a mayor will not serve consecutive years in that role.
As evidenced by what happened Tuesday night, the council already has the power to deviate from the rotation. Really, other than stroking egos and reinforcing a sense of entitlement among their elected brethren, what purpose does the rotation even serve?
On Tuesday night, it only served to promote rancor, hard feelings and an entertaining but embarrassing scene at City Hall.
Now, the challenge for the council members is to put the acrimony behind them — and get back to the business of running one of the nation’s greatest cities.