Gruendl: Council violated own charter

The Chico City Council’s refusal to hold an election to fill a vacant seat was certainly frustrating to local progressives—but was it illegal?

Councilman Scott Gruendl is challenging the July 6 action by the three-member conservative faction of the council plus moderate Maureen Kirk that cancelled plans for a special election—even one consolidated with the Nov. 2 general election—to replace Coleen Jarvis, who died in office in May.

“They overstepped the authority of what the City Council can do,” Gruendl said. “[They] overrode the City Charter.”

He initially considered legal action against the council majority but now just seeks to make a “political statement” that the rules should be followed or formally revised to accommodate situations like this.

City Attorney David Frank, who is in an awkward position because he must legally defend the council majority, said the rules are more complicated than they look.

On June 3, Frank advised the council that the charter required it either to appoint someone to the vacant seat or hold a special election to fill it. But he also said the city must follow the state elections code, which could offer more leeway in cases when a vacancy falls so close to the general election.

“There’s a rational basis for what the council did,” Frank said. “I wouldn’t want to call it inconsistent [with the charter].”

Since the council was unable to agree on an appointment, the next option was to hold a special election as early as Oct. 19, meaning that, depending on how quickly the results could be counted, the winner would serve for only a couple of meetings. If the election had been rolled into the Nov. 2 ballot, there would be even less time to serve before the new members were sworn in Dec. 7.

Gruendl said he struggled personally with what do about what he saw as an obvious violation of the charter, in part because he didn’t want to see his concerns portrayed as liberal bitterness. “I understand the council not wanting to have a frivolous election,” he said. “But the charter has been violated, [even if] for a good reason.

“If I wanted to do this out of spite, I would have done it last Tuesday or Wednesday [immediately after the meeting],” Gruendl said. “Yeah, I have some bias in this whole thing, but I’m a really by-the-book kind of guy.”

Violating the City Charter can be either an infraction, punishable by a $1,000 fine, or a misdemeanor, which could mean imprisonment. Gruendl suggested the four councilmembers who voted to cancel the election might opt to write $250 checks to a charity of their choice.

“I do not wish to call upon the courts to compel a special election,” Gruendl said. “I do wish to resolve this matter with as little impact on the city and the taxpayers as possible.”

The battle, predictably, has plenty of political overtones: Progressives had hoped the council would appoint one of their own, or at least a moderate, as had been done following the death of conservative Councilman Bill Johnston in 1999.

Instead, the council’s three conservatives harkened back even further, to the death of Ted Hubert in 1996, when that council couldn’t agree on an appointment and forced an expensive special election to fill out the remaining three and one-half years of Hubert’s term.