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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Shocker: Council Votes for a Special Election

The City Council voted late Tuesday night to hold a special election in June to determine the successor to Mayor Cathy Murillo in the Westside’s 3rd District, a huge surprise and a major political victory for neighborhood advocates of district elections.

The 4-to-2 vote to call a special election capped a two-month battle by district election supporters to convince the new council to reverse a move by their predecessors to fill out the two years left in Murillo's 3rd district term through an appointment.

The vote shocked members of the District Elections Committee, the small but persistent group of mostly Latino grassroots crusaders, who successfully used legal action based on the California Voting Rights Act to force the city to abandon its at-large voting system in 2015 – but who expected until the last moment to lose Tuesday night and already were preparing a new lawsuit. A few minutes before the vote, Jacqueline Inda, spokesman for the group, told Newsmakers she expected a unanimous 6-0 vote against the special election proposal.

"What just happened?” she said excitedly in the packed hallway outside the council chambers after the vote. "I'm extremely surprised."

Voting in favor of the election were Kristen Sneddon, the only member who consistently and publicly favored a special, Eric Friedman, Jason Dominguez and Mayor Cathy Murillo. Randy Rowse and Gregg Hart, who was unhappy with the process that did not allow the council to hear from applicants for an appointment before deciding the election question, voted against.

The vote sets the stage for a door-to-door campaign on the Westside, a four-month sprint likely to include as candidates many of those who earlier had submitted applications for appointment.

“I’m going to think about it and talk to my people,” said Chelsea Lancaster, a high-profile Westside activist who was viewed as a front-runner for the appointment. “It’s an unprecedented event.”

Oscar Gutierrez, a professional media worker (full disclosure: among other things he is the technical director for the “Newsmakers” show on TVSB) who also had applied, said immediately after the vote he could not afford to run; a few minutes later, however, he said he likely would campaign for the job: “I’m going to Google how to run a campaign,” he said.

A few quick takeaways:

A tie is like kissing your sister. The decision to hold the special election in conjunction with the June 5 state primary leaves the 3rd District seat vacant, and its residents without representation, for four months. As a practical matter, it also leaves the council with only six members and vulnerable to 3-to-3 ties. That scenario was on full display throughout Tuesday's meeting, as the council ploughed through a crammed agenda, from 2 p.m. until the special election vote shortly after 10 p.m., that embroiled them in at least three critical deadlocks over issues including marijuana legalization and a controversial AUD project.

Abandoned advice. In voting for the election over an appointment, the majority rejected the advice of City Attorney Ariel Calonne, who repeatedly counseled them that the charter required an appointment, even though it has not yet been revised to govern district elections. Council member Randy Rowse, who voted against the special election, pointedly told his colleagues that their decision would leave the city open to a lawsuit from the opposite direction of those favoring district elections, potentially pursued by parties who found the vote a violation of the charter. Rephrasing the old adage that an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client, Rowse said, “Someone who doesn’t listen to their attorney is also a fool.”

Jason reverses course. The key to the vote was Dominguez, who switched his position after earlier opposing a special election. Dominguez said he had a change of heart after re-reading some writings by Dr. Martin Luther King and weighing the importance of minority voting rights. Council member Eric Friedman, who made the motion in favor of the election, highlighted a similar issue, saying he was uncomfortable with a council including “four Caucasians making the decision for them,” in neighborhoods that represent the largest majority minority district in the city.

Perseverance furthers. The result was a big win for retired Judge Frank Ochoa, who represented the District Elections Committee and who worked doggedly to convince the council that they would violate the Voting Rights Act and what he called “the statewide political trajectory” in favor of increasing the political clout of underrepresented minorities, by insisting on an appointment process.. “The voters should be empowered,” he said in his testimony. “This should not be decided by six persons, five of whom do not live in the district.”

Special interest alert. With an election set, look for major interest groups, from the central committees of the two political parties, the Chamber of Commerce and pubic employee unions, quickly to settle on their chosen candidates. A crowded field in an election that will yield perhaps not many more than 1,000 votes means that the race is wide open.

Bottom line from City Administrator Paul Casey: "That's why they play the game - you never know what's going to happen."

Images:; Jacqueline Inda; Judge Frank Ochoa.

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