Meetings Get Heated as Council Fails to Appoint Replacement Councilmember in 2-2 Standoff


Here's a quick summary if you just want the "in a nutshell". Scroll down below the divider for more extensive detail.


Summary

After two meetings during which the four remaining councilmembers interviewed and deliberated on replacement candidates for the seat recently vacated by Councilmember Stromberg, the council was unable to find agreement on a replacement.


The small pool of just four candidates (Kerry Hillis, Seth Freeman, Kendall Langan, and Sona Makker) unexpectedly shrunk to three when Freeman withdrew from consideration at the outset of the interviews on October 12. The last time the council had to appoint a replacement councilmember, about a dozen residents threw their hats in the ring.


Immediately following the interviews, the finalist pool quickly was reduced to Hillis and Makker, both of whom have less tenure in town (4 and 1 1/2 years, respectively) than "the usual candidate".


Two meetings of back-and-forth, airing of grievances, impatience, frustration and finger-pointing resulted in repeated 2-2 deadlocks on both candidates and on an alternative approach to reopen the application process.


There's all sorts of nuance and intrigue associated with town politics here. Full details are below if you're interested in them.


The matter will be discussed again at the council's October 27 meeting.

Full Story and Details

After two meetings during which the four remaining councilmembers interviewed and deliberated on replacement candidates for the seat recently vacated by Councilmember Stromberg, the council was unable to find agreement on a replacement.


Small Candidate Pool Quickly Halved

The small pool of just four candidates (Kerry Hillis, Seth Freeman, Kendall Langan, and Sona Makker) unexpectedly shrunk to three when Freeman withdrew from consideration at the outset of the interviews on October 12. The last time the council had to appoint a replacement councilmember, about a dozen residents threw their hats in the ring.


Immediately following the interviews, the finalist pool quickly was reduced to Hillis and Makker, with councilmembers citing Langan's lack of an applicant questionnaire and bio - along with recent, public criticism of town staff and councilmembers - as among the reasons to focus on the other two with less tenure in town (4 years and 1 1/2 years, respectively).


Alternative Approaches and Deliberations

Following the relative calm of the interviews of the candidates and councilmember feedback, Mayor McCluer teed up the deliberations (at approx. 2:21:00 in this video) by presenting the options before the council, which included (1) appointing one of the candidates, (2) sleeping on it until the following night's meeting, (3) reopening the application process since there were only 3 candidates and the possibility some potential candidates were missed, or (4) a "last choice" to call a special election.


Councilmember Sos felt with two "superqualified candidates", the council should be able to appoint one of them without delay. That didn't happen.


Deadlock Votes, Along with Airing of Concerns and Grievances

After a 2-2 deadlock on a vote for Hillis introduced by Onoda (with Onoda and Sos in favor), Sos moved to appoint Makker; that motion failed without the support of a second and frustration then built (beginning at approx. 2:27:00 in the video).


Sos and Onoda opined the remaining two candidates were well qualified while McCluer and Woehleke felt that both needed more "seasoning" given the short amount of time both have lived in town. Woehleke shared his concern that Hillis, who currently serves on the Planning Commission, seems to come to meetings with his mind already made up rather than starting with an open mind and hearing all sides before rendering a decision.


Onoda was insistent that a decision be made that evening (at approx. 2:37:00 of the video), Woehleke relayed that he had concerns about making a good decision in the context of recent council dysfunction, that their choice has to be a good team member and independent, and he wasn't comfortable drawing that conclusion about the remaining two candidates.


We'll not dive into the dysfunction topic in this article which, in broad terms, has tended to leave McCluer and Woehleke finding themselves in the minority on many votes and initiatives since their election nearly three years ago; both have asked for council discussions about quality decision making, collaboration and an associated council offsite that would have addressed those issues; those requests have been met with broad resistance.


Sos, believing the cost of a potential special election should be avoided, proposed that the application period be opened for a week (at approx 2:50:00 in the video), but her idea did not immediately yield a second. McCluer laid out the potential calendar for reopening for applications, with Onoda objecting to the notion primarily because it would result in additional work for town staff and two qualified candidates were before them. She correctly noted that the historic dysfunction issues befalling the council don't really involve either finalist candidate directly as individuals, although Mayor McCluer stated he felt the dysfunction issues and the appointment of a candidate (or the possible outcome of appointing one of the two finalists at this time) are intertwined.


Ultimately, the council decided to "sleep on it" and the meeting was continued until the regular council meeting the next day.


Round 2 the Next Day Gets More Testy

The second day of discussion on October 13 began without any discussion: Councilmember Onoda immediately nominated Kerry Hillis and Councilmember Sos seconded the motion (1:55:00 of this video). Given the clear lack of consensus and nature of the comments from the night before, we found the choice to do so before any discussion or public comment quite curious.


What followed was another 2-2 deadlock vote (Onoda and Sos in favor), with Mayor McCluer then suggesting a reopening of the application period for candidates. Councilmember Sos expressed doubt that approach would yield results, suggesting that perhaps the council could actively mentor one of the two remaining candidates upon their appointment and onboarding.


Mayor McCluer responded by clarifying that he disfavors a special election as a "last, worst resort...and I don't like that at all", but the only remaining option if the council can't find a majority to agree on an appointment. Related to the suggestion of mentoring, he stated that the fourth councilmember is a possible swing vote and, as such, mentoring by a single councilmember would be unwise. We agree with that assessment based on good governance in general and on the historic alignment and voting of the four remaining councilmembers in particular.


Woehleke says his concerns relate to "organizational capability" and "need to represent entire population of Moraga", adding that he respects and hears others' opinions associated with the sufficiency of qualifications of the remaining candidates, but they are opinions that aren't necessarily shared by each of them (at approx. 2:02:00 of the video). He continued that he felt an extension or reopening of the application process could lead to additional candidates or the time itself could lead to additional clarity that might remove the 2-2 deadlock, and "owe it to the residents, since there are questions, to open it back up again and we'll be no worse off"


Frustration with Impasse Builds Quickly; Matter Gets Continued By Default

With frustration at the impasse building, Onoda said "this isn't going to sound very nice. if we have to go to a special election, this is on the mayor and vice mayor" and lays the blame right at the feet of McCluer and Woehleke (approx. 2:04:45 of the video) and made a motion to appoint Makker with Sos immediately seconding the motion. The motion failed 2-2 (Sos and Onoda in favor).


Mayor McCluer responded by addressing Onoda's affixing responsibility onto two councilmembers, stating this is a simple and equal 2-2 disagreement. Woehleke suggested reopening applications as a still-viable alternative with Sos disagreeing based on the agreed-upon process and two qualified candidates already. McCluer stated he feels that the possibility of getting more qualified candidates would enable a better decision and that ample time exists to do so, later (at approx. 2:19:30 of the video) pointing to the fact that it could break the the 2-2 impasse without necessitating a special election. Sos confirmed neither she nor Onoda were willing to do so, later suggesting the council continue the meeting for further discussion rather than reopening applications.


A formal motion by McCluer to reopen applications was followed by a substitute motion to continue the matter; both failed with 2-2 deadlocks (McCluer and Woehleke in favor on the first, Sos and Onoda in favor on the substitute).


The matter will be addressed again at the next council meeting on October 27. State law requires the council to make an appointment or call for a special election by November 8.