The third time was not the charm Monday evening when the Ceres City Council remained deadlocked in 2-2 ties that has stymied the appointment of someone to fill a vacant council seat.
None of the four members had changed their minds and after a lengthy deliberation the matter was put off to a yet a fourth meeting to be held on March 4. With the stalemate likely to not be resolved, the city may be forced to hold a special election to fill the District 1 council seat which could cost taxpayers $40,000 in county elections expense.
Mayor Javier Lopez and Vice Mayor Couper Condit steadfastly remained opposed to appointing Laurie Smith to the seat despite the insistence of Councilwoman Linda Ryno and Councilman Bret Silveira that the Planning Commission chairwoman is the only one who is supremely qualified. Smith has served on the Ceres Planning Commission for 14 years and has worked for the city of Modesto for over 25 years, hired as the first executive assistant to the mayor and council in 1995 and became an analyst, administrative services officer, business manager and now director of Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods.
Others who have applied for the appointment are day care facility operator Connie Vasquez; Memorial Medical Center technician Mark C. White; and limousine business owner Parminder S. Bahia.
The District 1 council seat became vacant last month when Channce Condit resigned midway through his four-year term to take a seat on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. The council intended to make an appointment on Feb. 2 to appoint someone to fill out the remaining two years of the term but soon realized an insurmountable 2-2 deadlock. During contentious debate, the council put off the matter until Feb. 8, with the no members budging. Monday’s dialogue was nearly the same as in the two prior meetings.
The council has 60 days from the vacancy date of Jan. 5 to either appoint or a special election will be automatically triggered. Because the next regularly scheduled council meeting isn’t until Monday, March 8, the council decided to hold one last discussion at a special meeting set for Thursday, March 4 before the clock runs out on March 5. Any special election would likely take place August 31. The winner of the election would only serve out the unexpired term, which would end in December 2022.
Monday’s discussion was like déjà vu as each member held to their position. Ryno and Silveira refused to accept White, Bahia and Vasquez given Smith’s experience in city government. Condit once again motioned to appoint White, which Lopez seconded with Ryno and Silveira voting no.
Mayor Lopez then nominated Vasquez, who was supported by Condit but also rejected by Ryno and Silveira.
Neither Lopez nor Condit nominated Bahia on Monday despite their prior votes to appoint him before the Courier reported on Feb. 10 that Bahia had too alcohol-related crashes in Ceres in 2008 and 2011.
Condit attempted to change the established method of selection by suggesting the council use a method tried in Turlock whereby members numerically rated their top three choices. He asked the others to pick their top two “so we can all come to an agreement … I don’t see why we all wouldn’t have a second choice.”
“It seems clear to me that you want to change the process that was agreed upon on how this would work,” Silveira fired back at Condit. “We agreed on the process. We went through the process. Here we are.”
Ryno sided with Silveira, adding “we did not agree to do Turlock’s way … and I believe we should stick with that and I will still say that I believe the most qualified person the council needs is Mrs. Smith. We need someone on here with experience.”
Condit motioned for the city to call for additional applicants which failed in yet another 2-2 vote.
An irate Ceres resident and truck driver John Osgood phoned into the meeting with an obscenity-laced tirade attacking Ryno and Silveira by reference as holding up the process.
“This is a mob-up a** council – and yes that word is precise!” yelled Osgood. “We have a public employee and a public retired employee holding us hostage, tyrannizing our city because they feel another public employee, an entrenched government agent, should be our City Council person.”
Osgood’s salty language was too much for Lopez who cautioned him to refrain from cursing. Osgood ended his speech by saying the council should call for a special election and “be done looking like the idiots of the county.”
Lee Brandt weighed in next, saying he was “totally appalled” at the council’s conduct.
“Mr. Mayor, you were elected to help this city of Ceres and by going along with Couper’s agenda you are not helping,” said Brandt. “I am very, very sorry Couper, you’re a friend, I’ve known you since you three years old and what you’re doing is just wrong! You guys need to appoint the most qualified person. I’m sure whoever appoints the next fire chief … the fire chief will be the most qualified person and not some 18-year-old person running around with a fire hose.”
Resident Gene Yeakley called in to support Smith.
“We need some help right away – not that those people can’t help us – but we need somebody that can run right in there right now,” said Yeakley.
Renee Ledbetter, a Ceres real estate agent and Ceres Chamber of Commerce official, again voiced support for Smith “as the most qualified.” She pointblank asked Lopez and Condit their reasons for opposing Smith.
“Before we answer those questions,” said Lopez, “the same question should be asked of the rest of the councilmembers why they don’t want to choose anybody else.”
He said that while there are a lot of people who are qualified “that doesn’t always mean that they’re best for the team.”
“So hopefully you understand that qualifications that obviously the person that you choose and you feel is best, Mrs. Smith, doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s the most qualified,” said Mayor Lopez. “I’m newly elected. Silveira’s newly elected. Couper’s newly elected. We have zero experience in politics. We were elected by the people. So not that I’m disagreeing with you, Renee, about the qualifications, there is nothing that I could say negatively say about Mrs. Smith, because that’s not my motive. I personally believe that the persons that I want to appoint are going to do the job … not necessarily based on qualifications.”
Condit gave a vague answer in his opposition to Smith saying “it isn’t personal,” “this is just who I think is the best qualified.”
Ryno said she listened to all the applicants and understands the desire of the other three applicants to serve.
“I look down at our new council and I’ve already seen how our meetings have gone and that … showed me their lack of experience is not what we need,” said Ryno. “This council needs experience. We have many things coming aboard and again I can appreciate their passion, they want to be on the council, but contrary to what the mayor believes, passion for me isn’t enough.”
Silveira said the other three applicants have qualifications and praised them for being interested in serving the community – adding that there are different ways to do that – but added “there’s no comparison in the qualification of Mrs. Smith and the other three. She’s without a doubt, clearly, the most qualified and that’s what we need right now.”
Condit accused Ryno and Silveira of “having this aristocratic attitude that folks in government will make better elected officials than folks who have worked in the fire service or healthcare industry or with children.”
“Can we move on?” Silveira said brusquely. “We’re talking about the same thing we have for 20 days, let’s move on.”
Condit suggested that he would give up his stipend – which he said “isn’t much” – and motion for the council vote to give up its health insurance benefits to pay for the special election. His motion was seconded by Lopez but failed in a 2-2 tie.
If the council doesn’t come to an agreement on March 4, the county will be told to order the election.