Elk Grove City Council fills vacancy by appointment, angering those who called for vote

Stephanie Nguyen has been appointed to take over the District 4 seat on the Elk Grove City Council.
Stephanie Nguyen has been appointed to take over the District 4 seat on the Elk Grove City Council. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Elk Grove City Council unanimously appointed nonprofit director Stephanie Nguyen to fill a council vacancy after a long meeting featuring chants of “Let us vote” from residents who thought they should decide who fills that seat.

Nguyen, 37, will take over the District 4 seat vacated by Steve Ly after he became mayor in December. Her appointment in the diverse city of 160,000 established what is believed to be the region’s first Asian American majority on a City Council, joining Mayor Ly and Councilman Darren Suen on the five-member body.

The council received 20 applications for the spot and heard from 15 at Thursday’s meeting. Each applicant had five minutes to give a statement and then answered council questions.

But before the council could deliberate on the appointment, it heard from at least 18 members of the public who demanded that the council call a special election.

“I think this process shows the disrespect you all have for the residents of Elk Grove,” said resident Joe Debbs. “I want to go on record as opposing anything other than election.”

The appointment marks the third time in four years that the council has appointed a member. In 2013, the council appointed Robert Trigg after Gary Davis became the city’s first elected at-large mayor in November 2012. Trigg did not run for the seat after serving his term.

In 2014, the council appointed Darren Suen after Jim Cooper was elected to the state Assembly. Residents protested that appointment as well. Suen won a full term in November.

Several other speakers endorsed Nguyen, including former Sacramento Kings player LaSalle Thompson.

Thompson said he agreed with those asking for a special election, but threw his support behind Nguyen regardless of whether she would be appointed or voted in.

Nguyen is the executive director of Asian Resources Inc, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that offers social services to low-income immigrant and refugee communities, including those with language barriers. She said she has been working in the community for a long time.

“I bring the community grass-roots-level skills,” she said. “Which I think is going to complement all the skills the council has right now.”

In her pitch to the council, she called for more workforce development in the city and a woman’s voice on the City Council. One woman has served on the Elk Grove City Council since the city’s incorporation in 2000.

Nguyen said she was shocked when she heard Suen nominate her because she thought the council was leaning toward calling a special election.

Before he picked Nguyen, Suen said he would be happy to talk about making sure future council vacancies are decided by election rather than appointment, “but we made a decision.”

The council decided in December to appoint a new member rather than voting, citing an estimated cost of $446,000 to $892,000 and the success of prior appointments.

Speakers also criticized the city’s election system, in which council members live in the districts they represent but are elected by all of the city’s voters. Critics said this prevents minority, underfunded candidates from mounting a serious challenge to incumbents and claimed that the system violates the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. The state law prohibits at-large elections that can be proven to disenfranchise minority voters.

Nguyen will be sworn in Feb. 8. Her term will end in December 2018.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison