Not that anyone would notice, but Fullerton has a policy (No.226 in the Policy and Procedures Manual) on the selection of the Mayor Pro Tem. This is also a policy on the selection of a Mayor since it states that: “The Mayor Pro Tem shall automatically become the Mayor after serving one year at Mayor Pro Tem…” Note, this also means that the Mayor will serve only a single one-year term.
The other significant element in this policy is that selection is based on “… seniority according to the number of years a member has served consecutively on City Council without serving as Mayor.” By that standard, at the recent December 13 meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker should have become Mayor and Councilmember Ahmad Zahra selected as Pro Tem.
And in fairness Zahra should have been Pro Tem before now and Mayor by this time. But, as it turns out, this policy is advisory, and at his first meeting two years ago, Fred Jung demonstrated that he was not going to be guided by this advice. To almost everyone’s surprise the new Councilmember nominated newly-elected Nick Dunlap to be Pro Tem, bypassing sitting member Zahra; and undoing years of effort to establish a fair, rationalized and non-political selection process.
Last year, when Dunlap showed no interest in being Mayor, Jung was elected to that position, again bypassing Zahra and Silva; and in what was an unprecedented move in recent years, outgoing Mayor Whitaker was selected as Pro Tem, placing him next in line to become Mayor again.
Did you follow that? Good. This brings us to December 13 and further unprecedented moves.
In spite of the best efforts of newly-elected Councilmember Shana Charles to get the Council to return to “normalcy’ (e.g., follow established policy,) the Council majority was not buying it. She pointed out that now that we have districts, the lack of an orderly rotation process denies not only an individual member the right to be Mayor, but denies entire swaths of the city equal representation. She pointed out that while the office is largely ceremonial it does have some significant powers like agenda setting. (This was a strong debut on Charles’ part. As she learns the ropes she should become an effective Councilmember.)
Unswayed, the majority (Jung, Whitaker and Dunlap) proceeded to re-elect Jung as Mayor and Whitaker as Pro Tem, actions also unprecedented in recent years. Charles and Zahra strongly dissented. But, arguing in favor of ignoring policy, Dunlap spoke to the importance of collegiality, before acting in the most uncollegial way possible. He also said, in effect, that the Council should elect someone they respect, and that respect has to be earned. He gave no example of why Zahra had not earned his respect.
Whitaker was more candid. Like Ex-President Trump he dwelt on perceived past injustices, saying that while he initially favored fixed rotation, the first time that the current policy was violated was when he was due to be Mayor Pro Tem several years ago; and that while the current situation was not his preference it is “…where we are right now.” Apparently “where we are” is pay-back time (as it was last year and the year before). Whitaker is not willing rise above petty pay-back and behave better than the people that he believes treated him badly. Zahra later termed this as “vengeance”, and something he had seen before in Syria.
Jung never joined the discussion nor offered any reason why he wanted to be Mayor again or why he deserved to be. No mention was made of any accomplishments or of what he hoped the Council would achieve in the next year. The City has not been in a good position during the last couple of years, firing a professional City Manager, and losing a number of valued senior staff. Jung owns some of this, and so we can expect more of the same.
Nor did any member of the majority ever mention what sins Zahra had committed that made him unsuited to be Mayor. We have certainly had unsavory mayors in the past and somehow the City survived. Voting for someone with whom you may disagree or whom you may personally dislike (to serve in a largely ceremonial position) in the spirit of collegiality is not going to disrupt the system or have a major policy impact. Indeed, it may result in a smoothly functioning Council that earns the respect of the citizens. Charles’ requests for a new era went unheeded.
Zahra is one of the most visible Councilmembers, widely available to his constituents and other residents. He also survived a vicious negative campaign funded by a local businessman, defeating a candidate supported by the Mayor, showing that he has reliable support in his district. Charles also defeated a candidate supported by the Mayor. It appears that that the Mayor may not be viewed positively citywide and does not carry much weight outside of his district.
One of the constants of politics is that “what goes around, comes around.” Currently, that has worked to Whitaker’s benefit and against Zahra (he made some rookie mistakes in his first years and should have anticipated some payback). But in two years the seats of the current majority will all be up for re-election. Whitaker is termed out in a heavily Latino district. And unless Dunlap is more interested in his job than he appears to be, is it widely expected that he may not run again. Jesus Silva, who was Gerrymandered out of District #3, lives in that district (#2) and, although this district is marginally Republican, it is competitive, and he would be a formidable candidate. And there are other strong possibilities. But those who want to see a change in the Council need to identify strong candidates and start supporting them now.
For the next two years, though, the City is in for difficult times. A quality staff is the backbone of a quality city, yet the staff drain continues unabated. And why would someone want to take a job in a City with a contentious Council with a reputation for interference in administration and where a well-regarded manager was fired and? Also, there has been an attempt to outsource City functions, notably the Library, and other functions might also be considered, not exactly a career situation someone might willingly step into. Fraught times indeed.
Oh, but before the bloodletting began, the Council said a respectful goodbye to Jesus Silva and swore in new member Shana Charles and re-elected member Ahmad Zahra. There were refreshments afterwards, but most in the audience were not in a mood to party and left early.