After much debate around what would best represent the will of the people, the Mountain View City Council decided to fill its open seat through an appointment process, rather than a special election.
The council considered its options at a Jan. 5 special meeting, which was called after Sally Lieber officially stepped down from her city council position in late December, citing a conflict of interest issue with her new position on the State Board of Equalization.
“The council must either appoint a new member within 30 days of the vacancy commencement, so in this case on or before Jan. 29, or call an election on or before Jan. 29,” City Clerk Heather Glaser explained at the Jan. 5 meeting. This is a requirement of the city charter, staff said.
If the council wanted to go the special election route, city staff said the earliest that the election could take place per county regulations would be in June, and given the amount of staff time it takes to plan for a special election, staff recommended an election day closer to early August. A special election would cost the city approximately $2.1 million, Glaser said.
The city clerk added that in the past 10 instances of Mountain View City Council vacancies, seven were filled by appointment, two were filled during the next general election (an option that wasn’t possible in this case due to timing), and one was filled by special election.
If the council opted to go with an appointment, Glaser said, someone would need to be chosen by Jan. 29, 30 days after Lieber officially resigned. However, since that deadline falls on a weekend, city attorney Jennifer Logue said it would be legally sound for the city to hold the appointment meeting on Monday, Jan. 30.
Vice Mayor Alison Hicks initially took a neutral stance between the two options, noting that she’s heard strong support from the public for both routes.
“I’ve gotten many comments from residents saying that we’d be crazy to do a special election and others saying that we’d be crazy to do an appointment, so I guess we’re crazy either way,” Hicks said.
While acknowledging concerns around the cost of a special election and the fact that council would have an empty seat for close to nine months, council members Margaret Abe-Koga and Lisa Matichak both strongly supported the special election option. They were both concerned that any other route would flout the will of the people.
“We’ve been fortunate to be in a place where we have funds to do many things,” Abe-Koga said. “We’ve spent funds on many different things. I think this is an important function that’s worth the funding.”
Mayor Lucas Ramirez and council members Ellen Kamei and Pat Showalter all supported doing an appointment, bringing the council to an impasse, as Hicks appeared to be leaning toward a special election.
Those supporting the appointment option brought up concerns around historically low voter turnout during special elections, the high cost of conducting a special election and the desire to fill the seat as soon as possible.
“We just received our tentative agenda list, which has many important and critical policy decisions that I believe we need a full council to discuss,” Kamei said.
Ramirez said his biggest concern was the $2.1 million estimated price tag that would come with a special election.
“I can’t justify spending $2.1 million on a special election,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary expenditure.”
Ramirez ended up asking for a show of hands to see if the council had majority support for either option. For the special election option, Abe-Koga, Matichak and Hicks raised their hands, so there was not majority support. For the appointment option, Ramirez, Kamei and Showalter raised their hands, and Hicks raised hers a second time, breaking the tie and establishing an appointment as the path forward.
In a post later that evening on CivicBell, a platform where elected officials can gather input from constituents, Matichak expressed her disappointment with the council’s decision.
“I thought it was very important for residents to have the opportunity to select their representative,” Matichak wrote. “While holding an election is rather costly and leaves a vacancy for a while, I think providing residents with the opportunity to vote outweighs those factors.”
Vice Mayor Alison Hicks told the Voice in an emailed statement that she feels strongly that "city decisions should be made by people voted into office by our residents." That being said, she continued, special elections are expensive and turnout is often low, "so they are not as good a gauge of public opinion as regular elections."
"I put the word out that I supported a special election, but when backing for that among council members and public speakers was not a clear majority, I felt we would be better served by the appointment process," Hicks said. "I am committed to making the appointment process as transparent and open to the public as possible on the extremely short timeline that our city charter requires for appointments."
She added that she would support amending the city charter in the future so that the appointment timeline could be "a little longer to allow for more public input."
The council decided to hold the appointment meeting, which will include both interviewing the applicants and making a final selection, on Monday, Jan. 30, at 5 p.m. The interviews will be conducted in person at the council chambers, though the meeting will still be streamed online per usual, Mayor Ramirez told the Voice.
The council also decided that, in addition to filling out an application, those interested in the open seat will be required to write a letter of interest. The city will open applications and begin advertising the open seat on Jan. 9, and the deadline to submit applications will be Jan. 18 at 5 p.m.
As for the interview questions that applicants will be tasked with answering during the Jan. 30 selection meeting, the council will solidify those at the Jan. 24 regular meeting so that the public has a couple weeks to weigh in.