Question: When is it appropriate to demand that a politician help pay for a special election necessitated by the actions of said politician? Answer: When that politician is a member of the other party.
Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall's letter to Assemblyman Rudy Salas "inviting" him to pay for part of a June special election that will be scheduled solely to fill his vacated Bakersfield City Council seat certainly gives off a partisan odor, anyway. Hall, it should first be noted, worded his letter as graciously as seems possible under the circumstances. But that hardly obscures the fact that he and Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan, both Republicans, want Salas, a Democrat, to pony up in a precedent-setting way.
Yes, we agree that Salas' stepping stone approach to his Ward 1 seat was irritating. But the state's voter-created citizens redistricting committee was still drawing Assembly, Senate and congressional district boundary lines when Salas ran and was elected to the ostensibly nonpartisan City Council in 2010. Maybe Salas suspected he might live in a newly created district and be able to compete for a higher office two years later. But there was no certainty of that.
His departure will cost city taxpayers $100,000 for a special election. The final year of his term might have been filled with an interim appointee, at no cost to taxpayers, but the City Council wanted to honor the intentions of those who had launched a petition drive seeking the special election. Fine, and understandable. But no politician we're aware of has been asked to pick up the tab.
That includes Kevin McDermott, a Republican who in the mid-1990s left partway into his Ward 6 council term because he had moved his family out of the district and into Ward 4, which he served as councilman for another three years. His move paved the way for Sullivan to enter and win the Ward 6 special election. No one asked McDermott to pay back the city for the $20,000 ($30,000-plus in today's dollars) it cost taxpayers for that 1995 special election, held simply because he chose to move his family a few miles across town.
Of course maybe we should start requiring politicians to pay up when they make moves that require special plebiscites. Democratic Sen. John Kerry was just confirmed as Secretary of State, and Massachusetts voters will have to fund a special election to fill his unexpired seat. We're certain Kerry's ketchup fortune-by-marriage could put a dent in the bill, but would anyone seriously consider asking him? We didn't hear Republicans complain about costs when they compelled California taxpayers to fund the $25 million recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, less than halfway into his second term. Californians replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- and how did that work out for us? Ironically, Sullivan's mentor, campaign consultant Mark Abernathy, helped orchestrate the Davis recall, and we heard nary a whimper about the cost.
The message then, as now: Democracy is sometimes sloppy and almost always expensive, but we take the good with the bad.
Given the very real likelihood that future council members may seize opportunities for political advancement at various points in their terms, the city would be wise to adopt a more sound policy for deciding, based on the number of days until the next regularly scheduled election, whether to appoint an interim council member or entertain the possibility of a special election.
It's vital that citizens have the chance to elect their representatives. But the budgetary realities of special elections, and the impact those costs can have on the entire city, must be considered.
Does the city hold a new election if a council member vacates halfway through his term? Does the city appoint an interim member at three-quarters? The logistics and cost considerations should be left to the council to decide, but it should be a clearly articulated policy that applies to all seats, regardless of party affiliation or the brazenness of the contributing defection.