2018 Vice Mayor Controversy: A Historical Context

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Op-Ed: Views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

The Principles, Precedents, and Practical Politics of Mayoral Succession

Meghan Sahli-Wells (left) and Göran Eriksson (right) were the two councilmembers discussed and debated for the Vice Mayor seat on Monday night.

Where were you? That’s the question I kept asking Monday night as I struggled to understand the thundering denunciations and declarations of high principle that poured forth in the City Council chambers. In an unusual display of determined discord as the City celebrated its democratic transition, a string of well-prepared speakers marched up to the microphone to demand that Goran Eriksson be elected Vice Mayor and mayor-in-waiting. These included several of Eriksson’s 2016 campaign staff, alt-right apologist Ron Bassillian, and a particularly vicious Costa Mesa resident who traveled all that way to denounce Meghan Sahli-Wells before a live-stream internet audience of MAGA trolls.

The issue at hand was the question of the order, if any, of mayoral succession. A policy on the books since at least 2010, and reaffirmed in relevant part in 2017, calls for the Vice Mayorship to go to the senior-most Councilmember who has not previously served, and who then goes on to become Mayor. According to that policy, Eriksson would indeed have been next in line. Adhering to this policy, we heard, was a matter of “tradition,” of “principle,” one that meant that “ethics and honor are on the line.” To deviate would be “disgraceful,” “morally wrong,” even, according to Bassillian, a “crime of moral turpitude” that would merit removal from office. Similar arguments were echoed in Eriksson’s own remarks from the dais.

So, where were you? Just two years ago, in 2016, to be specific. That’s when Jeff Cooper was elected Vice Mayor, violating the very same policy at issue this week, and in the very same way: for him to become Vice Mayor and then Mayor for a second time ahead of those who had not yet had a turn. So the thing we were told would shake the foundations of our democracy and shatter our faith in the rule of law—to elect Sahli-Wells to a second term as Vice Mayor and then Mayor—was to extend to her the precise same honor so recently bestowed on the departing Mayor Cooper.

As best I can tell, there was no comparable uproar in 2016, not from Monday’s speakers or anyone else. No lineup at the Council meeting, no headlines in the press. Indeed, the 2016 coverage I have found (here and here) did not even note the succession policy issue, let alone treat it as some surprising transgression. In contrast, this time, the same local publications ran pre-meeting stories (here and here) to set up expectations that Eriksson would be elected and then quickly ran follow-up stories (here and here) highlighting the contrary outcome as a big deal.

It cannot be a coincidence that the two departing Councilmembers, Cooper and Jim Clarke, often voted together with Eriksson, and that all three had endorsed the two unsuccessful candidates in the recently concluded election. Thus, it’s understandable that their supporters would view Sahli-Wells’ second term in violation of policy differently than Cooper’s second term in violation of policy. But this difference is explicable only in terms of political preference, not bedrock principle that all should obey. And since those political preferences were not shared by the new Council majority—which was elected in a fair contest over precisely such differences—it seems hardly shocking that they chose to follow practical precedent over nominal policy and to elect Sahli-Wells.

To be sure, there is plenty more one can say about the matter. Although Eriksson was the one in 2016 who made the motion to elect Cooper in violation of policy, he did at least raise the question of adherence to policy at the time. In the different context of 2017, a number of today’s Council had affirmed the policy, despite their expressed reservations, and thus now appeared inconsistent themselves.

This time around, several speakers made sensible arguments apart from newfound fidelity to the policy. These included the value of mayoral rotation among all Members and the unifying function of giving a place of honor to a faction newly in the minority. Cutting the other way, there was the potential oddity of denying the mayoralty to Sahli-Wells despite her having won by far the most votes in 2016 and serving throughout her tenure as the only woman on the Council. Alex Fisch pointed out, moreover, that any purportedly binding succession policy itself appears to violate the City Charter, which vests not only the election but the continued service of Mayor and Vice Mayor “at the pleasure of the City Council.”

It’s a bit of a mess, really. And not one well-suited to resolution by the absolutes many offered on Monday night. Fortunately for all of us, the new Council—again, precisely like its predecessor in 2016–has put the issue of succession policy on the agenda for a future meeting. Perhaps that will clear things up, at least until 2020.