But the decision facing the council is about more than finding a qualified candidate to help govern the city — it’s also about Tracy residents and their perception of the political process as open or closed.
And when it comes to that decision and perception, the council seems to have painted itself into a corner.
If transparency was the ultimate priority, the City Council could have conducted a special election to determine who would replace Elliott. It’s a move I argued for in an earlier column.
But the price tag ($250,000) and timeline (the election couldn’t happen sooner than June) pushed the council into more pragmatic territory.
Short of an election, if finding the best-qualified candidate was the top concern, the council could have appointed a member but opened the process to all qualified Tracy residents. It’s what happened when Steve Abercrombie was appointed to his seat in 2006, and his presence on the governing board — which ended last year when he chose not to seek re-election — turned out pretty well for the city.
Instead, the council on Dec. 18 chose an appointment process that limited the candidate pool to those who finished behind successful challenger Nancy Young and incumbent Michael Maciel in the 2012 council campaign.
On paper, that leaves Ray Morelos, who finished third; Charles Manne, who finished fourth; and Roger Birdsall, who finished fifth, as possible replacements for Elliott.
In reality, the council decided it would choose between Morelos and Manne.
Birdsall in November told council members during a public meeting that they could best follow the will of the people by selecting the third-place finisher from the recently concluded general election.
Birdsall reiterated his stance this week and said he would not put himself forward for Elliott’s chair.
“If we want citizens involved, you have to prove to them and show them that their involvement really works and counts,” he told me. “I think that’s the part that was of concern to me.”
Seeking middle ground, the council split the difference between following the voters and exercising the council’s vested power to fill a vacancy by appointment. It was a good-faith compromise.
But I think the council unintentionally selected the worst possible combination when it comes to public perception — giving weight to the results of an election that has nothing to do with filling Elliott’s seat, while narrowing the candidate field and opening the process to the possibility of council politics and behind-the-scenes talk.
The real shame is that it takes the focus away from the candidates and will no doubt cast a pall over whoever is selected Tuesday.
Rightly or wrongly, if Manne is chosen, it will appear to many that council members did not want Morelos as a colleague. If the council goes with Morelos, there will be plenty of people who argue the council took the easy way out.
To be clear, this says nothing about the qualifications of Morelos or Manne.
Morelos has already served on the City Council, and since leaving office has been a respected volunteer and leader.
Manne is an upstanding member of the community and would likely serve ably if he’s appointed. And if he isn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran in 2014 and was elected.
Again, this is not about the candidates. This is strictly about the process.
At this point, the best way to maintain the integrity of the process is to select Morelos. Not because it’s him, per se, but because choosing the third-place finisher precludes the possibility of politics being played.
Just as importantly, there’s a lesson to learn from the past month’s appointment circus: The City Council needs a clear policy to deal with the appointment process.
Ideally, the policy would include a way for voters to have a more direct say in filling an empty council seat.
At the least, such a plan should ensure there is a consistent course of action that’s removed from the political pressures of the time.
No matter who is appointed Tuesday, I hope the new five-person council takes up the matter as soon as possible.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.