By Tina Richards
With sitting Orange City Councilman Mark Murphy elected mayor, his seat is, effective Dec. 11, vacant and must be filled within 60 days.
The council may choose to fill that seat by holding a special election or by simply appointing someone. Because a separate special election will cost the city approximately $400 to $450 thousand, most city officials and residents agree that an appointee is the best option. But therein lies the rub.
The two highest vote-getters in the November election – Kim Nichols and Chip Monaco – earned the two available council seats. With a third seat now open, many city voters insist that the third highest-placing candidate, Betty Valencia, should get the appointment.
The new council, meeting for the first time after the Dec. 11 swearing-in ceremony, had not openly expressed a preference. One of its first orders of business was to discuss the election versus appointee option, and hear public comments on the subject.
Win, place and show
Valencia’s supporters filled the council chambers. And most of them, it seemed, wanted to address the council. The meeting itself didn’t begin until 9 p.m., following tributes to outgoing electeds Tita Smith and Fred Whitaker, and a reception acknowledging the old and new council members. When the council reconvened, it tended to other agenda items before addressing the vacant seat. When it came time for that topic (nearly 10 p.m.), Mayor Murphy told the audience that public comments would be taken until midnight, but he would end the hearing at that time because “the productivity rate gets lower the later the meeting goes.”
The first speaker, Fred Smoller, pointed out that Valencia received more than 10,000 votes. “If you pick someone else,” he said, “your four votes will supersede all of them.”
Valencia supporter Greg Pleasants noted that the council as it stood “… is not representative of what Orange really is. Appointing Betty,” he advised, “would be a good step to make the council more representative.”
The speakers’ recurring theme was that Valencia embodied the diversity of the city’s population; that she was inclusive, and gave voice to underrepresented constituents; that she received votes from all segments of the city; and that ignoring 10,000 voters was undemocratic. “Do the right thing,” one resident urged.
Another slice of Orange
Valencia herself took the microphone well into the proceeding. “We’re focused on bringing the community together,” she stressed. “I say ‘we’ because I bring the community with me. This campaign was not about one person.” Toward the end of her remarks, Valencia turned away from the dais to address the audience. Murphy stopped her, and asked her to direct her comments to the council only.
With that rebuke, the room erupted. Valencia’s supporters rose to their feet, applauding, gesturing, shouting and chanting “Betty, Betty, Betty.” At that point, the four councilmembers and City Manager Rick Otto left the dais. City Attorney Wayne Winthers remained and bore the heat from the apoplectic audience. “You can’t do this,” one woman shouted. “This is illegal; you’re ignoring our democratic rights; we deserve to be heard; where’s the ACLU?”
Murphy soon returned and explained that during the height of the pro-Valencia demonstration he had called a recess, but no one heard him because the room was too noisy. He asked everyone to be respectful and allow public comments to continue. “Every time you clap or yell,” he said, “you take time away from someone who could be speaking.”
The hearing continued. Shortly after 11 p.m., an adamant speaker told the council that Valencia did not speak for him or his community and that he did not want her appointed to the empty seat. He turned from the microphone and started to walk away. Somewhere between the podium and the door, he apparently pulled out a knife and threatened a group of Valencia supporters. Witnesses shouted out, a scuffle ensued, and the Orange Police Department escorted the man out and arrested him.
The council will decide whether or not to hold an election or designate an appointee at its January meeting.
Valencia supporters dominate debate over vacant seat on the Orange City Council