The Vice Mayor Controversy

Op-Ed: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
Culver City’s City Council with Newly Elected Councilmembers, Alex Fisch (2nd to left) and Daniel Lee, (2nd to right) seated with Vice Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells (far left), Mayor Thomas Smalls (center) and Council Member Göran Eriksson (far right)

After last night’s (April 30, 2018) City Council meeting, many remarked how shocked they were that the joyous celebration of two incoming councilmembers devolved into a contentious meeting that left many shaking their heads and confused.

The debate centered on whether the newly seated council would abide by the recently (February 2017) adopted policy to appoint a new vice mayor, who would in the next year, become mayor. The policy was based on the Policy Subcommittee’s (Goran Eriksson & Jim Clarke) recommendation. According to the policy, Councilmember Eriksson would be appointed vice mayor at this meeting, and would become mayor next year, the last year in his first term (i.e. an election year for him, should he run again).   

Members of the public raised concerns based on a rumor that the new council wouldn’t follow the new policy, and would appoint Councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells Vice mayor, which would make her mayor in her last year, as she is termed out. The Council voted to appoint Sahli-Wells Vice-mayor, to the chagrin of a vociferous group of citizens. However, the council voted to agendize a discussion of the policy, which by definition, invites the public’s opinion on the matter, hence this editorial. Some things matter more than others, when this is discussed.

In my opinion, what should matter the least, if we can help ourselves, is whether this makes Sahli-Wells or Erikkson mayor next year.

As Councilmember Fisch pointed out, no policy can override our charter, which says that mayor and vice mayor serve at the pleasure of the Council. The mayor rotation needs to be reviewed more carefully because — what happened last night and what happened in the past — are evidence that the policy is not working effectively. We cannot fix it to make it work for what we think is fair today. It must be fixed to make it work most often, and then, it should put the needs of the electorate above the needs of the Council.

The policy has three components:

Appointing a mayor for next year, by appointing a vice mayor this year.  The argument was made during the council discussion that this would prepare the new mayor for their job.  I find this argument specious, mostly because the policy also recommends the most senior member, so I doubt they need training.  The value of appointing a vice mayor, in my eyes, is to have the electorate understand who will be mayor and get comfortable with them over a year’s time.

Appointing the most senior (longest serving) member, who has not served before.
From the perspective of the electorate, this would allow different members of the Council to represent them. This is a good thing.

Appointing the member with the highest vote count.  This one is particularly important to the electorate, because it encourages candidates and councilmembers to be consensus builders, rather than represent factions of the community.  But it could also lead to the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ And, we have to consider that our highest turnout, this year, was only 28% of registered voters.

If you think about it, the controversy lies in the two last two points. Should seniority (longest serving) and not serving more than once be more important than electing the member with the highest vote count?

If seniority is more important than vote count, Eriksson should be elected. If vote count matters more than seniority, Sahli-Wells should be elected.

As the electorate, we can speak up on this issue. As our elected representatives, they must hear our voices and think less on their own circumstance, nor the circumstances of the past — though this is very hard — but what is best for our city going forward.  We are all better served by a mayor who is seen to be duly elected by the council.

And finally, and most importantly, let’s not forget a mayor doesn’t suddenly gain power, the mayor runs the meetings and represents the city for a year.

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