What’s the best way to fill a vacant seat when one board member resigns?
How about two?
That’s the question in Cambria, where two community services directors have said they’ll depart space of two months.
The board already decided to fill Michael Thompson’s seat by appointment and will meet Sept. 19 for the purpose of doing so.
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But only a few days after Thompson appeared at his final board meeting, news broke that Greg Sanders, the board’s vice president, will vacate his seat Oct. 31.
Some in the community want a special election to fill both seats. But is that the best way to go? Special elections require money: to print ballots, pay postage for mail-in votes, staff polling places and so forth. The price tag can run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cambria hasn’t held special elections in the past to fill vacancies. It’s done what it’s doing with Thompson’s seat: left it up to the remaining board members. In 2015 alone, Sanders replaced Muril Clift, heath district trustee Jerry Wood succeeded the late Mike McLaughlin and Coast Unified schools trustee Lee McFarland replaced Lesli Murdoch.
All were appointed.
Cost is a big factor. Campbell, a Bay Area city of about 40,000 residents, paid an estimated $570,000 to hold a special election this past spring on three initiatives dealing with medical marijuana.
Those costs don’t translate directly to Cambria, but suppose they did: The $14.25-per-person cost of the Campbell would work out to about $85,000 for a community of roughly 6,000. Still, some will argue, democracy is worth it — especially with two seats up for grabs. But that could make things even more awkward: Until a vote could be held, just three directors would be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the community.
So, let’s assume the board stays the course and decides to fill both seats by appointment. That raises a couple of big questions: How should the person be chosen, and whose political agenda should he or she represent?
Thompson said recently he viewed the 2014 board election as a referendum on Cambria’s Sustainable Water Facility: Roughly 60 percent of the votes cast backed the two candidates who strongly supported that project (Thompson and Jim Bahringer).
On the other hand, that support wasn’t so cut-and-dried in 2016. Voters elected Sanders (a frequent board ally of Thompson and Bahringer), but also chose Harry Farmer, a critic of the project. In the middle was President Amanda Rice, who has supported the project, but with reservations, and who sometimes sides with Farmer. She got the most votes of any candidate.
So the town is obviously still divided on the plant — and the related issue of growth.
Will of the voters
Leaving that aside, though, shouldn’t any new voice on the board reflect the philosophy of the person being replaced — thus honoring the voters that put them in office?
That didn’t happen when the health board replaced McLaughlin, a member of the minority bloc there. His widow and other supporters argued that his replacement should reflect his views, but their preferred candidate was bypassed when the majority chose Wood. Was that fair to voters? And, if not, would it be fair to replace Sanders or Thompson with someone who fails to share their views?
Some have suggested inviting runners-up from the most recent election to apply. Under that scenario, then-incumbent Gail Robinette, a water plant supporter, and challenger Dewayne Lee, who was backed by many plant opponents, would be the first in line.
If either one’s still interested.
It the board decides to fill both seats by appointment, that raises a couple of big questions: How should the person be chosen, and whose political agenda should he or she represent?
Both seats seem likely to be filled by appointment, and regardless of who’s chosen, a lot of people will be unhappy. Elections don’t resolve that unhappiness, but at least they give constituents a voice, and because of that, a special election would be great … if it weren’t so darned expensive. (Worth noting: One major criticism of the current board is that it’s been spending too much money as it is, so would it really make sense to spend even more on a special election?)
On the plus side, two seats — Thompson’s and Bahringer’s — are up for election in a little more than a year anyway, which will give Cambrians a clear choice between changing direction or staying the course. And any appointments made in the next couple of months will be hot topics when Campaign 2018 rolls around.
Count on it.
Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896