Another round of 2-2 votes and motions that died for lack of a second Monday night left the Solvang City Council still unable to agree on how to choose who will fill the vacant seat left by the resignation of Hans Duus.
It also prompted Mayor Jim Richardson to declare he’ll call a special council meeting every week until the four members either resolve their impasse or the state-mandated 60-day time limit runs out Oct. 27, which will force the city to spend thousands of dollars to hold a special election.
Yet the council couldn’t even reach an agreement on when to hold its first special meeting. Richardson wanted to set it for 6:30 p.m. next Monday.
When City Manager Brad Vidro reminded the council the Planning Commission meets at 6 p.m. Monday, Richardson suggested moving the special meeting up to 4 or 4:30 p.m.
But Councilman Ryan Toussaint said he couldn’t commit to that or any other day and time without consulting his calendar.
Richardson then asked City Clerk Lisa Martin to poll council members Tuesday morning to see when they would be available next week.
The ongoing inability to agree on a method for filling the vacancy left emotions running near red line.
After four motions died for lack of a second, two resulted in 2-2 deadlocks and one failed on a 1-3 vote, a frustrated Duus couldn’t keep quiet.
“You guys are not doing justice to this city by playing games up there,” he said from the audience.
Former Councilman Ed Skytt, who accused Toussaint and Councilman Neill Zimmerman of having a personal agenda, couldn’t keep quiet either.
“You’re putting the entire city in peril,” he said from the audience.
A council divided
The issue has divided the council into two camps, each of which says its favored method is more transparent than the other.
One camp might be called “the protocolists,” consisting of Richardson and Councilwoman Joan Jamieson, who want to follow a protocol approved by the council in 2009 and offer the seat to the first runner-up in the last election.
That would be Karen Waite, who lost out to Toussaint and the incumbent Duus in the November 2016 election for two seats, falling only 50 votes behind Toussaint and just five votes behind Duus.
Waite has already said she wants the job, which she repeated Monday night in reviewing her qualifications.
“As first runner-up … I’ve been publicly vetted, so my transparency cannot be questioned,” she said. “Neither could my integrity. … I actually am the most qualified candidate to fill this vacancy.”
The other camp might be called “the anything-but-protocolists,” made up of Toussaint and Zimmerman, who would prefer to call for applications from the public and pick whoever they believe is the best replacement from that pool.
On Monday, Zimmerman came up with an alternate procedure that would allow only those serving on the city’s Planning Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission or Board of Architectural Review to submit applications, but that idea gained no support.
Given the council remains divided, with neither side willing to budge, after discussions and public testimony at two consecutive meetings, the possibility exists council members couldn’t reach consensus on one person from a field of applicants anyway.
Both Toussaint and Zimmerman indicated that if the application process can’t be used to choose a new council member, they would prefer to hold a special election, despite the cost to the city and the length of time that would elapse before the seat is filled.
In the meantime, the council could continue to deadlock on other issues if there is no fifth member to break tie votes.
Solvang doesn’t have the resources to hold a special election on its own, so that would have to be handled by the county.
Vidro said the county doesn’t plan to hold an election next April, so the soonest an election could be held would be next June, which means the council would have an empty seat for eight months.
The election would also cost the city $6,000 to $7,000, although Vidro noted a consultant that helps the city with elections said a mail-in ballot could be done for about $28,000.
The public weighs in
Twelve members of the public signed up to speak about the issue Monday night, so in the interest of saving time, Richardson cut their speaking limit from five to three minutes.
At the last meeting, the speakers were somewhat evenly divided between those who supported the council protocol and those who thought the city should call for applications.
But Monday night, only two public speakers supported taking applications.
At the last meeting, Lana Clark, a lawyer with a practice in Solvang who wants to apply for the seat, questioned the legality of the council’s protocol, because state law only allows for appointing a replacement or holding a special election.
City Attorney Roy Hanley said the protocol is legal because it’s simply a way to choose who to appoint.
This week, Clark reiterated her contention but added a new twist.
“I or all the people who are candidates deprived of their right of consideration for this position can seek a writ of mandamus,” she said, and if they prevail in court, they could be awarded attorney fees and costs, which the city would have to pay.
She said by taking applications, the council could still choose to appoint Waite, but it would avoid potential litigation.
“Getting it right is the most important thing you can do,” said Chris Djernaes, who also wants to apply for the seat.
However, the majority supported following protocol.
“I don’t support appointing someone the citizens have not had the chance to look at and vote on,” said Mark Infanti, adding that most of those who spoke against following protocol at the last meeting were people who want to be appointed.
Skytt pointed out the council voted 5-0 to approve the protocol in 2009.
“To change the rules in the middle of the process is not only unfair and wrong, it would set a dangerous precedent,” he said.
Gay Infanti, who sits on the city’s Planning Commission, favored following protocol.
“Citizens have the right to elect our City Council members,” she said, adding that Waite lost out to Duus by just 0.4 percent and to Toussaint by 3.9 percent of the vote. “You can’t afford to wait four to six months. You’re already experiencing deadlock.”
Duus presented the council with petitions bearing the signatures of 241 residents who support following protocol.
“That is 10 percent of the voters in the last election, just gathered in the last few days,” he said.
Toussaint countered with numbers from an independent survey that he said showed 55 percent of the respondents were against following protocol.
Richardson said he had that survey in front of him and read off some other numbers: 44.87 percent favored appointing Waite, 41 percent wanted the city to call for applications and 14 percent supported a special election.
Then he pointed out only 78 people voted in the survey.
“The percentages are right, but the number of voters who voted (in the survey) are miniscule compared to the number of people in the audience tonight,” he said.