When Elk Grove residents elected Steve Ly as mayor in November, it left a vacancy on the City Council that members are scheduled to fill Thursday night.
In early December, the council decided to appoint a new member rather than hold a special election, the third such action in the last four years. Each of the 20 applicants will get five minutes Thursday night to make their pitch, after which the council can ask them questions.
City leaders cited the cost of a special election and the success of previous appointments as the reasons for their decision. Councilman Darren Suen was originally appointed before being elected in November.
Staff estimated an election could cost between $445,960 and $891,920, but council members rounded up the cost to $1 million when discussing their options.
Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said money is not a good enough reason to skip the democratic process.
“What is the price to pay for good democracy?” he asked. “The appointment itself is an abortion of democracy.”
On a broader level, Sasso took issue with the way Elk Grove elects its council members. The city is split into four districts with one resident council member each, but the whole city votes on every seat. He said the city has left itself open to a lawsuit.
Cities across California have been moving from at-large council districts to by-district voting to avoid legal challenges under the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. The law prohibits at-large elections that can be proven to disenfranchise minority voters. While several Asian men have served on the council, only one African American and one woman have served in the past 16 years.
During the December meeting, Ly asked his colleagues if they were interested in discussing by-district elections at a later date. Council members Steven Detrick and Suen said they weren’t interested, though Suen said he would consider it if the city’s population reaches 200,000.
Councilman Pat Hume called the city’s current system elegant because it allows for geographic diversity while giving all residents the chance to hold the entire council accountable through elections.
Amar Shergill, an Elk Grove resident from District 1, said the appointment process is “fundamentally unfair” and a way for the city to avoid addressing the issues with the city’s election system, including the amount of funding it takes to mount a successful council campaign.
“We seem to be in an endless pattern of appointments which deny some segment of Elk Grove voters” the chance to decide who represents them, he said.
Council members moving up the political hierarchy have left several seats open in recent years. In 2013, the council appointed Robert Trigg to fill the District 4 seat vacated by Gary Davis when he was elected as the city’s first at-large mayor.
Davis asked Trigg to step in after the council repeatedly deadlocked over the applicants for the seat. Trigg later followed through on a promise to not seek election to the seat.
The same spot is up for appointment now; Ly was elected to the seat in 2014.
That same year, Jim Cooper was elected to the state Assembly, leaving his District 1 seat open, and the council appointed Suen out of six applicants.
Residents protested the appointment at the time, saying they wanted more say in who was making decisions on city-funded projects.