A polarized Ceres City Council was unable to resolve its deep division about who should be appointed to an empty District 1 council seat on Thursday evening, triggering a special election for Council District 1 that may cost taxpayers $40,000.
The special meeting was the council’s fourth time discussing an appointment with the same results of Feb. 2, Feb. 8 and Feb. 22. Thursday’s meeting was timed the day before the March 5 automatic trigger for a special election to fill the council seat left vacant when Channce Condit moved to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 5. State law dictates that a vacancy must be filled within 90 days or a special election must be ordered. The councilmembers found themselves locked into their positions they had maintained all last month: Councilwoman Linda Ryno and Councilman Bret Silveira only willing to support the appointment of Laurie Smith, a 14-year member of the Ceres Planning Commission; and Mayor Javier Lopez and Vice Mayor Couper supporting other applicants besides Smith.
Besides Smith, others who applied for the seat were day care facility operator Connie Vasquez; Memorial Medical Center technician Mark C. White; and limousine business owner Parminder S. Bahia.
The soonest an election could be conducted in District 1 by the county Elections Division is Tuesday, Aug. 31.
The council found itself several times sitting in awkward silence, punctuated by a series of the same motions made by Condit in previous meetings which failed.
The first motion was made by Silveira and seconded by Ryno to appoint Smith, which died with the opposition of Lopez and Condit.
Condit then put forth White’s name, which was supported by Lopez and opposed by Ryno and Silveira.
Backed by Lopez, Condit then motioned for the council to come up with a second choice, which failed in a 2-2 vote.
Lopez’s motion to appoint Vasquez failed in a 2-2 vote.
Neither Lopez nor Condit motioned in support of Bahia who they had supported in February but have distanced themselves from after it was revealed that he had two alcohol related car crashes on his record dating back to 2008.
Condit again motioned for the council to state a first choice and second choice which died in a 2-2 tie.
Condit brought up a different matter, asking City Attorney Tom Hallinan if Smith, who is employed by the city of Modesto, would have any conflicts of interest relating to contracts Ceres has with Modesto. Hallinan said there could be potential conflicts, especially when it comes to new contracts versus existing contracts, but Smith could opt out of voting on those matters.
Ryno mentioned past Ceres councilmembers Stan Risen and Blair Bradley who both worked for the city of Modesto.
Condit repeated his same failed motion.
He then motioned for the councilmembers to give up their stipend and city-paid health insurance premiums to help pay for the special election. The motion failed when Ryno and Silveira opposed the motion.
After sitting in silence for three solid minutes, Silveira motioned to adjourn, to which Condit replied, “I think we have a lot to talk about. We have an unfunded special election. We’re going to figure out how to pay for it.”
Condit motioned again for the council to give up stipend and benefits which failed in a 2-2 vote.
When asked if the city has a surplus to fund the election, City Manager Tom Westbrook said there is a city could pay for the election through the general fund surplus through salary savings and infusion of CARES Act money. He said the city realized some savings because some members opted not to take medical benefits.
The council sat in silence another two and a half minutes before Condit offered his now worn-out motion to give up stipends and benefits which ended in yet the same tie vote.
Condit then asked Ryno and Silveira if “they’ve thought about another way to fund the special election.” Suspecting they were being played, neither answered Condit.
Lopez then adjourned the meeting.
A number of Ceres residents had their say at the outset of the meeting.
District 1 resident Lee Brandt called into the Zoom meeting and expressed his dismay over the council being deadlocked.
“The person you appoint tonight will serve only 610 days as opposed to the 1,460 days that you serve during your four years,” said Brandt. “Should you not appoint anyone tonight we will be without a full council for 176 days should this go to a special election costing the city between $35,000 and $40,000, all of which Ceres cannot afford. If it goes to a special election, that person will only serve 434 days. Is the $35,000 to $40,000 worth it? Not to mention the message it sends to businesses and Ceres residents that our council is divided and there is a good chance nothing will get done until after the special election on Aug. 31.”
Brant went on to endorse Smith and hinted at a recall.
A message from his wife, Shelia Brandt, was read by the city clerk accusing Lopez and Condit of opposing an experienced applicant in Smith “so the two of you can mold them into what you want.”
“I’m asking you, Mayor Lopez, and you, Councilmember Condit to think about the city you are supposed to be representing, not your own agenda because where I stand it looks like that’s what you’re doing.”
Renee Ledbetter said she is frustrated to see Lopez and Condit “feel that experience doesn’t matter” when three councilmembers are inexperienced. She said the city is popping in economic development projects and that city leadership has “hit a block wall, all over again.”
“To me it just does not make sense and it seems like you’re totally unreasonable and I just can’t wrap my head around why you would want to spend money on a special election when you have someone who is well qualified, well experienced and is going to be sitting in a temporary appointed position,” said Ledbetter. “I would really hope that you would open your ears to what the community is saying and has been saying for the past few weeks during these meetings, that it does not make sense to go to a special election for a temporary appointment.”
John Osgood plugged a special election and its costs as “chump change” and accused Smith and the Planning Commission of “gross failures,” adding Ceres has “added homes at the peril of our police, fire, our sewer system, our water systems, our roadways, our school systems. We have added no meaningful jobs.”
He downplayed the coming of the Walmart Supercenter, saying it’s leaving an empty Walmart building at Hatch and Mitchell.
At a follow-up discussion on Monday ordering the special election, Condit twice again attempted his failed motions to have the council give up stipends and health insurance to go towards the special election. They both failed but when Condit motioned to give up his stipend, the council voted 3-1in favor of it, Ryno voting yes and Silveira voting no.
The last order of business was to approve a resolution calling the special election. Condit took exception to the language that the council “wishes to call a special election.” He wanted the word “wishes” to be stricken which was agreed upon.
Even though the council is legally required to call the special election, Condit cast the lone vote against the resolution calling for it.