The mystery of Santa Maria’s mayors
How the city ever established the office of mayor is a mystery. The articles of incorporation, when Santa Maria was formally established as a city in 1905, show voters approved becoming a city, and elected five members to a Board of Trustees, a clerk ex-officio assessor, a treasurer, and a marshal ex-officio tax and license collector. There was no mention of a mayor.
There are no documents that established the office of mayor. The city website currently lists mayors from 1905 to the present, naming A.W. Cox as the first mayor in 1905.
Where did that come from? There was no mayor elected in 1905. Emmet T. Bryant had 311 votes for Board of Trustees in that election. Mr. Cox came in second with 310 votes.
Somehow, instead of a Board of Trustees, the city has a council and mayor. The city’s Municipal Code defines the council as "Council," which means the City Council of the city of Santa Maria. "All its members" or "all Council members" means the total number of council members holding office. The Municipal Code Sections 2-2.02 and 2-2.03 describe the salaries of council and mayor.
The city historically had two-year terms for mayor, with George Hobbs serving from 1980-94, Roger Bunch from 1994-96. Then Abel Maldonado was elected mayor in 1996, leaving vacant his remaining two years as a council member. The council appointed Larry Lavagnino to fill that vacancy.
In 2000, voters changed the term of mayor from two to four years. Joe Centeno was the first mayor elected to a four-year term. After seven months as mayor, on July 27, 2001, he announced his intention to run for the Board of Supervisors. In the June primary of 2002, he received over 50 percent of the vote, so did not face a runoff in November. He then refused to vacate the council office so voters could have elected a mayor in November to fill the vacancy. Instead, the council appointed Larry Lavagnino as mayor for the next two years, and appointed Alice Patino to fill Larry’s council position.
The same thing happened in the election of 2012, when council member Alice Patino was elected mayor, leaving a council vacancy.
The mystery of the city having a mayor is not resolved. Neither the Municipal Code nor the charter specify that the city shall have a mayor.
The position of mayor has resulted in a series of problems, since there is no policy about filling vacancies. It could be the next highest vote-
getter, or by appointment.
There are several solutions to that problem. San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Solvang elect their mayors for two-year terms. Goleta elects five council members who choose one to serve as mayor for a year.
Santa Maria could elect five council members and have one serve as mayor for one year. Or Santa Maria voters could change the mayor’s term back to two years.
If a council member, with two years remaining of their term, decided to run for another office, the Municipal Code could specify that the council member, when filing for another office, must vacate the council seat. That would mean the council would operate with fewer members until the next election, but then voters would fill the vacancy.
How the position of mayor was created is still a mystery. However, electing five council members, with one of them to serve as mayor for one year, would resolve a lot of problems that have arisen regarding that unaccountable office of mayor.