The argument that Bakersfield's Ward 1 voters should have the opportunity to select their own City Council representative in a special election is a compelling one. In a democracy, the voters choose. When a governmental body arbitrarily imposes laws or leadership, the result is often unsatisfactory and occasionally intolerable. That truth is one of our founding principles as a nation.
The Bakersfield City Council can fill the Ward 1 seat -- made vacant last month when Rudy Salas resigned halfway into his first term to move to the California Assembly -- by way of an appointment or a special election. The election would be held this June at an estimated cost to the city's general fund of $100,000.
Both approaches have their advantages. But the City Council should fill the vacancy with an appointment, so long as the interim council member pledges not to seek the seat on a permanent basis and thereby bring an incumbent's advantage into the next election.
Why? A few reasons.
First, spending $100,000 for a special election is not a responsible use of taxpayer money, especially at a time when the city is dealing with extraordinary expenses like the bill from Sacramento for the financing of Rabobank Arena -- an unexpected hit created by the elimination of redevelopment agencies statewide.
Second, if a special election were scheduled for this June, Ward 1 would be without representation for five months. Ward 1 deserves representation now -- something only an appointment can achieve. A regular election will be held just 17 months after the special election anyway. A temporary, five-month appointment might help, but Ward 1 would then have to wait for its representative to get up to speed in midstream a second time.
Third, voter turnout for special elections tends to be very low. It's likely that a significantly bigger percentage of Ward 1 voters will weigh in on the selection of a council member if the seat is filled in November 2014, when Californians will be deciding on a governor, a U.S. senator, their congressional representatives, at least three propositions (including an $11 billion water bond) and undoubtedly more. If the unambiguous voice of Ward 1 voters is truly important, the City Council will wait until that voice is as emphatic as possible.
Fourth, the city of Bakersfield has a history of filling vacancies with appointments rather than special elections, most recently with Grimmway Farms attorney Jeff Green.
We can't and shouldn't ignore the fact that southeast Bakersfield residents and volunteers gathered enough petition-drive signatures to force the special election. But the petition-gatherers erred by filling in many signers' residence information on their behalf, invalidating those signatures -- a "technical error" in the words of City Clerk Roberta Gafford, who was sympathetic to the gatherers' plight.
But that rule must exist for a reason.
Voter-selected representation in Ward 1 is important, but so is the judicious use of public funds that pay for roads and public safety in all seven wards. The idea of a special election that gives voters a voice resounds with a healthy indignation about imposed rule. But the other six council members wouldn't be bringing in an autocratic tool of the British crown; they'd be selecting one of Ward 1's own selfless servants. Let's put away the tricorn hats and do what makes sense for Bakersfield.