Elk Grove leaders selected state water official Darren Suen as the city’s newest council member Wednesday night to fill the Laguna-area seat that became vacant when Jim Cooper won his Assembly race last month.
Suen, a strategic communications official in the state Department of Water Resources’ Division of Flood Management, beat out five other applicants for the District 1 seat, which represents Elk Grove’s west side. Suen, 44, will complete the final two years of Cooper’s term.
The quick appointment came one week after the application deadline despite some residents calling for a special election to fill the seat and a city councilman-elect calling the selection process needlessly rushed and lacking public participation. Council members said they chose to fill Cooper’s vacancy with an appointment because an election could have cost a half-million dollars.
Council members and residents heard brief presentations from the applicants at a special City Council meeting Wednesday.
Suen told council members he will prioritize job creation and economic development during his first two years in office, and he said he plans to run for a full four-year council term in 2016. He praised the council for “the foundation you’ve laid for the city. People feel safe. There are good parks and schools, and now you’re taking steps to plan for job opportunities.”
“My vision for the city will take more than two years,” he said during questioning by council members, adding that Elk Grove must focus on creating community amenities and developing executive housing to make the city more attractive to business.
In Suen, the council has a land-use expert steeped in city and regional issues.
He worked on land acquisition and planning for four different home developers from 2004 to 2009, according to his résumé and LinkedIn profile. He served as chairman of a westside planning advisory council that reviewed land-use applications before they headed to the city’s planning commission and as an Elk Grove representative to a regional air-quality collaborative that discussed transportation and land-use policy.
Suen’s appointment avoided an expensive special election that council members estimated could have cost as much as $500,000. But some at the meeting said the appointment unfairly shut residents out of the process.
“I wanted an election,” said resident Lynn Wheat, ticking off city-approved projects, applications and land deals and their costs in questioning why the city declined to fund a special election. “We as the general public, we want to be able to choose who sits up there,” Wheat said, pointing at the dais.
But Councilman Steve Detrick defended the appointment process as the most cost-effective way to resolve the issue.
“My first choice would be to go to an election, but $500,000-plus is not something to just whisk aside,” he said.
Later, after the meeting, Detrick said he had a responsibility to city taxpayers to mind costs. “If money wasn’t an issue, an election would be an absolute, but I’m not going to spend $500,000 to fund an election.”
City Councilman-elect Steve Ly, who spoke during public comment because he will not be sworn in until next week, said the council should have held community forums to give residents more time to vet council applicants.
“As an incoming councilman, I’m concerned that this process appears to be rushed,” Ly said. “I would rather err in favor of transparency and inclusion. A decision will be made by the City Council that should be made by the public.”
Mayor Gary Davis voted to appoint Suen. But he also wanted community meetings to review candidates, and he appeared to lament the council’s apparent rush Wednesday.
“Without a campaign, you have to condense it down to résumés and five-minute presentations,” Davis said.
Suen considered the District 1 seat before, in 2009, forming a committee to explore a bid had then-Councilman Cooper won the race for Sacramento County sheriff. After Cooper’s bid failed, Suen disbanded the committee and returned contributions. He raised $23,000 from a variety of contributors, though his largest donation of $10,000 came from the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 447 union, according to campaign finance records.
On Wednesday, Suen spoke of the learning curve and the work ahead of him.
“I have a lot of applicable skills, but I have a lot to learn,” he said after the meeting. “Any time there’s an appointment, there’s a risk. I believe I’m up to the task. Now I have to prove it.”
Suen joins the council as it faces a number of pressing issues that will shape Elk Grove’s future. The council is considering land-use decisions in the city’s last large undeveloped space, the Southeast Policy Area; revived plans for the still-idled Outlet Collection outdoor mall; the recently approved $17 million aquatic complex in the city’s Civic Center area; a potential soccer facility on nearly 100 acres of land; and a months-long economic development director vacancy.
“Having the foundation of being connected to the community, as a civil engineer and now with DWR, he brings a skill set that no one has,” Davis said. “He will help the council make good decisions.”
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.
Education: Master’s of business administration, University of Phoenix – Sacramento Valley Campus, 2013; bachelor’s degree, civil engineering, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 1994.
Experience: California Department of Water Resources, 2013-present; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2010-13; land acquisition and management, various home-building firms, 2004-09; associate civil engineer, Sacramento County Department of Transportation, 2002-04; Franklin/Laguna Community Planning Advisory Council, 2001-04.