Montclair Looks To Be Heading To Election To Fill Council Gap

Next week at a rare meeting to be held on Tuesday as a consequence of the Martin Luther King Holiday, the four-fifths strength Montclair City Council will have what will likely be its penultimate chance of reaching an accommodation with regard to the appointment of a fifth member before the February 8 deadline by which the city must otherwise schedule an election to fill that gap.
The vacancy came about as a consequence of the November mayoral contest in which two incumbent council members, Carolyn Raft and John Dutrey vied, along with Sousan Elias and Kelly Smith. Ultimately, Dutrey prevailed in that race, garnering 3,681 votes or 49.85 percent to Raft’s 2,623 votes or 35.59 percent and Elias’s and Smith’s combined total of 14.66 percent. Because Dutrey had been reelected to the city council in 2016, he yet had two years remaining on his council term. He resigned from that post to accept the mayoral gavel.
Prior to Dutrey’s elevation to the mayoralty on December 10, however, the council as it was previously composed, with Ginger Eaton then serving in the capacity of mayor, voted 3-to-2 to remedy the anticipated vacuum by a vote of the council.
While Eaton, Raft and Councilwoman Trisha Martinez were in favor of the council making the appointment, Dutrey and Councilman Bill Ruh called for holding a citywide election to resolve the matter.
At a special meeting of the city council held on December 10, 2018, Dutrey was sworn in as mayor. Thereafter, turning to action items, Raft nominated Ginger Eaton as the designee to fill the empty slot on the city council. When the vote was taken, the council deadlocked 2-to-2, with Raft and Martinez favoring Eaton’s appointment and Dutrey and Ruh opposed.
From that point on the matter has languished, even as Raft and Martinez have pushed, most recently at the council’s January 7 meeting, to convince Dutrey and Ruh to make an appointment, specifically Eaton. Dutrey and Ruh balked at doing so on January 7. Both have continued to enunciate their preference for allowing the city’s voters to make the decision rather than “usurping” that right, as Ruh has put it.
California law requires a city council, within 60 days of a vacancy in any of its city’s elective offices, to fill that vacancy by appointment or call a special election to fill the vacancy. The two men on the council have a strategic advantage over their two distaff counterparts as far as this issue goes, as they need only hold their current position and refuse to ratify an appointment to have the end they are advocating – holding an election – imposed on the city by default.
Under California law, a general law city such as Montclair has to choose an appointee or call for a special election 60 days after the vacancy occurred. The 60th day will eclipse on February 8.
In a gesture toward compromise, Dutrey on January 7 joined with Raft and Martinez in a 3-to-1 vote, with Ruh dissenting, to take up a discussion of filling the council seat, including potentially making an appointment, at the January 21 council meeting.
Whether Ruh or Dutrey will come off their previously expressed preference that a citywide vote should be held is an open question. Ruh appears firmly committed to the concept and Dutrey only marginally less so.
For one or both to change position would likely require that an acceptable alternative candidate – in this case one other than Eaton, who was appointed mayor unanimously by a vote of all four current council members last summer after her husband Paul’s resignation as mayor over health issues just one week before his death – emerges. Dutrey and Ruh have now gone on record twice against her, on December 10 and January 7. Reportedly, Dutrey has concern that installing Eaton as a council member would at this point create a three member ruling coalition – consisting of Raft, Martinez and Eaton – that would remove the luster of his mayoral victory in November.
Whether Monclair will avoid having to hold an election to fill the position and the approximately $50,000 charge the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters will assess the city to do so comes down to whether a charismatic compromise candidate palatable to all four – or at least three – exists.
A possible alternative and perhaps the most logical is the top vote-getter behind Ruh and Martinez in the November election: Benjamin Lopez. Lopez, however, is not likely to pick up support from Martinez. Ruh, though close to Lopez on many levels and points, appears to believe, most likely mistakenly, that Lopez would support moving Montclair to district or ward elections as opposed to its current at-large electoral system, which Ruh does not support. For that reason, Lopez might not find support from Ruh if indeed Ruh were to at last go along with making an appointment. And there is the question of whether Lopez would accept the appointment. While he has certainly indicated a willingness to serve on the council – having run in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 – he recently went on record as saying he believed the only way for the city to maintain credibility with regard to the issue of filling the post is to hold a special election. Still the same, selecting Lopez would seem to satisfy both sides of the current council divide, saving the city the expense of an election as is advocated by Raft and Martinez and demonstrating an allegiance to the voters that Dutrey and Ruh favor in that in November’s election Lopez was the top vote-getter among the non-incumbents in the race.
Another potential choice is Tenice Johnson, the chairwoman of the Montclair Planning Commission.
Into the mix is Laura Milhiser, whose husband, Mike, was formerly Montclair’s city manager.
Victor Mendes is thought by some to be a potential choice that the entire council might support.
Three others who might come under consideration are former Councilman Leonard Paulitz, 2018 mayoral candidate Sousan Elias and 2016/2018 council candidate Juliet Orozco.
If the council does not make an appointment on Tuesday January 22, it would appear its last opportunity to do so will come at the February 4 city council meeting.
-Mark Gutglueck


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