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Council Faces Two Choices in Filling Pending Vacancy

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By Jorge Casuso

May 27, 2021 -- When the City Council goes to fill the City Council seat Kevin McKeown will vacate next month, it will likely face two choices.

Appoint a slow-growth advocate who can win four votes or spend some of the cash-strapped City's money to hold the first special Council election in 22 years.

Unlike the appointments of Ana Jara in January 2019 and Kristin McCowan in July 2020, a radically different Council will vote to replace McKeown, who announced he would vacate his seat effective June 11.

Councilmembers Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre and Christine Parra, the three candidates swept into office by a voter revolt last November, are expected to vote as a block for a slow-growth candidate.

"Chistine, Oscar and I are going to hang together," Brock told the Lookout Wednesday. "We are not going to vote for someone from Santa Monica Forward."

Santa Monica Forward, which is bankrolled by developers, supported both Jara and McCowan when they were appointed and in their election bids.

"If we can come up with a good compromise pretty quickly, I'm all for it," Brock said.

De la Torre agreed. "I think we can find someone we can all agree on," he said. "Maybe we can find a candidate that can pull us together."

Mayor Sue Himmelrich, who could cast the deciding vote, also said she would not support a candidate backed by Forward.

Himmelrich, who is a staunch slow growth advocate, said she would only support "somebody that believes in the things I care about," particularly affordable housing.

Himmelrich backs a plan to build a state-mandated target of more than 6,000 affordable units without relying on market rate developments.

In the past, she said, "we've been willing to give too much to developers to get there."

But Himmelrich prefers to let the voters, and not the Council, pick McKeown's replacement in a special election placed on the ballot to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

"I think we shouldn't be appointing," Himmellrich said, reiterating a stance she took when the other two appointments were made. "We aren't a sorority.

"Voters should have a voice in who represents them," she said. "We'll get different points of view (from candidates) with different backgrounds that will lead to better decisions."

Himmelrich doesn't expect the other Counciilmembers to back an election, especially given the City's fiscal straits in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown.

De la Torre believes the new Councilmembers should be given the same opportunity as previous Councils to appoint a replacement and that the City shouldn't be spending money on an election.

"We can't afford crossing guards," he said. "We're coming out of a pandemic. The last thing we need right now is to waste taxpayers' money."

If the Council fails to make an appointment, it “shall forthwith cause an election to be held to fill the vacancy,” according to the City Charter.

That's what happened in April 1999 after Councilmember Asha Greenberg resigned the previous fall.

In November 1998, the Council went through six rounds of voting, with their votes split between six candidates. The stalemate paved the way for a special weekend election on April 24 and 25, 1999 won by Richard Bloom.

If the Council succeeds in making an appointment, it would be the third time it does so in less than two and a half years.

Former Councilmember Jara was appointed on January 22, 2019 to replace Tony Vazquez, who resigned after being elected to the State Board of Equalization ("Council Appoints Latina from Pico Neighborhood to Fill Vacant Seat," January 22, 2019).

On July 14, 2020, McCowan was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Greg Morena, who resigned after learning his position barred him from renegotiating his restaurant lease with the City ("Council Appoints Kristin McCowan to Fill Vacant Seat," July 14, 2020).

Councilmember Gleam Davis was appointed after Herb Katz died in office in January 2009, while former Councilmember Terry O'Day was appointed the following year after Ken Genser died during his 22nd year on the Council.

Both Jara and O'Day, along with former Councilmember Ted Winterer, lost their seats last November.

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