Council Vacancy: The Argument for Considering a Special Election

The newly elected Mayor and City Council will be formally installed at the upcoming meeting on Tuesday.   One of the first matters that will come before them is what to do about filling the vacancy created by the unexpired councilmember term of now Mayor Pat Furey.  Filling this vacancy is critical as the individual could easily end up serving as a councilmember for the next 10 years as the initial two year period would not count against the two term limit.  The Council has two options: they can either use their authority to appoint a new member; or they can decide to hold a special election to fill the position.  Either way, the decision is sure to cause a stir within the community.

After a recently concluded divisive mayoral election, selecting someone by appointment may lead to further fissures in the community.  Should the Council choose this option, a possible selection, and probably the least controversial choice would be Leilani Kimmel-Dagastino.  It could be argued that she earned the appointment by finishing 5th in the recent election – only one slot shy of the winner’s circle.

Dagastino, however, is a Republican and was heavily supported by that party in the recent election.  Newly elected Mayor Furey is a Democrat.  He may risk alienating his base by selecting a Republican, such as Dagastino, to the position.  No other viable Democratic candidates remain among the pool of 12 unsuccessful candidates in the past election as the field was dominated by Republicans.  That may be why rumors are swirling that Furey is looking beyond the recent field of candidates in search of an appointee.  Some voices, such as those found here, are claiming that a backdoor deal has already been cut to appoint Ray Uchima.  Such a decision will likely not to be a popular one amongst the community at large.

Given the above, I hope the Council will give more consideration to allowing the voting public to decide the matter through a special election.  Sadly, the idea of a special election seems to have gained little traction with the Council due to the expense.  The City Clerk, who provided an unsubstantiated estimate of $200K for the costs, admitted in the staff report that the City has not solicited a firm quote. I believe it would be a shame for the Council to move to appoint someone, especially an individual that didn’t run in the recent election, without exercising due diligence in order to gain a full understanding of the actual costs associated with conducting the election.

A quick Internet search reveals that the costs of an election can vary widely depending on how the election is conducted.   Vote by Mail options reduce costs significantly.  The cost of that option can be reduced even further by requiring voters to provide their own return postage.  I found some information showing that cities utilizing the vote by mail option reported costs as little as $1.25 per voter.  California cities such as Lake Forest and Livermore recently held special elections at a total cost of $39K and $50K respectively.  To further reduce costs, Torrance could even consider options such as limiting the special election to only those that voted in the June election.  My point here is that there are options available that are worth fully considering before the council rushes to make an appointment.

Just in the last few months, Torrance has approved expenditures such as $75K for AYSO banners put on city street lights, $146K to promote ridesharing amongst city employees, and $75K to hold an hour and a half optional ethics class.  The Council didn’t blink an eye in approving these, and other more costly measures, yet seems to be balking a great deal at the cost of holding an election; something that is at the core of our democratic and governmental process.  Why is that?

Elections Reflections Part Three: Did the Torrance Chamber of Commerce Fail the Local Business Community?

Did the Torrance Chamber of Commerce fail the local business community with their endorsements in this past election?  Admittedly, having not been an active participant within the Chamber and only having cursory knowledge of their activities, I am probably not the proper person to answer that question.  That said, participating in the Chamber endorsement process did cause me to wonder how satisfied the business community was with their representation as I found their endorsements quite perplexing.  The Public Safety endorsements made a lot of sense in that they endorsed those most likely to protect their interests.  I’m not so sure the same could be said of the Chamber.  The Torrance Chamber markets itself as an organization that, “supports the interests of business before government.”  With the imminent departure of Torrance’s largest employer, supporting business has likely never been as important in Torrance as it is now.

Shortly after my endorsement interview with the Chamber and only a few days prior to Toyota’s announcement I had an e-mail exchange with an influential member of the endorsing committee.  The topic was how we could improve the business climate and the comment to me was:

“The problem we face is that we have had some very, very liberal left representatives locally …the SUPER MAJORITY in Sacramento is extremely far left in their political views and they are not going to change. I know many of them and they simply are not willing to listen.”

It can be assumed that not all members of the Chamber endorsing committee would agree with that viewpoint, but given the above I was surprised to see the Chamber endorse the farthest left leaning candidates in the race.  Three of the candidates the Chamber endorsed (Goodrich, Griffiths, and Weidemen) were also endorsed by the Sierra Club – an environmental activist organization not generally known for its pro-business agenda.  Among a large field of Republican candidates, it is also notable that Goodrich and Weidemen were the only two legitimate Democratic candidates running and were both heavily backed by that party.

Goodrich, whose limited professional business experience consists primarily of working as a union representative for the California Association of Public Employees, made an especially intriguing pick.  The Chamber also backed well known Geoff Rizzo whose career as a police officer, though admirable, doesn’t necessarily qualify him as someone with an astute business sense who will serve as a strong advocate on behalf of the business community.  What made these endorsements even more perplexing is that as far as I’m aware neither Goodrich nor Rizzo had any level of meaningful involvement with the Chamber prior to receiving their endorsement.

Why did the Chamber endorse these candidates when they were many others with very strong business backgrounds and a history of significant contributions to the Chamber to choose from?  Dagastino and Mattucci, for example, are both former leadership Torrance participants (a program designed by the Chamber itself to train future business leaders) with a long history of running their own businesses and working directly with the Chamber.  Mattucci, to his credit, was the only candidate that produced an actual business plan to help struggling small businesses in Torrance.  As another example, Alex See is a local restaurant owner who had a career in the aerospace industry and who also has been active in the Chamber.  As an Asian, Alex See could also have provided keen insight into the crucial Asian business community within Torrance.

We will never know for sure, but the extra boost offered by the Chamber endorsements may have been enough to put business friendly candidates such as Dagastino and See, who finished just shy of winning in the 5th and 6th places respectively, over the top.  Given the strong business credentials of these candidates, and others passed over by the Chamber, I am still left wondering what criteria drove the Chamber in their decision making process.

I’ve heard some say that the Chamber made a conscious decision to pick those they thought would win and not necessarily those they thought would be the best for the job.  I’ve also heard that they are too closely tied to the political powers that be to make an independent decision.  I’m not sure if there is any truth to those assertions, but if there were wouldn’t it surely lessen the Chamber’s credibility among its members.  As it stands, I do wonder if their decisions didn’t alienate some of their membership that was paying attention.  Evidence of this could be the seemingly strong initial support for the United Business Alliance started by Mattucci in the wake of the campaign.  The facebook page for that Alliance found here still boasts that more than 50 Torrance businesses signed up in only two days.   Could that organization now arise as a competitor to the Chamber?

If anyone has any insight into why the Chamber made the choices they did I would appreciate it if you would provide it in the comments below as I, and I am sure some other candidates as well, would love to hear an explanation.

Elections Reflections Part Two: Public Safety Endorsements

The backing of the Public Safety Unions in Torrance nearly guarantees victory at the polls. In this past election, their chosen candidates took the mayoral race and the top 5 councilmember positions. Why do their selected candidates do so well? The answer is more nuanced, but the most obvious reason is money. Campaign finance documents reveal that in this past election Public Safety Unions spent upwards of $40K supporting candidates. That’s drastically more than any other one entity. Why are the unions so invested in the political process? I found my endorsement interview with the Torrance Police Officers Association (TPOA) revealing in this regard.  Prior to the interview, the TPOA asked candidates to complete a short questionnaire.  That questionnaire consisted of the 5 questions below:

What is your history in Torrance?

What is your stance on pension reform as it pertains to Public Safety?

Should Torrance Police Officers be differentiated between other City employees in terms of salary?

During salary negotiations, the City of Torrance conducts a salary survey of (10) like size cities?  Where would you, as a City Councilmember, work to see members of TPOA?

What differentiates you from other candidates?

As indicated by the focus of these questions, it became clear to me during my 20 minute interview that the TPOA’s endorsement decision rested almost entirely on how I felt about police officer compensation. Nothing else mattered. Did this surprise me? No, not really. Who can honestly blame the TPOA for making something as personal as providing for their families their top priority? I can’t.

What did surprise me, however, was the immense pressure I felt to conform to their position and the complete lack of an open and honest discussion among the candidates on this important issue. I often felt like I either had to toe the union line or risk being branded as anti-public safety and an enemy to not only all police officers and firemen everywhere, but also all other unionized public employees such as teachers. With many public employees counted among my friends and neighbors and with local teachers playing a huge role in my kid’s education, I found this quite an unpleasant and uncomfortable position to be in. I mean let’s be honest; nobody living in Torrance wants to end up on the wrong side of the Torrance PD. I certainly don’t. That’s why no issue caused me more internal consternation and I found my conversations on this topic extremely difficult to navigate as I constantly felt misunderstood.

I think that’s why the mailers sent out by the unions towards the end of the campaign bothered me so much. The mailers had pictures of their endorsed candidates with captions reading things like, “So and so is dedicated to ensure the safety and security of our residents.” And, “such and such will keep public safety his top priority and give first responders the tools they need.” I wanted to scream out, “Hey, I care about public safety too. I also want to keep our community safe.” Who doesn’t?

Of course, what the mailers didn’t mention was that the pictured candidates were also the candidates that fell most in line with the union position on compensation for employees. I couldn’t help but wonder what people would have thought if the captions read, “so and so is dedicated to ensuring Police Officers can retire after 30 years at 90% of pay” or “such and such will guarantee firemen don’t contribute any percentage of their salary to their pensions.” Would the public even notice? If they did notice, might it possibly illicit a more genuine conversation about the issue? I get why the unions spin their message in the way that they do and I don’t begrudge them for doing so. That’s politics and it’s hard to argue with an approach that yields results. Still, I can’t help but yearn for a community that demands a more real and honest discussion on such critical issues such as how we compensate our city employees. It would also be nice if that conversation allowed for people to have differing viewpoints on that issue without them having to fear being labeled as anti-union or anti-public safety.

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