YOLO SUN OPINION :
Woodland City Council Member Jeff Monroe vacated his seat by means of a brief formal letter of December 18, 2010, allowing the remaining four Council members by recent amendment to state law until February 16 to choose either election or appointment to fill this vacancy.
State law (usually inclined to optimize participatory democracy) obviously provides generous and powerful incentive for qualifying local governments (pop. under 100,000) to choose special election rather than appointment to fill vacancies of elected officials: an all mail-in ballot.
Based on the Woodland City Staff Report accompanying this agenda item for the December 14 Council meeting — a special election using a mail-in ballot is estimated to cost — only $15,000 — about a quarter (1/4) of the cost of a conventional, polling-place election.
Already, more than half of municipal voters use mail-in ballots, and such a distinctive civic exercise as an all mail-in council election may increase that proportion and promote increased voter participation.
Such a special election must be held no sooner than 114 days after it is called by city council resolution, making it reasonable to attach to the next regularly calendared election date, June 7, 2011.
____ Staff Recommendation: A Device For Political Cover? ____
What does a staff “recommendation” really amount to for such a unique item?
In this case — it deploys crass and conflicted political cover for a council choice to fill this vacant seat by appointment over election.
Filing a staff report makes sense, to establish the legal and practical landscape within which a policy determination must be grounded.
But when staff (essentially, city manager Mark Deven): “recommends that the City Council [ ] provide direction that will enable the seat to be filled through an appointment process” — rather than special election, clearly preferred under state law by unique availability of the robust and compelling feasibility mechanism of an all mail-in ballot — special questions certainly arise.
“[S]taff clearly favors [ ] Council [utilizing] a process similar to the process for filling a vacant Board/Commission/Committee seat and make the appointment no later than the February 15 Council meeting,” strangely announces Deven’s report.
Apparently, such a view is based on $15,000 of “unbudgeted expense to the General Fund,” related to a special election.
Such strong “favor” for council appointment by Deven, though, appears a bit over-baked considering its clear disfavor under state law and its relatively minor impact on municipal coffers.
This staff report tends, as well, to overstate the respective time-period of vacancy, between the two options; when in reality, it is only an added 4 months: mid-February to mid-June, for special election using an all mail-in ballot.
This four months would be, of course, filled with currently percolating civic issues being the subjects of an election process.
Perhaps, such an uncertain eventuality is keenly desired to be avoided, through an appointment mechanism managed by these four remaining council members.
____ Deven’s Remarks Reinforce Case Of Conflict-Of-Interest ____
Other curious remarks occur, as well, in this staff report, such as:
(a) “[T]he Council presumably may follow whatever procedure it determines is most prudent” — not following the procedure which is most democratically valuable and reasonably feasible (“prudent” seems an odd choice of words in this context of hopefully robust democratic values and principles);
(b) The “expense and work associated with” — such unusually economical processes of direct democracy would — “not [be] required;” although, an appointment process is also an unbudgeted expenditure of time and staff resources;
(c) “Staff believes there are many well qualified Woodland residents who would be interested in serving the community as a Council member” — as long as they don’t have to stand for election and can be confirmed on the basis of only a brief council discussion of their submission of written material;
(d) “Woodland City Council possesses the insight and interests of the community that would result in the right decision” — kindly spoken by City Manager Deven to his employers, about his additional potential employer.
Deven thus engages in quite an expedition of convenient speculation in support of the city council option of appointment, alongside minimal rhetorical support of the alternative of election.
Woodland’s electorate may not share Deven’s patently biased views, and indeed wonder about the inherent character, coherence and utility of their inclusion within his staff report, grousing about minor expenses for major values and pandering toward what may easily be assumed to be the preference of some existing council members against election to fill Monroe’s vacant seat.
Deven’s attitude displayed in his staff report seems to indicate an existing tilt among council members, toward appointment, by its rhetorical trenching and anticipatory water-carrying to support this option.
The basic and severe problem, though, is that Deven obviously has a direct conflict-of-interest in this particular area: colluding with his four present bosses in the selection process of his fifth boss.
The public is supposed to be the real boss in this democratic arena; while, Deven has a particular, explicit interest in reducing political turbulence and reinforcing the known status-quo within city hall.
Overlooking his clear ethical / professional conflict-of-interest, in this regard, Deven energetically leaps aboard his flatteringly described, appointment option, the council’s ship of political “pruden[ce]” — already, presumably, stacked in “favor” of an appointment process — and he begins to wield an oar.
Conflicted in this fashion, Deven’s “staff” remarks swiftly lose all credibility; however, they speak volumes about the insularity of Woodland City Hall.
____ Example Of Council Insularity ____
A single instance of knee-jerk perpetuation of insularity within Woodland City Hall also speaks volumes about such matters.
As one of his last official council-member duties, Jeff Monroe requested that the operator of Yolo Sun (who received about 1800 votes as a city council candidate on the June ballot — without a regular campaign) be appointed to the annual (temporary), municipal Community Service Award Committee.
Monroe’s choice was promptly rejected / black-balled by (an)other city council member(s); he says, because this journalist operating Yolo Sun is — “critical” — of city management.
If anyone “critical” of city management is unacceptable for service on such an isolated, non-policy nature of municipal committee — it is more than obvious that persons who vigorously, effectively scrutinize and challenge relevant civic affairs, inculcating improved: dialogue, progress and transparency as a council member — will never overcome such insularity to obtain internal approval of council appointment as a member.
Only (delightful, widely adored and well respected) stooges cronies and shills need apply.
That’s why Woodland importantly deserves a special election in June to fill its vacant City Council seat.
Let’s hope that our existing council members will place key public interest above their own (awkward rationalizations, as previewed within Deven’s staff report) and select special election as the uniquely viable, reasonably feasible and suitably tailored option, demonstrably preferred for filling this council vacancy under state law.