New Culver City Councilmembers Take Office Before Contentious Vice Mayor Vote

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Even celebrations get chippy in Culver City politics

On April 30, the newly elected Culver City councilmembers Daniel Lee and Alex Fisch took their oaths of office and sat at the Culver City Council dais for the first time, each beginning a four-year term in office. At the meeting, the public had a chance to bid farewell to outgoing councilmembers Jeffrey Cooper and Jim Clarke, both of whom have served the maximum two terms allowed under Culver City law.

It was a mostly celebratory occasion, with certificates of appreciation and pronouncements of praise flying freely for both the outgoing and incoming members. But, as is becoming common in the Mike C. Balkman council chambers, the evening was not without prickly debate, insults jeered from out-of-towners, and exasperated calls for order.

Much of that animosity can be attributed to a contentious election, in which progressive candidates Mr. Fisch and Mr. Lee supplanted two conservative-leaning councilmembers and, in the process, denied the chance for a well-known local personality, Albert Vera Jr., to join the council.

Social media spars and warring op-eds in local blogs were commonplace during the run-up to the April 10 election, which has been described to me as a “changing of the guard” and a disruption of the “old boys network” in Culver City.

In their final Culver City Council meeting, Mayor Jeffrey Cooper and councilmember Jim Clarke listen to public comment on their time in office.

“This election has resulted in a fundamental shift in the politics of Culver City,” said Councilmember Jim Clarke in the opening lines of his parting speech. “[It] was significant. Whether the results will be for the good or not, only time will tell.”The elections apparent divisiveness wasn’t exactly an elephant in the room, nor was the fact that it represented a symbolic and substantive change for the city.

Clarke went onto say that the “intolerance and vitriol” surrounding the election was “disheartening” and “made a mockery out of us calling ourselves as a City of Kindness.”

In contrast to Mr. Clarke’s prepared speech, Mr. Cooper, who is acting Mayor, elected to share remarks “from the gut.” He doled out praise to active community members, the people of Culver City, and the City staff among others, celebrating the relationships he has forged in his time on the Council.

“It’s been a hell of a ride. I’m proud. I’m looking for the next adventure in my life, and thank you all,” he said to close.

With the departure of Mr. Cooper and Mr. Clarke, it was time for Mr. Fisch and Mr. Lee to swear their civic oaths and replace the empty seats on the dais. Both men seemed comfortable – Mr. Lee gave a lighthearted “Wakanda Forever” salute from the movie Black Panther after finishing his oath – as they settled in to handle a single agenda item before wrapping the meeting.

This is a lot of common sense in this policy, and it’s been discussed first in 2010 and [2017] … it was passed unanimously by the five of us at that time. – Goran Eriksson on the policy for determining Culver City’s Mayoral and Vice Mayoral rotation

That’s when the fireworks began.

The new council’s first task was to decide on their Mayor and Vice Mayor. Although the roles are largely ceremonial and per policy are chosen on a rotating basis, the Mayor does have some additional power in running council meetings and acting as the face of the city. Since the current Vice Mayor, Thomas Small, has served for the preceding year, that position was essentially set.

But when it came to choosing Vice Mayor, things became complicated and controversial. According to the standing policy – on the books since 2010 – the Vice Mayor role should go to Goran Eriksson, the council’s sole conservative-leaning member and most senior member who has not been Vice Mayor. But the new progressive majority had a bit of a coup in mind.

In a way, the debate became a microcosm of the divide overtaking Culver City politics. A rumor mill, no doubt spun on soccer practice sidelines and in social media status updates, tipped off the city’s conservative factions that Mr. Eriksson might be denied his chance to be Mayor next year. Folks representing those factions came to give public comment on the matter, with one resident asserting that to “deny [him] this position would not be an act of unity, but in fact would be very divisive.”

Other residents argued the policy had been broken multiple times in the past 8 years, so there was no obligation to stick by it.

Newly elected Culver City councilmember Daniel Lee – the first black person to hold that position – listens to councilmember Goran Eriksson’s comment on the policy to elect Mayor and Vice Mayor.

Mr. Fisch, previously the Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice, gave a policy-wonk answer, arguing that ultimately the council has discretion because of the City’s charter, which mandates the positions be chosen at the pleasure of the council. At the end of his comment, Mr. Fisch threw in for councilmember Megan Sahli-Wells, pointing out she received nearly 50% more votes than the next nearest vote-getter in her re-election bid, which to Mr. Fisch signaled she had a robust mandate to lead.The matter was an opportunity for both Mr. Fisch and Mr. Lee to demonstrate how they might tackle future issues before the council.

Daniel Lee, an activist and non-profit project manager, said he would vote based on his politics, giving the nod to Councilmember Megan Sahli-Wells as well. Ms. Sahli-Wells is a second-term progressive stalwart who has already served as Mayor. Mr. Lee’s comments were occasionally peppered with catcalls of “gender-baiter!” and “puppet!” from an audience member – prompting freshly seated Mayor Small to bang his gavel for order.

When it came time to vote, Mayor Small and Councilmember Sahli-Wells consummated their alliance with the council’s new voices, installing Ms. Sahli-Wells as Vice Mayor with a 4-1 majority.

The surprise move poises the new Vice Mayor to oversee the Culver City General Plan update as Mayor in her last year in office, providing ideological continuity after Mayor Small steps down.

But despite their victory, the emboldened majority didn’t make public their intention prior to the meeting, and had it not been for a whisper around town of their plan, the result may have been even more shocking for supporters of Mr. Eriksson. One self-identified progressive resident told me she hoped the council majority would release a statement defending their decision and explaining why Ms. Sahli-Wells is a choice more representative of Culver City’s political temperature.

However they proceed, it seems wise to find a way to placate the city’s aggrieved conservatives, who are undoubtedly upset with this latest setback.

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