City needs election policy reform

When Santa Maria voters went to the polls in November, they voted for two people to fill the expired terms of two council members and for a mayor to replace Mayor Larry Lavagnino.

Now, voters find the Santa Maria City Council is again faced with the responsibility of how to fill the remaining two years of a vacated council seat, because a council member was elected to the mayor’s office.

In the recent past, two vacancies were due to a council member being elected mayor, and two council vacancies occurred when a member was elected to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

The City Council filled three of these past vacancies with the next highest vote getter, and the council filled one vacancy by appointment after interested citizens filled out applications.

In 1994, when council member Tom Urbanske was elected to the Board of Supervisors, the next highest vote getter, Bob Orach, was appointed to fill the two-year council term.

Two years later, in 1996, when council member Abel Maldonado was elected mayor, and the City Council accepted applications from interested citizens, Larry Lavagnino was chosen to fill the two-year term on the City Council, although he was not the third highest vote getter. 

Four years later, in 2000 — the year voters approved changing the mayor’s term from two years to four — then-council member Joe Centeno was elected mayor for a four-year term, and the third highest vote getter, Alice Patino, was appointed to fill his two-year term on the council.

In June 2002, then-Mayor Joe Centeno was elected to the Board of Supervisors to begin a term starting in January 2003. However, he did not vacate his mayor’s position in time for voters to elect his replacement. Larry Lavagnino, with two years left on his council term, was appointed mayor, and the City Council appointed the third highest vote getter, Marty Mariscal, to fill Lavagnino’s remaining two years on the council.

This is the fifth time this type of vacancy has occurred in the past 20 years. Some may argue the cost of another election is too expensive. Some may argue the council has a right to appoint someone to the council. But surely no one could argue this type of vacancy should continue.

Currently, the chance to run for another office while retaining a mayor or council seat is only afforded to a portion of the City Council, depending on when the election occurs. The current City Council is being encouraged to make policy on how to fill the vacancy when this type of vacancy occurs in future elections, and it should. It causes division in our community and takes the election away from the voters.

For whatever reason, our past councils have not established a policy to prevent this type of governance. Now would be a good time for the council to establish one for future elections, one that says anytime the mayor or a council member files to run for a different office, the remaining time left on their term is automatically vacant and will be filled by the voters at that same November general election. 

That way the voters will actually elect the mayor and all council members, as it should be.

Published in the Santa Maria Times January 11, 2013. Joann Marmolejo is president of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward runs every Friday in the Santa Maria Times, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.